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"Oh look," Pepper said, dropping a folded up newspaper onto her desk, "we're in the paper."

"Say it ain't so," Bucky said, "I always dreamed of having my picture in the paper." He picked it up, looked at it, and snorted. It was not the most flattering picture ever taken of either of them, by far; they had been coming back from a conference across Manhattan, and both of them had been caught mid-word, in the middle of the sidewalk.

"For a while there was a rumor that I was cheating on Tony with you," Pepper said cheerfully. "It would pop up, periodically, every time we were photographed together."

Bucky looked at her quizzically. "Where was Steve in all this?" he asked.

"Oh, I think it was before the two of you were officially out as a couple," Pepper answered, waving her hand airily. "Now it's only the really persistent tabloids that dredge it up every so often."

Bucky shook his head. "Jesus," he said, and then reached for his folder, flipping it open on her desk. and shuffling around the papers inside."All right, so where were we with this last time we left off?"

"Not as far as I wish we were," Pepper said, sitting down and clicking her computer on. "Let's see. We were on -- projected research and development expenditures for Q4 of 2016."

"Great," said Bucky. "Okay -- so we already have estimates for Hoffblad, DynaCorp, and Patel, and I'm waiting to hear back from Su. Hoffblad came back a little higher than we were thinking, but we have a considerable cushion left over from Q3, so I'm not concerned about staying within the annual budget."

"We've worked with Dr. Hoffblad before," Pepper said. "She runs a tight ship; if she says she needs the extra -- what is it?"

"$800,000," said Bucky.

"I thought you said a little higher," Pepper said with a laugh. She paused, and then, "If she says she needs it, give it to her."

"All right," Bucky said. "I'll let her know and get started on scheduling and timeline."

"Good," Pepper said, her eyes on her screen for a moment, running over the graphs Bucky had sent her earlier. Her gaze snapped back to Bucky. "Where are we for 2017?"

"I'm still waiting on responses from the groups I reached out to," said Bucky. "There's one -- the Suzuki one -- that looks like it might not work out because I think they could be getting funding elsewhere -- but everything else is up in the air."

"Right. Well, let's regroup again when we have something more concrete on that. I think I have Amaya in about three minutes, anyway." Pepper clicked around on her screen and Bucky watched from the other side of it as the graphs shifted. "Are you free for lunch today? 12:30?"

"Sure I am," Bucky said. "Don't you have my schedule anyway, don't you know that? And did you literally schedule me in for a seven-minute meeting?"

"Worse, I actually double-booked you with Amaya, and it's only by sheer luck that we both showed up early," Pepper said, biting her lip and grinning at him. "And of course I have your schedule, but I thought it would be nicer to ask you in person."

"All right." Bucky closed his folder, tucked it under his arm, and pointed at Pepper. "You're buying lunch, then."

"Sushi?"

"Sushi," Bucky agreed. "See you at 12:30."

He went back to his office and left another follow-up message to the Su group about their estimate, and then went over the proposals they'd marked for 2017 one more time. By the time 12:30 rolled around, he'd managed to make a little progress - not a lot, but it was something. This was the worst part of the job, waiting for people to get back to him. Maybe he'd duck out for the afternoon.

Pepper was still in her office, but she saw him waiting outside and gave a little wave, collecting her things and her purse, and came out shortly. "Do you mind walking?" she asked. "It's only a couple of blocks away, and the weather is nice today."

"Not at all," Bucky said. He leaned against the wall of the elevator when they got in, and said, "Slow morning for getting e-mail replies. I called Su back, too, but I think it's some crazy hour of night over there, so we'll just have to wait."

"The hazards of international business," Pepper said. "Well, one of many. I like what you're wearing today, by the way. Did Tony's tailor do that jacket for you?"

"Mm," said Bucky, shaking his head. "Not exactly. I bought it off-the-rack, but I had him tweak it. Nothing quite like the feeling of having a tiny, ancient Italian man's hands all over you. He loves to measure my inseam."

"I bet he does," Pepper said, covering her mouth with one hand as she let out a guffaw. "God, he gives me the creeps, but Tony swears by him."

"I mean, he does good work," Bucky said. "He's very thorough." At the word 'thorough,' Pepper bent over, holding her stomach and shaking a little in silent paroxysms of laughter. Bucky continued, in a pretty decent imitation of Mauritzio, "And are we dressing to the left, or to the right, Mr. Barnes? Ah, yes, I like a man who is confident enough to use the left hand."

"Oh my god, please tell me he didn't actually say that to you," Pepper said, wiping tears from the corners of her eyes as they stepped out into the sunlight.

Bucky pulled his sunglasses out of his pocket and slipped them on, but before he could respond to Pepper's question, he saw the waiting gaggle of photographers who must be really desperate, really bored, or both. "Oh look, cameras," he said, reaching over and snagging Pepper, putting his arm around her waist. "Should we add some fuel to the fire?"

"No!" Pepper said, but she was laughing again, and she leaned against him a little as they walked, turning to look over her shoulder at the assholes all shouting and snapping photos as she and Bucky left them behind and security mostly stopped them from following.

A few came with them anyway - it was kind of a fact of life, especially Pepper's life, that they followed her everywhere. "You're so famous," Bucky said, pulling her chair out for her - they had asked to be seated away from a window. "I can't believe I'm having lunch with somebody famous."

"Shut up," Pepper said, rolling her eyes and picking up the wine list. "I think I'm going to get the most expensive thing on here, maybe because Tony's rubbing off on me, and maybe just because I get a thrill out of writing off incredibly pricey lunches as business expenses on my taxes."

"You want I should get Steve to give you a lecture about it?" Bucky asked. "He gives really inspiring lectures about morality issues like tax fraud. I'm sure he'd be happy to help."

"God, you are a pill," Pepper said, pushing the wine list over at him. "There, pick something. Speaking of Steve, how's your day so far?"

Well, it had been a very good day. Bucky had woken up early with Steve, and they went for a run, amidst all the trees and plants that were starting to bloom, a scenario that almost certainly would have sent Steve into a full-blown asthma attack back in the day - but there was none of that, of course. Instead they just ran and ran, and the spring air tasted good, so good that when they got back to the tower, Bucky had pinned Steve to the bed and fucked Steve until Steve couldn't form words. Steve had passed right back out afterward, sprawled across the covers, and Bucky had smugly gone to take a shower and get dressed. Was he going to tell Pepper that? Probably not. "I like the springtime," Bucky said. "It's been a good day. Even if you did double-book me with Amaya."

The waiter came over, and they both ordered their drinks, and then Bucky prepared himself for the inevitable fact that he was going to order about half the menu. "Isn't ahi tuna endangered now?" he asked vaguely, scanning the list of maki.

"This restaurant uses ethically-sourced fish," Pepper said, completely serious, and of course it did, because Pepper was exactly the kind of person to be concerned about that.

He did end up ordering a lot of food. Pepper was used to it by now and didn't say anything; she was probably too polite to have said anything anyway, and continued to politely not say anything as Bucky devoured piece after piece, feeling like an incredible glutton. He still had nothing on Steve, though. Steve's sweet tooth was of such epic proportions that it was becoming an inside joke.

"Oh, before I forget," said Pepper. "Are you doing anything Saturday the 23rd?"

"Is this another 'shouldn't you have my calendar' kind of question?" Bucky asked, pulling out his phone. "Hang on, let me check. No, it doesn't look like I've got anything scheduled, and neither does Steve. Why, what's up?"

"I have a season pass to the Met," Pepper said. "I have really good seats. And Tony hates opera, and ballet, and -- really a lot of things. But I want to see Giselle, and I'm hoping to find someone to come with me."

"The ballet?" Bucky asked. "Yeah, I'd love to see the ballet. You should ask Natasha, too. Natasha loves ballet."

"Really?" Pepper replied, and then, "Never mind, that makes perfect sense. All right, I'll ask her too. The show is at 8pm." She pulled her own phone out of her bag and typed on it for a second, probably texting Natasha. "Oh, you could ask Steve, too," she added after a moment. "I don't mean to exclude him."

"I think he'd be happy to exclude himself," Bucky said. "I will ask him, though. I'll let you know what he says."

Pepper laughed. "I feel like he'd like it, if he gave it a chance," she said. "But it's up to him, obviously." The waiter came over and left their bill, and Pepper paid it. Bucky let her; usually he felt a little bit better about splitting it, even knowing as he did that his salary just came out of Tony's -- Stark Industries' -- money. But there had been the whole joke earlier about her paying, and god knew she wasn't hurting for it.

The photographers were still waiting outside. "That seems like a terrible job," Bucky said. "We're mostly very boring." He held the door open for Pepper and then put his body slightly in front of her as they walked. In the past couple of months he'd gotten pretty successful at just tuning out whatever the photographers were yelling, and now it was just another background noise that blended in with the rest of the noises of the street.

His phone rang. He pulled it out of his pocket, answered it; it was Steve. "Are you out right now?" Steve asked.

"How did you know?" Bucky glanced up into the (empty) sky, slightly suspicious.

"Oh, I asked JARVIS," Steve said. "Anyway, could you do me a favor while you're out? I need Titanium White."

"Really?" Bucky asked. "I'm your errand boy now?" He glanced at Pepper, who was waiting for him at the end of the block. "All right, I'll get you your paint. You need anything else?"

"Pretzels?" Steve said hopefully.

Bucky snorted. "Sure, pretzels," he said. "Okay, I gotta go. Pepper is waiting."

"Thanks, Buck," Steve said, and then Bucky hung up and jogged a little to catch up with Pepper.

"I have to go pick up something for Steve," he said. "I'll see you back at the tower?"

"All right," Pepper said, grinning. For a second Bucky felt bad about leaving her, but she did have security, and it was less than a block away anyway. Truthfully doing Steve's errand was taking Bucky considerably out of his way, but whatever. It didn't matter. It felt more useful than going back and just sitting in his office waiting for people to email him.

"Thanks for lunch," Bucky said. He gave her a hug and kissed her on the cheek. Cameras clicked and whirred. "And for the invitation to the ballet."

He walked a few blocks down to the nearest art supply store, nestled weirdly in the midst of Starbucks and corporate bank offices. Most of the cameras had gone; of the two of them, Pepper was probably the more interesting person to follow, he thought. Or maybe it was the same thing that made people nervous to ask him questions -- his reputation. It remained, despite the fact that he hadn't done anything recently to earn it. He guessed he'd just always be a little scary.

There were about four different colors of white, so he was grateful that Steve had specified Titanium White. He picked the biggest tube, glanced around at a bunch of other things - it all looked really nice, but he had no idea whether any of it would be useful for Steve, so in the end he just got what Steve had asked for. Then he went to find pretzels.

He went up to their floor to give them to Steve when he got home. It didn't make a lot of sense to take a big bag of pretzels and a tube of paint into the office with him. The apartment was pretty warm when he walked in the door, and Thom Yorke was yowling like an angry British cat; he caught sight of Steve sitting at his easel by the window, shirtless, in sweats, and for a second he thought that if there was a heaven it'd probably look something like this. "Hi," he said.

"Hey," Steve said, twisting around and grinning. The volume of the music ticked down a few notches. "You really got pretzels? Thanks."

"You asked for pretzels," Bucky said. "Was I not actually supposed to get them?"

"No, I just -- didn't expect it," Steve said. He set his brush down and stood up, brushing his hands over his sweats, leaving behind smears of paint.

Bucky put the pretzels on the kitchen counter and pressed the tube of paint into one of Steve's hands as Steve approached. "You make me feel like an unemployed schmuck," Steve said. "Here you are, working, and here I am sitting around in my pajamas."

"What, is that not a familiar scenario to you?" Bucky asked, but he was smiling, and he leaned in for a kiss, though he grabbed both of Steve's wrists to make sure Steve's paint-covered hands didn't end up all over him. "I gotta go back down for a little bit."

"Oh," Steve said. He sounded mildly disappointed. "Yeah, of course." He took a step back, scratching his head and ending up with paint in his hair. "Thanks for the paint. And the pretzels."

"I just have to check my e-mail and let Pepper know if I'm ducking out for the day," Bucky said, leaning forward again to kiss the corner of Steve's mouth. "It's not like you don't see me enough anyway."

"I know," Steve said. "Don't make fun." He swiped his thumb over Bucky's cheek, doubtlessly leaving a smear of paint in his wake, and grinned like a cat that had gotten the cream. "Well, what are you waiting for, then?"

Bucky shook his head and headed back for the door, pausing at the entryway mirror to wipe -- Cadmium Red Medium, if he wasn't mistaken -- off his cheek.

He didn't get it all, apparently, because after he'd checked his e-mail one final time and put his desk in order, he went to check in with Pepper and she stifled a laugh and wiped a bit of red off his ear. "My ear?" he said. "How'd he get it on -- you know, never mind."

"Tony's always getting oil and grease and hydraulic fluid everywhere," Pepper said. "Sometimes I find it in bed. I think it's better just not to know."

"You're probably right about that," Bucky said. "All right, I'll see you tomorrow?"

"Tomorrow," Pepper agreed.

When Bucky got back up to his and Steve's apartment, Steve wasn't sitting in front of the painting anymore; he was at the kitchen island, biting into a slice of orange. "Hi again," said Bucky.

"Hi," Steve said, smiling. He'd cleaned off his hands, Bucky saw.

"How's the painting?" Bucky asked, unbuttoning his jacket and starting to undo his tie as he walked over toward it. Steve had covered it with a dust cloth, and Bucky lifted it carefully to get a look. It looked great; Steve's paintings always looked pretty great to Bucky, but some of them more than others, and this one he really liked. "It looks almost finished."

"I think so," Steve said, coming over to stand behind Bucky and offering him a slice of the orange. "I have a little bit more work to do on the steps." He shrugged. "I don't know, how does it look?"

"You know they always look amazing to me," Bucky said. "I don't know how you do it; you make everything look so beautiful. The way you see things -- it's something else." He smiled at Steve, taking the orange slice.

"You don't think all the blue is too much?" Steve asked, and Bucky looked at the painting again. It was true that Steve had turned all the white space in the painting slightly bluish, but it made for a spectacular contrast with the black of Bucky's clothing and the warm peach-oranges that he'd used to paint Bucky's face. And it made Bucky's eyes stand out, too; they were the only other place Steve had used that clear, pale blue in the painting, and --

"No, not at all," Bucky said, looking at himself as Steve had painted him. It made him look very alive, very vital against the clean lines of the museum he'd been standing in. "That's how you see me, huh?"

"Yeah," Steve said, sounding a little hesitant, a little confused.

"You make me look so -- real," Bucky said.

"You are," Steve replied. It was funny, because Bucky knew for a fact that he and Steve shared a certain thing in common: They were both ghosts, in a way, and he had had this conversation with Steve before, about moving through a world you didn't feel like you belonged in. But Steve didn't see Bucky as a ghost, he saw him as something substantial, and when he thought about it, Bucky never saw Steve as anything like a ghost either.

He never saw Steve as anything other than Steve, really, although what Steve was to him was hard to define. Bucky covered up the painting again, careful not to disturb the still-wet paint on its surface. "Come here," he said to Steve, turning, watching as Steve ate the last slice of orange. "You washed off your hands and everything. I know what you want."

He did; he had a good instinct for Steve, and was happy to give him what he wanted, when he could.

+++

Saturday the 23rd was a warm night. Spring was sort of bleeding into summer now, and Bucky was enjoying the change in a way he thought it was possible he never had before. It was nice just watching other people enjoy it, too; light jackets gave way to t-shirts, jeans gave way to shorts, sundresses. Everyone was in a generally better mood this time of year -- laughing, sunglasses on, walking a little slower now that the wind no longer had that bitter bite to it.

Bucky had never been to the Met Opera House before. It was very beautiful, and full of people wearing very beautiful clothes, his dates included. Steve had turned down the invitation, but Natasha had come along. She was wearing pale pink, and Pepper was wearing black, and they sort of looked like inverse versions of each other. It was nice company.

He had a feeling that he was acting wide-eyed, like a kid, but neither one of them really said anything to him about it, and they got seated in their -- Pepper's -- box, and the lights went down, and for a couple of hours Bucky managed to not think about much at all except the dancers. There was always something indescribably perfect about watching somebody at the top of their craft, no matter what it was, and this was just -- there were no words for it, really. All that emotion in those careful, controlled movements. The precise lines of arms and legs, the patterns of their feet as they moved across the floor.

He liked it. He couldn't not like it, really. He understood it better than he understood paintings, and the story was pretty simple, familiar. Maybe it was hoity-toity, or something, but Bucky wasn't in denial. He could admit to himself that he'd become bougie as hell, but the difference between him and, say, somebody like Tony, was that he didn't take it for granted. He remembered where he'd come from. He didn't move through this world anywhere near as easily as somebody born to it.

After the show was over, they went back down to the lobby. "I'm just going to run to the ladies' room," said Pepper, and as she turned, Bucky took a moment to admire the curve of her neck and the way her red-gold curls spilled over her shoulders. Beside him, Natasha was silent, but he could feel her looking at him.

"I don't think I've been to the ballet before," Bucky said, glancing out over the sea of well-dressed people.

"No," Natasha said, from beside him. He turned to look at her. "You have." She paused, and then, "You don't remember?"

Mutely, Bucky shook his head, although that wasn't the whole truth of it. He did remember certain things that suggested he had been to the ballet, but they were abstracts, so highly removed from any kind of narrative as to be intangible. That was usually the way he remembered Natasha - in pieces. Just small pieces: Her hair bouncing as she walked. The specific way she tilted her head when she was paying close attention. The slenderness of her wrists. "They must have wiped it out of you," Natasha said. "I remember, though. They used to trot you out sometimes, like -- a figurehead."

"What was I like?" Bucky asked her.

"I don't know. Quiet. Polite. You seemed normal." She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and looked up at him, smiling a little. "You seemed normal until I started to realize what you were really like, when I saw you with Steve."

"I'm sorry," Bucky said, although he didn't know what he was apologizing for.

"Why?" Natasha asked, and then, "They used to tell us that if we were lucky and we performed well, we might get a chance to meet you later, in private. It was like a carrot they dangled in front of us, and of course they trained us so well that when they told us there was a reward, that was all we wanted."

"In private?" Bucky asked. "As in --?"

"Yes," Natasha said. "That was part of our training. And you were very -- cooperative." She sighed. "I was so young -- I was just a kid, all I could see was a target, a goal. And then next time I saw you, you didn't remember me, and I kept looking for any kind of recognition, and for a while I was very angry about the fact that I didn't see it."

"I'm sorry, Natasha," Bucky said again.

"You should stop apologizing for things that weren't your fault," Natasha replied, smirking. "Anyway -- I'm glad I know you now, because I like this version a lot better. I figured if Rogers thought so highly of you, that there must be something there, and I turned out to be right."

Before Bucky could answer, Pepper came back from the bathroom, her dress swishing elegantly. "Sorry about that," she said. "Who wants to get a drink?"

They went across the square, to a small bar, and Pepper got them a table in the corner. "I'll get drinks," Bucky said, and then, when Pepper started to protest, "Really, Pepper, I'll get drinks." He already knew her drink order, and Natasha's was fairly unsurprising. He was still pretty good at getting the bartender's attention, too, and tucked a twenty into the tip jar for the speed of her service, even if he knew that his identity, Pepper's, Natasha's, had something to do with it.

"Did you like the show?" Pepper asked him, when he sat down.

"Oh yeah," he said. "I mean, I don't know a lot about it, but I enjoyed it. You'd have to be a fool not to know that they're very good. Thanks for inviting me."

"Of course," Pepper said, smiling, sipping her martini. "Natasha, what did you think?"

"It was an interesting performance," Natasha said. "I haven't seen Giselle in a long time. I always found it a little trite."

"It's not the most original story," Pepper agreed. "Maybe we can all go see a more modern composition sometime soon." She smiled. "Anyway, it's nice to get away from everything at the office -- I've been reading proposals all day. I think every neuron in my brain was thinking about budgets and -- microscopes and computers."

"That reminds me," Bucky said, touching Pepper's elbow and taking a sip of his drink. "I was meaning to tell you - I took another look at the Patel proposal, and I'm concerned that their budget estimate is unrealistically conservative. I understand they're trying to present themselves to us as a very low-risk investment, but I'm worried that they're--"

"Oh no," Natasha interrupted. "The two of you are not talking about work here."

"Sorry," Bucky and Pepper said at once, both of them looking at her apologetically, and then they both turned to look at each other and laughed. Natasha gave them possibly the most unamused look Bucky had ever seen. "No, you're right," he said, and then, searching for something else to talk about, "How was -- er, your last mission?"

"You want to hear a story about how Clint fell off a mountain and Sam had to save him?" Natasha asked, and of course they did.

A couple of hours later, the bar was almost empty and even though the waiter kept clearing empty glasses politely off their table, the evidence of the amount of alcohol consumed was fairly unsubtle.

"I can never drink with you again," Pepper said, and then amended, "I should never drink with you again. You just keep going and going and nothing changes, and I'm trying to keep up with you, and --"

"I think the real problem here might be your competitiveness," said Bucky.

"It's -- respectable," Pepper said. "I can't just sit here with nothing in my hand while you're sipping on whiskey like -- like someone very manly."

From Bucky's other side, Natasha said something rude in Russian, which he pretended not to hear. "You know I have at least one big advantage over you here, right," he said. "You really don't have to try and keep up."

"At least with Tony it was like…overtly impossible to keep up," Pepper said. "And then at a certain point you just had to keep him from peeing in public or falling into the fountain -- which is harder than it sounds, by the way." She pushed her martini glass decisively away with two fingers. "Now I'm afraid I might be the one falling into the fountain."

"I don't think there is a fountain here," Bucky said. "And if there is, I promise to keep you from falling into it."

"That's very nice," Pepper said. "Thank you." She looked at her wrist, presumably for a watch, which she was not wearing, and then pulled her cell phone out of her purse and said, "Oh my god, it's so late. Excuse me, please, I'm going to go to the bathroom and call a car." She blinked. "Not at the same time."

"Congratulations on getting the CEO of Stark Industries trashed in public," said Natasha, once Pepper had -- only moderately unsteadily, really -- walked away. Bucky looked at Natasha for a long few moments; her voice was level, but she had a sort of telltale look, an excessive firmness to the set of her mouth that Bucky somehow recognized as Natasha trying not to let on that she was tipsy herself. "There are cameras outside, by the way. You'll have to make sure they don't know how much she's had."

"What do you want me to do?" Bucky asked. "Put her into a fireman's carry, or what? Carry you out, too? One of you under each arm?"

"Barnes, you try it, and I will make feel sure you feel every second of your gruesome death," Natasha said darkly.

"Yeah, I know," Bucky said, getting up and pulling Pepper's chair out for her as she came back from the bathroom.

"Was that what you used to do for Rogers, back in the day?" Natasha asked. "Throw him over your shoulder and carry him out of the bar?"

"Jesus, have you met Steve?" Bucky responded. "Of course not, he would never let me carry him, especially not before the serum. He would have gnawed off his own leg and hobbled out on a bleeding stump before he let me carry him. The only time you were ever gonna carry Steve anywhere was if he was dead unconscious."

"Or just dead," Pepper said seriously, and Bucky looked at her and said, "All right, honey, I think it's about time for us to go."

"Yes," Pepper agreed. "There's a car out front. There will be, I mean -- I don't think it's there yet. I don't think it teleported." She sighed. "Put your arm around my waist, it'll make Tony mad. I mean -- I'm going to lean on you. There are already rumors, right? Fuel to the fire."

"Sure thing, boss," Bucky said, waiting for her to stand up and then doing as she asked. The three of them started to head for the door.

"And your hair," Pepper said, apparently apropos of nothing. "You have beautiful hair. Has Steve ever told you that? I hope Steve has told you that."

"Yes," Bucky said. "All the time, Steve says to me, 'Bucky, you know what I love about you? Your beautiful hair.' Come on, stand up straight."

They got into the car with fairly little incident and Pepper fell asleep almost immediately, slumping down against Bucky's side. Bucky put one arm around her and stroked her hair. Her expression was so peaceful in sleep, so different from the constant look of canny alertness she had when she was awake.

"You make interesting friends, Barnes," said Natasha from the seat opposite. She was sitting with her ankles crossed and her arms folded, watching Bucky.

Bucky shrugged, nodded. Natasha was smart, certainly smart enough to figure out all the things Bucky and Pepper had in common. As for his other friends, they were mainly Steve, and -- well, what was there to say about Steve that hadn't already been said. "Are you including yourself in that group?" he asked Natasha finally.

"Should I be?" she asked, raising an eyebrow.

Bucky raised an eyebrow right back at her. She certainly got a kick out of playing these games; she did her best to get people to tell her what she meant to them without actually giving anything away herself. It worked really well on Steve, who was not very good at hiding much of anything. It was less successful on Bucky, now that he'd figured it out.

"You know," he said to Natasha as the car pulled into the garage at the tower -- he'd asked to be dropped off here. It was a little inconvenient, but that way he wouldn't be trying to prop a half-asleep Pepper up against himself in front of a bunch of journalists. "The downside of nobody knowing anything about you is that nobody knows anything about you."

"Deep," Natasha said, getting out and holding the door open while Bucky leaned in and gently picked Pepper up. She felt like she weighed almost nothing. Insubstantial.

Pepper shifted against him and sighed, laying her cheek against his shoulder and holding onto him loosely with one arm. "Goodnight, Natalia," Bucky said, and bent down so he could kiss Natasha's forehead, except at the last second she shifted and he ended up kissing her slightly off-center on the mouth instead.

She muttered something indistinct and very low in Russian, shook herself like she was a cat shaking off water droplets, and got into the elevator. He let her go up first, gave the driver a little wave and a nod of thanks, and then carried Pepper into the elevator when it came back down.

"Shall I take you to Miss Potts' floor first, sir?" JARVIS asked, voice quiet.

"Yeah," Bucky said. "Thank you, JARVIS."

"Did you enjoy the ballet?" JARVIS asked.

"It was great," Bucky said. "I'd -- well, I thought I'd never been before. I guess I was wrong, but anyway I couldn't remember the other times, so it was like seeing it for the first time. You like ballet?"

"I do, sir," JARVIS said. "I enjoy the precision."

"Makes sense," Bucky said. The elevator doors slid open onto the darkened entryway of Pepper and Tony's apartment, and Bucky glanced around for a second before taking her over to the nearest couch. "Pepper?" he said. "You're home. I'd carry you to bed but I think Tony's already asleep."

"Mmm, Tony's never asleep," Pepper said, stirring, blinking. "Were you talking to JARVIS?"

"Yeah, a little bit," Bucky said, bending down and undoing the straps of Pepper's shoes, watching with an affectionate amusement as she pulled her pale feet with their pink toenails free, curling and uncurling her toes.

"Did you like Giselle?" Pepper asked. "Did you have a good time?"

"I had a great time," Bucky said, smiling. "Thanks for inviting me." He set her shoes to the side. "You okay to get to bed?"

"Yes, thank you," Pepper said. "Mostly I'm just very sleepy." She smiled back at Bucky, and reached out to hug him. She smelled a little bit like alcohol, and perfume. "I love you, Bucky," she said dozily, into his ear, and he startled slightly -- he didn't think she'd ever called him Bucky before. "Goodnight."

"I know," Bucky said, realizing that he did. "I love you too, Pepper. Goodnight."

When he got up to his and Steve's floor, it was dark up there too, and no wonder at this hour. He brushed his teeth, peeled off his suit and tie and climbed into bed in his underwear. It woke Steve, who was taking up most of the space in the bed, as he usually did when he slept alone. Steve cracked an eye open and smiled when he saw Bucky. "Hey," he said. "How was the ballet?"

"It was good," Bucky said. "You would have liked it. You should go sometime."

"Mm, okay," Steve said, the corner of his mouth twitching in that way it did when he was agreeing to something but actually meant no way. He blinked at Bucky, squinting at the clock on the nightstand behind Bucky's shoulder. "Jeez," he said. "It's late. The ballet went that late?"

"No, Pepper and Natasha and I went out for a drink after," Bucky said. "I accidentally got Pepper drunk."

"Accidentally--" Steve said, and laughed.

"Go back to sleep," Bucky said, grinning. "You're rude as hell when you're half-awake."

"Don't want to spoil my sterling reputation," Steve said, and then he yawned right in Bucky's face and wrapped Bucky up in his arms, and Bucky wasn't particularly tired, but he fell asleep very quickly after that.

+++

A few weeks later, something blew up. Literally, not figuratively - although the figurative blowing-up of everything sort of came with the literal blowing up of the one specific thing.

Bucky was sitting in his office emailing Dr. Hoffblad when somebody from PR came up with one of the R&D people in tow, and they both looked extremely alarmed. At first he wondered why they weren't talking to Pepper, except then he realized that Pepper was currently either about to board or onboard an airplane, possibly somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean right now. "What's going on?" he asked cautiously, closing his office door after they'd come in.

"Nobody's been seriously injured," said the PR woman immediately, "but there's been an accident --"

The R&D suit gave Bucky a vague rundown of what had happened; Bucky was not particularly well-versed in the world of fission physics, or lasers, but he knew enough and the R&D woman made it simple enough for him that he could sort of understand what had happened. The most important thing, of course, was that nobody was really hurt -- it was the kind of accident where it would have been very easy for someone to be hurt, and it was only the research site's stringent adherence to safety protocols that had kept that from happening. But the second most important thing was --

"How much money are we talking about here," Bucky said. "How much are we out? How much is it going to cost to rebuild?"

The PR person looked like she was about to swallow her tongue, and she turned her tablet around to show Bucky some preliminary estimates. Bucky was suddenly exceptionally grateful for the generous cushion that they'd left themselves for the end of 2016, because it was looking like they were about to use more or less all of it. "Have either of you talked to Pepper yet?" he asked.

"I tried calling Miss Potts but I think they must have been taking off," said the PR person. "I got her voicemail. I left a message, I said it was urgent, but --"

Bucky picked up his office phone and dialed Pepper's number. It rang a couple of times, and then she picked up, sounding trepidatious. "James?" she asked. "I'm sorry, the reception is bad, I'm in the air. What's wrong?"

"So," Bucky said, "Nothing too serious, but one of the turbines at the Svalbard site exploded."

"What?" Pepper said, with emphatic volume, and then, immediately, "Is everyone all right?"

"Everyone's fine," Bucky said. "A couple of people with minor burns, but no major injuries, no casualties. What do you want us to do?"

Pepper blew out a breath. "You need to have a press conference," she said. "Normally I would say wait for me, but I'm going to be on this flight for about the next thirteen hours, and if we let the press wait that long they're going to have a field day."

"You want me to get David?" Bucky asked. David was the head of PR. Bucky was pretty sure that David could give a press conference in his sleep if he had to.

Pepper paused. "No," she said. "You should do it. We need them to know that we're taking it seriously, this is probably going to make national news, and I think it'll be better if we have a more well-known face acting as head of the company."

"Oh," Bucky said. "Sure, okay. Uh. I'll just -- I'll meet with David, we'll put together a statement. Should I -- email it to you, or what?"

"That would probably be best," Pepper said. "Although I can't guarantee I'll get it. CEO of Stark Industries and the wifi on the plane is still completely unreliable."

"You should talk to Tony about that," Bucky said, and Pepper gave a little laugh in response. "Okay. We'll e-mail you with what we know. Safe flight. Call us when you land."

"Okay," Pepper said. "Thank you, James. Good luck."

Bucky hung up and looked over at the two women standing and looking anxiously at him. "I need to speak to David," he said. "I know he's out of office, but can you get him down here? E-mail me the figures and data you have. And call a press conference in an hour."

Both of them nodded and scurried away, and Bucky immediately sat down and started writing something up. It was weird that Pepper wanted him to give the press conference, he thought, except it was true that the PR and the R&D women had come to him first. He had always figured he was just here at Pepper's whim, more or less, that he didn't have any real power in the organization, but apparently there was something, and it was enough.

David showed up fifteen minutes later like a whirlwind sweeping in, and they sat down and hammered out a statement with what Bucky could acknowledge, in a self-congratulatory sort of way, was brutal efficiency. Bucky glanced at himself in the mirror, straightening his tie, buttoning his jacket, grateful he'd shaved this morning, and tucked his folder under his arm, following David to the elevator.

The press room was full of reporters and their clamor - they were all talking among each other. Bucky spotted Christine Everhart at the back of the room; she always seemed to be around, even if it didn't seem like an issue that Vanity Fair would be writing about. Anyway, the reporters settled when Bucky walked in, and when he set his folder on the podium and cleared his throat, the room went very quiet.

"Good afternoon," he said. "Miss Potts is traveling and was unable to be present. For anyone who doesn't know me --" he paused just for a moment, for effect, and a low ripple of laughter fluttered around the room, "my name is James Barnes. I work for Miss Potts."

He paused again. "This morning we received word of an explosion at a research facility in Svalbard, Norway. It appears that one of the turbines at the facility experienced a catastrophic overload, and staff onsite were unable to reverse its failure. No one was seriously injured, and there were no casualties, but the accident resulted in the complete destruction of the turbine. We are still awaiting a full set of data in order to understand the specific cause of the turbine's overload, and plan to finance the turbine's rebuilding as soon as possible. I'll take a few questions."

Bucky pointed at the Times reporter, who was standing with her hand raised. "Rima, go ahead," he said.

"Do you have any estimates on the cost of this incident?" she asked.

"So far we've been able to put it in the ballpark of about $3.5 million," Bucky said. "That's including the cost of the rebuild as well as extended salary for the staff of the project due to the delay."

He called on another reporter, who asked how long the delay was estimated to be, and it continued like that for a little while. Normal questions; the reporters weren't particularly combative today. Most of them had gotten where they were by being cooperative with Pepper, rather than the opposite. There was one guy who asked about Stark Industries' tendency toward, well, disasters; Bucky primly told him that the fact that nobody had been killed or hurt at all ought to tell him everything he needed to know about their concern for safety, and then added, "Personally, not being a nuclear physicist, I can't really tell you the immense number of variables involved in these kinds of projects, but I'm sure you could find out how easy it is to make an oversight if you tried building a turbine yourself."

The last question, of course, came from somebody who was no doubt feeling smug. "How's Captain Rogers?" he asked Bucky.

"Captain Rogers' wellbeing actually isn't part of this press conference," Bucky said, smiling broadly at him. "So I'm not going to comment on that. Thank you, everyone, that's all."

Steve was waiting for him -- well, backstage was the wrong word for it, but Bucky didn't know the right one. Maybe someone had seen him come in, and that was why the guy had asked that last question. "Hi," Steve said, putting his hands on Bucky's shoulders and bending slightly to kiss him. "Are you okay? Is everything all right?"

"Everything's fine," Bucky said. "Why are you here? How'd you know?"

"You were on CNN," Steve said, and then turned pink. "I was -- I was concerned."

"Everything's gonna to be all right," Bucky said. "I'm fine, Pepper's just on a plane, so she couldn't do the press conference. It's just gonna be -- very expensive. To fix it, I mean. But that's all right."

Steve looked at him suspiciously. "Obviously I'd rather the turbine hadn't exploded," Bucky said. "But on a scale of one to catastrophe, I think Pepper would call this 'manageable.'"

"Okay," Steve said, putting his hands in his pockets, looking like a reticent schoolkid -- a very large, muscular schoolkid. "I just wanted to check."

"You liked seeing me on tv," Bucky accused, and Steve turned pink again. "Listen, I have to go back to the offices, we're going to be dealing with this for the rest of the day. Don't worry about it, okay?"

Steve set his jaw. "Can I help?" he asked.

"I don't know, do you want to sit in a room with a bunch of people and talk about physicists and money for about the next four hours?" Bucky replied.

Steve could not control his face well enough to stop the sour expression that overtook it. "I didn't think so," Bucky said. "It's nice of you to ask. Go home and stop worrying." He smirked. "I bet JARVIS would replay the press conference for you, if you wanted. If you liked it that much."

David cleared his throat, and Steve whirled away from where he'd been leaning toward Bucky. "Okay," Steve said. "I'll see you later, then. I'll, um, I'll get us some dinner if you let me know when you'll be home."

"All right," Bucky said, giving Steve a wave and then letting David herd him into the elevator.

True to his word, the next four and a half hours were full of discussions of money and ever-changing data. They were in intermittent contact with Pepper, and by the time they all decided to disperse for the day, Bucky wasn't really sure what, if any, solutions they'd come to, or even if he'd been of any help at all. His mind was mostly full of insurance costs, construction firms, and quarks.

Steve, bless him, had about four pizzas waiting when Bucky got home, and Bucky's stomach gurgled wildly as he realized he hadn't eaten since breakfast. "I do love you," he said to Steve, picking up a slice of pepperoni pizza.

"Only when I order pizza?" Steve said, grinning, and he blocked Bucky's lazy smack, grabbing Bucky's wrist and pulling him close instead.

+++

"I feel like I should be buying you a new car or something to thank you for how well you've been handling this," Pepper said. She had just gotten back, and had the familiar, slightly-dehydrated look of someone who had been on an airplane for far too long. "I think that's what Tony would be doing in this situation."

Bucky raised an eyebrow. "I think any car you would buy me would essentially be Tony's car anyway, since all it'd do would be sit in Tony's garage all the time," he said. "But I appreciate the thought. It really wasn't -- I was just doing my job, you know."

"I know," Pepper said. "But you've been doing a really good job of doing your job." She sat down at her desk and extended a hand, into which Bucky put a tablet with the latest estimates and projections for the repair project.

Bucky shifted, uncomfortable. "I don't know, is there anything I could really be doing wrong?" he asked. It seemed like a fairly foolproof job to him; there was really nothing he could do or fail to do that would have any lasting effects, as far as he could see.

Pepper put the tablet down and looked at him levelly. "Trust me, James," she said. "There is a lot you could be doing wrong. I have seen people do your job wrong. I promise I'm not just complimenting you on the most mediocre level of competence possible. I sleep so much better at night knowing that your eyes are on these projects."

Bucky smiled a little. "I like that bracelet," he demurred, and Pepper shook her head, rolling her eyes.

"You and Steve are both terrible at taking compliments," she said. "You should take a lesson from Tony. Tony is excellent at having his ego stroked. In fact, Tony is excellent at stroking his own ego."

"That's the thing, though," Bucky said. "Tony is good enough at it that he just balances us out. I wouldn't want to change anything, it'd throw the whole uh, cosmic balance of the Avengers out of whack, or something."

"Oh, is that why," Pepper said dryly, and then, "Take the afternoon off. Buy yourself lunch on the company or something. I don't want to see you back down here until tomorrow morning."

"Sure thing, boss," Bucky said. "You call me if you have any questions, all right?"

"Absolutely not," Pepper said, smiling, so Bucky just waved a hand at her and walked back out of her office, loosening his tie as he went. It was a nice afternoon, the real beginning of summer. Maybe Steve would want to go down to Coney Island, or something; it'd be nice, Bucky thought, to put his feet in the sand.

+++

"Pepper," said Bucky into his phone. "Hey, it's me. Sorry for the short notice, but I'm afraid I'm gonna be out of town for a couple of days, maybe a week. I'll let you know as soon as I'm back."

She probably would have told him to be careful, stay safe, but it was just her voicemail. Bucky hung his phone up, tucking it into his breast pocket as he jogged toward the jet carrying a duffel full of his stuff. He could see Steve and Natasha, already waiting for him at the bottom of the ramp - he'd been in the office when he'd gotten the call, and had to go home to pack up first.

"Hi," he said, walking past them up into the belly of the jet and looking around for someplace to put his things. They followed him up, the three of them all got strapped in for takeoff, and soon they were in the air.

Bucky undid his seatbelt once they’d reached a cruising altitude and had let the autopilot take over. He turned his seat around to face Steve. "How long is this flight?" he asked.

"About fifteen hours," Steve confessed. He was wearing what looked to be the underpinnings of his tactical gear, though thankfully he wasn't decked out in full Captain America regalia yet; Bucky wasn't sure he would have been able to take Steve seriously for a fifteen hour flight if he was wearing red, white, and blue the entire time. "We should get started on briefing, though -- Natasha?"

"So eager," Natasha said, undoing her seatbelt as well and raising an eyebrow at Bucky as if she was just now getting a look at him. "I like that you're still wearing a suit," she said, reaching into her bag and pulling out a tablet.

"I didn't bother changing," Bucky said, loosening his tie. "I heard a rumor from somebody that it might be kind of urgent."

"Well, somebody was smart," Natasha said, pulling up a diagram on her screen. "The op is pretty straightforward: hostage rescue. It's a paramilitary terrorist group we've been keeping an eye on for a while. Not dissimilar to Hydra - disciplined, well-trained, but active mainly in Africa and the Middle East."

"So why us, rather than, I don't know, Navy SEALS?" Bucky asked.

"One of the hostages is the daughter of an ambassador," Natasha answered, "and one of the others is a Ph.D. student who's been consulting with the D.O.D.. Given the tensions in the region, the D.O.D. decided against mounting a military operation and tapped us instead. Three agents - in, out, as quickly as possible, ideally invisibly. This is the compound where we think they're being held."

She pulled up a satellite photo, and Bucky looked at it, memorizing the placement of all the buildings. "We think they're being held here," Natasha said, lighting up a section of one building with a touch of her fingers, "here, or here."

"How many?" Steve asked.

"Four," Natasha said, and then, before Steve could say anything else, "I know, it would be better if there were four of us too, but we just got this intel, and nobody else was available on short notice."

Bucky couldn't help thinking that Tony probably would have been, but Tony was, frankly, not very subtle. "You got a picture of the surrounding territory?" he asked, and nodded when Natasha pulled one up, he glanced at Steve, who had been quiet so far, but who was clearly thinking hard.

"All right," Steve said, leaning forward. "We'll approach from the northeast, using the hills for cover. Once we're inside we'll split up and clear the buildings individually until we find the hostages. That's the priority here. You said paramilitary, Natasha. Any idea on the level of weaponry they have at this installation?"

"Nothing I think we need to be worried about," Natasha said, and the three of them were all leaning forward now, forming a little triangle around the screen. It was just like old times, in a way, and something in Bucky felt good about that. Not because the old times had been fun, or free from fear, but because he knew that he'd know just what to do. He knew that he and Steve and Natasha could do this, and better than that, that they were good at it.

About two hours later, they had hammered out just about every detail that they could feasibly foresee, and Bucky leaned back into his seat, wishing he'd had the sense to bring a book, anything to entertain himself. Natasha looked over at him, tilting her head, like she wanted to say something.

Bucky stared at her, waiting for her to break the silence until he couldn't stand it anymore, and then he said, "What?"

"You had a family, right?" Natasha asked abruptly.

Bucky glanced over at Steve, who was just watching with his eyebrows raised. "Yeah, I did," he said. "Why?"

"Would you tell me about them?" Natasha said.

"I -- sure, I guess," Bucky said. "Uh, there was my ma and my pop, and I had three younger sisters. Annie, Eleanor, and Becky. I don't know, what do you want to know?"

"Your parents," Natasha said. "What were they like?"

"I don't know," Bucky said. "What are anybody's parents like? It wasn't -- I don't know. I don't know anything about my pop, really. He didn't talk a lot. He was a good enough pa, but, I guess it just -- it wasn't like now, when people talk to their kids about how they're feeling, or what have you. He went to work and he came home, and sometimes he'd throw around a baseball with me on weekends. My ma was so busy with my sisters that so long as I was out of her hair she was happy enough. She always seemed -- worried, I guess."

"She did," Steve agreed.

"Steve was closer with his ma than I was with my parents," Bucky said, and Steve nodded. "Hell, I was probably closer with Steve's ma than I was with my parents." He scratched his chin, holding Steve's steady gaze. "She was different."

"She adored you," Steve said. "Which I always thought was funny, because your mother didn't care for me." He glanced at Natasha. "She thought I was a bad influence."

"You were a bad influence," Bucky said. "Not that I cared. It made my life a lot more interesting." He smiled at Steve, wryly. "Still does, I guess."

There was a pause, a silence, and then Bucky said, "They're all dead now. I checked, when I -- came back. Couple of my sisters had kids, but I kind of figured, what would be the point in bothering them with myself, when they wouldn't know me at all?" He shrugged. "I mean, their mothers were barely more than kids themselves when I went off to war, it wasn't like I really knew them, either. So really all I got is Steve."

"And Peggy," Steve said.

"Peggy, yeah," Bucky agreed. "But she didn't know me, you know she said as much."

"Do you ever miss them?" Natasha asked.

"I don't know," Bucky admitted. "Not usually. There's a lot in between them and now." He looked to Steve, scratching his cheek. "You miss your ma?"

"Sometimes," Steve said, nodding. "I think of little things, you know? Like -- she used to sing while she was doing laundry. Stuff like that."

"It's always the stuff like that I remember, too," Bucky agreed. "I mean, out of that time. Sometimes I remember other things, and then it's like being in a movie, sort of, where everything's happening, but I can't change any of it." He glanced at Natasha, who was watching him intently, and then sighed, shifting toward Steve and leaning against him, shoulder to shoulder.

For some reason, he didn't mind showing Natasha his underbelly right now. She'd shown him a little bit of hers, too, and anyway, Steve was here, and experience had proven that Steve would do his best not to let anybody get any further under Bucky's skin than Bucky allowed. They were all three of them quiet after that, and after a while Steve moved so that he was in Bucky's arms, his head resting against Bucky's chest.

"You tired?" Bucky asked.

"Bored, mostly," Steve said. "I should have brought a book."

"Yeah, I was thinking the same thing," Bucky said, smoothing his hand over Steve's hair; it smelled nice, clean and faintly spicy.

"You can go to sleep if you want," Natasha said. "I can keep an eye on things."

"Okay," Steve said. "I might." He folded his arms, relaxing against Bucky, and Bucky wordlessly hummed a tune to him until he could feel Steve's breathing go deeper and slower. Natasha was still looking at the both of them when he glanced up, and Bucky raised an eyebrow at her, but she just shook her head and went back to the control panel of the jet and the map of the compound.

Steve slept lightly against Bucky for a few hours, and neither Bucky nor Natasha said anything. Bucky took the map from Natasha when she was done with it, and went over everything one more time, and then leaned back against the seat, stroking Steve's hair and scrolling through e-mails on his phone.

"I'm trying to figure out what I missed," Natasha said abruptly. She was curled up in her seat now, knees up by her chin, a more childlike, vulnerable-looking posture than Bucky could remember seeing on her.

"Yeah?" Bucky asked. "So what? So you can figure out if you had it better off, or worse? I hate to tell you, but I don't think it's that simple."

"I know," said Natasha.

"I know you know," Bucky said.

"I was fine with the lack of answers for a really long time," Natasha said, cutting her gaze toward him. He could hear her unspoken words: Until you came back.

"Well," Bucky said. "The way I see it, I guess either you'll get some answers, or you'll learn to be fine with it again. And either way, I'd say I'm sorry for it, but I think maybe you like the reminder that you're human, even if it does make you uncomfortable."

"You're an asshole, Barnes," Natasha said, giving him a sour look, and Bucky felt momentarily smug for having pulled her own trick on her.

"I'm really not," Bucky said. "I'm actually very nice."

+++

A couple of hours outside the mission site, Bucky gently shook Steve awake. Steve gave him that dopey smile he always did when he woke up and saw Bucky, and leaned in for a kiss. It probably would have gone on a lot longer than it did, except that Steve realized abruptly where he was and pulled away, looking around the jet before standing up and going to check the rest of his gear.

Bucky undid his tie and took his jacket off, then his shirt; he was aware of Natasha and Steve watching him but didn't much care, changing into his tactical gear efficiently and then sitting back down. He gave Natasha a little nod and reached for his phone again, unspooling his headphones and putting them in his ears, turning the music on and turning it up loud, closing his eyes as he ran over the plan again in his head.

Steve's hand touched his shoulder, and Bucky opened his eyes, looking over and raising an eyebrow in question. He took one of the earphones out and offered it to Steve, who took it, put it in his own ear, and sat just close enough that their shoulders were touching.

Half an hour out, Steve pulled away, putting the rest of his armor on and strapping the shield to his back, and Bucky got up and started to arm himself. It was a process that made his mind go empty, but not in an unpleasant way, just -- a routine, something he knew almost too well. It had been a long time since he'd been on a mission. The thought felt like stretching a long-unused group of muscles.

Natasha passed earpieces to both him and Steve, and then turned back to pilot the jet to a landing behind a rocky outcrop and a copse of trees. "Testing," Steve said, touching his earpiece. "Testing. Do you both read me?"

"Roger that, Cap," Bucky said. "Widow?"

"I read you both," Natasha said into her earpiece.

"JARVIS?" said Bucky curiously, and JARVIS immediately answered back, "Yes, sir, I am here should you need me."

Steve and Natasha both looked a little surprised, and Bucky just said, "All right, just checking," and then the jetway went down and they were walking out into the cover of night. The jet shimmered and disappeared behind them when Bucky looked back at it, and they took a formation that was familiar to Bucky from a long time ago; Bucky was on point, with Steve at his six and Natasha to Steve's left.

It was clear that nobody was expecting them. The compound was dark and silent; at the top of the bluffs, Bucky stopped, holding a hand up to Steve and Natasha, and crouching to assemble the rifle. There was no wind, and the guards were sitting in towers without even windows to complicate his shots - it was almost too easy. Inhale, exhale, take the shot, adjust position, inhale, exhale; inhale exhale, take the second shot.

Natasha and Steve crept forward as soon as the two guards were down. Someone would have heard the shots, and now they were relying primarily on confusion and the element of surprise to give them the advantage. Lights came on in different buildings, and as soon as they were within the gates of the complex, the three of them broke off, heading for the structures they'd deemed most likely to hold the hostages.

Bucky climbed in the window of his building and found three sleepy-eyed men scrambling to find weapons; he shot each of them in the head without even blinking, and then went to clear the rest of the rooms. The building was small, and empty. "Cap, Widow," he said. "My building's clear. No hostages here."

"Copy," Steve's voice said, and then, "Acknowledged," from Natasha. Bucky jumped down from the roof, landing heavily in the sand, and sprinted in the shadows toward Steve's building, which had been the most likely to hold the hostages, but also the most likely to hold a lot of hostiles.

Bucky could tell from the sounds of fighting that Steve was still on the first floor; he climbed the side of the building easily, made of weathered tan bricks as it was, and sat perched in the window, picking off men as they came running by him in the direction of the staircase, easily, one by one. About a minute and a half passed, and then Steve came up the stairs, grappling with two men, and there was another at the base of the stairs, shouting, holding a gun, trying to draw a bead on Steve unsuccessfully with all the wrestling going on.

Steve threw off the two guys, eventually. One of them landed on the floor with a sickening thump, blood oozing from his mouth and nose, and the other hit the wall like a sack of potatoes. The third guy had apparently lost his mind, or whatever passed for one, because instead of shooting Steve or running away, he came up the stairs instead, after Steve, who was sprinting for the end of the hall.

The guy hadn't seen Bucky in the window, and Bucky grabbed him by the head as he passed; his metal fingers caught in the man's open mouth, and before the guy even had time to bite down, Bucky jumped down from the windowsill and yanked the entire bottom half of his jaw clean off.

Well, not clean off. Bucky’s entire front got splattered in blood and gore, and the guy just stood there looking at him for a moment with half his face gone before he collapsed from blood loss. "Got you," Bucky said to Steve, not even breathing hard.

Steve had stopped and turned, the shield held up in front of himself. He was looking at Bucky, his lips parted and his eyes big and round. Bucky couldn't quite read his expression -- or rather, it was telling him two conflicting things: One, that Steve was freaked the fuck out, and two, that Steve was, probably unwillingly, turned the fuck on. "Go on," Bucky said, and Steve shook himself off and headed into first room at the end of the hall, while Bucky went for the second.

"Clear," he called to Steve, and Steve's voice echoed back, "Not here either," and then after a second, "Widow? Anything?"

"No," Natasha said. "Nothing in this building either."

"Bad intel?" Steve said, coming to stand in the doorway of the room where Bucky was, looking at the overturned beds and books strewn everywhere.

"I don't think so," Natasha said. "They should be here somewhere."

"There are four other buildings in the compound with multiple heat signatures," JARVIS said into their ears, and Bucky and Steve glanced at each other.

Steve gave a minute nod, and Bucky said, "Which ones, JARVIS?" and JARVIS rattled off a list of the four of them. Steve and Bucky went back down the staircase together, at a dead sprint, and barely gave each other another look before they were splitting up again, off into the other buildings.

Most of the people on the compound were awake and armed now, and Bucky skidded into a patch of shadow followed by a rain of bullets. He ducked and rolled, came up underneath the guy and took him down with both legs around his knees, grabbing the man's neck as he fell and twisting it until it snapped. He picked up the discarded weapon and fired off a round of cover fire for himself as he sprinted across the space between the buildings exposed to moonlight.

A shot came from one of the windows, and Bucky's mind did the math for him almost before he'd realized it. He fired a single shot back and a figure slumped forward, dropping the gun down two stories as Bucky ducked into the darkened doorway.

His eyes adjusted almost immediately, but it was still so dim as to be difficult to see. There were voices talking frantically, some of them shouting, a mixture of different languages. Bucky reached for a light switch and turned it on, and dodged a badly-thrown knife as soon as he had, grabbing it where it had embedded itself in the wall, sending it directly back into the throat of the man who had thrown it.

Somebody's arms closed around him from behind, and Bucky grunted in surprise, throwing his left arm back to grab for their head, getting his elbow around their throat and locking his right hand around his left wrist. Neck cartilage collapsed and the arms around Bucky went limp; he let the man go and kicked him to the side, where he lay gurgling as Bucky stepped over him.

He crept along the hallway, silent, to the door at the end. It led to a basement -- seemed strange, a basement in the middle of the desert -- and Bucky could hear voices down in the basement. Women's voices, at least two of them. He went down the stairs.

They were against the corner of the far wall, and a man was standing over them, shouting at them, brandishing a gun. The two women, both young, were holding up their hands, clearly pleading with him in a language he couldn't understand. Bucky got almost all the way to them before one of the women noticed him, and her gasp drew the attention of the man with the gun, who whirled toward Bucky.

It didn't really matter; Bucky shot him in the head, and he fell down, and the two women and the two men with them went absolutely silent, staring at Bucky with their hands held up in front of them.

The younger of the two women blurted something to Bucky after about half a second, tears running down her face. It was German; Bucky's mind took a few moments to translate it, and then he rummaged around in his own rusty lexicon and came up with, "I'm here to help you," in a very shoddy accent.

"Bucky?" Steve's voice said in his ear. "Uh, Winter Soldier? What's your status?"

"I've got them," Bucky said, putting his gun away. "All four of them are here. I'm in the brick single-story building at the southwest corner." Then he turned back to the young woman, and said, in German, "We're going to get you out of here. I need you to tell me - there were two men upstairs, and this man. Is there anyone else in the building?"

She stared at him and shook her head, and then shrieked at the sound of what must be Steve's boots on the floor above. Steve came down the stairs, and the second that they all saw him, their demeanor changed completely. "Captain America?" said one of the men.

"Yes," Steve said, "We're here to take you home. Do any of you speak English?"

All of them nodded, slowly, and Bucky had to stop himself from rolling his eyes, because of course they all did, and here he was trying to speak shitty German he'd learned in goddamn World War II. "I want you to stay with us," Steve said. "You stay behind us and we'll cover you."

He and Bucky got them all standing up and cut the rags binding their wrists and legs, and then they led them up the stairs. "We're going to have to make the run back to the jet," Steve said. "Natasha said where we landed was the closest that the terrain would allow her to put it down." They paused in the doorway, and Steve looked back at the four hostages before holding up his shield and nodding to Bucky.

"I can carry two of them if I have to," Bucky said, knowing what Steve meant -- these people looked fairly rough, and they probably hadn't had any decent meals or exercise in days, maybe weeks. Whatever the case, he drew his gun again, and they set out at the best clip they could manage for the gates of the compound.

Shots came from a building, and Steve turned immediately, holding the shield up. Beside him, Bucky found the muzzle flash and fired a bare second or two later, and that was the way it continued, until they were outside the compound. The moment they had some distance on it, Bucky holstered his gun and picked up the younger of the two women, the one who had yelled at him in German; she was flagging badly, and the group would go faster with her off her feet.

Natasha was already in the jet. It was fired up and ready to go, and she took off almost the second that they were all aboard, pulling the ramp up fast behind them. Bucky set the woman he was carrying down into one of the seats and buckled her in, then immediately pulled some water out of his pack for her and pressed it into her shaking hands. Steve was doing the same with the others, getting them settled, checking them for injuries. He caught Bucky's eye and the look of him made something stir low in Bucky's belly -- there was a fire in his gaze that Bucky hadn't seen in a long time.

+++

They landed at a safehouse, and an evac team showed up for the hostages thirty minutes later. It had all been such a whirlwind that when the evac team was taking them, the girl Bucky had carried was looking back at him in startlement and calling, "Danke! Danke!" like she was embarrassed she'd almost forgotten to say it. Then they were gone, and it was just the three of them again.

Bucky unzipped his tac jacket. He was still covered in gore, and it had dried sticky on his throat and the bottom of his chin. "Any of that yours?" Natasha asked, amused.

Bucky snorted, took his things and threw them into one of the bedrooms, then went into the little bathroom and turned the shower on. It only came out lukewarm, but he didn't care much -- it was hot and dry in the house, and the water felt good against his skin.

When he stepped into the bedroom again, Steve was waiting for him there, and he seized Bucky, pushed him up against the wall, and kissed him, his fingers sliding into Bucky's hair. "Steve," Bucky said weakly against Steve's mouth, kicking the door closed and then gently pushing Steve away.

Steve frowned, his eyes still full of fire. "We can't do this with Natasha right there," Bucky said. "The walls in this place are paper thin."

Steve opened his mouth to say something and then closed it again, his cheeks and ears stained pink. He smelled like sweat and smoke and Bucky had gone hard as hell the second Steve had touched him. But Steve reluctantly stepped back, keeping his body carefully apart from Bucky's even as he leaned in to give Bucky one more searingly hot kiss that left Bucky open-mouthed and moaning when he pulled away.

He opened the door and shouldered past Bucky, into the bathroom, and Bucky stood there for a second gulping air, droplets of water drying rapidly on his hot skin. He waited for himself to calm down a little, and then he changed into sweats and a black t-shirt and went back out of the bedroom to get a glass of water.

Natasha was sitting at the wooden table in the kitchen, her hands clenched around a mug, two bright spots of color high in her cheeks. Bucky poured himself a glass of water and drank it down in one go, then got a second, running his hands through his damp hair which was drying curlier than usual in the heat.

"I'm sorry about that," he said to Natasha. "He just -- blood's up, after a mission, you know."

"I know," Natasha said. "You don't need to explain that to me." She glanced up at Bucky and smirked, just slightly. "In fact, it might be better if you didn't try. We have a fifteen-hour flight back to New York tomorrow. I don't want to be stuck on a plane with you and Rogers thinking about your sex life for that long."

"Point taken," Bucky answered, lifting his glass to her.

Bucky slept poorly that night - it was hot as hell, especially wedged into a bed that was smaller than normal with Steve sticking to him all night - and he spent most of the flight back asleep stretched out across a couple of the seats with his head resting against Steve's thigh. He woke up irritated with a crick in his neck as Natasha was putting the plane down on the tarmac, and it wasn't until he took a breath of air outside -- it had just rained, and the air felt blessedly humid after being in the desert -- that he started to feel better.

The three of them waited to be debriefed in a big round conference room, and Bucky looked out at the clouds as Steve's thumb rubbed at the seam of Bucky's pants where their hands were clasped together under the table. "I'm sorry too," Natasha said abruptly.

Steve and Bucky both glanced at her, eyebrows raised. "For all the questions," Natasha clarified. "You know you -- don't have to answer them if you don't want to."

"I know that," Bucky said. "Although I’m in doubt you'd give up on trying to answer them for yourself, if I didn’t answer."

"I guess it's not that I don't know the answers that bothers me the most," Natasha said. Her chin was ducked, her brow furrowed, her red hair swinging forward. "It's that I don't know what it is I'm looking for."

"Well," Bucky said. "Do any of us, really?" He looked at Steve, who smiled wryly and shook his head, and Natasha gave them both a grudging smile too.

"You were telling the truth," she said.

"What do you mean?" Bucky asked.

"When you said you were actually very nice." She smirked. "It was true."

+++

Bucky rapped his metal knuckles lightly on the doorframe to Pepper's office, and she looked up immediately, smiling broadly when she saw him. She was on the phone, but she gestured for him to come in, so he did, lingering in the doorway until she had hung up.

"What are you doing?" Pepper asked. "Come over here." She stood up and came out from behind her desk, wrapping her arms around him and giving him a kiss on the cheek.

"I've only been gone three days," Bucky said, but he squeezed her back nonetheless, holding onto her until she relaxed and pulled away.

She sat back down, crossing her legs and leaning back, still looking at him with a smile. "So how was the mission?" she asked.

"Ma'am, I'm afraid I can't tell you that," Bucky said in his best Steve impression, sitting down too. "It's classified." He laughed. "No, it was fine. Hostage rescue. I'm sure the news'll be breaking publicly within the next couple of the days. I don't know if we're taking credit for it, though."

He snorted. "Not that there'll be a lot of question in their minds who it was who rescued them. Steve's getup is fairly recognizable. Personally I think he ought to get his name on it, otherwise people are going to start to think Captain America's slacking off."

"I don't know, there are pictures of him online just about every day, running the Brooklyn Bridge," Pepper said, raising an eyebrow. "I doubt people precisely think he's slacking off."

"Physical fitness isn't what I'm talking about and you know it," Bucky said. "Anyway - how are things here? Where are we on the repair project?"

"Well, the latest news is that it's going to be very expensive and time-consuming to fix," Pepper said, spreading her hands. "And since the latest news when you left was that it was going to be very expensive and time-consuming to fix, I guess you can probably figure out how much progress we've made in your absence."

"I leave for three days and nothing gets done," Bucky said. "I guess I really am the lynchpin of this whole organization. Maybe I should ask for a raise."

"Oh, maybe you should," Pepper replied, raising her eyebrows. "I think the results of that would be very entertaining for everyone."

"You wound me," Bucky said tragically, putting a hand over his heart. "No, but really: Tell me what I can do to help."

+++

It was almost strange, to go back and find nothing had changed in his absence. His office was still there, his papers and things exactly where he had left them. The letter opener that Natasha had given him when he first started, and the stress ball, printed with the pattern of Steve's shield, that Tony had presented to him mostly as a joke. He tossed it idly against the wall, caught it when it bounced back to him, and looked out the window.

The city didn't know; the city, and most of its inhabitants, remained indifferent. Really Bucky supposed his efforts were small at best. Four people rescued didn't mean a lot in the scheme of things, not when there were eight and a half million people in New York City alone. It was the opposite of what Hydra's theory about the fragile balance of the universe had been, and Bucky figured that between casual indifference and total instability, somewhere in the middle lay the real truth of things, somewhere nobody could ever really quite get at it.

He didn't know if he'd ever fully reconcile these two very different pieces of himself -- or to say he needed to reconcile them wasn't precisely right, because they were already reconciled within him. They always existed within him, and as far as he could remember, they always had, even back to the days that he'd been politely 'yes ma'am' and 'no ma'am'-ing his mother and then going out into the streets with Steve and leaving a trail of bloody noses and skinned knees in their wake. And he had to wonder: Was it the same for everyone? That idea of a higher nature, always warring with animal instincts, instincts that got scarier the more you examined them, the more you refined them.

It didn't seem to scare anyone, anyway. Pepper looked at him and saw one thing and Natasha looked at him and saw maybe another, and truthfully it didn't even scare him anymore. He figured he would just keep doing what he could, because after all, that was just about the best anyone could do.

He was, of course, thinking all of this to himself while he was on hold. He wouldn't have expected smooth jazz from an industrial construction firm, but it was piping into his ear as he waited for someone to pick up. He glanced at the clock; pretty soon he was just going to have to hang up and call back, because he had lunch with Pepper in ten minutes.

He didn't end up getting anyone before then, so he called back and asked to be put through to voicemail, where he left a message saying he'd be back in office in about an hour. From the looks of her, Pepper had probably been on hold most of the morning too, which was frankly absurd; if Bucky's experiences had taught him anything it was that Pepper was a lot more important than she tended to let on, and certainly not the kind of person you wanted to put on hold.

"I'm thinking about taking a vacation," Pepper said, putting on her sunglasses as they stepped outside. She looked beautiful today, in white, her hair spilling down her back in loose waves. "And when I say thinking, I mean, I certainly can't take a vacation while this is all still up in the air, and I can only imagine what a total nightmare Tony would be if I tried to take him away from all his gizmos -- so I guess I mean, I'm fantasizing about a wildly unrealistic world in which I could spend a week laying on the beach, sleeping, and drinking."

"The beach," Bucky said. "That does sound nice. Although you're right, you'd probably go to put on your swimsuit and discover it was actually an Iron Man suit in disguise, so I'm not sure how relaxing that would be."

"God," Pepper said. "It's funny because it's true." She looped her arm through Bucky's, and they ignored the flash of the cameras going off. According to the gossip rags, their fictional affair was going strong. Bucky had tried to read some of the articles, trying to figure out what on earth these total strangers thought they possibly knew, and ended up crying with laughter and totally unable to explain himself to Steve, who just found it worrisome and irritating.

They walked over to the restaurant, and by the time they got there Bucky regretted not bringing sunglasses, and had to take his jacket off. It was definitely summer now, and it brought with it a rush of nostalgia that Bucky had mostly thought himself above feeling. Summer had always been the time when things happened in his and Steve's world before the war, and it still felt like -- there was so much potential, just beneath the surface. "Steve's birthday's coming up soon," Bucky said, taking his seat across from Pepper. "We have to plan something really embarrassing for him."

"I feel like there are probably a half-dozen historical societies and Captain America enthusiast groups that are already doing that for us," Pepper said, grinning. "Why, what were you thinking?"

"I think we should kidnap him and take him to the ballet," Bucky said very seriously.

Pepper laughed, putting her hands over her face. "I just -- the idea of trying to pull one of those 'surprise! you're being kidnapped for your birthday' things on Steve of all people -- I mean, how many serious injuries are we expecting in the execution of this plan?" She wiped a tear from the corner of her eyes. "That's very callous, I shouldn't be joking about that, but god."

Bucky laughed too, imagining it clearly. "I don't even know if he'd be mad, or just disappointed," he said. "So let's just not do that, actually." He flipped the drink list over, scanning the back, and then passed it to Pepper. "I don't actually know what I want to do, other than definitely get him a cake with a stripper in it -- no, don't look at me like that, I'm kidding about that too."

"That's definitely a very Tony move," Pepper said.

"The cake, I’m serious about," Bucky said. "The stripper, no. Everything else I'm going to have to think about a little bit more." He was pretty sure Steve would actually prefer something low-key, and was determined to keep Steve from having to make any obligatory press appearances if at all possible. He was also uncertain he'd be able to top the whole 'I got you a gallery show for Christmas' stunt he'd pulled, and vaguely hated his past self for setting the bar so high. "Maybe we should take a vacation. Steve and me, I mean."

Pepper narrowed her eyes. "That's just cruel," she said. "After we just talked about the total impossibility of my taking a vacation anytime soon --"

"Oh, come on," Bucky said. "You could make it happen." He grinned. "We could kidnap you."

"It's a very tempting offer," Pepper replied, "But I think being kidnapped once is definitely enough for one lifetime, vacation kidnapping or no." She sighed and leaned back in her chair. "I'll just have to move a lot of things around if I want to make it happen. Sometimes I envy you and Steve, you have such -- flexibility in your lives."

"Yeah, but it comes at a high price, though," Bucky said. "You know that. And it looks nice from the other side, but a lot of the time it's just chaos."

"The grass is always greener," Pepper replied, smiling, and it was funny, because Bucky realized in that moment that he was living on both sides of that proverbial fence, but ducking between those two sides didn't necessarily make it all any easier.

"Maybe you just need to do something nice for yourself," he said. "There any ballets on right now? Or heck, the opera, or the orchestra?"

"It's New York," Pepper answered. "There's always something." She smiled. "Are you going to come too?"

"Sure, if you'd like," Bucky said. "We could see if Natasha wants to come along, too. We had a good night the last time, the three of us."

"We had a little too good of a night," Pepper said. "I'll look at the calendar when I get back to the office and let you know."

"Well, I'm free most nights," Bucky replied. "So you do that."

+++

He had one of those moments, somewhere in the middle of Swan Lake, this sudden flash of recovered memory that felt like lightning - he'd seen this before, he knew it. He sat back a little, blinking, and Pepper reached out and touched his left shoulder. He turned toward her and she was looking at him in the dim light with an expression of concern, but he just put his hand on top of hers, smiled at her, and shook his head. Nothing. Nothing that mattered.

When he turned back toward the stage again, the dying swan was crumpling, her arms undulating in the loveliest, most graceful lines. It was nothing like real death, he knew that well enough, but for a moment he was just transfixed by it.

Natasha's hand shot out and grabbed one of his, and he looked over at her in surprise. She seemed transfixed too, though, her face turned toward the stage and her expression intent. Bucky squeezed Natasha's hand, and onstage the swan died, her slender arm making one final abortive gesture before she finally sank in defeat.

The applause after the show was deafening, and it was only then that Natasha let go of his hand. He didn't mention it to her as they went back down to the lobby, and she didn't say anything about it either. Maybe there was nothing to say, or maybe it was just that neither of them needed to say it.

"Thank you for inviting me," Natasha said to Pepper. "I always think to myself, 'not that again,' but then it's always just -- beautiful."

"Of course, Natasha," Pepper said, smiling down at her. "But you should really thank James, it was his idea to invite you."

Natasha did turn to thank him, and Bucky even heard himself say 'you're welcome,' but what he was thinking was that she had been right. It was beautiful, it had been very beautiful, and it brought him back to what he'd been thinking the other day, about reconciliation. It wasn't the truth, but then it wasn't trying to be, really. It didn't need to be, to serve its purpose. All it really needed to do was keep you in the moment, cast its spell over you for a few hours, and that was enough. That was all anyone expected - to be able to forget, for a little while, that there was another story going on outside the theatre.