The Winter Soldier hadn't even managed to start sleeping through the night. Sam knew this, because every morning Tony would ask JARVIS, and the AI would pinpoint all the times Barnes' heart rate had elevated above twice its resting rate and when he'd blinked and at exactly what point he had started screaming. That last one was 0217. Sam didn't need anyone to tell him that; he'd checked the clock as soon as he'd unclenched his fingers from his gun. For a high-tech tower, Stark hadn't spent enough money sound-proofing the walls.
Steve's unending faith in his best friend was beginning to look less like hope and more like fantasy. When they'd caught the Soldier – in a fire fight that still gave Sam nightmares – the only thing the man seemed to recall was how to hit exactly where it hurt. Sam had nearly bled out from a nicked artery in his thigh, Natasha had been unconscious for three hours, and Steve had limped up to the crazed assassin and tried to give him a hug. Thankfully, he'd also had a tranquilizer tucked against his palm, or Sam might have shot them both.
Four months later, Barnes still refused to speak English, which meant they'd all had a crash course in shouting things like “No!” and “Don't shoot me!” in Natasha's mother tongue. Steve, who had learned the Cyrillic alphabet disturbingly fast, put up signs in the training room with transliterations. Thankfully “Stop!” transcended language barriers.
They might have learned more Russian, except the Winter Soldier didn't say much in any language. He had his own room, and on the days he was more Bucky Barnes than Hydra Terminator, he would follow Clint into the air vents, or sit quietly on the couch in Nat's living room. Steve, undeterred by the avoidance, used Stark's recording technology to recount their childhood on video for Bucky to watch. He also made Sam or Tony find pictures of 1930s Brooklyn and video footage of trolleys. Sam was waiting for Steve to demand that they build a replica of the St. Joseph's Home for Orphans on one of the unfinished floors, and all wear suspenders and suits.
Those were the good days. On the other, more frequent days, the Soldier stayed in his quarters and screamed his throat raw, or took his terrifyingly blank face into the gym. Those days, only Steve would spar with him, and the rest of them would hover outside with first aid supplies and tranq guns, waiting for one of them to lose consciousness.
For all that he avoided Steve when he seemed most likely to remember him, Barnes did respond to his friend's voice. They projected the videos into his room, on the bad days, and for some reason Captain America's wistful smile and wandering monologue could draw the Soldier out of his own head. Normally Sam preferred that people remained in their heads, but they all agreed that probably the Winter Soldier's head was not a pleasant place to be.
Tony had tried convincing Steve to sing classic songs so he could pipe them through the Tower speakers and calm Barnes. Steve had obliged – but after two days, the team had begged him to stop. The serum had done a lot for Captain America, but no one had jotted down “incurably tone deaf” for Erskine to fix. Steve's singing made the New York City subway conductors sound like trained opera stars.
Instead, Steve recited poetry and whatever else came to mind, and his soft, newly learned Russian was often the only thing that stood between a room of Avengers and a man who didn't know where or who he was.
So, all in all, it was not a great time for Hydra to attack downtown New York. The Avengers brought Barnes along, against everyone's better judgment, but Clint pointed out that they probably couldn't keep him in the Tower unless they sedated him. Natasha eyed the tranquilizer guns, but Steve looked so horrified at the idea that they dropped it, and everyone crowded into the front seats and left the Soldier by himself in the back.
Barnes might even have stayed in the car, blank-faced and terrifying, if everything had gone according to plan.
It all did go to plan, for a little while, six superheroes against a few dozen agents in black. An easy, pointless battle for Hydra to wage for no real gain. Sam couldn't understand why they'd bother with Manhattan, of all places . . .until one of the Hydra operatives got close enough to spray a cloud of iridescent mist in Captain America's face before being shot cleanly above the ear. From inside the Avengers' car.
Sam would have focused on worrying about the Winter Soldier having a new way to kill them all – because no one had given him a gun – except that Captain America had disappeared. The super-soldier had been standing there, right across the street, and now there was only a dead Hydra soldier and . . . a very small, towheaded little boy draped in a uniform far too large for him.
“Oh no,” groaned Clint, over the comm links. Sam concurred. Loudly, and with more invective. How was a baby supposed to protect them from a famous Soviet assassin?
Said notorious assassin dove out the back window he had shattered and somersaulted across the street, scooping up the scrap of a child with one arm and hauling them both onto the nearest fire escape with his metal hand. Then he shoved the smallest kid Sam had ever seen – seriously, had no one fed Steve Rogers until he was ten? - behind him and started methodically dropping every Hydra agent he could see. It took all of them a few moments to catch up, but there were more than enough bad guys to go around, so nobody said much of anything for the next few minutes.
Then everyone who wasn't on their team was dead, and Natasha had scooped up the canister that had sprayed Steve and passed it off to Tony. Barnes and the tyke Sam didn't want to believe was Captain America were still on the fire escape. Bruce, huddled under the blanket they'd stashed in the trunk, murmured, “Can anyone think of a way to get him to come down?”
“Come here, please,” Natasha shouted in Russian, sitting cross-legged next to two dead agents and lifting her hands to show they were empty.
The Winter Soldier might have heard her, but more likely he swung down because the baby on the ledge next to him whimpered on the inhale, then let out a cry louder than his miniature lungs should have been capable of. Sam was grateful that Steve's comm link had fallen out when he'd . . . shrunk, or the Avengers might have all gone deaf.
Swaddling the terrible noise back in the Captain America fatigues, Barnes leaped off the second story and tried to pass the bundle to Natasha, face more expressive than Sam had seen in weeks and looking just as horrified as the rest of them.
Except when the Soldier let go, the wailing got even louder. Natasha tried cooing at the baby, and got kicked ineffectually for her efforts. For a moment, the two former assassins formed a silent tableau, heads tilted down like a mismatched set of guardian angels, pillars framing wispy blond hair and a purpling face.
Then the kid started shrieking, his pitch so high that Sam waited for the windows around them to crack, or Child Services to launch an emergency helicopter. Any higher, and hopefully only dogs would be able to hear it. Clint took out his hearing aids, and sagged in relief. Natasha shoved the child back at the Winter Soldier, muttering something in Russian that Sam hoped was, “Here, he likes you more,” but might have been, “Silence him by any means necessary.”
Flinching, Barnes sat the small banshee on his human forearm. Instead of rocking, like Natasha had done, or jiggling his arm like Sam had tried with numerous younger siblings, the Winter Soldier held perfectly still, as though the kid was rigged to explode. The Falcon was almost certain he heard the Avengers collectively hold their breaths, but maybe that was just the echo from his own comm link. Steve – oh god, that squalling terror was Steve – screamed for a few more seconds, then choked on his own spittle and coughed long enough to unscrunch his nose and open his eyes. When he saw brown hair and black combat gear, he sniffled hard and threw skinny arms around Barnes' neck, making quieter, distressed noises into his shoulder.
“Well,” Tony whispered, as they watched Barnes stiffen, muscles even more rigid than they had been before, “what do we do now?” The silence ringing over the comms answered for them all.
* * *
The ride back was equally quiet, baby Steve asleep on Barnes' chest and the others too afraid to wake him. There was some ambient noise from the city streets, but no one could do much about that, since the Winter Soldier had shot out the rear passenger window. “How old do you think he is?” Clint signed, then typed onto his phone for the few of them that hadn't picked up basic ASL. Mostly Tony, who probably had, but pretended that he was too busy to learn.
Sam, sitting on the Soldier's left, shrugged. “One?” he guessed, holding up a finger. Natasha, on the other side, shook her head. “At least eighteen months,” she disagreed via text.
“He's three.” They all jumped, except Steve, who stayed blessedly still even though Barnes' chest must have moved when he spoke.
“Three?” Sam answered without thinking. “No way. My sister has given birth to kids bigger than this one.” Then he paused, and wondered when his Russian had improved beyond, “Don't kill me, please!” Steve's number and color flashcards were clearly effective even on people who didn't want to learn Russian.
The Soldier shrugged his metal arm and stared impassively out the window, as though he hadn't said anything at all. “He might be right,” Banner whispered from the front passenger seat, holding up a tablet. “If Steve was 24 when he enlisted, before the serum, then de-aging his enlistment stats – height, weight, childhood diseases – means he could conceivably be at least thirty-six months old.”
“I preferred him closer to thirty years old,” Sam shot back, and everyone turned to look back at the sleeping toddler and the assassin who, at the wrong moment, could all too easily morph from child-minder to child-murderer.
“If there's a formula, Tony and I can find an antidote,” Bruce promised. “It will just take a little time.”
“Time,” the Falcon repeated dryly, watching Barnes' eyes brush over him without a flicker of recognition. Thinking that even a good day meant only a few hours with a quiet shadow that might have once been Bucky Barnes. “There's one thing that's definitely not on our side.”
* * *
Sam finally understood why Tony had handed over Stark Industries to his PA. By the time they got back to the Tower, Pepper had acquired what appeared to be an entire baby clothing boutique, a crib that converted into a toddler bed, bland foods and fortified milk for undernourished children, and stacks of coloring books and games for kids Ages 2-4. She had also bought them all ear plugs.
Tony stared in horror at the alphabet magnets on the fridge before getting sidetracked by the model train set. “Oh no,” Bruce said, levering the other man off the floor and forcing Tony to let go of the trolley car. “We have a de-aging formula to analyze. If you're good, you can play with the trains after you eat all your mashed peas.” They headed for the elevators, Tony's sarcastic, “Yes, nanny,” following them down.
The rest of them walked down the hall to what had once been Steve's studio, freshly redesigned and painted to house a very tiny child. Barnes unhooked the sleeping toddler from his neck and set him gently into the low bed, the crib rails still up. “Shouldn't he be on his back?” Pepper queried, flipping through Baby's Third Year while ten other books lay in a pile by the rocking chair.
“Nyet,” Barnes answered, then said something else in Russian, folding a fleece blanket and tucking it under Steve's left side, tilting his face up and away from the mattress.
“He said Steve won't breathe well if we leave him on his back,” Natasha translated. “He's better on his side.” The Winter Soldier, who had lost interest in all of them, didn't even spare the diminutive version of his friend a glance as he strode out of the room.
“Should we believe him?” Pepper wondered, and Sam and Natasha shrugged.
“He probably knows as much about babies as any of us,” he admitted, and settled down by the baby bed to read How to Deal with the Terrible Twos. The Winter Soldier had clearly finished with them, which was probably for the best. Maybe he would stay in his room with Steve's videos until Bruce and Tony could fix the whole mess.
* * *
There was a child in the other room. Steve. Steve as he remembered him: veins dark under thin skin, bones light and hollow like a bird's.
Nadia Patsayava had been four years old, daughter of a man who had secrets he must not sell. Foolish, too young to know better, letting a stranger pick her up from the care center, chattering happily about the sticky, glittery shapes on the thick paper in her hands. Silky, sunlit hair and a wide smile on a thin face, tiny hands speckled with glue and smudged by markers. Dark bruising around her throat, too quick for her to scream.
Sunlit hair and a bloody mouth on a helicarrier, reaching to save him with hands that he remembered smudged by charcoal and sticky with paint. Steve's neck underneath metal fingers, bruises on his throat.
A child, waiting on the front porch for her father to come home. A boneless heap, face too pale, picture crushed under cold fingers. Short blond hair and veins dark under thin skin.
He put his human hand through the wall, went for the knives when the crunch of bone couldn't dispel wide, unblinking blue eyes and golden hair, blood blooming into bruises under a child's cooling skin.
“I didn't move into the orphanage until 1931. At least not officially. Lord knows I'd been sleeping there for ages, since you and Ma insisted that if I stayed with her I'd be a goner for sure.” Steve's face filled the screen on the far wall, blond hair falling onto his forehead. Skin flushed with sun, and blood beating through the steady pulse in his neck. Smiling brightly, foolishly, into the room. “You were awful pushy, for someone who was only nine. But you'd been a jerk -” Steve's grin broadened over the word, tucked it into the corners of his lips and cupped it in his open hands “- for years, so it wasn't like that was new.
“Except, the thing is, they were turning away teenagers by then. Expected them to make their own way, since the world had toppled on its head. I figured that meant me, too, but you marched right up to Sister Dolores – and I don't know if you remember, bud, but Sister Dolores was not a woman you stomped up to in torn shorts and muddy boots. You tilted up your chin, and huffed, 'Don't you got eyes, Sister D? We ain't smelled meat for weeks, in this joint, and I'm bigger 'n he is! Thirteen! Shit.'” Steve's accent thickened, voice lightening to the pitch of a young boy's. American dialect. From the Northeast, concentrated in urban centers. Brooklyn, born and raised.
“You got paddled for cursing, but the Sisters marked me down as ten years old, even though they left me in seventh grade. Made Sister Dolores laugh pretty hard, too, once she thought we couldn't see.” Laughter worked its way up from Steve's chest, like the asthma, constricting pectorals until it forced its way up to his nose, tumbled free in snorts and chuckles. Bucky went to his knees, hands flat against the screen, face pressed to glass. Steve's neck dissolved into pixels that shifted with his pulse.
“You were an absolute terror in the orphanage, you know? Had all the nuns chasing you down one minute, handing you extra sweets the next. Did I mention the time you trained Mr. Kirchner's goat to charge anyone wearing a habit?” Locked in the screen, safe, Steve inhaled to start the story, and Bucky listened to him breathe.
* * *
A few hours later, it became more than obvious that leaving Barnes in his quarters wasn't going to work. Mostly because Steve had backed into the corner of his room and started pelting them with crayons when any of them came close enough to hit. For an underfed kid, he had pretty good aim.
Sam would have been impressed, but they had now suffered through twenty minutes and three boxes of crayons, and when they ignored the colorful projectiles and moved to scoop the kid off the floor, he kicked and punched and screamed bloody murder until it was drop him or traumatize everyone involved. No one had been able to get him dressed – Natasha had woken him up trying to tug him into astronaut pajamas – and so he, Nat, Clint and Pepper stood by the door, trying to come up with a plan.
“That's it.” Sam broke first. “I'm willing to sacrifice myself to Soviet technology if you're willing to hold the tranq gun while I do it. I don't care if Barnes is working for Hydra, if he can get this unholy demon to eat dinner.”
Having declared his intentions, he stalked across the room, grinding at least three crayons into the carpet and taking a Robin's Egg Blue to the cheek, and hauled Steve up by his frightfully thin chest. Sam's hands practically spanned it, thumbs under Steve's sparrow-like shoulder blades while he held the kicking, naked child at arm's length and marched down the hall. “Hate you!” the kid howled, feet pedalling furiously in the air. “Hate you hate you hate you!” until it sounded like one very angry sneeze.
He twisted at Barnes' door, sticking his head in before thrusting the toddler through, on the not-so-off chance that whatever went into the room first might get shot. But the Soldier was sitting on the couch, watching grown-up Steve natter on about god only knew what, and didn't seem to notice that Sam had come in. Which was damn near miraculous, given the noise.
“We got them for free, from Mrs. Van Leary on the first floor, who worked at the deli down on Norman Avenue. She had this horrible dog, Prinz, that I swear wanted both of us dead. He could hear us coming down the stairs, and he'd throw himself at the door, rattling the hinges.” Steve chuckled, happier in his memories than Sam had ever seen him in the twenty-first century. “I swear, I thought the whole rickety tenement was going to collapse, some days. Then he got out the window, that god-awful August in 1936 when I pretended to be twelve instead of eighteen just to stand next to the fire hydrant with the other kids. You were working where you could, by then, dropped out of school as soon as nobody would come looking for you when you did.
“And there's that dumb dog, terrorizing the street, aiming straight for my wet, puny chest.” One hand rubbed over the no longer puny chest in question, lifted up to hide reddening cheeks. “And there you were. Out of nowhere, like always. You showed up with a length of pipe, trying to save me from being mauled. Knocked the mutt clear out. But then the Peters boys showed up, started chucking rocks at the dog, jabbing it with sticks. And that didn't seem right, hitting the devil beast when it was already down.
“Mrs. Van Leary showed up while I was telling them off and you were threatening to punch them if they touched me. She took one look, and decided that we'd saved Prinz from the Peters kids!” By that point, Steve was snickering through his hands, and the Winter Soldier's face was almost calm. “Kept thanking us, saying what good boys we were. For years after that, we got all the stale bialys from the deli, and she'd make sandwiches for you to pick up on your way to the garage. We -”
“Special delivery,” Sam grunted, interrupting the monologue once he'd determined no one was going to shoot, and released the Satan-spawn that up until a few hours ago had been one of his closest friends.
Steve Rogers, proving he didn't need to be an adult to have no sense of self-preservation, sprinted on spindly legs toward the assassin who could crush his head like a grape, without using his metal hand.
“They're mean!” Steve declared, hurling himself into black cargo pants Sam knew were riddled with knives and explosives. He and Clint gasped, waiting for the fall out, but all Barnes did was jerk backward, like Steve was a particularly deadly scorpion.
Steve, undeterred – that, at least, didn't seem to have changed, he'd been an ornery bastard for as long as Sam had known him – climbed up onto the sofa and onto Barnes' thighs. “Mean,” he said again, bony knees sliding into places in the Soldier's lap that would have made lesser men shriek with pain.
“What are you doing here?” Natasha translated, when Barnes spoke to the toddler making himself comfortable on the assassin's legs. “And where are your clothes, little boy?” Then she slipped into the room and handed Barnes the astronaut pajamas, when Steve didn't understand him.
The dark-haired man growled at the tiny fleece clothes, then lifted Steve up and headed for the door. It was a sign that Sam had lived in the Tower too long when he didn't need Natasha to translate the muttered, “Idiots,” as he passed them by.
They followed him back into Steve's new room, where he set the former – future? - Captain America on the floor and began opening dresser drawers. After three dressers and the clothes that had been in them were upended next to Steve, the Soldier found the underwear. He stared suspiciously at a pair of briefs emblazoned with Sponge Bob, and fished out some plain blue ones.
That accomplished, he tried to hand them to Steve. Who was staring at Barnes and biting his lip. “I hafta pee,” he mumbled, and for all that Barnes chose to speak Russian, he understood English more than well enough, if the look on his face was anything to go by.
Dropping the underwear, he scooped Steve up and launched them both into the bathroom, which Pepper, who Sam was beginning to believe was as omniscient as Nat, had already outfitted with a toddler seat on the regular toilet. “He's got to be potty trained, right?” Clint whispered.
“Let's hope so,” Sam replied. “Because I don't think the Soviets taught their killers to potty train. And we haven't even gotten close enough to put a shirt on Steve, much less a diaper.”
A few moments of squirming made Clint chew on his knuckle, but Steve Rogers was potty trained, if in a bit of a hurry to stand up before he was done. The Winter Soldier's uncomplaining mop up with a tissue had at least Sam gaping. “Maybe they did teach clean up of bodily fluids?” Clint offered weakly, and they all continued to stare.
Escorting the kid back toward the dressers, Barnes handed him the blue briefs, and started pulling all the pajamas out of the next drawer. Finally, he found whatever he had been looking for. Which, to Pepper's unhappy exclamation, was a girl's nightgown that someone must have delivered by mistake, thick pink and lavender flannel, with buttons on the chest and ruffles on the collar. Barnes examined it with distaste, but after quickly rooting back through the drawer, made a disgusted sound and beckoned Steve over. Which was easy to do, since the scrawny three-year-old was unwilling to stand more than a foot away. He obediently lifted his arms and let Bucky do the buttons up to his neck, though he struggled a little when long socks were forced onto his feet.
“What's he after now?” Sam said aloud, because the Soldier had gone back to digging through drawers, shooting the blond child at his knee perturbed glances when he couldn't find it.
Pepper figured it out first. “Oh god, I'm an idiot. Period clothing, of course. He wanted a nightshirt. And I bet Steve wore some sort of cap to bed, if they lived anywhere with a draft.”
“They didn't grow up in a Dickens novel!” Sam objected. “Besides, Bucky didn't meet Rogers until Steve was six, and then Bucky couldn't have been more than three himself. He can't remember this.” They all knew this, by now. Anyone walking through the common room had passed by Steve recording one of his endless monologues, rhapsodizing about a toddler who'd knocked Timmy Sanders off six-year-old Steve Rogers with a rusty metal trowel and a rock. It sounded to the rest of them that Barnes' career as an aspiring assassin had started awfully young.
They watched as the Soldier's search grew more irritated, one drawer cracking under the strain when he slammed it shut. “I'll find a nightcap,” Pepper murmured, “Go distract him before he scares Steve.”
Steve, Sam wanted to point out, looked a whole lot less frightened than the rest of them. Blue eyes watched Barnes with adoration, leaning his small, pink and purple chest against the assassin's leg. But Sam hadn't joined the military because he was afraid of a fight.
“Barnes.” He kept his voice level, the tone he used when his vets had bad spells. “He needs dinner, before you can put him to bed. Will he eat canned carrots? Some cereal?” Sam had babysat his sister's kids, but generally only after they were old enough to start demanding he grill hot dogs and buy them ice cream.
Barnes frowned at him, but he stopped destroying Pepper's furniture. He stretched his hand down to Steve's hair, then realized it was his metal hand and jerked it away. “Stepushka,” he said softly, and Steve honed in on Bucky's face immediately, pulling his thumb out of his mouth and lifting both arms in what Sam had thought was a universal signal from children everywhere.
The Soldier blinked at the little hands, and cocked his head in bemusement. Steve, just as determined to batter his way past the Soldier's defenses as his adult half had been, grabbed the bottom of Barnes' shirt and climbed his leg. The Soldier sighed, lifted Steve onto his left hip, and looked helplessly at Sam and Clint. “Kitchen?” he asked, another word Sam knew from Steve's endless flashcard drills.
Shrugging, he gave what support he could. “Sure,” he agreed, and they all tromped down the corridor.
Tony and Bruce came up to find a blue-eyed toddler in a ruffled nightgown locked in a staring war with the deadliest man in the building. Barnes had sniffed the PediaSure and grimaced, but Natasha explained in Russian that Steve was underweight, and he would be less likely to fall ill if they gave him supplements. Barnes had tasted it and stuck out his tongue, but in the time it took for him to accept that it hadn't been poisoned he had determined Steve would drink all of it.
Baby Steve seemed to have the same taste in beverages as his friend, though, which meant he'd devoured the macaroni and cheese, dawdled over the creamed spinach, and refused to so much as sip the PediaSure. Sam had made the cajoling sounds that worked on his niece, Clint made airplane noises, and Natasha told him that if he didn't finish his dinner, evil fairies would take him away in the night and trade him for a better little boy. Clint and Sam rounded on her, appalled.
“What?” she said defensively. “It's a folk tale. Children like fairy tales, don't they?”
Barnes didn't say anything at all, simply sat there with his arms folded, waiting for Steve to drink. Scowling, Steve crossed his arms and lifted his chin, a scrawny mimic in a booster seat to the hitman staring him down.
Tony and Bruce were no help, but just when Sam feared they'd all spend the night at the kitchen table, Pepper breezed back in with three bags and rolled her eyes at them. “So he doesn't like vanilla,” she shrugged. “We have chocolate PediaSure in the fridge, did you try that?”
Sam had never known Steve Rogers to say no to chocolate, and the new drink vanished in a few large, smacking gulps. “Yum,” Steve decided, pink lips rimmed with chocolate milk, grinning at the Winter Soldier with something that might have been triumph.
“Time for bed,” Sam announced, because fighting Hydra agents all morning and attempting to keep your suddenly three-year-old friend from getting himself killed by the assassin he loved took a lot out of a man.
Heads swung back toward Steve to see how he would take the pronouncement, but he gave a sleepy belch and reached for muscled, black-clad arms, eyes already drifting shut. “Story?” he begged, unbothered when his head drooped onto the seam of a metal shoulder.
“Teeth first,” Pepper countered, holding out a small hat with ear flaps that apparently met Barnes' approval as a nightcap. Sam hoped the rest of them could hold out for an entirely different kind of nightcap, but at this point he wasn't sure he would last that long.
Steve brushed his teeth for exactly as long as the Soldier brushed his, then obediently laid in bed and let Sam read him Goldilocks. After the third time the kid startled out of a doze already crying, Barnes stopped trying to sneak out of the room, and let Steve hang onto his metal fingers while he sat on the floor.
By the time Pepper flipped on the night light, casting the dark room in the glow of space rockets and stars, the tiny superhero was fast asleep, laying on his side, little hands still curled around an admantium thumb. The Winter Soldier watched them go, his pale face softer in the light from faintly glowing shooting stars. Maybe, Sam hoped, this new disaster wouldn't be all that bad.
* * *
And it wasn't, until about four hours later, when they were all woken by a noise like knives scraping across fine china. “Sorry,” JARVIS boomed immediately after, but the sound was scratchy, as though the AI was suffering from a hangover. “Sgt. Barnes intercepted the communications system. But, ah, it seems that there may be a problem with the young Captain. It might be best if -”
Sam had stopped listening at “Barnes,” bursting into the hall with his gun as Clint tripped out of the elevator in Big Bird boxers, clutching his tranquilizer arrows.
Natasha was ahead of them, garrote pulled taut between her hands, gun tucked into her boy shorts. “Get Steve out of there,” she growled to Sam. “I'll take care of the Soldier.” Sam gave a thought to the M9 in his hand, to how it might be better to “take care” of the Winter Soldier permanently, so that Steve could grieve the friend he wouldn't admit was gone. He shared a look with Natasha, opened his mouth to consider the idea, but the door slid open before he could say a word.
They stepped in and split up, weapons raised, checking corners and under tables for a death-dealing man or a skinny boy. A high-pitched, wheezing cry sent them all running for the bedroom, Tony, Bruce and Pepper thundering in behind them.
The Winter Soldier was sitting on the low bed, illuminated by the edge of a starship, the delicate child tucked between his legs. His flesh and blood hand was flat against Steve's chest, the metal fingers curled around a small throat.
“Let him go,” Sam shouted, taking aim at the Soldier's head, and Barton's bow sung as he nocked an arrow. The kid was already struggling for air, lips blue in the glow of the night light.
“Wait!” Pepper's cry dropped Natasha into a crouch, but she flipped the overhead light on before any of them could shoot. “He's not strangling him – look!”
Blinking the sudden glare from his eyes was like facing childhood fears of the dark, the looming monster no more than an open, messy dresser in the light of day. Without the darkness, the Soldier's face bore the blank, wide-eyed expression of panic and not murder, his metal fingers rubbing gently down Steve's throat while his other hand massaged a small, heaving chest.
“What the hell is going on?” Sam wondered, but flipped the safety on and jammed his gun into the waistband of his pajama bottoms.
They all looked at the Winter Soldier, but he seemed just as befuddled and worried as the rest of them, gathering the coughing, hyperventilating boy against his chest and staring back at the team.
“Asthma!” Bruce said, speaking over the mewling sounds that were all Steve could make. “Before the serum, Steve Rogers had asthma! We need albuterol – and an inhaler.”
Pepper was already on the phone, and Tony had taken off toward the lab, shouting for JARVIS to remind him where he'd left the face masks. The rest of them couldn't do anything but stand there and watch a three-year-old boy gasp for breath, face pale and terrified.
Tony rigged an inhaler and Bruce found chemicals that might work, and by the time the expert pediatrician had landed on the roof helipad, Steve's lips were back to their normal color. He wouldn't let go of Barnes, whimpered whenever he thought the soldier might set him down, but Barnes had tucked the toddler against his chest and didn't seem inclined to move.
The doctor left them with a real nebulizer – not one made of robot-driven bellows and water tubing – and enough steroids to power a football team. She had taken a look at Steven G. Rogers' list of childhood illnesses and staggered backwards, the Winter Soldier tracking her movements, tensed to react the moment she went from expert to enemy. After handing Bruce and Tony her entire carry-all of medicines, she had recommended they keep Steve in a plastic bubble, and headed back to wherever renowned doctors went at quarter to four in the morning. Sam couldn't tell if she'd been serious about the bubble or not.
Everyone slowly drifted back out of the room and towards their own beds, Sam the last of them to go. He'd been a social worker, after all, before he'd gone to war and been shot down and become Captain America's wingman and personal therapist. He'd seen children left in diapers for days, older kids flinching whenever someone stepped too close, hiding bruises under long sleeves in the summer. He'd never left a child with a known murderer, before.
But Barnes was standing by the picture window, Steve's tear-stained cheek pressed to his shoulder, small mouth open and breath whistling over the damp patch on the Soldier's black shirt. His metal hand smoothed down fluffed, pale hair, and he began humming a tune too low to hear. Sam flipped off the light and edged quietly out the door, less certain than he'd been hours ago that Bucky Barnes was too far gone to save.
* * *
The child was laying on his shoulder. No one touched his shoulder; at least not while he was awake. No one wanted their neck snapped to satisfy their curiosity. If the arm needed maintenance, the doctors knew better than to start on repairs without shutting their machine down completely. Pulling its plug, leaving it under ice and cold to the touch.
Morning light slanted through the nursery window, between pastel curtains and onto turquoise walls. It caught on the boy's hair, making the almost colorless strands glow the same molten white as the dawning sun. Solnishka. Sunshine. Hair like sunlight, eyes the color of the sky over the beach on Coney Island in August, ice cream melting faster than they could eat it. Smile blinding, so bright he had to look away.
When he didn't sleep, the arm ached. Elbow throbbed like it was still flesh, blood welled up under the skin at the seam, a boundary marked in deep purples and blacks. It tore at wherever they had anchored it in his chest, along the vertebrae of his spine. He had gone weeks without sleep, carried cannons over tundras, hauled corpses off mountains to prove his mission reports true, cold weight draped over metal, chilling his bones.
The weightless child in his arms gusted warm air across his neck, dampened black shirt and metal seam with an infant's drool. In this place, with the sunrise and boy warm against his chest, he would stand for years before needing to sleep. Before waking up and discovering it was no more than a dream.
The next morning, Sam wandered into the kitchen to find Steve happily munching on a bowl of cheerios and bananas and the Winter Soldier pinning Stark to the refrigerator with a paring knife.
“Wilson!” Tony gasped, “Help! Explain to Mother Russia here that we need Rogers' blood if we're going to cure this thing.” He waved the butterfly needle at Barnes, who narrowed his eyes and pressed a little harder on the knife.
Steve glanced up when Tony coughed, and frowned. “Bear,” he called, face solemn, and Sam tried to figure out whether he could get between Steve and Barnes before the assassin could hurl the knife into the toddler.
“Medved,” the Soviet killer corrected without turning, teeth still bared at Stark's reddening face. “Don't touch him,” he hissed at the former CEO of Stark Industries, translated by JARVIS and Natasha simultaneously.
“Okay!” Tony agreed, setting the syringe on the counter. “You can do it! We just need to see what the formula's actually done.”
“Kind of obvious, isn't it?” Sam asked, giving the toddler a wide berth as he headed for the coffee, afraid ruffling the kid's hair would end with his bloody carcass on the tile floor.
“Med'wed'jonak!” Steve demanded, voice shrill, and Barnes pocketed the kitchen knife and squatted next to the booster chair, leaving Tony to rub the shallow cut over his windpipe and hurry to put the table between himself and the former Hydra asset.
“It's an endearment,” Natasha whispered, somehow crouched on the counter next to the carafe, already sipping from a mug. “It means 'little bear'. Where could he have learned that?”
Sam thought of Barnes' hand, the light press of metal against struggling lungs, the weary face reflected in the Tower window at four am, and shrugged. “Who knows?” he replied, but Natasha cocked her head and eyed him with suspicion. In return, he gestured toward the table, where Barnes had mixed the vanilla PediaSure into the cereal to convince Steve to eat it, and was currently crouched next to the table, carefully scooping the last of the breakfast into a purple plastic spoon designed for three-year-old hands.
Tony, unwilling to let the matter drop, despite staining his white t-shirt with blood, wiggled the syringe at Barnes. Who sighed, wiped Steve's mouth with his sleeve, and then moved the toddler onto the table. “Solnishka,” he murmured, large hands engulfing Steve's impossibly tiny knees. Sam, who tried not to think about capturing the Winter Soldier at all when he was awake, flashed back to a metal hand and the burn of a knife lodged in his thigh.
More adept at understanding Barnes than the Avengers were – even when he could barely speak himself, apparently – Steve nodded, lips and eyebrows pulled down toward his nose in a fierce expression. “It's okay,” he told the Soldier. “I brave.” And he was, barely crying when Barnes slipped the slender needle into his arm to take blood, waiting until Tony grabbed coffee and syringe and headed out of the kitchen before launching himself into Barnes' arms, certain the dark-haired man wouldn't let him fall.
“Brush teeth?” he asked in between hiccuping sobs, and the man who had spent four months screaming in his room or breaking his best friend in the gym shrugged, pressed a paper towel into the crease of Steve's elbow, and carried him out of the room.
* * *
Sam tagged along, because Steve was his friend, grown up or really, really not, and because the Winter Soldier didn't try to kill him when he sidled into the room. Steve was already dressed for the day in dark shorts, a button-down white shirt, and black patent leather shoes, and the Falcon suppressed the urge to ask where the suspenders had gone.
Barnes had stripped off the shirt that the kid had drooled on the night before, tossing the toddler onto his left shoulder and disappearing briefly into his own quarters for a change of clothes. A good look at his chest left Sam wondering why he lived in a building with so many serum-perfected men, and how he was ever going to get a date when they were around. Though the Soldier also seemed pretty badly bruised on his left side, either from the fight with Hydra or the sparring with Steve two days before.
When they came back, Barnes was wearing a white undershirt that displayed the seam where metal met flesh. Tiny fingers pressed curiously over the scar tissue, the toddler's nose so close to the shoulder that his eyes had crossed.
Sam, folded uncomfortably into a chair meant for people under three feet tall, held up a coloring book and the remains of a box of crayons. Grey eyes pierced right through him, but the Soldier seemed willing to set his small, wiggling bundle down in the chair across the small table, and Steve's intense focus switched easily to colors and sea creatures. He also fit better into his seat; Sam's knees were tucked up into his armpits.
It went well, for awhile. Steve chattered in a mixture of English and corrected Russian, naming colors and marine animals, allowing Sam to color an angelfish while keeping one cerulean eye on the Soldier's boots. The boots stayed in place, but the man himself moved further and further away, shoulders gathering in as he looked over the city and went still.
Sam had the presence of mind, honed from years of flight and enemy fire, to grab the toddler and roll just as a knife pinpointed exactly where his head had been. “JARVIS!” Flipping the kids' table up with one hand, he used the other to keep Steve from running from him and toward the stone-faced man trying to kill them. Another knife went through the table and nicked the back of his neck. “Get the team! Do something! Play a damn song!” Though even with a murderous, brainwashed killer a few feet away, Sam still wasn't sure he wanted to hear Captain America mangle Vera Lynn.
Several rapid heartbeats later, Steve's deeper, adult voice resonated through the speakers, his smile and dirty-blond hair projected onto the far wall. “We shared a bed on the third floor of the orphanage.” He huffed out a breath, on screen, the left corner of his mouth lifting in a self-deprecating smile. “Not that there weren't enough beds, even after '29, but I didn't breathe so good, back then. Especially at night. The palpitations were worse then, too.” Steve's cheeks pinked, flickering over the elephants stenciled on the nursery wall.
“You said the asthma would be better if I could measure my breaths to yours, and I could listen for your pulse when mine wouldn't do. So, uh, you would sleep on your back, and I'd keep my ear over your heart, and probably crushed you under all seventy pounds of me.” Glancing at the window, Sam noted with relief that the Soldier had stopped throwing knives at them, and was gazing, head cocked, at the blushing man on the wall. “I don't have asthma any more, I guess you know. But, uh, you were right. I always slept better when I could hear your heart beat.”
Trapped in a video feed, Captain America ran a trembling hand through his hair, while his towheaded counterpart took advantage of the Falcon's distraction to kick him in the stomach and twist away, running toward the Winter Soldier.
Sam was beginning to realize that no matter the time or the place, no matter their age and memories or lack of, Steve Rogers was always going to run to Bucky Barnes.
“Who's 'at?” Steve queried, tugging at Barnes' metal fingers, demanding the full attention of a man who didn't have that much of himself to give.
Instead of picking the kid up, the Soldier leaned against the window and slid down, pale eyes still on the video scrolling over the wall. “That's Steve,” he told the little boy, in English, tone calm. Sam chanced lowering the table and attempted to dislodge the dagger embedded in the corner.
“Oh.” The toddler considered this, watching Barnes' face, then spinning around to watch his own face, twenty-something years into the future, several days into the past. “Why's he sad?”
Sam had seen that smile, on the newsreels Steve watched on repeat when he thought no one was looking, the still, black and white photographs of the war. Faded and pained, it was still a smile that had once belonged to Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes. “He lost something, buddy. A long time ago. And the longer it's missing, the harder it is to find.”
* * *
Because Sam knew more about kids than anyone else in the tower – which wasn't saying much - he wound up on babysitting duty while Bruce and Tony worked on an antidote, and Natasha left the building to gather intelligence on Hydra's plans. Clint's participation mostly involved handing Sam cold beer when the Falcon couldn't tell if he was babysitting Steve Rogers or the Winter Soldier.
Without prompting, the Soldier had prepared lunch for Steve. Sam, in turn, had been grateful that most food for little kids didn't involve a lot of cutlery, though the Winter Soldier with sliced ham and a bread knife was still terrifying.
Hoping that he had time to make his own food before Barnes lost his mind and started hurling weapons again, Sam stayed in the kitchen with his sandwich when assassin and toddler headed back to the nursery. Then Hawkeye wandered in, and Sam ended up in a debate about whether the Nationals were a real team, and which pitcher was most valuable in the league.
It was after two by the time Sam walked back into the nursery, blinking in surprise to find all the lights off. He opened his mouth to ask what the hell was going on, but his throat went too dry to speak a moment later, the serrated edge of a blade pressed to his throat. He must not have appeared cowed – even though he damn well was – because a metal hand slammed over his mouth, scarier than the knife warming against his skin.
Admantium fingers curved around Sam's jaw. He had seen the Soldier take out four Hydra agents with just his left hand: snapping their necks with barely a touch, leaving them to topple unblinking to the ground. There was no way to scream for JARVIS this time, to get words past the heated press of metal measuring his last heartbeats.
Sam couldn't say that he hadn't expected Captain America to get him killed, eventually, but he hadn't thought it would happen when the Captain was only three years old.
Remembering Steve in the sudden clarity that came with the battlefield, Sam glanced to his right. The tiny body was abandoned on the bed, head tilted at an awkward angle, too pale in the half-dark of the room. The Soldier didn't need weapons to kill something so small.
That image was enough to propel Sam into action: the Winter Soldier would kill him in moments, but he planned to die fighting, not pissing his shorts in fear. He jammed an elbow back into the Soldier's sternum, hung his weight on the hand holding him down and kicked back into breakable knees. The flash of satisfaction when the Winter Soldier flinched – not much of a vengeance for Steve's death, but probably as much as they were going to get before joining him – disappeared rapidly when he used the knife handle to slam between Sam's ribs, knocking the wind out of him. He took the opportunity to drag the Falcon backwards out of the room, tapping the door shut behind them.
Then he let go. Unfortunately, Sam couldn't breathe deeply enough to take advantage of that lapse, and opted to topple over on the carpet wheezing instead. “Shh,” the Hydra asset whispered, pressing a metal index finger to his lips, brandishing the knife at Sam with his human hand. He hissed something else in Russian that Sam figured was probably, “Now your brains will decorate these walls,” but that could have been the script from the action movie Sam had seen the evening before.
“Lieutenant Wilson.” JARVIS' voice also seemed much quieter, probably through the terrified ringing in Sam's ears. “Sgt. Barnes says that he would appreciate it greatly if no one disturbed Capt. Rogers during his afternoon nap.”
“Unh?” Sam gazed in bewilderment at the Soldier, who held his metal arm cocked like a gun ready to fire, the knife aimed squarely at Sam's chest.
JARVIS, thankfully, could translate speechless befuddlement as well as Russian. The AI had spent its whole existence trying to further communication between Tony Stark and more normal people. “It did take the Sergeant almost half an hour to persuade young Steven to sleep, especially after the minor asthma attack he had when the air conditioner cycled on. Rationally, the best option is to keep Capt. Rogers' room silent until he wakes up.”
“He's napping?” Sam had nearly been killed for disturbing Steve Rogers' nap time. Might still get stabbed, because he had said that last bit so loud that Barnes flipped the knife in the air, ready to throw.
Clint came around the corner just as Sam scrambled to his feet, grabbed for arrows he wasn't carrying when he saw the Winter Soldier aiming a weapon at the Falcon's head. “What -”
“Shh!” Sam, JARVIS, and Barnes interrupted in unison, and the Soldier swung the knife slightly to the left.
“Kitchen,” Sam signed, wondering if there was a superpower that involved being able to say all the rooms of the house in English, Russian, and ASL. They all trooped back down the hall, Barnes flipping the combat knife shut and stowing it into a pocket Sam couldn't see.
Once they made it into the kitchen, though, the Soldier swayed back toward the doorway. Sam watched him for a tense minute, waiting for him to go for the knife block. Then he realized that Barnes was looking down the hall, not scoping out the location of all their sharp kitchen utensils, and felt like an idiot. He needed to start revising his expectations for the Winter Soldier, from 'calculating myriad ways to cause pain and suffering' to 'concerned about sickly kid who happens to be Steve Rogers.' “Hey JARVIS,” he asked, voice still hushed. “Could you give us a video feed of the nursery?”
As soon as Sam spoke, the refrigerator door lit up with grey elephants dancing across blue walls gone pale in the gloom, blinds drawn down to keep out the afternoon light. Half tangled in his blankets, a blond child snuffled in his sleep, one hand curled around a plush bear in a blue costume.
Hawkeye frowned, and leaned closer to the nanny cam projected onto the fridge, politely ignoring the Winter Soldier's growl. “It's a Bucky Bear!” he announced, and the bear's prototype rolled his eyes. It might have been the most human expression Sam had seen him make.
JARVIS translated Barnes' reply as “Capitalist hogwash,” but Sam was pretty sure he'd heard Natasha mutter the second word while sparring, and that the AI had just spared their ears.
“That explains why Stepushka can say 'little bear',” the Black Widow murmured, standing in the kitchen as though she'd been there the whole time. Sam and Clint both jumped, but the Winter Soldier had already catalogued the situation and found all of them dull enough that he had decided to sharpen the wide array of kitchen knives. Across his fingers.
“Stepushka?” Sam questioned, debating whether asking Barnes to stop creating a sound that should only be heard on at least the seventh level of hell stood a chance of the sound actually stopping, or just of getting Sam stabbed with a freshly whetted knife.
Nat shrugged, and the far wall lit up with an image of Bruce's lab, Tony hovering over several smoking beakers, his hair sticking out from under the strap of his safety goggles. “Could someone bring us some lunch here, JARVIS?” he demanded, just as the fourth beaker belched a cloud of steam and cracked into several pieces. “Bruce, it's definitely not B247!” The fluorescent formula dripped onto the counter and promptly started eating away at the nearest stylus.
Then Tony glanced up, and seemed to see them all standing there, blinking at him. “I know,” he sighed, pushing his goggles up to his forehead, leaving red suction rings around his eyes. “I am both handsome and stunningly brilliant. But if one of you would care to boost your intelligence levels from mindless gaping to fetching and carrying, we could use some food down here.”
A steak knife spun perfectly toward the wall, embedded where Stark's mouth was still moving. Sam figured that, for once, the Winter Soldier spoke for the majority. And it meant he'd temporarily stopped grating all the kitchen blades against his metal hand.
Another head appeared next to Tony's affronted face, goggles completely covered with condensation. Bruce pulled them off, wiped them on his lab coat, and stuck something that looked like a paper towel onto the glowing green goop. “Really, Tony?” Banner attempted irritation, but clearly knew Tony too well to manage anything other than resigned acceptance. “We're sort of in the middle of something down here, if one of you has the time to chuck us a few sandwiches? I don't think I can drink any more of Tony's robot-blended protein shakes.” Clint huffed, but waved a hand obligingly and moved to grab the bread.
The fridge opened outward when Clint reached for the sliced meats and condiments, giving Bruce and Tony a glimpse of far too tiny Steve napping in his room. “Pepper bought him a Bucky Bear?” Bruce inquired, sounding charmed. The stuffed animal looked bigger than Steve, inexplicably in a little black mask that reminded Sam more of the Winter Soldier than Sgt. James Barnes. He was a therapist, Sam reminded himself, refusing to get goosebumps over a cloth mask. Teddy bears should not give him chills.
“What?” Tony's head popped back over the lab table with a handful of new beakers, image still distorted by the steak knife. “Oh, no, she probably just grabbed the bear from Cap's room,” he corrected off-handedly, dropping three of the glass vials onto the counter. The noise would have been loud no matter what, but in the sudden silence it was a cacophony.
Everyone turned to stare at miniaturized Steve, and the plush bear in a little blue jacket. The bear that, on closer examination, did not look to be only a day out of the box. Even Natasha's lips had parted in surprise, and Sam had been pretty sure she broke into all of their rooms on a regular basis. It was the main reason he kept his underwear drawer so neat. The Winter Soldier looked unfazed, but Sam didn't want to think about him breaking into their rooms.
Someone cleared their throat, but Sam beat them to it. “You're telling me Captain America sleeps with a Bucky Bear?” he squeaked, gesturing at the little boy lit up on the fridge.
Thankfully, JARVIS took over before its creator could start making terrible jokes about Captain America “sleeping with” anything.
“This might clarify a few things, if I may?” the AI offered, and then the adult Steve that Sam desperately missed showed up on the wall next to the refrigerator. With three of the walls lit up with video feeds, Sam was starting to feel like he lived in a parody of Fahrenheit 451, or the Skype command center.
“They started making these during the war.” The Bucky Bear sat on Steve's left knee, propped up for the camera with one broad hand. Steve always dressed for the videos, hair washed and combed down, longer and less modern than it had been cut when Sam met him. “Or, during our war. World War II.” He chuckled, but his lips pressed together as he squeezed the bear under his fingers and stared hard at his hand. “We'd hoped back then that it would be the last war. But I guess you know it didn't work out that way. You know it better than anyone.
“Anyway.” Steve shook his head, once, then returned his gaze to the camera, attempting a Captain America smile. His shirt was plain, starched white, not one of the slightly more updated plaid button-downs Pepper had worked into his wardrobe.
The bear stood out in vivid browns and blues against the colorless shirt, the pale curve of Steve's hands, the pallor and exhaustion evident in his face. Trying to save James Barnes had taken its toll, even on Captain America. “They made some Howling Commandos comic books, to raise money for the war effort. Everything was for the war effort, those days.” The ghost of a grin flitted over his mouth, and they had all seen the reels from Captain America's stateside tours selling bonds.
“And kids loved Sergeant Bucky Barnes. Peggy said they started selling out of blue jackets in the department stores, that mothers were cutting up black out curtains to make little masks.” He shrugged, glanced back at the bear as though it knew where the story went. “I'm not sure where they got the idea for the mask, actually. Probably Howard. He had some strange ideas for costumes. Wanted to dress Falsworth in an exploding top hat, and do something to Dugan's bowler that Dum Dum said would be defamation of character.” The smile almost reached Steve's eyes, when the camera shifted angles to catch them, bright blue and soft with nostalgia.
“Howard ordered a batch specially shipped to the Commandos. He stuck one in everyone's bunk with a tag that said 'Sergeant Bucky Bear: Improvements by Stark' around its neck.” Steve coughed, choked on something that knocked the smile off his face. “He didn't – He must have forgotten to get rid of them, when we radioed in from the train.” The bear stayed between Steve's hands when he slumped, then forced himself to straighten, elbows resting on his knees. “Or maybe not. He kept one in his weapons lab, next to the rifles. Peggy said it went missing one day, and Howard shut down the entire facility while they looked for his Bucky Bear.”
“Spent his whole fucking life looking for you bastards,” Tony muttered from the lab, scowling at a viscous grey formula.
“Jim took the mask off his. Used his old fatigues to sew it one of those Army caps you always used to wear. Carried it in his pack, tucked it under his jacket at night watch, so the head peeked out above the collar. It's a stupid place for something bulky when you need to shoot. But we weren't -” Steve swallowed, ran a hand over the back of his hair, a nervous gesture Sam had seen him make before knocking on Barnes' door. “We weren't operating under the same rules, after that. If rules couldn't get everyone home safe, then what good were they?” There was no humor in the laugh that followed, sand rattling through bones in a desert wind.
“The bear saved his life. I don't know what Howard stuffed it with, but three shots from a Hydra gun in the middle of the night and Jim wasn't even bleeding.” And every soldier had heard the stories. Bibles in front pockets, keepsakes and talismans, objects laden with faith that could stop a bullet an inch away from a man's chest.
Sam had taken his nieces and nephews to the Smithsonian exhibit, pressed the button to hear Private Jim Morita talk about the tattered Bucky Bear on display, homemade cap cocked jauntily despite the holes in its chest.
“I left mine behind, in the bunker.” Steve paused, stared through the camera, a grimly amused expression twisting his lips. “To keep it safe,” he continued, giving a self-deprecating snort at the idea, as if it would matter that he kept a bear safe when he couldn't save his best friend. “They gave it back to me, when I woke up. Limited Edition Sergeant Bucky Bear: Improvements by Stark. I -”
But they didn't hear whatever Steve planned to say next, because JARVIS muted the video when someone growled in Russian from the counter next to the knife block. “Stop!” the Winter Soldier commanded again, shifting toward the wall as though he might attack it, then spinning out of the room and running down the hall. Sam had met Steve running, and so knew better than to suggest anyone try to catch up.
“Um.” Tony, who had never had much respect for a dramatic pause he hadn't instigated, raised his hand. “Any idea what set that particular Russian bomb off? You know, in case it turns out that 'Bucky Bear' was a Hydra trigger phrase for 'activate the poisonous gas in Avengers Tower'?”
Natasha muttered something that no one needed to translate, and JARVIS sounded rather vexed with its creator when it answered. “That is extremely doubtful, sir. Given past experiences, Sergeant Barnes has vacated this area in favor of the gymnasium. He sometimes does this, after watching Captain Rogers' videos. Generally the Captain joins him for a sparring session.”
Everyone found something interesting to study on the floor, or the lab counter. Sam put a finger to his nose – using the hand that wasn't clutching his scarred thigh – and Clint mimicked him. The others did not, apparently, know the sign for 'not it.' Natasha, instead of protecting her waist, shoulder, or the back of her head where the Winter Soldier had last taken her out, folded her arms tightly across her chest. “No,” she declared, loud in the reluctant silence of the room. “No way.”
“Do we know any other superheroes?” Clint asked, raising his eyebrows hopefully. “Who might want to spar with a deranged assassin?”
In the lab, Tony poked at the newest batch of possible antidotes. “Maybe we can just cure the wee Capsicle with one of -” The nearest beaker erupted in purple flames, setting Tony's sleeve on fire. “Or not. Pepper's pretty brave. We could send her in?”
Neither the adult Steve speaking soundlessly or the small version sleeping, both with the same Bucky Bear clutched to their chests, seemed to have any suggestions. Sam groaned, wiggled his hands at all the projectors, at the microwave so advanced that he still couldn't operate it. “You're the mechanical genius!” he retorted. “Shouldn't you have androids or something, that can fight with him? Like Luke had, in Star Wars?”
Whatever disparaging comment that Stark had considered making about George Lucas or Sam Wilson faded as his eyes lit up. “Wilson,” he hummed. “You may not be as dull and well-adjusted as I thought.” Sam wanted to argue, to point out that well-adjusted might be something everyone else in the Tower should go to therapy to achieve. Then he thought about the wings Stark had built him, the life he'd given up to live in a building filled with mentally unstable superheroes, and bit his tongue.
Tony glanced at the array of experiments and over to Bruce, who must have given him the go-ahead from behind what appeared to be a gas mask. “All right,” he declared, stripping off his lab coat. “Avengers, assemble! Let's go build Ivan the Terrible some serfs to massacre!”
“Have we had the discussion about things you shouldn't say aloud, recently?” Clint asked the screen, and Tony stuck out his tongue before disappearing from view. Hawkeye eyed Sam and Nat, shrugged, and wandered out toward the elevators.
“My sandwich?” Bruce's voice echoed, plaintive, from the confines of his mask, but JARVIS was the only one left in the kitchen to hear.
* * *
Mission parameters. Ten targets. Metal and synthetic fibers, armed with laser cannons. Throwing knives. Potential for machine gun fire. Their accuracy would be mechanical, pinpointed to his heat signature. He swung out at the first one, flipped over the bulky weapon and brought it with him to take down the second target. He caught the knife before it reached his thigh, used it to disembowel the first android, used the heap of sparking wires as a shield to take on the third.
Normally Captain America came, his shield a steady target through the lights that gathered and burst behind the Soldier's eyes. Captain America, gripping onto a child's plaything -
“What do you think?” Howard stood over a doodle of a teddy bear, arms splayed like he was showing off the prototype for a flying tank. Though given how the flying car had flopped – literally – Bucky thought the bear might be a safer bet.
He lifted his eyebrow, looked around the lab for something to see. “Howie, chum, it's a bear. In a coat. You woke me up at two am for this? Have you slept this week?” The lab was dark, except for the lamp humming by Bucky's elbow, a pool of yellow light spilling over the desk and onto their polished shoes. Bucky, retaliating for having been dragged out of the first solid night's rest he'd gotten in a month, pried the scotch out of Howard's hand and polished it off.
“It's a Bucky Bear!” Stark responded, aggrieved. Not so upset he didn't pull the rest of the liquor out of a drawer, along with an extra glass. “I designed it myself.” He cocked his head, stroking his mustache with his free hand. Glanced to his left, and caught Bucky's jaw cracking mid-yawn. “The likeness is remarkable. I really must be a genius.”
Bucky jammed his elbow into Howard's ribs, both of them in cotton undershirts, Howard's stained with oil while Bucky's blended stiff patches of blood with darker smears of the greasepaint he put around his eyes, smelling faintly of gunpowder even after it had been washed. “Stark, I swear, if you woke me up because you're scared to be down here by yourself when all the sane people are sleeping -”
“You don't like it?” This time Stark actually did look upset. “They go into production next week. Carter thinks they'll sell out before Christmas.”
“It's a bear. In a coat.” Bucky decided to skip the glass, and drank from the bottle instead. Maybe the whole thing would make more sense with alcohol. “You're making Bucky Bears?” he repeated, just to be sure. Stark nodded. “Shouldn't they be Captain America Bears, or something?” Bucky didn't even have a costume, just the blue jacket that Howard had thrown together. Probably made from spare rubber and gasoline, but it was damn warm. Jacket. Oh.
Shrugging, Howard hovered protectively over his drawing. “The kids like Bucky Barnes. He gets more mail than any of the other Commandos. We don't forward it, obviously.” He raised a thin eyebrow, smirked a little. “We're not convinced you can read at their level. That's why we stuck stars all over your hero, instead of just the 'A'. Wouldn't want you shooting him by mistake.”
“Wise guy.” Bucky rolled his eyes, mellowed by the scotch and the peaceful stillness of the lab in the middle of the night. “Okay, so you're making Bucky Bears. But, I don't know.” He squinted at the picture, made a face. “Couldn't you give him some pizazz? I mean, Captain America has a whole get up – his sidekick ought to have something, right? Bit of a spine?”
“What, you're having trouble stiffening up?” Howard needled him, but his attention rebounded almost immediately onto the ink and paper stuffed animal that looked nothing like Bucky. He hoped. “Hmm. Pizazz. We can do that.”
Bucky looked around for a spare tarp. He'd end up sleeping on the floor, because Howard didn't like to be in the labs by himself at night, because if he tried to sneak back into the room now he'd wake up Steve, who hadn't closed his eyes for days. The man gained a few pounds and thought he'd outgrown food and sleep both. Bucky would have to find him breakfast, too. An ox might be enough to fill Captain America's bottomless stomach. Or a herd of sheep.
“Howard.” A familiar voice drew out the syllables in Stark's name, like they were children playing hide and seek. Bucky picked his head up from the coil of steel cables he was using as a pillow to see Captain America standing in the doorway, tousled blond hair and hastily tugged on olive slacks visible in the glow of the lamp. “What have you done with my -”
Bloodshot eyes glimpsed Bucky, who was stumbling to his feet among an uncomfortable assortment of muzzle and barrel prototypes. Steve's tired face brightened, smile blinding even in a bunker deep underground. “There you are.” He stared at the pile of metal by Bucky's boots, eyes twinkling. “You've got a rifle of your own, Buck, if you needed it to sleep. Did you want Howard to make you a new one for Christmas?”
Focused on not tripping over his own shoelaces on his way across the room, Bucky nearly missed the joke Howard made about Captain America firing his gun, face lit with -
Howard Stark. Grey hair and thick mustache, the lines etched into his forehead and around his pursed mouth easy to see through the scope of a Soviet rifle. The shattered stillness of a coastal highway at night, a bullet to the front tire, the smell of burning rubber and gasoline.
He lost time inhaling the stench of brakes and hair lit with flame, his gaze trapped in the flash of a smile, of an inferno plummeting through a guard rail off a mountain road. He'd lost too much time. A bullet grazed his cheek; the following one glanced painlessly off his left shoulder when he twisted away. Eight targets left. No stars speckled over shield and uniform to keep him from shooting. No faces. Nothing but the stretch of muscles and gears, the pain that honed each mission to a walk along the knife's edge.
* * *
Minutes later, the Winter Soldier stood alone in the gym, surrounded by smoking piles of machinery. He tore his knife back out of the nearest robot, and glanced up to see Sam Wilson standing outside the transparent walls with the child on his hip. He made it halfway across the room, a knife ready in each hand, before he shifted his gaze from the boy to take in the gun Natalia had levelled at his head. Tranquilizer darts. A minor inconvenience, but enough to prevent him from reaching the boy.
He dropped the knives. Growled at the grounded Falcon. Nobody touched the child but him. No one was safe, and Stepushka trusted far too easily. Steve always had.
Yet when he darted through the open door, wide blue eyes brought him to a shuffling halt, made him tug at his shirt to hide the tears, curl metal fingers over his human arm to cover the bruising. Steve wouldn't want to see him like that. No child should have to face the monsters under their bed.
Kicking Wilson when the man tried to restrain him, Stepushka dove head-first for the floor, skinny arms flailing above the ground. The Soldier ducked the dart Natalia fired and snatched the boy from the pilot. “Stay back,” he growled, and the AI provided an unnecessary translation. The Falcon raised both hands, showing his palms, and shook his head at the Black Widow.
“Solnishka,” he chided, letting the boy stand with a foot in each of his hands, bony knees digging into the Soldier's chest for stability. “You should be sleeping.” Stepushka's left cheek was puffy and pink, imprinted with the weave from his quilt. He smelled of a child's sweat and baby soap, white-blond hair jutting up in tufts above his head.
“Not tired,” the boy protested, yawning, little mouth hinged open and eyes squeezed shut. “'Sides. You left.”
Then he splayed tiny hands on Barnes' chin, digging fingertips into the graze above his jawbone, skin still tender from the bullet's heat. “You have an owie,” he whispered, quiet so that the Falcon and the Widow wouldn't hear. And how to explain so a child would understand? How to keep blue eyes from darkening with hurt, the way Steve always looked when he lay on the floor of the gym and waited for Bucky to finally finish it?
“I fix it,” Stepushka said, closer to the Winter Soldier's ear. Lips puckered against the Soldier's face, stinging where they pushed against a swelling burn and newly formed scab. The boy kissed Barnes' cheek again, for good measure, uncoordinated and kind in a way that the Winter Soldier had gone a lifetime without. “There. All better.”
They managed to make it through the rest of the afternoon without incident, which Sam chalked up to some sort of undeserved miracle. Barnes didn't seem too fond of any of them, beyond Steve, but after four months Sam was willing to call it a good day when no one had gotten stabbed or shot more than once. Living in the Tower had set his standards dangerously low.
Tony even made them all dinner, while Clint and Natasha cleaned up the havoc the Winter Soldier had wreaked in the gym, and Bruce continued searching for an antidote that didn't spontaneously combust when exposed to air. Sam, still on babysitting duty, found the tablet Pepper had set up in the nursery, and tried to explain children's music to a befuddled toddler and a man who stared fixedly at the joints in Sam's hand. He swallowed, and hoped playing “The Wheels on the Bus” didn't add him to a Soviet kill list labeled “too stupid to live.”
Though after six renditions of the song – Steve squealed, clapped his hands, and shouted, “Again!” after each one – Sam wondered if he could convince the Winter Soldier to kill him, as a personal favor. Or he could find the sonic balls that had deafened Hawkeye, and get Stark to make him a set of those designer hearing aids. Even Barnes had started giving the tablet baleful looks, and generally he reserved those for other humans, not technology.
He had never been so grateful to hear Tony Stark's voice in his life. “Dinner,” the resident genius shouted down the hall. Steve pouted at the tablet, but recovered quickly, latching on to metal fingers and leading the two adults into the kitchen. Where the table had been set for seven, presumably by a robot, and the platter in the middle was layered with . . . “Sandwiches?”
“JARVIS says kids like sandwiches,” Tony retorted, crossing his arms. “They're peanut butter and jelly. And there are apple slices, so it's healthy.” He shrugged, rubbed at where the reactor core had spent years in his chest.
Natasha, who had come in while Sam was busy gaping at a tray of sandwiches and the Winter Soldier was hoisting Steve into his booster seat, snatched one off the platter and took a bite. Then redirected for the trash. “Tony, that's marmalade,” she snapped, gulping down one of the juice boxes he'd left arrayed on the counter. “On pumpernickel bread!”
The Stark magnate looked confused, an expression mirrored in his AI's voice. “Is marmalade not a traditional choice? I apologize, Ms. Romanoff, but it is a jelly. I thought that -”
“JARVIS,” Pepper sighed, taking in Natasha's grimace and Tony's wounded expression and the mountain of peanut butter and marmalade sandwiches, phone tucked under her ear and typing one-handed on a separate tablet. “Could you order us dinner from the Ethiopian place that Bruce likes? Have them deliver it?”
“Do we have beer?” she mouthed at Tony, and he perked up, opening the fridge with a grin to reveal shelves of hand-bottled microbrews.
“Of course, Ms. Potts,” the AI agreed. “Your usual orders? Anything particular for Sergeant Barnes?”
Sergeant Barnes, after pulling a chocolate PediaSure out from behind several bottles of IPA, had sat down and taken a large bite out of the nearest pumpernickel disaster after handing one to the kid. He paid it no more attention than he had given any food since they brought him in, though Steve had scoured New York for bagels and oysters, experimented with different egg cream recipes when none of them tasted like home. He chewed twice, the four other adults in the kitchen watching him closely. Then he stood up, pushed back his chair. Set the half-eaten sandwich back onto the tray, and walked calmly across the room to dump the entire thing in the trash, including the platter.
Natasha gave an inelegant snort, and tried to cover her grin. “Uh, yes,” Pepper replied, laughing. “Whatever you think he'll eat, I suppose. Maybe a hamburger? They had those then, right?”
But when the Winter Soldier reached for the one remaining Stark attempt at dinner, Steve clutched the sandwich to his chest. “Nyet!” he cried, mouth full. “'s good!”
“Ha! I told you kids like sandwiches!” Tony's good cheer returned in a flash, though whether it was from Steve's approval or from the beer he'd guzzled, Sam couldn't tell. Bruce and Clint wandered into the kitchen together, just in time to be handed a drink and told the story of dinner from Natasha's horrified point of view.
It was good, in a way, that no one – including the Winter Soldier – could believe that anyone might want to eat peanut butter and marmalade on pumpernickel bread. It meant they kept watching Steve in disbelief as he chewed through four bites, pausing to wash down the mess with chocolate milk. Which meant, in turn, that everyone noticed the first red splotches that showed up on his small face. Then the white dots. Then Steve dropped the sandwich and tried to cough, rubbing his throat.
The Winter Soldier pinned Tony to the far wall, metal forearm pressed hard under Stark's Adam's apple. Sam hadn't even made it over to the table. “What did you do?” he demanded, easing up a fraction when Tony couldn't inhale to explain.
“I don't know!” Stark wheezed, the same sound Steve was starting to make in his booster seat. “It's just bread and peanut butter, I don't -”
“Shit!” If Steve's face hadn't already been red with white bumps, tiny mouth working to breathe, Banner cursing would have been the sign that they all needed to panic. “He's having an allergic reaction. We need an Epi-pen.” Everyone blinked at him. “We need an Epi-pen now,” the scientist corrected, looking more frantic than a man who needed to stay calm should be able to do.
Pepper, bless her, remembered where they had stowed the doctor's carry all after the asthma seemed to be as bad as it would get. She jerked it out from under the sink and flipped it over, gauze and stethoscope and medications of all varieties scattering over the floor. “Okay,” she breathed, hands white where they were clenching the bag. “What does an Epi-pen look like?”
But Bruce had already made a dive for it, snatched it off the floor, popped the safety off, and – wiser than the rest of them – shoved it into the Winter Soldier's right hand. “You have to inject him in the thigh,” he ordered, making no move toward Steve, who now had tears running down his blotchy cheeks. “Hold it down for ten seconds so he gets the full dose. Now!”
Steve grabbed Barnes as the Soldier lifted him out of the chair, trying to curl into a ball against the assassin's chest. Barnes didn't waste time with pleasantries, or sympathy, just jammed the needle through Steve's old-fashioned shorts and into his thigh, held it there even when the boy tried to wriggle away. After a few seconds, Steve let out an angry wail, and everyone exhaled in relief. If he could cry that loudly, he could definitely breathe.
“What the hell was that?” Sam asked, panting like he'd just run a marathon.
“Probably the peanut butter,” Bruce answered, closing his eyes and trying to regulate his own breathing. “We should call a doctor.”
Pepper pulled the half-full bottle of white wine from the refrigerator door, dropped into the nearest chair, and tipped it back into her mouth. “Already done,” she reassured them, waving her Stark phone with her free hand.
The crying had gotten louder, but Sam felt like he could hear the security guard forty floors down, the pigeons perched on a nearby roof, the pulse of everyone else in the room. The Winter Soldier stood awkwardly in the middle of the kitchen, trying to cradle a sobbing toddler who wouldn't uncurl enough to settle against his chest.
“Holy hell,” Tony coughed, still leaning on the wall he'd been shoved against a moment earlier. “Peanut butter. What kid doesn't eat peanut butter, at some point? Why is this not on his medical records?”
Clint lifted a shoulder, tried to gather up the doctor's supplies before collapsing on the floor and snagging a beer from the counter. “Not as common then?” he guessed, and they all looked at the ceiling, waiting for JARVIS to play another video, where Steve told them about the lunch menu at the orphanage.
The crying reduced slightly in volume when Barnes sat down next to Clint on the kitchen floor, letting Steve fold into whatever pretzel shape made him feel better. “First asthma, now allergies. It hasn't even been twenty-four hours!” Sam shook his head, stared at the towheaded kid on Barnes' lap. “How hard can it be to breathe?”
I didn't breathe so good, back then , Steve had said, but Sam hadn't realized that had been the case every day. If that orphanage was still around, he was donating them at least a month of his pension for not accidentally murdering Steve Rogers with peanuts, or dusty air. The nuns had done a lot better than a house full of people who were supposed to be geniuses, and had access to modern medicine.
The Winter Soldier exhaled what almost sounded like a laugh, his mouth flattening out to something gentler than the tense, deadly scowl they all knew. Barnes hadn't looked that relaxed when they'd sedated him for three days and across four continents. “Pretty damn hard,” he murmured in English, watching the kid weeping all over his knees. “But quitting's never been something Steve understood.”
When the security guard brought in the doctor and their dinner, the team was sitting in shocked silence, gaping at Bucky Barnes.
* * *
In the next several days, Sam learned a number of things. One was that three-year-old Steve did not like nebulizers. Neither, it turned out, did the Winter Soldier, who had taken one look at the humming machine and the mask that covered nose and mouth and stalked out of the room. Sam looked at the clear plastic mask and thought of Barnes as they'd first seen him, muzzled and voiceless. He put it away, flipping the machine off while the kid pitched over the railing on his bed and tore down the hall after his life-sized, murderous teddy bear. The daily nebulizer treatments could wait until after Steve fell asleep.
Sadly, the same thing couldn't be said for baths. The first time, Sam had filled the tub with lukewarm water, chucked in some rubber ducks and a few boats, and studiously avoided adding any bubble bath, just in case there were more allergies they didn't know about.
Barnes had seemed fine with the whole concept, though a little confused by the toys. Then he dipped his fingers in it. Five minutes later, he had drained the tub and started refilling it with with the tap turned all the way to “hot”. Sam couldn't tell if he was sweating, or the steam had simply gotten so thick that it had soaked through his clothes. Hopefully the clouds of moist air were good for Steve's lungs, but if they stuck the kid in that tub, they were going to have to add some potatoes and carrots and eat him for dinner.
Soldiers came to Sam for help with PTSD, back when he'd had a life that didn't revolve around crazy people who thought they could save the world. Well, crazy people who actually did save the world on a regular basis. He understood triggers. Last week, the reflection of light off Pepper's delicate silver watch had sent him diving off the sofa, reaching for a gun he thankfully didn't have. His episode had sent Tony scrambling into pieces of the Iron Man suit, and Clint up onto the entertainment center. He knew how to talk himself down, how to coach other people to focus on their breathing, to accept the lapses and move beyond them. He just didn't know how to do all that for a man that had been brainwashed and frozen for decades, while simultaneously trying to bathe a toddler.
They compromised, if Sam could call jamming his hand into the water and screeching, “Ow ow ow!” a compromise. It did seem to convince Barnes not to stick anyone else in the water, and Stepushka got a sponge bath that left his milk-white skin pink from the heat.
Finally, Sam learned that even though children's music had expanded since his childhood, and was now sung by bands like the Barenaked Ladies and not Raffi, there were still only so many times he could hear “The Wheels on the Bus,” especially when Steve was as tone deaf at age three as he'd been at twenty-nine. Sam coped well until the third day, when he cracked and threw the damn computer out the window.
Having done so, he fled the nursery before Stepushka started crying or Barnes attacked him for harming the tyke's fragile sensibilities. They'd been doing better on that front – Barnes had faded out a few times in three days, but the only person he'd stabbed was Nick Fury, who had been stupid enough to stride up to the infant Captain America and start prodding him. If the Soldier hadn't attacked him, the rest of the Avengers might have. When the nursery wasn't filled with “Wheels on the Bus,” JARVIS ran Steve's videos on one wall, his voice a clear beacon in the mists of Barnes' head.
“All right,” he announced, striding into the common room on Steve's floor. Where everyone else – minus Bruce, who would be in the lab, and Pepper, who did have a corporation to manage – had the gall to sit sprawled over the furniture, enjoying hand-crafted beer. Sam grabbed Clint's and chugged it, then waved the bottle accusingly at them. “I'm done. Shift's over. Somebody else go watch the kid. Or the killer. Whoever we're watching.”
Natasha's eyes danced, and Tony laughed out loud, though Sam was pretty sure babysitting an assassin wasn't that funny. Clint lifted a hand to tap on Sam's cheek. “You've got a little paint,” he said, smirking. Sam scratched at his jaw, fingers coming away with dried blue flakes. When he looked at his shirt, it was covered in orange. His forearms were mostly green, with some yellow mixed in. At least he'd had the good sense to hide the red, because who knew what seeing Steve covered in red paint might have triggered, and not just for Barnes.
“Stepushka likes finger painting.” He gritted his teeth, glowered at all of them, and stalked into the kitchen. “And I'm finished,” he shouted through the doorway. “Stark, it's your turn.”
“But you're so good at it!” Tony protested. “My nannies never let me paint them.” Clint started laughing, and Sam took the time to lean out and give them the finger before bringing back the next round of beer.
“I cannot be the only one who's watched kids before,” Sam argued, sinking gratefully into the wide leather couch. Crouching on wooden children's chairs all day did terrible things to his posture. And he'd spent the two hours prior attempting to keep a whiny Stepushka occupied while Barnes took apart more robots in the gym. At least Tony's androids had improved.
“Uh.” The Black Widow shook her head, Hawkeye offered an apologetic shrug, and Iron Man just looked a little horrified. “Yeah, you are. People don't like to leave their kids with double agents, circus freaks -” Clint tossed his empty expertly at Tony's forehead “- and very busy geniuses.”
Sometimes, Sam wondered if he stuck around because the social worker and counselor in him thought the people living in the Tower needed more help than anyone else. “Right.”
They all turned to watch Barnes stride down the hall, metal arm decorated with a child's colorful hand prints. Steve, scrubbed clean, rode on the assassin's shoulders, hanging on to messy brown hair, high-pitched giggling preceding them into the room. “See,” Sam gestured at the pair as they went by, presumably to make Steve a dinner that involved no nuts of any variety. “The Winter Solider doesn't have any child-rearing experience, and he's managing!”
“He's managing to decimate my entire stock of robotics supplies.”
“Besides,” Clint interjected, preventing Tony from complaining that a politely trained killer would at least pretend it took more than five minutes to rip apart a warehouse of Stark designs. “It's Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes! It's like Alexander and Hephaestion, Achilles and Patroclus, Beevis and Butthead, Pinky and the Brain.” They peered over the couch and into the kitchen, where Barnes was chopping carrots with his left hand, leaving his right hand free to toss grapes over his head for Steve to catch.
“Any candidates for which one's the Brain?” Sam asked, savoring his ale. “Because one of them has spent four months getting beaten up and filming his own History Channel autobiography, and the other. . . well.”
“Only came out of his room to beat the shit out of Cap or throw knives at the rest of us?” Tony, never one to mince words – or even to chop them into bite-size chunks that didn't choke people – finished the sentence Sam had left dangling. “Right up until five days ago, that is. I can't believe Hydra had a better rehabilitation plan than we did. Bruce and I could have turned Steve into Stepushka months ago!”
Sam raised an eyebrow. He wanted to disagree – he wanted grown-up Steve, who didn't think the pinnacle of a day was buckets of orange paint – but he wasn't sure that Steve would want to be grown up, if he had to sacrifice twenty-something years of his life to save his friend. “Stepushka?” he drawled instead, for something to say.
Tony rolled his eyes. “What, am I going to call that pipsqueak Captain America? And don't tell me you're any better, Wilson. At least we're not calling him 'sunshine'.”
“Fine.” Unlike Steve, Sam did know when to quit, but he was not going back into that nursery without company. And possibly a pair of the earplugs Pepper had bought them. “Fine, none of you have babysitting on your résumés. And fine, Bucky and Steve have some sort of weird bond that transcends time and space and brainwashing and Steve's god-awful singing. But anyone can play with a kid! You were all kids, once – just do things with him that you liked to do!”
The room grew quiet, and the other three occupants frowned in contemplation. They looked like perfectly well-adjusted adults, for the moment. Clint and Natasha were curled up on a large chair in jeans and vintage t-shirts, and Tony had sprawled out beside Sam on the couch, a green button-down tossed on haphazardly over an undershirt splattered with grease, wearing cargo shorts weighed down with an assortment of tools. They looked like adults who'd been raised by dull, suburban parents, who hated their boring, nine-to-five jobs, and whose only excitement came from weekends spent with a beer at a friend's. Sometimes Sam's new friends were like IEDs, and the road he thought perfectly safe exploded underneath him.
“When I was four, Armando taught me how to mix drinks,” Tony reminisced, a half-smile on his face that might have been a sneer. “Mom and Dad were always happy to see a martini, even if they couldn't recognize their own son. I turned my toy lawnmower into a drink shaker. That was pretty fun.” He paused, thoughtful. “I know we have gin. I wonder if Pepper bought a toy lawnmower?”
“There's not much call for a baby, in the circus.” Clint had leaned forward in the chair, a thoughtful expression on his face. “When I was that small – if I was ever that small – I mostly had to keep still. Yvette and Jean would toss me back and forth during their trapeze act. I liked that a lot more than when the ringmaster made me stand in the cage with the lions.” Sam really, really regretted saying anything about anyone's childhood.
Natasha had stiffened, a bleak look in her eyes that Sam had seen numerous times over the past few days, in the Winter Soldier's gaze. He forgot, occasionally, that Barnes was not the only one whose history had been trampled on and swept away. “I remember being a ballerina in the Bolshoi. Surrounded by children, practicing until our feet ached. We were performing in Swan Lake.”
She stared down at her bare feet. Curled her toes into the carpet. “I remember all the steps. The names of the other children. Madame Pavlova, with her perfect posture and her sharp cane.” The Winter Soldier wandered out of the kitchen, probably drawn by the desolation in the Black Widow's voice. The familiarity of her pain. “But I was in the Red Room, by then, not training to be a prima ballerina. None of it was real.”
Stepushka, who seemed to have an unhealthy fondness for brainwashed assassins in distress, slid off Barnes' hip and padded over to Natasha, offering her a handful of slightly squished grapes.
“So it wasn't real,” Sam replied gently, because nothing in his courses had covered what to say when someone's only happy memories were an illusion, and one forced on them to further a malicious end. “It wasn't real. But, Nat -” She took a grape, rolled it between her fingers, and met Sam's eyes “- was it fun?”
Her lips twisted, wry and bitter, before she bit down on the grape and gave a faint smile. “Yeah,” she said, looking surprised, though by his question or her answer, Sam didn't know. “Yeah, it was.”
* * *
The next day, Sam left the Tower for the first time since the accident. He went for a run, like a normal human being, and tried not to look over his shoulder for the human equivalent of the Roadrunner and a shouted, “On your left!” When he made it up to the familiar nooks and crannies of 125th and decided to do some completely unnecessary grocery shopping, he admitted that he might be stalling.
Tony Stark's newest architectural eyesore had intimidated Sam for the first few weeks; the whole city had, too loud and too close after so much time away and a war, concrete and glass canyons hemming everyone in, trapping them on sidewalks when all Sam wanted was to take to the air. But Natasha had insisted that no one else had the kind of security to keep the Winter Soldier, and Tony had already built each of them their own floor. Stark had met Sam twice, and he had personally designed him a new set of wings and set aside an entire floor of his house. Furnished with belongings that he had hired someone to ransack from the Falcon's apartment. Sam chose to put that down to Tony's abandonment issues and clear lack of social etiquette, and not the more disturbing stalking and burglary that might give him nightmares.
And maybe Tony had the right idea, because if Sam's apartment in DC hadn't been stripped bare that first month, he might have gone home. He almost had, more than once, tired of hearing the Winter Soldier in and out of his dreams, of Stark bursting into his room after midnight and demanding help with a project when what he really wanted was another human to break up the quiet in his lab. After a week, Sam was fed up with Stark and JARVIS, New York and the fact that Steve spent his every waking moment trying to resurrect a lethal vegetable.
He would have gone home, except that all his furniture and dishware was held hostage in a New York skyscraper. Except that Sam knew himself pretty well, and he knew how much he wanted to be needed. How it had become almost soothing to let one of Tony's robots brew him terrible coffee while the man himself scrolled through schematics, glancing up periodically for Sam's sleepy, uncomprehending approval.
It meant he was awake to drag Steve out for a morning run, to share tea and quiet with Bruce, to let Natasha take control of his remote and force them to watch daytime television for an hour before she began to talk, to trade aerial maneuvers and sport stats with Clint. After four months, going home was beginning to mean hailing a cab, dumping twelve bags of groceries into the back seat, and directing the driver to Avengers' Tower.
Sam didn't walk past the nursery until after lunch, fairly certain by now that JARVIS would be as effective as any of them in heading off the Winter Soldier's flashbacks. He distributed bagels and rugelach to the security guards downstairs, left the rest on the table in Steve's kitchen. Sam put away the groceries, flipped off the camera that had turned to watch him, but brought Tony his onion bagel with lox anyway, where the inventor sat in the gym and tried to create a robot the Soldier couldn't dismantle in under a minute. Then he went back out to the local VA, chatted with the regulars. Shook his head when Franks begged him to lead the upcoming months of group sessions, though this time he paused before saying no once more.
I will pay for a whole new VA building, the text came, moments later, if you lead that damn class. Sam scowled at the security cameras, and pointedly deleted the message. Though, he admitted, looking around at the broken folding chairs and the stained ceiling panels, a new VA would be nice. And he could tell Tony what rooms to include, how to make a space for veterans who didn't know how to come home. They were learning a lot, in the Tower, about how hard it could be for a man to come home.
By the afternoon, he finally felt up to singing another verse about windshield wipers and bouncing bus passengers, he strolled back into the Tower and caught the elevator to the floor below his own, that had once been Steve's but had become the default place to find any of them, raiding the kitchen or using the giant TV that Captain America still eyed with suspicion.
When Sam walked into the nursery; however, the dreaded musical tablet was nowhere to be seen. Instead, the drapes were pulled aside, pouring summer warmth onto the dark-haired man leaning against the window in a simple dark t-shirt and cargo pants, working his metal shoulder absently while he watched the sun-soaked center of the room.
The Black Widow wore a full leotard, copper hair tied up in a high ponytail, feet tucked into black ballet shoes. Barely reaching her knee, a tiny boy in a white undershirt and knit, rainbow-striped tights put his heels together and splayed red and orange toes. Both wore fierce expressions of concentration, and Natasha snapped, “Non!” at Steve when he wobbled, made him start over and move through five positions, if Sam's high school French was right.
They segued into pliés and relevés with the same solemnity and harsh commands. Sam stepped forward, thinking that maybe he had overestimated Natasha's understanding of the word 'fun', and should try to spare them both. Then the Black Widow cried, “Et jeté!” and swooped down to secure her hands around a little waist, lifting Stepushka effortlessly into the air and spinning him around while he scissored his rainbow-hued legs with more enthusiasm than grace, both of them giggling like mad.
The Winter Soldier didn't smile, but he did catch Sam's eye and lift one eyebrow. It could have been to warn the Falcon away. It could have been to commiserate about the weird balletic parody occurring in front of them. It could have been anything, but Barnes had never made eye contact with anyone before, so Sam had no way to know.
* * *
Days passed differently, in this place. No one had wanted him to spend so many days awake, before, aware of every moment like knives scraping over his skin, leaving him raw and exposed to the world. None of them had filled his days with Steve Rogers, every surface permeated with his scent, the rhythm of his breath and the determination in his dark blue eyes.
And yet, Steven Grant Rogers haunted his memories, from one war to the next, laughing on a boardwalk, holding little Nadia Patsayava's hand, watching him make a perfect shot through the Black Widow into the target behind her. Standing there, silent, his shoulder brushing comfortably against the Soldier's as he took the shot. As though the Soldier did not exist, could not have been, unless Steve Rogers had been there, too.
Mrs. Rogers couldn't afford to adopt him. She couldn't even afford the potatoes she scraped off her own plate and onto Bucky's, not with how often the doctor came for Steve. It didn't stop Steve asking, every week, why Bucky couldn't just stay with them. Of course, not much seemed to stop Steve. He'd stood right up to twelve-year-old Marty Peabody last week, when the deli owner's kid had called Bucky a no-good bohunk son of a whore. Course, then Bucky'd had to dive in and bite Marty on the thigh before he could hit Steve, wedging himself in too close to punch, scratching viciously at the older boy until Mr. Peabody separated them.
“How's he keep getting here, anyway?” Mrs. Rogers replied, winking at him, like she did every week, just as stubborn as her son. They had the same conversation over the same boiled potatoes, and Bucky wondered what his mother would have taught him, the way Mrs. Rogers taught Steve to set his jaw and never see reason.
Steve shrugged, though they all knew that at five years old, Bucky could climb out the lowest orphanage window and scamper where he would. That if he didn't find Steve at school, then the older boy would find him in the afternoon. It was just how things were , the same way crows always ruined Mr. Kim's garden, and they always had a parade on the Fourth of July. Bucky was only five, but he knew how the world worked. And that meant knowing where to find Steve.
Stepushka gave one last drowsy blink and sagged against his shoulder, where the Soldier had thrown him after the child kept insisting that he did not need to nap. He hummed the last few bars of a Russian lullaby, letting the boy's limp weight equalize the pressure on his chest, pressing against his right side the way the arm scoured down all the nerves on his left. The child's breath puffed evenly against his neck, but Barnes kept metal fingers lightly pressed to Stepushka's spine just in case, feeling the quick patter of the boy's heartbeat between fragile lungs.
“I'm not sharing a bed with you, Bucky!” Steve's eyes darkened when he got piqued, splashes of angry color along the sharp lines of his cheeks. “I'm thirteen, and you'll be eleven any day now!” Bucky rolled his eyes, pretended to count off the years on his fingers and only got to six before Steve elbowed him in the ribs. “The point is, you dope, that we're too big to sleep in one bed, anymore.”
Even though it was only a few months since Bucky had curled up behind Steve every night, cradling the other boy while he choked down his sobs and gasped for breath, knelt beside him on the worn rug and prayed that Mrs. Rogers would stop sounding worse than any asthma attack Bucky had ever heard. Then she had. Stopped sounding like anything at all, besides the thud of dirt echoing off a closed casket.
“You're not big,” Bucky pointed out, practical. “And I'm pretty small, for eleven.”
“That's because you're ten,” Steve snapped, folding his arms across his thin, traitorous chest, already short of breath from arguing. “It's not like I've never slept here before,” he whispered, fingers curling into the nightshirt Mrs. Rogers had sewn when she was confined to bed.
“I don't like it here at night,” Bucky told him, honest, because the only way to talk Steve down was to confess things that Father Allison had never heard. He didn't like waking up surrounded by boys who weren't Steve, dreaming that Mrs. Rogers' rattling cough had passed to her son. “And you sleep easier when you're warm, anyhow.” He didn't say that Steve breathed deeper with Bucky's prominent ribs near his, or that it wouldn't do Steve any good to sleep alone and cry himself into a fresh bout of pneumonia. Sometimes the truth just made Steve dig his heels in and act like a fool.
“I'm fine on my own.” Bucky thought of Mrs. Rogers as they'd last seen her, hands that had smoothed the hair off Steve's forehead and bandaged Bucky's scrapes and taught them both to brush their teeth folded around her wooden rosary, cold when Bucky couldn't help but reach into the coffin and touch. The nuns had dressed Bucky as best they could, a confining suit jacket and long pants that stayed nice until everyone had left, when Steve collapsed onto his shoulder, leaking snot and spit and tears.
Bucky stuck out both hands, examined the black lines that never seemed to scrub out of his palms. “Sure you are,” he agreed, hitching up the sleeves on his own nightshirt, wiggling his toes against the wooden floor. Honest, because he had to be. “But what if I ain't?”
Steve Rogers had never said no to Bucky Barnes, not really. And he did sleep better when he was warm, propped up onto his side by Bucky's chest, drooling onto raggedy pajamas that had been passed down from one motherless boy to the next. Bucky pressed his hand to Steve's spine, spent the whole night listening to his friend breathe.
Stark showed up in between the stencil of an elephant and a giraffe, directly over the painted monkey. Somewhere deep in his chest, Bucky stifled a snort. Steve would think that was appropriate. Steve would -
“Sign language?” Tony Stark signed, hands covered in small electrical burns and grease, smart enough to realize that no one spoke aloud while Stepushka slept. His mustache was thinner than Howie's had been – time changed, times changed. He wondered why the boy had grown a mustache at all, when he already took after his father in so many ways.
He nodded, gesturing with his left hand at the projection. Stepushka must have felt the movement; shifted, wiggled a little higher until his small face was jammed into the tendons of Bucky's neck.
“How cute,” Stark said with his fingers and a roll of his eyes. None of his teammates knew that the man had learned to speak with his hands. No one had known that Howard didn't like the dark, associated it with the slam of the door and his father's drunken fists. “But now that the kid is asleep, and you don't seem to be in a homicidal rage -” Tony paused, and his head tilted over the monkey's tail as he tried to inspect Barnes from a new angle. “You aren't, are you? That lifeless expression makes it hard to tell. I need your help – well, not need, need is a strong word, but -”
He kept gesturing, but Bucky had walked away from the picture, gently depositing Stepushka in the bed, tucking the bear under his chest. Howie Stark had been brylcreem and dynamite, either too slick or too close to shooting off his mouth. And yet, there was a bear laid out on a drafting table, a whiskey-drenched smile; a man trying to protect his society bride when their tire blew out on a deserted road. The Soldier had fired, and Howard had looked up into the night. Had known where his death was coming from, waiting for him in the dark.
Stark was in his garage, several levels down. Bucky took the stairs, unwilling to close himself in the elevator with a disembodied voice. The elevator felt too much like a chamber waiting to be filled with liquid ice.
The workshop bore no resemblance to a lab, festooned with robotic cranes and mechanic's benches, but he caught sight of an elaborate, electronic chair and froze in the doorway, metal hand crushing the door frame.
“Good job, Balto, way to follow -” Stark pulled his head out of the machine he was building, and noticed that the man outside the lab was making no moves to come in. No moves at all, including breathing, unless one counted the pulverizing grip on the door frame. Tony stared at his wrench, obviously considered waving it in defense, and then hopefully realized that if he valued his life, he should not attempt to threaten the Winter Soldier.
Then he followed Barnes' gaze to the chair, and sighed. “Right. Okay, soldier – er, Sergeant? Would it help if I threw a sheet over that? Maybe promised I don't want to brainwash you to kill all my friends?” Pale blue eyes flickered toward Tony's voice, but the Soldier didn't flinch. “Or maybe if I got Sam, who is much better with this whole PTSD thing than I am?”
“In Flanders Fields the poppies blow,” Steve's voice burst out, over the speakers, and both men jumped. “Between the crosses, row on row.”
“Really, JARVIS?” Tony confronted the AI, crossing his arms. “You couldn't have picked Steve saying something less morbidly apropos?”
“That mark our place; and in the sky, the larks, still bravely singing, fly.”
“At least he's not singing,” Bucky murmured in English, pulling his fingers free of the door frame and feeling the motion twinge through the bruises darkening his chest. He checked the hand to make sure it was still functioning, then lifted his head to see Stark gaping like a goldfish. If he didn't look to his left, he could pretend the chair wasn't there, and edge into the room.
“Well, glory be and hallelujah,” Tony cried, lifting his arms and shaking his palms toward the ceiling. “The mass-murdering cyborg does have a personality, after all.” But he grabbed a drop cloth from a pile nearby, and flung it neatly over the chair and a small, clumsy robot that tipped over and squeaked furiously. Bucky lifted an eyebrow, surprised Stark had bothered, and the other man pursed his lips. “You think you're the only one with nightmares in this Waldorf Astoria, Mother Russia?”
“You said you needed my help,” Bucky responded, picking up a vise grip and dismantling it, rigging the parts around a piece of chain into a jerry-rigged set of nunchuks. He knew the others had nightmares. He had watched all of them sleep, at some point, curious as to why the talking computer did not give him away. Tony woke up falling through portals, or trapped in a place where people spoke Urdu and wanted him dead. Tony was not the only one who dreamed of falling.
“I didn't say that exactly,” the Stark heir disagreed, petulant, then eyed the shiv Barnes was whittling from an Allen wrench and adding to the nunchuks. “Uh, that's quite the talent for improvisation you have there, crazy man. But could you stop destroying all of my tools, and making me worry that you're going to kill me?”
“You would already be dead.” It seemed unnecessary to say. Stark was a genius, like his father, and hardly had to be told that without his suit he was only human, and a civilian to boot. “Where is Stepushka?”
Tony didn't feign confusion, at that, just flipped a dismissive hand over his head. Immediately, the wall to their right brightened with the image of a tiny boy curled around a masked bear, breathing small, even gusts of air.
“All right, now that we have your baby America in surround sound, you have to explain how you keep demolishing my androids so fast. You're from the dark ages – you're ninety years old, you are not supposed to be this good with smart machines!” Tony appeared genuinely offended, standing over the remains of what Bucky gathered was one of the machines from his time in the gym yesterday.
He knelt down over the robot, separated a few cables, tugged at an arm joint until it gave. “Why are you building them?” he asked, calculating trajectories, tensile strengths, programmed reflex times. They had taught him to prepare for contingencies, for technology. They had taught him to bite down and bear it instead of screaming in pain.
“Not for the ego boost, that's for damn sure. Mostly because Bruce won't let me back in the lab until I stop setting things on fire.” Stark squatted next to him, tense but calmer than he should be, within striking range of the Soldier's unyielding fists. Bucky blinked at him, and the black-haired man wrinkled his nose. “What, you want me to admit that other than Capsicle, we're all sane enough to stay the hell out the way when the Winter Soldier decides to play? I don't want to bleed out of my femoral artery in my own home – or anywhere else, for that matter.”
“It's not.” Bucky stopped, rubbed a spot under his left collarbone that would bruise soon. He hadn't slept for days, watching Stepushka, and much of his left side had already gone a deep, sickly purple over pale skin. He had begun changing clothes where the child couldn't see. “It is not like Dr. Banner,” he tried to explain, not certain why he was offering this to a man crouched on a cement floor over the cadaver of a robot. “There is no reversion. There are – there are memories.” He watched the Stark child, the grown man who had Howie's bright, plastic smile and his mistrustful brown eyes. “There are too many memories.” All the time, spiraling through his mind and behind his eyes until they merged and everything was coated with blood, screaming in the Cyclone screaming off the side of a train a child screaming silent and already gone.
“So you act like an asshole to forget your pain?” Stark smirked, bitter but amused. “Have you thought about trying scotch? It's my self-medication of choice. Though if you're like Rogers, I guess it wouldn't do much for you.” He lifted one shoulder, the movement a little jerky where Howie's had been practiced and too smooth. “Also, Pepper says I'm even more of an asshole drunk, so maybe ruining thousands of dollars of electronics is a wiser choice. Speaking of that . . .?” and he gazed pointedly at the wires in Bucky's hands.
“You're building robots for me,” he said, trying to slot the words into his mind. “Why do you even let me stay? Your father -”
“Oh, no,” Tony interjected, the vein in his temple pulsing. “You should know now, Barnes, that there is no sentence that starts with my dearly departed that I want to hear the end to. Either you're going to tell me how great he was and I'm going to punch you and then you're probably going to stab me with that screwdriver, or you're going to tell me that Hydra engineered my parents' deaths and I'm going to have to dig out a fresh bottle of scotch and my 'fine-tuning robots' skills suck when I'm intoxicated. So, no.”
“He was afraid of the dark,” he finished, instead, sitting back on his heels and resting his hands on his knees. “His father would come home late from the bar, stinking drunk, and beat him until he couldn't stand. He hated being left alone in the lab, at night.” Just like you. But Tony didn't know that the Soldier ghosted through halls and air vents after midnight, unable to rest, unable to watch Steve clutching a bear with tears in his summer-blue eyes.
Tony stabbed the sharpened screwdriver into the android's exposed chest, creating a shower of sparks. “Great, so he decided to pass along the shitty dad experience. I'm so glad we've had this little heart to heart.” He pried off a plate over the abdomen, jammed the tool viciously under the synthetic skin. “I think I liked you better when you were completely nuts.”
“He didn't hit you,” Bucky announced. He knew this, the way he knew ASL and Japanese and how to take apart a robot and that Steve's favorite day was the first day of spring season, perched at the very top of the bleachers, their cheeks pink from the sun, squinting hard to see the ball. “He ran away.” He wouldn't have known what else to do, and wasn't like there was anyone else around to set an example. Carter probably would have made a better father than Howie.
Not that any of them understood what it meant to have a father, even now.
“I am getting the scotch.” Tony stood up slowly, aware enough not to startle the Winter Soldier. “This is me getting the scotch. You want to talk about our fucked up childhoods, I'm going to need to be drunk.” He snatched a half-full bottle from a tool box in the corner, muttering, “Jesus, you invite a contract killer to build a few robots, and he wants it to be therapy hour. Next he'll bring up Freud.”
He swigged directly from the bottle, then passed it to Bucky, who shrugged and let it burn down his throat. “I can destroy any robot you build,” he decided, fingers playing over the schematics JARVIS had pulled into the air.
“Gee, and here I thought all you 1930s boys were born modest,” Tony retorted sourly, taking the bottle back and downing about a fifth of it. Bucky hadn't been this close to anyone who wasn't Stepushka, or about to die under his hands.
“We were born poor,” he corrected. “When you've got nothing, there's not much to boast about.” Bucky Barnes had bragged about Steve to anyone who might listen. I've got this friend, Steve Rogers, you should see him draw. Swear to God, his stuff is better 'n anything they've got in those fancy museums. Now, Gertie, you're gonna love Steve. He took on three guys last week because they were threatening Mrs. Verne – just like the Green Hornet, or the Lone Ranger. Stepushka's face was peaceful, when he forced himself to study it, in a way that Steve's hadn't been for years.
Tony thought about that, frowning when he couldn't think of a way to mock Bucky for it, and handed him back the bottle instead. “All right, Little Orphan Bucky, any helpful suggestions, or do we just stock up on punching bags until Banner figures out how to fix Capsicle?”
“What if we made it more like Basic training?” Bucky asked, thinking aloud. Thinking in English, the way his handlers had beaten out of him decades ago, furious whenever he began to revert.
“You want barbed wire?”
“No. But, obstacles. An objective.” He scowled, gazed at pale hair and a tiny face pressed to a bear's mask. Ran his right hand through his hair, not wanting to confess the weakness they all knew the Soldier had. “You could put an image of Steve at the end. That would work.”
Tony snorted. “Yeah, that would work great, if I wanted my whole gym demolished before you completely lost it when you couldn't find him because Steve is not currently someone who exists.”
Bucky must have looked surprised, because Tony stole back the scotch and took a long drink. “Yeah, so my dad would get hammered, and start telling these stories about the war. About how Captain America had demanded to fly into enemy fire and jump out of a plane onto a secure facility on the off chance he might come across his friend's corpse. About how Steve Rogers didn't make it to the check point, once, and Sergeant Barnes literally turned around and marched back off into the woods, showed up two days later with Captain America over his shoulders, staggering toward the plane.”
Bucky remembered that. The Commandos had followed him, letting him track Captain America to a bunker they hadn't seen, one Hydra operative left who hoped to discover the secrets of Steve's blood. Bucky had snapped her neck. Hefted Steve's ridiculous body over his own, hadn't let anyone touch him until they were back on base and it was finally safe.
“Maybe we let Sam come up with the objective?” Tony suggested, when Bucky didn't respond.
Bucky couldn't respond, lost in the feeling of a woman's chin under his fingers, dead weight resting atop his spine. Lyudmila Eristova had tried to publish a proof that economic planning did not work. And then she had tried to smuggle her children out of the motherland. She was soft, from all her study, her cheeks fleshy under his metal hand. Blond hair and a grimace under the American sun, Steve's pulse steady and too-fast through the throat that the Winter Soldier could tear apart.
He tried to look at Tony and saw Howard, the bruises his father gave him, his death at Bucky's hands. Steve, talking to Howie during the flight to Poland, Bucky cleaning his rifle behind the co-pilot's chair, recalculating the rations they'd need for a week in the field.
Rifle in hand, a silent, saddened blond man's shoulder brushing his as he took the shot and watched an American president fall.
“This theory is not ready for testing, Barnes!” Stark called, but he was already racing for silence of the gym, for the pain that quieted the memories detonating through his brain.
It took longer than usual, projectiles coming from the ceiling and not robots that he could dismantle with a touch. Though the objective appeared to be a bowl of fruit, which was a little strange. When he had achieved it, he collapsed on the mats, feeling the throb of pain strong enough to drown out the voices screaming in his head.
“I think Iron Man can handle this, tomorrow,” Tony said from above him, leaning into the Soldier's line of sight. Bucky tried to look skeptical, but raising his eyebrows just made sweat drip into his eyes.
“I thought you were too sane to sacrifice yourself to the Winter Soldier?”
“You don't want to hurt anyone,” the Stark scion observed, a genius for all his flaws. “You want them to hurt you. That's why you were so hard on Cap, wasn't it? He wouldn't make you bleed badly enough to forget.”
Bucky turned his face away, gazed at the glass wall where Hawkeye and Stepushka played Hungry Hippos on the floor, the child glancing over every few seconds to make sure Bucky was still there.
“Also,” he added, sufficiently brave or foolish to offer the Winter Soldier a hand up, wrapping his fingers around a metal wrist and tugging Bucky to his feet. “Since nothing even came near shooting you, I'm wondering why your entire left side looks like the poster child for domestic abuse.”
His shirt had twisted, gotten in the way, so Bucky had torn it off. Left a clear line of sight to the bruises blackening outward from the metal arm, peppering his spine. Part of the clean, searing pain that pulled him back to himself.
He found his shirt, dragged it back on before walking through the door. Stark didn't need any answers, and Stepushka didn't need to see the pain dappled over Bucky's skin. Some things a child couldn't kiss away.
The Nationals were losing by – well, by more than Sam wanted to admit. He'd refused to cheer for them until he had gone home to Harlem the first Christmas, dropped and rolled into an alley when a man moved too quickly in the apartment building across the way, and then spent an hour hunched over and trying to breathe. Figured he might as well make DC his home team, since New York felt like a battlefield.
New York still felt like a battlefield, from the Tower nursery where Sam had a gun pressed against his head to the concrete canyons that felt too much like the war. But, sitting on Steve's couch with the game on and fighting with Tony over whether or not a Veterans' Affairs center should be equipped with a rotating dance floor, Sam admitted that perhaps he had given up on the Yankees a little too soon.
“You want to install disco lights around traumatized soldiers?” he protested, wishing that it was later in the day so that he could have a beer and some support from the rest of the team. Clint and Natasha had left early that morning to meet with Fury, track down a few of Nat's contacts that might have information on what exactly Hydra had intended by turning Captain America into a wheezing toddler. Bruce was still in the lab, where Tony had been until Stepushka had sneezed at lunch and Barnes had taken the elevator shaft to the gym.
Iron Man was much more efficient at sparring with the Winter Soldier, after a week. The first time he had lasted five minutes, and only JARVIS had been conscious for the last one. Now he was taking a break to ice his knee and attempt to talk Sam into terrible additions to the new VA Pepper had already bought the property for.
Sam wasn't sure when these unhinged people had become his friends, but he'd gotten all of their orders right at the Indian restaurant on the way home yesterday, and hadn't even had to text. Also, he didn't want to know when security cameras swiveling to follow him home had become a sign of affection and not the creepy stalking that it was.
“We could do the lights in pastel?” Tony compromised, groaning as he stretched his leg. “Nothing in neon. Neon could traumatize anyone.” Sam's expression must have spoken volumes, because Tony immediately redirected, undeterred by the general level of disapproval in the room. Though part of that disapproval had to do with the Phillies' disgraceful ten-run lead. “Okay, so you're not down for disco. What about a game room? Or a gym? Bucky likes those.”
“Yes,” Sam agreed, “but we generally avoid promoting violence and aggression as recovery tools!”
Tony shrugged and unbent his leg to rest on the coffee table, sinking deeper into the wide couch and shifting the ice pack to his elbow. He looked supremely unconcerned about the fact that the Winter Soldier had almost wrenched off his lower leg two hours ago. Of course, Tony was also the one who'd introduced Bucky to Mario Kart and The Division.
“It's working, isn't it?” the Stark genius countered.
And it was working, though Sam wasn't about to sign off on violence as an acceptable form of communication. By all rights, without Steve to anchor him, Barnes should have regressed back to the unresponsive and terrified man he'd been the first month, or the emotionless ghost – when he wasn't screaming – that he'd been for the next few. And yet, as soon as Steve had lost several decades and a few hundred pounds, Bucky Barnes had reappeared in half-smiles and gentle hands. And a brutal game of Mario Kart.
It had taken Steve transforming into a frail, familiar child to bring his protective friend back from the abyss, to make Bucky feel in control of the decisions he suddenly needed to make for someone else. Unfortunately, it seemed to have taken Tony Stark's patented insanity to convince the assassin to speak English. If Sam had placed odds on who would befriend Barnes first, he'd be mortgaging his wings.
“Fine,” he conceded. “Those aren't bad ideas. Is Iron Man going to spar with all the veterans, too?”
The Nationals finally scored, though since it was the ninth inning, Sam wasn't holding his breath.
“No, I thought I might try to engineer soundless machines. Some way to buffer all the clanking noises that cheap gym equipment has.” Tony wrinkled his nose, probably thinking of every gym window he'd ever driven past, no matter how expensive the membership was, acting every inch the entitled Stark heir. The billionaire's brat, who had noticed how the team flinched at unexpected, metallic sounds, who wanted to give veterans a place to go that would let them feel normal for a little while, and safe when normal wasn't an option.
Who had dragged Sam out of bed at some ungodly hour to watch him work, then broken off immediately when a shadow fell through the doorway, corralling them all upstairs to play video games with the haunted, sleepless Barnes while Sam dozed on the sofa. Sometimes, Tony could make Sam forgive him for all the security cameras and two am wake-up calls. “Maybe put Call of Duty and Mortal Kombat in the game room. Or Grand Theft Auto?” Of course, other times Sam just wanted to strangle him.
“Sam.” The voice came from behind Sam's head, threadier than an adult's, his name lisped through small lips. Blue eyes peeped over the armrest as Stepushka rose up on his tiptoes. His face was speckled with paint, light blue dotted over his forehead, a smear of green across his nose. His whole chin was coated with pink, as though he'd been using it to put chin-shaped flowers on his picture. He wore one of Barnes' black t-shirts as a smock, more paint splattered over the dark cotton and onto tiny socked feet.
“Yeah, big guy?” Sam replied, feeling Tony tense as his side. Things had changed, the more time it took them to find a cure. Weeks had gone by – Bruce meditated longer after each failed experiment, tired and frustrated with the lack of success – and Stepushka was no longer completely unwilling to spend time with the other Avengers. But he made it abundantly clear every day that he didn't leave Bucky's side by choice, and they had grown accustomed to putting a video of Barnes on the wall when Bucky needed to leave and beat the crap out of himself. The video was of Barnes doing yoga with Bruce, because there was no reason to show a three-year-old kid what the Winter Soldier could do.
“Koshmar.” Nightmare. The State Department would be thrilled at how much Russian Sam now knew. They could send him to the VA in Moscow. Or the daycare center. He was pretty good at talking about dragons in Russian, and dump trucks. Blue eyes were bright with worry, multi-hued hands clinging to Sam's arms when he lifted Stepushka onto his lap.
“You had a bad dream?” he wondered, exchanging a bemused glance with Tony. Had Barnes put Steve down for a nap still covered in paint?
Stepushka scowled and struggled to the floor, though he did let Sam tug the paint smock over his head, leaving him in a tiny pair of blue jeans and a long-sleeved shirt with MIT printed on the front. Tony must have added to the wardrobe Pepper had bought.
“Not me!” he reprimanded the two men, when they didn't catch on quickly enough. “B'kee. Medwedjonak.” He tugged on Sam's fingers, leaning all his scrawny weight back in an effort to pull the pilot to his feet. “C'mon. Fix it.”
They followed their tiny captain obediently down the hall, Tony limping in the rear, Stepushka's head up and grip insistent. Sam didn't point out that JARVIS was better than any of them at fixing Bucky, since the AI was currently the only one with access to grown-up Steve.
When they got to the nursery, Bucky wasn't sleeping, but Sam thought that Stepushka had gotten the word right, after all. Memories. Nightmares.
The assassin had crouched in the farthest corner of the room, pressed against the window and hunched in on himself, gasping for air that didn't reach his lungs. He wasn't holding any weapons, but at the moment the Winter Soldier didn't look like a danger to anyone but himself.
“JARVIS!” Tony shouted, and Bucky didn't even flinch. “What happened here?”
The AI sounded chastened when it finally answered, speaking over Barnes' ragged breaths. “I'm afraid that I miscalculated, Mr. Stark. Capt. Rogers did not flag this video as unfit for replay, and I did not preview the footage before putting it on-screen while Sgt. Barnes and the young Captain painted.”
The floor was still covered with old newspaper around the small arts and crafts table, pieces of paper resting on top, drenched with finger paints. Bucky's metal fingers were tipped with yellow, pressed into the pale skin of his cheek.
“What video?” Tony demanded, edging closer to Barnes' knees. The lines in his face grew deeper when Bucky didn't react at all, just shook his head as if he could dislodge all the thoughts inside.
“I think it would be unwise to show -”
“We can't fix it if we don't know what's wrong! Play the damn video!”
Sam scooped Stepushka into his arms, not entirely sure if he was reassuring the little boy or himself. Not entirely sure Tony shouldn't have named Avengers' Tower 'Inpatient Group Therapy' instead.
“You loved the beach.” Steve's voice seemed so innocuous, for all the havoc it had wreaked on his friend's mind. He was in an old SHIELD t-shirt and a pair of plain cotton pajama pants, sitting cross-legged on the edge of his bed. Steve must have recorded more videos whenever he couldn't sleep, whenever he thought of something else to say. Any time he woke up screaming – as Sam knew he did, had been startled out of countless hotel beds by Steve's shouts – hanging from the edge of a train, trying to save his best friend from the fall.
“You hawked papers in the mornings before school. Climbed out of the orphanage window and down to the street, hitched a ride on Merv's bicycle across the bridge because papers sold better by Wall Street. You'd leave the money with Ma and I, before she died. For safekeeping, you said, but it never totaled up quite right come summer, so I'm betting you told her something else.” Steve's hands clenched over the thin fabric on his knees, his gaze focused on the carpeted floor. Hundreds of videos on file, Steve squaring his shoulders and stepping into the firing line, exposing pieces of his soul. “I don't know what you two talked about, when I was sick. I don't know if there's anyone left who does,” he whispered, looking so much smaller in the dark.
“When summer came, we'd use your paper money to catch the train to Coney Island. You'd buy me pencils and paper, go around finding people who wanted their picture done for some spare change. Make sure I was sitting somewhere shady, hopefully near the lemonade stand.” Steve's eyes brightened, and Sam could almost see him adding 'lemonade' to the list of things to track down and feed to Bucky. Stepushka tightened his legs around Sam's waist, watching Bucky cover his face on the floor.
“When you got restless, or the sun finally stopped trying to set my skin on fire, you'd drag us to the ocean. You convinced someone to teach you how to swim, insisted on teaching me even though the water was so cold I had an asthma attack almost every time I waded in. You would have spent every day on the beach, if you could, covered in sand and sunburned 'til you tanned.
“You never seemed to grow out of it, either. Loved the shore even after you started working and were exhausted all the time, or when it was too cold to swim. Loved taking dates out to Coney Island, along the boardwalk.” Steve looked into the camera, gave a weak smile that shook when his chin trembled. “Or under the piers. Nobody could see much, under there. At night kids got up to all sorts of mischief, drinking cheap rotgut or – or making time.” On screen, Steve was breathing about as well as Bucky, and Sam couldn't tell which of them began sobbing first. “Even during the war,” he continued, scrubbing the tears from his face, “you always tried to persuade Howard to land us on the beach. We were on the seashore in Yugoslavia, the first time -”
Steve ended the sentence with a moan, curling his knees up in a perfect mimicry of the man on the floor. “Bucky,” he cried, harsh and keening, face buried in his knees. “Please. Please come back to me,” the words punctuated with sobs, the crack in Steve's authoritative voice, the gulping breaths as he pleaded with his dead friend. “Please.”
JARVIS shut off the feed before Steve could keep begging, but didn't replace the empty square with a new video. The AI came with Tony's surprising empathy; any monologue that had Steve chuckling over their childhood antics would feel like a lie, after watching the man break down in the midnight darkness of his room.
“Sorry,” Bucky was muttering, huddled in a ball in the corner, banging his head against the wall. “Steve. Sorry. Steve!”
“Suggestions, counselor?” Tony hissed at Sam from where he was squatting next to Bucky on the floor, most of his weight on his good leg.
If Sam needed to rewrite the manual for the Winter Soldier, it meant that there weren't any clear paths for them to tread. “Talk,” he said, because they had relied on Steve's voice to save Bucky Barnes, but it turned out that Steve was only human, after all. And Tony had bored Sam to sleep more than one night this week, so he ought to be capable of carrying on a monologue that didn't end in tears. “Just keep talking. Touch, if he allows it. Remind him it's just a moment, and he's in control.”
“Talk about what?” Tony asked, clearly at a loss. “Robots? Why don't you do your job here, Wilson, and I'll -”
“Take Stepushka?” Sam responded, tilting his head at the towheaded boy crying on his hip. Apparently when one cried, the other was bound to start.
Tony's face went even whiter, at that suggestion. Of all of them, he and Stepushka couldn't stay in the same room for too long without launching into an argument that sent either little boy or grown billionaire into a tantrum.
“Yeah, okay,” Tony said, setting his jaw and refusing to send more than one panicked glance Sam's way. “Get the kid out of here, will you? All this bawling is bad for my nerves.” Sam nodded, holding Stepushka with both hands in case the little boy made a run for the Winter Soldier. The toddler stayed unusually docile as Sam carried him out the door, gazing over Sam's shoulder at the dark-haired men silhouetted by a cloudy afternoon in the city.
“So, my super-serum assassin bedtime stories are a little rusty. Did I ever tell you about the time I nearly got the U.S. into a war with Jordan? That was awkward. I'm pretty sure they should have offered Pepper the Nobel Peace Prize for that, but -”
Tony's voice cut off when the door slid closed behind them, and Stepushka's head fell to Sam's shoulder as though he couldn't hold it up any longer.
“I want B'kee be all better,” he told Sam, sounding as miserable as a little boy could. Please come back, he had begged a few weeks or months before, wishing for a boy on a beach seventy years gone.
“I know you do,” he answered, and snagged the tablet off the kitchen table to find pictures of dinosaurs. The Air Force had taught him to stay on task no matter what he might want. Loss had taught him to stand what he couldn't change. Maybe dinosaurs would be enough to distract them both.
It was dinnertime before Tony and Barnes came out, the former still chattering hoarsely about international relations, the latter pale and drawn, wrapped in the quilt that had been draped over adult Steve's bed in the latest, disastrous video. Pepper came out of the kitchen where she had been emptying take out cartons, and Clint and Natasha looked up from the schematics of an old Hydra plant.
Stepushka straightened on Sam's lap, thin face lit with a smile when he saw Barnes enter the living room. Then he pressed his hands to Sam's cheeks, forcing the pilot to meet bright blue eyes. “Thank you,” Stepushka said, solemn, and then threw tiny arms around Sam's neck in a hug.
As much as Sam wanted Steve to grow the fuck back up right now, being hugged by a three-year-old Stepushka loosened recriminations Sam hadn't realized he still carried, his nose buried in wispy blond hair and the smell of Johnsons shampoo. Maybe there was something to the redemptive power of a child's love. Or maybe this was simply the Steve Rogers that Bucky Barnes had believed in all along.
“What if I never . . . ?” Bucky trailed off, his pale gaze on Stepushka as he stopped a few feet from the sofa, looking like less of a threat than Sam had ever seen, the quilt diminishing the breadth of his shoulders, puddling around his bare feet on the floor.
“Never get over being captured and tortured by crazy people?” Tony supplied, gesturing around the room, swallowing to work words out of his dry throat. Pepper, Nat, Clint, and Bruce raised their hands. “Never stop having nightmares? What if you act like a paranoid asshole because it turns out you can murder entire small nations on a bad day?” Bruce and Clint gave little waves. “Barnes, if you aren't majorly fucked up, you don't belong in this Tower.” He paused. Looked around at the other people in the room. “Uh. I mean. Obviously not -”
“Has Tony told you about the time he brought me strawberries?”
Pepper swooped in with a glass of water and shoved Tony away to drink it, sliding into his place at Bucky's side and hooking her hand under the blanket and through Bucky's metal arm without any hesitation at all. Tony was right; Pepper was brave. She may have been the only one in the room who the Winter Soldier had never almost killed, but she had seen the footage and watched Barnes fight. She knew what the man could do.
She kept talking as she led Barnes over to the love seat, seamlessly directing them to move the food and drinks in from the kitchen while recounting Tony's hilarious courtship efforts to the silent veteran on her arm.
They flipped the television onto the The Little Mermaid, because it was the only children's movie Sam could think of offhand where no one's parents died. Stepushka scrambled up between Nat and Clint on the far couch, his sippy cup tucked between Hawkeye's knees and his plate on the Widow's lap as she prodded him to finish his fruit.
Banner fell asleep halfway through his dinner, stretched out on the sofa and snoring lightly under the afghan Sam had tossed over him. Pepper and Bucky were sitting on the love seat, a beer in his hand and a glass of white wine in hers, the bottle resting mostly empty on the floor. Tony had sat down on the floor for dinner, propped up against Barnes' shins with the same nonchalant motion Pepper used to lean into the man's side. Sam had watched Tony wince when he unbent his right knee and so moved to the floor by the armchair, tugging Tony's leg across his lap and massaging around the twisted knee.
“He'd like this,” Nat said softly, watching Barnes watch Clint and Stepushka stand on the sofa and dance to “Kiss the Girl,” falling over every fifth step and giggling like mad.
No one needed to ask who she meant. Sam thought of the perfected soldier, the ideal man, crying alone in his room for his lost best friend. He raised his beer toward her, clinked his bottle against Tony's, who tapped his to Barnes' and Pepper's drinks. “Yeah,” Sam said over the ringing of glasses, because he didn't want to toast the living as if he was dead. “He really would.”
* * *
Two days later, JARVIS interrupted a rousing game of Old Maid with an abrupt, “Mr. Stark, Dr. Banner has just vacated the lab.”
“Well, that's cause for celebration if I've ever heard one,” Tony replied, busy trying to slip the queen of spades into Sam's fan of cards. Sam smacked his hand – again – and pulled a three of clubs out of Bucky's metal grasp, where the man kept Stepushka on his lap and held the cards that didn't fit into the boy's little hands.
“Ah, no, sir, I am afraid this is not celebratory. He requested that I lock the lab to prevent the Hulk from smashing his experiments.”
“Oh, shit.” They all went to their feet, even Barnes, who rolled three-year-old Steve onto his back in a move that they must have practiced, leaving him free to fight while using his torso as a shield to protect the boy. “JARVIS, tell me we remembered to Hulk-proof that floor?”
“Of course, sir. The Hulk is currently pacing the corridor, but causing minimal damage to the paneling or structural beams. He does appear rather agitated, however. Perhaps if I played a song?”
“Wheels on the Bus!” Stepushka squealed, happy to participate in choosing the song.
Bucky grimaced, knowing that the kid was behind him and couldn't see. “Well,” Sam winced, “it's better than Steve singing 'As Time Goes By.' But maybe not the best thing to cure rage.”
“I'll go talk to him,” Tony said, but Sam rested a hand on his arm as he moved to drop his cards.
“No,” he contradicted, shaking his head. “You need to get to the lab and see what set him off, whether it was a chemical reaction or an emotional one. I'll go talk to him.”
Sam expected some resistance – knew how protective Tony was, of both Bruce and the Hulk – but Tony only nodded and gripped Sam's arm before tossing Bucky an irreverent salute and jogging to the back elevators.
“Wheels on the Bus?” Stepushka asked, sliding off Bucky's back and heading for the tablet laying on the coffee table.
Barnes did an admirable job keeping his mouth from twisting in horror. Finally, they had the one bright side to seventy years of torture: Barnes could survive long bouts of children's music without flinching, while the rest of them ran for the ear plugs and the beer. “Toca Boca?” he countered, arms folded, and Steve grinned, suspiciously pleased.
“Okay,” the little boy agreed, baby teeth bared. “With cookie. Chocolate cookie.”
“Little punk,” Bucky told him, as Sam headed for the elevator to the lab, already walking into the kitchen where they kept the Oreos. Steve's negotiation skills had clearly predated the serum by decades, if the toddler gave no thought to bargaining with two hundred pounds of assassin and admantium arm. An assassin now fluent in online children's games and bribery with cookies. Whatever Hydra had intended by turning Steve into a three-year-old, Sam thought, it certainly hadn't been to transform their lost Soldier into the ideal babysitter.
By the time Sam made it down to the lab, the Hulk was attempting to pound a hole into the hallway floor. With his head. Thankfully, the giant green version of Dr. Banner hadn't noticed Tony digging through his lab files in the next room, or they would be testing the Hulk-proofing on the glass walls.
“Hey, Bruce,” Sam called, keeping his voice even, colored with his fondness for the currently angry doctor and all the other headcases who'd become his best friends. “Having a bad day?”
“Hulk stupid!” roared the superhero, slamming his fist into the thick, ecru carpeting that lined the lab corridors. “Hulk too dumb!”
“Man, I feel that,” Sam agreed, leaning against the Hulk's gargantuan shoulder and pressing a comforting hand firmly over the back of his emerald neck. “Think I saw Steve Hulk out more than once, when he couldn't make heads or tails of where Barnes might be. If I could have, I'd have smashed through the floor yesterday trying to work that damn microwave.”
Green, tensed muscles slid away into human skin as Bruce puffed out a laugh, leaving him naked and shaking with the after effects of his rage on the carpeted floor. Tony came out immediately with a blanket and a bottle of water, and Sam kept his hand curled around the back of Banner's neck.
“Thanks,” Bruce croaked, drinking most of the bottle and letting Sam and Tony crowd him between them, overlapping into his space with their limbs and Sam's quiet humming. The lab equipment buzzed in the background, likely a comforting rhythm of centrifuges and freezers and electronic titration for the man who'd spent his whole adult life surrounded by the sounds.
“Want to tell us what brought this on?” Sam queried, when Bruce got some color in his cheeks and Tony looked ready to burst with questions.
Bruce shrugged, breathing deeply around his agitated frown. “Nothing,” he said, carefully unclenching each finger from around the plastic bottle.
“Um, big guy, I hate to tell you this, but that was definitely something.” Sam scowled at Tony, who shrugged. “Well, it was. You don't go all big and green for nothing.”
“But that's just what it is.” Bruce pinched the skin between his left thumb and forefinger with his right hand. “A whole lot of nothing. We've been at this for weeks now, and what have we got to show? Three new ways to blow up Manhattan, two untraceable poisons, and a way to create sentient cabbage.”
“What?” Sam interjected, but the other two waved him off.
“No big deal,” Tony answered. “Sentient foods are nowhere near as cool as they sound, Wilson. Don't get your hopes up. Besides, we have something. We know the compounds they used.”
“Yeah.” Bruce rubbed his forehead, his expression bleak. “We have all their ingredients, we've got most of their recipe, including temperature and times. What we don't have is a way to reverse the process, or even mitigate the effects.”
The words settled into the plush, nondescript carpeting around them, the walls and the echoing, sterile spaces of the lab.
“You.” Sam stopped, cleared his throat. Thought of holding the nebulizer mask over a little boy's face in the soft glow of a night light, the happily shrieking imp devouring Oreos and playing Toca Boca a few Tower stories away. Thought of Steve Rogers, blond hair combed back and eyebrow lifted in challenge, betting Sam a case of beer that the Dodgers would finally win a series. “You're saying -”
“I'm trying not to say it,” Bruce cut in, pulling the blanket tighter around him. “I'm trying not to even think it, but it's been a month. Statistically, it's getting more and more unlikely that we're going to find a cure.”
“Great.” Tony's face was as tense as Sam felt, jaw tight. “So we get Rogers back in approximately twenty-six years, right around the time the rest of us are thinking about Medicare.”
Sam shook his head. “Wrong,” he corrected, fingers digging into Bruce's neck. “We never get Steve Rogers back at all. Raised by us, raised now, he'll never grow up to be the man we knew.”
The first week he'd known Steve, he'd lost an impossible race, been hurled out of the sky, and quit his job to track a brainwashed hitman around the world. Steve inspired loyalty in people, with a determination born of fighting childhood diseases and neighborhood bullies, a devotion to his friends that he'd likely learned from Bucky Barnes. They would never let a bully come near Stepushka, would manage his asthma and his allergies and his other illnesses so that he would barely know they were there. Steve Rogers would always grow up to be a good man – but he would not be the man that they had joked with, or fought alongside.
Sam had a pretty good idea, now, as to how Steve must have felt. Please come back. Bucky. Please come back to me.
“I hate to rain on this shit parade,” Tony said, breaking the silence and chucking his safety goggles at the glass of the lab wall. “But that's not our only problem.”
“If it's worse than losing Steve, I don't think I want to hear it,” Bruce replied, stretching out his bare legs.
The Stark genius shook his head, gaze distant and fingers tapping out a pattern on the fabric of his jeans. “I'm pretty sure this problem is fixable.” He scowled, balled his hand into a fist and slammed it down on his thigh. “I'm just not sure how.”
“It's Barnes, isn't it?” Sam had seen Iron Man and the Winter Soldier sparring, had watched Tony's worried face when Barnes threw himself so hard into the fight that the only option was to go down or take the Soldier on without mercy. Had seen Tony's face when he pulled off the mask, kneeling over an unconscious man in black kevlar, the lines around his eyes and mouth etched with concern.
Tony nodded, still staring into a space none of them could see. “Something's wrong with his arm. I don't know what it is, because he won't let me look at it. But he's covered with bruises that Iron Man didn't give him, and he's started favoring that side when he fights.” He shrugged, but they all knew that if the Winter Soldier was exposing a weakness something had to be seriously wrong. “I also don't think he's really slept since Steve shrunk. Maybe he can't. But what do we do?”
He and Banner both looked at Sam, who made a face. “Well, we used to tranquilize him?” Bruce offered, but sounded unconvinced by his own proposition.
“I think we should probably avoid sedation, unless he requests it.” Sam mulled it over, flicking through images of Bucky sitting cross-legged at the foot of Stepushka's bed, metal fingers measuring Steve's heartbeat through Rogers' smile on the nearest television screen. “Have you tried asking him about any of this?” he inquired. For all that Tony and Stepushka were like gunpowder and a match, he and Barnes got on like a house set on fire. Sam couldn't tell if it was a shared love of video games, or some cosmic force of sarcasm and POW experiences.
“I've tried,” Tony admitted. “When I bring up his arm he runs out of the gym or hits me. If I mention that, hey, I like three am gaming marathons as much as the next guy, but doesn't he want a little sleep before kicking my ass again – he just ignores me, or goes back to the nursery.”
Bucky didn't sleep in the nursery. They all knew that, thanks to midnight doctor visits and JARVIS' reports. Bucky wouldn't leave Stepushka unprotected while he slept. But it didn't explain why he wasn't sleeping during the day, or letting one of the other Avengers babysit for a little while.
“Then we talk about it.” Sometimes the simplest answer was the best. If someone was shooting at you, you ducked and shot back. “Wait until Stepushka goes to sleep, have a beer and let him know that we'd like to help him out.” He paused, raised an eyebrow at Tony. “We do have a plan for that, right? You've got a whole new arm rigged out in that over-sized brain of yours?”
“It's his ego that's over-sized,” Bruce said, smiling fondly at the affronted genius. “Some people just mistake his arrogance for actual intelligence.”
“You're a traitor to the science brotherhood, Banner,” Stark spluttered, poking at Banner's blanket. “Just for that, I'm spending this afternoon helping you come up with an antidote. There'll be explosions. There'll be clouds of poisonous gas. Maybe even fireworks, if we time the titration for them.”
Sam's phone pinged as the scientists levered themselves off the floor, Bruce tripping Tony when the latter tried to help Banner to his feet. Hawkeye: Feel like spreading your wings, Wilson? We could use a bird's eye view.
The Falcon smiled, waving at Banner and Stark as they tumbled into the lab, still arguing. Tony and Bruce would do science, Bucky would keep Stepushka happy, Pepper would make sure Avengers' Tower didn't come crumbling down around their ears, and he, Clint, and Nat would squeeze every last Hydra bastard until they'd bled all their secrets dry. Not such a bad day, after all.
Tony believed that he was teaching Bucky Barnes to play poker. He had also thought that Bucky didn't know how to play Monopoly. Stepushka was too young for Monopoly, but he liked to play with the pieces and count the money.
“You're cheating!” Steve pretended to scowl at Bucky before bursting into wheezy laughter, head tilted down and shoulders hunched around his small chest. “And you're still losing, Barnes. Come on, you dope, you're the one who taught me how to play poker.”
Steve would be thirteen in a few months, when spring rain finally gave way to summer heat. Bucky couldn't wait for summer – Steve's skin glowed at the beach, and he didn't get sick as often. When Bucky could afford the paper for him to draw, the rest of New York finally got a glimpse of the Steve Rogers that Bucky knew would be even more famous than Michaelangelo, no matter what Sister D said about some stupid sculptures in Italy.
Who went to Italy, anyhow? Nobody smart.
But there wouldn't be money for drawing paper this year. Mrs. Rogers had been in and out of the ward since Christmas, and all the money from Bucky's newspapers went into her handbag when no one was watching. All the change he'd brought tonight would stay with Steve, even if Bucky had to lose every last game.
Steve counted the pile of coins between them, quarters and nickels and shiny pennies that Bucky had found in rich people's pockets. Sister D said that God wanted man to help his neighbor – all those suits on Wall Street were their neighbors, weren't they? They could spare some change to help Mrs. Rogers.
“Buck. You trying to lose, here? Having trouble doing the math?”
Steve's apartment felt too big with Mrs. Rogers in the hospital, even though Bucky's friend filled it with his wet cough, their constant companion every spring. Steve's smile filled the hollow spots in Bucky's ten-year-old chest, the places that ached when he worried that Mrs. Rogers wasn't coming home.
“You don't have to do this, you know,” Steve said, dropping the coins to the table and reaching up to curl his bony hand over the wrist Bucky had pressed to his own chest. “She's going to be fine.”
“Does that mean you wanna fold, Rogers?” Bucky retorted, rubbing at his eyes with his free hand, thinking of the gravestone with Winifred Barnes hidden under a thicket of weeds.
“Not on your life, Buck.” Steve's grin didn't reach his eyes, blue like the sky on his birthday, but he tried. “I'm taking you straight to the bank.” They frowned at their battered cards, the ace of spades obvious where one corner was missing, and Steve didn't say anything when Bucky kept a tight hold around his hand.
“So, see, this is a pair of tens, high card queen. Barnes, are you paying attention?”
Natalia smiled behind her cards, where Tony couldn't see, and winked at Bucky from across the table. The Monopoly money sat in seven separate piles, though Clint's pile was getting dangerously low. Hydra sources had kept tabs on Hawkeye, but apparently failed to note that he was an inveterate risk taker, and a terrible poker player.
They had made it through dinner – sushi this time, with spaghetti and vegetables for Stepushka – and the fifteenth showing of How to Train Your Dragon . Wilson kept insisting that eating in front of the television was bad for children. Pepper said that suffering through hour twenty of animated Vikings was bad for adults, and required bribery with sushi and wine. Stepushka was very fond of dragons. He would want to be Hiccup for Halloween, Tony warned, and then quieted as if he regretted having spoken.
After the movie, Hawkeye had dug into the supply of board games tucked under the coffee table and resurfaced with Monopoly and an excited grin. Stepushka stayed on Bucky's lap and played banker, counting in Russian and French, labeling the pieces in Japanese when Barton taught him.
“Kid's never going to speak English,” the Falcon complained, but he was smiling.
Monopoly had morphed into poker around the third beer, right after Stepushka's head sagged against Bucky's chest and set off sparks of nerves and waves of pain that he swallowed without a wince.
“You're hurt.” Steve's voice was the only thing that hadn't changed. His hair was lighter, softer where it had once split and sometimes fallen out with illness, sifted through Bucky's fingers like corn husks drying on Mrs. Ricciardi's stoop. His upper lip had lost the scar Jerry Mahone had put there in 1938, when Steve told him that Linda Marie being tipsy weren't no reason to stick his hand up her skirt. And the rest of him – well. There was a lot more rest of him than there had been, when he'd hugged Bucky good bye.
“Fuck off,” Bucky managed, because most of his attention had gone to concentrating on keeping his knees from giving out. He tightened his grip around the Nazi gun, jammed the butt into the bruise over his broken rib to distract himself from the twisted ankle that didn't want to carry his weight. “I'm fine.”
He wasn't dead. It was more than Lt. Hillman could say, or Rappallo or Kolakowski.
They were twenty miles behind enemy lines, though, and Bucky would be dead before he climbed into the tank carrying the other wounded and left Steve unprotected for the hike back.
“Buck.” Steve had been ignoring Bucky's profanity since Mrs. Rogers had slapped away his first “hot damn” almost twenty years ago. “You're hurt, Buck.” He slid a muscular arm around Bucky's waist, slinging Bucky's right arm around his broad shoulders and taking some of the weight off Bucky's bad ankle.
He pressed his right thumb to Steve's neck, thick as a tree trunk in Prospect Park. Smiled when he felt the pulse, steady and slow under his hand.
“Yeah,” he admitted, curling Steve's new body into a one-armed embrace before shrugging him away. He wouldn't see Hydra even after the bastards started shooting, if Steve kept him that close. “But you're not. You're right as rain, kid.”
Steve blushed, elbowed Bucky's fractured ribs and went pale when Bucky couldn't hide his flinch. “Geez, Buck -” He cut off at Bucky's glare, exhaled his disapproval and glowered. “Fine. When you collapse, I'm gonna carry you the rest of the way like a dame, hollering about how Sergeant Barnes is too weak to stand.” Steve's voice lingered over Bucky's rank, summer-sky eyes bright with pride.
“You're all talk, punk. Can't even carry a tune, and I'm a hell of lot heavier.”
“I'll have you know I'm perfect, now,” Steve rebutted, sticking out his tongue and crossing his eyes until Bucky gave a pained laugh. “Science says so.”
Steve's pulse was strangely steady, and his hair was too soft and clung to Bucky's raw fingertips where Hydra had burned away the fingerprints and slid needles under his nails. But he still smiled with the left half of his mouth, even though the right was no longer scarred. Still butted his head up into Bucky's palm, arching into the touch. “You were perfect before,” Bucky whispered, too soft for anyone to hear.
“Straight flush,” Bucky announced, tossing his cards onto the table without jostling the boy. Stepushka had stayed close since his nap, when he had interrupted a sparring session with his sobs. He wouldn't tell them what he had dreamed, but it had left him clingy and irritable and prone to tears all afternoon.
Sam tapped his beer to Bucky's, and Natalia giggled at Stark's gaping mouth. “Is that right?” Buck asked, blinking innocently at Stark. “I matched the shapes and pictures, like you said.”
“You're an asshole,” Tony declared, throwing his cards down a moue of distaste. “And a hustler. Next you'll be after my railroads.”
“Take his art,” Pepper encouraged, sipping her Manhattan and hovering over her own pile of brightly colored bills. “He doesn't appreciate any of it. He's a complete philistine.”
“I appreciate my art. People are willing to pay a lot of money for paint on a canvas. I have something they want. I appreciate that I have it and they don't.”
“So,” Banner coughed, shuffling the cards, because no one trusted anyone else but Sam to deal a fair hand. “Bucky.”
Tony straightened up from his position on the floor, where he was counting his remaining paper bills and utility cards. Something in the scientist's tone stilled Natalia's hand over her red wine, and Sam gazed at Bucky carefully from kind eyes.
“You don't have to do this.”
Uwe Barschel's eyes were an unremarkable hazel. They had looked brown through the scope of the Soldier's rifle. Against the pale porcelain of the hotel bathtub they were almost green, pupils blown wide with the drugs poisoning his weak, human veins. When the Soldier gazed into them he saw blue, the deep azure of a sky over New York.
He remembered New York, though the doctors said he had never been.
“How much are they paying you?”
The Soldier's German was perfect, Barschel easy to comprehend though the Minister slurred his words, already succumbing to the drugs.
“No one pays me.” He shook his head, trying to dislodge wide blue eyes from his mind. Blond hair caught on his beard, gone before the Soldier could grasp it, lips pressed in a gentle benediction to his skin. “You must die. So, you die.”
Barschel chuckled, hacked loose from his lungs like a cough in the dead of a Brooklyn winter. “I've heard of you. Nachzehrer. Nachtkrapp. Aufhocker. You are a story, to frighten young children into obedience. I have children, did you know? I wonder if you will haunt their dreams.”
The man was rambling, shivering in the cold water of the filling tub, his eyes hazel once more. “Your children are not my mission,” the Soldier promised, unsure why he offered such solace to this dying man.
“You were someone's child, once,” Braschel mumbled, reaching weakly for the Soldier's hair. The blond man sat on the edge of the bathtub, blue eyes sad. “You were loved.”
The Soldier shook his head, spinning the taps until the water stopped. “I am a story,” he disagreed. “To make your children fear the night.”
“Bucky,” the blond man whispered, a nonsensical word in any language, watching as the Soldier pushed Braschel's head beneath the water and waited for hazel eyes to dim.
“I think we lost him,” Hawkeye decided, waving a fresh beer a few inches from Bucky's face. “Maybe he's programmed to kick all our asses at poker and then report to Hydra.”
“Dumb ass,” Natalia responded, just as Bucky snatched the beer away and swallowed as much as he could in one gulp. “See, he's right here.” She glared at Banner, who Bucky thought might deserve Nat's ire less than any of them. Bruce Banner, with curly, greying hair that would settle around his face like seaweed when he drowned. Uwe Braschel, his hazel eyes unseeing and still. “Now try to talk to him without sounding like this is an intervention.”
“Um, this is an intervention, Romanoff.” Tony rolled his eyes, and everyone in the room pretended not to notice Bucky shifting Stepushka to his left arm so that he could reach the knife strapped to his thigh. “You know, the kind where we say -” And he turned to face Bucky, threw both his arms wide, exposing his chest to an incoming attack. Pitched his voice higher than the characters in the animated shows Stepushka enjoyed. “Bucky Barnes, we love you, man.”
“I think you're scaring him,” Bruce interjected, but he stayed near Bucky's elbow despite the knife, radiating the calm that brought Bucky to his door most mornings, for meditation and a quiet mind.
“What?” Tony frowned, perturbed. “That's how you guys started my intervention.” Pepper patted his hand, and stood up to make herself another cocktail. “Anyway,” Howie's son continued, waving away the others' chagrin and honing his genius toward Bucky's chest. No, not his chest. His arm. “We all think you're terrific, when you're not trying to kill us. We're just a little worried that -”
“I'm going to kill you?” Bucky wondered, twirling the knife in his right hand. “Impossible, at the moment.” His left arm was nearly incapacitated, but they didn't need to know that. The arm itself still functioned, it was the ports trying to shred Bucky's spine that were breaking him down. Even at full capacity, the Hulk could not be killed, and the Winter Soldier could not protect Steve while taking on Iron Man, the Black Widow, and Hawkeye alone. There would be no fight, if he could not protect Steve.
“No!” Pepper appeared astonished that Bucky had considered that, though Natalia and her hawk only raised their eyebrows, and Wilson rubbed his thigh. “Tony, let someone else explain. You're crap at this.”
She dropped two ice cubes into her drink and folded herself gracefully on Bucky's left, resting one hand on the cold alloy of his arm. “Bucky, no one thinks you're going to kill them.” Stepushka's uneven snores couldn't obscure Wilson's snort, or Clint's muttered, “Well, we hope not.” Pepper pursed her lips, eyes sparking with fire. Barton zipped his mouth shut and mimed losing the key.
“We're just worried about you. Tony noticed that you haven't gotten much sleep recently, and we wondered if we could do anything to help.”
“Like tranq you,” Clint offered guilelessly, and Natalia aimed a sharp elbow into his ribs.
“Okay, lesson number one in conversing like normal human beings.” Wilson waved a hand, and everyone else quieted. “You stop beating around the damn bush. You might as well dig a moat, you're talking in so many circles.”
He leaned forward, laying a hand on Bucky's knee. Pepper still had her fingers curled around his metal arm, and Bruce's whole body was less than an inch from his right. The Avengers were always touching each other. Clint's arm around Natalia's waist, her hand on Wilson's head as she walked by, Sam's hip near Tony's foot when he slept through their gaming marathons, Stark's arm slung around Banner's shoulders, Pepper holding on to Tony as she slept. They held onto each other, Hydra would want to learn, because they could not always hold onto themselves.
“There's something seriously fucked with your bionic arm, Barnes,” Sam said, friendly and sympathetic beneath his no-nonsense tone.
“You shouldn't go picking fights, Jamie-boy,” Mrs. Rogers scolded, dabbing at his swollen nose. Her hands were thin, like her son's, worked to the bone from the washing and her job in the ward.
“I ain't the one picking 'em,” Bucky pointed out, squirming under the slap she laid sharply on his rear.
Mrs. Rogers twisted the greying and bloodied rag out in the sink and ran fresh water over it, dragging Bucky by his chin to the window where the afternoon sun streamed in, hazy and hot. Steve, the coward, had darted off to his room and was waiting for his Ma to scrub her anger out on Bucky's face before he opened his door.
“One day, laddie,” she warned, her dish rag harsher than Irv Kaufmann's knuckles had been. She was furious; always was, when they came home black and blue, Bucky unwilling to say that maybe it was her Irish temper that landed Steve in so many fights. That Steve was every inch his mother's son. “One day, Jamie-boy, that son of mine is going to lead you into a fight you can't win.” She jammed the rag half up his nose, hard, to stop the bleeding, and then pulled him into her slender arms.
“Fuck off,” Barnes told them, because it had worked in 1943.
“Pay up,” Clint said, wiggling his fingers at Bruce until he handed him a wad of real bills. “Told you he'd say that. It's exactly what I told Phil the first time.”
“And what I told you,” Natalia added, kissing Barton's cheek. “Only in Russian.”
“I'm loving this trip down assassin's lane,” Tony chimed in, coming to his feet with his arms folded. “But you all suck at interventions. You -” He pointed at Bucky, waggling his finger. “- need a new arm. Luckily, metal limbs are one of my specialties. Hell, I could build you a new arm with a car battery and some terrorist blueprints.”
Pepper stood up and tucked herself under Tony's gesticulating arm. Sam also rose, handing Stark a bottle of water and resting his hand on the back of the man's neck. In the months they had forced Bucky to remain awake, he had learned measures his last masters had never taught. A soothing touch. Steve's voice, winding through the fragments of Bucky's mind. A harsh red and gold fist; a metal suit and a hand up.
“I think that's my line,” Stark argued, and Bucky's lips twitched.
“He means, 'Don't touch me,'” Natalia explained, vaulting over the love seat to the kitchen. She was going to eat all the churchkhela again, and someone would have to send Ms. Potts' employees out to Brighton Beach to buy more. “No one's given him much of a reason to trust mad scientists, Stark,” she added, brushing her hand over Bucky's hair on her way.
“I'm not mad! My sanity has been verified by at least five psychiatrists!” Tony shouted, loudly enough to make Stepushka whimper and shift in his sleep. Bucky glowered, and Stark raised his hands in an apology. “Sorry,” he signed, then spoke in a softer tone. “I'm just much smarter than everyone else, that's all. Genius is a lonely road.”
Pepper gave an exaggerated yawn. “Oh, I'm sorry,” she said, brows arched. “Did I interrupt your Ode to Tony? I can never tell when you've thought of a new verse.”
“JARVIS?” Sam queried, glancing at the ceiling. “Do you have any videos of Steve calling Tony an idiot?”
“Several dozen, sir. Would you prefer to narrow your selection to the recordings Capt. Rogers made specifically for Sgt. Barnes, or simply any occasion where Capt. Rogers identifies Mr. Stark as an idiot?”
“- then Pepper said that you could buy any book you wanted, and put it on this little computer.” Projected on the television, Steve waved the tablet he was holding and grinned. Bucky winced, associating the small computer and Steve's expectant smile with the too-familiar strains of “Wheels on the Bus” playing from tiny speakers. “The old books are free, most of the time.”
Not that Steve needed to save money. Neither did Bucky. Last week, while Natalia and Stepushka played Tchaikovsky and danced, Wilson had introduced Bucky to something called 'mobile banking.'
They'd piped Tony in for account information, and learned that Howard Stark had, as his son put it, “gamed the whole goddamn system, and legalized gay marriage before it was cool.”
He'd filed Bucky and Steve's deaths as MIA – more accurate than anyone could have guessed – and insisted that the government keep paying them, and then filed another set of documents that designated each of them up to receive the other's widows' pension. “He probably just did it for shits and giggles,” Tony declared, scowling through the screen. “Writing 'James B. Barnes' next to 'wife' on Rogers' forms.”
It sounded like something Howie would do. It sounded -
“So I downloaded the books I used to carry home from the library. All those crime novels you liked, and the poetry Sister Agnes made us memorize.”
Books lay everywhere, spines broken and covers coated with stinking alley mud. Bucky saw the pages fluttering in the breeze before he heard the fight, black type and thin paper torn and floating free in the moist chill of early spring.
Steve had started checking out books last autumn, his library card already grimy and tattered on the edges from so much time in his pocket. Bucky had wanted comics, but Steve had found detective stories that he read aloud until his voice gave out, and those weren't so bad. Not that Bucky couldn't read. He was eleven, old enough to be done with school if the Sisters didn't kick up such a fuss, but there wasn't much fun in reading any of the books at the home. One more book about God or George Washington, and Bucky was gonna excommunicate himself.
When he rounded the corner at a run, Steve was on the ground, fine blond hair fluttering in the breeze, face bloody and trousers caked with offal and mud. The McNarry cousins were picking the books back up to tear the pages out, scattering them on Steve's head and laughing when he demanded that they oughta stop, those books didn't belong to them.
Two right hooks and an uppercut to Goose McNarry's jaw gave Steve and Bucky the alley to themselves.
“I'm not a dame,” Steve snapped, red under his blood-stained collar. He ignored Bucky's outstretched hand as he struggled to his feet, scraping futilely at the dirt on his pants with one palm and trying to gather up the torn pieces of paper with the other. A page of neatly printed black lines caught Bucky in the face. “I can finish my own fights.”
“Sure you can, Stevie.” The mud squelched as Bucky tugged a book free, cover illegible under the dirt and the godawful smell. Ms. Hennessey at the library wasn't gonna let either of them in after this. “It'd just be a damn sight easier if you didn't start so many of 'em.”
“I always think of you when I read Jeffers.” Steve smiled and lifted one broad shoulder, as if to question his own certainty on the subject. His sweater was dark blue, thick and ribbed with diamond patterns like the ones Mrs. Rogers had knitted them. Still winter, then, when he had recorded this. Before the sun had come out and burned away the snow. Before Bucky had held his eyes open long enough to learn who lived in his head.
“Not just because we found him together, looking for Jefferson, Thomas in the wrong corner of the library.” Steve laughed, shaking his head at their childhood idiocy, and Stepushka wheezed sleepily into Bucky's shirt. “I thought winter in 1932 would never end. I'd gotten pneumonia and the flu by March, and you only agreed to spend time at the library after Father Allison caned you for smuggling me down to sleep by the kitchen stove. Well, after he caned you the third time.”
The other Avengers settled, legs crossed and leaning toward the television as though Steve were one of the action movies that Clint and Pepper liked, or the off-beat, low-budget films about love that Tony would not admit to watching. Steve's hair was short, mussed where he ran his hands through it. His fingers curled around the tablet like it was a sketchbook, blue eyes skimming the surface before angling back toward the camera.
“I probably like Jeffers because he wrote so much about America. And the West. We were going to go to California, hop a train as soon as I was well and see the mountains. Swim in the Pacific.” Steve's cerulean gaze dimmed, and Bucky counted Stepushka's heartbeats to calm his own. “I was rereading them, now, and the end of this one made me think of you.”
He cleared his throat. Blushed, though he must have been alone in the living room where, months later, they all sat waiting for him to begin.
“And you, America, that passion made you. You were not born
to prosperity, you were born to love freedom.
You did not say 'en masse,' you said 'independence.' But we
cannot have all the luxuries and freedom also.”
Steve paused, glanced up from the book on his lap with a soft smile. Ran one finger under the words the way he had at the orphanage, teaching Bucky to read with the torn primer and Sister Mary Jean's dusty Bible.
“Freedom is poor and laborious; that torch is not safe but hungry,
and often requires blood for its fuel.
You will tame it against it burn too clearly, you will hood it
like a kept hawk, you will perch it on the wrist of Caesar.
But keep the tradition, conserve the forms, the observances, keep
the spot sore. Be great, carve deep your heel-marks.
The states of the next age will no doubt remember you, and edge
their love of freedom with contempt of luxury.”
“Aw, Capsicle, are you serenading your boyfriend?” Tony's face dropped into the screen over Steve's left shoulder, making loud kissing noises in Captain America's ear.
Steve's whole face went red, the flush down his neck and disappearing into his sweater. “Ignore Tony,” he told the camera. “He's an idiot.”
“I'm a genius.”
“Tony, go away!”
“Make me.” Stark stood up, his head vanishing from the frame, raising his fists. “C'mon Cap, give me all you've got.”
If Stepushka was not grounding Bucky, he would have knelt in front of the screen, fingertip pressed to the corner of Steve's mouth where it refused to tilt into a smile. Steve triumphant had always been a beautiful thing.
“Okay,” Steve said calmly, and then started to sing.
Everyone in the living room covered their ears except Bucky and the still-sleeping Stepushka, and Tony vanished entirely from the video, a faint cry of, “JARVIS, make the elevator come faster !” rocking through the room in his wake. Steve grinned.
“And now you know how to shut Tony up. I wonder if I could market that?”
“Yes,” Pepper told the screen, emphatic, and Natalia pulled out her phone with an interested hum, likely contacting potential buyers for a Rogers' patented Stark-repellent.
“That poem, though. It's . . . I wanted to fight the war to stop bullies. Because being American meant protecting freedom.” Steve snorted, gave a self-deprecating glance at the camera. “Apparently freedom doesn't work like that. Jeffers sussed it out a long time before I did. You always said I was a little slow.
“But if we were fighting for freedom, they were fighting to make soldiers. Hooded and tamed to follow orders.” Steve's hand went to his hair, tugged on short strands before rubbing over his neck. He looked straight into the camera, eyes darkened to a fierce, oceanic blue.
“No one gets to take anything away from you again, Buck. No one can put their security, their luxuries, before your freedom to live whatever life you choose.” Not even me. Bucky could hear the words in Steve's gaze, the space Steve had allowed him when he'd chosen to hide from the only man who knew James Buchanan Barnes.
“They're waiting for you, Cap. It's your round.”
Steve had followed Bucky back to the bar after Agent Carter sauntered away, hips swinging and crimson smile seared into Bucky's memory. He needed another scotch. He needed more than that, to escape the feeling of needles under his skin, the blood and guts stained lipstick-red when he closed his eyes.
When Bucky had put on the uniform, back in Brooklyn, he'd been a man. Steve's man. Then he'd fought his way up the coast of Italy, gathered pieces of his troops to send home for their funerals. Blown the enemy to pieces, after seeing young, solemn faces in his scope, boys younger than him and Steve.
It would be better for Steve, if Bucky were invisible. If no one could see him, then they couldn't see the blood on his hands.
“Think I'll wait 'til they reach the chorus.” Steve settled on the stool next to Bucky, the old wood creaking under Captain America's weight. Knocked his knees into Bucky's new uniform and gave a hesitant smile, trying to chase away that shadows that clung to Bucky like a second skin. “I bet they'd sound pretty good if you joined in, Buck,” he tried, leaning his new body into the miles of space between them. “I missed you, you know.”
“I'll take the bottle,” Bucky told the bartender when he delivered Captain America's pitcher of beer, swung to his feet when he had the scotch in hand. “Put it on his tab.” He gestured at the blond giant beside him. Turned away from Steve's disappointment as he stumbled out the door, ribs still aching and ankle weak.
Bucky had been a man, before he'd gone to war. He wouldn't make Steve carry the bleeding limbs that were all he'd left behind.
“So.” Steve smiled, small, his lips tilted up on the right and his face kind. “Carve deep your heel-marks. Might as well give them a story for the history books.”
“Is he always a glowing beacon of freedom and justice?” Tony wondered, after the screen went blank. “I mean, when he's not insulting my incredibly vast intelligence.”
“You want to play Dr. Frankenstein on my arm, Stark, your intelligence had better be vast.”
He stood, cradled the child against his aching chest, and turned to carry the boy to bed. When the others were out of range, he bent his mouth to a tiny, perfect shell of an ear and whispered in Russian, “Steve Rogers shines brighter than the Northern Lights. Remember that, Solnishka. Brighter than the first sunlight over Arctic snow.”
Some answers were not meant for Tony Stark to hear.
* * *
Sam had to fish the nebulizer out of the closet where he hid it from Barnes and roll baby Steve off his Bucky Bear to get the mask on, so he didn't make it down to the workshop for almost an hour after the others had all followed Bucky down the stairs.
Well, except Pepper, who informed Tony that no she was not his PA and therefore not obligated to watch him do science on their friend's arm, and that she was going to bed so that someone had the requisite amount of sleep to run a multinational corporation tomorrow.
He caught the elevator down, walking into the lab to find Clint and Nat thumbing over a series of names and dates while Tony and Bruce hovered over a . . . “beanbag chair?”
Tony rolled his eyes and spoke around the screwdriver in his mouth. “Barnes isn't big on chairs,” he shrugged, and went back to prodding at the metal elbow joint, completely missing the pride on Sam's face.
The new VA building wasn't finished yet, but it had carpeting and chairs for Sam's sessions, and an office when someone needed quiet and a listening ear. Or two listening ears, because Sam didn't know how to shut Tony out of a surveillance system that he had built.
Oddly, Tony – via electronics and half-installed cameras – had started attending the group sessions, quiet except for the occasional swivel of a Stark-cam. He'd made everyone but Sam jump the day before, when his disembodied voice had responded to a veteran who had been watching the news and wondering if they had done any good over there at all.
“I owe my life to the U.S. military,” the wall speakers had announced. “And my life is pretty damn good, soldier, so you all did at least one thing right.”
He must have also paid attention to Sam's talk on avoiding triggers and handling flashbacks, if he'd remembered to trade his chair out for a bright purple bag that looked like it belonged in 1974.
Bruce held some sort of metal wand over Bucky's head, dragging it slowly through the air and making annotations on the brain scan in the air next to him. Stark had pried off the plating all the way to Bucky's shoulder, leaving the mass of gears and wires underneath.
“Can you feel that?” Tony asked, poking hard at a clump of cables where a bicep should have been.
“Yes,” Bucky grunted, jerking slightly. “Can you feel that?” he replied, making a fist with his skeletal hand and delivering a solid punch to Tony's groin.
“Boys,” Nat warned, then went back to reviewing intel with Clint, ignoring Tony's wailed, “He started it!”
“There's nothing here indicating any alteration to his cerebellum,” Bruce announced, frowning at the hologram. “Or even any change in patterns to his synapses. When you harass him,” he continued, raising an eyebrow at Tony's protest, “it lights up like you're causing him pain.”
None of it made any sense to Sam, but the look of comprehension Bruce and Tony shared was tinged with horrified disbelief. Bucky kept his head still and his pale eyes on the wall, watching Stepushka curl around his Bucky Bear and dream.
“Shit,” Tony murmured. “They didn't hook him up at all.”
Bruce closed his eyes. Inhaled slowly. Sam counted to ten before the exhale began. “No, they didn't. They just figured out how to shock the nerve bundle that would correspond to each part of his arm.”
“Wonder how many lab rats they dismembered to learn that,” Tony added darkly, and Bruce walked stiffly over to his steeping tea.
“Wait.” Sam held up a hand, drew the others' attention with his surprise. “You're telling me that he has sensation in that arm because it electrocutes him?”
“It delivers a localized shock,” Bucky corrected, watching the toddler fifteen floors up drool on his bear. Under the array of lights, Bucky's face looked like porcelain, fragile and thin. “With the plating, even that sensation is deadened.” He cocked his head, met Sam's eyes for a second and then returned to watching Steve. “There is little pain, unless there is sufficient force to cause harm.”
“I'm going to disagree with that,” Tony said, and Sam's gaze followed his to Bucky's bare chest.
He had seen it a few times in the past month, mottled with bruises that bloomed and faded, but Sam had been in pararescue, and bruises from a bad landing or a loose harness were nothing new. But Bucky's chest nearly blended in with the neon purple of the beanbag, black mingling with shades of violet from his collarbone to his ribs.
“It heals when I sleep,” Bucky informed them, unconcerned with the violence stained through his skin.
“So go to sleep!” Tony seconded what Sam was thinking. Bucky didn't bother to grace them with a response, and it only took a minute for them to realize that when the Winter Soldier had slept, it had been in a cryo chamber, frozen and cold to the touch.
“Right.” Bruce handed Tony the metal wand and wandered toward Sam, clutching his mug of tea like a lifeline.
“There's no goddamn anchor here,” Stark muttered as a new holograph appeared, electric blue lines sparking over a paler projection of skeleton and muscle. “Or here.” The engineer ground his teeth, waving the tool faster down Bucky's chest. “They didn't reinforce any of it, and this arm is heavier than a Soviet tank. Goddamn hacks.”
The virulence in Tony's voice brought Bucky's head around, chin lifted to stare at the man standing above him, eyebrow lifted in curiosity. “They didn't do shit to the rest of you,” Tony explained, gesturing with the wand. “But they should have. They should have calibrated the sensors to your brain, and they should have reinforced your spine and left side before hooking you to a bionic Kalishnakov. Instead, they just . . .” Tony jabbed at the hologram, struggling for layman's terms. “They just tied it down like a Macy's Day balloon, only with hooks and not rope, and with your vertebrae and ribs and sternum acting like the little guys under the Snoopy.”
Bucky didn't look any less confused. They hadn't gotten around to showing him Charlie Brown. They certainly hadn't made it to November and the parade.
Tony growled, flicked the hologram until it shrunk into nothing. “Basically, a bunch of assholes stuck hooks and thin metal cables in you to make sure the arm stayed attached to your body. And the more you use the arm, the more they dig in. They're scraping down your bones.” Bucky's expression didn't change, even when Tony leaned down and shouted, “Damnit, Barnes, this arm should have you sobbing on the floor! You shouldn't even be able to stand without a lot of drugs!”
Bucky shrugged both shoulders, the twinge of pain imperceptible even now that Sam knew to watch for it. “Nobody asked how it felt,” he replied, dismissing both the outburst and the man, turning to refocus on a dark nursery and a towheaded little boy. His best friend, in another life that the Avengers could recite but never understand.
Out of Bucky's line of vision, Tony's face went dark. “You remember how Cap said he would see every last Hydra agent burn?” the engineer asked, voice heavy with threat. Sam nodded; felt his own fists clench. “Yeah, well. Sign me up.”
* * *
Stark insisted they remove the arm. All of the arm, he said, and stabbed Bucky with anesthetic that wouldn't last while Wilson went into the hall to talk the Hulk down. Stark's features narrowed in his anger. He looked like his father.
“God damn it all to hell, Barnes, who gave you this gun? Phillips should have them shot for stupidity. Hell, Phillips should have them shoot this fucking piece of shit, and they'll be just as dead.”
Colonel Phillips, of course, had the good sense his Sergeant didn't, and was probably sound asleep and not delivering weapons to Stark's lab after their latest jaunt through Moravia. And Slovakia, because Steve still didn't know when to quit.
Howie was spitting mad now, hammering the shards of the barrel against his table. Bucky had carried the broken rifle through four countries, two Hydra facilities and a Bohemian brothel. Falsworth had found the brothel. Sniffed it out like a hound dog, Dugan said, disappearing down the hall with a leggy dame. Thankfully the proprietors had also offered unoccupied rooms, though Monty frowned and declared that they were missing the point.
He had saved Howie and the armory for last, corralling the men off the plane and toward the laundry to get their uniforms washed, then leaving Steve to his reports while Bucky headed to the commissary to talk K rations and coffee.
Bone tired from three weeks of harsh, mountainous hiking and close fighting, carrying everyone's weapons, Bucky had finally trudged down the broken concrete stairs to find Stark alone in the solitary pool of light from his desk lamp. Had dumped the remains of a rifle that had exploded in his hands on Howie's desk, and leaned back to enjoy the show.
“Can't trust a single goddamn bozo here,” Howie ranted, shoving the twisted metal pieces together to decide what had gone wrong. “You don't let anyone hand you a weapon but me, Barnes, capiche? Apparently I'm the only one here not trying to get you killed!” Bucky grinned, stole a gulp of Stark's top-shelf whiskey and settled in the unused desk chair with a groan.
Steve would be busy for hours, putting that new, enhanced memory to good use, debriefing to Carter. Howie would keep talking until he keeled over, and the Commandos had all called it a night after the first air raid siren.
They would go out tomorrow, regroup and take on the town and the tepid beer and the crackling radio to dance by. Howie would find him a new rifle and keep ranting until his fifth drink. Steve would need to be coaxed away from his maps and plans, stupidly blond hair falling into his eyes when he hunched too close to the table, squinting despite his perfect vision, smiling when Bucky put hands on his wide shoulders and leaned in.
Tomorrow, Bucky assured himself, slouching into the cushioned chair, drifting off to the melody of Howard Stark's fury at an incompetent world.
Tony had expected Bucky's bones to be reinforced with admantium, he had fumed, or titanium, but they weren't. So they needed to construct a spinal support, and possibly one for the collarbone. Tony pulled a prototype out of a drawer to weigh it, mumbling about reducing weight while Bruce came back in, calmer, and rambled about neurology.
Wilson had gone to sleep on a blue beanbag chair, Natalia using him as a pillow, wrapped in the blanket they kept in the workshop for the Hulk. Hawkeye was snoring in the ventilation shaft.
From all this, Bucky gathered that they did not have a new arm to fit on him, and twisted away before Stark could get the scalpel near his ribs.
“No,” he told them, curling stripped fingers around his right elbow, the feeling sparking through his shoulder and up his neck.
“We promise not to hurt you,” Bruce placated, radiating quiet solace the way he did when Bucky joined him on the balcony before the sun rose, meditating on control.
“I am not worried that you will hurt me.” Foolish men, that they could comprehend how the Soldier's body functioned and yet expect him to flinch from pain. “But I will keep the weapon I have until you offer better.”
They frowned at him, and only the talking computer's quiet translation alerted Bucky to the fact that he had spoken in Russian.
“Don't touch me!”
He snapped the man's neck with his right hand, felt the pulse too fast under the skin before it stopped. He was naked. Cold, damp with something thicker than water. The woman retreated to the edge of the cell, her coat stained with whatever viscous substance ran over his skin.
“The soldier is awake,” she hissed into a perforated panel on the wall. “He is not compliant.” She stood exactly three meters away. His left hand tingled when he choked her, but he could not measure her pulse.
A heartbeat. He had a mission, once, with a heartbeat. Something -
The men crashed into the cell, dressed in black and steel, armed and shouting in Russian. He killed two, acquired a pistol and shot three more in the knees before they overpowered him, shoving needles into his veins and binding him to the chair.
“Nyet!” he howled, thrashing, biting the hand that dared to come within reach. “Don't touch me! Steve! ” The name burst from his throat, guttural and desperate as the howl of a wolf caught in a trap.
His own heart raced, too quick to measure, as they forced him into sleep.
“Uh, hello? Mr. Terminator?” Tony waved a wrench in front of Bucky's face. “So you're telling us that you'd rather have this thing keep ripping out your spine than spend a few days on the world's quickest weight-loss plan?”
Bucky began refastening the plates to his arm, working from his fingertips up so that they overlapped without snags.
“I can't fight as well with one hand,” he confessed, an admission of weakness. A failing for his enemies to grasp.
“No one here wants to fight you,” Bruce said, but the image behind Bucky started to wheeze, and he was out the door and racing up fifteen flights of stairs before the doctor finished speaking.
Stepushka had two more asthma attacks before Bucky carried him up to Banner's floor to sleep on the balcony, where the air didn't cycle on and aggravate Steve's lungs.
Bruce came out shortly before dawn, and they let the child sleep while Bucky heeded Banner's soothing instruction and tried to create a quiet space in the whirlpool of his mind.
When they went down for breakfast, Stepushka cranky and whining in Bucky's arms, Wilson was making omelets while Pepper chatted with Tony's projection on the wall.
Hawkeye was suited up for a mission, vest on and bow strapped to his back while he devoured an omelet and a separate plate of fried potatoes. It was the Widow that made Bucky tense, not the black of her armor but the darkness in her eyes.
He would need both hands, for the fighting.
He ignored them, for the moment. Tried to set Stepushka down in his booster seat, but the child shrieked and crawled back onto his hip. Bucky surrendered, holding onto the boy while he fetched cereal and PediaSure and fruit, pulled the colorful plastic bowls and spoons from the cabinet. Sat Stepushka on his lap instead of in his own chair. The boy smelled like sunlight and peace, his slight body and his fluffed hair a talisman to hold close.
Bucky waited until the boy was intent on the spiraling straw in his orange juice, and then he turned to face the Widow.
“Report,” he said, in Russian. She paused, but did not let him see her flinch.
“We've been talking to people. Scientists who might have engineered the formula that de-aged Steve. We think we've discovered why they chose Captain America.” JARVIS translated for the others in the room, though Barton's Russian was more than passable on a bad day, as long as he'd remembered his hearing aids. “The drug was not designed to kill him. They hope to capture him.”
“But why?” Bruce queried, when the computer put Natalia's words into English. “De-aged, he's just a kid with more diseases than an epidemiology journal.” Three days ago, the Avengers had learned that Steve was partly deaf in his left ear – and also allergic to shellfish. Pepper had stocked an entire kitchen cabinet with epi-pens.
Natalia shook her head, hair pulled back in a severe ponytail high on her head. The Winter Soldier had trained her to offer her hair as a challenge. Their enemies saw it as a weakness. Their enemies did not understand that they would never come close enough to rip the hair from her head.
“The research we've done suggests that's not the case,” she explained, laying several diagrams on the table. “Their theory is that the serum exists in his cells, and must be reborn with them. So de-aged, some version of the serum must still appear.”
Bruce could not hide the flash in his eyes as he glanced at Stepushka, cells under the microscope's avid eye. Bucky gathered the boy close, and Bruce looked away.
“Whatcha looking at, Sarge?” Dum Dum asked, falling in beside Bucky when Steve slowed down to check on the wounded and chat with the men driving the tank. “Ain't you ever seen an ideal specimen of manhood?”
“Yeah,” Bucky answered, marching backward so he could keep both eyes on Steve. On Captain America, sky high and strong as an ox. “But he never looked like that before.”
“Of course!” Tony snapped, cracking the silence, his face covered in smudges of grease and something clear and shiny. “The younger he is, the easier it is to harvest cells that can function as a base for their experiments. Grow new cells. Clone him until they can deduce the serum, or have enough of it to inject into a new candidate.”
“And there goes my appetite for eggs,” Sam declared, dropping the spatula and wiping his hands on his apron. “Or anything else, really. You couldn't have talked cell harvesting after breakfast?”
“Um.” Barton shoved the last potato in his mouth and swallowed it whole, washed it down with his entire mug of steaming coffee. “It gets worse. Or better, depending on how badly you want to kick someone's ass.” He spun his tablet around to face them, the Manhattan subway system lit up on the screen. “Coulson says there are mutant turtles crawling onto the platforms at 42 nd Street.”
“Cowabunga,” Sam muttered, bending over Bruce's shoulder to study the map. “I don't suppose they're the kind of turtles named after artists and trained in martial arts by a rat?”
“Phil says they're venomous,” Clint said, tapping on the hearing aid that functioned as a comm link. “He didn't mention if they know karate. Also, some evil men with big guns.”
Sam had stripped off his apron and headed for the elevator and his wings. Tony was wiping his face with a rag and shouting for his suit. “What if it's a trap?” Natalia said softly, and stopped them all in their tracks. “They want Stepushka. What better way to catch him than to draw the Avengers out of their tower?”
Stepushka chased a cheerio around the bowl with his spoon, roaring like a dragon, unaware that the room suddenly centered around his white-blond head. Bucky ran human fingers through the fine hair, and the toddler batted his hand away, cranky from his sleepless night.
“They can't get into the Tower!” Tony scowled, incensed at the thought.
“Loki,” Bruce said.
“The house in Malibu we had ,” Pepper added, arms folded over her rose blouse.
“They're turtles ,” Tony griped, but didn't promise the perimeter was secure.
Silence settled over the kitchen for six beats of Stepushka's small heart, and then Sam stuck his head back through the doorway and asked, “Can the other agents handle it?”
Clint set his jaw, gave his head a sharp shake. “No. Phil says at least ten civilian casualties, and a member of his team.”
“Then go.” Of all of them, it was Pepper who broke the silence, voice firm. She looked at Bucky, eyebrows raised, and he nodded. “If you don't go, people die. Bucky and I can stay here.”
Tony paled under his tan. “But Pep', what if it's a -”
“If it's a trap, Tony,” she interrupted, voice even and Starkphone out, “I know seven ways to the helipad on the roof, and I'm guessing Bucky knows a way to blow up the Tower.”
“Ten,” he put in, helpful. “And three ways to cause structural damage leading to collapse.”
“Great,” Tony applauded, mouth twisted with something that resembled nausea. “I love hearing about structural damage inflicted on my Tower. When we get home, Barnes, you and I are talking about this!”
The Avengers left from the roof. Pepper took the elevator to see them go. Bucky stayed in the kitchen, working the plates of his arm, curling metal fingers around a spoon and tapping it against Stepushka's nose until he smiled.
“Solnishka,” he murmured, when the sun glinted off the child's hair. “We should dress for battle.”
“Teeth?” Stepushka responded, raising his arms, and Bucky acquiesced.
* * *
Villains on the half-shell, Sam groused over the comm link, were surprisingly difficult to kill. He only said it once, when Iron Man chased forty of the mutant reptiles out of the depths of the subway and into Sam's sights. There was plenty of room in the 42 nd Street Station to fly, but Sam was no sniper, and hitting a venomous head and not a durable shell was hard work. Hawkeye was having more luck, and the Hulk could just smash the creatures under his feet.
They didn't speak much at all over the comms, afraid to use the air space and miss Pepper's cry for help. She'd tucked a comm link into her ear as she waved good-bye, promised to call if she and Bucky ran into any trouble.
Silence, so far. Though whether that was good or bad, none of them were willing to speculate.
Two hours later, they had a lot of dead turtles, several dead men with guns, and the nondescript SUV that Clint said had been sent to take them home, courtesy of the new SHIELD director.
No one spoke in the car, either, though they all watched Tony dial the Tower and get his own voice mail. He tried three more times, until Bruce wrenched his phone away, exhaustion lining his face. “Don't,” he commanded, quiet, and Tony bridled.
“JARVIS should be answering!” he snarled, trying to pry his phone out of Bruce's surprisingly firm grasp. “There's something -”
“Wrong,” Sam finished, wedging himself into Tony's space and wrapping an arm around Stark's tensed shoulders. “Yeah, Tony. We know.”
The Tower doors slid open for them, but no one approached to greet them, not even JARVIS.
The security guard who liked when Sam brought home chocolate rugelach lay in front of the elevators, his blood pooled around his head. The woman who always teased Sam for buying too many groceries was sprawled over the front desk, her weapon still in her hands.
“JARVIS!” Tony shouted, shrill, and his voice echoed through the lobby, reverberating across marble floors and high ceilings.
The elevator doors opened – no faster than usual, despite Tony jabbing the button repeatedly until it dinged – revealing the security detail, three women, who always wanted bear claws and the horrible coffee from Tony's lab. Two had been shot, the third stabbed in the chest. It had given her time to crawl to her colleagues, but not to save them.
“We should not have left,” Natasha said, as they stepped carefully into the elevator. No one disagreed.
“They might not be dead,” Sam prayed aloud, his fingernails white around his gun. Clint nocked an arrow, and the Widow tugged her gauntlets into place.
“Fuck,” Tony replied, and there was nothing else to say.
Natasha pressed the button for Steve's floor. Habit, maybe, since they all went to Steve's floor: to find beer, to make breakfast, to ask for take-out menus that Captain America hoarded in drawers or play Old Maid and watch the game. Despair, maybe, that she believed Pepper and Bucky could not have made it to the roof.
The elevator dinged, and the doors opened wide.
The hallway was a pile of bodies. Shot in the head. Shot in the chest. Stabbed with a high-heeled shoe? Sam recognized none of them, though the Hydra emblem was clear enough on their sleeves. The Avengers navigated around them, weapons up and headed warily for the living room.
“Oh,” Pepper said, half hidden in the kitchen doorway, her gun aimed steadily at their heads. “It's you.” Her hair had pulled loose from its chignon, her pink blouse was spattered with blood. The pockets of her fitted slacks bulged with ammunition and grenades, and her feet were bare.
Sam had been in the Air Force, had rescued men under fire, and Pepper Potts pointed a gun calmly at her closest friends and put elite military units to shame.
“It is you, right, not decoys? Someone shot out the computer mainframe and JARVIS is rebooting, or I'd ask him.”
At least ten more bodies cooled around her, each in Hydra uniforms, fancy weaponry useless by their sides. The ecru carpet had turned wine red with the blood.
“It's us,” Tony said, just as a man appeared from the stairwell and rasped out, “It's them,” hoarse as though he'd been screaming for hours.
“If you're sure,” Pepper told the apparition behind her, stance loose and easy as soon as he stood at her side. Sam knew that posture, could feel the relief that he saw relax Pepper's shoulders and roll down through her spine. He knew she would not have lowered her gun until the man spoke.
It was how Sam had reacted to Riley's voice. The Avengers heard a pain-riddled growl; Pepper heard a man she knew gut-deep would bring her safely through a war.
The man in question had blood streaked across his face, both arms caked, right shoulder stiff from what looked like a bullet wound or a vicious stab. His stomach appeared to be swaddled with kevlar, which Sam only noticed when Pepper tapped it and said, “Think we can undo this now?” and the Soldier lifted his arms in invitation.
“What the hell?” Tony asked, wiggling his hand to include all the dead operatives on the floor, the lobby and the silence where JARVIS should have been.
“Guess you were right about the trap,” Pepper retorted cheerfully, loosening the swath of bullet-proof fabric around Barnes' waist and reaching behind him for – Stepushka. “Good thing we won. How were the turtles? Do you know what turtles are, Stepushka?” she cooed. “Were you a good boy for your medved?” The toddler climbed easily into her arms, white-blond hair mussed, and gawked at the team.
Fair enough, Sam supposed. The team was gawking at him, too.
“You tied him to your back?!”
“Mission successful,” Barnes said, voice little more than the ragged slide of air through his lungs.
He tossed off a lazy salute with his metal hand, right hand smoothing over Stepushka's fair hair. Then he nodded at Pepper, and toppled to the ground.
* * *
Stepushka wouldn't stop screaming. “Buuu-cky!” he wailed, interspersed with “Medwed'onak!” and “Hate you!” in Russian and English. When Sam reached for him, three-year-old Steve executed a kick from a ballet stance into Sam's shin, and then pirouetted away and beat tiny fists on the wall where they'd projected a feed of Bucky meditating with Bruce.
Apparently seeing Bucky faint had convinced Stepushka that his idol was not meditating two floors away.
“B'kee!” The name wrenched from Stepushka's chest, snot and tears and fury at not being allowed into the elevator when they'd dragged an unconscious Barnes to Tony's lab.
“Why isn't he having an asthma attack?” Sam asked Natasha, who had stayed behind to supervise Director Coulson's agents as they removed the numerous bodies strewn through the Tower. The Winter Soldier had taken out far more Hydra agents than Sam had killed turtles.
She shrugged, scuffing at a blood stain with her shoe and pointing out a body that Bucky had shoved halfway through the window. “Adrenaline? Pig-headedness? He is Steve.”
Sam considered the months he'd spent with Steve tracking the Winter Soldier, the single-minded determination that Hydra's best weapon would somehow remember being Steve's best friend. “True that,” he agreed, flopping onto the sofa and waiting for little Steve to shout himself hoarse.
A month ago, the Winter Soldier had shot out a car window and leaped to a tiny, towheaded boy's defense. Five months ago, Captain America had defended a Soviet assassin even when he almost killed them all.
“I'm beginning to think they deserve each other,” Sam announced, helping an agent in a dark suit shift a body off the kitchen counter so he could dig out a pair of ear plugs.
Nat handed another agent a carpet cleaner and rubbed her temples. “At least James only screamed in his room,” she countered. Sam offered her one of the ear plugs, and she smiled.
Then Steve finally had an asthma attack, and they both ran for the inhalers.
That was the first asthma attack. Stepushka fainted during the third asthma attack. They called in the doctor by attack four, when the sun was setting over a city free from mutant turtles and several dozen Hydra operatives. When the kid caught sight of the looped video feed of Bucky meditating and started turning blue for the fifth time, Sam made JARVIS contact Stark.
“Tony, we have to bring him down there. Kid's going to give himself a heart attack if he doesn't see Bucky right now. I think he's triggering his asthma on purpose.”
“And showing him Barnes' chest cavity will help?” Tony snapped through the speakers, startling the agent who had gotten stuck washing the blood out of the furniture. “His dismembered Bucky Bear on an autopsy table won't cure his asthma, Wilson!”
“Medwed?” Stepushka pulled off the mask to speak, and Nat stalked down the hall, returning with the vintage teddy bear. “Nyet!” the boy cried, air whistling out of his lungs. “Medwedjonak!” The doctor scowled at Natasha and shoved the clear mask back over Steve's scrunched up face.
“Solnishka,” a gravelly voice interrupted, thick with pain, and everyone in the room but the doctor froze. “It's all right, little guy.”
“He's awake?” someone screeched, and it took a few seconds before Sam realized that it was him. “You're doing invasive surgery on him and he's awake?!”
“Have you tried to knock out a super soldier?” Tony snapped. “He regained consciousness in the middle of surgery, and let me tell you, that man coming to on a metal table leads to nothing but trouble. He refuses to let us tranquilize him again. The nanobots are almost done, anyway.”
“Go see bear,” Stepushka declared, squirming away from the machines and out of the doctor's grasp.
“That's not -”
“Let him come,” Bucky interrupted Tony, clearly biting off a moan. “Just. Cover that side.” He switched to Russian, gentle and familiar from a month of lullabies and nap times and evenings when they sprawled over the living room, Bucky murmuring a tired child to sleep. “All is well, sunshine. Hush. No one will hurt you here.”
“You're a pain in my ass, Barnes,” Tony said through the speakers, as Stepushka linked hands with Nat and Sam and dragged them toward the elevators, Natasha holding the Bucky Bear in her other hand. Sam spared a grateful thought for the agents who had cleared the bodies out, hours ago, though the carpet squelched with countless shampoo treatments under their feet.
“And you're a pain in my chest, Stark,” Bucky replied, before the elevator doors closed and they headed down to the lab.
* * *
Stark rigged a drop cloth over Bucky's chest, jostling the table in his efforts to obscure bloody tissue and a missing arm from Stepushka's sight. Bucky bit the inside of his cheek and swallowed his scream while Bruce distracted Stepushka in the hall, failing to persuade the boy to put on pajamas before he came in.
“Med'ed'onak!” Stepushka grand-pliéd, dove through Bruce's legs, snapped a quick ballet spin out of Banner's grasp, and barreled into the lab.
Natalia was too clever to smile when the men around her scowled, but James could see through her blank face to the pride in her eyes. Almost a century ago, James Barnes had stood in a Brooklyn alley while Steve swung his newly learned right hook into McNarry's gut and cheered.
Stepushka skidded to a stop by Bucky's feet, staring at the incisions Tony hastily covered. “You have an owie?” he questioned, blue eyes wide.
“He's got three snapped ribs, a severed vertebra, and a collarbone that sheared in half, kid,” Tony muttered, jabbing vengefully at the computer screen with Bucky's readings. “And that's not counting the bullet to the shoulder, thigh graze, broken wrist, extensive bruising or, oh, yeah, the metal arm that tried to rip out of his body. He's just peachy.”
Stepushka's lower lip wobbled dangerously, but Tony was hunched over the hot wash of pain at Bucky's collarbone and didn't notice. Pepper swooped in, dragging one of those strange leather bag chairs over and sitting next to the boy.
“Bucky is like Toothless, right?” she said softly, pulling out her phone and catching Stepushka's attention with a picture of his favorite dragon. “Remember how Hiccup built Toothless a new tail?” Tufts of pale hair bounced as the child nodded, glancing between the phone and Bucky's chest. “Well,” Pepper explained, “Bucky needs a new arm. So he has to lay here until Tony can build one, just like you have to lay still when you get sick.”
“Not sick!” Stepushka disagreed, dragging his tiny, blond eyebrows down to meet his nose in a fierce scowl. Pepper chuckled, louder – thankfully – than the sharp curse Bucky couldn't help when Stark's medical robots started adhering metal to his spine.
“No,” Sam concurred dryly, coming up on Pepper's other side. “You're not. Which is interesting, since you were right up until we came here.”
Stepushka ignored the Falcon, though he spared a glance at the wall with the projection of his grown up self muted and smiling into the room before he stepped up to the table and stood on his tiptoes so he could see. “I kiss it better?” he asked, blue eyes bobbing as he wavered and dropped back to his feet.
“Pajamas first, solnishka,” Bucky whispered, working his jaw to make it unclench. “Then you can kiss it better.”
He inched his right hand out to run fingers through Stepushka's hair, breathed through the fiery pain that began at his shoulder and sparked down all the nerves of his chest and into the left arm he hadn't had since 1945.
The boy hummed, squinting the way he always had before negotiating to get his own way. “Pajamas,” he reiterated, childish voice high, “an' I help make new tail? I Hiccup!” He waved both arms over his head in an incomprehensible flourish to make his point, accidentally knocking into one of the machines to Bucky's right.
“Has he eaten?” Bucky asked Natalia in Russian. The Falcon snorted and rolled his eyes; his Russian almost as good as Stepushka's, who frowned and stuck out his lip.
“Dinner.” He hissed the word through his teeth, the world a sudden white haze of pain, Stepushka's features barely visible through the fog.
“Barnes, James Buchanan. Sergeant. Three-two -”
“Remember summer in '32, Buck?” Steve had asked, holding Bucky's freshly minted dog tags in his bony hands, pressing them under a page of his sketchbook and rubbing the charcoal over the raised numbers. “We sold apples. Everybody and their brother sold apples that summer! All straight out of the warehouse, you strapping the crate to Merv's bike and me on the handlebars. Sister D bought half of 'em just to make us come inside at night. We ate apples for weeks, could smell 'em starting to rot under our bed, 'til Sister Agnes baked the rest for dessert.” He'd used his new Army paycheck to buy apples and flour, splurged on sugar and made them pie for dinner. Neither he or Steve talked about when Bucky would be shipping out.
The lab smelled like apples when Bucky breathed, the hazy scent of Brooklyn summer and a flattened orphanage mattress instead of a cold table and Zola's chemicals, the torment they mapped under his skin and through his veins.
When Steve bent over the table, hands broad and warm on Bucky's cheeks, the fog of pain blurred Steve's face into the dusty, apple-strewn streets of New York, his helmet a halo to watery eyes.
“Sorry,” Tony interjected from under the drop cloth, speaking over Bucky's low, gulping moan of pain. “I don't really have a degree in welding rare metals to human bone.”
“Dinner,” Bucky tried again, sucking water through the straw Sam offered. “And pajamas.” Stepushka folded his arms and glowered. “Then, if you eat all your vegetables, you can build me a new arm, just like Hiccup.”
Stepushka's tiny jaw worked back and forth, narrowing his eyes to find a loophole in Bucky's demands. After a few seconds, he lifted his head and dragged himself up on his toes. “Kiss first?” he queried, blinking innocently, and Bucky smiled.
“Yeah, buddy. Kiss first.”
Sam lifted Stepushka over the operating table, and small hands curled around Bucky's jaw. Bucky wiggled his head, brushing his nose against Stepushka's until the child giggled, high-pitched and delighted, and sucked a sloppy kiss on the end of Bucky's nose, then pushed kisses onto the bruises scattered over Bucky's face.
“All better?” he wondered, wide blue eyes hovering inches from Bucky's, crossed to keep him in focus.
“Yeah,” Bucky told him, lifting his head to kiss Stepushka's cheek, the motion tugging at his shattered bones, the boy's skin soft and warm, his pulse mostly steady under Bucky's lips. “All better.”
* * *
“So,” Sam said, after losing an argument with Stepushka about the validity of having waffles for dinner. “What the hell – uh, what the heck happened here?”
“Hell!” Stepushka repeated happily, mouth full of waffle. Clint laughed and high-fived the boy.
“America would be disappointed in you,” Sam chastised the toddler, shaking a finger at him.
Bucky wiggled the fingers of his right hand, tossing the question to Pepper. She shrugged. “Hydra was waiting for you to leave.”
“We left from the roof!” Tony's voice was muffled by the drop cloth, but his indignation wasn't. “In a helicopter painted to look like the police!”
Scrubbed free of the lipstick she wore as armor, Pepper's lips were bloodless, her face drawn.
“Morgan and Jared were Hydra,” she informed them, fingers knotted together in her lap. Jared, who had always asked Sam for rugelach. Who must have been the one to kill Sheila, the security guard at the front desk, even as she took him down.
She would have hesitated. Just like Morgan's companions would have hesitated in the elevator when they got the call, unwilling to stab her until she shot them both.
“Where was Hill?” Bruce wondered, mapping patterns of light across Bucky's scalp.
“Running security for a global corporation,” Pepper answered tiredly, “not our home.” She had changed into a soft pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt that said “Doctors Without Borders.” She seemed half the size she had been hours ago, standing in the doorway with a gun leveled at their heads.
“What happened to JARVIS?” Tony asked, popping up from under the impromptu tent. “And damn – darn it, Barnes, stop bleeding!”
“Gladly,” Bucky replied, glaring Stepushka into silence when the kid opened his mouth to gleefully shout “damn.”
“Jared gave them the building layout, warned them about the poisonous gas. Some of them tried to smash the mainframe, until JARVIS electrocuted them and hibernated to reduce data loss.”
“I hate people,” Clint declared, and no one tried to argue with him.
“And you thought swaddling the tot onto Barnes' back was a good idea because. . . ?”
Bucky rolled his eyes at Tony. “You sure you're a genius, Stark?” he inquired, Steve's old-fashioned accent and timeless sarcasm dripping through the words. “Hydra wanted Stepushka. How would they get him?”
To Tony's credit, he brightened immediately with understanding. “Wow, Sergeant Scary, you give 'over my cold, dead body' a whole new, bullet-proof layer of meaning.”
“Why didn't you take the helicopter?” Nat asked, curled like a cat on the beanbag chair next to Pepper's, brushing out her flame-red hair.
Pepper rubbed her hands together, though the lab wasn't cold. She stretched out her hand to where Stepushka sat with breakfast masquerading as dinner and wiped at the butter smeared on his cheek, staring fondly at the messy, syrup-smeared toddler a few feet away.
“Eighty-two operatives, nineteen computer scientists. All four Hydra experts in microbiology and cell mutation.” Bucky spoke mechanically, listing the casualties that even the agents doing clean up had yet to tally. “They were so certain of victory that they brought their doctors. This is Hydra's entire battle-ready force on the continent. There will be more, but they must be trained. After today, they have no one who could stand against the Avengers, or who has the expertise to duplicate the serum.”
Pepper tucked a strand of hair behind Stepushka's ear. She met Bucky's gaze with a faint smile, echoing the choice he must have given her. “Sometimes,” she told them, her hand still pressed to Steve's hair, “you have to decide if it is more important to survive the battle, or to win the war.”
Two hours later, Stepushka had created an arm out of pipe cleaners and the spare parts in Tony's lab. He then covered it – and Clint – with finger paint. The Falcon had sponged Stepushka off while Hawkeye attempted to scrub the orange paint out of his eyebrows. Now the child slept on the cot Pepper and Natalia had trundled in over Tony's protests, close enough that Bucky could measure the boy's breaths, his right fingers wrapped tightly in little hands.
“Arm first, or brain surgery first?” Tony extended a fist toward Banner, who stared blankly at it. “Should we rock, paper, scissors for it? Best out of three?”
“We cannot all go,” Dernier said in French, looking up from the triangles and formulas he'd scrawled on a sheet of paper. “Unless the train remains very still, I think two, maybe three men. The fourth man will find only air.”
“I nominate Barnes to be the fourth man,” Falsworth put in, eyes bloodshot from their late-night poker game, and Morita laughed.
“You'll never win that money back if you drop Sarge off the mountain, Monty.”
They were huddled around the fire at the base camp even though it was still early afternoon, the sunlight distant and colorless through the winter sky.
Bucky huddled into his coat, poking a stick at the edges of the fire. They'd been at camp three days, and he was beginning to feel like he'd never be warm again.
“Three of us, then,” Steve said. He slung an arm around Bucky's shoulders, heat seeping through the thin shirt he swore was warm enough for him. “One on top of the train, in case Zola's got goons climbing between cars. One with me, to hunt out the doctor.”
Captain America's jaw tightened, and his hand dug into Bucky's coat. Any mention of Zola sent Steve's hackles up, hissing like a cat. Then he exhaled, and pulled up a smile. “You fellas want to flip a coin for it?” Steve smirked at the man sitting across from them, still a Brooklyn punk at heart. “Wait - Monty, you don't have one to spare.”
“Oh, go chase yourself,” Falsworth grumbled, and Steve's chuckle shook into Bucky's chest.
“I know how to figure out who goes with Cap! Rock, paper, scissors!” Morita suggested, turning to face Bucky with a grin. “C'mon Sarge, let's see how long your luck holds.”
Bucky raised his eyebrows. Tugged his pistol out of the holster and laid it flat on his other hand. “Aces high,” he said, and Jim raised his hands in surrender. “Dealer takes all.”
“I'm not sure we need to do brain surgery,” Bruce announced, using his pointer finger to flip through scans of Bucky's nervous system. “I think we might be able to run bionic sensors down the arm instead, and -”
“Just integrate the arm in as the limb his brain already understands!” Tony interrupted, clapping Bruce on both shoulders and kissing the startled scientist on the lips. “Bruce, you're a genius!”
“It's the only compliment he knows,” Pepper warned from the floor, where she was playing chess with Natalia.
Tony made a face at her, then spun Banner around and pushed him across the lab. “C'mon, science bro, let's play with the Night Fury's new arm.”
“I am not a dragon, Stark,” Bucky hissed weakly, exhausted from battle and blood loss and pain.
“Tell that to Hiccup, Jr.”
Hiccup, Jr. was twitching in his sleep, pulse fast and unsteady, sweat sticking his hair to his forehead. His breathing was not compromised, so not asthma, and his face had not broken out in hives. The boy whimpered, and Bucky tried to sit up and gather him in before falling back to the table with a pained groan.
“Wilson,” he snapped, voice harsh with anguish and urgency. “Come get the boy.”
The Falcon moved like a man in flight, unfolding from his card game on the floor with Hawkeye to scooping Stepushka off the cot in a single, fluid move. “What is it?” he responded, already gesturing at Pepper to dial her phone. “Allergies? Asthma? Bird flu?”
Bucky couldn't speak, too busy grinding his teeth to force down the cry of agony from where he'd shifted all the healing tissues Stark's nanobots had burned away and the bones still knitting together under his skin. He knocked his right hand up against his mouth, flipped it down, then wiggled his index finger away from his forehead.
“This is like living in the multicultural dorm,” Sam griped, but rubbed a hand soothingly down Stepushka's back to wake him. “Hey, little man, up you go. How's the world's tiniest superhero?”
Stepushka opened his eyes, lifted his head to stare at Sam, and burst into tears.
“Give him here,” Bucky managed to hiss, after Natalia turned his morphine drip as high as it would go. The drugs would metabolize quickly, but at least it made them useful for a moment.
Wilson pursed his lips, dubious, but settled the sobbing toddler into the crook of Bucky's mostly healed right arm. Except for the gunshot wound, which was where Stepushka promptly buried his head. “Shh, Solnishka. Hush, little one. Did you have a bad dream?”
Stepushka nodded into the gauze padding Bucky's shoulder, clinging carefully to the edges of Bucky's chest. “The bad people came,” he mumbled, voice high and faint from sleep. “An' I's quiet,” like Pepper and Bucky had told him to be, “but -” He sniffled. “Don' go 'way.”
“I'm not,” Bucky promised. “I'm right here.”
Steve's pulse shot up like a horse out of the gate, waking Bucky from the first solid night's sleep he might have gotten since the Sisters had let him out of the quarantine wing.
The coal stove had cooled hours ago, winter pouring in like ice water, cascading down the windowpanes and up through the floor boards, numbing Bucky's nose where it stuck out from under the blankets. Bucky wouldn't've gotten sick at all – selling papers wasn't the best job, but Bucky could stand a few hours on the corner for the money he brought home to hide in their mattress.
He'd have been fine, only Steve already had a cold, and that asshole in a Packard had driven right into Merv, knocking them clear off the bike and into the dirty puddle of icy slush on the corner.
It was a long walk home over the Bridge, especially dragging a broken bicycle and kicking a path through the first blizzard of the year.
The Sisters shoved Bucky straight into the ward, wouldn't risk letting him near Steve, and Bucky'd spent a week feverish and bored before they let him go.
“Steve. Hey. Stevie!” Steve was shaking, now, muttering something under his breath and clutching at Bucky's nightshirt. “Stevie, wake up!”
“Buck!” Steve's eyes glinted silver in the dark, relief threaded through his cry. “Oh God, you're okay.”
He threw both arms around Bucky and squeezed, closer than he let them come while they were awake. Steve was sixteen now, he'd said, and Bucky was thirteen. Hugs were for little boys.
“Right as rain,” Bucky assured him, sliding his arms around Steve's bony back and hugging him as tightly as he could, hanging on as long as Steve would let him. If growing up meant letting go of Steve, Bucky didn't want a damn bit of it. “You okay, chum?”
Steve shook his head. Clutched tighter to Bucky, face buried in his friend's neck. “I thought you'd – I dreamed that Sister D came to get me, that Father Allison brought the oil for the rites. . .” He trailed off, and Bucky pretended not to hear the thick exhale that wasn't asthma, or feel the tears cooling on his neck.
“Hey. Hey. You dreamed I was Jimmy Cagney, right? Famous as hell. Toughest kid in the neighborhood.”
Mr. Rogers had breathed mustard gas, Mrs. Rogers told them, and it tore apart his lungs. Mrs. Rogers had coughed blood for the longest time, faded away until they woke up and she was gone. If Bucky died, who would find Steve in alleys, dust him off and have his back in a fight? If Bucky died, who would remind Steve how to breathe?
“Sure,” Steve snorted wetly, his bare legs wedged between Bucky's under all the blankets the Sisters could spare. “Just – just don't leave me, Buck.” He inhaled deeply, pulse slowing to the rhythm Bucky rubbed over his back. A few more steady breaths, Bucky knew, and Steve would fall back asleep, the pull of it already tugging at his words. “Just don't leave.”
“Couldn't if I tried,” Bucky admitted. Honest, because that was the only way to talk Steve down. Because Bucky Barnes could never say no to Steve.
“I have bad dreams, too,” he confessed. Stepushka lifted his head, blue eyes bright with curiosity.
Steve had slept outside Bucky's room in the Tower for months, murmuring through the door every time he heard the Soldier scream. Steve had waited in the corridor every morning with an extra cup of coffee and a sympathetic smile, hoping that each new dawn might be the one where Bucky let him in.
“Do you know what I do, to make them go away?” he continued, as though the child's frightened recollection of the day's battle could compare to the massacres he relived. The little boy shook his head, his heart rate dropping as his interest overtook his fear. “I listen to Steve tell stories. Would you like that?”
“You are needed,” his handlers said, toweling the chill of sleep from his skin. “Israel and Palestine talk of peace. Of stability for the region. Of coexistence without fear. You must prevent this.”
“Civilian casualties are best. They must be outraged. They must be afraid.”
Children. Young women and men. An old man who had offered the Soldier a cup of tea, as though he would pass the afternoon with Death. A woman who dropped the bag of fruit she'd carried, the pomegranates crushed and bleeding under the Soldier's boots.
The blond man, hands tucked into his elbows, gazing at Bucky's rocket launcher with despair. Bowing his head, murmuring prayers over the carnage below.
“Bucky!” The word carried through the wall, startling Bucky out of his doze on the living room floor. He would not sleep in the bed. Beds were for men, not for murderers. “You're okay, it's okay. You're in Avengers' Tower, and you're James Buchanan Barnes. I'm right here. You're safe, I promise. Everything's fine.” Steve kept rambling, speaking softly under the door and into Bucky's rooms.
When Bucky finally slept, it was on his stomach, his face pressed into the gap below the door, listening to Steve's voice.
“The first thing we got was a radio.” JARVIS shifted the projection to the glass wall fronting the corridor so that Bucky and Stepushka could turn their heads and see Steve's half-smile, hear his voice projected through the lab. Steve sat at their kitchen table with a coffee, just home from a run with Sam, his t-shirt and shorts soaked with sweat.
“I mean, we rented the room first.” Steve's lips were red and chapped. They must have been running in the winter, moving too fast through the New York cold. “We were two dumb punks, but not dumb enough to sleep on the streets. That was 1936 – the first year I got to vote. FDR, of course. They'd shot Huey Long by then, anyhow.”
“Two grand a year,” Bucky whispered to Steve, both boys hiding under the benches so the Sisters wouldn't know they were there, listening to Senator Long on the radio after dark. “Four grand, Stevie. We'd live like kings!”
“That's what he said,” Steve agreed, breathing the words into Bucky's ear. “Now hush, before Sister Agnes finds us again.”
“The Sisters sent us off with enough food and blankets for an army, when Father Allison said I had to go.” Steve sipped his coffee, stared into it and shook his head. “Nobody ever asked what you were gonna do, fifteen and lousy at slinging papers.” He smirked at the camera, and Stepushka giggled when Bucky stuck out his tongue at the image.
“So we rented out the Coxes' bedroom. They'd known Ma, gave it to us for a dollar fifty a month. They slept on the bed next to the sink, and we spent that whole summer on the fire escape anyhow, it was so hot.” Steve at eighteen had been sharp corners and a crooked spine, sprawled out over the blankets spread across the fire escape, his sunburned skin glowing in the streetlights of a Brooklyn night.
“You'd finished with school by then. Sister D got you that job in a mechanic's shop with her brother, and I repaired things. Phonographs, radios. I had an eye for the wiring, and little hands.” Steve lifted his hands, long and wide enough to easily span his mug. “You found the broken radio on your way home. I fixed it up so it worked if you held the box together while you listened, and I kept the cord jammed into the wall.” He mimed clamping his hands around a small box, face creased in exaggerated strain. Stepushka squealed, and mimicked his older self's expression with glee.
Bucky could feel the vibration of voices and stations through the skin of his palms. Steve laughed. “We didn't even have a bed. The radio was the only thing in that room, besides all those blankets.
“You liked the Lone Ranger. When we hopped that train West, you said, we were gonna find a town and save it from all the gunmen and Indians.” Steve's blue eyes shimmered, amusement rippling over the regret. “I told you we couldn't ride horses, and nobody fought Indians anymore. You said that left the market wide open for us, now didn't it?”
Steve kept speaking, recounting stories of horses and guns and train robberies until Stepushka drifted back to sleep. Bucky measured his breaths to Steve's, unable to reach out and press his hands to the image on the glass. He counted Stepushka's heartbeats, overlaying the throbbing through his chest and missing arm with the quick, bird-like metronome of the child's pulse.
“Of course,” Steve said, almost twenty minutes later, on his third cup of joe and fifth Lone Ranger episode, “when you finally caught the train West, there weren't any horses. It was January.” He swallowed, gripped his mug so tightly that the skin under his fingernails went dark pink, white at the tips. “You wouldn't let me come with you to the station. Said it was too cold.”
It had been cold, bitterly so. Bucky had spent the week before he was due to leave hauling coal up four flights of stairs, terrified that Steve would catch his death before he made it back from Wisconsin. He'd climbed into the train and out of the wind, eyes cast down so he didn't have to watch the other recruits kiss their families and sweethearts good-bye.
“I think you were just afraid that I'd hop the train, and they'd find a Steve Rogers icicle between the cars when you finally got to Camp McCoy. I was afraid that I'd -” He stopped abruptly, the sudden silence drawing Natalia and Pepper's attention from hour five of their chess game, Sam and Clint from their newest contest to flip cards into an empty coffee can. Bruce and Tony didn't even notice, lost in a welter of digital schematics and pieces of metal arm.
“I think that's all I've got for now, JARVIS,” Steve said, waving one hand at the camera while he stared out the window they couldn't see. “Turn it off.”
“Well.” Sam broke the silence, batting away the playing card Clint flicked at his head. “That was weird.”
“Very,” Pepper seconded, tucking her hair behind her ears and eyeing Natalia's black queen. “What did he mean, about you taking a train West?”
“'Must those flowers who are not yet gone West?'” Bucky quoted, and the others stared blankly at him. “'But we are coming to the sacrifice.'”
“I believe Sgt. Barnes is referring to the Western Front in the First World War,” JARVIS explained, computerized voice smooth where Zola's had whirred with mechanical force. “Going West was a synonym for -”
“We get it, JARVIS, shut up,” Tony interrupted hastily, paying more attention than they had thought. “Maybe tell us what Steve meant, and not how clever an analogy it is.” He paused, waving a metal hand in the air. “Uh, unless Capsicle was making an analogy. Then don't tell us.”
There was a pause, and Steve's image faded from the glass wall while JARVIS processed Tony's command. Then he reappeared, folded up like a paper doll on the edge of his bed, wearing a thin long-sleeved shirt and flannel pajama pants. Steve's eyes were smudged with violet, signs of sleeplessness that Bucky knew too well, and he'd chewed his lower lip until it bled.
“You got your induction notice on Christmas Eve. I saw old Mr. Marsden bringing the post, went downstairs like I always did, and he – he said, 'I'm sorry, son. You tell that boy to come home safe, won't ya?'” Steve wound his arms around his bent knees, small in the midnight darkness of his room. “I'd hoped – we'd been at war for a year, by then. And you were only twenty-one; barely old enough for the draft, until they'd lowered it the month before.”
Steve inhaled deeply, pulled himself into a tighter ball. When he was young, bruised and bleeding in an alley, he would shove his fist into his mouth so that the bullies couldn't see him cry. “I'd enlisted, or tried to, three times by then. I thought that maybe if they took me, then they'd leave you be.” His voice dropped to a whisper, mumbled into the plaid fabric stretched across his knees. “I thought maybe if they took me first, that when they took you, I could keep you safe.”
The half-smile twisted into something bitter, laden with remorse. “You'd have said it was stupid, if I told you. You'd been the one keeping me safe for years.” He rubbed a hand over his face, tugged at his hair. “But there it was, a year into the war, and I wouldn't play my part, wouldn't be satisfied collecting scrap metal and drawing posters for bonds. And I wouldn't let you play your part. Covered your mouth every time you counted our money and looked out the window at the enlistment signs.
“It was Christmas Eve. We'd saved up for some rib roast and the apples for pie. I hadn't even wrapped your present, and we were supposed to go see Random Harvest that weekend.” Snatches of black and white film filtered through Bucky's mind, and he dredged up an ironic smile that mirrored the roll of Steve's eyes.
“When you came home I was still standing on the sidewalk, hands so numb I couldn't unbend them from that damn envelope when I tried.” Steve's hands clutched at his forearms, his toes curled into the comforter on the bed. “You bundled me in your coat, cursed at me as you hauled me up the stairs.
“'You get pneumonia, Rogers, and it'll be your damn fault when they arrest me for draft evasion.' 'No way in hell I'm catching a train to fucking Wisconsin if you can't breathe, Stevie.' 'You dumb ass, you want to spend Christmas in the goddamned hospital again?'” Steve had always been an excellent mimic, for someone half deaf. Or maybe it was just that Bucky had spent two decades chattering into his good ear, and Steve couldn't avoid Bucky's voice if he tried.
“I'd done favors for Mrs. Gerlach for a month, to get the yarn to knit you a sweater. Me with the knitting needles out when you were gone, you home at night trying to darn the darning in our old socks.” Steve huffed out a smile, traced the plaid squares of his pajama pants with one hand. “Couple of bachelors, knitting and sewing and cooking Christmas dinner. Sister Agnes would've been proud.
“The sweater was still on the table – I'd just finished it that morning, convinced Mr. Goldberg to give me the butcher's paper to wrap it in. Navy blue, closest I could find to the color of the ocean when you'd dive into the waves.”
The sweater had been the color of Steve's eyes right before he gave some asshole a piece of his mind, and generally got punched for his trouble. It had been loose around Bucky's wrists, sagged a little at the collar. He'd worn it every night at Basic, shivering on his bunk and wishing for home.
“You dragged it over my head, shoved the collar in my mouth when I complained. 'Shut up, Stevie. If you catch cold, all we're having for dinner is pie. I can't cook roast for shit, you know that.' You didn't -” Steve took another breath, held it for a moment before exhaling. “You didn't say anything about the notice, even when I tried to stick it in the stove while you had the door open to chuck in more coal. You caught my wrist, stood up without closing the stove. And then I -” Steve stopped. Shoved his fist into his mouth and bit down hard for a count of ten, then let go. “Stop the recording here, JARVIS,” he commanded unsteadily. “That's enough for tonight.”
“Curiouser and curiouser,” Stark commented, eyebrows raised.
Sam flopped back onto the leather bag chair, which gusted air and sunk under his weight. “You think it's strange that Steve doesn't want to talk about Bucky going to war?” he inquired skeptically, lips pulled to one side. “Really, Tony?”
“Shut up, bird brain,” Tony replied, and Clint aimed the entire deck of cards perfectly at the engineer's head. “Captain Speech Impediment aside, does anyone want to see us build the Six Million Dollar Man? 'Cause this arm is ready to roll. Or not roll, since arms don't really do that. It's ready to bend? Hopefully to articulate finger joints, and simulate muscle shifts?”
“Wunderschön,” Zola sighed, his delight magnified by the glasses crammed into his piggy face. “He can move each finger. Did you see him, Herr Doctor, and how he used the arm as if it were his own?”
Zola stood over the body that the metal arm had thrown to the floor with bruises around its broken neck. He stepped on the corpse, prodding his fleshy hands into the juncture where metal met Bucky's skin, treating both bodies beneath him as if they were no one at all.
“Are you ready for this, Bucky?” Bruce asked gently, standing by Bucky's hip as Sam shifted Stepushka off the operating table and out of his arms. “We'll have to reopen the wounds, you've already started healing. If you want to wait a few days, let the bruising clear up first, we can do that.” Tony's face fell at the idea, holding the bionic arm like a favored toy. Bruce glared at him, and Stark pouted but didn't speak.
“Do it now,” Bucky told them, right side cold where Stepushka had been warm against him. “I'm ready.”
He'd had decades of torture, to prepare for this. He had been whipped for crying out. He had been wiped for disobedience, forced to his knees on countless floors.
The two men bent over Bucky's left side, speaking rapidly and unwrapping an array of sharp tools. He inhaled, and let the familiar swell of agony flood under his skin.
* * *
“We didn't get our own place 'til 1941. Found it on the way home one Saturday, headed past the market after the ALP rally pushing LaGuardia for mayor.”
Bucky had been eight when Wall Street crashed, hawking papers a block from Merv, head still wet from where he dunked it under the tap in the yard before he left. When he got to school, late, he told Steve how men had leaped out of windows like they were going off the diving board at the pool.
He didn't tell Steve how it sounded when they landed, or how death wore a suit and glassy eyes. Steve would find out soon enough, three years later and his mother in the ground. It was the year after that, 1932, when it got real bad. When they thought the kids couldn't hear, Sister D and Father Allison would go over the bills, wonder where they'd get the money for coal. Wonder how to manage without electricity, when they couldn't pay.
Bucky came back to the home that Saturday covered in grease from the shop, his lip split, three brats clinging to his pants like oysters. The littlest one was in his arms, strangling him at the neck.
Sister D groaned aloud, her face thin in the black folds of her habit. “You're filling the washtub, James Buchanan,” she told him. “The mayor is coming by, and if we want coal this winter we'd better convince him we're not raising thugs.”
Steve went begging for coal for the water heater while Bucky scrubbed the first layer of dirt off the kids with a rag and a bucket. When Steve got back, the oldest girl was sitting on the floor with the baby while Bucky taught the other two tic-tac-toe with chalk rocks.
“What happened?” Steve asked him after Father Allison came by, counted heads, and made a despairing sound.
“Old Man Reese fed us already,” Steve had lied to him, as though he wouldn't have to confess that it wasn't true before Sunday mass. “Crackers and soup for his newsies, you know, and Bucky brought the extras back for me.”
Bucky shrugged, tried to unwrap one of the limpets from his trousers, and wouldn't look Steve in the eye. “Cut through Hooverville on my way home. Thought I'd pass the market, see if Mrs. Fulmer had any fruit she didn't want. These brats. . . Their old man, he -”
“You did good, Buck,” Steve interrupted, resting a hand on his friend's bony shoulder. Bucky felt his face light up, cheeks heating under the blush. If Steve thought it was good, then it was.
Steve smiled, proud and a bit wry. “It's a good idea, bringing them here. But I guess now we'd better get back to the market and hope Mrs. Fulmer's got something only half-rotten we can eat for supper, since Old Man Reese's never fed a hungry soul in his life.”
Steve groaned, pulled a notebook out of his pocket, and jotted something down. ALP? Bucky gathered, from decades of training and years of watching Steve scratch notes at the edges of every piece of paper they owned. “Guess nobody's heard of the American Labor Party for years. I'm making a list of what happened to all the things we knew, so when you wonder where Bloom's egg cream shop went, I can tell you that Mr. Bloom retired to Florida and his grandson runs the hardware store on Atlantic and Vanderbilt.”
Lists piled up on Steve's coffee table in his rooms. One for all that he had missed while he was frozen. One for all that he missed, so far from home. One for all the things Bucky Barnes had loved.
Chocolate egg creams. Onion bagels. Sleeping late on Sundays and missing mass. The Lone Ranger. Fried potatoes. Comic books. Pictures of the ocean. Coney Island. Ma. Me.
Tony and Bruce had allowed Bucky to move onto a more comfortable bed, but they flat out refused to let him up until at least twenty-four hours had passed. Just because the new arm seemed to work, they warned him, didn't mean that it did. And it certainly didn't mean that he should start running around and re-break all his healing bones. Well, Bruce said that. Tony mostly made angry faces and waggled his finger like Sister Agnes when Bucky stole the last of the Christmas peppermints.
“We ran into Sammy Hamby at his Ma's vegetable stand,” Steve carried on, “while we were debating how many times we could eat cabbage and potatoes in one month before we started smelling like the poor micks we were.”
Steve said the word with a smile, like he hadn't socked a boy for calling him that after Mr. Doan wouldn't hire him to work the counter at his store. He'd finished that fight on his own, home that night in their bedroom ranting about unfair treatment and how his vote was just as good as Doan's, better since it didn't go to Alf Landon.
“Sammy and his girl Bertie were getting hitched, he said. Moving into a new place, rent only four dollars a month. We could afford that by then, even with the electric bills and my art classes. Sammy took us right over, his Ma shouting that we'd best come back for those cabbages, she wasn't gonna stick around late just for a few no-good rascals.” Steve shrieked the last few words, startling Stepushka from his coloring book. Mrs. Hamby's voice had carried all the way down Atlantic Avenue, when she wanted it to, warning Sammy that he'd better comb his hair if he claimed to be any son of hers.
“The only rooms left were on the top floor, and the banister had fallen off the stairs. Heck, I think two of the stairs might've been missing. The whole place creaked every time we took a step, or if a breeze blew too hard into the windowpane. It smelled like garbage in the bedroom,” Steve shrugged, “but they all smelled like that, and it wasn't so bad that far from the ground. It was a dump.” He grinned, sipping the beer sweating in his hand. “I told the landlord we'd move right in, shook his hand while you groaned and hissed, 'Stevie, there's holes. In the bathtub. An' that money was for cabbage!'”
“Wha's cabbage?” Stepushka wondered, standing up to inspect Clint's picture of Robin Hood.
“You don't want to know, kid,” Tony proclaimed from the screen on the opposite wall, back in the lab with fresh blood samples from Stepushka, jittery from an excess of coffee and dearth of sleep. Bruce had gone to bed, more sensible than Tony and less willing to survive on caffeine and genius.
“Wanna know!” Stepushka shot a black look at the screen and crossed his arms. If he hadn't wanted to know before, Tony telling him that he didn't was enough to send the toddler into a contrary fit. Bucky was relieved that the two were in separate rooms.
“It's a vegetable,” Sam explained, pulling the tablet over and showing Stepushka pictures of cabbages. “See, it looks like lettuce.” Stepushka grimaced; lettuce he had tasted, and promptly spat back out. The Ranch dressing he had kept.
“Yuck,” he decided, and smacked the tablet away. The boy had slept only a more few hours before triggering his asthma, and then cried for an hour when Bucky had been too delirious with pain to cradle him and sing. So far this morning, Stepushka had shouted at Natalia for slicing his apple wrong, flipped his bowl of cereal off the table when Sam had added too much milk, and climbed under Bucky's hospital bed to blubber when Clint offered to play velcro darts. Hitting the tablet screen was a calmer reaction than Sam probably expected.
“He needs a nap,” Tony decreed, and Natalia leveled a cold look at him when Stepushka screeched and threw himself onto the concrete floor, pounding tiny fists and kicking the Falcon away.
“Good job, Stark. You want to come deal with this?”
“This is worse than recovering in Italy,” Bucky informed them. “And people in that tent had gangrene.”
“You fixed the tub,” Steve continued blithely, unaware of the racket he would be causing months later as a sleep-deprived toddler. “And I painted the window frames to cut down on the drafts.”
Hawkeye turned up the volume, so that they could hear Steve over his younger self's tantrum, and Bucky calculated the hours until he could stand.
* * *
The Avengers had traded night shifts in the workshop, because Bucky couldn't stand up and Stepushka was a tomato-colored, heaving mess by the late afternoon.
“I can stand up,” Barnes disputed, working the fingers of his new arm, Sam startled every time by the lack of whirring gears or the scrape of overlapping plates. “You just won't let me.”
“Yes,” Bruce agreed, cleaning his glasses on the hem of his shirt. “So stay there. Meditate.”
“No! Nyet!” Stepushka screeched, reminiscent of the screech of birds surprised by pararescue Falcons on their night runs in the desert. “No med'tate!”
“Yeah,” Bucky replied, stretching his right hand across his forehead to massage his temples. “Don't think I'll be meditating tonight.”
When Sam came down to the workshop at four, Pepper was trying to stick a child thermometer in Stepushka's ear while the boy wriggled away in protest, faint sobbing probably all he could manage after a day of shouting and tears.
“He's running a fever,” Pepper updated him, her hair in a messy braid, yawning through her concern. “It's probably a cold. Or maybe he's just overheated from all the shouting. He vomited his dinner, but Bruce thinks that's just because he's too worked up to keep food down.”
“Asthma?” he questioned, bending down to peer at where Stepushka had hidden under Bucky's bed. “Nightmares?”
“Yes to both,” she admitted. “We tranq'ed Bucky around nine, and Bruce set up an IV that should keep him sedated.” Sam's displeasure must have shown in his eyes, because Pepper pulled a face mingling agreement with exhaustion. “He was about to get up and deal with Stepushka himself, and if he doesn't get some sleep, he's never going to heal. Unfortunately, it means we lost the one person who can get Steve to go to bed.”
“Want medwedjonak!” the upset tyke wailed in the dark, crawling out to poke at Bucky's limp right hand. “Wake up, B'kee. Wake up!” He shook the assassin's hand harder, and Sam thought he saw Bucky's eyelids flutter.
“I'm going to take him upstairs,” he told Pepper. “He'll wake Barnes up, if we stay here.”
“He'll wake the whole Tower up, if you try to take him away,” she countered, scrubbing at her eyes to stay awake.
“Do you think they've invented Oreo-flavored Motrin?” he redirected, because she was right, but they were running low on options. “All right, JARVIS, get the elevator ready. Pepper, you stay on that side of the bed, in case he ballets his little self out of my hands.” She nodded wearily, bending her knees into a crouch.
“One, two, three!” Sam grabbed Stepushka with both arms, racing for the elevator before the kid could inhale sufficient air to start screaming and wake up their remaining super soldier. The doors slid shut as Pepper followed him in, just in time for Stepushka's sobs to reverberate through the confined space.
“B'kee! Bucky! Hate you! Nenavizhu tebya!”
“I'll get the Motrin,” Pepper shouted in Sam's ear.
“I'll find Hiccup.” Sam paused. “Well, JARVIS will find Hiccup. Hell, at this point I'd be happy to hear the Wheels on the Bus, if he'd go to sleep.”
Stepushka didn't go to sleep. They watched both How to Train Your Dragon films, while the kid sipped freshly squeezed orange juice from Bruce's favorite market in between crying for Bucky and wondering why the dark-haired man wouldn't come.
By eight in the morning, when Sam had JARVIS tell the Avengers to get their asses to the kitchen if they wanted pancakes, Stepushka had nearly passed out from two more asthma attacks and a cough to go with his fever. Sam put a video of Bucky singing Wheels on the Bus on the TV, and Stepushka stomped across the room just to hit the screen.
“We can wake the cyborg up now, right?” Tony asked through a mouth full of pancake, dripping maple syrup down his chin. “Because I for one do not want to nurse that hellion through the flu.”
“James is going to be angry with you,” Natalia predicted, slicing her pancakes into neat squares and sprinkling powdered sugar on top. She hadn't spoken to Bruce since he'd admitted to tranquilizing Bucky the night before. “He deserved to have a choice.”
“Yeah, he made the choice not to sleep for a month,” Tony rejoined before Bruce could defend his actions. “We'd drug you, Ninja Spice, if you did that and then broke half your bones.”
“You'd try,” she retorted, but stopped glowering at Banner while dissecting her food.
“Do you really think he'll have healed this fast?” Hawkeye asked, scooping vanilla ice cream onto his pancake while Bruce watched him and grimaced. “I mean, from what you two said, that last arm did a number on the guy's chest.”
“No Phil, of course we don't expect you to pay for the damages to floors five through sixteen.” Pepper had rolled her pancake up like a taco, taking bites as she spoke into the phone at her ear. “Well yes, they did clean the carpets. That was very kind of – No, I know that's not why you sent them.” She chewed, rolling her eyes fondly. “Yes, of course we would never demand extra services from your agents, Phil. No, we wouldn't think of – His name is Bucky, Phil.” Pepper set the pancake down, her mouth tightening. “What do you mean, potential hostile? Are you implying that Bucky is a danger to –You trained those Hydra operatives, didn't you? Might want to keep track of the 'potential hostiles' in your organization, Mr. Coulson. We'll send you a bill for the damages, after all.”
“Ms. Potts,” Tony toasted, lifting his coffee cup, and the others raised their mugs. “CEO and force of nature.”
“Bucky's physiology matches Steve's, as far as we can measure,” Bruce said, answering Clint's earlier inquiry. “From the hospital records on Steve after the helicarrier fight and the healing rate of Barnes' bullet wound two days ago, both the internal grafts and the juncture at his arm should be clear for light activity, as long as we can keep him out of the gym.”
“I think Stepushka's fever will do that.” Sam nodded over to the couch, where the kid alternated between crying, glaring at them over the back of the sofa, and glaring at the animated cars on the television. “Is it worth trying to feed him breakfast?”
“I'm not slicing any more fruit,” Natasha stated, stabbing her fork into the pancake. “He insulted my technique.”
“He's three,” Sam admonished, flipping the second batch of pancakes across the long griddle.
Nat frowned. “That's old enough to recognize talent,” she declared, and Clint spat coffee through his nose in his effort not to laugh.
“I think we're all a little tired,” Bruce mediated, already on his third cup of calming tea.
“I think you're avoiding the workshop,” Nat replied, gaze as scathing as her words. Banner stuttered and stared at the antique wood of the table.
“You do promise to help, right?” Tony asked, worry creasing his forehead and the corners of his eyes. “I mean, if he does want to maim us for sedating him?”
“Help whom?” the Black Widow inquired sweetly, green eyes sharp.
Pepper drained her coffee and unfolded from her chair to get more. “Tony and Bruce, go wake Bucky up,” she dictated, the CEO of Stark Industries in a pajama tank top and boxer shorts. “We need him to deal with Stepushka.” She swung around and frowned at Nat's smug look. “And Nat, we need Bruce and Tony to fix Steve, so no maiming or concussions of any sort.” Everyone at the table pouted, including Clint, but Tony and Bruce did stuff down the rest of their breakfast and head for the elevators.
“We few, we happy few,” Tony declaimed, swooning into Bruce's shoulder. “We band of science brothers.”
“JARVIS?” Pepper called, after the elevator doors have closed. “Can you give us video for the workshop?”
“Of course, Ms. Potts,” the AI complied, and the darkened workshop appeared on the wall they'd painted with chalkboard paint, above the dragons – or horses? mermaids? - Stepushka had drawn.
Barnes was perfectly still, his breathing even, and more color in his cheeks than Sam had seen in a month. Bruce was right: the man had needed sleep. Hell, at this point they all needed sleep.
Tony was still talking when the they walked into the workshop, his arm around Bruce's shoulder. Sam recognized it as Stark's nervous patter, one of his walls to ward off vulnerability. Bruce was dressed for yoga and morning meditation, in a light t-shirt and thin pants. Tony had slept in his clothes, the t-shirt stained with coffee and the jean pockets still stuffed with spare parts.
They ran diagnostics first, images of Bucky's bones and brain glowing brightly in the shadowed room.
“He seems fine,” Bruce whispered, spinning a brain scan over to Tony's side of the hospital cot.
“Better than fine,” Tony agreed, flipping a scan upside down and magnifying a section of Barnes' spine. “Look at this, here. He's incorporated the admantium ports into his spine, and the muscles around it are already healed.”
“Great,” Bruce said, pride warring with trepidation when he stared at the man below them. “So, ready to wake him up?”
“No,” Tony answered immediately, but he closed the drip for the sedative and pulled the needle out of Bucky's vein, waving off the cotton ball and band-aid Bruce handed him. “I don't think Disney band-aids are going to make him happier to see us, Banner.”
For a moment, Bucky didn't stir, and despite the angry, unruly toddler on the sofa, Sam almost wished that Barnes would roll over and go back to sleep. One of them deserved to get some rest, and it was the first night Sam could remember where Barnes' nightmares hadn't woken him.
Then Bucky shot off the bed and pinned Tony to the floor. At least he hadn't pinned Bruce, or the situation could have gotten a whole lot worse fast.
“What did you do?” he growled, new metal fingers gleaming around Stark's throat.
“Mild sedative,” Tony gurgled, and Sam noticed JARVIS hadn't bothered to translate. They were all pretty proficient in Russian, by now. “You just slept through the night. To help heal your arm.”
The Winter Soldier considered this, perusing the smooth, mercury-like metal of his new arm. He did not let Stark sit up. Banner held a tranquilizer gun, but he didn't appear inclined to use it.
“Where is Steve?” Barnes demanded, the Russian sharpening Steve's name on his tongue. “Where is the boy?”
“Thank god,” Pepper said quietly, all their eyes riveted to the feed. “I was afraid he meant Steve.”
Stepushka was on the sofa, coughing. Steve they'd been trying to find for weeks, with no luck at all.
“Living room,” Bruce told him, and the Soldier wrenched away from Tony and bounded toward the stairs.
“Well,” Tony hissed, rubbing his throat. He stayed sprawled across the concrete floor, dropped his head and closed his eyes. “That went well.”
Bucky made it up the fifteen floors in seconds – Sam wondered if he had climbed the railings instead of the stairs – and tore the stairwell door out of its frame. He stopped, still holding the door in his metal hand, and frowned.
“You're not used to the sensor relays yet,” Tony explained, coming out of the elevator. “Your arm will be on a hair trigger until you adapt.”
“If it's unbearable, we can recalibrate it,” Bruce added, still carrying the tranquilizer gun. “But it should only be for a day or two, just some jerky motions, stronger reactions than you're expecting. Nothing too bad.”
Bucky nodded, scanning the floor until he saw Stepushka's reddened eyes peering resentfully over the edge of the couch. Then he carefully leaned the door back where it belonged and stepped away.
“We'll add it to Coulson's bill,” Pepper declared, sounding unrepentant. “And I need to get dressed for work. The EPA wants to talk energy alternatives this afternoon in DC.”
“I could use a trip to DC,” Sam mentioned, plating six pancakes for Bucky and setting the wobbling stack on the table.
“You have a group session later,” Tony reminded him, frowning. “And Sgt. Quanisha Adams was coming by for individual counseling at four.”
“It disturbs me that you know this,” Sam told him, dusting his hands off on a dish towel. “Bucky, eat those pancakes, man. No one else will. And for god's sake, get that kid to come to breakfast.”
Bucky cocked his head, watching them with a disinterest he hadn't demonstrated in weeks, guarded but uninvolved. They were lucky that he remembered Stepushka, since Sam was pretty sure that right now he couldn't tell them from every other group of assholes that had put him to sleep.
“Breakfast,” he said again, friendly and calm. “Blueberry pancakes. And then maybe a nap.”
“Has Stepushka eaten?” Barnes asked, the words slow to form, thought out and measured on his tongue. But he spoke English, and Sam counted that as a victory.
“Not yet. He didn't sleep very well, so he's cranky.”
Barnes hummed tonelessly in response, but turned and walked into the living room where Stepushka sat glaring at them all.
“Solnishka,” Bucky addressed the kid softly, right hand extended to brush through Stepushka's hair. “Do you want -”
“Hate you!” Stepushka yelled, slapping Bucky's hand away, tears running down his flushed cheeks. “I hate you!”
“Cranky,” Sam repeated, resigned. “Like I said.” They had all been shouted at before, most of them in the last twenty-four hours. Stepushka might be Steve Rogers, but he had some growing up to do before anyone would call him the ideal man.
They had all been shouted at in the last month – all of them but Bucky, who rocked back like Steve had shot him, gasping for air. The Avengers all ran for the living room in time to see the pained shock on Bucky's face yield to despair.
“Shit,” Bruce said, while the rest of them stood there, baffled by the devastation on Bucky's face. “Shit, we have to do something.”
“Do what?” Tony retorted, waving his arms. “What the fuck just happened?”
“Don't you get it?” Bruce turned his head, gazing at all of them before looking at Bucky. “He's been waiting months for this.”
“For what?” Clint chimed in, holding his bow. “A cranky toddler?”
But Sam had figured it out. “For Steve to admit that he hates him,” he said, unable to watch the man in front of them shatter. “For Steve to realize that he wasn't worth saving, that he has too much blood on his hands to be loved.”
“But that's not true!” Pepper contested, blatantly horrified by every word Sam had said. “Steve adores him! Stepushka's just tired.”
“We know that,” Bruce told her, “but how do we convince him?”
Bucky's shoulders had slumped, his body eerily still. Another second, Sam feared, and he would be gone. He had waited months for Steve to give up on him; he would not hesitate to banish himself from Steve's sight. Hate you, Stepushka had shouted at all of them, but only Bucky had taken him at his word.
“JARVIS!” Tony snapped. “Fix this!”
“Sir, I am not certain how to, as you say, fix this.”
Neither are we, Sam thought, but he knew grounding Bucky with touch and reminders of self-control wouldn't do any good.
“Play a video. Something where Steve proves he's not sending Bucky away.”
“Sir, the only such video I have is not -”
“Play it!” Tony voiced their general desperation. The Winter Soldier was shutting down faster than he ever had – but it wasn't the Soldier at all. Only an unstable, recovering Bucky Barnes could have been brought that low by a moment of childish anger. Sam was willing to bet Steve had never uttered those words to Bucky in their entire lives.
“But sir, Captain Rogers specifically ordered me not to -”
“It's this or Captain Rogers' best friend takes a dive off the Empire State Building,” Tony warned, more accurately than Sam wanted to think about. “Play the damn video, JARVIS.”
“I don't know what you remember.” Eight heads swiveled to scrutinize the TV screen. Bucky flinched away from Steve's face, but didn't try to run.
Steve sat on the floor next to his bed, the pillow and blanket indicating that it was where he had attempted to get some sleep. “It doesn't seem like you remember very much, sometimes.” Steve exhaled slowly, staring at the hands he was wringing in his lap. “But I guess we haven't talked that much. Maybe you do.
“It's been almost four months. Sam says -” He swallowed, trying to wash the thickness out of his voice. “Sam says I should stop hoping you'll remember at all. He says maybe it's better if you don't.
“But you remember being Hydra's prisoner.” Steve gazed sadly into the camera. “I can hear words, sometimes, when you scream at night. I wish – I wish that if you were going to forget, you could forget that, too.” He pressed the heels of his palms against his eyes, eyelashes damp when he moved his hands away.
“But Sam's right. You're here, and I'm right here with you, whoever you want to be. You couldn't become anyone I wouldn't want in my life. You couldn't, Buck, I know you too well for that.”
Steve inhaled, apparently unaware of the tears running unchecked down his cheeks. “So I'm letting it go. You'll always be my friend, Buck. It doesn't – it doesn't matter that you don't remember that you were everything else, too.”
“Wait,” Tony interrupted, “did he mean -”
“It's not like it's the first time you didn't know I was in love with you. You didn't know it back in the '30s, either, but that didn't make it less true. I just -” Steve's voice caught on a sob. He jammed his fist in his mouth and breathed, choking on the tears. “- wanted it to be forever, that's all. We were gonna finish the war and move to DC and keep the shades down so the neighbors couldn't see . . . and then you fell, and it was still forever, because I wasn't going anywhere without you.
“But now you're here.” Steve wiped futilely at his eyes, tears clinging to his hands. “And you're not mine. And it's not forever, after all. I wish -” He paused, gave his head a sharp shake. “But I'm letting that go. It's not important, you remembering that. Just as long as you remember that I've loved you since I was six, even if the how of it changed. Even if it got so much better. Damn it. Damn it, JARVIS, delete this. He can't see this, JARVIS. He can't.”
They all stared at the black screen, similar expressions of shock on their faces. Tony opened his mouth, then left it gaping wide without saying a word.
“Steve,” Bucky whispered, both hands clenched too hard on the back of the sofa. “Oh, Steve, you fool.”
Sam exhaled through his astonishment, relieved that Bucky was speaking English. That he sounded like the deadly nanny and poker champion they'd come to know. Exposing Steve's deepest secret was maybe not their best decision – Steve was going to kill them, if they ever got him back – but it seemed to have done the trick and brought Bucky Barnes back from the abyss.
Then Stepushka stood up, still on the sofa, and Sam could only watch as it all splintered around them.
“Medved?” he queried, his high voice hoarse from a night of crying. He wasn't so different from his grown-up self, in that. “B'kee?” But Bucky was still transfixed by the Steve that had faded from the screen, oblivious to the child his friend had become.
Then the boy leaned his chest against Bucky's metal hand, clamped down on his arm to scale it and sit on Bucky's shoulders like he normally did. And it would have been fine, except that Bucky wasn't paying attention and the arm was new and the sensitivity was too high and it felt like slow motion as the metal arm jerked in surprise and hit Stepushka with enough force to send him flying across the room.
Stepushka slammed into the entertainment center with a terrifying thud, then dropped like a rag doll to the floor, blood staining his white-blond hair. He didn't cry. He didn't move.
They all stood there, glued to the floor. Maybe if none of them moved, Steve would start crying, and they would know that he was all right. Maybe if none of them moved. . .
Bucky didn't make a sound, but Sam hoped JARVIS wasn't recording this. Once was one too many times to see the horror scrawled through grey eyes and Bucky's pale face. For a moment, the former assassin was utterly still. Then he spun around, shattering the silence as he dove through the picture window past the kitchen, silhouetted against the morning sky, sixty floors in the air.
Tony didn't hesitate. “JARVIS, suit!” he shouted, already following Barnes through the broken glass and into the air.
Natasha leaped over the sofa and landed next to the crumpled, bleeding boy. “He's breathing,” she announced, and Sam could finally inhale. She ran fingers across Stepushka's scalp, down his spine. “I'm not a doctor,” she went on, and Pepper waved the phone where she was calling one, “but it seems like he hit his head on the TV and passed out. Just got the breath knocked out of him. He should be fine.”
“And Barnes?” Clint asked, looking at the man-sized hole in the nearest window.
“Tony?” Bruce called into the air around them. “Do you have eyes on him?” Did you see him finish that suicide mission? Sam thought, and tried not to recall Riley spiraling to the ground, one wing smoking and useless, his right side torn away.
“That's a negative, Ghostrider,” Tony's voice came back through JARVIS' speakers, tinnier than normal. Bruce looked pleased: if Tony couldn't see Barnes, then the man wasn't splattered on the sidewalk below. “How's wee Rogers?”
“Breathing,” Sam answered, and Tony's sigh of relief gusted through the room. “Can't you get a heat signature, or something?”
“It's Manhattan,” Tony replied. “I have three million heat signatures in a two-mile radius!” There was a staticky pause, then, “Oh, wait, about a third of those are pigeons. JARVIS, who set the limits on the heat signature calculations?”
“You did, sir,” the unflappable AI reported. “And the trauma doctor is on the helipad. Shall I escort her in?”
“Please,” Pepper responded, her chin up. If Sam hadn't known to watch for the tremors in her hands, where they had sparked with fire months ago, he would have thought she was fine. “I think I'll go reschedule with the EPA.”
“Should we tell Phil -”
“If you set Director Coulson's agents on a hunt for the Winter Soldier,” Pepper hissed before Clint could finish his question, “I will decorate your entire floor with taxidermied birds, Barton.”
“Right.” Clint scratched the back of his head. “I think I'm gonna go get the vacuum. Maybe call a guy about window replacement.”
The doctor came out of the elevator at the same time Iron Man flew through the broken window, startling Clint into attacking him with the vacuum cleaner.
“Nothing,” Tony said, tugging his face plate up. “I've got nothing. We've lost him.”
They watched the doctor stride over to Natasha's side, kneeling to check Stepushka's pulse.
“Do you think he remembered?” Tony asked suddenly, standing between Sam and Bruce as they watched the doctor shine a light in Stepushka's tiny eyes. “I mean, do you think Bucky remembered that he and Steve were . . .”
Sam thought of how Barnes had avoided Steve in the months after they'd brought him to the Tower. How he would disappear to the roof when Steve was outside his door; the way he would track Steve's every move until Rogers turned around and saw him standing there. The way Bucky's fingers traced Steve's pulse on a TV screen, how he hid in the ventilation shaft when Steve found him making coffee. “Yeah,” Sam said, watching the last few months play before his eyes, feeling like a fool. “He remembered.”
“And now that he thinks he killed Steve,” Bruce added, cleaning his glasses for the third time in so many minutes. “How do we find him before he follows?”
“Your boy's a mess, Rogers. But he's a damn fine hand with machines. Rebuilt that Lister engine twice as fast as my assistants could.”
Howard Stark was shorter, off the Expo stage and standing in a London bunker. Or maybe Bucky was taller. He didn't feel taller, but he'd always measured his height to Steve's – and now Steve was the size of a house.
“He worked at a garage, before this.” Steve picked up a random assortment of wires from Stark's desk, fiddled with them a moment before setting them down. “And he's not my boy.”
Neither of them noticed Bucky, sitting behind the mold for some sort of tank and a disassembled motorbike, breaking down and cleaning all the guns. At two in the morning, they probably expected him to be asleep, dreaming of Giarrochi's face when he stepped out of line to warn Bucky about the sniper and got his legs blown off by the mine.
Bucky hadn't slept much, since the boat from New York.
“Then you must be his,” Howard countered with a smirk, prying the plate off one of the Hydra machines they'd brought back over the line. “Have you tried asking him if he likes fondue?”
“Good night, Howard,” Steve replied, turning to leave. “We'll all be down for weapons training at 0900 tomorrow.”
The workshop was quiet, after Steve left, just the ratcheting of Stark's screwdriver and the groan of metal bent away from its frame. Bucky could break down each weapon without making a sound. He had pocketed weapons pieces for a month, after their capture, sat awake in the cell at night trying to build them back into guns.
They'd shot Lt. Hillman, when Bucky's guns weren't enough to stand up to Hydra's soldiers. They'd made Rappallo bleed before they let him die. Bucky had planned the escape. He had led it, and it had failed, and when the soldiers came to punish him Zola stepped forward and declared, “Vait. Zis one, he might be useful.”
“He's gone,” Howard Stark said, his head inside the Hydra equipment, cutting through the litany of Bucky's failures. “If you wanted to come out.”
Bucky scrambled to his feet, holding the rifle he'd just rebuilt. “I,” he croaked, still learning to speak without screaming or coating his throat with scotch. “I'll go.”
“Or you could come help me figure out whether Hydra used this box to fry people or eggs,” Howard offered, knocking the weapon incautiously with his knuckles and shrugging. Stark's shoulders tensed when Bucky moved to leave, and the engineer stared at the dark doorway to the lab for longer than made sense if he were waiting for Steve to return. “I don't mind the company.”
“I'm not much company,” Bucky warned him, carrying the rifle over to Howard's desk.
“Well, then, you can stand there like a lump and pass me tools. Think you can handle that, Barnes?”
It was only half an hour before Steve was back in the lab, pounding down the corridor at a run. “Howard!” he called into the workshop before he made it through the door. “I can't find Bucky. He's not in his rack, or in – Oh.” He drew up short, panting in the doorway, his white shirt and boxers bright against the black night, the darkness in Bucky's dreams. “You're uh, you're here. That's good.”
Howard's teeth were white against his soot-smudged face when he grinned. “And whose rack were you hoping he'd be in, Rogers?” He gave a lascivious wink, and Steve blushed.
No one saw the poor. That much, at least, hadn't changed. Bucky crouched on the far end of the subway platform in too many layers for a warm summer day, his jeans torn and stained, and all the well-dressed New Yorkers gave him a wide berth.
No one had stopped to fish Merv and Bucky out of the dirty Manhattan snow after the Packard hit them in '33. Businessmen and their secretaries kept their eyes averted from the two frozen, grubby boys and hurried on their way.
Steve had worried that there was no way for the Commandos to infiltrate occupied Paris, not with Morita and Jones and Captain America's recognizable face. Bucky had dressed them like laborers, like boys pushed off the farm because they couldn't be fed, and the Vichy scum crossed to the other side of the Paris streets to avoid the chance that les pauvres might beg them for coins.
Steve had – Steve.
The D train came barreling down the tracks, and Bucky grit his teeth and did not lunge for the rails.
Steve had wanted to stop Hydra, and Bucky had joined them. He'd killed Steve, the way his handlers had hoped he would all along.
He could step in front of an express train when every last poisonous head had been burned to the ground.
“What are we even doing out here, Buck?” Steve scrambled down the shore after him, the electric lights from Coney Island making his hair glow white like it had 'til Steve was twelve. “I know you love the ocean, but it's dark. You want to go swimming now?”
Moonlight spilled over the waves, falling in silvery ripples over the black ocean. Steve had drawn the ocean at night for Bucky's birthday this past winter. Folded it into the hat he'd knitted while he'd been laid up with the flu.
He stopped by the old piers, waited for Steve to catch up. Practiced the speech he'd given to their shaving mirror, the mufflers on the shop floor, the onions at the market. Steve was the brave one, not Bucky, but Bucky was eighteen now and it had been four years and if he didn't say it now it would never get said.
He cleared his throat and tried not to vomit the way Steve had on the Cyclone last summer.
Steve was wearing his blue shirt – Bucky's old Sunday shirt – the sleeves rolled up to his elbows and his collar unbuttoned, because August was a goddamn miserable month in the city. He'd slicked back his hair, but after all day sweating at the beach it flopped forward and into his eyes. He lifted a hand to push it off his forehead, and Bucky watched long fingers and sunburned cheeks and breathed.
“There's all sorts of things to do besides swim,” he told Steve when the older boy stumbled to a halt beside him. Bucky gave an exaggerated wink, and felt the nausea subside a little when Steve blushed. Any other day and he would've thrown an arm over Steve's shoulders, the only touching Steve allowed until he crawled into Bucky's bed at night, pressing his ear to Bucky's chest. He would have tugged Steve close and hauled them off down the beach telling Steve stories to keep his cheeks rosy all the way home.
Any other day but the one Bucky had chosen to bare his soul.
“Oh yeah?” Steve challenged, grinning, because Bucky wasn't the only jerk from Brooklyn. “What would you know about it? The only broad you've been making time with is your right hand.”
“Shut up, asshole.” Bucky shoved him and Steve laughed, high and clear and probably enough to startle the kids screwing around under the nearest pier. Steve teased Bucky every morning that they woke up with Bucky's erection pressing into Steve's thigh, and never guessed that it wasn't because of luscious Miri Edelman down the block.
“Aw, c'mon Buck. I ain't Miri, and I'm getting cold. Let's go home.” Steve punched him lightly in the shoulder, still smiling under the faint light from Coney Island and the moon.
Bucky swallowed hard. He reached out and wrapped a hand around Steve's thin forearm, warm from a day in the sun. “I – it's not just broads here, with their steadies.” His throat was dry. Steve stared at him, confused.
“Okay,” he drawled out, slow. “Who else is it, Buck? Call girls?”
“Queers,” Bucky burst out in a rush, the speech he'd practiced shredding at his cracked lips. Steve's hair went silver, under the moon, and his sunburned face was shades of pink and gold. “Fellas.” Steve's lips had gone tight, and Bucky tightened his hold around Steve's slender wrist and scraped out the words from his churning stomach. “We could – you know. No one would care, here, if you wanted to . . . make time. With me.” The last words were no more than a gasp into the sea breeze, a whisper dying in the face of Steve's white-knuckled anger.
Steve wrenched his arm away. Stepped backward, the way he did when he was lining up a punch, and Bucky felt the safe shell of the night and the roll of the ocean crack and fall away. He didn't protest, when Steve shoved him hard enough to knock him backward into the wet sand.
“Why the hell would you say that?” Steve growled. His voice was always lower than people expected, rumbling out of his fragile chest instead of shrieked through his nose. Bucky sat in the hard-packed sand and felt his courage leach out with the tide.
“I don't know,” he whispered, when the silhouette above him seemed to be waiting for an answer. “I'm just dumb, I guess.” Dumb, for thinking that Steven Grant Rogers would want something like that. Dumb, for not taking Sister D's lessons to heart and being happy with what he had.
“You calling me a fairy, Buck?” Steve didn't have his fists up, but he sounded like he might bury one of 'em into Bucky's gut, if someone gave him a chance. “The McNarries've called me that for years. You finally decide to join them?”
“Don't be stupid,” Bucky snapped, rolling to his feet and leaving the broken casing of his hopes on the beach. “You're no more queer than I am.” A lot less queer, in fact, since Bucky's offer had been met with a push and not a kiss. “I'm sorry, all right?” He jammed his hands in his pockets and stared at the ground, scuffing his shoes into the sand. “Just forget I said anything.”
“Sure,” Steve said, finally, stepping around to nudge Bucky in the side. “It's forgotten.” He prodded Bucky into looking at him and smiled, blue eyes twinkling. “If you buy me a chocolate egg cream on the way home, you jerk.”
“Whatever you want,” Bucky agreed grandly, slinging his arm around Steve's shoulders as they trudged up the beach. If he didn't look back, he wouldn't have to imagine that the kids under the pier were them. He wouldn't wonder how Steve's lips might feel against his own, or if his skin tasted like charcoal and salt under Bucky's tongue. “Whatever you want,” he said again, knowing now that it wasn't him.
He got off the train in suburban Queens, and headed for the first target on his list. If he didn't close his eyes, he wouldn't see the blood pooling under Stepushka's white-blond hair, the bullets in Steve's side.
* * *
“Anything?” Clint asked over the comms, and Sam sighed as he added his “Zilch” to everyone's negative replies.
“I'll sweep Harlem again,” Pepper suggested from inside the Iron Man suit, a red and gold blur over midtown Manhattan. “Natasha hasn't checked the train platforms in Hoboken yet. Sam, did you get visuals on all the bridges?”
“This is pointless.” Silence followed Natasha's pronouncement. None of them had wanted to say it, but the truth of it hung like a pall over the comms. “We will not find him. We caught him the last time only because he allowed it.”
As much as Sam wanted to argue that a knife to his femoral artery did not imply that the Winter Soldier had allowed them anything, he knew it was true. The Soldier had laid a path out for them to follow, had nearly killed Sam and Natasha but let Steve come so close the two men could have embraced.
Well. Maybe the Soldier had remembered, even then.
“We might find the body,” Clint offered, putting their unsaid mission into words. There was a reason that Sam was doing reconnaissance over bridges while Nat checked train platforms and Clint scrolled through CCTV footage. No one bothered to scan the tops of buildings: if a fall from the Alps couldn't kill Bucky Barnes, the Chrysler Building certainly wouldn't do the trick.
“We won't even find that, unless he wishes it.”
Sam turned around mid-swoop over the Queensboro Bridge and headed for the Tower, forgoing the usual twists and dives he normally did to spice up the flight home. He felt like he hadn't slept for days. He hadn't slept for days, between Stepushka's fever and Bucky's vanishing act.
“All right,” he said, yawning through the words. He landed hard on the helipad and skidded to a stop, wings retracting silently into their pack. “We are not a suicide hotline for assassins. We need a new plan.”
“Any ideas?” Pepper inquired, landing on the roof next to him and pulling off the Iron Man helmet. She should have been at the office, but Tony and Bruce were sequestered in the lab doing experiments with Stepushka's blood, and she had decided to put on the metal suit and help the search party instead.
“He thinks Steve's dead, right?” They headed for the elevator, automatically pressing the button for Steve's floor. Pepper nodded, letting Tony's machines peel away the other pieces of the suit, wincing when they caught her braid. “And as long as he thinks Stepushka's dead, he's unstable. He won't come back. We won't find him. So somehow we have to convince him that Stepushka isn't dead.”
“We could do a press conference?” Pepper proposed, waving at Clint where he sat on the couch next to a towheaded child drowning in all the blankets they could find. “Put Stepushka on stage.”
“And show Hydra that he's alive and well?” Natasha demanded, coming out of the stairwell through the broken door that none of them had bothered to repair. “We prove to them that we cannot cure Steve and they did not kill him, and they will redouble their efforts.”
Pepper frowned. “Bucky said that we'd killed -”
“Yes,” Nat interrupted, brushing the words aside. “You did. But they will bring in operatives and scientists from other continents. They would sacrifice their last man for the chance to create an army of super-soldiers.”
“I also wouldn't describe the kid as 'well',” Clint interjected, pulling the thermometer away from Stepushka's ear. “His fever's still over a hundred. And he hasn't eaten since . . . Uh. Has anyone managed to feed him?”
“Shit,” Sam hissed, running over the past twenty-four hours in his head. It was a testament to how ill Stepushka felt, that he didn't pop up and say “shit” with a pint-sized version of Steve's cocky grin.
Stepushka hadn't smiled in days. None of them had, really. Who'd have thought that the disappearance of one dysfunctional hitman would steal all the joy in Avengers' Tower?
Banner and Stark had set up camp in the lab, in constant conference calls with the few scientists they trusted, though Sam wasn't sure how Clint's ex-wife and several astrophysicists were supposed to help reverse a de-aging formula. The two even slept down there, curled up on beanbag chairs muttering about enzymes and nucleotides in their dreams.
“Only one person who can find Barnes,” Tony had explained, when he'd come up to take more samples from Stepushka's hair. “If we can get Rogers back before -” Stark set his jaw and looked away. Bruce couldn't kill himself, and most of the other Avengers had spent so long surviving that they didn't know how to stop. But Bucky - “We'll get Cap back, and then he'll find Barnes and they can kiss and make up.”
Sam didn't think that scenario was very likely, since there'd been no kissing in the four months Barnes and Rogers had shared a Tower floor, but it was better than the old Hydra pictures of Sgt. Barnes bleeding to death in the snow that he saw every time he scanned another bridge.
With Bruce and Tony sequestered in the lab, that left the rest of them to mount increasingly futile search and rescue missions. “I don't understand!” Sam had complained, on circuit six down the East River the day before. “The man was a marionette. Hydra wiped him and gave him orders. He shouldn't be this good at thinking for himself.”
Natasha's snort had come in clearly through the comm links. She had been on babysitting duty that day, and Pepper had been shifting Clint around the city while she scoured for flashes of a metal arm. “You met him on his final mission, Wilson,” the Black Widow replied. “The longer he remains out of cryo, the more he remembers. For decades they trained him as an operative, not just the trigger of a gun. Now you are looking for a man with the skills of the Winter Soldier and the heart of Sergeant Barnes.”
“I'm pretty sure we've got Sergeant Barnes' heart sneezing on your lap, 'Tasha,” Clint had shouted over the roar of the wind at the top of the Woolsworth Building.
Then Pepper had terrified a brunette veteran with a DEKA prosthetic arm and called Sam for help, ending day two of the search. By the time they'd flown home, Stepushka had cried himself into a restless doze and Natasha had a sippy cup filled with vodka on the coffee table.
This time, day three of futile searching for Barnes, it was Clint with a beer poured into a Frozen plastic cup and a worn expression on his face, uneaten bowl of chicken soup and full cup of orange juice still sitting on the coffee table. Sam shrugged off his wing pack and sat down on Stepushka's other side.
The boy had butterfly bandages at his temple and a few flakes of dried blood left in his hair and on his scalp. That and the bruising on his chest and back – from Bucky's arm and the entertainment center, respectively – were the only signs of the catastrophe in the Tower three days ago. They'd replaced the window, and if Bucky had stayed, Stepushka would have been fine.
But Bucky hadn't stayed, and the boy's eyes were nearly swollen shut with crying, his cheeks hollow from too long without food. The cold he'd contracted while Bucky had been in the lab had turned into a bout of flu with a worryingly high fever and a cough that tore at Stepushka's already delicate lungs.
“Hey, little man,” Sam said gently, rubbing at Stepushka's back under the man's black t-shirt that he refused to take off. “How you feeling?”
“Want B'kee,” Stepushka wheezed in Russian, reddened eyes gazing reproachfully at Sam. The kid hadn't spoken English since he'd regained consciousness, as though Russian might be enough to bring back Bucky Barnes. Sam didn't think that would be any more successful than the Winter Soldier's Russian had been in driving Steve Rogers away.
“So do I,” Sam admitted. “But he'll come home soon, and he'll be sad if he finds out you aren't eating.” Nat raised an eyebrow at him from the love seat, but didn't point out that the chances Barnes would come home soon were slim to highly improbable.
Stepushka frowned at the tepid soup, then squinted up at Sam. The boy's head must ache horribly, between the crying and the fever. “If I eat,” he negotiated in a toddler's Russian still more sophisticated than Sam's, “Bucky come home?”
Three heads swiveled to stare at Sam, waiting for his response. He ignored them, and dredged up a persuasive smile for the little boy gazing hopefully at him. He was afraid that if he looked in a mirror, he would see the same smile he'd given men bleeding out in the sand, when he told them they were going to be fine.
“Yeah,” Sam promised, because he would say anything to convince Stepushka to eat and keep him off a feeding tube. He would lie, because it was more likely each day that Bucky was never coming home. “If you eat, Bucky will hurry back as fast as he can.”
“Sam,” Pepper chastised, broadcasting her disapproval as Stepushka straightened up and gulped down the orange juice as fast as his raw throat could. “You can't tell him that -”
“We told Steve that he couldn't save the Winter Soldier,” Sam cut her off, moving the TV tray over Stepushka's lap and handing the boy his purple spoon, “and he decided to get blown up in a helicarrier. Do you want to watch a three-year-old starve himself, Pep'?”
“Maybe we should start thinking about Plan B for Bucky hunting,” Clint interceded, finishing the last of his beer. “And call for take out. Afghan, anyone?”
JARVIS placed their orders and Sam fetched more beer, wondering briefly if Steve would be horrified to learn the Avengers had taken over his kitchen and stocked half the fridge with designer micro-brews. Of course, if Bruce and Tony re-aged Steve, Captain America would probably be out the door and searching for Barnes before he thought to open the refrigerator.
They sat in silence for a moment, watching Stepushka sneeze into his soup, and then the boy raised his head to blink at them. “Where's Steef?” he asked, frowning at the black TV screen.
He lost about twenty-seven years and caught the flu, Sam thought. And yet he's still moping over Bucky Barnes.
“He's, um, sleeping?” Pepper offered, making a face at the ridiculousness of her own statement. “Wouldn't you rather watch the dragons?”
“No!” Stepushka barked, spitting bits of noodle across his tray. “Want Steef. Medwedjonak loves Steef.”
“Seriously?” Clint said, giving Stepushka an irritated frown. “The kid who wants to be a Viking figured it out before we did?”
“We played baseball down in Mr. Haggerty's empty lot, behind the canning factory. You batted for me, and I played first, because the first baseman didn't have to run. You got the other guys to call me 'Babe', for Babe Herman, like playing at Ebbets was the same thing as using cans for bases and a ball with half its stitches missing.” Steve held up the tablet on his lap, flipping through black and white photos of Ebbets Field, and some he must have found of random boys in the 1920s playing ball. Sam imagined a towheaded boy in a faded shirt and suspenders holding up his shorts, crouching over a flattened tin can with a battered glove. “You broke a window, once, batting off one of Danny's knuckleballs.”
Stepushka seemed content to nibble at his soup and watch Steve tell stories of young Bucky Barnes' crimes and misdemeanors. Steve's voice flowed through the living room, spilling over the couches and into the freshly cleaned carpets, filling the space that echoed with the absence of the two men meant to be there.
“So,” Pepper said quietly, stylus appearing from nowhere and held over her phone. “Recommendations for how to persuade Bucky that Stepushka's alive without alerting Hydra?”
“Or letting SHIELD know we lost the Winter Soldier,” Nat added, pressing the beer to her temples. She hid her betrayal well, but Sam had sat through weeks of terrible reality TV and stilted admissions, and he knew that Natasha had a long way to go before she forgave Fury and Coulson, or trusted anyone wearing a badge.
“We could have Stepushka sing him a song?” Sam suggested. “Feature him in the next Gerber commercial?”
“And broadcast it where?” Clint challenged. “The subway system? Barnes could be in Mumbai, for all we know.”
“Wheels on the Bus,” Stepushka advised them solemnly, looking up from the bottom of his soup bowl. “'s good song. B'kee said.”
“Great,” Sam sighed, standing up to grab their dinner from the security guard Maria Hill had personally vetted. “We'll play 'Wheels on the Bus' in Mumbai. Ought to work like a charm.”
* * *
Mumbai was hot. The air settled like the clothes strung across allies, heavy with smog that never faded, thick with the promise of an incoming monsoon. It soaked the inhabitants with dirty sweat, chafed at Bucky's skin under his salwar kameez and shemagh. No one paid any notice to another poor Muslim man folded into a doorway of the slums that Mumbai's economic prosperity had yet to cure. No one noticed his shaking hands, or his far too pale eyes.
He waved away a woman's offer of water and forced himself back out into the trash-strewn streets of the bustling city. There were more people touching him than Bucky had seen for months, shouting into windows and out of rickshaws, dodging cattle and piles of offal in the dusty streets. The city smelled of dust and shit, gas fumes and cardamom.
He had come to Mumbai seven years before. In November, when the weather had blown cool over his chilled skin and his mind had stayed clear of anything but his mission. The perfect day to remind foolish people that safety came only when they sacrificed their independence for security.
The sad, beautiful blond man had followed the Soldier into the Leopold Cafe, unobtrusive only because no one else could see him. He stood at the Winter Soldier's shoulder, leaned into the frozen metal of his left hand while the right hand lifted a weapon to gun the unsuspecting patrons down.
A beggar latched on to Bucky's metal arm, squeezing hard against circuits that could feel the pressure after years of no sensation at all. He freed his arm with an irritated flick of his wrist. Tossed the beggar far enough into the crowd that he caught a glimpse of the half-naked boy slamming, stunned, into a stand laden with fruit.
A boy. Stepushka's tiny fingers grasping at his forearm, his fevered skin pressed to the back of Bucky's hand. His blond cowlick sodden with blood, fragile limbs stilled and already going cold.
The Winter Soldier brought death wherever he went. He carried it in his fingertips, in the chill of his grasp and the shattered ice of his soul. They had sent him to war, once, drafted him and never let him leave the battlefield behind.
He'd known it was coming for months. No chance in hell he could get to the mail before Steve. No chance in hell he could convince the other man to change their names and run away so that Bucky could protect Steve.
There was so much to protect Steve from, by 1942. His lungs, when the weather got bad, icy and bone cold like it had been since Thanksgiving. The war that Steve kept trying to join, jogging around the block and sweating through push ups in their home until he caught another cold. Bucky, who wanted him in ways that Steve was too good to understand.
Bucky had expected the induction notice. He had thought that Steve would open the order to report before he got home from the shop, would have shown it to all their neighbors, puffed with pride like he was the one shipping off for the Front.
He hadn't expected to find Steve turning blue on their stoop, the draft notice unopened in his slender, frost-white hands.
Bucky slipped on a patch of ice and nearly slid into the oncoming trolley as he raced across the street, completely forgetting the chocolate cookies he'd bought Steve and tucked carefully into his pocket as he ripped his coat off, shoving it over Steve's bony shoulders and herding the stupid man inside before he'd even caught his breath.
He shouted the entire way up the rickety stairs, unable to hear a single word he uttered over the terror buzzing through his veins. Steve's cheeks were as bloodless and pale as the rest of his skin. He must have stood there for hours, holding the damn induction letter. Was he waiting for Bucky to come home? What was wrong with Steve, twenty-four years old and too dumb to get off the porch and in front of the coal stove.
The sweater folded on their three-legged table was blue, like the waves when they rose out of the ocean and sparkled under the summer sun. Blue like Steve's eyes when he shook Bucky awake in the morning, face still puffy with sleep and hair flat on one side, smirking at his grumpy friend. Bucky pulled it over Steve's head, mussing dark-blond hair and trapping his coat under the meticulously knitted rows.
“Bucky!” A mouthful of wool didn't muffle Steve's protests at all. “That's your Christmas present, Buck. You can't just -”
Steve was lucky he had the breath to complain, after hours inhaling the sharp winter cold. “Shut up,” Bucky commanded, hoping that Steve couldn't hear his voice wobble. Steve didn't even have the sense to come inside, and Bucky was supposed to leave him in the dead of winter for a war anyone could fight. “If you catch cold -” I won't be able to leave you. I can barely stand it as it is, don't ask me to do this, Stevie. Please don't. “- all we'll get for Christmas is pie. You know I can't cook roast for shit.”
It was true. The last time Bucky had tried to make dinner they had needed to open all the windows, even the ones that had been painted shut. Steve had choked down the charred meat with a pained smile, declaring that it had that smoky flavor the rich people paid for at Delmonico's steak house.
Bucky bent to stock the coal stove, hunched over so that Steve couldn't see him brush furiously at his eyes. They had celebrated Christmas 1941 in the hospital when Steve's cold had turned into the flu, which had morphed into pneumonia that had the doctors concerned about the fluid building up in his straining lungs. Bucky had worked over the holiday to pay the bills, crept in after hours with the help of a nurse who had known Steve's Ma. He'd sat at Steve's side, exhausted, and listened to every shallow inhale and wet cough.
They'd saved up this year, skipped birthdays and desserts so that they'd have the money to make this Christmas a good one. And now it would be their last Christmas, before Bucky went to war.
The envelope caught his ear when Steve jammed it toward the stove, inches away from the flames licking up around the scrap wood they gathered off the streets. He caught Steve's wrist without thinking, fingers wrapped around the cool skin and familiar protruding bones. Burning the letter wouldn't do anything at all, except force Bucky to report to the recruitment center to learn when his train left for Basic.
Burning the letter wouldn't do anything – except maybe spare Steve's pride a blow, seeing evidence that the Army would draft Bucky before it would accept Steve.
Bucky twisted to his feet, shifting to grab the notice and put it away so that Steve didn't have to look at it. He stopped moving entirely when Steve's dripping nose bumped into his cheek, the chapped and bitten lips that he'd gazed at for years shoved against his mouth in an awkward kiss.
Oh. He would have enlisted years ago, would have moved to Canada and joined the RAF if it got him Steve Rogers' big mouth and clammy hands on his skin. Bucky Barnes had no pride when it came to Steve, had given it up to go begging for soup or medicine, sacrificing what Father Allison called his good name when stealing would accomplish what begging would not. Sacrificed his good name again, when other boys would give him what Steve would not, when he could come home smelling of sweat and sex and make Steve flush with jealousy.
But Steve had rejected him under a pier years before, and Steve's jealousy was only because he believed that Bucky had made time with a dame who wouldn't look twice at him. Steve always said he wanted a real lady, a dancing partner and a good Catholic girl like his Ma. Steve wanted a dame, not a mechanic turned soldier.
It turned out Bucky had some pride left, after all, though it took everything he had to pull away from the sloppy kiss without returning it, gathering Steve into his arms and dragging them down to the living room floor.
Steve loved Bucky like a brother. Like all the family that neither of them had. He would do anything for Bucky – even pretend to want him like Bucky wanted Steve – if he thought that it would give Bucky something to hold onto in the war.
“You're a punk,” Bucky whispered, digging his fingers into the soft yarn of his Christmas sweater where it swam on Steve's smaller frame. He tugged Steve close, tucking his face into brilliantined blond hair and feeling his own ribs creak under the strain of Steve's answering embrace.
Steve had never told Bucky no – except he had, once, under the pier. He would do anything for Bucky. It was Bucky's job, now, never to ask for more than Steve wanted to give.
Tourists believed that the east side of Gharapuri – Elephanta Island, off the coast of Mumbai and home to the Shiva cave – was closed because of the unfinished cave. Or perhaps they did not consider it, moving where signs permitted them like the sheep the Winter Soldier's handlers had claimed they were.
Monsters loved caves, flourished in darkness that could hide the evil glinting from their fangs. The Soldier's handlers had loved Gharapuri, statues of demons and warring gods. Shiva, the destroyer.
They threw him into the freezing water after he had thawed, sloughing the ice of the cryogenic chamber off his mottled skin. Shiva, Zola hissed, smiling at his asset. Shiva, the creator of life.
Two scientists in the underground testing facility, four powerful politicians, and twenty guards. Every bullet that Bucky fired lodged in a star-spangled chest, an illusion he couldn't shake from his gaze. That's why we stuck stars all over your hero. Wouldn't want you shooting him by mistake. The blood on his silvery metal arm belonged to a small, towheaded boy with a lisp.
When they woke the Winter Soldier he knew better than to tell them that he fought with a silent, despairing ghost at his side. The quietly furious blond man had been with him for every mission, wept wordlessly beside him after every kill.
One of the guards recognized the Winter Soldier and imprudently moved to capture and not to kill. He died quickly, but the unspeaking blond man who had dogged the Soldier's steps was not there to grieve. Only Steve could capture Bucky, and Bucky had finally completed the mission that the Soldier could not. Had struck Captain America down.
He'd known they were following him. All of them. He had dispatched sixty-four operatives in the half a year since failing his final mission. He had evaded capture nineteen times. Pierce was dead, the TV anchors promised, but he knew who controlled the news, and knew better than to believe. He knew who shaped the centuries.
No one would think to look for the Winter Soldier in Magadan, a shrinking port town in the icy heart of Asiatic Russia. He slept for a week before they came, giving his chest time to heal the bruises that bloomed where metal met flesh.
He had seen the woman in the SHIELD files. Natasha Romanoff. He knew who controlled SHIELD, and he knew her by another name. Natalia Romanova. The Black Widow. The Red Room's prodigy. She would be the leader of this extraction group, the way Rumlow had led his own group of Hydra thugs. Her team could not match Rumlow's for numbers, but Hydra did not have as many heads, after the collapse.
He dispatched her first, a shot through her knee and the quick snap of her head against the airport's one-plane hangar. She tumbled into the snowbank nearby. The other man, the Falcon, dodged bullets from both the Soldier's guns while trying to reach the woman. Interesting, that he was more focused on reviving her than on bringing Hydra's asset in.
The Soldier did not bother shooting at the blond man shivering in a blue costume a few meters away. Bullets could not harm an apparition that only the Soldier could see.
Then the Soldier's ghostly companion shouted to the black man, breaking the stillness that settled like frost over the acres of Russian snow. The Winter Soldier's blond man had never spoken to anyone else. Had never said a word to the victims he mourned.
He flipped the apparition to the runway when the man came too close, smashed a boot into his thigh and turned to finish off the Hydra agents they had sent for him. He could have killed the woman already, if he had thrown her harder. He found it more difficult to kill them, the longer he went without programming.
The Falcon postured in front of his team leader, intending to protect her prostrate form. Interesting. None of the other operatives had attempted to guard each other. A few had fled, hoping to save themselves by leaving their comrades to the death lurking in the Soldier's hands.
He brought the Falcon down easily, a knife in the operative's thigh. Neither he or the Black Widow would survive long in the January cold. Sixty-six agents dead, after this. Two more dead in an endless supply, while their defective asset circled the globe for a chance to rest.
The blond man – Steve Rogers, the museum had said, and the clamoring corners of the Soldier's mind agreed – staggered toward him, shield left on the runway and hands raised in surrender.
“Bucky,” the apparition murmured, the same word it had said when it finally began to speak. “Come here, please. Can you come here?”
The embrace seemed familiar, when the Soldier stepped forward into the man's arms, but no one had touched the asset for decades. The man at his side had never invited the Soldier to rest his aching chest against this muscular, steady support. He would have gone, he thought, if the man had asked. He would have gone.
Sixty-six agents, he counted, as the sedative slithered through his veins. He would kill them all again, before he allowed them to take him in. He would . . . but he was so tired, and the blond man had offered him rest.
He returned to the city only to seek out the beggar boy. Half naked, begging children were easy to find in the slums and difficult to tell apart, but the Winter Soldier had lived decades with only a target in his gaze, and the child was a simple goal, standing in a cluster with nine or ten other children on a dusty street.
“Here,” he told the boy, flinching away from the bruise on the child's chest as he threw the contents of the agents' wallets into the circle of rapidly speaking beggars.
The child might have responded, but Bucky was already walking away.
He made it onto a passenger jet without attracting notice, another man's ticket and passport creased in his human hand. The little girl to his left had headphones that dwarfed her little ears. She hummed, pitched high and off key, the way Stepushka had hummed when he was tired but fighting sleep.
Stepushka had insisted that he get a cookie before bed, and three bedtime stories. He had loved toothpaste with glittering bits and the Hiccup toothbrush that Pepper had bought for him. He had drifted off still clinging to Bucky's shoulder, his pointed nose burrowed against Bucky's neck.
Steve had slept outside the door, hoping to save the Winter Soldier from his own remembered crimes. Bucky had killed them both.
“Wipers on the bus go swish, swish, swish,” the girl sang, flapping her arms like Wilson had taught Stepushka to do. “Swish swish swish!” She stayed on that lyric until her mother hushed her, mistaking Bucky's choked remorse as annoyance at the noise.
“You should sleep,” she told her daughter in soft Gujarati, her lilting voice the promise of a bedtime song.
Barton had sung Stepushka lullabies when the boy fussed, in English and Japanese and Hungarian. Mrs. Rogers had sung to them with the words her grandmother had used, Gaelic handed down through generations that did not know what the lulling words meant. Sister D had shooed the orphans to bed with a threatening swat to the rear and a scowl. There was no room for song in the raucous spaces of the orphanage, but stern Sister Dolores had sat by Steve's bedside in quarantine and crooned haunting Italian words that Bucky could still hear in his dreams.
He excused himself to the restroom, climbing over the girl and her mother before the plane completed its ascent. The folding door formed a flimsy barricade, but the Winter Soldier had learned how to scream silently decades before.
“Why didn't you put a GPS locater in his arm?” Clint wondered, arms folded and slight scowl on his face. The archer spoke calmly, despite having spent the day attempting to utilize SHIELD's resources to search for Bucky without explaining to SHIELD what he needed said resources for.
“We didn't expect him to leap out of a window,” Tony replied, his voice drier than the desert. He and Bruce were still in the lab, reestablishing the de-aging formula's properties in relation to the “Captain America” serum in Stepushka's cells. Fifteen floors up, the rest of them had a video feed for the lab on one wall, Steve's videos for Bucky running on another, and whatever might cheer up Stepushka playing on the actual TV.
Clint scowled. “He's a globally renowned assassin. Who it took Natasha three months to catch a whiff of.” Stepushka coughed, a wet, ugly noise, and Clint and Tony broke off glaring at each other to stare worriedly at the red-faced little boy hacking up a lung on the couch.
Redirecting the lab camera, Bruce offered the room a shrug. “Tony suggested it,” he admitted, cleaning his glasses and looking anywhere but at them. “I said no. Who are we, to tag him like an animal just because he could be dangerous?”
They all looked at the floor, after that. Bruce knew better than any of them how it felt to be hunted down and treated like less than a man.
“B'kee?” Stepushka wheezed, struggling to free himself from the cocoon of blankets Sam had wrapped him in after lunch. “On domoy?”
JARVIS stepped in to translate. “The young Captain asked -”
“We know what he asked, JARVIS,” Tony cut his AI off, rubbing his face with one gloved hand. “We've all had the assassin's immersion course in Russian, and we've all met Steve, version 1920.”
“He'll be home soon,” Sam answered, spouting the same meaningless platitudes that he had been saying for over a week now. He sat down on the sofa next to the kid, brushing sweaty hair out of watery blue eyes. Watching Stepushka sob his way into another asthma attack was worse than watching Steve running through the halls of another burning Hydra lair, searching desperately for a man who wasn't there. At least Steve had waited until Sam was asleep to fall apart.
Stepushka didn't bother to call Sam out on the lie, just turned away and clutched the worn Bucky Bear to his scrawny chest. “Steef, p'ease,” he mumbled into the fuzzy brown fabric, and Sam waved a hand in the air to urge JARVIS on.
They had recordings of Bucky from his days in the Tower. Of course, the first four months of footage no one had wanted to keep, especially since Steve was likely to rewatch it late at night and make himself cry. The last month showed Bucky with Stepushka: coloring, playing Old Maid, crooning a hoarse Brooklyn lullaby when Stepushka's asthma woke them both at two am. He didn't speak much, but they had thought the videos might please Stepushka, and started playing them a few days after Bucky had gone.
Stepushka had wailed, screeching with his eyes clamped shut and his hands over his ears until they had turned off the TV.
“Not our best plan?” Tony had wondered, up from the lab to grab lunch. He covered his own ears and winced until Stepushka's tantrum had died down.
“Hate you,” Stepushka had shouted, swatting at Sam when he'd tried to get too close. “Want Bucky! Hate you hate you hate you!” He'd rolled off the couch, curling protectively around his bear, still wearing one of Bucky's black t-shirts. “Jus' want B'kee. Wan' B'kee.”
They hadn't attempted to play those videos again.
“We used to play cards,” Steve announced, smiling at the camera and shuffling a deck of playing cards like he'd be dealing them all into the game. “Me and Ma, after she came home from work. You, when you started sneaking out of the home.”
Stepushka lifted his head off the bear, bright blue eyes latched onto the image of himself, several decades into the future. Steve looked happy in that video – JARVIS had altered his selection parameters, carefully weeding out the recordings where Steve brought up anything painful or sad – in a button-down shirt, his hair combed and his eyes clearer than they were the nights Bucky hadn't slept at all.
He looked like the man Sam had followed for months without question, given up his job and his life to join Steve Rogers on a crusade worth fighting. He looked like the man who had lied to Sam for almost a year, letting Sam drink himself into a stupor on Riley's birthday while Steve never breathed a word about loving Bucky Barnes.
Sam ignored the story about another heartwarming moment in the 1920s and headed for the elevator. “I'll get dinner,” he shouted to Clint, leaving Barton with pediatric nursing and childcare duties.
Tony might have thought of everything for the Tower, but they all needed to escape sometimes. Sam wasn't sure why he had come to Avengers' Tower, at this point. For the first time in five months, he wished that Barnes was in the gym. Sam could use the fight.
Steve didn't betray you, Sam reminded himself, because he had been counseling himself for far longer than he'd worked in the VA. He strode out of the glass lobby and turned left, heading for the East River and north to the blocks he had once called home. Steve hadn't done anything. He'd made Sam feel needed, he'd pulled him back into fighting the good fight. They were friends.
“Sucks, doesn't it?” Nat appeared out of nowhere on 112th Street, her hair tucked under a ball cap, cherry lollipop in her mouth. She fell into step with him easily, despite the grueling pace Sam had set for a walk with no destination.
“What?” he asked, gruffer than he'd have liked. “Your lollipop?”
She rolled her eyes, tugging the lollipop out of her mouth and staining her lips bright red. “Being left out,” she answered, hazel eyes sharp. “Thinking you've earned someone's good faith, and then finding out that they won't trust you with what matters most.”
It had taken hours of reality TV that neither of them watched, days of Nat dropping into Sam's apartment and talking aimlessly about the weather, but Sam had finally learned about Nat's past, her ledger and her mentor, Nick Fury. Had seen how it cut her down, to be left out by one of the few men who claimed not to judge her by her past.
“Yeah,” he agreed, letting her tuck her arm through his. “It sucks.”
“He had his reasons, you know,” she said softly, after they'd walked for a mile or so, glimpsing the sunset between the skyscrapers of Manhattan.
“I know,” Sam told her, because he did know. He even understood, when he wasn't busy being hurt and angry and wanting to shout at a man who was currently three years old. “He was probably trying not to think about it at all. He wouldn't want to put that kind of expectation out there for Bucky, especially when I kept reminding him not to expect the Winter Soldier to ever become his friend.”
Nat smiled sadly, her face silhouetted by the flash of molten sunlight dipping below city streets. “Steve doesn't like looking weak,” she revised, shaking her head. “He wouldn't want to tell you, so you wouldn't realize how badly it hurt him every time James walked away.”
“He wanted to do the right thing, by Bucky.”
“Yes,” she concurred. “He's a good man.” She squeezed Sam's arm, leaned in and rested her head briefly against his shoulder, a profession of humanity from a woman trained to be a weapon. “It does not mean that he always makes good decisions. He should have trusted you.”
“We could all do with a little more trust,” Sam said mildly. Natasha let him walk them all the way to the Harlem River without complaint, and they watched teenagers throw rocks at passing boats until he turned them around and let Tony's driver take them both home.
* * *
“Heard you just got back from Zamość,” Howie said, standing on a pile of tires and bent over what looked like half of a tank. Bucky grunted a response and went for the bottle he knew Howie kept in his desk drawer, grabbing the dusty glass off the table nearby.
They were alone in the workshop. They were probably the only two people awake in the compound. Steve had left the bar early to talk to Carter about the havoc-wreaking disaster otherwise known as the Howling Commandos. The five person disaster itself had continued drinking until the pubs closed for an air raid, and then stumbled back to their bunks or off to divest a woman of her stockings in her own home.
By three am, it took more than the lure of a beautiful broad to keep a soldier awake. Stark kept company with his genius, and Bucky kept company with the sadistic smile on Zola's face every time he closed his eyes.
“He'll come down here looking for you, you know?” Howie could hear a drink poured from a mile away. He leaped off of the tank parts and stretched his hand out, demanding his own glass. He stayed close after that, dark brown eyes shaking Bucky down like bullies had shaken pennies out of Steve once, what felt like centuries ago. Bucky would have shoved Stark away, but he knew that he wasn't the only one who saw pain coming in the dark.
Bucky shrugged. It was true. Zamość might have been their first real mission as a team, but he had spent most of their London training in Howie's workshop, crept out of his rack after Steve fell asleep and helped Stark hold the night at bay. It never took Steve more than an hour to wake up and realize that Bucky was gone. Well. It probably never took more than five minutes, but now that Steve knew where to find Bucky, he could wait an hour before needing to prove to himself that his sergeant was still there.
“You know, I don't get it.” Howie swirled his scotch, eyeing Bucky like a dog with a scent. Bucky ignored him, pulling the pistol from his belt and breaking it down to clean. Of course, ignoring Stark was like holding an umbrella in a hurricane. “You want him.” Bucky choked on his drink. Spat it back into the glass. Howie continued, unperturbed. “He wants you. And yet you're here, and not -” Howie raised a thin eyebrow. “- reviewing undercover operations with Rogers in your rack.”
He pounded Bucky on the back until he stopped coughing. Bucky croaked out a thank you that might have been a “fuck you,” and smashed the butt of his pistol into the desktop when Howie wouldn't stop staring at him with a gaze that dismantled Hydra weapons and built impenetrable shields.
“It's not like that,” he said, finally, the words ringing through the musty basement air. Steve Rogers had never wanted Bucky Barnes that way, even when Bucky had been a poor kid with a knack for getting his hide tanned by Father Allison.
Now Steve was Captain America, and Bucky couldn't close his eyes without seeing blood and guts and Zola's piggy smile. Now Bucky was a soldier who had shot boys younger than he was, who had gotten his troops killed with an escape plan that failed where Steve's had succeeded beyond what little hope they had left.
“Yeah, and why not?” Howie replied, pouring them both a generous refill. “I throw gears together and they spin. I put a belt on the fan and it spins. You two stare at each other and nothing fucking happens.”
Bucky slammed back the scotch, grimacing as it hit his raw throat. “Steve doesn't want this,” he answered, even though Stark wouldn't understand. Steve had never wanted Bucky, but he would have allowed Bucky to want him. It was Bucky's job to keep his desires stamped down to embers. It was Bucky's job to keep his nightmares and the blood on his hands away from Steve.
“You're an idiot,” Howie said, disgusted. “But you're an idiot who can help me design this tank to repel Hydra's power source. Come on, soldier, let's see what you've got.”
They worked in silence for awhile, passing tools back and forth while they crouched in the cramped spaces around the tank engine and siding. Passing the bottle back and forth when there was no space for glasses.
“He's only ever wanted you,” Howie declared suddenly, peering at Bucky from under a fuel line. “Any nincompoop can see that.” Right on cue, footsteps sounded down the compound's stairs. It would take Steve less than a minute to make it down the nine flights, an impossible feat for the Steve that Bucky had known. “The question is, Barnes, why you keep clogging up the gears?”
Zamość had changed drastically in seventy years, but Hydra remained as evil and insidious as ever. Bucky didn't set the plant on fire, because it was underground and in the center of town. He did nothing at all for too long, when he caught sight of the chair in their lab and faded back to Zola's giggles and his own screams. But Steve had promised to see every Hydra agent dead or captured, he had told Bucky in one of the endless videos, would spend his whole life making sure the monster was truly gone.
Steve's life was over, thanks to Bucky, but he could kill monsters just as easily as he'd thrown Stepushka across a room or put a bullet in Steve's back.
He came out onto the street covered with dust and blood, even stranger for wearing a jacket and gloves when everyone else wore sundresses and shorts. He brushed himself off in a café toilet, tucked his hair up into his cap. Didn't spare a glance at the television playing behind the store counter, though the woman speaking in dubbed Polish closely resembled Pepper Potts.
“We hope that our, um, valued associate knows that they haven't done any irreparable harm. In fact, someone very important is waiting for them to, um, return to Berk for, er, training in -”
He walked out of the café, headed for the airport and the new target the Zamość agents had given him, hoping to receive a pardon for their crimes. He had offered them mercy in return, snapping their necks instead of leaving them to bleed out onto the sterile linoleum floors.
It seemed like all the children on the streets of Poland had begun singing the Wheels on the Bus song, but Bucky knew that could not be true. He had lived in his own fractured brain for a century. He knew what it was to be haunted by Steven Rogers' ghost.
Yugoslavia. He had passed through other countries, other Hydra strongholds, on his way to the coast. Remapped the Europe that Sergeant Barnes had known with the violent, shifting borders the Winter Soldier had helped to draw.
Steve had drawn. He drew people passing by them on the beach, scowling when Bucky hopped over the hot sand and dripped ocean water all over his page. Years later, stretched out by a campfire with his notebook during watch, Steve had drawn Kupari beach, and Bucky had blamed his blush on the heat from the flames.
Czechoslovakia had collapsed into two countries fighting over the same invented past. Their team had visited during the war, searching for a hidden Hydra factory that Steve's serum-enhanced memory promised should be somewhere outside Prague. The Soldier had not returned until one country had become two, strapping explosives to a man's car in Bratislava and vanishing like the ghost that he was.
Hydra had reestablished the base in Prague. It took the Winter Soldier – their finest creation, Zola's masterpiece – less than an hour to tear it apart and leave no one behind. He crushed all their radios on his way out the doors. Stepushka's favorite song seemed to play on every radio station in the Czech Republic, ringing through the Soldier's ears and echoing in the hollow spaces of his soul.
He escaped south to Hungary, skirting the cities and listening for any whisper of Hydra in the towns. The Soldier had been sent to Hungary – and to Poland – in 1973 to engineer the deaths of men too fond of the West. Too fond of rapprochement, foolishly hopeful that the world could live without barricades and walls.
No one had sent him to Yugoslavia. No one had needed the Soldier to rip that country apart. He had read about it in the Tower, in the moments his mind allowed him to rest, and wished that they had. The Winter Soldier's murders could be blamed on sadists, on a few brutal men desperate to rule the world. Yugoslavia's disastrous collapse served as a warning that humanity did not need to be brainwashed to be unspeakably cruel.
Steve had died so many times, for a world that did not deserve to be saved.
Bucky Barnes, at least, had gotten the chance to die for a man who deserved more than he could ever give.
Serbia. Bosnia and Herzegovina. Macedonia. All of them riddled with operatives, pledged to Hydra because they would ally themselves with any organization which could promise them power in a game that constantly changed. Croatia. Dubrovnik. Kupari.
The mountains slid into the sea, in Croatia. The beaches were only a thin stretch of sand rimming the cerulean waters of the Adriatic Sea, far warmer than the crowded, cold Atlantic shore that Steve and Bucky knew. Hydra had never dispatched their Soldier to Kupari, even when it had bloomed with hotels, drenched with the machismo of high-ranking officers and the perfume of their mistresses and wives. If they had ordered him there, they would never have seen him again.
Years after a battle the Soldier had not begun, only local residents frolicked across Kupari's beaches. The bombed-out hotels stood guard over the sea, pitted and scarred like the skin of a General who had experienced the front lines of too many wars.
It had been foggy, in 1943. Mist rolling down off the mountains and toward the sea, the Commandos splashing into the glowing, phosphorescent waves of the Adriatic at night.
Howie had dropped the Commandos outside Prague, kicking Bucky out of the pilot's seat and telling him to “bring me back something good, damnit. Something explosive.” He hadn't even slowed as they leaped into the night, already en route to Poland to drop the Dark and Silent agents into their posts.
No more than a week, Captain America had estimated, wearing all Steve's orneriness under new layers of muscle. They just needed time to scout out the location of the factory, and then make a plan to bring it down.
“Um.” Morita shrugged off his parachute and went to cut Dugan out of a tree, talking as he sawed the circus strongman out of his harness. “Cap? Shouldn't we have thought of the plan first?” Headlights appeared over the ridge, followed by machine-gun fire that Bucky could feel vibrating through his bones. “Since now we'll be a little preoccupied fleeing the Nazis?”
Scampering away from Nazis, incidentally, led them to the Hydra factory. Though Morita had probably been right, since they still hadn't come up with a plan beyond, “Could someone shoot the fucker with the laser gun?”
Thankfully, their strategy for Poland seemed to work just as well in Czechoslovakia. Better the second time, really. Their first time in the field against Hydra hadn't quite gone the way their Captain had planned it: the Commandos had seen Hydra soldiers and futuristic weapons and . . . well.
Falsworth had dropped his gun and attacked the nearest one with a shovel left in the ground, one of the tools Hydra had forced into their captives' hands. The shovels Hydra had given them, forced them to bury the prisoners who hadn't survived the day. Dernier had ducked under the nearest car, rigging an explosive that didn't do much good since he refused to climb back out and set it off. Jones stuck with Dernier, same as they had done for months in an Italian camp. Morita took off into the building, shooting everyone around him as well as enemies that only he could see. Dugan strangled a Hydra soldier for his weapon – the tactic that had kept him alive when Steve had engineered their escape in Italy.
Bucky didn't drop his rifle and wait for clammy hands to strap him down. He might have, but Steve was surrounded by Hydra soldiers and Bucky had trained his whole life to protect Steve. So he aimed and fired, he forced his way into the factory at Steve's side.
It wasn't until they had won and the last explosion had settled into the ground that Bucky could hear his own hoarse voice repeating the string of numbers printed on his dog tags, screaming it at the soldier already dead at his feet.
A week turned into two, because Morita had managed not to kill one of the higher ups, a cadaverous Austrian whose English was limited to “dirty pigs” and a great deal of spitting. Jones had signed up for the war already fluent in German, and the war had made Bucky fluent in pain that would persuade a man to surrender all his secrets and beg for a quick death.
The Austrian spilled all that he knew and more that he didn't about the factory in Mostar, salivating information from his dry mouth. Steve didn't leave the room to vomit while Bucky extracted information, though he turned a pasty shade of white that Bucky associated with years of the flu.
They headed south. Bucky taught the others how to hot wire cars, hoping to make the team a slightly faster moving target. He stayed out of Steve's sight, as much as possible. He didn't want to see the disgust on Steve's face when he gazed at the murderer his best friend had become.
By Mostar, each Commando formed one necessary piece in a precise demolition squad. They had Captain America's orders, and knew how to function as a unit. Just not a unit that followed orders.
“Jackie, Cap said you were guarding the doors!”
“Oui, oui, but look at zis, Jim! It will burn like ze gasoline, si je peux – aha!”
“Sarge, have you seen Monty? I thought he was – oh, there he is. Give me back my hat, you mangy excuse for an Englishman, and help me free these wretched smelling prisoners!”
“Gabe, get over here and translate these files! Jackie's blowing up that side of the factory right now.”
“Guys! Guys, what happened to 'we promise we'll be stealthy this time, Cap, really'? And Buck, why are you looting the Hydra arsenal for souvenirs?”
They rigged the smoking Hydra radio to contact Stark, who promised to meet them at the location of their choice once Captain America swore Bucky had found him an explosive new toy.
Steve paused, crouched over the radio. Gabe squatted next to him, holding the wiring together with pliers and sheer force of will. The rest of them waited on commandeered motorcycles, aimed away from the smoldering debris of the Hydra plant and toward the rocky, unpaved road.
“How far are we from the ocean?” Steve finally asked, brushing ash out of his hair and onto the blue of his costume. He kept his face toward the burning wreckage of the factory, but Bucky had mapped Steve's expressions years ago, knew the hesitance and hope that brimmed in blue eyes.
“Are you serious, Rogers?” Stark responded, cracking over the speaker. “You pick now to take a beach holiday? You're in a war zone!”
“Is that why those men were shooting at us?” Steve widened his eyes and projected childlike credulity into his tone, innocence cloying like a full ration of sugar in one cup of joe. “Oh dear.” Gabe snorted, and Steve couldn't bite back the grin that spread over his face. He turned around, quick enough to catch the quirk of Bucky's lips and meet his eyes. “I think,” he continued, his smile softening when Bucky didn't look away, “that maybe I miss the ocean.”
Stark gave in fairly easily – something about wanting to test a new fighter plane, one he thought should be able to land in water – and dictated a circuitous route to Kupari, promising to be there in less than twenty-four hours.
Gabe slid on behind Monty, since no one wanted to share a motorcycle with Jackie after the last high-speed crash. Steve climbed on behind his second in command, and Bucky could feel him smiling against his hair. “Here,” he said, passing over the oddly triangular explosive when Steve's arms slipped around his waist. “You can hold the bomb.”
There was nothing to burn, in Kupari. No one to tear apart, cutting Steve's vengeance into their veins. Bucky had promised to honor Steve's wishes, and instead he knelt on a dark beach and watched sand pour off the silvery metal of his palm.
He left for Zagreb before the sun rose, the smell of the sea clinging to his skin and his unyielding memories.
They made it to the ocean without incident. Nearly. Bucky didn't count the Nazi patrol unit on the road outside Stolac. He had caught sight of them long before they would have seen the dust from their bikes. The Commandos stopped on their sergeant's orders, but they waited for Steve's decision to attack or reroute. Steve had shrugged. “We're Allied soldiers, aren't we? Let's do our jobs.”
Captain America had figured out which path the patrol would follow up the mountain. Bucky and Morita had waited in the trees, taking out the whole unit before the men could regroup and return fire. The last one had been blond, slimmer and shorter than his fellow Nazis. Blood splattered his face, pooled below his golden hair. Bucky dropped out of the tree and retched into the bushes, straightening before anyone could see.
By the time they reached Kupari, it was after midnight and the town was dozing, tensed in the light sleep of civilians who might be woken at any moment by the war, forced out of their home with guns or bombs. The town had barricaded itself in darkness, hiding from the world behind black out curtains and the silence of a morgue.
Where the inhabitants choked on terror, the sea teemed with noise and life. “It's glowing,” Steve murmured, his voice a whisper under the rhythmic rush of waves onto the shore. He knelt down, still in his uniform and heavy boots, and scooped the seawater into his hand, letting the pale blue phosphorescence drip through his fingers and splash back into the sea. Bucky forgot, sometimes, that Steve had flown over the Atlantic, that he would not have seen the incandescent gleaming of a troop ship's wake.
The ocean lit up like a neon sign, waves cresting in vibrant shades of blue and green. Lit up like Manhattan at night, unafraid of the war. Bucky stared out over the endless curl of the horizon, timed the rise of his chest to the crash of water on the sand, and breathed.
“Last one in has to write the reports!” Jim shouted, breaking the damp stillness of the fog and the sea. The beach came alive with the grunts of men struggling out of singed and dirty uniforms, kicking off boots and wading into the glittering waves. The Commandos hollered and whooped like boys as they dove in, splashing each other and ganging up on Dernier for nearly blowing them all to smithereens.
Their ruckus didn't carry very far, contained by the cool mist rolling down from the hills and the sound of the ocean meeting the shore. Bucky stripped off slowly, leaving his blood-stained shirt and undershirt stiff with grime in a heap on the wet sand, feeling the fog brush his face and chest. Once all of his clothes joined the pile, he strode a few paces down from the Commandos' games and into the sea.
The Adriatic was far warmer than the Atlantic had ever been, even on the hottest August days when Stevie burned a deep, blistering red. He dove in as soon as the water came up to his thighs, kicking away from the sand and letting himself float on his back out into the glowing sea.
“This is the most incredible thing I've ever seen,” a voice by his right shoulder whispered, speaking through the water lapping at Bucky's ears.
When Bucky turned his head, Steve's face was lit blue with phosphorescence, his eyes bright. He was treading water with an ease that would never fail to shock Bucky, staring steadily into Bucky's eyes.
Adrift, surrounded by millions of stars in the velvet black of the sky and millions of lights glittering their reply from the sea, Bucky couldn't find the determination to dive under the waves and flee - to protect Steve from everything that Bucky wanted, from the soldier he had become.
“It's a pretty swell show, ain't it?” he replied, slowing so that he swam in lazy circles around Steve. “Brighter 'n Broadway.”
Steve's half-smile curved across his face, shadowed and beautiful. The memory of that soft smile had gotten Bucky through a year of tedium and death, endless marches and icy pain. “Wasn't talking about the ocean,” Captain America confessed, letting his fingers swirl through the water pooled on Bucky's stomach.
“Don't,” Bucky pleaded, but he didn't push Steve away. “You don't want this,” he reminded the other man, when Steve continued to trace watery patterns on Bucky's skin.
Steve frowned, his eyebrows dripping seawater into his eyes, clumping his lashes together. “Buck, I've wanted this for years. You know that.” It was a myth started at the orphanage, that little Stevie Rogers never lied. Bucky had firsthand knowledge that it wasn't true, had watched Steve lie about getting enough for dinner, lie to Father Allison so that other kids got what he and Bucky didn't. But Steve had never lied to Bucky. “That's why you made the joke about fooling around under the piers.” Starlight and mist couldn't hide Steve's blush. “Just thought that maybe - well, now, since I'm -”
“Wasn't a joke,” Bucky croaked, coughing up the water that had splashed into his gaping mouth. Steve's blank, astonished expression must have mirrored his own. “About the piers. I wasn't kidding.”
“But -” Steve forgot to move his limbs and ended up submerged under the next wave, flailing a little and smacking into Bucky's thigh. “But when I kissed you. Last Christmas.”
Luckily Steve and Bucky had communicated for years without words, in huffed breaths and clenched fists and the scuff of a shoe on the floor, because neither of them seemed able to form complete sentences.
“You'd already said no,” Bucky explained, tipping his head back to hear the hum of the ocean instead of his own shallow breathing. He knew Steve better than he knew himself. It wasn't possible that Steve had watched Bucky out of the corner of his eye, had memorized every moment and touch the way that Bucky had.
“Shit.” Steve blew a breath out onto the surface of the sea, creating glowing ripples under his chin. “I'm so stupid. If I'd just -”
“It doesn't matter,” Bucky interrupted, because he couldn't listen to Steve rewrite their whole lives. Because it didn't matter that Steve Rogers had loved a boy in Brooklyn who had never felt a man die under his hands. “It was a long time ago.”
Bucky had forgotten how fond Steve was of confrontation, in the year he'd been gone. Strong fingers hooked around Bucky's forearm, dragging them both to a place where they could stand facing each other, waves lapping against their ribs and toes curled into the sand.
“What do you mean, it was a long time ago?” Steve demanded, shaking his hair out of his eyes like a dog. “Are you avoiding me because you're afraid I'll kiss you again?”
“You shouldn't,” Bucky breathed, uncertain whether he meant that Steve shouldn't kiss him or that he shouldn't want to.
But they'd been speaking in slanted eyebrows and set jaws for decades – even if they'd obviously miscommunicated here and there – and Steve understood what Bucky was saying even when Bucky didn't know himself.
“I take it back,” Steve said, blue eyes shining as he lifted his hands to cup Bucky's face. “You're the stupid one.” He darted in, pressing a quick, fumbling kiss to Bucky's mouth before he could protest. “Remember, after Ma died, I started picking all those fights? Stopped talking unless I was shooting off my mouth?”
Sure, Bucky remembered that. Steve had snapped at anyone who'd come near him, gone looking for trouble and found it more often than not. Hadn't taken too kindly to Bucky following him around and hoping to finish the fights before they finished Steve.
Steve smiled, left side of his mouth tilting up as he watched the memory wash over Bucky's face. His palms were warm where they cradled Bucky's jaw, his lips salty and cool when he knocked them into Bucky's. “Did you want to ditch me then?” he wondered, smirking like he already knew the answer.
Bucky had wanted to strangle Steve a couple of times that year, wanted to haul off and punch him several more. But Steve was Steve, and if he didn't want to talk they could share the bed and read, comfortable in the silences.
“Yeah, didn't think so,” Steve declared, though Bucky hadn't replied. He leaned in again, his nose brushing Bucky's, taller than either of them had ever expected him to be. “I love you, Buck. I loved you last year, I loved you last week when you got us the information on Mostar, and I'm gonna love you tomorrow when you and Stark spend the trip home trying to pry open a Hydra bomb and get us all killed. I'd also really like to make time with you, if you're still willing.”
Steve Rogers had never lied to Bucky Barnes. And if Steve loved Bucky in a mud-caked uniform with blood on his hands, then who was Bucky protecting? Howie was right – it was time to stop clogging up the gears.
“Well?” Steve prodded, worry creeping into his voice when Bucky didn't respond. “What do you say?”
Bucky didn't say anything. He threaded one hand through Steve's dripping hair, pressed the other into the new muscles that ran down Steve's back, and dove headfirst into the dizzying, luminous wonder of their first real kiss.
He and Steve had spoken for years without any words, and Steve could understand “I love you” when it was bitten into his bottom lip, traced into his scalp and kissed onto every inch of his skin.
He found three sleeper agents in Zagreb, after digging through the government files for keywords that would be innocuous to anyone who wasn't trained to notice them. The first two he recognized, and those memories stamped their death warrants. No one who had stood in a room while they programmed the Winter Soldier – no one who witnessed that and smiled – could be redeemed.
The third was at home with her wife and their small child. The apartment was not large, though far grander than the rat hole that he and Steve had called home. All the windows were flung wide open, white curtains fluttering in the breeze. He came in through the kitchen, metal arm skimming a counter hidden under sippy cups and half-empty cereal bowls, the pudding cups Stepushka had hated but Tony kept buying for himself. Crayon drawings were partially scrubbed off the fading yellow wallpaper.
The child was on the floor, sitting too close to the small, boxy television. Wilson would not have let Stepushka sit that near the screen. He complained that the boy would ruin his eyes with all the tablet games and animated films.
Of course, Wilson should have been worrying that the Winter Soldier would murder the child long before Stepushka ever went blind.
The woman, Sabina, and her partner were curled up on an old sofa, the cushions sagging in a few places, stained with coffee or years with a child. Whatever Hydra had offered this woman, they were not paying her well.
She jumped to her feet as soon as he stepped into the living room, moving toward him as though she could block her family from the vengeance in his hands. Sabina may not have met the Winter Soldier, but this woman could identify a threat when it broke into her home.
“Don't,” she said in accented English, her voice breaking. “Please don't.” Her hands shook, and Bucky knew that she wanted to scoop the child into her arms to protect it. She didn't move, because she had chosen her sins, and holding her child would endanger it. Perhaps even get it killed.
“What did they promise you?” he asked, curious as to why someone who seemed to benefit so little would join Hydra's cause.
“Equality,” she answered, staring steadily at him despite the tears welling in her eyes. “They said that Lijepa and I could marry, one day. That they would help me to create laws which -” She stopped speaking abruptly, did not look at her wife when the other woman crawled off the couch to hover over the baby on the floor. “They lied. I knew this. I have gathered information. Sources. Things Hydra would not wish me to know. And now they send you to kill me.” She inclined her head toward him, still crying. “So you will kill me. But please, please, spare my family. Please.” Her wife – the wife her government would not acknowledge – clutched at Sabina's ankle, and the child began to cry.
“Do you have a phone?” Bucky questioned harshly, straining to be heard over the amount of wailing in the room. The woman, mousy brown hair tucked behind large ears and eyes squeezed closed, took a moment to stop flinching in preparation for the Soldier's kill shot.
“Yes?” she stammered, bending to pick it up off the coffee table and place it in Bucky's outstretched hand. “You are not here to kill me?” she queried, somewhat shrill through her tears, when Bucky made no move to do anything but tap numbers into her phone.
“I am not Hydra,” he told her, because he could not tell her that he was not a monster, that death did not stain his hands. Her partner utilized his distraction as an opportunity to spirit the child out of the room. Likely to the neighbor's downstairs, but Bucky did not bother to track their departure. “Here,” he said, holding the phone and waiting for the connection to go through. “You should speak to this man about what you know. He is currently working to sabotage Hydra in Europe.”
He handed her the phone after it began ringing. Nick Fury would not be pleased to discover that the Winter Soldier had acquired his cellphone number. He would be spitting angrily if he learned how the Soldier had managed it.
Sabina wiped the tears from her face, blinking at the phone in bemusement before lifting it hesitantly to her ear, as though she expected it to explode. “Who the hell is this?” Fury demanded tinnily from the other end. “And how the hell did you get this number?”
She started explaining herself when Bucky glowered at her, retreating into the kitchen in a clear attempt to escape his sight lines.
The television was playing in English, some animated children's show that Stepushka did not – had not watched. It ended, and Pepper Potts appeared, Croatian subtitles scrolling along the bottom of the small screen, cutting through the reporters' necks.
“Yes, I realize that I'm not giving you much information,” she retorted, frustrated with one of the journalists in the crowd. There were circles under her eyes, hidden with well-applied make up that couldn't conceal the exhausted tremble in her hands. “You'll have to forgive me, I've had two of my homes demolished in the last four years. I'm what Tony might call a little paranoid.”
“This is ridiculous,” Tony interrupted, appearing next to Pepper in holographic form, complete with a series of small fireworks and a guitar solo. She groaned, and strained not to glare at him. “Stop harassing Pepper. She's not here for your benefit.” He waved off the flurry of questions from the press, and stared unblinkingly at the cameras. “She's here because we really need Toothless to fly home now. Hiccup isn't dead. He isn't dead, so get your ass back to New York and come lose another game of Mario Kart.”
“Mr. Stark, who are you talking to?”
“Mr. Stark, are you referring to Hiccup from the children's -”
“No further questions,” Pepper sighed, signaling an end to the session by rising to her feet. “But Tony's telling the truth, about Hiccup. Thank you all for your time.”
Bucky stood perfectly still, watching Tony's holograph fade away and Pepper walk delicately off the stage. Neither of them had made any sense. They would not insist on a press conference to discuss How to Train Your Dragon. No one would. And when Tony talked about Hiccup, he always meant -
“Wheels on bus go round and round, round and round and round and round.” None of them had recorded Stepushka singing. They heard the song far too often as it was, and Stepushka sang as badly as Steve, if a few decibels louder and several octaves higher. But that was Stepushka's voice, warbling through a Croatian television during a commercial for PediaSure.
That was Stepushka, sitting in a mound of blankets on their couch with a chocolate milk mustache on his lip, still singing “round and round” in an endless loop.
Bucky's knees gave out, and he landed on the coffee table. Stepushka had a cut on his right temple, in the commercial. He had never cut open his face in the month they had spent together. The video had to be new. Pepper and Tony said that Hiccup was alive, and Hiccup was Stepushka.
He leaped out of the bathroom window before the commercial faded, letting his left arm take the impact of his fall, flinching at the wash of pain that didn't come. Fury could keep on dismantling Hydra without his help – Steve wasn't dead, and vengeance could wait. Bucky needed to go home.
“We met at the orphanage, of course. Where else could we have been? You were only three years old – it would be at least another two years before you had the coordination to launch yourself out the window and skin your knees on the dirt. Get your hide tanned, too, once Sister Agnes realized you were gone.”
“I'm three, too!” Stepushka cut in, blue eyes sparkling for the first time in days. When nobody responded, he started counting to three in every language he knew. Loudly. Sam wasn't sure how a toddler could speak sign language loudly, but Steve was sure trying hard.
“Yes, you're three!” Sam quickly agreed in English, elbowing Nat until she seconded the sentiment in Russian and Clint tossed in Japanese and ASL. Stepushka subsided, satisfied, but not before his enthusiastic outburst had triggered another coughing fit that sent all three adults searching for his inhalers and face mask.
They had attempted to keep Stepushka's fever down with Motrin, but the kid had reacted badly to one of the ingredients. Bruce and the new on-call pediatric expert had solved that problem, but it had taken Banner away from figuring out exactly where in Stepushka's cellular make up the “Captain America” serum lay dormant. Now they could hold the toddler's fever at bay with medication, but Stepushka wasn't getting any better.
The first pediatrician recommended he go to a hospital; Pepper had pulled a gun from under the counter and accused the woman of working for Hydra, and trying to steal Steve. The doctor had screamed, then swooned, proof that even if she wasn't Hydra, she was probably too faint-hearted for the Tower. Once Nat had returned from escorting the terrified doctor to the lobby, the former Red Room prodigy mixed up something with honey, milk, and a raw egg that she insisted cured colds. Clint let Romanoff and miniature Rogers face off over the foamy concoction for a few minutes before suggesting that they stick to orange juice and soup. It was the flu, he reminded them. It took awhile to recover. Stepushka just needed some sleep.
Unfortunately, Stepushka wasn't getting much sleep – and therefore, neither were the rest of them. Bucky's nightmares might have tumbled out the window with him, but the hoarse screams of a POW had been replaced with the terrified sobbing of a fragile, sickly boy.
He'd hold onto any of them, when they switched night shifts, but he wouldn't stop crying, heaving snotty gusts of tears into their pajama shirts. Sam couldn't suss out whether the nightmares were about Hydra infiltrating the Tower, Bucky lying sedated and unresponsive on the operating table, or being thrown across the room by a metal arm. Probably some combination of the three.
When they'd asked Stepushka what he dreamed about, he had rubbed swollen, red eyes and whispered, “Dragons,” into Sam's dampened shoulder.
“Ma had brought me over, because Mrs. Cox was away and couldn't watch me. She would go by St. Joe's, sometimes, when the hospital had medical supplies they could spare. It was 1924.” Steve gave a strained smile, but it didn't reach his eyes. He fiddled with the seam on his jeans, cleared his throat. If Sam didn't look up from the international news feeds on his tablet - searching for the Winter Soldier - he could almost imagine his friend was sitting in the room. “Over ninety years ago. They demolished the orphanage right after the war, part of some bureaucrat's project to beautify the slums.”
Stepushka sneezed, and Sam tossed a fresh box of tissues to Natasha. “Still nothing?” he wondered, taking advantage of Steve's melancholy on-screen pause.
“Something,” she disagreed, holding a tissue to Stepushka's face and waiting for him to blow his nose. “My contacts in India say that Pakistani terrorists have destroyed two national monuments. But no one has a description of these terrorists. Nick says a woman called him from Croatia, said she'd gotten his number from a krsnik.”
“A curse-nik?” Sam repeated, blinking at the red-headed woman on the loveseat. “Is that like a beatnik?”
“It's a vampire hunter,” Barton explained, dropping his tablet onto the armrest and rubbing the bridge of his nose. “Croatian folktale. Wants to do good, but has the potential to do a lot of harm.”
“Sounds familiar,” Sam declared, his eyebrows raised.
“Shhh,” Stepushka wheezed, pressing his forefinger to his mouth. “It's Steef.”
“I'm beginning to think he's inherited Stark's narcissism,” Natasha whispered. Stepushka glowered at her until she mimed zipping her lips, then turned his full attention back to the TV.
“You had only lived at the orphanage for a week, not that I knew that back then. 'Course, I thought I knew everything, six years old and apple of my Ma's eye.” Steve chuckled, and tugged at a loose stitch in the sleeve of his sweater. “Ma said I should remember how lucky I was. That the little boys and girls here didn't have any parents at all. So I went wandering down the halls while she headed for Sister D's office, searching for a poor orphan to bestow all my grand six-year-old charity on.
“I found Timmy Sanders ripping apart his little sister's doll. Told him that was no way to treat an orphan.” Sam didn't need to glance over at the TV to know that Steve wore a familiar, self-deprecating smile. Bucky must have had his work cut out for him, to teach righteous Stevie Rogers an ounce of humility. “He got in my face, all eight years and sixty pounds of him, and said, 'Oh yeah? How do you treat an orphan, huh? Gonna kiss my pretty face, you -'” Steve blushed. “Well, some of that's not worth repeating. Timmy got in a few good licks, shoved me clear into the wall. Knocked out my loose tooth. Then you came hurtling in through the back door, covered in dirt, holding an old trowel and a rock.”
They had played this recording three times in the last week. Sam could see Clint mouthing along as Steve spoke, and Natasha had mimicked Steve's on-screen slouch, Rogers' crooked grin sitting awkwardly on her lips. It was Stepushka's favorite recording, possibly because of the faces Steve made pretending to be a three-year-old Barnes on a mission.
“You couldn't do much damage with the rock, but the trowel was still pretty sharp. You whacked Timmy pretty hard in the shin, started howling like a banshee when he tried to wrench the rusty thing away from you.” Steve's smile brightened the farther he faded into the memory, clinging to the world that had raised him. “He raced off before one of the Sisters could catch him, and you blinked at me for a second. I thought it was because you didn't know who I was – but you'd barely gotten your own bed, you didn't know who anyone was – so I sat up and stuck out my hand. 'I'm Steven Grant Rogers,' I told you.” Steve pitched his voice high, the pompous tone of a little boy playing grown up. “'I'm six.' You didn't say anything, and I thought maybe you were shy. Or mute. Some sort of orphan problem.
“Then you put the trowel in my hand, and grabbed my wrist. 'C'mon,' you said, pulling me out the door. 'I finded worms.'”
“Worms!” Stepushka repeated joyfully, sitting up too fast and paling with what Sam recognized as nausea. Natasha, quick as ever, grabbed for the plastic trashcan on the floor.
“Lots of worms,” Steve agreed, concurring with the ghost of a boy from almost a century ago. “We dug up the garden until Sister D and Ma found us, and threatened to skin us both.” Stepushka retched into the container, heaving up the soup and crackers he'd eaten for lunch. “Ma wouldn't let you come home with us that night. She said we'd have our whole lives to spend together, once we were older.” Steve huffed out a humorless laugh, folded his arms protectively over his chest. “After we -” He blinked at the camera, flinched imperceptibly enough that Sam hadn't caught it until they'd learned what Steve wasn't saying. “I mean, once I made it to the war, I thought maybe she was right.”
“Phil says Hydra's definitely under siege,” Clint declared, muting the television and walking along the back of the sofa to take the trashcan from Natasha and dump it in the bathroom. Sam fetched a fresh sippy cup of Bruce's strange-smelling, anti-nausea tea from the kitchen, and passed it to a very pasty toddler.
“Not that I'm not thrilled to hear that,” Sam replied, once Barton returned with the clean trashcan, “but even if Barnes is besieging Hydra, he isn't doing Stepushka much good out in India, is he?”
Natasha hummed a Russian lullaby, her vibrant hair pulled back in a hasty braid. She was wearing one of Sam's old Air Force shirts and a pair of Clint's sweatpants, a dishtowel thrown over one slim shoulder to mop Stepushka's forehead or wipe his mouth. Sam wasn't sure the jeans he had on were actually his, since the last place he'd gotten more than a few hours of sleep was on a neon pink beanbag chair in Tony's lab. His t-shirt was definitely Tony's, some angry white band from the '80s. Clint had given up on pants altogether after the last time Stepushka had puked on them, and was currently sprawled over most of the couch in a pair of Captain America boxers and a t-shirt he'd stolen from Bucky's room.
They might save the world on a regular basis, but none of them were qualified to nurse a sick toddler back to health. Sam had called his sister six times in the last three days.
“I brought Chinese,” Pepper announced, exiting the elevator with her high heels in one hand, using the other to drag in a trolley laden with cardboard takeout boxes. “And more fresh orange juice.”
“You're a goddess,” Sam decided, smacking Clint's head off of his thigh so he could grab plates and utensils from the kitchen.
“Thanks.” Pepper smiled, her makeup still perfect after ten hours at the office, clothes immaculate and exhaustion completely invisible to the eye. Then she sneezed. Four times. “I've been doing that all day,” she griped, setting the shoes on a side table and grabbing a tissue from one of the three open boxes in the living room.
“Maybe you'd better keep away from Stepushka?” Sam asked, as Pepper collapsed onto the love seat next to Nat and opened her arms to the pint-sized Captain America.
She shrugged, kissing Stepushka's cheeks when he crawled onto her lap. “I've already got his virus,” she said, pulling out her phone to let him play with it. “I might as well give you guys a break.” She turned her face into her elbow to hide another sneeze. “Any new leads?” she sniffled. “Any responses to the PediaSure ad?”
“Other than a .3% drop in sales?” Nat retorted, holding up the tablet so Pepper could see. “Nothing. We think he's out there somewhere, but there's no clear pattern. Mumbai. Zagreb. Seoul. He could be anywhere. We don't even know if he's seen the ad.”
The three of them tucked into dinner while Pepper entertained Stepushka with what Sam hoped were not YouTube videos of the Battle for New York. Stepushka was going to be one weird-ass kid, if they couldn't reverse the formula. Sam shook the unwelcome thought away and focused on his fried rice.
“Pepper?” At Nat's worried tone, Sam lifted his head from where he'd been devouring second helpings of sesame chicken. “Are you all right?”
They couldn't have spent more than twenty minutes wolfing down food, not enough time for Pepper to do much besides sneeze. But Nat was right: Pepper's face was flushed, and her hand was shaking where she tried to steady the phone for Stepushka to use.
“F-fine,” she responded, tugging at one of the six blankets they kept wrapping Stepushka in. “Just cold, suddenly. And – and, oh god -” Pepper stopped talking abruptly. She shifted Stepushka off her lap and jackknifed off the couch, sticking her head into the plastic bin.
Sam set his plate back on the coffee table. Eating became much less appealing when people started vomiting. Clint narrowed his eyes at his spring roll, then at Pepper. “Something's off,” he said, squinting at the cheerfully yellow trashcan.
“I hope it's not the crab rangoon,” Nat offered, and crammed another one nonchalantly into her mouth.
“That is not a normal flu,” Clint's very attractive ex-wife shouted at them, some time around midnight, after they'd sent Pepper to bed and draped themselves over the furniture on Steve's floor. “It's very clearly engineered. How did you miss this?”
“We didn't greet her with a saliva swab and a microscope,” Clint answered, rocking in a hammock he'd strung across the ceiling of Steve's living room, Stepushka sleeping fitfully on his stomach. “We'll be sure to do that, next time.”
“What do you mean, 'engineered'?” Bruce cut in from another screen, where he and Tony were still locked away in the lab. “Someone's trying to kill Pepper?” He flattened his hands on the table top, but Sam could see the veins bulge in Bruce's eyes.
So could Tony. “Um, let's have this video chat in the hallway, big guy,” Stark decided, dragging them both out of the lab. “And now back to the question at hand – is someone trying to poison Pepper?”
The former Mrs. Barton lifted one shoulder, still scowling at her ex-husband behind flyaway strands of lovely brown hair. “I don't know. I do know that this virus mimics H1N1, only far more fast-acting, and probably more deadly.”
Bruce's right arm went briefly green, and Tony gripped the left one with both hands. “Okay, former Birdwoman, so where's the antidote?”
She wrinkled her nose. “Antidote? Stark, it's the flu. Pepper's a healthy, active adult. Give her some antivirals, a few days of sleep and some soup, and she should be fine. If somebody wanted to kill her, they should have poisoned her. The only person this would kill -”
“Is a child who hasn't built up any defenses to illness, and who already has a compromised immune system,” Bruce finished, sagging toward Tony, who had clearly come to the same conclusion while Banner was speaking.
Sam and Natasha shot up out of their weary sprawl across the couch, and Clint tensed in the hammock. “It's Hydra,” Natasha said, muting Clint's ex-wife. “They can't access Stepushka, not after battling James and Pepper, so they're determined to kill him.”
“Sir, I think you should know -”
“Not now, JARVIS,” Tony cut the AI off. “We have real problems. I don't need to hear about the broken air conditioner on level two.”
“But sir, you did ask to be notified if -”
“JARVIS! Is anyone dying?”
“No, sir, but -”
“Great. So don't notify me unless you've already called an ambulance.” Tony waved one hand at the wall, shooing away the disembodied English accent, and then turned to Bruce. “Well?” he asked, raising his eyebrows. “What do you think?”
“It's too risky,” Banner told him, cleaning his glasses with a fervor that could snap them in two. “We're not even sure it could work if Stepushka was healthy. We have no idea what Hydra's infected Pepper with.”
“Not sure what could work?” Clint spoke evenly, but each word thrummed like the string of a bow, pulled taut by the steel in his voice. “You have a cure?”
“Yes,” Tony replied, just as Bruce shook his head. “We think we have a cure,” he clarified, frowning at Tony. “But testing it on mice doesn't mean it would work on Steve. And Hydra's engineered virus could be wreaking havoc with Stepushka's cells, for all we know.”
“But you think you have a cure,” echoed a quiet voice from the stairwell.
Clint, Nat and Sam spun around. Barton fell out of the hammock, waking Stepushka when they both landed on the floor. Tony and Bruce froze, the former trying to peer around the corner from his video screen. “Wait,” Tony said, shouting in Banner's ear. “Was that . . .?”
“Yes, sir,” JARVIS answered primly, sounding piqued. “Sgt. Barnes chose to enter through the garage, and ascend via the eastern stairs. However, he does not require an ambulance.”
Sam couldn't swallow his laughter – only Tony could create a computer program that would thumb its nose at him – and the shadowed figure in the corner of the living room snorted.
“Medwed'onak!” For a moment, Sam assumed that Stepushka hadn't fully woken up. He called for Bucky all the time in his sleep, more often when the fever medication began to wear off. Then he squirmed out of Clint's grasp, stumbling over the carpeted floor. “Came home!”
The man silhouetted by the window and the lights of Manhattan slid to his knees, left hand tucked safely under his thigh. In the spinning glow of a night light, the Winter Soldier's eyes shone. “Solnishka,” he whispered, as though Stepushka would vanish if he spoke. His right hand brushed over the toddler's hair, fingertips rubbing the rim of one tiny ear.
Sam spared a moment to be grateful Hydra had never created another Soldier, since Stepushka had seen kevlar and dark hair and tumbled headlong into the assassin's chest. But, dangerous black costume or not, the man cradling Stepushka and whispering Russian endearments into the kid's hair had to be Bucky Barnes.
“Good to have you back, man,” Sam said, striding over and clapping Barnes on the shoulder, surprising himself with how true the words were. He'd wanted Bucky back for Stepushka, of course, and for Steve. But it turned out that maybe Sam had missed losing at poker and winning by a landslide in Monopoly. And no one else in the Tower appreciated baseball like Bucky and Steve.
“Shh, I love you, too,” Barnes murmured to Stepushka, but he nodded at Sam, wiggled the fingers of his new left hand at the others. “Shh, I'm here. I'm right here.”
“And we're all thrilled to have you,” Tony butted in, jumping when Bruce tried to loosen the grip Stark had on his arm. “But you couldn't have shown up before the deadly virus? Your timing sucks.”
“No,” Bucky disagreed, speaking gently into Stepushka's puffed, fine hair. “It doesn't. Stepushka has a fatal disease. You have a cure.”
“It's not that simple,” Bruce cautioned, dragging Tony back into the lab. “We don't know that the virus Hydra gave him is fatal. We also don't know if this cure does anything besides age mice. It could kill Steve before the virus does. It could age him without making him Captain America, or age his body but not his mind. It could reinforce the serum without aging him. We don't know.”
Hesitantly rubbing Stepushka's back with his left hand, Bucky smiled into the kiss he pressed to the kid's overheated forehead. “You have a serum that might make Steve Rogers into Captain America. Or it might kill him.”
A line appeared between Bruce's eyebrows. “Well, yes,” he admitted slowly, a fly walking unwillingly into a spider's trap.
Barnes rested his chin on Stepushka's head, aimed his cool, pale gaze at the two men in the lab. “You're afraid to make someone else the victim of your failed serum,” he asserted, and Banner's jaw tightened. “And I -” Bucky stopped. Faltered. “There is nothing, if not Steve.” He blinked, but did not look away. “But those are our choices. Steve made his choice in 1943.”
“Wait.” Tony held up a hand. “Are you saying that you actually want us to take your sick, tiny boyfriend – okay, no, that was creepy. Your former boyfriend? Future boyfriend? Currently out-of-commission lover?”
“Stark!” Nat snapped the word the way she cracked her bubble gum, and Tony's mouth clamped shut.
“It's his choice,” Bucky said, ice in his tone. Everyone else avoided his gaze, fidgeted and pretended they hadn't sedated Barnes against his will. “Give him the cure.”
* * *
Stepushka would not let go of Bucky. This was unsurprising, Wilson informed them - ever the counselor - given that Stepushka had blurred the Hydra attack with Barnes' departure. The Falcon didn't speculate on why Bucky would not release the boy – at least, he said nothing about the way Bucky growled when anyone came too near, or his insistence that the scientists work around the protective cage of his arms.
Stepushka was alive. His small heart beat rapidly under Bucky's fingers, a sparrow tucked into his nest. The child coughed and wiped his nose on Bucky's jacket, ill but barely bruised from the killing blow the Soldier had dealt him the week before. Stepushka was alive, and Bucky was allowing Stark and Banner to kill him with their cures.
He and Steve had watch at the north end of camp, waiting for Hydra reinforcements to hit them before they made it back over the line.
Well, Bucky had watch. Steve might've gone to basic training and gotten some miracle pills, but he'd obviously never stood watch in his life. For one thing, he'd giggled when Bucky mimicked Jones' “all clear,” hooting like owls so the enemy couldn't hear them shout. Bucky couldn't blame him for that: he'd cracked up, the first time Lt. Hillman suggested it, pointed out that the 107th was full of city boys who'd never heard an owl in their lives.
For another thing, Steve hadn't shut up for hours. Though Bucky blamed that lapse in judgment on himself. He hadn't heard Steve's voice in almost a year. For the last few months, Bucky had thought he would never hear Steve again, the way he talked so fast the words tumbled over each other, thrown out like lousy punches and machine-gun fire. Now, sitting in the dark surrounded by trees and sleeping men, Bucky leaned against Steve's impossibly broad shoulder and urged the man to spill every detail of the life he'd led while Bucky fought a war.
It had taken Steve an hour to recount his time at boot camp, glossing over Hodges until Bucky had elbowed him and demanded to know what fights Steve had picked while he was there. Talking about Hodges fell into rhapsodizing over Agent Carter, and Bucky was grateful for the night so black that Steve couldn't see his smile fade. Carter sounded like a real classy broad, the kind of dame Steve had hoped for since they were both kids.
“But, see, it was all for a special project Dr. Erskine had. He'd developed a serum, well, you saw it, I guess he must have tried it on Schmidt when he was still in Germany.” Bucky winced, and nearly fell off the rock they were sitting on when Steve's muscled arms clamped around him in a painful vise.
“Too tight!” he gasped, once he'd figured out that his best friend had been aiming for a hug, and not to crush his ribcage. Stevie apologized and scooted away, but Bucky wasn't about to lose one of the few embraces Steve allowed now that they were men. “Hey, punk, get back here.” He dragged the other man back over with an arm around his neck, rubbed the knuckles of his right hand into Steve's golden hair.
Steve laughed, loud enough to alert anyone to their location, and slung an arm back around Bucky's waist. “Jerk,” he riposted, but didn't let go. “Phillips didn't want me for the serum. Said I was too small, that it had failed before with bigger guys, that – uh,” Steve stuttered, redirected. “But Erskine insisted. So they stuck me in this box with something called Vita-rays, and when I got out I looked like this. And then -” Steve sped up, speaking so quickly that he tripped over his words. “- they must have gotten into the building somehow, because they shot Erskine, and no else knew how to make the serum. So the Senator -”
“Stevie.” Steve's shoulders tensed; he turned his face away from Bucky and gazed stubbornly into the dark. “What are you lying about?”
“Ain't lying,” Steve insisted, jaw stuck out like it always was when Father Allison yelled. But Bucky had known Steve for as long as he could remember, and he knew how to wait.
Steve never waited. Not for a fight, not for the draft, and not for the disapproving silence to settle around them like the night.
“Fine,” he said grudgingly, pulling his arm back and twisting his hands in his lap. “But I wasn't lying. It was all right, the serum. Sure, it hurt a bit.”
Which meant it had hurt worse than the time Timmy Sanders had broken Steve's arm, when Bucky was seven and Steve was too small to be ten.
“But I was okay.”
“Hmm.” Bucky traced the nervous motion of Steve's hands with his gaze, the defensive reassurance in his words. “Who wasn't okay?” he finally said, and knew he had asked the right question when Steve went still.
“They hadn't. Um, Stark – Howard Stark, you remember, from the Expo? - said they hadn't calibrated the machine right before, maybe. Or that something else had gone wrong. In testing.” Bucky flinched, hearing the last words in a thick accent, the chill of a metal table at his back. Steve misconstrued his silence, and hurried to finish his confession. “They'd lost a few soldiers. They were worried. That's why Phillips wanted someone stronger. But I was fine.”
White-hot fury crashed through Bucky's chest, a distraction from the cold torture of Zola's tests. “What?” he snarled, surprising himself at the anger threaded like barbed wire through the words. “You let them torture you? You let them try to kill you?”
Tests. Tests and more tests, Zola searching for something in the pain bleeding through the bruises on Bucky's skin. Searching for something that Bucky was afraid the scientist had found, every time the man's blurred features curved into a hideous smile.
“No!” Steve grabbed Bucky's shoulder, face a pale wash in the darkness. “No, Buck, it wasn't like that. They weren't trying to kill me. They were -”
“Experimenting,” Bucky spat. Experiments that left the other prisoners burning bodies every evening. Bucky had planned their escape, and killed the men brave enough to join him.
“No. Bucky.” Steve's voice trembled with disappointment. “It was my choice. I chose the serum. You know I needed to fight. I couldn't let you leave me behind, could I?” He punched Bucky in the arm, and Bucky could hear the smile Steve plastered over the words. Could hear it deflate, punctured by the way Steve's voice caught at the end.
He'd nearly gotten himself killed, just for the chance to ship out. Nearly done it again, to save Bucky from Zola. And if he kept coming for Bucky - stood beside Bucky like Rappallo had, when they broke out of the cells – then one day it would finally stick. Bucky would drag Steve into the war, the explosion of blood and limbs from a mine, the slack face of a German soldier no more than eighteen years old. Bucky would get him killed.
“You're sure about this?” Bruce inquired for the fifth time, checking Stepushka's vital signs on one monitor while Tony hooked something to the boy's forehead to measure signals from his brain.
Bucky stared scornfully at Banner for a moment, then returned his attention to allowing Stepushka to play “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider” with his new metal hand. He could feel each brush of the child's small fingers against his own. He could move the arm and feel nothing at all, except the unbelievable weightlessness of it through the muscles in his back and chest. They fixed things, in this glass and steel Tower: robots, arms, intergalactic portals. Each other.
“Did you want him to sign a permission slip?” Sam asked, arms folded, gazing impassively at Bruce hovering next to the lurid, purple squishy bag where Bucky sat with Stepushka sniffling on his lap. “Or did you want us to vote?” Bruce opened his mouth, then closed it and shook his head.
“This is what Steve would choose,” Natalia seconded, sitting on the floor in front of them, her legs crossed. “In case we were voting.”
“Whatsit for?” Stepushka asked when Tony taped more wires to his thin chest, naked and wrapped in a navy fleece blanket.
“It monitors your responses on a cellular level to a timed infusion of -”
“Tony,” Sam interrupted, shaking his head, and Stark stopped mumbling at the screen hovering by his shoulder and lifted his head.
“Oh.” He glanced down at where Stepushka was picking at the tape. “We're zapping you with drugs to make you big. Like Steef.”
“Did you just say 'Steef'?” Clint inquired, smirking. “Because I'm pretty sure I heard you say 'Steef'.”
“Shut up,” Tony responded, blushing. “You're deaf, Barton. You didn't hear anything.”
“Why big?” Stepushka wondered, tilting his head up to look at Bucky, nose running.
Bucky rubbed at the boy's nose with a tissue, kissed the towheaded child because he could. “It's like medicine,” he explained, brushing metal fingers down Stepushka's cheek and wondering at the sensation of baby-soft skin. “To make you better.”
Stepushka wrinkled his nose. “Yuck,” he declared, then sneezed twice. “Medicine is yuck. Kiss better?” he bargained, lifting his cheek so Bucky could kiss it.
Bucky smiled. “I can't kiss this better,” he told Stepushka, though he still bent his head and kissed the boy's watery eyes, his fever-pinked cheek.
“We're ready,” Bruce said, cleaning his glasses again and clearly reluctant to speak. “Just give the word. It should take less than a minute: we have to inject a series of different doses as his body starts to change, but if the response is as rapid as we expect, it should all happen on the timer we have set.”
“You might want to move, Barnes,” Tony added, raising an eyebrow. “When this works, Hiccup there is going to weigh a few hundred pounds.”
“If this works,” Bruce muttered.
Bucky shook his head, rubbed his nose against Stepushka's. “You can have a cookie right after,” he promised, and recognized the flash of Steve's triumphant grin in the child's blue eyes. Then he nodded at Stark to press the necessary buttons, and they began.
“I love you,” Steve mumbled, cuddled into Bucky's bedroll when one of them should have been standing watch. Though Bucky was pretty sure no one would bother to hunt them down through miles of snow and ice, somewhere above the tree line in the Alps.
A year ago, Bucky considered ruefully, he hadn't known that mountains had tree lines.
“You love my wool blankets,” Bucky corrected, because Steve was hogging all of them. Bucky was wearing the coat Howie had made and three pairs of pants, shivering worse than he had in '37, the winter they couldn't afford to buy coal.
Steve snuggled deeper into Bucky's blankets, smirking at him from the warm cocoon of scratchy, Army-issued wool. “Well, yeah,” he concurred. “They smell like your god-awful aftershave, worse than the rubbing alcohol at the hospital. Who wouldn't love that?”
Bucky stuck his tongue out, but let Steve shove him onto his back and kiss him until both their lips were warm. Then Steve hunched down so his head rested on Bucky's chest, listening to Bucky's heartbeat while Bucky rubbed circles on Steve's spine.
“Don't think you need this anymore,” Bucky whispered, but he didn't stop massaging the heels of his palms over Steve's lungs. It had taken almost a year, but Bucky had learned to navigate the startling breadth of Steve's shoulders, the strange absence of an asthmatic wheeze or an irregular pulse.
Steve nudged his head up into Bucky's chin, angling for a kiss that Bucky willingly gave. It would never be anything less than incredible, every time Steve Rogers proved that he wanted Bucky Barnes. Steve's new body might have been science, but his desire was a miracle.
“Don't be stupid,” Steve said, settling back into the place he'd occupied on Bucky's chest for over a decade. “This is the only thing I need.”
Stepushka flashed through Steve's life – Bucky's life – in seconds, transforming from a tiny, righteous boy to a mess of thin, awkward limbs to the unbelievable physique of Captain America. His head occupied the place it always had, resting on Bucky's chest as white-blond hair darkened to gold.
Stepushka had needed Bucky to finish his fights, to feed him and keep him from the cold. Steve Rogers was protected by the Avengers, was loved and cared for by the men and women who surrounded them. The Winter Soldier had tried to kill him, and Bucky had nearly finished the job. The only thing Steve needed now was protection from the death in Bucky's hands.
Sam had been an athlete and a peer mediator in high school, then a social worker and a soldier. He had never been a scientist – had barely passed biology once, relieved that pararescue included knowing how to stitch someone up without needing to know how their cells reproduced.
Still, he had to admit that it was amazing, watching Stepushka go from a scrawny kid enveloped by a blue blanket to blond, statuesque Steve Rogers whose dignity was barely covered by the same blanket. Would have been more amazing if they weren't all holding their breaths, terrified that something had gone wrong.
Steve lolled in Bucky's arms, unconscious, his hair dark-blond again and head resting on a metal shoulder while his feet knocked into where Natasha sat almost a yard away. When the two men fought, in DC or Magadan or the gym, Steve seemed to dwarf the Winter Soldier. Captain America dwarfed everyone with his determination and his colorful spandex suit. But in Tony's workshop with Barnes gathering Steve's limbs and curling the superhero into his side, the men were evenly matched in height and strength, dark brown hair brushing against blond.
“His brain activity looks good,” Bruce said through a screen covered with lines that resembled a heart monitor at a hospital. “It matches adult patterns for connectivity.”
“Heart rate excellent,” Tony told them, scrolling down another screen. “JARVIS, are you getting anything on his cells?”
“Yes, sir. I am currently analyzing the make up of -”
JARVIS continued speaking, but Steve shifted and all of them stopped paying attention. Though maybe they hadn't been paying enough attention, since one of the men on the purple beanbag had vanished into thin air.
“Wait, where did Toothless go?” Tony picked up one of the other chairs, as though the Winter Soldier might be hiding underneath it. “He was just here.”
Steve had wound up mostly on the floor in the aftermath of Bucky's disappearance, his head and chest framed by purple fabric. Barnes was a ghost, already gone.
“He's going to miss this!” Tony fretted, poking at Steve's bicep when the super-soldier blinked.
“Yeah,” Sam agreed softly. “I'm betting he knows that, Tony.” He pushed his concern for Barnes away, crouching to smile at his defrosted friend for the first time in over a month. “Hey, Rogers. It's been awhile.”
“B'kee?” Steve croaked, rubbing at a nose that had stopped dripping snot, his eyes no longer red.
“Shit,” Tony said, and everyone stared hard at Steve. “Maybe we got the brain bit wrong after all. How old are you?” he asked in Russian, squatting so that he could put his face close to Steve's. “Do you like dragons?”
“Ninety-seven,” Steve answered immediately, still hoarse. He hadn't sounded that bad since the hospital over a year ago. Then Captain America's perfect features pinched in a frown. “You speak Russian?” he asked Tony skeptically, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. “Guys, what happened? Why am I naked? And why isn't Clint wearing pants?”
“It's a long story,” Barton replied, handing Steve a pair of stretchy pants that Sam thought belonged to the Hulk. Or maybe those were Bucky's yoga pants. “Involving a lot of vomit, and some PediaSure.”
“You should probably ask your boyfriend,” Tony chimed in, scrolling through a list of Steve's vital signs on one of his screens while Bruce peeled the wires off Steve's chest and forehead.
Sam was only a few feet away from Steve's face, close enough to watch the color drain out of it at Tony's careless words. “Wh-what?” Steve stuttered, tugging the yoga pants on and accidentally squeezing the glass of water Nat handed him so hard that it cracked. “What are you talking about, Stark?”
“You know,” Tony said, lost in a world of diagrams and cells, unaware that Bruce had widened his eyes and was frantically slicing his hand across his throat, or that Clint was signing “Shut up” while Sam buried his face in his hands. “The incredibly attractive assassin who just spent a month babysitting you? The one you were apparently getting busy with back in the good ol' days?”
Finally, Tony noticed the awkward silence in the workshop, and lifted his head. Steve's mouth was open, but Captain America didn't look like he knew which part of Tony's comment to attack first.
“Oh.” Tony scratched his head. “Um, yeah. JARVIS might have played the recording where you admitted your undying love for the cyborg. Oops?”
“Oops?” Steve repeated, fists clenched. “Did Bucky see this?” he wondered, apparently less concerned that the entire team had watched him break down and confess his relationship with his best friend than that said best friend might have felt pressured by Steve's unflagging devotion. Though, Sam mused, even Steve's platonic devotion had seemed pretty terrifying.
“Sure he did,” Tony told him, ignoring Steve's flinch. If Sam had learned one thing in the half a year he'd spent at the Tower, it was that Stark and tact very rarely shared the same air. “He already knew, though. He remembers a hell of a lot. Too much, maybe. Told me things I never wanted to know about my dad.”
“He – he spoke to you?” Steve rubbed his thumbs over his eyes, brushing away the jealousy Sam had glimpsed before Steve could shove it away. Steve had never complained when Bucky avoided him for months on end, or when he followed Clint down halls, but he'd gazed after them as though he could wish himself into Barton's skin. “When? What did he say?”
“Tony.” Bruce spoke gently, a finality in his tone that shut Tony's mouth and reminded Sam of his grandmother, five feet tall and built of iron-gray curls and steel. She had found him smoking pot in high school on a friend's stoop. Hadn't screeched like his mom would've, or taken the blunt away. Just looked him dead in the eye and said that he would never do it again, and Sam never had.
“Do you remember leaving to fight Hydra downtown?” Bruce asked, and Steve nodded impatiently, waving the fight away in his haste to learn about any words Bucky might have said. “Do you remember anything after that?”
“No,” Steve admitted, after pausing and considering it. “Wait, how did we make it back here? How long was I unconscious?”
“For a month,” Tony interjected, incapable of staying quiet for very long. “And you weren't unconscious, you were three.” Bruce glared at him, and Tony subsided.
“Hydra blasted you with some sort of de-aging formula,” Banner explained. “Bucky said you were approximately thirty-six months old.” He didn't seem to see Steve's shock when Bruce called the Winter Soldier “Bucky.” A month ago, no one but Steve had believed the Soldier would ever be “Bucky” again.
“It took us a little over a month to synthesize the cure. Bucky . . .” He paused, making a face and looking to the others for assistance. “Took care of Stepushka?” he added, hesitantly.
“Stepushka?” Steve echoed, frowning. He finally met Sam's eyes, as if he were hoping that one of the people in the room would start to make sense. “Who's Stepushka?”
“Well, you were,” Sam said, shrugging. They might have been superheroes, but the Avengers couldn't stage an intervention to save their lives. “For a couple weeks. Tiny, asthmatic little brat.” Steve's eyes widened, the idea that he'd been gone for more than a few hours finally beginning to sink in. “But it was good, I think. Bucky understood you at three.”
“He was three, when I met him,” Steve murmured, looking away from them and down at his hands. “He was so small. His hair curled around his ears, never laid flat no matter how many times Sister Agnes combed it down.”
“And you had hair like an albino,” Tony contributed, cracking the melancholy that always surrounded Steve. “But Barnes wouldn't let us dye it a normal human color. Or red and gold, which would've been so much cooler.”
“I need to see him.” Steve jumped to his feet, then toppled back onto the beanbag chair when his newly transformed legs refused to support his weight. The chair hissed as it compressed under Steve's bulk, and a few pieces of stuffing escaped.
Sam held up a hand and shook his head. Bucky would be in his room – he hoped. The Soldier might have left again, to raze Hydra to the ground, but Sam didn't think he would leave the Tower until he knew that Steve was okay. But even if Bucky had stayed in the Tower, he had crept out of the lab for a reason. He wouldn't welcome Steve into his rooms. He wouldn't welcome any of them, after losing Stepushka a second time.
“I don't think that's a great plan,” Sam cautioned, well aware that Steve had a tendency to ignore common sense. None of the history books about Captain America had prepared Sam for a man who tried to throw himself off helicarriers and into international manhunts without consulting anyone. “You don't even know who you were, these last five weeks. How are you going to know who Barnes is now?”
“He's still Bucky,” Steve shot back, arguing with a version of Sam who hadn't existed for a month, the Sam who had continuously tried to convince Steve Rogers that Bucky Barnes might be gone forever. A version of himself that Sam could admit was totally, completely incorrect.
“Well, yes, but -”
“The only thing I need to know is how Bucky's doing,” Steve argued before Sam could finish, his jaw jutting out like Stepushka's did when he negotiated how many green beans he would eat. Sam hoped he would forget Stepushka's every recalcitrant expression fairly soon – he didn't need to look at Captain America and think the man was adorable, or consider bribing him with a cookie. “Just tell me that.”
“Do you want an Oreo first?” Sam offered. Nat pulled three out of her pockets, Clint tugged a box of thin mints down from the air vent, and Bruce held out a package of double-stuffed Oreos he'd apparently stashed under the nitrile gloves.
“Is this a twenty-first century thing?” Steve wondered, swatting away the cookie Tony tried to jam in his mouth, and pursed his lips in bemusement when the rest of the team laughed.
JARVIS had independently decided to save all the footage from the past month and a half, the AI informed them archly, saving them from the jumble of five voices attempting to describe Stepushka at the same time. Sam suggested that they relocate to Steve's living room, since no one wanted to spend more time in the workshop, and Steve's floor had all their beer. Bruce went down to check on Pepper's fever. Nat and Clint flopped down on the sofa, Clint snoring before he'd landed on the cushions. Steve blinked at the hammock hanging from his ceiling then strode over to the armchair, a silent dismissal of the comfort the team had hoped to provide. Sam thought he might fall asleep on top of Tony and his drink, but it would hardly be the first time that had happened.
“This is when we got home from fighting Hydra, right after you'd shrunk,” Tony narrated, as JARVIS played the footage where Stepushka hurled crayons at the Avengers. “Bucky held you until we got back, and Pep' outfitted the nursery.” Steve stared at the screen, the images flashing onto his pale, tense face.
“This is the first night.” Tony had some sort of remote, had skipped a few hours of conversation and exhaustion and Sam's meandering bedtime stories. “Barnes still wouldn't talk to any of us then, but see, he stays with Stepushka.”
“Why do you call me Stepushka?” Steve asked, never taking his eyes off the screen, where the Winter Soldier left his metal hand in a tiny grip, sitting vigil by a child's bed.
Tony shrugged, leaning backwards so that Sam could collapse gratefully across most of the loveseat and Stark's lap. “It's what Barnes called you,” he told Steve. “Stepushka, or solnishka. You called him medvedzhonak.”
“It means little bear,” Nat translated, mumbling into Barton's shirt. “Solnishka means -”
“Sunshine,” Steve finished, gaze still trained on the TV, where a worn man brushed his fingers through a small child's hair. “Don't,” he said, when Tony moved to skip ahead, sounding like Sam imagined Bucky would when he went to his knees and pressed his face to the pixels of Steve's pulse. “Just – let's just watch this, for awhile?”
Sam drifted off to the hum of a Russian lullaby, the glow of a night light in the dark.
It took three days to make it through a month's worth of video. Tony had passed out around hour ten, then slept through the next fourteen hours of video. Despite that, he continued to protest Sam's claim that no one could survive on caffeine and genius. Pepper had migrated up from her floor, carrying boxes of tissues and flu medication and collapsing on the couch.
Clint made omelets, then disappeared with Nat when Coulson called about a situation in Baku, looking grateful for the reprieve. Sam couldn't blame him; Steve had barely glanced at any of them since JARVIS had started the video feed, blue eyes flitting between the TV screen and the hallway to Barnes' room. JARVIS promised that Barnes was still in the Tower, even though none of them had seen him in days.
“All signs indicate that Sgt. Barnes is fine,” the AI promised, when Steve asked for the fifth time, watching Natasha teach Stepushka how to plié on the TV. “Sgt. Barnes is in his room, watching footage from the Tower cameras.”
“What footage?” Sam inquired, frowning. JARVIS had never described Steve's endless home videos as “footage.” Well, for the last month the AI had simply named the home videos “Steve,” the way Stepushka had. What else could Bucky be watching, if not Steve?
“The same recordings you are playing for Capt. Rogers, Lt. Wilson,” JARVIS replied, sounding surprised that Sam had even needed to ask.
On screen, Stepushka spun in a lopsided circle and glanced over at the window, bright blue eyes searching for approval from the wan, black-clad man polishing a knife in the late morning sun.
Stepushka had loved Barnes without reservation, without questions or demands beyond insisting that Barnes love him in return.
And Barnes had scooped the tiny boy into an arm that tore through his skin with every motion, and obliged.
Of course Bucky would watch these videos. Steve nodded, as though he had expected nothing less, and refocused on the footage of the Winter Soldier chopping carrots for a toddler's lunch.
“We always ended up with kitchen duty,” Steve whispered, and it took Sam a second to realize that his friend wasn't speaking from a projection on the wall. He had changed into sweatpants and a black t-shirt that didn't quite fit his shoulders. Steve had said that the shirt had been on his bed, and Sam believed him, but he also believed that some other man had left it there. Tony had found Bucky in Steve's room, once, cradling Steve's pillows and listening to his best friend's voice brush over the exhausted lines on his face.
“I thought Father Allison wanted to punish us, at first, for all the trouble we caused.” Steve sat with his knees curled to his chest, talking to the image of Stepushka giggling while Bucky rolled carrot slices down his metal arm. “But I think Sister D sent us there. It was warm in the kitchen, ungodly hot in the summer, and she knew I stayed healthier when I was warm.” Steve's face flickered white, then blue, back lit by the TV. “And she knew Bucky wouldn't leave me alone, even if she sent him all the way to Queens for a better price on day-old bread.
“We had soup all the time. Porridge for breakfast, soup for lunch.” Sam couldn't tell if Steve knew they were there, or if Rogers had grown so accustomed to reciting his memories for the camera that he did it without thinking. “Bucky and I peeled potatoes and chopped carrots and beets and begged the cook to put some bones in the broth, just to give it some flavor.
“When we moved out of the Coxes' spare room, into our own place, I did most of the cooking.” A faint grin hovered over Steve's mouth, the twist of his lips as Stepushka scowled at his applesauce. “Soup, mostly. I guess you make what you know. Buck would help me chop vegetables for the next day, when he came home at night. He said that he could peel potatoes in his sleep, that he would remember how to chop a carrot just like cook wanted even if he was a hundred years old like Mr. Murphy and couldn't remember his own name.” Steve choked on the last words, hugged his knees and breathed the sob into the fabric of his pants.
“Steve,” Pepper said, sneezing through the word. Either she was crying, or the flu was making her eyes water again. “You have to know that Bucky -”
“I can't – I need to take a break,” Steve announced, coming abruptly to his feet and cutting Pepper off without noticing that she had spoken. He spun away from the television and toward the stairwell, leaving them with the echoing, intermittent thuds as Captain America leaped from landing to landing.
“Is this a thing?” Tony demanded sleepily from where he'd spread out over the living room floor. “During the Wilsonian presidency, a generation of men were born who would be frozen – naturally or cryogenically, but more so emotionally, since they can't make it through a conversation without running away.”
“Should we go after him?” Bruce asked, making a displeased noise when Tony stole the glasses that Banner was compulsively rubbing clean.
“Do we know where he went?” Pepper replied, unwrapping another throat lozenge from her sixty-four ounce bag. “The way he took those stairs, he could be anywhere.”
The three men in the room turned to stare at her, eyebrows raised. “C'mon, Pep',” Tony said, putting on Bruce's glasses and squinting at Pepper's reddened, raw nose. “Where do all the cool, emotionally constipated super-soldiers go these days?”
“He's in the gym,” Sam summarized, because Pepper was too sick to deal with Tony's roundabout sarcasm. Or because he was too tired to deal with any of this. He had wished Steve back for weeks, had walked by Bucky's room and expected to find his friend leaning against the door, had jogged down Riverside waiting for Steve's sarcasm and insulting backwards jog.
But even Sam had to admit that Stepushka - for all his tantrums and terrible singing and myriad allergies - had been easier to care for than Steve, if only because Barnes was willing to kiss away Stepushka's tears. It was unfortunate, Sam thought, that Bucky wouldn't kiss Steve better, too.
“Should one of us go spar with Steve?” Bruce queried, prodding at Tony with his toes. “Before he destroys all the punching bags?”
“That will not be necessary, Dr. Banner,” JARVIS responded, distracting Tony from his attempt to tickle Bruce's foot. Sam hoped a tickle fight wouldn't bring out the Hulk; he didn't think Steve's sofa would survive the encounter. “Sgt. Barnes is currently sparring with Capt. Rogers. They do not appear to require assistance.”
Pepper sat up so quickly that she toppled over the other direction. “What?” Tony exclaimed, hands tightening over the arch of Bruce's foot. “How did Barnes get down there?”
“I believe he took the stairs, sir.”
Sam swallowed his chuckle and stepped over Tony so he could help Pepper stand. “Thanks, JARVIS,” he said, wrapping an arm around Potts' waist while she coughed into her elbow. “I think the rest of us will take the elevator.”
“But how did he know Rogers was there?” Tony demanded, waving his arms around until Banner hauled the other man to his feet. “Is he psychic? He might be psychic. I need to review those files Capsicle emailed me, my cursive Cyrillic is shit. Do you think they might have implanted some sort of -”
“Pardon the interruption, sir,” JARVIS cut in smoothly, “but I do not believe that Sgt. Barnes possesses any form of clairvoyance or telepathy. He did, however, hear Capt. Rogers depart for the gymnasium.”
Several months of living with Clint Barton sent them all gazing at the ceiling and shrugging, unperturbed. Sam wouldn't have been shocked if Barnes was psychic; he certainly wasn't astonished to learn that the ex-assassin had preternatural hearing, and the ability to eavesdrop while remaining invisible.
“This is good, right?” They crowded into the elevator, and Tony waved a hand near Sam's head to encompass the general situation. “I mean, it's not the sort of bonding you talk about at group therapy, and you said maybe expressing himself with violence wasn't helping Barnes' recovery . . . Is this good?”
“It's the first time since the helicarrier that Bucky's shown up to help Steve,” Sam replied, grunting when Pepper leaned most of her weight into his hip. “Stepushka doesn't count,” he qualified, when Tony opened his mouth to protest. Stepushka hadn't grown up with Bucky; he hadn't joined the Army and become the captain who would lose his partner to the Alps and Hydra. Bucky had never looked into Stepushka's wide eyes and seen the reflection of a man who had died in 1944. “And yes, it's good.”
They could hear the fight before they caught a glimpse through the glass, a steady rhythm of fists and feet striking flesh. If Steve had spoken to Bucky, or expressed some emotion on seeing his best friend for the first time in days or weeks or maybe decades, they had arrived too late to witness it. By the time Sam dragged Pepper out of the elevator, Steve and Bucky were a blur of limbs and flips and a flying kick that bore a suspicious resemblance to the jeté that Nat had taught Stepushka.
“Should one of us get the tranquilizer gun?” Bruce proposed, cocking his head to watch Barnes duck Rogers' back flip and slam his metal hand against Steve's shoulders, propelling the blond man twenty feet into the far wall.
“And shoot who?” retorted Tony, because Steve had used the wall to swing up to the ceiling and down into Bucky's chest, the outer edge of his foot jammed into the delicate space where metal met skin. Bucky didn't flinch – Sam didn't know whether to be grateful to the new arm or not – just grabbed Steve's shins and spun, twisting his best friend face-first into the mat.
“Both of them,” Clint suggested, landing next to Bruce and nocking an arrow while Natasha sidled up beside Tony.
“JARVIS filled us in,” she told them, folding her arms and revealing a singed patch in her sleek, black uniform. “On the way down from the helipad.”
“How was Baku?” Pepper inquired, sneezing into the handkerchief Barton had tugged out of his mouth. Well, one of them. They were at least twenty, all knotted together and about as colorful as Tony's beanbag chairs. Hawkeye had learned more than archery, in his childhood with the circus.
“Sunny,” Clint told her. “Smoggy.”
“Easy,” Nat answered, red hair cascading across her face when she tilted it forward, hiding her eyes. In the gym, Steve caught Barnes' deadly new arm before it could make contact with his chest, wrenched it and forced Barnes into a forward flip, pivoting halfway through to lock his thighs around Captain America's throat.
“Don't say it,” Pepper warned, when Tony opened his mouth. “Not a word about sex.”
“I could pantomime?” Tony offered, and Clint jabbed him with an arrow.
There was no clear winner, when Captain America took on the Winter Soldier. Their fighting styles differed in many ways: the Soldier had less bulk and the sinuous grace to prove it, but was trained to a grounded brutality where Captain America favored the air. Despite that, both men dove into battle from the same lowered center of gravity, resorted to a style they'd learned in the second World War from martial arts experts, reached for weapons and shields when none were at hand.
The last few times Steve and Barnes had sparred, the fight hadn't ended until one of them was unconscious on the floor. Of course, it hadn't always been the same one. Steve had gotten Bucky in a choke hold once, waited until the dark-haired man slumped into his grasp. The fight after that, Barnes had dodged a punch and whipped his head into Steve's face so hard that Sam had expected shards of Captain America's nose to wind up in his brain.
“Tell me again why this is good?” Stark hissed, resting his head on Sam's free shoulder. Sam had known that becoming a VA counselor included carrying the traumatized and injured when they couldn't carry themselves – it just hadn't occurred to him that he might need to literally hoist them off the ground. Pepper and Tony were heavy.
“Look at them,” Sam whispered, as if he could possibly distract Steve and Bucky if he spoke any louder. The Avengers could shout, could hammer against the shock-proof glass, and the men inside wouldn't even flinch. “Bucky's here. You think he would have followed Steve down here a month ago?” Tony shook his head, chin digging into Sam's collarbone. “Second, he's fighting Steve with both hands.”
“Well, yeah,” Tony drawled, offended. “We did give him a beautiful, Starner Tech arm to play with.”
“Starner?” Bruce echoed, raising both eyebrows. “I'm sorry, is that Tonuce Starner?”
“Anthonuce, actually.” Bruce wrinkled his nose in disgust, and Tony frowned. “What, you wanted it to be Bruc-ony Bannark? That just sounds stupid.”
“Yes,” Banner agreed emphatically. “It does.”
“Not the point,” Sam broke in, because he knew from experience that the two scientific prodigies could snipe at each other for hours, and probably discover three new elements while they did it. “Does anyone remember what happened the last time Bucky used that arm?”
No one said anything. They all remembered watching Stepushka ricochet off the solid wood of the entertainment center and hit the ground. They'd all tried to forget Bucky's face as he confronted his worst nightmare – Steve, dead by his hand – before fleeing through glittering, broken shards of glass and into oblivion.
“It means he can separate Steve from Stepushka. Hopefully it means he realizes that he can touch Steve without hurting him.”
“Maybe,” Nat conceded, but her brows drew together in a skeptical frown. “Or maybe James believes that Steve wants to hurt, now, and that this is the one service the Soldier can provide.”
Through the glass, Steve cartwheeled to his feet, sending Barnes reeling from a harsh fist to the chin. Steve began to duck, but not quickly enough to dodge the spinning kick that Bucky launched at his head, catching it on the left side of his jaw. His head slammed sideways, under enough force to snap a normal man's neck, and Steve dropped to the mat like the soldiers Sam had watched faint from dehydration on a prolonged march.
Bucky hoisted the unconscious super-soldier over his shoulders in a fireman's carry – Sam thought of Stepushka, scrawny legs on either side of the Soldier's neck, pointy chin resting in dark hair – and headed for the stairs. He didn't acknowledge the six spectators waiting outside the gym. Barnes' focus remained the same as it always had, since Sam had first encountered the Winter Soldier: fixated on Steve Rogers, as a target, a threat, or a spoiled little boy. After a month with Stepushka, Sam was pretty sure Steve Rogers had been Bucky's focus since 1924.
“Did they not have elevators in the 1930s?” Tony muttered, as Barnes disappeared into the stairwell. The rest of their lazy, twenty-first-century team took the easy, mechanical route back to Steve's floor.
It was past midnight on the third day when Steve's video confession finally played across the screen. Pepper was snoring on the couch, her bag of throat lozenges and a sippy cup of orange juice on the floor. Her feet were in Bruce's lap, where he had nodded off in an uncomfortable slouch, head tilted back and breathing through his mouth. Clint had migrated up into his hammock, leg hanging off one side where he'd kicked the blanket onto Tony's head about an hour before. Tony took up more of the other sofa than Sam had thought was possible, given that Stark wasn't very tall, face down and drooling on Sam's knee. Nat had claimed the love seat, promptly curled up like a cat with her head tucked over her arms and fallen asleep right after dinner.
“I always thought she'd sleep with one eye literally open,” Bruce had murmured, tossing a fleece throw over the red-headed spy.
“She does,” Barton told them, betraying none of the surprise Sam could see in the man's loose fists. “Around people she can't trust.”
Steve had reclaimed the armchair, and no one had seen Bucky since the fight that afternoon. By the time the elevator doors had opened on their floor, Barnes had disappeared, leaving Steve on a couch with a purpling bruise on his cheek.
Rogers hadn't spoken after he regained consciousness, other than to say “please” and “thank you” when someone passed him the salsa over a meal eaten out of cartons on their knees, in front of the television. If it wasn't for the quality of the enchiladas and the expensive beer, Sam would feel like he was back in college. Though watching Stepushka finger paint on TV did not compare to watching the game.
“Damn it,” the video within a video declared, Steve's face small and far away, in tears on the screen. “Damn it, JARVIS, delete this.” Both the Steve admitting his love for Barnes and the Steve in the living room scrubbed a hand over their face, looking as though they wished they could jam their fist into their mouths and bite down hard.
“I didn't want him to know.” Rogers paused the video, after his recorded confession and a moment before Bucky's new arm would flex without his permission and toss a tiny, towheaded boy across the room. Sam and Steve were the only ones awake at two am. Steve's voice carried through the soft darkness of the living room, his profile sharp even in the night.
“Didn't you?” Sam wondered. Because Steve had confessed his love for Bucky everyday, with a cup of coffee waiting outside Barnes' door, with endless recordings to soothe the Soldier and a smile that faded every time Barnes turned him away. Because even if he didn't realize it, Steve had been waiting for Bucky to remember with every anxious breath. “It doesn't matter,” he added, before Steve could argue. “He already knew. Though he was the only one.”
Steve cocked his head, and Sam could hear the resentment churning below his own words. “I'm sorry,” Captain America said a moment later, shifting to face the couch, his knees pulled to his chest. “I shouldn't have asked you to help, once we'd found him.”
“You didn't ask,” Sam retorted. “I offered.”
“You offered because you didn't have the whole story.” Steve stopped talking, and it dawned on Sam that Captain America wasn't going to apologize for leaving Sam in the dark. That love story had been the only thing left to Steve after Bucky went hurtling off a train in 1944, the only thing that belonged to Steve Rogers and not to the world.
“I would have offered anyway,” he admitted, softening. He hadn't much wanted to save the Winter Soldier and watch Captain America run his perfect body ragged, but Sam could safely say that the soldier who had cared for Stepushka and loved Steve was a man worth saving. “I just wish you'd told me. What are friends for, if not to listen to shit like this and offer you beer?”
Steve smiled, his teeth flashing white in the dark. “Friends have your back in a fight. They patch you up when somebody knocks your front tooth out, make you breakfast to cure your hangover when you're out too late. They follow you into a war, when they have the chance to walk away.”
Damn. Sam had forgotten how good Captain America was at making speeches. Steve had taken his examples from his best friend, Sam recognized, but Rogers' smirk meant that he knew everything he said applied to Sam.
“You think Buck and I talked about feelings, growing up?” Steve continued. “He tried to tell me he loved me in '38 and I thought he was spoiling for a fight. I fell for him before I knew what falling in love was, and I didn't say a word for another decade or so.”
“So you were two idiots,” Sam summarized. “It doesn't mean friends shouldn't talk like that.”
There was quiet, then, as Steve rested his chin on his knees and lined up his reply. “Do you remember when we met,” he finally said, “and you asked what made me happy?” Sam nodded, unlikely to forget the earth-shattering realization that Captain-fucking-America could be depressed, a traumatized veteran who had never come home from the war.
“Nobody asked that, back then. Not to poor kids scraping by in the slums. No point in talking about feelings, when all you feel is tired, or hungry, or sick with embarrassment begging for more bread.
“We didn't aim for happy,” he explained, voice soft. “Happy was for rich folks. Sister D said if she raised us right we wouldn't starve and we wouldn't end up at Rikers before we were twenty, stealing out of fat men's coats.”
“You want Bucky to be happy,” Sam argued, because it seemed important to convince Steve that happiness wasn't some sort of twenty-first-century fad, like hipster glasses and neon shoes.
“I want all my friends to be happy,” Steve allowed, staring at the mismatched superheroes snoring in his living room. “It's different with Bucky.” He folded his legs down so that he sat cross-legged on the chair, twisting his hands in his lap. “It's selfish.”
Sam frowned, resting his left arm on Tony's shoulders, tapping his right fingers against Stark's fluffy hair. “I don't understand,” he said. “Why is it selfish to wish that Bucky was happy?”
“Because I never wanted Bucky to just be happy,” Steve replied, watching his hands. “I wanted him to be happy with me.” He glanced up, the light from the TV enough to illuminate the familiar, rueful smile on Captain America's face. “You didn't catch on, when I insisted that we chase him around the world?”
“He is happy with you.” Sam didn't think that needed to be said, given the month of video they'd just watched, or the myriad monologues Steve had made that were all Bucky would listen to in four months of painfully slow recovery.
“He was.” The faint glow from the screen brushed Steve's bleak expression in shades of unearthly white and blue, stark and desolate against the quiet blackness of the room. “Now he wants nothing to do with me.”
“Huh,” Sam said, raising his eyebrows. “None of my school books taught me that Captain America was blind.”
Steve frowned, his confusion an invitation to explain.
“Why do you think Barnes is still here?” he prompted.
“Because he has nowhere else to go,” Steve supplied dully, a droning recitation he must have told himself a thousand times. And Sam remembered why he had given up his whole life for the group of courageous, emotionally stunted fools on this floor.
“No.” Sam shook his head. “Not here in the asylum for the gifted and insane – well, that, too – but here. Breathing.”
“Because Hydra found him when I should have looked for him.” They had talked about this, on their global trek to find the Winter Soldier, because Steve was a soldier in desperate need of a counselor and bringing up Bucky was the only way to make him talk. Sam had thought they'd made progress in assigning blame for Bucky's capture, but clearly all those nights of sitting outside Barnes' door had brought Steve's guilt back in full force.
“I didn't mean what brings him to the twenty-first century -” Sam started, before giving up and going with it. “Fine, so Hydra got to him. Are they controlling him now? Telling him what to do, where to be?”
“No!” Steve spoke loudly enough to startle Bruce, whose glasses tumbled off his face and onto the carpet. To Sam's surprise, no one else stirred, though he didn't doubt that if they played a recording of Stepushka wheezing everyone would be on their feet in seconds. “Of course not.”
“So Barnes makes his own choices?”
“You know he does.” Steve paused, the righteous indignation fading a little. “When he remembers,” he distinguished, because there had been days – weeks – that broke Steve's heart, when Barnes wouldn't remember to eat unless they shoved food into his room and played instructional videos. Steve might have been the only one willing to spar with the Winter Soldier, but those days the Avengers had gone to the mat with Captain America, standing in for the dead villains he couldn't fight.
“And at any point during the four months you recall, has your friend seemed pleased to be here? Thanked us for saving his life?”
The vein in Steve's temple throbbed, his jaw tight. “No.”
Sam really didn't want to keep pushing, but Steve refused to leap to the logical conclusion on his own. The conclusion Sam had watched too many veterans choose, unable to muster the energy or the faith to face the next day. “So why didn't he kill himself?” Sam asked gently, and Captain America reeled back as if he'd been punched with a steel arm.
“He – ”
“Or leave?” Sam continued quickly, because Steve looked like Stepushka had shortly before the kid vomited up his lunch. “If he hates himself for what they made him do, if he believes that he doesn't belong in this world – then Steve, why is he still here?”
Steve folded forward, as if Sam's words had punctured his lungs and bled him dry. Sam was amazed that in four months, it hadn't occurred to Rogers that Barnes might turn one of his numerous deadly weapons back on himself. He was amazed, sometimes, that defrosted Steve Rogers hadn't considered it in the three years before Bucky brought purpose back to his world.
They'd called it heroism, in all Sam's classes, in boot camp: all his teachers and drill sergeants had held up Captain America's final flight as the quintessential act of patriotism. To die for one's country is to live forever. Then an icon he barely knew appeared in Sam's shabby VA with a smile that didn't reach his eyes, and the counselor had discovered that maybe it hadn't been heroism, after all. Maybe it had been that Captain America couldn't muster the faith to keep living in the world.
It had taken Steve's video confession almost two weeks ago to make Sam understand that it wasn't the world that had been the problem. It was the world without James Buchanan Barnes.
“I don't know,” Steve finally answered, gripping onto the arm of the chair. The fears he normally hid from his team were on clear display in eyes bright with the reflection from the television screen. “Do you really think that he would. . .” Steve shook his head, unable to say the words. The chair's arm cracked under his fingertips. “Why does he stay, Sam? How do we make him stay?”
With a very effective mixture of sedatives and good aim with the tranquilizer gun, Sam would have said a month ago. He would have danced around the subject like he had to, trying to tell Steve that the Winter Soldier was not getting better and that Steve Rogers wasn't going to get better unless he stopped directing all his attention at the antisocial assassin and started taking care of himself.
Now, well, Sam could smile and slouch into the world's most comfortable couch, less worried about both men than perhaps he'd ever been. “We couldn't make him stay if we trained every tranq gun we have on the guy, Rogers,” Sam told him, yawning as the past few sleepless days frayed the edges of his awareness. Steve wrenched the arm off of his chair, then stared apologetically at the broken pieces of furniture in his hands.
Sam figured he had better switch to the good news before Steve destroyed the whole floor. “Steve. We don't have to make him stay. He's already here. He chooses to stay. He wakes up and chooses to keep breathing.” Something rustled over Sam's head. He ducked, expecting Clint's stuffed animal collection to land on him, but nothing fell from Barton's hammock. When Sam glanced up toward the ceiling, it didn't look like Barton had moved at all.
“But why?” Steve wondered, gazing forlornly at the armrest in his hands. “If you're right, that he's miserable, that he thinks it's his fault even though it's not, then why would he decide to stay?”
“I can see how it took a decade for you to pull your head out of your ass,” Sam responded, rolling his eyes and stifling another yawn. He should have had coffee with dinner, instead of beer. Steve's head snapped up, a familiar indignant expression visible even in the dark. Sam tossed a throw pillow at him. “He stays because he loves you.” Sam was kind enough to leave the “you idiot” unspoken. Steve gaped at him like the fish Riley had caught on their first leave, by an overpriced resort on the Caspian Sea. “Because Barnes wouldn't hurt you, pal, not for anything. Not even if he thought it meant finding his own peace.”
Steve sputtered at him for a few seconds, and Sam thought he heard the air vent give an odd twang. But that might have been Barton snoring. “But – but he never lets me near him!” Captain America protested, after he'd regained the power of speech.
Sam's grandmother would tell him that if he rolled his eyes too much, they'd get stuck. Sam's grandmother had never met Captain America. “Yeah,” he agreed, dropping his head back against the leather couch cushion and propping his legs up on the coffee table. “Like I said, he doesn't want to hurt you. Who did you think he was protecting, hiding from you? Himself?”
The dawning awareness on Steve's slack face told Sam that yes, that was exactly what Steve had thought, if he'd thought at all, beyond the wash of hurt every time Barnes slammed his door in Rogers' distressingly eager face.
“What if you're wrong?” Steve whispered. He managed to calm his voice, but Sam could hear the hope dawning in his words. Captain America had been the man the history books believed could make wishes come true. Steve Rogers could survive risky, early-twentieth century experimentation with the power of his dreams.
“Don't be insulting, Rogers. I'm never wrong.” Sam closed his eyes. His knees were going to ache tomorrow, and his neck wouldn't thank him, but it seemed like so much trouble to move to his bed. “Watch the videos again, if you're not sure. You think you're the only one who wears his heart on his sleeve?”
One of these days, Sam was going to get a full night's sleep in his room. No one was going to wake him up for anything: not coffee, or a science experiment, not for an asthma attack or a Hydra attack or the return of his best friend from the land of three-year-old brats. One of these days, there would be no emergency worth dragging Sam Wilson out of his soft bed – but Sam took comfort in the fact that it would be a very, very long time before one day came.
It took another few days for life to settle back into its familiar, dysfunctional grooves. Barnes hid in his room, Steve moped around the rest of the floor and lifted his eyebrows in bemusement when everyone kept piling into his living room to eat dinner and play board games. He could still beat Clint at Hungry Hippos, though, and name the Monopoly pieces in Japanese. And Barton still couldn't play a decent hand of poker. Pepper had won the last three games, though Clint had tried to argue that was because no one wanted her to sneeze on them.
Sam had shown up for the Nationals game the day before, and found Rogers and Romanoff in a disturbingly tense game of Connect Four, drinking PediaSure out of neon pink crazy straws. “Don't mind me,” he'd said, fluttering his hand at them and flipping on the TV. “I'm just here to babysit.” Normal might have gotten a little weirder, but at least Steve was drawing in charcoal again and not finger paint.
And normal meant that Tony dragged Sam out of bed and into one of his workshops, promising that this time he really needed Sam, because he was upgrading the Falcon wings. Sam doubted it – Tony had promised that at least six times, and the Falcon wings were not small or glowing an odd shade of blue – but he showed up anyway; the last time Tony had promised that, the genius had tried to inject magnets in Sam's back so that he could call the wings remotely. Only he'd done it while Sam was sleeping, and so the Falcon had woken up when giant metal wings slammed into his shoulder blades. He might have gone screeching down the corridor, half-naked and in pain, but thankfully only Tony and JARVIS had seen that.
He was lying across two beanbag chairs mashed into a reasonable approximation of a bed, humming encouragingly as Tony rambled about protons, or prototypes, when JARVIS broke the peaceful vibe of the workshop at midnight.
“Sirs,” the AI said, sounding grave. “This may interest you.”
“What?” Tony was on his feet instantly, shaking out the cramps in his hands. “Is it Barnes? Is he in the game room? The gym?”
Barnes hadn't been to either since the formula had re-aged Steve - excepting the single sparring session with Steve - even though Tony kept knocking on his door at all hours and offering to kick the man's ass in Mario Kart or on the mats. Stark hadn't said anything to Sam when Bucky's door stayed closed, but he had thrown himself into his labs and refused to sleep, constantly flicking his phone to the video feed of the corridor in case Barnes stepped outside. When Sam had tried to bring it up, Tony had shrugged the concern away, pretended he wasn't watching Barnes' door as closely as Steve.
“Does he want to spar? Is he bored? I can -”
“Sir.” JARVIS lit up the far wall with a picture of a dark Tower corridor, cutting off Tony's questions. “I think you will want to see this.”
It wasn't just any corridor, Sam realized, when a figure in a white t-shirt shifted into the screen. It was Steve's floor, in the hallway just outside Bucky's door, a larger version of the image he'd seen over a hundred times on Tony's phone.
“What?” Tony began, but Sam sat up and waved his hand before Stark could formulate a more coherent query.
“Shh,” he said, and they leaned forward to watch Steve uncurl his body from the floor, straighten his massive shoulders, and knock on the door.
* * *
Stepushka never woke up after seven, even if he had hardly slept the night before. Even if Bucky pulled the blinds over the wall of windows in the child's nursery, solnishka woke with the sun.
“C'mon, Buck, daylight's wasting!” Steve shook Bucky's shoulder, hair still in neat, damp furrows, the wet comb sitting on their dresser. He was already dressed in a shirt that Bucky had gotten almost new four years back. Face scrubbed and clear eyed, as though they hadn't spent half Bucky's pay going out the night before, and half the night after that making sure Stevie didn't puke up his lungs along with his beer.
“Let it waste,” Bucky groaned, pulling the sheet over his head. “It's Sunday, punk. Go 'way.”
“Bucky.” Steve climbed right back into their bed, making the flimsy metal creak under the added weight. “James Buchanan Barnes.” He pinched Bucky's ear, sounding just like Sister Agnes with an awful head cold. “You get out of this bed right now.”
Bucky slapped futilely at Steve's skinny arm, prying open eyes that felt like they'd swollen shut after a bad fight. “You joined the order, Sister Steve?” he scraped out of his throat, aiming his stagnant breath at Stevie to watch the face the other boy made. “Always knew you'd make a pretty nun.”
“Prettier 'n you,” Steve smirked, releasing Bucky's ear to ward off the next exhale redolent with beer and sleep. “You smell worse than the toilet after Mr. Cox's uncle uses it, Buck. C'mon, go brush your teeth and put something on that doesn't smell like puke.”
“Ain't my fault you can't hold your booze,” Bucky grumbled, as though he hadn't spent hours rinsing the bowl and wringing the washcloth to drape over Steve's neck. He rolled reluctantly out of bed when Stevie swatted him on his ringing head. “Where are we going, anyhow?” he wondered, mumbling through the fabric of his undershirt as he stripped it off, searching for one in the pile Mrs. Cox had cleaned. “Mass?” Steve liked mass – he'd gone with his Ma every Sunday, 'til she died. Bucky went to mass and waited for Sister D to paddle him for fidgeting too hard.
“Nah.” Stevie's lips quirked, and Bucky pulled on a fresh shirt so he didn't try to trace Steve's smile with his fingertips. “I'll make you do that later, after your date with Sally. You'll need to do some serious confessing, then.” He grinned, ducked the half-hearted swat Bucky aimed at his ear, and popped back up. “I promised Sister D we would stop by the home, while the kids are out. Get a new coat of paint on the bedrooms before it gets too cold.”
“Steve. Stevie.” Bucky stopped, halfway through buttoning his Sunday shirt. Started unbuttoning it again, because he wasn't painting in his nicest shirt, and because there was no use arguing with Steve. “You know paint fumes give you asthma, right? Remember when we tried to paint this place?”
Steve fought his smile, but Bucky had been watching Steve Rogers' eyes light up since he was three years old. “Why, I'd clear forgotten!”
“You're not a dame in the movies, Stevie. You're hardly pretty enough to be a nun. 'Fess up.”
Shrugging, Steve handed Bucky an old shirt, retired because they'd used it to staunch the blood dripping from Steve's nose after a bad fight. “Figured you could do the painting. Mr. Goldberg gave me some of his old butcher's paper. Sister D said there wouldn't be much for Christmas this year. Thought I'd draw some pictures to hang up, just something to brighten up the room.”
Bucky sighed. Buried his face into the top of Steve's damp head, because it was early and sometimes Steve would let him linger before shoving him away. “You got the rest of my pay in your pocket, don't you? Ready to hand over?”
Steve flushed – Bucky could feel it, heat rising through his scalp into Bucky's face – and pulled the folded up bills from his pocket. “I would've asked, Buck. I wasn't gonna – I just . . .” He trailed off, still apologizing, but Bucky knew it wouldn't last. Steve was never really sorry for the choices he made.
“But it's the right thing to do,” he added, straightening up and pushing Bucky away. “We're supposed to tithe, anyhow, and nobody needs the money more 'n the orphanage, and you know that Father Allison thought they might have to close, and -”
Bucky closed his hand over Steve's, pressed Steve's narrow, clenched fist back toward his pocket. “I tell you what, pal,” he said gruffly, stomping over to his boots so he didn't have to stare at Steve's face. “You steal my hard-earned dough and give it to those whiny brats, and I don't have to go to confession for six months.”
“Four,” Steve bargained, clattering across the floor to smile brilliantly at Bucky while he laced his shoes. “By six, you'll have forgotten about Sally entirely.”
“That's why I'll tell you all about her,” Bucky retorted, and grinned when Steve's face went red. “Sister Steve.”
Steve woke up earlier than Stepushka. He required less sleep, remade for action like the Winter Soldier had been. Better, because Captain America had not become defective the longer he remained awake, either through pain or memories of his own humanity.
When he did not spend the night in the hallway, Steve woke before dawn. Bucky watched him from the air vent, dropped down to tug the sheet higher on Steve's chest, tuck the bear onto the bed where it was dwarfed by the blond man. It would be easier to protect Steve from the death and failures Bucky carried if he could leave, but Bucky knew himself well enough to know that was the one sacrifice he could not make.
He listened to Steve breathe for a few moments, then crept into the deserted nursery, folded into the postures and inhalations Banner had taught him; searched for a moment of peace in the one place he hoped it might still be found.
For awhile, meditation was enough. When it wasn't – when the buzzing in Bucky's head droned too loudly, when he found himself crouching under a toddler bed without knowing why – he could take to the air ducts and find Steve, whole and well.
Steve, who loved him.
There was blackness seeping into the Soldier's mind, a spreading ink stain through the fibers of his consciousness. Heavy, but not cold like it always was when they made him sleep.
“I'm so sorry,” a voice whispered through the soggy, stained air. “I'm so sorry, Buck, but it was the only way to get you home.” The voice seemed familiar, a warm breath against the back of his right hand. The press of lips. He waited for the teeth; no one touched the Soldier, unless they brought pain.
He blinked his eyes, but they did not open. No matter. Only one man came so close to the Soldier by choice, though he generally did not speak, and his limbs did not radiate warmth or solidity.
“Bucky,” the blond man sobbed, the sad man who always stood at the Soldier's side. “I missed you so much. I'm so sorry I left you. I love you. God, Buck, I never stopped. Bucky -”
The Soldier pried his eyes open, battling the black spirals swirling through his mind. Blinked slowly at the blond man – his mission, his only companion – at his side.
“He's waking up,” another voice said from the shadows. The Soldier tried to turn his head, to tense at the threat, but something pricked his neck and everything went dark.
“It's selfish,” he murmured, cramped into the duct above the living room. His feet were above his head, face printed with the ridges of the vent as he listened to the Falcon speak to Steve. “I stay because I am selfish. I want to see your face, even if you should not see mine.”
The Falcon had already fallen asleep. Steve had rewound the footage, revisiting a clip of Stepushka playing “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” with the Winter Soldier's hands. He froze when Bucky spoke, looked around the dark room as though there would be someone there.
Bucky's breath caught, and he willed himself not to move. Not to be seen. After a long moment, Pepper started coughing and Steve's attention shifted to his friend, hurrying across the room to help her sit up and pour her more medicine. By the time he looked up, Bucky was gone.
He did not go back to the living room. When he went back to the nursery, he sat down on the bed and found himself at the child's table an hour later, the bed destroyed and a handful of crayons crushed to waxy fragments in his metal hand. He did not go to the nursery, after that.
It should not have been difficult. Bucky had existed for months in this Tower, tumbling into memories as they emerged from the cesspool of his life, slipping past Steve so that he would not cause the man more pain, so that Steve would not have to meet the shattered, heinous remnant of the Bucky he had loved.
“Buddy? Hey, Arm of Mass Destruction, I know you're in there.” Stark had come by almost as frequently as Steve, and at equally odd hours. “I bought three new video games – well, okay, Sam bought them, and Pepper found them on the internet, but they look like fun.” He paused. Bucky tilted his head, certain that Stark could not stay quiet for long.
“Okay, or we could play poker. I know you like poker, you jackass. Or maybe spar? I haven't put on the Iron Man suit in like two weeks! It's probably rusting. Or your arm might be rusting. Maybe I should check on that.”
Bucky twisted his arm, lamplight glinting off the seamless admantium, joints almost invisible. He felt the old ache run through his chest, almost painful in its utter absence. Hollow. He had been hollowed out, made weightless by their cure.
“You can try again later,” Banner said, and Bucky knew without seeing that he had wrapped a soothing arm around Stark's shoulder. “Just give him a little time.”
“A little time to pull his head out of his ass?” Tony complained, soft footfalls as both men walked away. Stark would return, of course, unwilling to let anything go.
Howard raised an eyebrow as soon as he got the plane out of the Adriatic Sea, which took three attempts and Bucky hanging from Steve's arm and his belt out the door so he could shoot at the Nazis shooting at them.
“I told you it would work!” Stark declared, uncowed by Captain America's stormy expression as he hauled his sergeant into the safety of the plane. Well, the relative safety of the plane. There was no telling when Howie's experiments would go wrong.
“You're an asshole,” Bucky greeted him, flopping into the co-pilot's seat and slapping a hand over his neck when Howie glanced over and widened his eyes. Howard winked lasciviously, and Bucky tried not to turn the color of the mark Steve had left under his jaw the night before.
“Congratulations, Barnes,” Stark drawled, offering Bucky a cigarette. “Guess you finally found some – ahem – lubrication to stop clogging up those gears?”
“Fuck you,” he responded, but he couldn't clamp down on the smile he'd worn since they woke up that morning, wearing sand in places he didn't want to think about.
“Don't think Rogers would like that much,” Howie declared thoughtfully, mockery dancing in his dark eyes. “Should I buy you boys a bottle of champagne?”
“You should buy us some lubricant,” Steve interrupted, half-shouting to be heard over the engines. He came up behind the two chairs, smirked at Howie's surprise – nobody believed Bucky, when he warned them Captain America was an ass – and dropped an invisible kiss into Bucky's sandy, salt-stiffened hair, blown every which way by the wind. Then he wandered aft again, back to the Commandos and the beginnings of a new poker game that would end when all the cards slipped under crates and out of sight.
“I told you, didn't I?” Howie said, leveling them out for the flight home. “He's only ever wanted you.”
He had done this before, Bucky reminded himself. It should have been easy to remain hidden in his room, subsisting on midnight meals and videos of Steve's face. But that had been before Stepushka.
The boy's warm head burrowed into his neck, his obstinate expression over a bottle of vanilla PediaSure. The weight of him in Bucky's lap, playing Toca Boca and sipping juice while the adults played cards and drank beer. Stepushka, waiting for Bucky to stagger out of the gym, his tiny lips pursed to bestow a healing kiss.
Stepushka had loved Bucky Barnes, had loved the pieces of him the Soldier had left behind. Howie would roll his eyes, if Bucky said so aloud.
You're an idiot. He's only ever wanted you.
Bucky fell asleep by the door, listening for Steve's heartbeat on the other side.
He did not appreciate the van. Guns were cleaner than explosives. Quieter. A white van loaded with TNT was too obvious. The Winter Soldier had his orders, and he would follow them – but he had been awake for almost ten days, and annoyance flickered down his spine like an electric shock.
The weather was cool, but not too wet for the dynamite, despite the city's foothold on the Lebanese coast. The mission settled into the groove he had been told to follow, the man easy to find in his large vehicle, his ostentatious motorcade.
Bodyguards could not protect him from four thousand pounds of dynamite. Bodyguards could not have stopped a sniper, either, the Soldier huffed, but quickly pushed the thought away. The blond man frowned at the TNT as they drove the van to the hotel. Frowned at the remote in the Soldier's metal hand, concealed in his coat.
The fair-haired man never smiled. When he tried, it only made his blue eyes darken like the ocean in a storm, threaded with currents that hissed below the surface of the sea. The Soldier thought of the sea and paused, feeling as if he had another order he could not recall.
He had been awake too long.
The motorcade moved like a snake, black and sinuous and slow. The Soldier perched on a balcony nearby, a bird of prey waiting to dive on his kill. The blond man sighed soundlessly, but stood beside him, leaning against the stone rail.
One vehicle. Two vehicles. The Soldier's fingers tightened on the remote, the steady brush of the other man's broad shoulder against his own. There was no mission, without the strange, despairing man.
He leaned forward, watching the plaza. The former prime minister's car pulled within range, just as a pregnant young woman stepped into the crowd between the van and car.
The Soldier pressed the button.
There was no discernible lag – the bomb went off, two tons of packed dynamite bursting outward in an explosion of heat, a wall of scorching fire. But the Soldier had the eyes of a sniper: eyes that caught a glimpse of familiar blue running toward the young woman, far too late to save her. The Soldier had the eyes of raptor, watching as the blond man hurtled toward the fray and disappeared into the flames.
Bucky woke up screaming, Steve's name ricocheting off the walls and under the door, agony threading through the air like noxious gas, like smoke above the flames. His metal fingers had gouged through the carpet, hand extended toward a figment of the Soldier's imagination – the only piece Hydra had not been able to take.
“I'm right here. I'm right here, Buck.” Steve sounded panicked, but he tried to bury his fear under a sing-song of reassurance and calming words. “It's okay, it was just a nightmare. You're in the Tower, Tony Stark built it, I'm Steve Rogers and you're Bucky Barnes. We live here, with the horrible carpets that apparently don't stain when you take out a few dozen Hydra agents on top of them. Can you hear me?” he asked, though he could not expect an answer. Almost half a year of rejection, and Steve was still crouched outside Bucky's room, waiting for his best friend to let him in.
“Yeah,” Bucky rasped, afraid to close his eyes and watch Steve burn. “I hear you.” He just needed Steve to keep talking, to prove that he existed, and hadn't died a decade ago on the coast of Lebanon. There was no mission - there was nothing, without Steve.
“B-Bucky?” He heard Steve topple backwards, felt the shock drifting through the gap under the door. He could hear something in Steve's voice that he had not heard since the war. He thought it might have been shock, or maybe joy. “Bucky, oh god, Sam said that you – and in the video, you talked to everyone else, but -”
Bucky waited. Steve never lost his spine for very long, when he believed he was right. And Steve Rogers was always right.
“Bucky?” Steve's voice had dropped a decibel, solid and comforting, steady as his Captain America's heart. “I'm going to knock on the door now. I'd – I'd really like it if you let me in. Please,” he exhaled, almost too soft for Bucky to hear.
One ear to the carpet, Bucky could feel the floor resonate as Steve rolled to his feet. The pause while he straightened his shoulders, the way he always had before losing a fight, and rapped gently on the door.
Bucky drew up to his knees, forehead pressed to the door to feel the vibrations from Steve's knuckles. How many times before he would give up? Stepushka had never known the defeat Steve had faced every day - the child had never cried for more than a second before Bucky came, had cuddled contentedly into the crook of a metal arm like it was where he belonged.
Stepushka had curled against Bucky as though it did not matter who he had become – as if, months before and decades older, Steve might have done the same without complaint. As though Steve would have stood for decades at the Winter Soldier's inhuman side, eyes bright with heartache and love. They had communicated for a century without words, through the tightening of Steve's fists and the quiet tension in Bucky's clenched jaw. In half a year, Steve had spoken under the door and cried into the videos Bucky did not see, had wedged himself into as much of Bucky's life as Bucky would allow. He had never knocked, and Bucky knew that it was because Steve could not bear to know that if he asked, Bucky would still turn him away.
Bucky opened the door. Steve knew how to hear "I love you" when it was kissed into his skin, when it gazed up at him from a drawn face and an open door.
“I miss Stepushka,” he managed to say, after Steve had fallen through and practically collapsed into Bucky's arms, enveloping him with an embrace that Bucky had thought he'd lost forever in 1944. “He was lighter.” He was simpler; Steve's love without the damning knowledge of all Bucky had been.
“You're a jerk,” Steve mumbled into the seam of Bucky's shoulder, dampening his shirt with tears instead of a toddler's drool, but he did not pretend to misunderstand. “You think I don't miss little Bucky Barnes, digging for worms in his only good pair of shorts?”
“I'm not three.” Bucky pulled back from the bone-crushing hug, his gaze skittering away when Steve's blue eyes met his. “I'm not -”
“Hey. Hey, Buck.” Steve hooked a finger under his chin, slid his other hand over Bucky's cheek and into his hair. Smiled, tremulous and real, like the silent blond man never had. Bucky counted Steve's heartbeat, measured his own breaths to the rise of Steve's chest. “I'm not three either, buddy. Well, not this month.” The left side of Steve's mouth lifted, the half-smile Bucky had traced for years. “But I loved you a few weeks ago, when you helped me finger paint dragons. I loved you before that, when you wouldn't drink any of the coffee I made in Tony's fancy machine. I loved you in 1936, huddled in the Coxes' spare room with a radio but no bed, and in 1943 behind enemy lines. I loved you yesterday, and I'm gonna love you tomorrow when -”
Please come back to me, Steve had begged the camera, thinking no one could hear. Please.
Maybe they were both selfish, in the end. Bucky couldn't hurt Steve, couldn't push him away now that he had him in his arms – so he leaned forward and kissed him, instead.
* * *
And there we have it! For those of you who are interested, most of the history should match up to real events: Mumbai, Rafiq Hariri's death in Beirut, Uwe Barschel, Róbert Remiáš's death in Slovakia 1996, 1973 the assassinations of Andrzej Witos and Péter Vályi. (And far before that, young Bucky and Steve's fascination with Huey Long!)
Thank you for all of your comments! Please feel free to drop something into my ask box on tumblr - I'm not on the internet much for the next month, but I'll try to respond!