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Where the Fire Burns Hot and Bright

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"Fuck." Sam's voice in his ear was a punched-out rush of air, more the sound of an impact than a word.

Bucky dropped from the sniper post where he'd been guarding their escape--the position he'd been assigned before this recon turned into an assault on a crazed last stand. He ran for the doorway Sam and Steve had disappeared into even before Sam went on, "Man down, gonna need cas-evac, fuck, fuck that hurts."

"Bucky, get Sam," Steve snapped, like Bucky was going to do anything else unless it was--

"I'll finish here," Steve added.

Not because Bucky was better at first aid, Bucky knew. Steve wanted Bucky to get Sam because he didn't want to turn Bucky loose on the Hydra bastards who'd hurt him.

"You'd fucking better," Bucky snarled, rounding a corner to find Sam sitting against a wall. There were a couple of motionless bodies at the other end of the corridor, ten yards past Sam. He'd already avenged himself, strictly speaking, but that wasn't enough.

"Because if you don't--"

"I'm on it," Steve interrupted tersely, in a tone of command that shut down Bucky's argument.

Bucky dropped to his knees next to Sam, who was holding a pressure bandage to his left shoulder with his left hand, blood already leaking out around it. Bucky pulled the bandage he carried from his own pocket and got it ready to place over the first. He did remember the basics of first aid; he was capable of carrying out Steve's order, but...

"You got this, man," Sam said, his voice unsteady but reassuringly present. "Pressure on the wound, and then get me to a hospital. Nothing to it. No elaborate revenge required."

"Fuck," Bucky exhaled, and tried to make his shaking hands gentle enough to tie on the pressure bandage without ripping it apart.

There was a tracker in Bucky's truck, precise enough not only to lead Steve to the hospital where he'd taken Sam, but to the parking space next to Bucky's. He got out of his own truck and looked through Bucky's passenger window. There were smears of blood on the steering wheel and the dash. Steve closed his eyes and made himself take a couple of breaths.

It had been the right choice. He had known Bucky would take care of Sam, and he wasn't ever going to aim Bucky at anyone, even a bunch of hardline Hydra operatives, and turn him loose with no order but kill. It had still meant letting Sam and Bucky go without him, and it had still meant doing the killing himself. For all that his own hands were spotless once he peeled off his gauntlets, he felt like he should be leaving red on everything he touched right now.

Steve turned away from the cars and headed for the Emergency Room entrance, reaching up to touch his ear again and glancing automatically toward the roofline. Somewhere between the third-to-last kill and the second-to-last he'd gotten Bucky's voice in his ear, a brief, flat, "They're taking him into surgery. They say he'll be okay."

That had been close to an hour ago, and Bucky hadn't made a sound since. Steve didn't think he'd stay long now that Steve had shown up, unless he had found his way into the ventilation system and was keeping an eye on the operating room personally. Steve stopped again just outside the emergency room doors to let himself miss Bucky for a second.

Bucky had sat with him so many times in hospital waiting rooms, by his mother's hospital bed, by Steve's own bed. Steve didn't know how to do this alone, how to just sit and worry--even when it was Fury, he'd had Natasha and Maria standing beside him. He and Sam and Bucky were out on their own now. For all that Bucky seemed more willing to talk to Steve since that middle-of-the-night call, Steve still hadn't seen him at less than rifle range since they'd fought on the helicarrier.

He knew he needed to go inside and find Sam, talk to doctors, show them the paperwork--he touched his pocket again, reassuring himself that he had it--that gave him Sam's medical power of attorney in this situation. He had to give them the insurance numbers and everything he'd memorized about Sam's medical history. He would, in just a moment, but the crisis had passed. The bad guys were dead and Sam was already in surgery. Steve could take this moment to just stand here and feel the weight of it all pressing down on his shoulders.

God, he was tired.

Steve made that sentiment into a brief, mostly wordless prayer: God give me strength. He of all people knew exactly how redundant that request wasn't. Then he straightened his shoulders, put his chin up, and walked into the brightly lit hospital waiting room. There was no one else to do it, so he just had to keep going.

He made it about two steps past the door before his eye lit on Bucky standing sentry-straight between the rows of chairs. He was incongruously dressed in a pale green short-sleeved scrub shirt over his black jeans and boots. His hair was pulled back in a short tail, his arms folded as he stared intently toward a set of double doors.

Steve stopped, struggling for words, and Bucky turned to face him. His gaze moved up and down over Steve as if checking him for injuries, and then he started briskly toward Steve like he was coming to report in, like he--

"Jesus, Rogers, sit down before you fall down," Bucky muttered. He put his left hand on Steve's shoulder and moved him toward the nearest row of chairs.

"Buck," Steve said helplessly, staring, because Bucky's left hand was a real hand. That probably meant that Steve had gotten knocked out back there at the Hydra base and was dreaming all of this, maybe in the last moments before he died. Bucky was crouching between Steve's knees, looking up at him with exasperation so familiar Steve's heart physically hurt with it, and Bucky's left hand was still on his arm. If this was how he was dying, he had to say he preferred it to the last time. If Sam walked in, he'd know for sure, and he wasn't sure he'd mind at all.

"Bucky," Steve repeated. "Your arm."

Bucky glanced down at it, and then back up at Steve, frowning.

"It's not," Bucky said. Steve watched Bucky's awareness move away from him even while his eyes stayed pointed in Steve's direction, scanning the room without looking around. When he focused on Steve again he said, "It's just camouflage."

Bucky lowered both of his arms so they were more or less shielded between his body and Steve's and did something Steve didn't quite follow with the fingertips of both hands. Bucky's left arm appeared again, shiny and silver, the red star peeking out from the sleeve of his scrub shirt. Bucky twitched his fingertips again and the illusion of a normal arm returned.

"Oh," Steve said, closing his eyes. "Yeah, sorry. Of course."

"Does it," Bucky said, and then stopped sharply.

Steve opened his eyes again to find Bucky looking down at his camouflaged left arm, turning the hand from side to side. He looked... disturbed, and it occurred to Steve that this was the unnatural appearance, to him. Bucky knew the arm--his arm--was metal, and the fleshly appearance of it had to be unsettling.

"Does it?" Steve prompted.

Bucky looked up and then raised his left arm between them as he said, "Does it look right? Is this Bucky's arm?"

Steve looked down, struggling not to react to that. Sam had explained to him how Bucky used the name for himself but also for some idea of his old self that he held apart from who he was now. It still made Steve a little sick to be hearing it in person, from Bucky, when the sheer fact of him was so present. Steve couldn't think about anything but Bucky, here and alive and close enough to touch.

"Can I," Steve said, raising both hands to hover on either side of Bucky's left hand.

Bucky nodded, his expression turning slightly impatient. Steve curled one hand around Bucky's hand, cupping his elbow with the other, and looked down at Bucky's arm. He could feel metal under his fingers, which made it hard to focus on the appearance at first glance, but he'd trained his eyes to observe precise detail a long time ago.

He was tempted to say yes, of course it was Bucky's arm, just because it looked so right--not just a flesh-colored prosthetic, it had hair and fingernails and little imperfections. The skin of Bucky's hand was slightly reddened, as if he'd rubbed too hard washing.

But Steve looked closer, looking for something familiar, something about this hand, this arm, that said Bucky to him in the way that the body it was attached to did.

"No," he said, only realizing it as he said it, and he saw Bucky's shoulders sag. He looked up quickly to meet Bucky's eyes, but the faint glimmer of expression he saw there looked more like relief than anything else.

"You had a scar," Steve said, and touched the place, curling around the outside of Bucky's elbow. "And your hand--look, show me your other hand."

Bucky held up both hands together, knuckles up, and Steve nodded, tracing his fingers over Bucky's knuckles and feeling a guilty thrill at touching Bucky's right hand, warm and alive, without explicit permission.

"You broke the first two fingers on your left hand throwing a punch once," Steve explained, tracing the metal fingers with his own. "They were a little bit crooked after that. This is--they just mirrored your right hand, probably your whole arm. You're right, this is just camouflage. Your arm is your arm, Buck."

Steve didn't know if it was the right thing to say, but Bucky nodded and didn't pull away from him. Steve was so glad for that he almost couldn't breathe.

In the next second he remembered that they were in a hospital because Sam was hurt, and all of a sudden it clicked.

"Did Sam tell you to look after me for him?" Steve asked.

Bucky's lips twisted upward slightly, and Steve thought there was a hint of genuine amusement in his eyes. "He said take care. Yeah."

Steve thought he should probably have some kind of pride that was hurt by that, but even if he was only doing it on Sam's order, Bucky was here, right here, his hands still held up for the touch of Steve's hands. Steve knew he should go talk to the nurses and check on Sam and get all the paperwork moving, but--

"Does that extend to giving me a hug?" Steve asked, pushing a little, because he was way beyond pride, way beyond any ability to resist asking for what he wanted, even if Bucky was going to refuse or run away again.

Bucky's gaze flickered up and down Steve's body, like he was doing another check for injuries. He gave a short, brisk nod and stood, turning his hands to haul Steve up in the same motion. Steve wasn't even steady on his feet yet when Bucky's arms went around him, pulling him close, and Steve buried his face against Bucky's right shoulder and held on for dear life.

Bucky smelled like hospital and antibacterial soap, but under that was the not-unfamiliar after-action odor of sweat and blood and gunpowder, and he felt like Bucky in Steve's arms. The shape and weight of him, the warmth of his skin, even the rhythm of his breathing were all exactly right, clicking into place in all of Steve's senses. After seventy years Steve felt like he'd finally come home.

Bucky shifted his weight, and Steve loosened his grip, ready for Bucky to pull away. Bucky held on, though. His voice had a familiar businesslike tone, passing along his sniper's observations, when Bucky said, "We told them hunting accident, which I doubt anyone believes but they didn't argue or call the cops where I could hear. He actually got hit twice, left shoulder and calf. He was conscious all the way. I told them you're his partner, I'm his best friend. You weren't there, I didn't see where the shots came from. You were coming from home with paperwork."

Steve nodded. "Got it. He's still in surgery?"

"They haven't told me anything since they took him, but they said an hour an hour ago."

Steve nodded again, gave Bucky a firm pat on the back, and they broke apart automatically. Bucky dropped back to flank Steve, guiding from behind as Steve turned toward the reception desk.

"Who made you change?" Steve asked as they walked over.

"Lady at the desk," Bucky said. "Janice. Wouldn't believe I wasn't injured until I washed up--hi, Janice, this is Steve."

"Ma'am," Steve said, and he could see that Janice was on the cusp of recognizing him. "My name is Steve Rogers. I'm here about my partner, Sam Wilson."

Her eyes went round for a second, and then professionalism took over. She reached for a clipboard with a stack of forms already in place. "If you could just fill these out, Mr. Rogers."

"Can you tell me," Steve said, feeling the whipcord tension of Bucky's presence at his side. "Where is he? Is he all right?"

Janice consulted her computer and said, "They should just be finishing up in the OR. He'll be in recovery by the time you finish those, and you should be able to go see him."

Sam squinted through a haze--not haze, probably his eyes blurring, the light was really bright. But somebody was there, right there, smiling at him. Blond, pretty, familiar.

"Steve?" Sam said.

"Yeah," Steve said. He sounded like he might be about to laugh. Sam smiled. He loved hearing Steve laugh. Steve didn't laugh enough. "You want to drink some of this water?"

"Sure," Sam said. Water sounded good, his mouth was pretty dry. Plus he got the brush of Steve's fingers against his mouth, helping him get the straw between his lips. He blinked again as Steve took the straw away. The lights were bright in an awfully familiar way.

"Aw, man," Sam said. Hospital. "I hate anesthetic."

Steve grinned. "That's the fifth time you've told me that. You remember how you got here?"

Sam squinted at Steve, sorting through his foggy head. The first thing that felt recent was driving up into Western Maryland, talking over comms with Bucky about the Hydra cell Natasha had tipped them off to.

Car accident, Sam thought, but then he remembered parking the car on the shoulder of a two-lane highway, remembered checking his guns, Steve getting into uniform so that only bad guys would shoot at him. Bucky had been a shadow moving in the dark, taking up his overwatch position with sniper rifle at the ready.

"I got shot," Sam pieced together, glancing down at himself. His left leg was elevated, and his left arm was strapped down to his chest. All his parts still seemed to be attached, at least. His sense of his own body was distant, wrapped in the same haze that clouded his vision, but there weren't any obvious blank spots. "Twice?"

"Yep," Steve said. "Hunting accident. You and Bucky were out in the woods."

"Yeah," Sam said slowly, his brain churning laboriously through that. Hunting accident. He remembered Bucky saying that in the truck, making him repeat it. They had no SHIELD backup, no right to have done any of that. "Guess this time the deer decided to shoot back."

"Guess they did," Steve said, sounding a little grim, and Sam remembered Steve's voice in his ear. I'm on it.

Sam's eyes were too heavy to hold open, and the fog rolled back in on him for a while; when he opened them again Steve was sitting by his bed, waiting. He looked tired, but he was holding a cup with a straw.

"I hate anesthetic," Sam muttered, and Steve smiled and offered him some more water.

It was so late it was starting to be early by the time Sam was wheeled into a private room and transferred onto a bed. He tried to be quiet and cooperative and a Good Patient, but pain was cutting through the fog and he was, more than anything, exhausted. Steve had stayed with him, and even half-conscious, Sam could see people deciding that visiting hours did not apply to Captain America. When they were finally alone in the room--without even a roommate in their own curtained-off half, which Sam was pretty sure was not how his insurance coverage worked, but that was the last thing he was going to worry about now--he said, "Steve, you gotta get some sleep."

"I will," Steve said, sitting down in the chair by the bed, "I just--"

"I'll keep watch," Bucky said, and Steve jumped. Sam could only manage a twitch, but he meant it with every fiber of his where the hell did you come from being. Bucky was just there somehow, standing in the slice of shadow to one side of the room's window.

"Sleep, both of you," Bucky repeated. "I've got this watch."

"Thanks, Buck," Steve said, and without further ado he crossed his arms over his chest, tipped his head back, and went limp, which Sam figured was a combination of soldierly efficiency and Steve being at the end of his rope.

Sam looked back toward Bucky just as Bucky peeled himself off the wall and came over to his bed. He set his right hand lightly on Sam's chest, away from all the bandages. It was dim enough in the room that Sam could barely see Bucky's face, let alone guess what his expression meant.

"Thanks," Sam said softly. "For staying."

Bucky's head turned a fraction toward Steve, and he nodded. He took a deep breath, and Sam tried to brace himself to have some kind of conversation. Bucky bent over him, pressing a brief kiss to his cheek, just to the side of his mouth.

"Sleep," Bucky repeated, his hand tightening on Sam's good shoulder. He went back to the window and glanced warily outside, and Sam let his eyes close.

Bucky felt himself relax a little when Sam's breathing leveled out into sleep. This was simple, now. He was only keeping watch, the way he'd kept watch over Sam and Steve from a hundred other vantage points. Now that they were both asleep, no one was watching back.

Bucky glanced out the window, which showed the same quiet pre-dawn vista of parking lot as it had every other time he looked. He focused his hearing on the quiet steady movements of the nurses out in the hall. If nothing else, they would kick up an audible fuss in the presence of a threat, like birds startling to give away the presence of a hunter--as long as they recognized it as a threat. They hadn't reacted to Bucky, but he hadn't drawn much attention to himself.

And he wasn't a threat, of course. Not to anybody taking care of Sam. Not to anybody who wasn't an approved target or actively attacking.

It wasn't Bucky's problem to work out what had gone wrong tonight--whether they'd been ambushed or set up, if they'd managed to head off some more coordinated move by Hydra, what might come next. Steve would worry about that. Steve was in command. Bucky only had to stop anything that got close enough to hurt Sam or Steve, and he could listen and watch for that from anywhere; if Hydra sent another force after them for what they'd done tonight, it wouldn't be subtle. With so many people moving around and no way to secure the door, Bucky needed to stay close, but he didn't have to stay by the window. He could be nearer than that to Sam and Steve, with no danger of them looking back, or touching, or...

Bucky watched Steve's sleeping face, remembering the way Steve had asked to touch him out in the waiting room, seeing again all the expressions that had shaped his features while Bucky spoke to him. Being so close to Steve gave Bucky a sensation like being in a high place on the verge of a fight, like waiting to begin a mission he knew he would complete successfully, but not without effort. Anticipation, excitement, an edge of danger. His heart had been beating as fast as if he were in the middle of a firefight the whole time he was with Steve in the hospital's waiting room.

He'd had time while Steve was looking after Sam to settle into his own skin again. He'd listened from a series of semi-concealed locations while the news circulated in Steve's wake that their patient must be that Falcon guy because they'd all made Steve as Captain America.

No one had mentioned Bucky; once he wasn't standing in front of them covered in blood he faded into apparent insignificance next to Captain America and Falcon. That was as it should be. A sniper didn't want to be seen. Perfect Steve and personable Sam, they could bear the attention. Bucky, who still wasn't sure how to even bear his own name, was better off ignored.

Sam and Steve paid attention to him, though. It had been--fun, he thought tentatively, not to let them see him until it was clear they thought they were alone. And once they knew he was there, once they saw him, they had... relaxed. They accepted his watch, his protection. His presence in their private space.

Bucky's eyes went to Steve again, feeling that same teetering sensation of something coming. Steve's hug had felt familiar, something dropping into place--a dozen different pictures of Steve in his head had all been dredged up at once, settling into his bones with the familiarity of Steve's body against his. Those were memories, things he could rely on. He couldn't trust his own mind, but he had always trusted his body. It had always known things his mind did not.

All of him wanted to be closer to Steve right now. It had felt good to be close to him even in the exposed position of the waiting room, even with Steve's scrutiny weighing on him. There was less risk to it now, in this contained space, mostly dark, with Steve sleeping.

Bucky glanced out the window again, listened again to the steady rhythm of voices and footsteps outside, and then he moved silently and smoothly from his post at the wall, stepping into the pool of shadow beside Steve's chair. That put him between Steve and Sam and the door, which was a good place to be. Bucky stood there for a moment, looking down at Steve's sleeping face--unguarded, he thought, and careless, but neither of those were true.

Steve had simply entrusted guarding and caring to Bucky for this watch. It felt good to be so trusted, to be depended on, in this quiet way.

Carefully, quietly, Bucky sat down, putting his back against the side of the chair, tipping his head back against the arm. He could see the screen that displayed Sam's vital signs this way; Sam's heart beat steadily, and all the other numbers displayed in green, which meant good things. He had seen screens like that before; there was a picture in his head. He hadn't been Bucky then, but he knew that the screens went with being repaired. Sam was safe now, patched up and healing. That was good.

Bucky closed his eyes. He was as close as he could be to Steve without touching him--he wouldn't touch, because Steve would wake up, and Steve needed rest. He'd been distressed even before he saw Sam, and looked horribly fatigued by the time he and Sam entered this room. It wouldn't take much sleep to set him right, Bucky knew, but Steve should get that sleep as soon as possible, and without interruption.

Steve stirred in the chair, and his right hand reached out and touched the top of Bucky's head.

"Buck?" Steve said drowsily, unconcerned but rising toward wakefulness.

"I got this watch, Rogers," Bucky said, the words coming with easy certainty that they were the right ones, as they had when he first saw Steve tonight. "Put your head down."

"Yeah," Steve said. His hand moved with a very gentle kind of roughness, trying to tousle Bucky's pulled-back hair. "Wake me at dawn, I'm next."

"You bet," Bucky said firmly. He wasn't pretending, exactly. Steve had told him not to pretend. But he knew how to say these things, knew that they would accomplish what he wanted, and it wouldn't hurt anything as long as Steve didn't really wake up. "Now shut up and sleep."

Steve made a wordless agreeable noise and his hand slipped from the top of Bucky's head to dangle over the arm of the chair beside Bucky's face.

Bucky waited until Steve's breathing was steady again, and then he tilted his head a few degrees, just enough that the side of Steve's hand rested against his temple. There was no danger of him falling asleep here, even sitting down in the quiet. The touch of Steve's hand against his skin kept his heart beating fast.

Steve woke up at a familiar firm grip on his shoulder, shaking him just once, and four words spoken in the terse undertone of a report not meant to be overheard. He'd been sleeping soundly, so he had his eyes open on Bucky's boots disappearing into a vent by the time he realized that the words had been: "Your watch. Uniforms incoming."

The vent cover dropped back into place without a sound, and Steve dropped his gaze to look at Sam, who was awake--Steve thought Bucky must have put a foot somewhere on Sam's bed to make that jump so quietly--and staring up after Bucky. Steve got to his feet--uniforms incoming--and turned to face the door just before it opened on a nurse with two uniformed police officers behind her.

Her gaze moved from Steve to Sam without scanning for any other occupant of the room: she had no idea Bucky had been here, though Steve was pretty sure nurses had come in to check Sam twice since Steve had fallen asleep in the chair. Bucky hadn't handed over the watch on either of those occasions, so Steve had gone back to sleep each time.

"Good morning," the nurse said, and Steve backed away from Sam's bed to let her at him. The officers stayed by the door, looking blank and professional in a way that suggested that they either felt bad about coming here to interrogate Captain America, or they were trying desperately to pretend that they weren't impressed by Captain America. Either reaction could be useful for Steve--most useful if they both had the same reaction, but Steve could probably thread the needle even if they didn't. Sam would help, if Sam was alert enough.

"Captain Rogers," the nurse greeted him, before focusing on Sam, and that was a good sign: she, at least, was on their side if she was affording him his nominal rank. She wanted the police to know it too. "Mr. Wilson--"

"Sam, please," Sam said. "You've seen enough of me naked I think we're on a first name basis now."

The nurse smiled warmly--that was for Sam, not the silent audience waiting by the door--and said, "Sam. How's your pain level?"

"Higher than I wish it was," Sam said, with obvious honesty. He gave Steve a reassuring look, though, and Steve wasn't at all surprised when he insisted that his dosage of painkillers was sufficient.

The nurse checked Sam's vitals, making approving noises about his blood pressure, and then, after she'd promised breakfast, finally announced, "These fellas are here to talk to you both, if you think you're up to it."

Sam gave Steve a might as well kind of look, and Steve agreed with a nod and turned his attention properly on the officers, giving them a grave, slightly frayed Captain America look. "Gentlemen, what can we do for you?"

They introduced themselves as Officers Reyes and Martin as they came over to take up a station at the foot of Sam's bed, leaving Steve and Sam side-by-side and facing them. Allowing them a united front. Steve wasn't particularly surprised by the time Reyes addressed him as "Captain Rogers," before nodding to Sam and saying, "Mr. Wilson. We're just here to look into the shooting. Standard procedure, I'm sure you understand. If you've already notified..."

Reyes trailed off there, inviting them to volunteer the agency that Reyes and Martin could foist this all off on, in the absence of SHIELD.

"It'll be the FBI," Steve said, because he'd observed that much, following the news of the aftermath of SHIELD's collapse. "Although I think we were on state land--"

"Which state?" Martin put in, a little sharply.

Steve shook his head. "Maryland. Dans Mountain. So the state patrol might take an interest, but the presence of Hydra means domestic terrorism, which makes it federal. Or so I've been told," Steve added politely.

Martin went quite still; Reyes glanced from his partner to Steve to Sam and then said, rattled out of his composure and allowing them to see it, "Hydra? At Dans Mountain?"

"Not anymore," Steve said firmly, aiming for reassurance, but that seemed to remind both officers that a shooting had taken place somewhere in the vicinity of their jurisdiction.

Martin's attention shifted firmly to Sam. Steve could almost feel himself being elbowed aside as Martin said, "Mr. Wilson, could you tell us, in your own words, what happened to you?"

Steve eased into a slightly more unobtrusive stance, giving the impression of ceding the floor to Sam without shifting an inch further from his side.

"We were asked--Steve was asked, but I went to back him up--to check on something that might be going on up there," Sam said slowly, choosing his words. So far, so good. "We found some buildings that shouldn't have been where they were and started taking a look around, and these Hydra guys jumped us. I mean, wearing the damn logo and everything, yelling hail Hydra. These guys were not going for stealth--they just wanted to kill Cap."

Reyes and Martin both shifted their attention back to Steve, and he answered their expressions, which he could see tallying up his perfect state of health against Sam's bandages and sling and hospital gown.

"We got separated. Shield's gonna need a new paint job, but I defended myself. Sam defended himself."

"And were both of you defending the other guy?" Officer Reyes inquired, almost casually. "The one who brought Mr. Wilson to the hospital fully an hour before you arrived, Cap?"

The other guy. It had to be a coincidence--no one who hadn't spoken to Bruce personally knew how he used that phrase. Still...

"Our other friend stayed out of it," Steve said, and thank God that was actually true. He wouldn't have to account for any bodies downed by a sniper rifle; it had all happened fast, and Bucky had held his position outside until Sam got hit. "He was there in case of an emergency; he has some medical training."

Steve had in fact taken the same basic combat medic's training Bucky had gotten, between two of the Commandos' missions. They all had; it seemed expedient, and Steve and Bucky had made the most use of the skills. It had seemed like a funny coincidence that Bucky never got seriously hurt, that he and Steve were always the ones still on their feet to look after the others. He wondered if Bucky remembered any of that training now, or if he'd ever gotten an updated version like SHIELD had given Steve. He'd have to ask Sam, later, how Bucky had done, other than well enough to get Sam to this hospital before he lost consciousness.

"Your other friend," Officer Martin said slowly, and Steve thought he could see the wheels turning. He wondered how much of a description Janice had given them of Bucky. A white man with shaggy dark hair, and Bucky had probably been quiet, unassuming, polite...

"He finds hospitals kind of... upsetting," Sam offered, and Steve didn't think he'd ever loved Sam more than he did in that perfectly calculated pause. "It's really better if he's not mixed up in this. He had nothing to do with what went down, he just pulled me out. Believe me, if he'd mixed in there it would have made a much bigger mess."

Steve watched, holding on firmly to his slightly grim expression, while the two officers arrived at the conclusion that never mind Hydra up on the mountain, they'd just had the Hulk in their ER. Or, more to the point, not-the-Hulk. Steve silently apologized to Bruce and made a mental note to let him know that the police--and subsequently the FBI--might think he'd been in Maryland last night.

When Steve judged that they'd had enough time to consider the mess they could have had on their hands--and Sam hadn't even lied, if Bucky had done the mop-up while furious about Sam being hurt it could have gotten ugly--he said, "I would have reported it sooner, but I was..." Steve turned a hand slightly toward Sam, "occupied."

Martin nodded, while Reyes looked a little uneasily from Steve to Sam. Steve waited for it, but he saw pretty quickly that neither of them was going to probe the question of why Captain America had medical power of attorney for the Falcon, and why he'd spent the night at his bedside. Steve hadn't had a lot of attention to devote to it, but he'd been figuring he would come out the first time someone asked. He loved Sam and he wasn't going to lie about that, even if Bucky made things a little... complicated.

Now wasn't the time, though, and Steve couldn't justify inflicting that revelation on these police officers just to make himself feel better about any of this.

"I'll call it in ASAP, though," Steve said. "If I could get your information, I'll put them in touch with you so no wires get crossed."

Reyes and Martin responded quickly to the hint of authority in his voice, and the opportunity to have the whole problem off their hands. By the time they'd finished giving Steve their cards, with report and incident numbers helpfully written on the back, he could see Reyes fighting the urge to salute him before departing. Steve refrained from the impulse to inform the men that they were dismissed.

After the door closed behind them, and Steve could hear their footsteps and voices trailing away down the corridor, there was a small but distinct sound from the vent. Bucky didn't reappear, and Steve figured the little noise--surely deliberate--had been intended to let them know that he'd stayed close while the police were present, and that he was departing now.

"So," Sam said. "You decided who you're going to call it in to?"

"Natasha, for starters," Steve said, pulling out his phone. "She put us onto this in the first place. Then Tony, then... whoever Tony and Natasha think ought to know, probably."

Sam woke out of a fitful doze to the door closing quietly; he opened his eyes just in time to see Bucky come to a stop over Steve, who looked like he'd also just woken up.

"Go take a shower," Bucky said, holding out a keycard. Bucky had showered and was wearing all his own clothes again--clean ones. "And sleep lying down, and eat. I'll keep watch."

Steve's eyes narrowed. "It didn't take you four hours to go get a hotel room."

"I checked the scene," Bucky said, waving the keycard in a dismissive gesture. "Made sure everything was quiet and the evidence went the right way, copied the files I could find and made sure they'd be easy for the Feds to get at. Kept an eye on it until the state troopers showed up to run tape all around everything."

"Bucky," Steve said, admonishing. "You can't mess with--"

"I didn't," Bucky said, and then, "hardly, it was mostly fine. I just made sure. Here, someone'll want these," Bucky pulled Sam's flash drives and Leatherman from his pocket and handed all of them to Steve. "Now go, I've got this watch."

Steve looked over at Sam, and Sam said, "He's right, man, you need a shower. Go take a break. We're not going anywhere."

Steve tilted his head, registering Sam's vote, and then looked back at Bucky. "How did you even get in here? It's a secure floor."

Bucky rolled his eyes and dug another keycard out of his pocket.

"Somebody's going to get in trouble for losing that," Steve observed, though Sam thought he sounded amused under the scolding. He thought Bucky could hear it, too, because he just shrugged and pocketed it.

"I'll drop it by the door, it'll be fine," Bucky said. "Just go."

"All right," Steve said, and stood. Bucky backed away a little, clearing Steve's path to the door, but Steve turned toward Sam, his eyes flickering over Sam's vital signs readout before meeting Sam's eyes. "I'll be back in a few hours."

"We'll be fine, man," Sam repeated. "I got my IV drip, I got my bodyguard, I'm good."

Steve nodded, smiling slightly, and leaned down to give Sam a brief kiss goodbye. Sam watched him all the way out the door, and he was pretty sure Steve didn't meet Bucky's eyes once as he went. When Sam looked in his direction again, Bucky had taken Steve's place in the chair by the bed.

"What, no kiss hello?" Sam asked, making an awkward beckoning gesture with his right hand, which had the IV lines but wasn't actually immobilized.

Bucky huffed and said, "There was a hell of a lot of your blood on the wall," but he stood and bent over Sam to give him a brief kiss hello, and then a longer one as his hand lingered on Sam's throat. Checking his pulse, like it wasn't being helpfully displayed right over his head. Sam smiled against Bucky's mouth.

"I'm okay," Sam said. "I'm fine. How much did you actually rearrange things up there?"

Bucky shrugged and returned to the chair, though he angled himself as close to Sam as possible. "Made a few more bullet holes for Steve to have dodged when he went after the last few. Nothing big, just made things nice and clear. Self-defense, like he told the cops."

"And you didn't leave anything for them to track back to you?" Sam was pretty sure he knew the answer to that--the Winter Soldier had been a ghost a long time, but Bucky wasn't exactly that anymore, and he might have been distracted. Sam didn't think the Winter Soldier would have cared whose blood was splashed around.

Bucky bared his teeth in something that was almost a smile and raised his metal hand. "No fingerprints, no problem. Ballistics are all theirs, got all the shots fired before anyone was close enough to hear, and everything with blowback on it got washed in the bathtub at the hotel."

Sam nodded, electing to focus on the fact that Bucky was, in this instance, firmly on the good guys' side. "Thanks, Bucky. You've been taking real good care of both of us."

Bucky looked away. Before Sam could figure out how to elaborate on that praise, Bucky said, "Oh, here. You have text messages."

He dug Sam's phone out of his pocket and offered it. Sam winced as a whole section of reality came crashing in on him. "Oh, hell."

Bucky's hand offering the phone faltered, drawing back slightly.

"I can..." Bucky trailed off, obviously uncertain of what help to offer.

"No, here," Sam said, reaching out with his right hand, moving gingerly so he wouldn't dislodge the IV. "I just realized I'm gonna have to tell people I got shot. I'm gonna have to tell my mom I got shot."

Bucky pulled the phone back further, and he said, "You don't have to. It won't make the news--" unlike the last time Sam had gotten hurt chasing after Steve, and even then his injuries hadn't been enough to warrant particular media attention in the midst of that shit circus, "--and you'll be healed up pretty well before you see her again."

Sam winced at the thought of keeping something as significant as getting shot from his mother. Even as he thought it he felt his perspective shift; it occurred to him that if he'd gotten hurt like this in Afghanistan, he wouldn't have told his parents. He'd have told them after, when he was home and all healed up, but he wouldn't have called or put it in a letter, as long as it wasn't so serious that his CO felt compelled to tell them for him before he was healed up enough to have any say in the matter.

Bucky obviously hadn't gone over his head and informed anyone for him, and if Steve had he would have warned Sam about it before now. Sam could just keep this under his hat until...

But if he was going to be an Avenger, he was never exactly going to be home from this war. God knew it might never be over. Still, he could wait at least until he could tell them in person, so they could see for themselves that he was all right.

Sam looked over at Bucky, still frowning down at Sam's phone, and something else clicked. "Bucky, do you think I shouldn't tell her?"

Bucky looked up sharply, and Sam went on, "I mean, do you think I'd be compromising OpSec?"

For a second he wondered if he should translate that--Bucky might not be up on modern military abbreviations--but Bucky's frown eased slightly and he shook his head. "Operational Security is Steve's call. But why worry her if you don't have to, right?"

Bucky, Sam remembered suddenly, had been captured and tortured during the war, while he still had parents back home. Sam had a feeling Bucky hadn't told them much about what happened other than Steve rescuing him.

"Maybe you should check with Steve, though," Bucky added, turning Sam's phone over.

"Okay, no, not actually clearing my calls with Steve," Sam said firmly. He'd stayed in touch with his family and at least a few friends all through the last two months, and Steve had never objected. Nothing had changed now except that Sam had gotten hurt.

Bucky looked like he wanted to object, but he didn't take the phone back. Sam turned his attention to the screen. He had two messages from Natasha--What did you find? right around the time he was getting out of surgery, and I expected better from you, Wilson, about ten minutes after Steve had called her this morning and told her exactly how badly it went. Steve--and Steve's facial expression--had relayed most of what Natasha had had to say about them failing to pull out and call for backup when the firefight started, so Sam knew which kind of better she meant.

The other text he had was from his sister, Sarah: Jo got up early and got dressed without mama today. There was a picture attached: his three-year-old niece Jody wearing her Tiana dress over striped leggings and light-up Dora sneakers, with five different colors of barrette stuck into the cloud of her hair, doing not a thing to hold it back.

Sam smiled, and he didn't think before turning his phone for Bucky to see. "My niece has some serious fashion sense going on."

Bucky leaned in, frowning slightly, and Sam watched the tiny motions of his eyes as Bucky studied Jody's outfit from head to toe.

Bucky's narrowed gaze shifted to Sam. For a second he didn't speak and Sam wondered if Bucky was going to ask him to explain the concept of little kids or nieces or something, but he finally asked, "Do kids actually dress like that now?"

Sam laughed, and didn't even mind how it shook his shoulder. "As long as they can get away with it, yeah. Sarah doesn't let her leave the house in that outfit, though. Here--"

Sam turned the phone around and scrolled through his texts from Sarah, looking for another picture. The next one he found was Sarah and Jody together. Jody was perched on Sarah's hip, with her hair in two neat little puffs, wearing a sundress and sandals. Sarah was in a long striped dress, her hair in short twists.

"There, that's Jody with my sister, Sarah."

Bucky's right hand rose, like he wanted to touch the image, and then he jerked it away. He looked down, frowning, and Sam slowly drew the phone back, wondering what the hell Bucky was thinking.

Bucky said slowly, "I had little sisters."

"Oh," Sam said stupidly, and he thought about living in a future where Sarah was gone, where Jody was an old woman already if she was still alive at all. He didn't know what to ask--Steve had mentioned Bucky's little sister once, he thought, but only in passing, and Sam couldn't remember if he'd said her name, or which sister that might have been.

"Becca's hair was real curly," Bucky said slowly, and he touched his own hair and then dropped his hand again, frown deepening. "She would cry sometimes when Ma brushed her hair. But she would stay still and let me do it. I'd sit there for half an hour just picking the knots out. I'd braid it for her when I was done, so it couldn't get tangled up again too fast."

Bucky raised his hands, maybe remembering the motion of it, then dropped them, shaking his head slightly. He focused on Sam again and said, "Are you gonna call your ma? Do you want me to..."

Bucky made a vague gesture toward the other side of the room. It wouldn't actually stop him from hearing the call, Sam was sure, but he would pretend if Sam asked him to.

Sam shook his head. He didn't mind Bucky hearing him talking to his mom, for one thing, and for another--Bucky was still looking tense and lost. Sam didn't quite want to let him out of his sight, even as far as the other side of the room.

"Stay," Sam said. "I might need moral support, even without telling her about this."

Bucky nodded seriously and edged closer, resting his right hand beside Sam's hip. Sam found his mom in his contacts, called, and then put the phone on speaker and balanced it on his right shoulder so he could settle his right hand beside Bucky's, two fingers hooked over his.

His mother's voice greeted him, after a couple of rings, with, "Sam? Is everything okay?"

Sam closed his eyes. Middle of a--God, he couldn't even remember what day it was. Odds were it was a weekday. Maybe he really shouldn't have called. "I'm all right, Mom. We're okay. I just realized I hadn't called in a while, wanted to hear your voice."

"Samuel, what on earth are you mixed up in now," his mother demanded, and he could hear the worry underneath the sharpness of her voice.

Sam looked toward Bucky, fighting back the too-honest urge to say I have no idea, Mom. He said instead, nearly as truthfully, "I don't really know, I'm just following Steve."

"And where's he dragged you now? Off in the middle of nowhere? Or are you calling to say you're on your way out of New York again?"

Sam winced. He'd considered not telling them about last week's trip to New York, but somebody had caught fourteen seconds of his test flight on camera and it had kind of blown up all over YouTube.

"No, Mom, I'm nowhere close." Bucky's fingers twisted under his, and Bucky was giving him a wide-eyed significant look. Sam nodded and went on--with full respect for the OpSec rules Steve hadn't had to lay out for him--"I forget the name of the town, but we have a little downtime right now, so I'm catching up on my rest."

"Doesn't sound to me like you're sleeping over there," his mom said, but the sharpness in her voice was easing off a little. "What's Steve doing with his downtime?"

"He's out running errands," Sam said smoothly. He'd had almost this exact conversation with her before. He knew his part. "He's picking up groceries, we'll go do some laundry later. Gotta say I'm getting pretty tired of living out of a duffle bag."

"Well, you know you can stop that any time you want," his mother said sternly. "You got a home to go back to--a home you have a mortgage on, might I remind you, and I don't think Captain America's paying you enough to cover your bills. You have a good job, Sam, you help people--you were always talking about how important that was, how glad you were to be making a difference, and now you're just running around the country after Captain America--"

Bucky's jaw was clenched so hard Sam could just about hear his teeth grinding, and he looked like he was doing his best to glare a hole in the mattress next to Sam's hand. Fascinating as it might be to see what he would do if his mom said Captain America in that tone one more time, Sam had had this part of the conversation before, too, and he knew his part here as well.

"Mom. This is my decision. It might look like just running around to you, but I promise you it's worth doing. Steve is trying to do something really important," Sam squeezed his fingers tight on Bucky's, and Bucky looked up, his expression going startled and distracted. Sam wondered suddenly whether Bucky had ever realized that all their running around had been for him, trying to find him or lure him out.

Sam looked away. "And I'm going to help him as much as I can. So far, so good."

"So far, maybe," his mother said, and Sam could tell she just wasn't going to be derailed this time. "But what happens the next time, Sam, or the time after that? You got knocked right out of the sky over the Potomac--" Sam tried reflexively not to look toward Bucky, but he saw Bucky's flinch in his peripheral vision, and shifted to grab hold of Bucky's hand with his whole hand, "--you could have died that day. I could have lost you, Samuel, without so much as knowing you'd gone back into harm's way. It's just a matter of time before you get hurt again."

Bucky's hand was rigid under his, and Sam was unpleasantly conscious of the throb of his bullet wounds, breaking through the steady supply of painkillers when he couldn't help but focus on them. For a second he felt dizzy, like the floor was shifting under him, like the whole building was going down.

Bucky's hand turned, holding on tight, and Sam remembered that he wasn't alone. His backup was right here.

"I know, Mom," Sam said finally. "But people died that day just because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. I was never one to stand by, you know that. I have to do this. It's the right thing to do. Steve's my friend, and--there are other people involved now, too," Sam opened his eyes and met Bucky's gaze, watching him with an expression Sam couldn't read.

"I'm not going to let them down," Sam said, keeping his eyes steady on Bucky's. "And they're not going to let me down either. Even if I did get hurt--they'd look out for me. They're as good as my PJ team ever was. I trust them."

His mother let out a long sigh and said, "Between you and your sister, Sam, it's a wonder I ever get up off my knees from praying in time to go to bed at night, and you know I hardly sleep."

"I know, Mom," Sam said softly, letting the familiar admonition roll over him. They were back in safe territory now; she'd been saying something along those lines to him since he was sixteen. "I hope Sarah's taking it easy on your nerves right now, to make up for me."

"Ha!" his mother said. "Your sister doesn't know the meaning of taking it easy. Have you talked to her this week?"

"Not really," Sam said, though he and Sarah had exchanged about the usual number of texts and photos. Sarah had always been private--bucking a life as the baby of the family by making her own fiercely independent way as soon as she could--so she and Sam had settled into a habit of sharing what they wanted to share with each other and never prying more than a casual How's it going? when they got a chance to actually talk.

His mother didn't need any more encouragement than that to go off on a tirade about the latest developments in Sarah's job search--like it was Sarah's fault that one of the handful of tenure-track jobs in her field this year was in Sweden--and from there to a recitation of all Jody's latest adventures, full of not-quite-spoken opinions on Sarah's childrearing choices. From there she diverted onto the topic of the reproductive statuses of all of Sam's various cousins on both sides of the family.

Sam relaxed against his pillow, making just the minimum noises necessary to keep the stream of talk washing over him. Bucky brought his left hand over, pressing two metal fingertips to the underside of Sam's wrist--tracking his pulse the old-fashioned way, if you could call anything Bucky did with his metal arm old-fashioned. Sam threw a glance at the readout by the bed, but he could see what he'd expected: his heart rate was sinking down to something sleepy under the influence of all this familiar family gossip.

He let his mom catch him yawning, after a while, and she said, "Well, there, now I've bored you half to sleep, you can take that nap you were talking about."

"You're not boring, Mom, I promise," Sam insisted. "I think I will get that nap, though."

"You do that, sweetheart," his mother said. "And tell Captain America--and whoever else you're running around after now--that I'm praying for them too. Lord knows they need it as much as you do."

"I will, Mom," Sam said. "I love you."

"I love you too," his mom assured him, and hung up while she still had the last word.

Bucky kept his metal hand curled gently around Sam's wrist, fingertips still pressed to his pulse, but he reached up with his right hand to take Sam's phone from his shoulder. He frowned down at it, not meeting Sam's eyes.

"Sorry about all that--Captain America stuff," Sam said. "She just..."

Bucky glanced up and shook his head, the tension in his expression easing a little.

"After Bucky," Bucky said, and then corrected himself, "after I died. Was reported dead. My mother wrote these letters--one to her sister, one to a friend, even one to Steve. She was furious. She blamed Steve for getting me killed. She kept calling him Captain America just like your ma did. She never even sent the one she wrote to Steve. She found out about him going down in the Atlantic before she got that far, and then she wrote more letters, talking about how much she loved him, how he was another son to her and she couldn't bear losing both of us."

Sam winced, and Bucky let go of his wrist, too, curling half over him on the bed. Sam tilted his cheek against Bucky's shoulder and tried to smother the quiet, approving voice in his head making a note of Bucky's capacity for empathy.

"They were all in this book. She didn't want it published until fifty years after she'd died, I think maybe because of those angry letters. I sat there and I looked at them--there were copies, I could see her handwriting and everything, it was a mess in those ones--and I was trying to figure out which time she lied. But the person who wrote the book said she wasn't lying. She said it was just what grief does to people. People get angry when they lose something important."

"Yeah," Sam said softly. "Yeah, they do. Even when they just think they might lose someone. I think my mom's going to like Steve a lot when she gets to know him. You, too, when you're ready."

Bucky twitched, and Sam thought that however far out he himself was pegging that when you're ready, Bucky was tacking on an extra few years.

"Do you remember your mom?" Sam asked.

Bucky shrugged. "Sometimes I think I do. But then I think I'm mixing her up with Steve's ma, and I don't think either of them would've spoken Russian, and I know Steve's ma never fixed my arm for me, so I think those memories are--damaged. I think they wanted to be sure I didn't remember that part right. Mothers are important. People have mothers."

Sam snuggled in closer to Bucky and said quietly, "You're a person, Bucky. You had a mom or two."

"Yeah," Bucky said, straightening up but still looking away. Sam made himself relax against his pillow, letting Bucky have his space. "That was in the book, too. Letters Bucky wrote to her, even some letters she wrote to Bucky that someone recovered, after. Some of them seemed familiar. My handwriting is like his, in English."

Sam decided not to argue with that. It had already been a godawful long day and he'd hardly been out of bed yet. His eyes didn't want to stay open.

"You should rest," Bucky murmured, and Sam didn't let himself wonder who'd taught Bucky that when he leaned in again and kissed Sam's forehead.

Bucky held his position on the edge of Sam's bed until Sam had settled into sleep, his resting heart rate displayed on the monitors with no irregularities. Sam was safe; Sam was in good health, allowing for the effects of sedatives and his recent wounds. There was no sign of any incipient infection or complication. Sam was safe, and the tactical picture had not changed. Therefore Bucky was doing everything he was responsible for doing.

He could not settle his thoughts to focus on protecting Sam, no matter how often he reminded himself of the salient facts. His mission was to protect Steve and protect Sam, and Steve was as capable as ever of looking after himself; there was no reason to think he would have trouble reaching the hotel room without Bucky's direct guidance.

Bucky's persistent and involuntary calculations were not focused on Steve, who was at least properly part of Bucky's mission, however. They weren't even proper calculations, lacking as he did any useful data. They were only images of possible failure: the possibility of Sam's face setting into hard, unreachable lines of silent grief (he saw also Steve, younger and smaller, wearing that same expression, but this was a memory, not something he could now prevent, and he pushed it aside).

His mind delivered to him images of bodies--his mind held a great many images of bodies, all sizes and shapes, in various postures of death, all bloody--and he could see the image of Sam's mother, Sam's father. Sam's sister. Sam's niece, a little girl with curly hair--so many little girls with curly hair, not all of them with the warmly red-brown skin of Sam's niece, some pale, one of them blonde and small, all lying broken, all covered in blood, and he didn't know how to protect them, and they were not his mission. He must not think of them. He must stay here and guard Sam. He must wait for Steve to make larger strategic decisions about their next move, but he couldn't stop thinking of the bodies.

He couldn't stop thinking of Sam's face, of Sam standing alone at a funeral, not letting Bucky come close, not accepting help, pushing him away--his hand on Sam's--Steve's shoulder--

Steve would help, Bucky realized. Steve would help. Bucky didn't know what to do with this torrent of internally generated information, but Steve would help. Steve would know what to do; Steve would give orders. Steve had probably already taken care of the situation. Steve was the officer. Steve wouldn't mind Bucky's input. Steve liked Bucky to talk to him. Liked to hear his voice. Steve had said so; he had said he didn't mind what Bucky said. That had to mean a request for clarification of mission parameters would be acceptable. Steve had probably already thought of what else--who else--had to be guarded. Steve could tell him it was all right.

It was probably all right anyway, Bucky told himself, even as he pulled his phone out of his pocket. Hydra had never struck back in any serious fashion at either Steve or Sam; Hydra was in considerable disarray after the failure of Project Insight and subsequent actions by non-infiltrated law enforcement. Those cells which Steve and Sam had uncovered were not sufficiently connected to each other, not sufficiently supplied with manpower or materiel, to carry out the kind of missions which had once been routine.

And, of course, Hydra no longer possessed the Winter Soldier to send against their enemies.

The little girl--all the little girls--were probably safe. Sam's parents were probably safe.

But they were soft targets. It would only take one operative, nowhere near the Winter Soldier's expertise, to compromise them. One operative, and then the blood, and Sam's face turning away from him, Sam standing alone at a funeral, not accepting Bucky's help anymore--Steve slipping away when he wasn't looking, making Bucky search for him again, Steve--but Bucky had found Steve, Bucky had put his hand on Steve's shoulder--

He looked down at his phone, at Steve's name. He thought of trying to say any of this out loud without waking Sam. He could not wake Sam. Sam needed to rest. Sam did not need pictures of little girls covered in blood rattling around in his head the way they did in Bucky's.

Bucky shook his head slightly and tapped out a message, choosing capital letters for emphasis.


He hesitated. There should be an indication of degree of priority. This was only a personal priority, a matter of Bucky's own comfort--the tactical picture had not changed and Sam was not in danger. Bucky added, PLEASE.

He glanced at Sam, who needed to rest, and after another second's thought he added, QUIETLY.

Steve made himself take his time in the shower of the hotel room Bucky had directed him to. It still meant he was out again in ten minutes, but that felt self-indulgent compared to the usual three- or four-minute scrub. He checked his phone when he got out, but there were no messages; of course there weren't. Sam and Bucky were perfectly safe in the hospital--well, Sam was perfectly safe, and Bucky was good at hiding from anybody who might take notice of the man with the metal arm and no legally valid identity. Steve shook his head at himself and set the phone down on the pillow before he lay down beside it. Getting Bucky officially resurrected was a problem for another day. For now, Bucky and Sam were both right. Steve really needed to get some sleep in a horizontal position.

He was practiced at falling asleep quickly when the opportunity presented itself; he closed his eyes, told himself to wake up in two hours, and evened his breathing and heartbeat down toward sleep.

He'd been asleep for about four minutes when the phone made a startlingly unfamiliar trumpet-pealing noise, and Steve snapped awake. He'd assigned most of the incoming message alerts to a buzzing which he was able to ignore while sleeping, but that one--he'd assigned that noise to the number of the phone he'd given Bucky. He hadn't heard that ringtone since he'd set it up.

Steve grabbed the phone and then frowned at the message displayed: COME BACK. PLEASE. QUIETLY.

Steve was up and in motion immediately, pulling clothes on even while he was still decoding Bucky's actual meaning. Please and Quietly both indicated that there was no immediate danger to Bucky or Sam. The fact of a text rather than a call meant that Bucky wasn't inclined to communicate anything beyond the brief message until Steve was there--which meant that Bucky actually wanted to see him, face to face. Steve made himself take deep breaths, steadying his hands as he tied his shoes, and then he gave in and let himself run all the way down to the car.

The hotel was only a mile or so from the hospital, but the layouts of the roads were aggressively unfriendly to pedestrians, and it was easier and faster to drive than to walk--and probably safer for other people, even though Steve had no doubt about his own ability to get over to the hospital unscathed. He parked in the first spot he found instead of searching for Bucky's truck, and he ran into the hospital and all the way up to Sam's floor. He made himself walk softly once he got there, redundantly showing his ID to the nurse, who had recognized him from the moment he stepped into the corridor. She logged his name and buzzed him in, and Steve continued to force himself to walk slowly and soundlessly until he was in Sam's room.

Bucky jumped up from where he was perched on the edge of Sam's bed; he had his phone clutched in his hand. It occurred to Steve that he should have sent some confirming message before he left, so that Bucky wouldn't have had to just sit and wait without knowing whether he was going to appear.

"Hey," Steve said softly. "What--"

Bucky shook his head sharply, casting a worried glance toward Sam, who was sleeping peacefully, by all appearances both of Sam himself and of the various monitor readouts. Bucky gestured toward the bathroom, and Steve shrugged and nodded, heading inside. Bucky followed on his heels. The room was big enough to allow a nurse or orderly to assist a patient inside, so they did actually both fit into the space without either of them forced to stand in the shower or sit on the toilet, but they were close, and somehow it felt even closer when Bucky shut the door after them, sealing them into the small space together.

Steve leaned against the sink, putting both hands behind himself to hold on to the edge of it as a reminder not to reach for Bucky.

Bucky leaned against the door, tilting his head for a moment to listen--Steve focused his own hearing and caught the normal flow of hospital-noises outside the room, and nothing in particular from Sam's direction--and then, without prompting, Bucky said, "Sam's family. They need protection."

Steve blinked. He didn't know what he'd been expecting Bucky to need to say to him, but that hadn't crossed his mind. "Is there a threat? Is something going to happen now? Soon?"

Bucky shook his head, then shrugged. "It's--it's what Hydra would do. I don't know if they can right now, because they don't have... the resources they used to have--" Steve realized with a sick turn of his stomach that Bucky was counting himself among those resources, but Bucky was already looking away, so it didn't matter whether that thought had shown on his face.

"But you and Sam, you're really causing problems for them, and if they can't get at either of you directly, they'll go after family. You don't have any. Sam does. Parents, sister, niece. They need protection."

"You're right," Steve said, which startled Bucky into looking up. "I should have thought of that sooner, and I didn't," Steve went on, which made Bucky look down again, but Steve thought it was shyness at the praise, this time, and not the awkwardness that had made Bucky look away at first. "I'll call Maria right now--she's handling special security for Tony now, especially threats from Hydra."

Bucky nodded and reached for the door handle. Steve reached out unthinkingly and grabbed his shoulder--the left one, impervious and almost impossible to really grip. Bucky froze anyway, looking back at him.

"You could stay," Steve said, feeling awkward like he hadn't with Bucky since he was six years old. Bucky had probably only intended to deliver a tactical report and then make his escape; he didn't actually want to be in a confined space with Steve any longer than he had to.

Still, Steve couldn't resist adding, "There might be things you think of that I don't. You know more about this than I do."

Bucky flinched infinitesimally at that--just a narrowing of the eyes, but Steve saw it and winced in response. He hadn't meant to throw Bucky's history in his face, but at the same time it was true. Bucky's understanding of Hydra's tactics was almost certainly better than any living person's at this point. Bucky was already nodding, taking his hand from the door handle and folding his arms firmly.

Steve let go of him and pulled out his phone, dialing Maria with a few thumb-taps to get to the right contact list. He didn't bother to put the phone on speaker, but held it between himself and Bucky to show that he expected Bucky to be listening.

Bucky leaned in slightly at the first chirp of the phone ringing on the other end, and then Maria said, "Hill. What's up, Rogers?"

"Just something I should have thought of sooner," Steve said. "Is it possible to get some kind of monitoring or protection on Sam's family? I know they're all in the metro area somewhere--I'm concerned that they could be a target for retaliation against me and Sam, since we don't have a lot of other obvious levers."

"Possible and already done weeks ago," Maria said briskly, and Steve felt his shoulders sag a little; he glanced over to see the same relief reflected, faintly but unmistakably, in Bucky's face. "Once he was publicly identified it was clear his family was going to need to be shielded--if you'll excuse the term--just from run-of-the-mill media attention and unaffiliated whackjobs, never mind Hydra. We've been keeping a discreet protective eye on Sam's parents and sister--"

"His niece, too," Bucky said, leaning toward the phone.

There was a silence from Maria; Steve thought she could not be more startled than he was at Bucky's contribution.

"I know second degree relatives aren't usually considered for this stuff," Bucky said, words tumbling out faster, anxious and insistent. "But kids make an impression. He's really attached to her and she's a soft target. You need to have protection on Jody--Josefina Wilson. She goes to preschool somewhere near Columbia, that's where--"

Bucky shut his mouth abruptly and turned half away, covering his face with his flesh hand, and Steve stared at him, phone almost forgotten. That's where--where Bucky would have gone after her, if it had been his mission? Kids make an impression.

"Sergeant Barnes," Maria said after a moment. "Thank you for that insight, I'll keep it in mind. We have in fact been keeping a watch on Jody Wilson, but I will personally make sure that she's being given top priority, especially at school and traveling to and from it. Do you think that will be sufficient, or are you aware of a specific threat?"

Bucky gave a sharp, silent headshake, and Steve pulled the phone a little closer to himself as he said, "No, Maria, that's all we needed. Thanks for being on top of things."

"That's why I'm here," Maria replied. "Let me know if you guys need any more backup at the hospital, I've got people on standby."

Before Steve could ask what she meant by more backup, she hung up. Steve pocketed his phone and stood there studying Bucky, who was still leaning against the door with one hand covering his face.

"Kids, huh," Steve said, as softly as he could manage. He'd read the files. He understood what Bucky was afraid would happen to Jody, but he knew that just reading the words in black and white couldn't compare to what had to be playing out in Bucky's head right now. Knowing was never the same as having done it.

Bucky's whole body curled in a little tighter, but he said, "I did that."

"I know," Steve said quietly, and once again he startled Bucky into looking at him.

"Not everything, but I've read some files Natasha was able to find," Steve said, keeping his voice even. "I've got an idea of the things they forced you to do."

"Other assassins wouldn't," Bucky said, staring into Steve's eyes like he was waiting for something. "They had to use me."

Steve nodded; it made a sick, awful kind of sense. That sort of mission had to be the whole point of having an assassin who'd had the difference between right and wrong burned and frozen right out of him.

"Bucky wouldn't have done that," Bucky insisted, still holding Steve's gaze. "But I did."

Steve opened his mouth and no sounds came out. He was tempted to say I don't care, but he knew Bucky would latch on to the way that was an enormous lie and miss the way it was bedrock truth.

"Bucky had sisters," Bucky added, frowning down at his hands. "He wouldn't--he had sisters. If he looked at a little girl--he would see his sisters."

Steve was starting to feel dizzy from all the turns in this conversation, but he held on gamely. "Do you remember your sisters, Buck?"

Bucky shrugged sharply. "I remember--something. I don't know if it's right. I remember things wrong sometimes."

Steve nodded slowly. "I knew them," he offered carefully. "Your sisters. I was in and out of your folks' place all the time."

Bucky looked over at him without raising his head, and he said slowly, "The littlest was... Trudy. She had blue eyes. Big blue eyes, always... always watching Bucky."

"Yeah," Steve said. "Trudy was eleven years younger than you. She thought you hung the moon."

Bucky's eyes narrowed for an instant, but he nodded slightly before Steve could clarify that Trudy knew where the actual moon came from but had worshiped Bucky.

"And Nell," Bucky said. "Nell was the middle one. She was... she... Bucky worried about her."

Steve sighed and nodded. It came back to him sharply, a time in his life when Nellie Barnes had occupied a significant proportion of all of his worries. He also realized that even now, barely knowing who either he or she was, Bucky still wouldn't call his little sister fast.

"Nell was always looking to get away to somewhere," Steve said diplomatically. "She didn't want her big brother--or her big brother's friend--bossing her around, but we were always worried she'd get herself into some kind of trouble."

"He would've helped, though," Bucky said haltingly. "He would--if she needed him, Bucky would..."

"Yeah," Steve said. From the time Nell turned sixteen right up until he got too busy with the war to worry about her, Steve had had it tucked into the back of his mind that he might wind up hastily married to her, if she needed someone--if she wound up with a baby who needed someone. "Of course you would, she was your sister."

Bucky frowned down at his hands and said, "Becca..."

Steve waited. Even when he was a kid he wouldn't have gotten between Bucky and Becca, and he didn't want to interfere with whatever Bucky remembered of her now.

"She was Bucky's favorite," Bucky said slowly. "She had curly hair."

"Yeah," Steve said. "You used to braid it for her."

Bucky's hands twitched, and he said, "She didn't want Ma to do it. Only Bucky."

"Yeah, from the time she was three or four, once it got long," Steve said. "She would run right away from your Ma, but she'd bring you the hairbrush and crawl into your lap."

Bucky looked at him, frowning, and Steve said gently, "She knew you wouldn't hurt her for the world, Buck. And you never did."

Bucky looked down again. "Are you sure I didn't?"

Steve tilted his head, because he knew that wasn't a question about Bucky combing Becca's hair, but he couldn't quite--

"How did she die?" Bucky asked without looking up, flexing the fingers of his metal hand.

Oh. Steve shook his head. "Natural causes. All three of them, and your folks too. Becca was eighty-four when she died--caught a bad strain of pneumonia, died in the hospital with her daughter holding her hand."

Bucky met his eyes again, waiting, and Steve went on, "Trudy got breast cancer, she was sixty-six. Nell got cancer too, but she fought it off and lived another ten years--it was some kind of heart failure for her. Nobody ever hurt any of them, Bucky, I swear. You know what happened when they sent you to hurt someone you cared about."

"I did hurt you," Bucky said, not looking away this time. "I tried to kill you."

Steve tilted his head. "Well, allowing for what they armed you with, I don't guess it's any worse than that time with the slingshot when I was eight and you were nine, and we got over that."

Bucky hadn't known the clod of dirt had a rock in the middle of it. He'd half-carried Steve home, blood running all over both of them. Steve's ma had had to stitch his head; he still noticed the absence of the scar sometimes, when he ran his fingers through his hair. He'd never missed it more than he did right now.

Bucky frowned and shook his head and got back to what appeared to be his central point. "Bucky wouldn't have hurt a little girl. But I did. They sent me..."

He stopped, looking cautiously at Steve, and Steve made himself slouch down smaller at the sink. If Natasha had found this file, she hadn't given it to Steve, but he and Sam had found enough that he could see where this was going. Steve braced himself and nodded. "You can tell me."

Bucky looked away, tense and silent, and it occurred to Steve that there was just about no one else Bucky could tell. If he wanted to say this to anyone he had to say it to Steve or Sam, and with Jody possibly in danger Bucky had clearly ruled Sam out. That left Bucky with no alternative in the world to telling Steve. His heart broke a little all over again, but he tried to keep his face calm, watching Bucky and waiting to see if he needed to say it badly enough to follow through. After a moment he did.

"She didn't--she was blonde. She didn't look like any of Bucky's sisters, but she was still a little girl. Sleeping in her bed. They wanted to make a point to her mother. They wanted it to look--messy. Painful. They gave me a lot of instructions."

Steve swallowed back a killing rage, gentled his hands before he could find out whether the sink would crack before his finger bones did. Whoever had done that--whoever had given those orders, for the torture and death of a child, knowing that they would put it in the hands of a man who couldn't refuse--God damn them, he thought distinctly, and it was entirely a prayer.

"I killed her," Bucky said quietly. "I didn't... I didn't think about Bucky's sisters. I didn't think about anything. I just killed her."

Steve closed his eyes, swallowed hard, waited. If Bucky had to live with this, the least Steve could do was listen to him.

"But I did it too fast," Bucky said in a tiny voice, and Steve had to open his eyes, had to see Bucky's scowl of concentration. "I didn't even know why until my spotter started yelling in my ear that I'd done it wrong, and I--that was when I thought about it, if I thought at all. I didn't want her to wake up. I didn't want her to be scared, or to feel any of it. I made it look awful after, but she was gone by then. She didn't feel anything. But she looked--it looked so--"

He flexed his hands again, almost the same gesture he'd made for the memory of braiding Becca's hair.

"I threw up four times that night," Bucky said, raising his eyes to Steve's. "And I still didn't know why. I thought they'd given me bad food. But it was Bucky, wasn't it? Because Bucky had sisters. Bucky wouldn't have done that."

"Yeah," Steve said softly, because part of the horror he felt was for that little girl and her mother, but more of it was for Bucky. "That was you, fighting the way they'd made you forget. You didn't let them make you scare her or make her suffer. You were fighting the programming. And now that you've won, you know what you were fighting for."

Bucky shook his head. "I wasn't--I wasn't fighting. I did what they told me to do. Bucky--"

"Bucky is just a name," Steve snapped, unable to hold it in any longer, and Bucky's eyes went wide. "Your name now, your name before. You're different than you were, but so am I--so's anybody who's survived as long as we have. Trudy grew up and burned flags in the seventies, Nell was president of the Rosary Altar Society for ten years running. Becca spent forty years refusing to even say your name after you died, never talked about you at all until one of her grandkids found you in a history book and badgered it out of her. Everybody changes."

"I killed innocent people," Bucky insisted mulishly. "I tried to kill you."

"Would you do it again?" Steve demanded, and Bucky jerked back from him. "That's the test of who you are. Would you do it again? Would you go into that little girl's room and do the same thing you did that night? Would you try to kill me?"

Bucky pressed harder against the door. Steve could see exactly how trapped he felt in every line of his body, caught the faint whir of the plates in his arm lifting and resettling under the long sleeve of his sweatshirt. He knew, theoretically, that it was a bad idea to make someone as dangerous as Bucky feel cornered, but he also knew that Bucky was between him and the door, and that Bucky wouldn't hurt him no matter how trapped he felt. Not this time. Not again. Steve knew that, even if Bucky didn't.

Bucky's head twitched a little, less than a headshake but definitely not a nod. Steve would take it.

"You wouldn't," Steve said, with every ounce of his absolute conviction. "You might be afraid you would, because it happened before and you can imagine it happening again, but you wouldn't. Not unless they did all the same things to you over again--kidnapped you, made you their prisoner, messed with your head until you didn't know who you were or why you shouldn't. And you know what, Buck?"

He paused just for a second, staring into Bucky's eyes, trying to be sure that however he was feeling about it, Bucky was hearing what he was saying. Bucky looked back, intent, waiting for it.

"If they'd done the same things to me that they did to you," Steve said slowly, putting deliberate emphasis on every word. "I'd have done exactly what you did."

Bucky shook his head sharply this time. "Not you, Steve, you--"

"I would, Bucky. I wouldn't have had any choice about it, not any more than you did. Hell, the last two years I've been taking orders from Pierce the same as you were--I have no idea how many people I really killed working for SHIELD, or who they were, or why they died. Every time they told me there was no collateral damage, no civilians got killed, everyone was evacuated--I don't know if that's true. Hydra controlled the intel I got. I might have killed as many kids as you have, and just as many innocent people. They didn't even have to brainwash me, they just perched up there on top of the chain of command and I did what they told me."

Steve made himself stop there; Bucky was pressed up hard against the door again, watching Steve with wide, stricken eyes. Steve rubbed a hand over his own mouth--he hadn't had any right to say that last part to Bucky. He hadn't even said that to Sam, and Bucky didn't need Steve spilling his own fears about the last few years all over him, but it was a fact. Steve had read dozens, maybe hundreds of files on Bucky, and none of his own.

They just stood there for a long, silent moment. Steve tried to think of how to apologize, or take it back, or just make Bucky understand what he'd meant. There were too many things to say, and they wouldn't fall neatly into a logical tactical order; words never did, when he really needed them.

Bucky said, "Sam is--I have to--" and shifted just far enough off the door to open it and slip through.

Steve closed his eyes and stayed where he was. Sam hadn't made a sound; now that he was listening Steve could hear the reassuring quiet from that direction, the undisturbed circulation of doctors and nurses out in the hall. But Bucky had obviously needed an excuse to escape, and Steve couldn't argue with that. He took a few breaths, steadying himself, and when he thought he could manage it calmly, he stepped out of the bathroom door.

Bucky was perched on the side of Sam's bed, again frowning as he cradled Sam's right hand in both of his. Steve hesitated, watching him, and Bucky looked up and watched back for several seconds before he said, unsmiling but with the warmth in his voice that Steve always remembered hearing from Bucky, even in the worst days of the war, "You still need to get some rest. Go on, get out of here."

Steve smiled a little, despite everything, and touched his fingers to his temple in the semi-salute the Commandos had always used among each other--especially when Steve was breaking protocol and saluting one of his men, all of them veterans of longer service than himself. That was surely still as true of Bucky as it had ever been of any of them.

Bucky's mouth shifted--still not a smile, maybe some words being bitten back. He raised his right hand to return the gesture before Steve said, "I'll be back in a few hours to relieve you."

Bucky nodded and returned his gaze and his hand to Sam's hand, and Steve let himself out as quietly as he'd come in.

Bucky stayed still again as Steve left. It was oddly like coming back to the exact same moment he'd been in before Steve arrived, only instead of worrying about Sam's family--who were safe, protected, monitored by Steve's trusted allies--he was worrying about Steve.

Or perhaps not about Steve, but about himself, who was so accustomed to navigating by Steve. It was a shock to have Steve insist that he might have done the same things Bucky had done, that he was no more to be trusted than Bucky was--and to insist in the same breath that Bucky could trust himself. It felt like the ground was tilting under his feet--his whole body remembered that sensation, the helicarrier listing under fire, losing altitude and falling apart.

There was no fire now, though, no battle engaged. There was no shouting, no pain, and no conflict inside his mind. His mission was to protect Steve and Sam, and to be Bucky Barnes, and these missions were not critically endangered, even if the landscape on which he must carry them out was changing under him.

What Steve had said--admitted, insisted--was a challenge, but not an impossible one. It made things easier in a certain way; he didn't have to fear at all anymore that he would expose the truth to Steve, the ways in which he was not Bucky. Steve knew the worst things he had done, and Steve still treated him as Bucky. Your name now, your name then, as though there was no difference, or--as though the differences could be acknowledged without affecting Steve's loyalty. Steve's mission.

Well. The things Steve had said hadn't changed Bucky's mission, so perhaps that was only fair. Some missions simply didn't admit distractions. Till the end of the line.

"Bucky?" Sam murmured, and Bucky loosened his grip on Sam's hand as he looked over. Sam was frowning. "You okay?"

Bucky nodded. "I'm fine. Everyone's fine. Go back to sleep."

"C'mere," Sam muttered, eyes already closing as he tugged at Bucky's grip. Bucky let himself be pulled, folding himself down into the sliver of space available between the bed rail and the uninjured side of Sam's body, pushing the IV line out of the way so he wouldn't lie on it.

"Okay?" Sam asked, half-asleep. His drowsiness was due to the sedatives and the exhaustion of healing from injuries and surgery, but all the same, he was entirely relaxed in Bucky's presence. He was asking if Bucky was all right and trusting Bucky to protect him. He had to know nearly as much about Bucky as Steve did, and he had no countervailing attachment to Bucky--the old Bucky, the innocent Bucky--to color his perception now. Bucky had nearly killed him, invaded his home, done all the other things Sam must have read in the files, and now Sam was blinking sleepily at him, wanting to know if he was okay, as though Bucky's wellbeing were essential to his.

The tilting world steadied. Bucky propped his arm carefully over Sam's body and darted in to press a brief kiss to Sam's parted lips. "Okay."

Sam smiled a little and his eyes closed again, and Bucky watched in fascination as Sam slipped trustingly back into sleep.

Steve made it about three strides out of the hospital doors before he realized someone was waiting for him by his car. He didn't have time to break stride before he recognized the shaggy dark head of hair and the diffidently rounded shoulders; the sight of a man trying to take up less space than he inevitably must had always struck a familiar chord in Steve.

He broke into a genuine smile and stretched his legs, walking fast across the parking lot to where Bruce stood.

Bruce straightened up a little and smiled, offering his hand as Steve came within range, and Steve shook it. "Are you what Maria meant when she asked if I needed more backup?"

"Oh," Bruce said, shrugging and giving that self-deprecating smile. "Mostly I thought I should at least have seen the place in case the police wanted to ask me about it, but yeah, I guess, if you happened to need some brute force. Do you think Hydra's going to hit back soon? Tony can scramble pretty quick, but not instantaneously."

"I think we're probably all right as long as we're somewhere as populated as the hospital," Steve said. "They're not in a position to do anything big and obvious anymore. At least," Steve rubbed his forehead. "I hope not."

"Well," Bruce said. "That's actually the other reason I'm here."

Steve lowered his hand and looked, and Bruce's smile widened a little as he said, "Guaranteed one hundred percent indestructible courier service. Tony and Natasha both want a look at what you found out here. You said you pulled some files from the site?"

"Bucky did, yeah," Steve said, checking his pocket--the flash drives were all still there, and he handed them over to Bruce immediately. Bruce slipped them into an inner pocket at the waistband of his pants.

Bruce's gaze on him sharpened a little, though his voice was still mild as he said, "How's Bucky doing?"

"He..." Steve considered for a moment trying to make some kind of status report on Bucky. He remembered the almost clinical checklist Sam had run down back in his kitchen a couple of weeks ago: how Bucky had looked that night, how he acted, how he smelled. Steve could present all kinds of evidence--this last conversation gave him half a dozen arguments for Bucky's state of mind, his reliability.

But Steve looked at Bruce looking back at him, trying not to take up too much space--Bruce who had spent years in hiding, trying to control his violently altered self. The other guy.

"He's Bucky," Steve said simply. "He's doing his best. He's taking good care of Sam."

Bruce nodded and swept a thoughtful look over Steve. "Anybody taking care of you?"

Steve snorted. "They're trying. Bucky just sent me to the hotel to sleep, but--"

"Hey, don't let me keep you, then." Bruce took a half step back. "You look like you could use the rest."

Steve wanted to argue--he liked Bruce, he didn't want to end the conversation after two minutes--but that talk with Bucky on top of everything else in the last twenty-four hours was weighing on him like a lead blanket.

"Yeah." Steve gestured toward the car.

Bruce nodded and moved around him, heading for a compact motorcycle Steve hadn't even seen, tucked between Steve's car and the next one over. It was mostly black, with only a few discreetly green accents.

"Didn't know you had a bike," Steve said, feeling drawn despite his weariness.

"Tony," Bruce said simply. "The Hulk looks like a bear riding a unicycle on this, but he doesn't break it, and an autopilot kicks in that can get us home if needed."

Bruce climbed on, and Steve stayed where he was, watching until Bruce was safely in motion before he got into the car. For a moment he just let himself sit, sinking into the cradle of the car's upholstery, not even raising his hands to the wheel. Then he shook it off and got himself in motion one more time.

Bucky kept his distance from Steve over the next couple of days, only nodding and saying the few necessary words when they traded watches. He wasn't sure what he was avoiding, exactly--he knew that Steve knew, he knew Steve didn't mind--but being where Steve could see him felt more than ever like being stripped naked and weaponless. Sometimes he would catch Steve studying him with a look in his eyes that made that tipping, tilting feeling come back, like he was right on the edge of something. He didn't know if Steve was going to catch him or push him, so he kept his feet on the ground and focused firmly on Sam, and whatever it was never quite happened.

Every time he watched Steve walk away, or left him behind, Bucky was seized with a confusing mixture of relief and disappointment.

Bucky pushed those unhelpful feelings aside and focused on his missions. Sam was healing well and was helping Bucky catch up on all the music Sam said he ought to be familiar with as a well-rounded human being. Steve was getting sufficient, if not optimal, rest and nutrition.

Nothing came near threatening Sam at the hospital, and the phone calls he exchanged with his family and friends never violated OpSec or exceeded the level of scolding his mother had delivered the first time. The biggest threat to Sam's continued safety seemed to be Sam's own impatience with his injuries. That was familiar to Bucky. The sensation slotted in next to his hazy memories of reading to Steve when he was sick--he had had to be good at it, he thought, to keep Steve occupied. Steve hadn't liked staying in bed.

Bucky couldn't remember what else he'd done to convince Steve to stay put. Steve himself would know; Bucky thought Steve would even tell him, if he asked. But Bucky would have to get him alone to ask, and the thought of pulling Steve aside for another conversation left Bucky feeling too wildly off-balance to protect anyone.

There was one obvious alternative: Bucky could observe what Steve did to keep Sam occupied, and deploy the same tactics during his own watches.

The night before Sam was due to be released, Bucky returned to the hospital an hour before Steve and Sam would be expecting him. He gained entry to Sam's floor via the ducts and crept carefully to the grate that let into Sam's room, not making any of the warning sounds he normally used to let Steve know he was approaching.

When he got a look through the grate it was immediately apparent what technique Steve was using to keep Sam in bed: Steve was leaning over Sam and kissing him. Steve had one arm braced above Sam's head, bearing his weight, while the other seemed to be resting lightly on Sam's left arm, keeping it still so Sam wouldn't hurt himself. Bucky regulated his own breathing for perfect silence and made himself observe, purposefully.

This wasn't new. He'd seen them kiss before, though that time it had been Sam who held Steve still against a wall. He'd had to go away that time because he wasn't sure he could kiss Steve correctly and the thought of getting things wrong with Steve had been unbearable. This was different; he did know how to kiss Sam. He knew that Sam would welcome his kisses after Steve's.

He had the information he needed, but Bucky didn't withdraw or make a noise to announce himself. He stayed perfectly still and sufficiently silent while he watched. He couldn't gather any particular information about technique--the angle didn't show him anything but the back of Steve's head and neck, with occasional glimpses of the side of Sam's face. Bucky wasn't keeping an especially effective lookout, but he knew that Steve would snap to attention if he needed to.

Bucky just... watched.

Sam's right hand rose to clutch at Steve's shoulder, and a few seconds later Steve jerked back and looked toward Sam's monitors, which Bucky couldn't see from this angle.

"Sorry," Steve said, sounding genuinely apologetic. "Unless you want the nurse in here again..."

Sam sounded slightly breathless as he said, "You think we can give them enough false alarms that they stop coming to look when my heart rate goes up?"

"I think at some point they're going to stop being polite and actually kick me out of your room," Steve replied, sounding somewhat amused by the predicament. "You really aren't supposed to be exerting yourself yet."

"I am gonna exert myself right out of my goddamn mind if--"

Bucky identified the problem and the solution and decided to act all at once. He shifted back a meter, made a warning noise, and pulled himself back up to the grate. Steve and Sam were both looking up, expecting him, and Bucky swung himself down, curling neatly away from the bed so that he didn't kick either of them and landed on the far side of the bed from Steve. That put him on the near side to the bin of nurse's supplies stashed under the monitors. He fished out a set of fresh heart monitor pads and stripped his shirt off as he noted Sam's heart rate--slightly elevated by his arrival.

It occurred to Bucky that he hadn't explained the course of action to Steve or Sam, who were both staring at him like they hadn't followed it.

"I'll manage the heart monitor," Bucky said, turning to face them as he took the quick breaths necessary to raise his heart rate to match Sam's. With a nod at Steve, he added, "You entertain Sam."

Steve and Sam both looked startled by that idea, but neither of them objected before Bucky had placed the adhesive pads on his own chest--he knew exactly where to put them to compensate for the metal in his left side, though he couldn't remember exactly why he knew that. He leaned over Sam slightly to shorten the distance he'd have to move the leads. Unplugging them from Sam and plugging them in to his own pads was accomplished in a second and created only the slightest hitch in the rhythm appearing on the monitor, and Bucky turned his back on Sam and Steve to let them get on with what they were doing while he watched the monitor. He focused on bringing the heart rate back down to his own low baseline--roughly equivalent to Sam's when sleeping--without letting the rate change too quickly, since that might also cause concern.

Behind him, Steve and Sam remained silent until Sam shifted on the bed and said, "You heard the man, Rogers. Entertain me."

"Is that what we're calling it?" Bucky thought he could hear laughter submerged in Steve's voice, a little on edge. He thought he knew what it would sound like if it broke free: a wild laugh, the laugh of Steve doing something dangerous and ill-advised. He thought Bucky had been at Steve's side for a lot of those things. He had a sense-memory of dizzy whirling motion--not like his own feeling of tipping over an edge, out of control but liking the sensation, fearless--and that laugh.

He thought Bucky had liked--craved--loved--that sound.

Bucky focused on the heart monitor and regulated his breathing, forcing his heart to slow.

Behind him, Steve and Sam weren't laughing. Bucky could hear the sounds of soft friction--Steve's hands moving over Sam's body. He heard the small sounds of Steve shifting to rest more of his weight on the edge of the bed so that he could push close to Sam without leaning too heavily on him.

There were kissing sounds again, soft at first and then deeper, wetter. Sam's breathing was fast and irregular. Bucky made his own slow and even and watched the green numbers sink gradually toward baseline.

He found himself aware of his own body in a strange way--aware of his naked skin in the way he'd been back in New York, when Sam touched him and looked at him and kissed him. He had taken his shirt off now for the same reason he'd taken his shirt off then, or any time he'd gone in for maintenance and repair: to make it easier to attach monitor leads or access moving parts. But what Sam and Steve were doing behind him was undeniably like what he and Sam had done in the chair, and even without anyone touching him or looking at him Bucky was conscious of his bared skin, as though the minute air currents passing over his body were significant information. As though he were available to be touched for reasons that had nothing to do with making repairs, as though he were a part of what they were doing just by virtue of being so close.

His heart rate failed to decline by the next desired increment when Sam's breathing turned to faint moans and Steve said in a low, rough voice, "Keep still, Sam."

Bucky reached into his pocket and pulled out his mouthguard. He'd cut the grip off the front to make it easier to carry around. That meant he could now shove it into his mouth backward, giving his back teeth a satisfying thickness to clench on as he scowled at the numbers on the monitor. He breathed carefully through his nose.

There was a sound of fabric being shoved aside, and Sam let out a small groan. Bucky flicked a glance at the reflection in the window and could just make out the darkness of Sam's thighs bared against the white sheets. Steve's hand was visible, bright and pale between them.

Bucky closed his eyes and then opened them again to stare at the heart monitor. His heart rate would pass for calm, but he wanted to convey sleeping, and he kept being distracted by the little sounds Sam made between sloppy-wet kisses. If he took his gaze off the green numbers he would be able to see their mouths meeting, flashes of tongue between them. If he turned his head in the opposite direction he could see what Steve's hand was doing. The rhythmic friction sound made it fairly clear, and Bucky could mentally simulate the image of Steve's hand curled around Sam's dick--he knew what both looked like--but he felt nonetheless the urge to confirm the calculation with current intel.

His heart rate ticked up by a couple of beats. Bucky focused on his breathing again, bouncing his back teeth on the mouthguard, forcing his body to a loose, waiting posture.

"Can you be quiet if I'm not right here?" Steve murmured, the sound muffled and blurred as though he was speaking with his lips touching Sam's. "Can you hold still?"

"Fucking Christ, he said entertain me, not kill me," Sam returned, breathless but not, Bucky thought, in any way actually objecting to what Steve proposed. There was a little silence marked only by their breathing--even Steve's hand had stopped--and then Sam said, "Yes, fuck, please. Yes. I'll hold still."

"You'd better," Steve murmured, and Bucky narrowed his eyes, breathing carefully, forcing his whole body to relax. He made himself numb to what was happening behind him even as he interpreted the sound of Sam's hospital gown being shoved up as far as the strapping holding his upper left arm allowed. The next set of sounds was probably Steve planting wet, sucking kisses along the midline of Sam's body from the solar plexus down over the abdomen to the groin, touching all the most vulnerable places with lips and tongue. Sam made low whining sounds at each touch but didn't move, and Steve's hand didn't resume its rhythmic stroke.

None of that touched Bucky; it was information, irrelevant to the task at hand.

Bucky's heart rate dropped the way he wanted it to. He let his eyelids fall nearly closed, mouth going slack around the mouthguard, only his tongue pressing against it as he breathed. He heard what was happening behind him; he was aware. That wet noise twinned to that breathing pattern from Sam meant that Steve's mouth was sinking onto Sam's dick now, wet and soft and sure.

The memory floated hazily to the surface, finding Bucky in the carefully suspended place where he breathed in and out: he remembered the taste and feel of a dick in his mouth. He remembered his own two hands--identical hands, except that one had two slightly crooked fingers--covering narrow, too-prominent hipbones as he held Steve in place on the bed, warning him not to move. Not to exert himself too much.

That was how Bucky had kept Steve in bed, once.

There was a sharp-edged particularity to the memory, not like the hazy composite of his certainty that he used to read to Steve. Sucking Steve's dick had only happened once.

Bucky breathed in and out. His heart rate sank further. He could hear the serene, steady movements of the nurses out in the corridor. He could hear Sam's breaths speeding faster, and he could hear the obscene sounds of Steve sucking Sam's dick.

It had sounded almost like that the time Bucky sucked Steve's, albeit from a different angle. He remembered going down on his knees to suck Sam's dick when he had Sam in the chair in New York. Sam hadn't let him finish, but it had been enough for Bucky to know exactly what Sam tasted like; he knew exactly what Sam felt like in Steve's mouth, and he knew the way that Steve's mouth must be stretched around him. He knew the faint ache that would start in Steve's jaw, constantly healing away, leaving only the heat and pressure of that welcome intrusion.

Sam was cursing softly under his breath, moving in tiny twitches. There was a soft skin-on-skin sound, not quite a slap, that could be Steve's hand falling on Sam's thigh, pinning him down the way Bucky had once pinned Steve down, the way Sam's weight in Bucky's lap had pressed him into place in the chair.

There was another sound, a slight touch against Bucky's hip, and he knew Sam was fighting the restraint of his left arm--reaching not for Steve but for Bucky, off the side of the bed.

Bucky breathed slowly--his heart rate sank another few beats, to a rate that would indicate to the monitoring nurses that Sam was sleeping deeply. Bucky reached back with his left hand and closed his grip on Sam's wrist, guiding it firmly back to rest on the bed where it should be, safely aligned with his immobilized arm. Bucky shifted his grip until the ultra-sensitive fingertip plates rested against the pulse point of Sam's wrist, so that he could feel the hammering of Sam's heart, fast but perfectly steady under his fingers.

Sam was safe, despite the almost pained noises he was making under Steve's continued attentions. Steve was making little sounds now too, half-choked noises from deep in his throat. Bucky didn't think he'd taken a full breath in a few minutes, but Steve was in control of the situation. He would breathe if he needed to.

Bucky had needed to, several times, that time when he'd sucked Steve off. He'd gone dizzy and lightheaded, flickering visual artifacts intruding on his sight of the fast rise and fall of Steve's chest. He had resisted as long as he could, but eventually he'd had to pull off of Steve's dick to breathe, gasping--

Just like that sound Steve was making now. Bucky didn't even have to try now to keep his breathing regular and his heart rate steady. His senses absorbed information which was not allowed to interfere with the perfect focus of his body; even the intrusive activity of his mind was only another stimulus to be observed and ignored. He did not allow his reflexive sucking on the mouthguard to interfere with his breathing.

Sam whispered a stream of increasingly frantic words, and the wet sounds of Steve's mouth on his dick were blurring into a faster rhythm. Sam still didn't sound distressed--he was mostly saying Steve and fuck and yes in various combinations--but there was something about the urgency in his voice that Bucky couldn't ignore. His body remained on autopilot, holding still and breathing correctly while his two metal fingers monitored Sam's pulse, but his attention swung persistently to Sam.

Steve had sounded a little like that--there had been a whistle to his breathing, even coughing from time to time--but he had urged Bucky on with whispered words, praising and begging. None of it had been necessary. Bucky had been determined to take care of Steve, to give him a few moments of feeling good, but Steve had sounded just as desperate as Sam sounded now.

Something translated through his body without volition--muscle memory of a limb long gone, replaced by metal. Just as Bucky had done back then for Steve, he made a superfluous motion now for Sam, his thumb brushing in a gentle arc along the back of Sam's hand.

He felt Sam tense, and a gasped Bucky intruded on Sam's litany. Bucky ducked his head and made a conscious effort to ease up, letting his mouth go slack around the mouthguard as he loosened his grip against the possibility of leaving bruises on Sam's wrist. Sam hadn't so much as twitched against his hold, though, and the increased tension of Sam's body soon found its release. Sam's words petered out into panting breaths in a rhythm Bucky remembered, and Bucky knew he was coming.

He looked. He didn't need to. He knew what was happening, but his head turned without a thought--not left, toward Sam's face, but right, toward his dick in Steve's mouth. Bucky mastered himself almost before the motion was complete, turning to face front again, eyes trained on the heart monitor and not the reflection in the window.

It was only afterward that he even registered what he had seen: Steve's hand wrapped around Sam's dick, stroking him through his orgasm, Steve's reddened lips around the dark head of Sam's dick, and Steve's wide blue eyes meeting his. Bucky didn't let himself think anything of that. He throttled down the memory of those same blue eyes looking at him from a thinner face as Steve spilled his own orgasm between Bucky's lips.

He didn't think. He breathed very slowly, his mouthguard held lightly between his teeth. His heart beat in a resting rhythm, and Sam's pulse, thundering under his fingers, remained steady and strong. The smell of semen was noticeable, but there was no fresh smell of blood; Sam hadn't moved enough to reopen any of his wounds. He was healing well. He ought to be able to go home tomorrow.

There was silence for a while, Steve and Sam both breathing raggedly. Sam's heartbeat slowed from its race, ebbing down into a normal rhythm, and Bucky let his own heart rate begin to rise to meet it. There were some soft sounds: more kisses, and Sam's hospital gown and blanket being rearranged. Bucky pocketed his mouthguard in a smooth, silent motion and turned when his heart rate was close to meeting Sam's again. He found Sam and Steve engaged in some silent communication via intense eye contact. Steve dropped his gaze, half turning away, when Bucky reached for the front of Sam's hospital gown.

"Hey," Sam said quietly, reaching out for Steve with his right hand. Bucky was still pinning his left in place as he monitored Sam's pulse.

Steve smiled, but he didn't look entirely happy even as he bent to give Sam another soft kiss, which raised Sam's pulse only slightly.

"Thanks," Sam said, with a wide, soft smile as Steve pulled away. "I owe you one."

Steve's smile was a little more genuine as he said, "Trust me, you really don't. You're still way ahead."

Sam snorted. "You been keeping count, man?"

Steve's gaze flicked to Bucky. He remembered the ache of Bucky's body, that other time, and how Bucky had refused to let Steve do anything to ease him after he'd made Steve come. This was also part of the proper procedure, clearly.

"I've got him," Bucky said, to help Steve along. "You can go."

Steve's smile faltered, but he nodded and bent to give Sam another kiss. "Night. See you in the morning."

"Night," Sam echoed softly. His pulse under Bucky's fingers was falling into the same rhythm with Bucky's; in another minute they'd be synchronized. "Actually sleep, okay? We'll be good here."

Steve nodded, and he looked to Bucky again. His mouth curved in a cautious smile, but he only gave a brief nod before he turned away. Bucky didn't let himself react to Steve at all. He had to match his heart rate to Sam's.

Sam watched Steve go, blinking sleepily, and when the door closed behind Steve he looked up at Bucky. "Thank you, too."

"My pleasure," Bucky said, the words coming from his mouth automatically; he only recognized the slight innuendo when Sam smiled.

Their heartbeats matched. Bucky leaned in close to transfer the leads back to Sam's monitor pads and kissed him when it was done. Sam's heartbeat sped up a little, but he yawned again when Bucky straightened up.

"You think you can sleep now?" Bucky asked.

Sam nodded and closed his eyes. Bucky circled around to the chair where Steve usually sat to watch Sam's still face and the heart monitor, waiting for Sam to be asleep. Bucky thought he was when Sam said drowsily, "Gonna miss having you around, man. Almost worth getting shot to see you so much."

Bucky frowned, uncertain of what to say; he realized that he had had a vague intention of continuing to monitor Sam's safety and condition until he was entirely well again, which would take weeks. He hadn't thought about the fact that, if he meant to keep as close a watch on Sam as he had in the hospital, he would have to stay in close quarters with Steve and Sam--in a hotel room, or Sam's house, perhaps. Steve lived with Sam, so even when Bucky was keeping watch Steve would probably stay there--he had said he would go away if Bucky wanted to be alone with Sam, but there was no reason for Bucky to send Steve away. Whatever tactics he or Steve used to keep Sam still through the rest of his recovery, the other would be nearby when they did.

Bucky's heart rate jumped, his numb control vanishing like he'd never had it.

Sam snored.

Bucky leaned forward in the chair, reaching for Sam without thought. He jerked his hand back before making contact. Snoring was good; sleeping was good. The whole point here was for Sam to be able to rest.

But if Sam was asleep, then Bucky was effectively alone, and there was nothing to keep him from thinking--his heart sped up further--of what could happen. Of what had just happened. Bucky was faintly conscious of making himself sit back in the chair, settling both hands on his thighs. His mind was full of the memory of what had just happened while he wasn't letting himself react or be fully aware. This had happened before--after missions, the screams and pain and the cloying smell of blood all pressing in on him after it was all over. This was different. This felt like that dizzy wild spinning feeling and the remembered sound of Steve's laughter, that fearless rush of adrenaline.

He could hear all the little sounds--could smell the scent of sex still hanging in the air--could visualize everything Steve and Sam had done. He could see Steve's eyes, wide and blue and focused on him. Bucky's whole body was humming again, his dick getting hard in his jeans as the memory kept playing out, looping and layering over itself in his mind.

He had to jerk back his hand again when he found himself reaching for Sam. He had to let Sam sleep. He wanted to touch Sam--wanted to press against him the way he had that first night he went to Sam's house--where he would be again, soon, if he stayed close.

The memory blurred into speculation, possibility. Fantasy. What if he had turned around? What if he had stood facing them the whole time, or perched on the opposite side of the bed from Steve? What if Sam's touch hadn't glanced off his hip--but no, he still wouldn't have let Sam use his hand.

He would have used his own. He could use his own hand now, without Sam or Steve watching, without anyone else's touch, without offering any gratification to anyone else.

Bucky opened his eyes and confirmed that Sam's vitals were all normal while he listened to the sounds in the hall and calculated the night rounds schedule from the past few days. He ought to be undisturbed here by Sam's bed for another half hour at least.

Bucky brushed his fingers curiously over his own bare chest. He didn't expect it to feel like Sam's hands had felt on him, but the sensation was startlingly intense. Before now he'd only put his hands on himself to wash and dress. He'd known he could touch his dick and get himself off, but that prospect had seemed more overwhelming than attractive, nearly dangerous. He hadn't thought at all about touching himself anywhere else, but now memory and fantasy and the touch of his own hand blurred together.

He pressed his palm over the place where his scarred flesh met his metal shoulder, rubbing up and down the way Sam had touched him, when Sam was perched on his thighs in the chair. His body seemed to draw tight at the touch, as if his skin had shrunk, and the throb of his dick in his jeans took on a new urgency. He defied that compulsion, sliding the palm of his hand across his chest, stopping to touch his nipples, which were stiff and sensitive. He squirmed without thinking when his fingertips brushed over one, his dick seeking friction, his hips moving in some instinctive pattern. He pinched, and his whole lower body seemed to spasm, thrusting against nothing. He swallowed the impulse to make noise.

He reached into his pocket and pulled the mouthguard out again, biting down on it to remind himself to be quiet. He shouldn't wake Sam. He ran his hand cautiously over the front of his pants, just grazing his erection through the heavy fabric, and his hips jerked in the same way. His teeth clenched on the mouthguard as the sensation shook through him.

At least get your pants open, he remembered Sam saying, and he remembered the sticky mess he'd made of himself the first time. He could do better this time, even through the haze of want, the swirl of possibility--he could have Sam's hands on him again, or maybe Steve's hands, if--

He had to jerk his pants open as that image formed in his mind, shoving his hand into his underwear to grip his dick as his hips arched up off the chair.

Sam made a little noise, frowning in his sleep, but his heart rate stayed steady and low. It was Bucky's turn to let his heart race now. He took full advantage, working his right hand over his cock, letting his left hand touch other places, testing where he might like Sam to touch him--or Steve, even if only once, even if he had to pretend to need it somehow, maybe Steve would... Bucky brushed his fingers down his throat, where he'd kissed Sam. He still couldn't remember if Bucky had ever kissed Steve or if Steve had kissed Bucky. Steve seemed to think those things went together, though, kissing and cocksucking, and it had been that way when Bucky was with Sam, so maybe...

Maybe he could tell Steve he remembered that time before, when he had sucked Steve's dick to make him stay in bed--maybe he could say, You owe me one, just like Sam had said he owed Steve. Maybe then Steve would put his hands on Bucky's hips and hold him still. Steve actually could hold him still, if Bucky didn't fight too much, and his hips jerked at the thought, moving too easily with no resistance. He clung to the imagined possibility. Steve's hands, Steve's mouth on his dick--and maybe he could have Sam at the same time, maybe he could kiss Sam while Steve sucked him, Sam's arms around him and Steve's hands holding him down--

Bucky's whole body went tense, his mind going blank and floating at the overwhelming thought. His hand moved instinctively on his dick as his orgasm shook him, and at the last of it he opened his eyes to see Sam still sleeping peacefully. His own body began to calm, and Bucky stayed still, letting his breathing and heart rate normalize as he watched Sam, his teeth finally releasing their grip on the mouthguard. His body felt flushed warm, at ease--he wanted to be touching Sam more than ever now, to curl close and feel Sam's arms around him--or Steve's, he thought, remembering the warmth of Steve's hug three days before. He took his hand away from his dick, soft now and sticky with cooling semen. He stood and went to the little bathroom to wash, and when he came back to the chair he realized that Steve had left his jacket behind.

It seemed like a decent substitute for the touch he couldn't have, and more convenient than going all the way around to the other side of Sam's bed to retrieve his own shirt. Bucky sat down in the chair again, slouching low, and pulled Steve's jacket over himself like a blanket. He wouldn't sleep, he assured himself. He would just be still a while with Sam, under the pleasant weight of Steve's jacket, until the immediate effects of orgasm wore off. He closed his eyes to wait his body out.

Steve managed to get from Sam's hospital room down to his car without having to speak to anyone; it involved taking the stairs and ducking out of sight a couple of times, but it was worth it not having to appear normal at a range of less than ten feet. He could still taste Sam on the back of his tongue, and he was almost painfully hard. For a moment after he made it to the semi-privacy of his truck Steve considered just getting it over with right there.

He thought of getting caught and then, with a shameful surge of lust, thought about Bucky being the one to catch him. Steve pressed the heel of his hand against the base of his dick and started the truck, grimly ignoring his erection as he drove over to the hotel. He hurried inside and up to the room he and Bucky both used without ever actually sharing the space.

Steve briefly considered the bed, but he knew where he wanted to be and didn't have enough self-control left to deny that urge. He secured the door and then pulled a blanket off the bed and went to the corner of the room where he was nearly certain Bucky slept, when he deigned to sleep at all. This corner had the best sightlines; it was the closest thing in the room to a place where Bucky would feel secure. Bucky always disarranged the bed slightly, and moved things around enough for Steve to know he'd been in the room, but Steve was sure Bucky wasn't sleeping on a mattress. Steve hadn't been able to manage that himself since his first interrupted attempt to sleep here, and he doubted Bucky was doing any better. That was Steve's guess, anyway, based on the very brief glimpses he'd had of Bucky since their conversation in Sam's hospital room two days ago. Bucky had seemed unwilling to stay in the same room with him since then, until...

And that brought Steve right back around to what had happened just now, and the fact that he was unbearably hard and had been since about ten seconds after Bucky dropped in and ordered him to entertain Sam.

For one thing, the fact that Bucky had sailed in and immediately solved the problem of Sam's heart monitor meant that Bucky had been watching, or at least listening, before he let them know he was there. Even if Bucky was mostly interested in watching Sam, Steve couldn't deny that the idea of Bucky watching was desperately arousing, especially since this time Bucky had come in instead of running away.

And then he'd ordered Steve to do for Sam what Bucky had once done for Steve, although Steve had no idea if Bucky actually remembered that. Bucky hadn't seemed to think anything of it beyond politely turning his back. Steve had focused on Sam after that, had done for Sam just what he'd wanted to do in the first place. He'd wanted to do it for Sam's sake, to make Sam feel good, but he couldn't deny that his attention had returned over and over to the fact that Bucky was in the room. Bucky had been close enough to touch, hearing all of it even if he wouldn't look to see.

Bucky mostly hadn't looked, anyway. When he did look it had been a blank-faced glance, seeming to make nothing at all of the fact that Steve had been looking back at him. It had been when Sam was coming, and Steve had torn his gaze from the delight of watching Sam's expressive face during orgasm to see if Bucky was watching him, too, if that sight was something he shared with Bucky.

But Bucky had looked at him, instead. Steve couldn't even enjoy that fact enough to feel bad about it, because Bucky had hardly seemed to be present. It had been no more than a quick, tactical glance, there and gone, and Bucky's heartbeat had never wavered. However much it had meant to Steve that Bucky was there, whatever he had wanted it to mean, Bucky had just been keeping watch, focused on keeping Sam content to stay in bed a little longer.

Steve put his hand on his erection--slightly wilted, thanks to those thoughts--and considered getting up and taking a cold shower. He could respect Bucky's obvious unwillingness to let Steve get close and refuse to get off on something Bucky had only done for Sam's benefit.

That possibility lasted about half a second, and then Steve unzipped and shoved his jeans down enough to get his cock out.

If Bucky hadn't turned away--if Bucky had wanted to watch not only Steve kissing Sam but Steve sucking Sam's cock--Steve would swear Sam wouldn't have minded, not once he didn't have to worry about his heart beating right out of his chest. Steve would have been happy to oblige. If Bucky had been watching, listening to the little sounds Steve wrung from Sam--Steve's hips twitched, pushing his cock up into his hand at the memory of Sam's voice breaking breathlessly over his name--maybe Bucky would have reached out. Not just to hold Sam's hand still and monitor his pulse--maybe he'd have touched Steve with those cool metal fingers, too. He would have touched Steve's face, maybe, or his throat where his pulse had been pounding hard. Maybe Bucky would have pushed in against Steve's cheek to feel Sam's cock inside, or traced the stretch of his lips.

Steve pressed the knuckles of his free hand to the corner of his mouth, thinking of it, twisting his grip on his cock a little.

And maybe, if Bucky had been watching that closely--maybe he would have wanted to take his turn after Sam was finished. Steve pushed away the complications of the heart monitor, the necessity of someone keeping watch for nurses and hostiles, skipped over all of that to the possibility of Bucky wanting him, Bucky snuggling down close beside Sam on the bed--a wider bed, then, maybe Sam's bed at home--so that Steve could finish swallowing Sam down and then take one deep breath before he scooted over and got his mouth on Bucky.

Bucky had never let Steve suck him off before the war. That time when Steve was sick and fractious had been the only time Bucky had done it for him; Steve had jerked Bucky off a few times, rubbed off with him twice. He'd never gotten a good look at Bucky's cock when it was hard, never tasted him, but he knew that putting his mouth to Bucky's cock would feel like coming home anyhow. It would feel familiar, feel right, having Bucky in his mouth. Steve would be so good for Bucky, he would make him feel so good. When he looked up Bucky and Sam would both be looking down at him--or kissing each other, maybe, but Sam would put his hand on Steve's cheek, and Bucky's would be in his hair. Steve would watch their mouths slicking sweetly over each other while Bucky was heavy and hot in his mouth, that intimate pulse beating against his tongue...

He came hard on that image, an orgasm like a gut punch. Steve jerked himself through it furiously, keeping his eyes shut tight to hold on to that image for another moment.

When he opened his eyes he saw the cold empty room, and all the distance between him and Bucky. Steve had heard Bucky's confession, and ever since then Bucky would barely look at him. Sam said that he seemed fine--he was doing his best to keep Sam entertained and had even pulled off talking casually to a nurse at one point--so it didn't seem to be that he was upset in general. He just didn't want to be anywhere near Steve.

It was stupid to get twisted up over that. Steve had Sam, and he had Bucky closer than he'd been in a long damn time. This was progress. This was more than he'd had, more than he'd ever dreamed of having, a few months ago.

Steve got up and washed his hands, repeating to himself that he knew better than to want too much. But when he had cleaned himself up, he went back to the corner where he could believe that Bucky had slept a few hours ago, wrapped himself up in a blanket, and dozed off to dream.

Sam half-woke sometime in the night at the sensation of something warm and heavy being laid over him. He opened one eye and recognized Steve's jacket, warmed like a supersoldier had been wearing it.

Which was kind of funny, because the low light glinted off a shiny metal arm, and long hair brushed his face as his other supersoldier leaned in for a brief kiss and murmured, "Go back to sleep. I got this watch."

The next time Sam woke up enough to bother noticing, Steve was standing over him in fresh clothes, looking down at his own jacket spread over Sam with an expression of confused fondness.

"Hey," Sam said. "Bucky took off?"

Steve nodded, pointing up toward the vent, and Sam said, "Want your jacket back?"

"Looks good on you," Steve said, and leaned in for a light good morning kiss, which was promptly interrupted by Sam's morning shift nurse, Gail, coming in.

The next four hours were a whole bunch of hurry up and wait. There were flurries of activity--wound care instructions that Sam could all but recite along with the nurses, and practice with the one crutch he was allowed, given the state of his left shoulder.

A doctor came in to briefly examine Sam's stitches and prescribe his pain meds, and Steve solemnly promised that he would get the prescriptions filled. The doctor wasn't even out of the room when the vent cover over the bed lifted and Bucky leaned out, flesh hand extended. Steve glanced up, smiling slightly but looking totally unsurprised, and passed the prescription slips up. Bucky glanced toward Sam, gave a little salute with the slips, and then drew back up into the vent like he was on a pulley.

"I swear to God I'm not even on that many drugs right now," Sam said, staring up after him.

"Bucky always liked making the drugstore run for me," Steve said, looking in the same direction. "I guess that hasn't changed."

Eventually Sam was allowed to put his own clothes on--the nurse even let him have Steve help instead of her--and signed a few discharge papers, promised to follow his wound care instructions and visit his own doctor, and sat down in a wheelchair to be pushed out of the building.

Natasha was standing outside, waiting beside the rear passenger door of a sleek black sedan. It seemed perfectly logical for a second and then Sam looked up at Steve to find him looking quickly from Sam to Natasha to some point at his nine o'clock where Sam would bet Bucky was shadowing them.

"It's a long drive to New York," Natasha said blandly. "You want to travel in style, right?"

"New York," Sam repeated, looking up at Steve again but, no, no one had briefed him on this plan either. Steve had been right there with Sam in the never-discussed assumption that they were going back to Sam's house. Only now, with an alternative suddenly accosting them in the ambulance lane, did all the downsides of going home occur to Sam, starting with his house's questionable accessibility for a man on one leg and a crutch and continuing straight through the possibility of Hydra catching up to them on his street. He had a not-really-all-that-impossible vision of Bucky perched above his gutter with a sniper rifle, glaring at Sam's neighbors through a scope, and said, "Thanks, Natasha. That is a long drive."

"Tony didn't engineer this whole thing to convince us to come stay again, did he?" Steve asked blandly, pushing Sam forward again. He'd either arrived at the same conclusion as Sam or was willing to follow his lead, or both. Steve never took long to size up a tactical situation.

"Not quite his style," Natasha said, tilting her head and smiling a little as she opened the door for them. "Mine, maybe, but I promise I didn't do it either. "

"Well, as long as you promise," Steve said, and Sam, watching Natasha's face, caught a flicker of something in her expression--the joke wasn't entirely a joke for her and Steve, Sam thought.

"I promise," she repeated, with an edge of seriousness in her voice that clashed with the light, cheerful smile.

Steve offered an arm for Sam to lever himself up out of the chair and into the car. They had practiced this a half-dozen times in the hospital room, but maneuvering into a car door was still awkward, taking up most of Sam's attention. That was his excuse for why he didn't notice anything until the driver's door opened; he didn't know what Steve and Natasha's excuses were, but he looked up and Bucky was sliding into the driver's seat, tossing a pharmacy bag back to land on the seat beside Sam.

The front passenger seat was yanked open with a certain vehemence and Natasha leaned in and scowled over at Bucky. He watched her expressionlessly for a few seconds and then said, "If you're taking them somewhere, I drive. Not negotiable."

Natasha's eyes narrowed slightly and then she pulled back and slammed the door. Sam got back to settling himself into his seat, ignoring the nearly inaudible discussion going on outside his door. Bucky adjusted the driver's seat and mirrors, ran his hands over the wheel and the other controls, just like anybody getting ready to drive an unfamiliar car.

"We're just going back to Tony's," Sam offered. "We stayed there before."

Bucky nodded without looking back at him. "I'll make sure you get there."

"You could stay with us when we get there," Steve said, leaning down to speak through Sam's door while Natasha got into the front seat. Her body language now conveyed perfect calm, like a cat pretending it had meant to do that all along.

Bucky still didn't look back, but he said, "I can keep watch better that way."

Sam saw the delight bloom on Steve's face like a flare being lit, and he couldn't help smiling in reflection. After a second he tore his gaze away from the back of Bucky's head to share his grin with Sam, and Sam grinned back helplessly; it was almost literally breathtaking to see Steve so uncomplicatedly happy after two days of Steve and Bucky not quite speaking to each other--give or take whatever the hell that thing had been last night. Sam still couldn't quite get his brain around that, although at least it was safe to try now that he wasn't attached to a heart monitor. He did know it had been a lot less than Steve wanted and just about as much as Bucky could take. If he was going to keep trying to balance those two single-handed, at least he'd be doing it in a huge bed exactly designed for his comfort.

Steve slid in on the other side of the backseat, and Bucky said, "Do you need anything from your car?"

"I got theirs already," Natasha said. "In the trunk. Tony's sending someone to pick up your vehicles."

Bucky gave a small decisive nod and said, "Seatbelts."

The second Steve got Sam's clicked shut, Bucky started up the car and threw it into reverse without looking around. He accelerated sharply enough to make Steve throw an arm across Sam's chest, and both Steve and Natasha craned their heads to look behind them, but neither one said a word, and before Sam could try to look too Bucky was braking with surprising gentleness. The car stopped exactly beside the truck Bucky had been driving, about a hundred feet back from the hospital entrance.

Bucky shut the car off, took the keys with a warning glance at Natasha, and got out.

"The funny thing is he always drove like that," Steve remarked in the silence that followed Bucky's departure.

"Without looking?" Natasha asked.

"Without looking like he was looking," Steve corrected. "And with great precision. You can't tell me Clint doesn't do the same thing, I've seen the way he fights."

"Clint hasn't tried to kill me in a really long time," Natasha replied, and then there was the slam of the trunk closing behind them and Bucky slid back into the driver's seat.

"Sorry about that," he said as he started up the car again. "Trying to kill you, I mean."

Natasha once again stared at Bucky for a few seconds and then said, "Apology accepted. It happens."

That made Bucky look back at her briefly, and then he returned his attention to maneuvering out of the parking lot. They were nearly at the street when he asked her something in Russian that sounded like it was probably where to?

Natasha responded in kind, so Sam could return his attention to Steve, and Steve's arm, which was still braced across his chest. Steve seemed to notice that a second later and dropped it with a faintly apologetic look. Sam tilted his head tolerantly and then raised his eyebrows and tipped his head toward Bucky, just to watch Steve brighten with happiness all over again. Bucky was coming home with them, or at least to Tony's. It really was almost worth getting shot.

Steve picked out the Russian words for airport and south from Bucky and Natasha's otherwise opaque exchange, so he wasn't surprised when they pulled up to a municipal airport just across the West Virginia border fifteen minutes later. Bucky kept his camouflaged left hand on the steering wheel, passing along some paperwork from Natasha with whichever ID he was using currently to the guard at the gate. They were waved through, and a moment later Bucky was pulling up beside a sleek private jet.

Sam let out a low whistle. "Traveling in style, huh?"

"Well," Steve said, unable to actually regret Tony's extravagance, all things considered. "It'll be easier on your leg than driving all that way, right?"

"Yeah," Sam said, although he sounded oddly disappointed. Steve found him looking at the plane with an oddly wistful expression, as if he weren't about to get on it, and then it clicked. Flying meant something different for Sam.

"Not looking forward to being grounded, huh," Steve said.

"If you let me try your wings I'll take you up for a spin," Bucky said, glancing back at Sam with an easy, teasing look that made Steve's heart skip a beat, even if it wasn't directed at him.

"Still not letting you have them," Sam said firmly, smiling back. "You want wings, you talk Tony into making you your own."

Bucky looked to Steve, his expression turning cautious but not entirely blank, and he said, "I'd bet he'd make them if you asked."

Steve didn't let himself grin like he wanted to, just shook his head and matched Sam's tone as he said, "I don't need any wings, Bucky. You're on your own."

Bucky looked over at Natasha, who merely raised her eyebrows, and then he turned off the car and got out, going around to the trunk. Natasha got out as well, coming around to open Sam's door. Steve occupied himself with supervising Sam's short trip, on one leg and one crutch, over to the tiny open-air elevator which saved Sam climbing stairs to board the plane.

He tried not to be surprised when he turned back and found Bucky behind him, holding all their bags with every obvious intention of boarding the plane with them. Bucky looked back and forth from Steve to the plane and then said, "You're not flying it, are you?"

"No," Steve said absently, "Tony must have sent a--" and then he realized what Bucky had said and stopped, staring.

Bucky looked away, and Steve's throat closed up on Was that a joke?

The little elevator returned to the ground before Steve could make himself ask, and then it was too late to laugh, or to say anything at all, and he settled for stepping in. There would have been room for Bucky to join him if they stood close enough to each other, but Bucky just set half the bags at Steve's feet and pressed the button to send him up.

There was no part of the trip that Sam didn't find frustratingly exhausting. Just walking over to the lift to board the jet was further than he'd yet gone on his crutch, and once he got to the plane he had to hobble over to a seat. It was admittedly a really plush, comfortable seat, and there wasn't so much an aisle as a bunch of empty space between him and it, because this was Tony Stark's private jet.

But by the time Sam had gotten himself settled in, Steve came in, followed by Bucky, and it was obvious that something had already gone sideways between the two of them. Steve sat down next to Sam, and thanks to the layout of the plane that meant no one else could sit next to him; Bucky didn't look like he'd have been willing to sit even if there had been a spot available. He prowled from one end of the plane to the other while Natasha followed every move he made with her eyes. Sam tried not to watch her watching him, or watch Steve watching him, or watch him himself when he came into view, but if he closed his eyes he wound up noticing how much pain he was in, and that he was on a plane flown by someone he didn't know.

As they started to taxi it occurred to him that this was his first time aboard any flying thing other than his own wings since the day of the helicarriers. Sam's right fist clenched hard, and he forced it to relax, told himself Tony's pilot would have to be the best, told himself he had Steve, Bucky, and Natasha here to make sure that nothing went wrong. But the acceleration pushed him back in his seat, waking up the pain in his leg and his shoulder and making him unavoidably aware of rising into the air on the back of something he didn't control, in a stranger's hands.

Sam resigned himself to this going the way it was going to go. He kept his eyes closed, feigning sleep so at least Steve wouldn't try to make anything better. He'd just gotten into a rhythm--controlling his breathing, persistently directing his thoughts away from everything that could go wrong and how much it would hurt and how little he would be able to do to help the people he loved when it happened--when the feel of the plane under and around him changed.

Sam couldn't help his eyes flashing open, and the first thing he saw was Bucky watching him from ten feet away, wedged into a forward corner near the door that went up toward the cockpit. Bucky nodded slightly, flashing an OK sign with his left hand, and Steve said, "Natasha's up with the pilot. We're starting the descent into New York."

Sam looked over and realized that Steve--and Bucky, obviously, and probably Natasha, unnecessarily supervising the pilot--knew exactly how well he was handling this.

"Thanks," Sam said.

Steve nodded and offered a pair of headphones. When Sam nodded Steve helped him get them situated and then cued up Soothing Playlist #2. It was the playlist Sam usually listened to when he couldn't sleep--and of course Steve knew that, of course he'd been able to hear it--so the next hour's uneasy, pain-hazy doze felt familiar. He listened to the soundtrack of his insomnia as they descended into New York and came in for a perfectly gentle landing that Sam nonetheless had to keep his eyes wide open for, waiting for the crunch, the impact. They transferred from the plane into another luxurious car--Natasha muttered something to the driver that made him give way to Bucky, though he sat up front and kept an unhappy, wary watch on him the entire time. Bucky didn't do anything that felt alarming to Sam, although he was in the backseat with his eyes closed and probably missed some details; the driver gave an outraged yelp from time to time.

Natasha sat in back with him and Steve, and Sam went on listening to his playlist and pretending to sleep, catching just the amiable, easy rise and fall of their voices. He couldn't quite make out the words, but the sound of it was so perfectly mundane that he'd swear it had to be some kind of code. Even if he could have heard exactly what they were saying, Sam was in no shape to decode it; he'd ask Bucky, maybe. Later.

The afternoon light through the tinted windows darkened, and Sam opened his eyes and realized they'd pulled into an underground parking garage. Bucky pulled the car up beside a bank of elevators, and he and Natasha were out of the car almost before it was stopped. Steve helped Sam out at a slightly more sedate pace, leaving the driver to summon an elevator for them. Sam made his slow way over to the elevator while Steve and Bucky divvied up all the gear from the trunk. He tried not to startle when Natasha popped up next to him and kissed his cheek.

"I'm off again," she said, nodding toward the car. "Things to do, people to be."

"Thanks for the ride," Sam said, and Natasha looked him over, glanced past him, and nodded, offering her cheek. He leaned in and returned the peck she'd given him, and she headed back to the car as the elevator doors opened and Steve and Bucky came up to flank him. He focused on the last few steps he had to take, and then leaned gratefully against the back wall of the elevator while Steve and Bucky followed him in.

"Welcome back, gentlemen," JARVIS said as the doors closed. "Captain Rogers, Staff Sergeant Wilson--" there was a slight pause, and it might've just been Sam's jangled brain, but it sounded somehow significant, almost ominous. "Sergeant Barnes."

Bucky looked up toward the top of the elevator, frowning slightly but not seeming particularly alarmed, and Steve said, "That's JARVIS, he's an artificial intelligence. He runs the building, or--is the building?"

"You might say I possess the building," JARVIS said. "There are places I do not monitor directly, but the whole building falls within my purview."

Bucky's lips twitched in something like a smile, and he said, in the same smoothly polite tone he'd taken with Sam's nurses on the couple of occasions he hadn't avoided being seen by them, "Pleasure to meet you, JARVIS."

"Indeed, Sergeant," JARVIS returned, and Sam glanced toward Steve. He was also squinting thoughtfully at Bucky, so it wasn't just Sam's overactive imagination. JARVIS and Bucky already had opinions about each other. That was weird, but not a problem Sam was going to waste any attention on right now. He closed his eyes and let JARVIS carry them up to the eighty-ninth floor.

Bucky took one look at the way Sam was leaning against the elevator wall and stepped in close when the doors opened, sliding his left arm behind Sam's back. Sam didn't even argue, just slung his good arm over Bucky's shoulders and let Bucky guide him through the huge open space of the apartment. He nodded toward the door that led to the bedroom, and Bucky got him through it, taking more and more of his weight until they reached the bed and Bucky could help him lower himself to its surface. Something in the motions seemed familiar--Bucky had done this for Steve, he thought, when Steve was sick. He had made sure Steve got to bed safely. Steve had been smaller, but Bucky hadn't been as strong either. It evened out.

"Hm," Sam said, making a discontented noise. He reached behind him with his good arm, tugging at the pillow.

"Let me," Bucky said, the words popping out automatically, but then he had to work out what to do, adjusting the pillow while watching Sam's face. He didn't know how Sam wanted it yet.

Sam relaxed into the pillow after a bit and sighed relief. Bucky was filled with the satisfaction of a job well done for just a moment before Sam frowned and said, "Supposed to elevate the leg, too."

Bucky reached past him for another pillow--there were four, so Steve could still have his pick of the other two. Bucky carefully raised Sam's wounded leg and settled it back on the pillow, again looking to Sam for approval. Sam squirmed minutely, made an irritated face, but then said, "No, it's fine, I don't care. I'm gonna be asleep in a second anyway. Is it time for drugs yet?"

Bucky looked around for some answer to this question and Steve, standing in the doorway of the bedroom, said, "You've got an hour, Sam. I set an alarm. Try to get some rest for now."

Sam huffed and nodded and looked up at Bucky. "You're gonna be here? You're staying?"

Bucky nodded firmly. He'd come this far; JARVIS was onto him. He probably couldn't get away with his last hiding place, and anyway he couldn't fix Sam's pillows or help him move around from outside the apartment. "I'll be here."

"Okay," Sam sighed and closed his eyes, finally relaxing from the pained restless tension of their hours of travel into something that looked like real sleep.

Bucky exhaled, feeling his own body relax a little in the knowledge that Sam felt safe here, and he looked up to catch the same expression on Steve's face.

He smiled cautiously at Bucky; with his guard down a little further he looked nearly as tired as Sam. "You want this watch?"

Bucky nodded. He knew the answer to that question from Steve. That one was easy. "You should rest."

Steve rubbed his face--acknowledging that he was tired, and Bucky was right--but he shook his head. "Nah, I should get us settled--I don't have any clean clothes left, and I don't think Sam does either, but there's a washer and dryer. I could throw yours in with ours if you want, and I was going to order some food, too. I'm starving, and Tony has some strange ideas about stocking kitchens."

Bucky hesitated. He wanted clean clothes to wear--his were functional, but a long way from pleasant--but he didn't want Steve digging through his bags. He also didn't see how he could tell Steve not to--Steve had given him the duffel in the first place. Bucky had come in, without even a vehicle to hold as separate territory, and Steve was in command.

"I'll bring your bag in here," Steve said. "You can pull out what you want washed, okay? You always were kind of particular about the laundry."

Bucky could feel the shape of the answer he was supposed to give in his throat--something about how Steve used to do the laundry wrong--but he couldn't get the memory to come clear quickly enough to put it in words before Steve's face closed a little, showing that he'd missed the timing again. He just nodded, and Steve nodded back and turned away.

Bucky walked over to the windows, absently checking the vantage point though he knew no sniper's bullet could get through this glass--one of the many advantages of Sam recovering here instead of at his indefensible house in Washington. He leaned his forehead against the glass and tried not to waste thoughts mapping out the correct moves for the exchange with Steve that he'd just missed.

It kept happening, though. He could remember the way Steve and Bucky used to talk to each other; it had felt like sparring with an exactly matched partner. They would both use full force, holding nothing back but knowing each other's moves and strength so well that every blow was thrust aside, every counter countered. No one got hurt, for all the violence of it, because they knew each other too well.

But Bucky didn't have the right information now, and he couldn't keep the rhythm. He kept stalling out, reminding Steve of how he'd changed whenever he tried to speak to him. Steve might not mind that he was different now, but it didn't change the fact that they didn't know each other like they used to, and Bucky kept making it obvious in ways that took the smile off Steve's face.

He heard his bags being set down in the doorway--the heavy thump of his weapons and the lighter impact of the duffel together--but Steve had already disappeared again when Bucky turned around. Bucky moved the weapons bag to a corner of the room where it wouldn't be in the way, and knelt down to look through the duffel.

The bag still bore its duct tape label, reading BUCKY in Steve's capitals. Bucky smoothed the peeling corners of the tape and opened the bag. Used clothing was in a plastic bag, segregated from still-clean clothing. He normally hand-washed the contents of the plastic bag when he had access to a sink and soap, but they would smell and feel better for proper washing.

His clothes would smell the same as Steve's and Sam's after they were washed. The smell would only be detectable to someone who got close to him, perhaps only to someone with serum-enhanced senses. Steve would know--but Steve would know to begin with, because Bucky was letting Steve wash his clothes.

He checked the other contents--he still had most of the bag of lemon candy, doling out one piece per day. He'd missed a few days' rations of candy now, distracted by looking after Sam. He touched the hard shapes of the candy in the plastic bag and then continued his inventory, touching the other things in the bag: a few items of clean clothing, a couple of knives, and a few other supplies.

Steve tapped at the door, and Bucky jumped to his feet, gathering up the dirty clothes to hand over. Steve stayed in the doorway, just holding his hands out to take the clothes when Bucky offered them.

"Least I don't have to worry about mixing up the colors," Steve said, with that same hesitant smile, as he took the black-on-black pile from Bucky's hands.

"Pink socks," Bucky said, the image flashing into his head. It wasn't the joke he should have made--it wasn't even a sentence, and he couldn't remember whose socks they were or who was responsible for turning them pink--but Steve grinned brightly.

"Not this time," he said, turning away with Bucky's clothes. "I promise."

Bucky nodded after him and decided to call that one a draw. He hadn't actually gotten it right, but he'd made Steve smile anyway. He smiled himself as he walked back over to windows, keeping an absent eye on the city outside while monitoring Sam's breathing. He would have liked to be able to track his heart rate, but it had been reliably steady at the hospital, and he knew the doctors wouldn't have released him if he were in danger of major bleeding or arrhythmias. He didn't know if Sam had asked about flying, though, or taking such a long trip immediately after departing the hospital. Bucky moved closer, perching on the edge of the bed to observe Sam's breathing and the healthy warm color of his skin.

He remembered, suddenly, the particular blue-tinged paleness of Steve's skin and the sound of Steve's heart beating irregularly against his ear, muffled by flesh. Steve had been panting and his heart had been racing much too fast and wavering wildly. There had been no hospital and no doctors to turn to, no monitors with red or green readouts. There had only been Bucky, anxiously listening, with no idea what he would do if the wavering got worse, or even if it stopped altogether.

Bucky looked sharply toward the door, even though he knew it was an old memory, Bucky's memory. He wanted urgently to go and check on Steve anyway, even though Steve was Captain America, the mission he hadn't been able to complete, the hardest target he'd ever been assigned. Indestructible.

But he remembered the sound of Steve's heart.

He made himself focus on Sam. Sam had been shot, Sam needed to be taken care of--but Sam was sleeping peacefully, and the room was empty and quiet. There was no danger of nurses or doctors walking in at any moment. The premises were secure, monitored by JARVIS, who was sharp enough to know about Bucky's previous entries into the building even if he hadn't been able to prevent him at the time. Sam was as safe as anyone could be here, under Stark and Steve's combined protection.

Bucky stood and moved quietly toward the door. He wouldn't try to listen to Steve's heart--Steve's good health would be obvious at a glance. When Steve's heart had been bad it had been obvious in his paleness, his limited energy, his small frame that his defective heart had struggled to power. Not like now. Steve was different now. Steve was safe.

Bucky leaned against the wall right beside the door, watching Sam sleep while he listened for any sound from Steve. He could make out a faint shushing of water and hum of machinery that must be the washing machine running; if Steve was moving around at all the sound was lost in that steady background noise.

Bucky caught the--surely deliberate--sound of a footstep approaching a half second before the tap on the door, so he controlled his reaction, simply straightening up from the wall to stand facing the door.

Steve betrayed a fraction of a second of surprise, probably at Bucky standing so close to the door and obviously waiting for him, but he said only, "Hey, laundry's going, food's next. Any idea what you want?"

Bucky would eat anything offered--and, he realized at Steve's question, he was hungry enough that he would need to go and find food soon even if it wasn't offered. But he'd heard Steve and Sam debate these kinds of choices plenty of times, and he knew Steve and Bucky used to argue about it too. It would give him an excuse to stay close to Steve for a little while, to reassure himself that the memory was only a memory and Steve was safe now. He looked toward Sam again, but Sam was still sleeping, his visible breathing pattern consistent with a deep sleep state, not even dreaming. Sam wouldn't know Bucky was gone, and Bucky could return quickly if Sam gave any sign of distress.

Steve had already taken a step back when Bucky turned toward him again, and he smiled when Bucky said, "What are the options?"

"Here," Steve said, holding up a tablet with a list of restaurants displayed. "I thought--pizza's easy? We can get a lot, it'll keep until Sam's ready to eat. There's about two dozen choices, though, and Sam always gives me this sad look when I tell him I don't care what kind we get."

Bucky glanced up from the list of restaurants to Steve's slightly sheepish smile. He felt an odd dislocated sensation--or the opposite of that, a sensation of being abruptly somewhere else that was exactly where he already was. He knew that the fond exasperation he felt was exactly what he, Bucky, had always felt in the face of Steve's permanently low culinary standards. As long as food was hot, plentiful, and not a C-ration, Steve would eat it with every sign of enjoyment; actual flavor would reduce him to delighted if inarticulate praise. Beyond that, he wasn't good at distinguishing. He was the last person who should be entrusted with choosing food for anyone else.

He knew what Bucky liked, though. He'd gotten that right.

Bucky looked down, reaching for the tablet and scrolling through the list. "That one's good," he said finally, pointing to a familiar logo. "I brought that for Sam when we met up last week, he liked it. You'll like it. The green peppers are still a little bit crunchy."

"Oh," Steve said, looking at Bucky with something like recognition--not surprise or delight, but the simple acknowledgement of something going the way it was supposed to go. Just that awareness was enough to make Bucky conscious that it wasn't really like this anymore, and the moment of congruence with his old self was replaced by an over-awareness of getting it right.

Bucky allowed himself one more look at Steve, taking in the healthy pinkness of Steve's skin, the almost inaudible sound of his steady, even breathing, and then he turned back toward Sam and the bed. "I should..."

"Yeah," Steve said, and Bucky didn't have to look at him to know that Steve could tell something had gone wrong. "I'll order. Thanks."

He was flying, and he knew how this was going to end: he could already feel the pain of the wounds echoing back to him, just waiting for the bullets. He knew there was something wrong about that, but he knew he was flying, and he knew how it was going to end. He just didn't know when.

He looked around for Riley, but it was Steve flying at his three o'clock. That worried him, because Steve was going to need Sam to catch him--Steve was always needing Sam to catch him--and their wings would get fouled. Steve would fall and fall, bleeding and falling out of control. Sam was diving, trying to catch him, knowing it was already too late--

And then he heard a voice and he was in a sick whirl, jerked back by something catching hold of his wing, hauling him down to earth, the end coming out of order and all wrong. His whole body jerked, making the pain in his shoulder and leg flare bright, and his eyes flashed open as the deck of the helicarrier loomed up.

He jerked back from the face too close to his, feeling a boot in the center of his chest.

Bucky took a few quick steps back and said, in a carrying voice gone sharp with worry, "Steve? Sam needs you."

Steve came in fast, which made Sam jerk away again even though he was all the way awake now. He knew Bucky was Bucky and not the Winter Soldier; he knew that Steve running didn't mean people were about to die if Steve didn't get where he was going fast enough.

Steve came up short at the other side of the bed, and Sam looked back and forth between them, his matched set of supersoldiers, watching him with oddly similar expressions of anxiety. He managed to summon up some humor for the thought, I'm supposed to be the less-traumatized one, dammit.

Not that less-traumatized was saying much, in this room, and not that it was a damn competition. He knew all of that, but knowing better didn't change the frustrated helpless feeling of looking at the two of them looking back at him, knowing that they were both wondering how to help the guy who usually had his shit together.

"Come here, you," Sam said, beckoning to Steve, which was as good a place to start as any.

Steve glanced across the bed at Bucky and then approached Sam in a straight line, climbing up onto the bed and crawling across to where Sam was lying. Sam watched him move. He made himself see this: Steve here and on the ground and safe, not falling in tatters, not beyond Sam's reach. In another second he actually wasn't beyond Sam's reach.

Sam grabbed the hem of his t-shirt and demanded, "Hug."

Steve leaned in until Sam could hook his good arm around him and pull himself partway up, and then Steve's arms closed around him, holding him close. It had to be an awkward angle for Steve, but Steve could maintain it and Sam could trust his strength. He leaned his cheek against Steve's shoulder and caught the motion of Bucky backing toward the door.

"Oh no, don't you go anywhere," Sam said, maybe a little too sharply. "You're next."

Bucky stopped at the door, and Sam felt a little extra tension in Steve's grip on him, but Steve didn't look around and kept holding Sam close.

When he felt like he'd stored up a decent supply of the feel of Steve's arms around him, Sam gave a little nudge, and Steve helped him sit up properly before letting go. Bucky was standing at the foot of the bed watching them with a wary expression, his gaze shifting back and forth from Steve to Sam to the wall of windows.

"Come here," Sam said, and Steve scooted back, giving way, while Bucky came around to Sam's side of the bed and perched beside him. He leaned in hesitantly, arms open, and Sam realized that for as close as they'd been physically, they hadn't really exchanged a proper hug until now; his heart ached with it, knowing that if Bucky hadn't hugged him, he almost certainly hadn't hugged anyone since he fell from the train.

"C'mere," Sam repeated, even as he leaned in gingerly and closed his good arm around Bucky to tug him in tight, resting his cheek on Bucky's right shoulder.

"I'm here," Bucky said, so low that Sam barely heard it, though he thought that if he could, Steve could too. He glanced over without moving, and saw Steve sitting on the opposite edge of the bed, watching them with such a terrifying blaze of love in his eyes that Sam wanted to look away, or at least make sure that Bucky didn't see. He didn't think Bucky was quite ready to be loved that fiercely; he wasn't entirely sure he know what to do with it himself.

"Did you say my name?" Sam asked, returning his attention to Bucky.

He stiffened slightly in Sam's hold and said, "You were--I thought you were having a nightmare. I thought I should wake you. I didn't want you to move and hurt yourself."

Sam nodded against Bucky's shoulder. "Good instinct. Thanks. I'm just one of those weird people who reacts better to being touched. Or music, if it's gotta be a sound, but--somebody calling my name, that's--that doesn't help most of the time."

Too many of Sam's nightmares began and ended with somebody calling his name.

"I'll remember," Bucky said quietly, and then, "You were scared of me."

Sam pushed back from the hug, still keeping a grip on Bucky's shirt so he couldn't go too far; Bucky loosened his hold but left both hands resting on Sam's arms. Sam looked him in the eye, and Bucky looked back, still wary but meeting Sam's gaze without flinching.

Maybe only because he'd been taught it didn't do any good to flinch.

Sam wanted to deny it, or to say that wasn't you, but Bucky wasn't really wrong.

"I was," Sam said. "Just for a second, before I remembered where I was. Doesn't mean I don't trust you every other second of the day."

Bucky nodded acquiescence. Sam wanted to press the point, to make him really believe it, but Bucky didn't give him an opening. He just said, "Steve ordered pizza."

Sam looked toward Steve, opening his mouth to beg Steve to tell him it wasn't Domino's. Steve flashed a grin and nodded toward Bucky. "He told me where to order from."

Sam looked back at Bucky, and caught a hint of a smile before Bucky looked away.

Steve firmly assured Bucky that he could handle the night shift with Sam, especially since that now meant that he could sleep beside Sam. Even with a pillow-barricade between them to keep him from jostling Sam in his sleep it was a thousand times better than dozing in a chair by Sam's hospital bed, and not just for the drowsy, careful kisses or the chance to actually lie flat. Steve found it reassuring just to be lying down beside him, to feel his tiny movements on the same mattress. Something about being under the same blanket, even if the blanket in question was a good six feet across, assured Steve even in sleep that all was well. He and Sam were back where they belonged. He could sleep.

When Steve woke up in the dark, he didn't know why. He listened for Sam, but Sam was breathing evenly, safe on his side of the pillows. Steve picked his head up and glanced over at the clock to confirm his own time-sense, but they had an hour and a half until Sam would be due for another round of pills. Steve closed his eyes and tried to go back to sleep.

The bed felt bigger in the middle of the night--or not bigger, but emptier. Steve was intensely conscious, as he lay there listening to Sam sleep, of the fact that there was room for at least one more person in the bed. Once he thought it, he couldn't escape that awareness, and he knew why he was awake. He knew where Sam was, but he needed to check on Bucky.

Steve rolled quietly out of bed, keeping his movements smooth enough not to disturb Sam, and padded silently to the bedroom door. Most of the apartment was dark, but there was a line of light showing under the door of the hall bathroom. Steve went straight to the door, bending close to listen, but there was silence from inside. He couldn't even hear Bucky breathing.

"Bucky?" Steve said, pitching his voice low.

Two seconds of silence followed, and then a sleepy, interrogative noise that was at once completely familiar and wildly out of place. Steve didn't think before pushing the door open.

Bucky was sitting on the floor, slumped against the wall facing the sink, his feet splayed wide around the cabinet. He was stripped to the waist, and there was a screwdriver protruding grotesquely from his upper left arm a couple of inches below the star--Steve caught himself looking for blood before he grasped what he was seeing. A gray rubber mouthguard dangled from Bucky's mouth, turned sideways but still held loosely between his front teeth. Bucky's head was tipped back against the wall, his eyes half-closed, but he looked up as Steve stepped inside.

He smiled, wide and sweet and bizarre, and the mouthguard fell from his lips. "Steve. Hey. It doesn't hurt."

Steve dropped to his knees, reaching for the screwdriver. "That's good, Buck. Let me just--"

"No," Bucky snapped, grabbing Steve's wrist with his right hand. "No, that's--I just got it in the right spot so it doesn't hurt."

Steve frowned and looked more closely at the screwdriver, playing back what he remembered of Bucky's recitation of the structure of his upper arm. He'd fallen asleep somewhere around the contents of the maintenance access panel, but the screwdriver was just jammed in between two surface plates.

"Was it hurting you before? Was something wrong?"

Bucky let go of Steve's wrist, evidently assured that Steve wouldn't do anything rash. He let his right hand fall into his lap, picking up the fallen mouthguard and fiddling with it. "Yeah. But it wasn't--I don't think it was a malfunction, exactly. It would stop whenever I was in the chair, so it must've been made that way. I don't think I really knew, I kind of--you know when something hurts so long you don't even feel it anymore? It's just background noise."

"Yeah," Steve said, remembering that moment when he'd stepped out of the chamber and felt strong, tall, painless. "Yeah, I know what that's like."

Bucky's gaze focused on him, sharp and present, and Bucky said, "Yeah. You do."

Bucky had felt like that whenever they put him in the chair, because that was the only time he got relief from whatever pain his arm had been inflicting on him, at least until they did something worse. Steve remembered--only a week ago?--being furious, sickened, at the fact that Sam had had sex with him in the chair where they had tortured him, but if Bucky had sat down and looked like this, relaxed and painless, suddenly easygoing where he was usually held tight... Steve needed to apologize to Sam, even if he hadn't said most of what he was thinking out loud. He didn't think he'd have done anything different, not if Bucky had wanted him.

"Could you," Bucky said, and Steve's heart jumped, like Bucky might somehow have heard that thought, might want--but Bucky had picked up a small tool in his right hand, and was tilting it in Steve's direction. "I think you can solder it down so I don't have to keep the screwdriver stuck in there."

"Oh," Steve said, blinking rapidly and wrenching his mind back on track. Bucky still had a screwdriver sticking out of his arm, and there was still something in his arm that would hurt him if they didn't fix it. "Yeah. Do you want--Tony could take a look, he fixed Sam's wings."

"It's just a little switch," Bucky said, already rummaging around in the kit tucked beside his right hip. "You can do it."

"Okay," Steve agreed, as Bucky came up with a coil of silver wire. He bit off the end of it and stuck the little piece of wire to the end of the tool Steve was holding.

"Use that to get it in place next to the screwdriver blade, then turn the iron on to melt it," Bucky directed, and Steve focused on the task, bending to peer in past the blade of the screwdriver to what the tip was holding down. It didn't even look like a proper switch, just a little crimp in the metal surface there, but whatever it was it needed to be held down. Steve pressed the bit of wire into place, using the iron to hold it while he eased the screwdriver out, and then turned the soldering iron on.

He could feel the sudden intense heat reflected back by the inner surface of Bucky's arm; Bucky made an odd, startled noise, but he didn't pull away, and Steve kept his hand steady while the bit of wire turned into a tiny molten puddle. He switched the iron off and eased it away, looking back and forth between Bucky's gaze and the tiny soldered patch as it hardened.

"Okay? Is it holding?"

Bucky's look of concentration broke into a grin, and he said, "Yeah, Stevie, perfect."

Steve grinned back and pulled the soldering iron out of Bucky's arm. Bucky twisted toward him as he drew it out, throwing his right arm around Steve's neck and tugging him close. Steve had just enough time to tell himself not to misinterpret something innocent, and then Bucky was kissing him.

It was Steve's turn to make a startled sound, dropping the still hot iron on the floor with a faraway clatter, but Bucky didn't stop. Steve managed to kiss back, moving his lips eagerly against Bucky's, just barely opening his mouth before Bucky broke the kiss.

Bucky's eyes were wide and very blue in the bright light of the bathroom, and Steve thought he had about the same expression on his face. He'd wanted this since he was about sixteen, and now that it had happened he could hardly believe it was real. Had been real, and was over already.

"Was that," Bucky asked, starting to frown, "is that--"

"Can I," Steve interrupted, raising a hand to hover beside Bucky's face. Bucky nodded in a short, jerky motion.

Steve settled his left hand on Bucky's cheek, guiding him in to another kiss, slower this time, and he felt Bucky relax into it. His mouth opened to Steve's without hesitation this time, and Steve felt a long-delayed adolescent thrill as he dipped his tongue into Bucky's mouth. It felt like walking on air, like--like the sudden cessation of a pain he'd almost stopped noticing because it had gone on so long.

Steve pulled away again to stare at Bucky, wondering what this meant, whether it was anywhere near the same thing for Bucky that it was for him.

"Did we," Bucky was frowning again, but he still had his arm around Steve's neck, and hadn't pulled away from Steve's hand on his face. "Is that--did we do that before?"

Steve shook his head. "Never. That was the first time."

"And second," Bucky said, with a flash of his old teasing smile, but then he frowned again. "Did we want to?"

"I did," Steve said, watching Bucky's face; he couldn't help wanting to know the answer to that himself, but not nearly as much as he wanted Bucky to understand how he felt here and now. "I thought you did, but I never knew for sure. I don't think it matters as long as we both want to now."

"I want to now," Bucky said, his gaze dropping to Steve's lips and then darting up to meet his eyes again.

Steve smiled and licked his lips, and Bucky darted in for another kiss, this one a little misaligned. Steve tried not to moan out loud as Bucky sucked on his lower lip, testing his teeth against it before he pulled away again, withdrawing his arm from around Steve this time. Steve dropped his hand and sat back, telling himself not to be greedy.

"Do you think Sam will mind?" Bucky asked, raising his right hand to touch his fingers to his lips.

Steve felt a guilty jolt at the reminder that this didn't concern only him and Bucky, but at least he had an answer to that question. "I don't think so. He already knows how I--"

Steve stopped short. He wasn't sure that Bucky knew how Steve felt about him right now. He still wasn't sure how Bucky felt about him, apart from wanting to kiss him.

"How about we talk to him in the morning," Steve redirected. "Then we'll know for sure how everybody feels about everything."

Bucky nodded agreement, his frown clearing, and when Steve stood up and offered him a hand, Bucky only hesitated for a second before taking it, letting Steve haul him up to his feet. Bucky curled his metal arm around Steve like it was a reflex, and Steve closed the circle, holding Bucky tight for a few seconds before he turned and led Bucky out of the bathroom, still holding on to his right hand.

Bucky didn't resist his grip until they were actually back in the bedroom, and Steve let him go at once. He turned to face Bucky, ready to beg him to stay close tonight, but Bucky just waved toward the wall opposite the foot of the bed, where there was a narrow padded bench that Steve had thought might be a good place to sit and take shoes off, if for some reason you couldn't do that sitting on the bed five feet away.

"This is close enough," Bucky said, and Steve nodded and grabbed a pillow from his own side of the bed, tossing it to Bucky. The room was dim, but there was plenty of light for him to catch the white flash of Bucky's smile before Bucky dropped the pillow at one end of the bench and lay down on it with his back to the wall.

Bucky lay awake, enjoying this vantage point where he could lie down and still watch Sam and Steve sleeping. He kept noticing all over again the absence of the buzzing static sensation from his arm, which had only sometimes burst through into real pain, sharp and distracting and then gone again before he could do more than register it. The absence of pain was more distracting than the pain itself had been, right now, but this was a reasonably safe place to be distracted.

"JARVIS?" Bucky murmured, low enough that Sam couldn't hear him and Steve probably wouldn't notice, being asleep.

"Outer and inner perimeters secure, Sergeant Barnes," JARVIS murmured back, seemingly right beside his ear. He hadn't said anything more about Bucky's prior visit, and hadn't objected to giving status reports the last six times Bucky asked. "Wilson family security status unchanged, no alerts."

Bucky nodded and let his eyes drift half-shut, listening to the quiet breathing of the two men in the bed as he replayed those kisses in his head again. He had surprised Steve, but in a good way for once. He'd done something Bucky never had, something better than Bucky. And Steve wanted to kiss him now, knowing everything he was, and didn't care whether Bucky had wanted to before.

He remembered again the blowjob Bucky had given Steve to keep him in bed, and he thought for the first time that maybe that had been--incomplete. Not a perfectly executed example of the way things were supposed to be. Steve had wanted to kiss Bucky then, and perhaps had wanted to do other things. Bucky had been trying to keep him in bed, but... Bucky hadn't done everything he could, or everything Steve wanted.

The memory flashed into sudden focus, again with that sensation of being somewhere else where he already was; Bucky could feel an anxious desire, hungrier and more frightened than he had known how to feel in a long time. He remembered the wanting, the sense of danger all around it, the hopelessness of taking a half-ration and pretending not to want more.

He didn't have to pretend anymore. Everything that had happened from then to now--all those years when he hadn't known who Steve was--had brought him here, to the time when he could kiss Steve without even being scared about it. When nothing mattered but that he wanted to and Steve wanted to and Sam wanted them both.

Bucky smiled as he closed his eyes.

Sam woke up while it was still dark--though he had the faint golden glow of a nightlight, Stark Tower style, to work with--and had a muzzy conversation with Steve about what time it was. Steve gave him his pills and helped him hobble to the bathroom, and Sam was asleep again almost before Steve had helped him back to bed.

When Sam woke up again it was daylight. He knew even before he opened his eyes that he wasn't in the hospital anymore--the bed was too comfortable, the pillows too exactly molded to his body, and the daylight was too bright and coming from the wrong direction. It still took him a few blinking seconds to recognize the master bedroom on the eighty-ninth floor of Stark Tower, and by the time he'd caught hold of that he'd moved on to being fascinated and baffled by the sight of Bucky asleep on the bench opposite the foot of the bed. He was shirtless and wearing soft black pants, facedown in a pillow that his left arm curled protectively around, while his right arm hung down, his knuckles brushing the carpet.

"Something to see, huh," Steve said, his voice pitched low.

Sam looked over to meet Steve's cheerful morning-person gaze, and he watched Steve's attention return to the spectacle of Bucky sleeping in a horizontal position, in a room where two other people were awake.

"We, uh," Steve said, and darted a quick glance back in Sam's direction before his gaze tracked irresistibly back to Bucky. "We talked last night."

"Wow," Sam said, because he had never heard anything sound more like a euphemism than that. Steve evidently lost some internal battle for composure when Sam spoke, because Sam got to watch a tide of pink wash over his face. Sam grinned and glanced back toward Bucky, still motionless except for his slow, even breaths. "Did you wear him out? Talk hard all night?"

"I'm not asleep," Bucky announced without actually taking his face out of the pillow.

"Sorry, Buck," Steve said. "Forgot you're not a morning person."

Bucky actually did pick his head up to look at Steve then, scowling in a way that looked much more like a desperate need for caffeine than a premeditation of murder. "Funny, I remembered a while ago that you never met a gun you wouldn't jump."

"You can go back to sleep," Steve offered generously, and Sam let himself laugh rather than hurt himself trying to hold it back. "I'll talk to Sam by myself."

Bucky looked toward Sam at that, and Sam could see some of the weird ease drain out of him, his body language tightening up. Sam just had time to realize that Steve had gotten ahead of him in the standings of people Bucky was comfortable with before Bucky looked back to Steve and said, "You get to talk to Sam by yourself all the time."

He rolled up to his feet, throwing the pillow squarely at Steve's head in the same motion. Steve batted it aside so hard it hit the wall with a thump like a body at the same time Bucky dropped himself onto the bed and crawled up between Steve and Sam. He settled himself on top of the pile of pillows separating them like it was there just for his comfort.

"Morning," Sam said, smiling cautiously.

Bucky smiled back, also cautiously, but he leaned in immediately for a kiss, his left hand resting gently on Sam's chest to remind him to keep still.

"So," Sam said, as Bucky pulled back and the pieces fell into place. Why did they always wind up having these conversations immediately after he woke up? "You guys talked last night, huh?"

Bucky shrugged. "Steve fixed a thing in my arm for me and then I kissed him. But I guess we talked a little too."

Bucky mostly eclipsed Sam's view of Steve, but he had a perfect view of Steve smacking Bucky upside the head. Bucky whirled to look at Steve and said, "That's exactly what happened!"

"You could have some tact," Steve said, at almost the same time Sam said, "You could show me."

That stopped both of them cold, and Bucky had moved enough that Sam could see both of them watching him with wide, startled eyes.

"I mean," Sam said, ripping the Band-Aid off in a casual tone he'd had a lot of practice with. "This doesn't really feel like you two are dumping me to run off together, right?"

Steve shook his head, looking a little wounded; Bucky just looked baffled. "We were already sharing you," Bucky said. "You can share us, too, right?"

"Yeah," Sam agreed, feeling pleasantly reassured by the way they both just seemed to assume that that was the only logical thing to do here. "Yeah, we can all share each other. I mean, we all fit in the bed together, so there's no need to keep taking turns, right?"

Bucky nodded, and Steve was looking at him with so much relief and happiness that Sam was a little sorry this wasn't actually a sacrifice he was making to earn it. But even if he was being completely selfish, the two of them being happy and comfortable with each other could only make this simpler, and better, and more. As it was, he couldn't help being so happy for both of them that it was hard to breathe.

"So," Sam said, falling back on his casual voice again. "Like I said--you could show me what I missed. I know Steve loves a good dramatic re-enactment."

Steve blushed a little more, and Bucky looked back and forth between them and then sat up and grabbed Steve's arm. "Come here, you were--"

Steve let himself be manhandled until he was sitting up, facing Bucky, who had scooted around so he had his back to Sam, his left arm toward Steve. He twisted, looking over his shoulder at Sam, and said, "Can you see okay from there?"

Sam grinned. "Yeah, I'm good. Go ahead."

"He soldered down the switch in my arm," Bucky explained, gesturing at Steve, and Steve obediently raised his hands like he was fiddling with something in Bucky's left arm. "And then I realized it worked--it stopped this buzzing thing that kind of hurt all the time--and I just--" Bucky met Steve's eyes and smiled, bright and happy and easy and stunningly beautiful with it. He threw his right arm around Steve's neck, holding him still as Bucky darted in for a kiss. It didn't last long--Sam could imagine how surprised Steve had been, how he'd maybe frozen for a second and not taken full advantage--and when Bucky pulled back he glanced toward Sam and said, "And then Steve--"

Steve leaned in for the next kiss, raising his left hand to Bucky's face to guide him. Sam's heart ached with the slow, careful tenderness of it. He could see their mouths open to each other, caught a little flash of tongue between them as they tasted.

"And then," Steve said, drawing back a little. "Bucky--"

Bucky leaned over for another kiss, fast and dirty but still not going far or lasting long. He pulled back and looked at Sam as he said, "And then Steve said we should wait and talk to you before anything else."

Sam raised his eyebrows, looking back and forth between them. "Well, I'm here now, so feel free to just have the rest of that conversation. There's room for everybody in the bed."

Steve, because he had obviously never met an order he couldn't buck any more than a gun he couldn't jump, hauled himself over the pillow barrier to kiss Sam instead, slow and deep and hot. Sam went with it, raising his good hand to get a fistful of Steve's t-shirt, and when Steve lifted his head to breathe--well, to let Sam breathe, but a man could have his illusions--Sam shifted his grip to the back of the collar and said, "Get this off and go make out with Bucky, man."

Steve was giving him a bright-eyed shit-eating grin. "Just make out? Is that all we're cleared for?"

"Steve," Bucky said, leaning over Steve from behind and shoving his t-shirt up, making it easy for Sam to yank it over his head. "Aren't you the officer in this bed? Show some command initiative."

"I have this feeling like my noncoms are ganging up on me," Steve said from inside his t-shirt, and Bucky winked at Sam over his back and then shoved it up over his shoulders, letting Sam pull it the rest of the way off. Steve's hair was standing out in a ridiculous blond puff around his head, and Sam tossed the t-shirt away and mussed it while Bucky closed his arms around Steve's waist.

Steve pushed back into Bucky's grip, and they both fell back to the bed, Steve squirming over to pin Bucky down face to face. They were grabbing at each other's hands, tussling a little without really moving--Sam pictured the two of them actually wrestling and automatically tried to calculate a safe distance to watch, even if he weren't injured. In the air above them, maybe.

Their hands were tangled together as Steve's mouth dropped down onto Bucky's again, and the kiss this time was unhesitatingly open-mouthed and hungry, devouring. The two of them were grinding against each other almost instantly, and Sam lowered his right hand to rub against his hardening cock through his pajama pants. Zero to live sex show in five minutes; it wasn't a bad reward for being an understanding boyfriend to both of his guys.

"Can I," Steve said, words blurred against Bucky's skin as he dragged kisses down Bucky's jaw to his throat. "Can--God I want to suck you off."

Bucky gave a little disbelieving huff and looked over at Sam with wide, dark eyes. "I dunno, Sam, what do you think? Should I--"

Steve got his mouth on Bucky's nipple, and Bucky's words choked off, his eyes fluttering shut.

"I think that's a yes," Sam offered. Steve looked up, his tongue still pressed to Bucky's chest, to give him an open-mouthed smile before he got back to work, moving further down Bucky's body. Bucky reached out with his metal hand to shove his pajama pants down before Steve got there, twisting as he squirmed out of them, and another little tussle ensued as Steve tried to get him to lie flat while Bucky was trying to get out of his clothes, and then trying to strip Steve's off for good measure.

Sam tried to twist over to watch better, winced and remembered not to do that. He contented himself with shoving his hand into his boxers to grip his dick, which was definitely wide awake.

Steve was naked when he finally got his hands on Bucky's hips, and Bucky went absolutely still as Steve's mouth brushed the head of his cock. His eyes were huge, and Sam remembered that this was probably only the third time Bucky had had sex with anybody in recent memory, and he definitely hadn't had Sam's mouth on him, which meant this was kind of a first.

"Bucky," Sam said, frustrated to his bones because he couldn't move, couldn't even reach out with his left hand.

Bucky looked over at him and Sam beckoned with his right hand. Bucky got it immediately, shifting to lie diagonally across the bed, his shoulder tucked carefully behind Sam's. That was close enough for Sam to reach across with his right hand and catch Bucky's right, close enough for Sam to kiss the gasp out of Bucky's mouth when Steve curled one hand around Bucky's dick. Steve licked over the head in long, lingering strokes, like he'd never tasted anything better.

Bucky's metal arm was whirring softly and continuously even before Steve actually closed his mouth on Bucky's dick; when he did, the silver fist clenched beside Steve's cheek, not pushing or grabbing. Bucky's right hand, in Sam's, which was surely strong enough to break Sam's fingers without trying, maintained exactly the same tight-but-not-painful grip.

Sam rubbed a thumb over Bucky's knuckles and kissed him in soft little touches, the most he could manage while watching Steve's mouth stretch around Bucky's cock. Bucky's hips jerked in tiny motions, and his abs and the muscles of his thighs stood out sharply where he was tensing to try to keep control. Bucky kept making low broken sounds as Steve's mouth moved on him, and after a few minutes Sam couldn't stand it and had to reach down and grab his own dick, stroking himself in time to the motion of Steve's mouth and the sounds Bucky kept making against his lips. Watching and hearing and feeling Bucky be totally blown away was the hottest thing Sam had experienced in... a week, at least.

Steve wriggled, settling in between Bucky's thighs, bobbing up for a breath and letting out a little noise Sam recognized as he went back down. That was Steve hitting his stride, digging in to really focus on sucking cock like he'd been genetically enhanced for no other purpose. Bucky's eyes flashed wide, and his left hand flashed open, his fingers pressing against Steve's cheek while his right hand scrabbled at Sam's hip, groping for something to hold on to as his mouth fell open and he came in perfect silence, looking stunned.

Sam squeezed his eyes shut as that vision turned his brain to static, and he came a second later, jerking himself through it almost frantically. He turned his head blindly, and Bucky's lips found his in a clumsy kiss while he was still spilling over his own fist.

"Hey," Steve said, and Sam felt the looming presence of him and opened his eyes to see Steve holding himself braced above them both, looking happy and a little sheepish, red-lipped and obviously unaware of the little wet trail dripping from the corner of his mouth to his chin. "I was going to do that."

Sam wiped his right hand cursorily on the sheets and reached up to brush at Steve's face, smearing the wetness around and making it worse. Bucky gave a small, shattered groan at Sam's side, and Steve gave him a sideways hopeful look before lowering himself to give Sam a kiss that tasted sharp with come--Bucky's come in Steve's mouth, leaving Sam a little dizzy with the mixture of gladness and lust. Steve kept it brief, turning his head to kiss Bucky next. Sam was almost too close to watch them, but he could hear and smell and almost feel it just fine, and knew that it was filthy and deep. Steve still hadn't gotten off, after all.

"Up," Bucky said after a moment. "Let me--"

Bucky sat up as soon as Steve got up on his knees, and Sam watched Bucky position him squarely in Sam's eyeline before Bucky closed a hand on Steve's cock. Steve let out an honest to God whimper at that, swaying toward Bucky with his mouth open. Bucky knelt up and kissed him, still angling them to let Sam see everything as he jerked Steve off.

Sam saw Bucky moving his left hand a second before it made contact, sliding in to cup Steve's balls, and he had the presence of mind to look up, watching Steve's face as his eyes went wide. He went off like a firework while Bucky stroked him through it, licking roughly into his mouth.

Steve dropped his head to rest on Bucky's right shoulder, and then slowly collapsed forward, tackling Bucky down to the bed almost in slow motion. Bucky thumped down to the mattress with fairly good grace, and Sam watched them, floating on more affection and satisfaction than he knew what to do with first thing in the morning. He started counting in his head, and Bucky lasted nearly three minutes before he squirmed like a disgruntled cat under Steve, pushing him away.

Steve moved quickly, startled and anxious. Before Sam could try to reassure him, Bucky said, "I'll get breakfast," and scooted away from both of them and off the bed. He grabbed his pants from the tangle at the foot of the bed, but didn't bother putting them on before he was gone.

Steve stared after him for a second and then looked down at Sam, confused but more happy than not.

Sam reached up with his right hand and tugged Steve close, and Steve folded himself carefully around Sam's left side, draping his arm over the safe territory of Sam's midsection. Sam exchanged a few lazy kisses with him before he remembered to explain, "Bucky's really bad at cuddling. Staying still, being held still, he doesn't last long."

"Oh," Steve said, and gave a firm making-a-note-of-it nod, which made Sam wonder whether Bucky had been the opposite before, and whether Steve had had much of a chance to know it if he was.

Sam gave another little tug, and Steve settled his head next to Sam's, seeming perfectly willing to nap while they waited for Bucky to return.

Bucky visited the bathroom first, cleaned himself up and got stuck just staring at himself in the mirror for a moment. Steve had--and he had--and it had felt so good, so much, almost too much. He felt like it ought to have wiped him clean somehow. Reset him. But he was still here, still the same, still with his patchwork of memories and scars. Still wanting to be touched until it felt too much like being held down--but Steve had let him go as soon as he wanted to, just like Sam. He could trust them not to try to keep him in one place.

Bucky dropped his gaze from the mirror and looked down at his own body; it was strange to see it as hard-edged and combat-ready as ever when he felt so oddly soft around the edges, warm and sleepy. Changed but not changed.

His stomach grumbled, and Bucky shook his head and put his pants on, then turned to gather up the toolkit. His mouthguard was lying on the floor, and he picked it up and tapped it absently against his lips. He didn't need to be silent here, and the restless impulse to bite down on something was nowhere to be found right now. He dropped it into the kit with the rest of the things he didn't need at the moment and latched the top of the box.

He took the kit with him to the kitchen, only to be stymied by the absence of cupboards. There ought to be a cupboard where useful things went--small tools and string and saved up paper from packages--and this kitchen was all gleaming surfaces and open shelves.

That reminded him of his actual purpose here, and he set the toolkit down and opened the refrigerator, which contained several rows of brightly colored beverages and a tray of fruit and cheese draped in plastic. Steve hadn't been kidding about Stark's strange ideas of stocking a kitchen.

"Breakfast may be ordered from the main residential kitchen or any of the open restaurants in the lower levels of the building," JARVIS informed him.

"Oh, uh," Bucky looked around blankly. "Sam wants eggs and hash browns and blueberry pancakes, he's been complaining about hospital breakfasts for days."

"I will place an order," JARVIS agreed. "And for yourself and Captain Rogers?"

"We'll eat anything," Bucky said. "Twice as much of everything plus bacon? Ham, for Steve. And no blueberries in his pancakes, strawberries on top instead. Orange juice?"

"Done," JARVIS agreed. "Would you like assistance with the coffee maker?"

Bucky looked around the kitchen and spotted what had to be the coffee maker, a sleek black machine with an empty glass carafe tucked into the front of it.

"Uh," Bucky said. He couldn't see any buttons or switches, or for that matter a source of coffee to put in it. "Yeah?"

"Good," an entirely different voice--American, human--said, from the direction of the elevator.

Bucky muttered, "JARVIS, get Steve," a second before Tony Stark walked into view, trailed by a dark-haired woman. Both of them were wearing suits.

Stark came straight over to the kitchen, passing nearly within arm's reach of Bucky on his way to the coffee maker. The dark-haired woman stayed further back, and visibly startled when Steve bolted out from the bedroom wearing a pair of pajama pants and nothing else.

Steve's gaze showed recognition and exasperation but no alarm as he clocked the two people who had entered the apartment; his most wary look was directed at the short distance separating Bucky from Stark. He met Bucky's gaze last, giving him a little affirmative nod. You did the right thing, this is okay.

Bucky nodded back and didn't move away from Stark. Steve hadn't asked him to, and he'd been here first.

"Maria," Steve said to the dark-haired woman, folding his arms across his chest as if to hide his half-nakedness in the presence of a lady while his posture settled from alarm to mere annoyance.

"Rogers," Maria replied, equally blandly, and Bucky made the connection at the sound of her voice. This was the woman who Steve had called to get security on Sam's family. The woman who had accepted Bucky's intel without batting an eyelash. Bucky looked back and forth again between her and Steve, but neither of them seemed smitten, even if she was obviously Steve's type.

Maria did give Steve a lingering look up and down, but she then transferred the same look to Bucky. She raised her eyebrow slightly as she added, "Barnes. Is Wilson still in bed?"

Stark turned away from the coffee maker at that, looking sharply back and forth between Bucky and Steve, apparently taking in their respective states of mostly-undress. Steve was starting to blush, and Bucky shook his head in despair. Steve never could keep anything off his face.

"Huh," Stark said. "Yeah, I'll second that question."

"No," Sam said.

Steve turned away from the others, clearing Bucky's sightline to Sam, who was limping in from the bedroom on one crutch. He was wearing a shirt as well as boxers, although the shirt was bunched up a little at the top of the crutch, revealing a flash of his belly and side above his shorts. Bucky watched the rise and fall of Steve's hands, wanting to offer assistance and remembering not to. Bucky let his own left fist close on the same impulse.

"Just slower than Steve, as usual," Sam added, making for the kitchen table. Steve got there first and pulled out a chair for him. Sam shot him an amused look but didn't reject the help on principle, which Bucky remembered Steve doing sometimes when he was in a really bad mood.

Sam, of course, had already been buttered up pretty well this morning.

"Right," Tony said, turning fully away from the coffee maker, which was now making promising low hissing and gurgling noises. "Interesting, by which I mean not interesting at all compared to my actual reason for being here. Barnes." Tony turned sharply to face him. "I want a word with you about your last visit to the Tower."

Bucky didn't look over at Steve or Sam. Maria's posture had turned slightly more guarded--bracing for an explosion?--but Sam just sat back in his chair, and Steve dropped down into the one next to it. Letting him handle this on his own. Fine.

"Yeah?" Bucky said. "What'd you want to know?"

"JARVIS's information about it is extremely limited," Tony said. "So mostly--how. Also where, exactly, although some of my maintenance staff ran into an array of booby traps with your metaphorical if not literal fingerprints all over them a few days ago, so we have a start on that question."

Bucky did glance over at Sam and Steve then. Steve looked... really happy. Sam looked amused. "Booby traps, man?"

"There was a gap in security," Bucky said to Sam, and then turned back to Stark and shrugged. "I plugged it for you."

"After you used it," Stark insisted. "I can guess why, given that the timing coincides pretty neatly with your partners' last stay, but where were you?"

Bucky pointed up, calculating the angle automatically. "Elevator shaft above the ninety-third floor. There's a ledge."

Stark narrowed his eyes. "There's a ledge that's four inches wide."

Bucky nodded. "Like I said. There's a ledge. I wanted to be able to respond quickly, so I got as close as I could without triggering a security response."

Stark stared at him, then turned and grabbed a mug from a glass shelf of mugs, shoving it under the coffee maker exactly as it started to drip. "So that just leaves my actual question, which is how."

Bucky shrugged. "How do you fly a metal suit? I find blind spots. I exploit vulnerabilities. I've had a lot of practice at it."

Stark studied him for a moment, then tugged the full coffee mug out from under the coffee maker, replacing it with the carafe. He held the mug in front of him but didn't move to drink it. "You remember my old man?"

"Sure," Bucky said. "We weren't pals or anything, but he modified a few rifles for me, put a bulletproof lining in my jacket. He promised me a fancy new sight, the last time I saw him, but I never got to try it."

"I can do fancier," Stark said, and it sounded like a reflex. He walked over to Bucky and set the mug down, and Bucky noticed for the first time that Stark was shorter than he was. He wasn't small, really, but he projected presence as hard as Steve ever had when it was all he had to armor himself with.

Stark pushed the mug toward him and said, "Be my new security consultant. I'll pay you in both negotiable currency and upgrades to your arm."

Bucky tilted his head, looking at Stark, and the memory bloomed in his head of the first time he'd let Howard work on one of his rifles. He hadn't wanted to let anyone tinker with it. He'd made a joke about how he'd rather let Howard mess with his arm.

It had worked out pretty well, though, so Bucky tucked that comparison away to make sometime to Steve, who he thought was slightly likelier than Stark to think it was funny. In the meantime, he had a deal to make.

Bucky picked up the mug of coffee. "Pay me a salary and let me fix security holes and I'll let you take a look at my arm, how about that."

Tony nodded sharply, a smile just visible at the corners of his mouth. "Done. Come on, workshop, let's go."

There was a ding from the elevator, and JARVIS announced, "Breakfast has arrived, Sergeant Barnes."

"Workshop, in an hour," Bucky said, taking a sip of coffee and glancing at his little kit on the counter. "You got good tools?"

"I've got a few," Tony said. "Guess you'll see. In half an hour."

"Mm-hm," Bucky said into his coffee, not agreeing to anything. He'd be there when he was done having breakfast with his guys.

Steve stood up and said, "I'll walk you out, Tony."

Stark didn't argue, and let Steve herd him out. Maria shot Bucky a last thoughtful glance. Bucky looked over at Sam, who still looked amused by the whole thing, and asked, "How do you want your coffee?"

After lunch a doctor came up to check on him--a convenience of Stark Tower a hundred times more bizarrely luxurious than the perfectly firm bed big enough to fit Sam and both of his boyfriends. Steve went off to get a detailed briefing from Maria on what had been on the flash drives they pulled from the Dans Mountain Hydra facility, and Bucky was still off being tinkered with and/or offering his security insights.

Making both of his boyfriends feel safe enough to let him out of their sight at the same time was possibly the nicest thing any place or person had ever done for him. Sam was going to have to seriously consider sending Tony flowers. Maybe one of those cookie bouquets.

He let the doctor take a peek at his stitches and she talked over his pain management options with him. He didn't bring up the healing power of threesome sex, but she didn't specifically forbid it, so he figured they were good.

After she left, Sam was genuinely alone for the first time since he'd gotten shot--the first time for a while before that, probably, though everything before the gunshot seemed further back than the four days it had been on the calendar. Sam sat on the bed awhile, enjoying the lack of lovingly intense surveillance, and then he grabbed his crutch and hobbled carefully over to the wall of windows. The last thing he needed was to take a spill while Bucky and Steve weren't here; he'd spend the next two weeks with one of them handcuffed to him at all times.

The windows in this room looked west, and Sam realized he could see the big green block of Central Park from here; he was looking out over the same part of the city he'd been flying over less than a week ago, on brand new wings he still hadn't had a chance to take out for a second spin. He leaned forward, looking out over that view, almost able to feel the air around him, the drafts and currents he would ride.

He lost his balance a little, swaying on one foot and his crutch, and the imagined feeling of flight changed into the sickening memory of the floor tilting under his feet as he raced for the edge of a building in the process of collapsing under a crashing helicarrier. The past catapulted into the present, and he could see the ground looming up, Stark Tower tilting out over Midtown all around him. Sam grabbed at the glass, breath coming fast, and then he did what he'd been taught to do in a spin.

He looked to the horizon and locked his eyes on that line. It wasn't moving, and neither was he. Sam stood there, leaning his chest and good hand against the glass and gasping for breath. He was safe. Tony's building was safe. This wasn't the Triskelion. This wasn't a war zone. He was safe.

Sam leaned his forehead against the glass and let himself settle down. When he opened his eyes again he was still looking out at the city he'd flown over, and he remembered realizing, as he flew, that this was his life now. He was going to be an Avenger with two supersoldier boyfriends.

And not even a week later here he was again, with a couple of bullet holes in him and his boyfriends newly dating each other. This was his life now. Here.

This was, he thought, the time to bow out, if he was ever going to reconsider. He could dodge the danger, leave Steve and Bucky to look after each other, and just go back to DC. He'd go on being awkwardly slightly famous for a while, but people would get bored, and when the next crisis happened--

Sam shook his head. He didn't even want to miss eating dinner with Bucky and Steve, never mind saving the world with them. He could walk away, maybe, but he wasn't going to.

Sam reached into his pocket and tugged out his phone, opening a text message to Mel. The last text he had from her was a week old, a raindrop and an ambulance--their shared shorthand for mockery, because Sam had texted her at six in the morning complaining about how early Steve woke up.

Now he tapped out Update: got a little bit shot, moved to NYC for keeps. You can go ahead and pick my replacement.

He glanced at the time after he hit send, but she ought to be between afternoon groups. Sure enough, she texted him back almost instantly: Doesn't your boyfriend have a shield for that sort of thing? and immediately after, Also, picked her out days ago, but it's good that you're not in denial anymore.

Sam grinned and looked around automatically for someone to share that with. He froze at the sight of Bucky leaning in the bedroom doorway.

"Hey," Sam said, when Bucky just stayed where he was and said nothing. "You been there long?"

Bucky shook his head and came over to where Sam was standing. "Just got back. Didn't want to startle you."

Bucky leaned against the glass beside Sam to duck in for a brief kiss. He stepped back and picked up the crutch Sam had knocked over during his panic, propping it up where Sam could reach it and standing on the other side of it from Sam.

Sam looked Bucky over as Bucky looked out at the city. He was looking good--clear-eyed and calm despite spending the last several hours dealing with strangers. But the security-consultant gig was the best possible way to make use of Bucky's lethal expertise, and that had to be good for him. He'd handled Tony fine that morning, too, and Maria wouldn't have been any worse.

"So," Sam prompted. "How was your day, dear?"

Bucky looked over, startled into a smile of genuine amusement, and he said, "Just fine, doll. I'll tell you all about it if you come take a load off."

He knew Bucky was braced for that to turn into a battle of wills, but Sam just reached for his crutch. He'd had about enough of the windows anyway. Bucky kept pace with Sam while he limped back across the room, and didn't say a word when Sam headed for the bench opposite the bed instead of the bed itself. He sat down at Sam's right--between him and the door, but also convenient to the hand Sam could actually use to touch him.

Sam curled his hand around Bucky's left wrist and said, "So, does it shoot lasers now?"

"Nah, they took that whole internal structure out in '79," Bucky said blandly. "More trouble than it's worth, draws a ton of power."

Sam raised his eyebrows, looking down at Bucky's metal hand, and Bucky said, "Tony just poked around a little and then I told him he already has a manual to the whole thing and he told me to go away while he had JARVIS model it, so I've been reviewing security procedures."

Sam glanced up. "And?"

"The building is secure enough," Bucky said, twisting his wrist where Sam's fingers still curled around it, turning his hand palm-up. Sam slid his hand down to lace his fingers with Bucky's, slightly cool and weirdly smooth. "I suggested some improvements. And then Maria let me review the security arrangements for your family."

There was a second where the words didn't really compute. Bucky said it so matter-of-factly that Sam was almost fooled into believing that this was something perfectly normal, something he already knew all about.

He looked up to meet Bucky's eyes and saw the caution there, and that illusion snapped decisively.

"The security arrangements," Sam repeated, taking his hand from Bucky's to scrub at his face, trying to assimilate the idea. People knew who he was; therefore they could find his family. "For my family."

"There haven't been any threats," Bucky said, like he knew it wasn't comforting but had to say it anyway. "But Hydra wouldn't threaten. They'd just do it."

And Bucky, of course, would know exactly what Hydra would do.

"They're good," Bucky said, resting his left hand lightly on Sam's shoulder. "The people watching your family, it's--they're ready. But if... if you don't mind, as long as we're in New York, I could be on the detail when Jody goes into school and when she gets out."

Sam had a sudden vision, equally hilarious and terrifying, of Uncle Bucky vetting Jody's dates thirteen years from now. It felt... possible. Like he had a future, and Bucky and his family were a part of it together. They were bound to converge at a distance of less than rifle range eventually.

"I'd like that," Sam said. "I mean, there's going to be a meeting where someone on the security team sits down with me and my folks and Sarah and they actually get briefed on what the dangers are and what's being done about it, but yeah. I can't think of anyone I'd rather have watching over Jody."

Bucky smiled, startled and almost shy this time, and it was Sam's turn to lean in for a kiss.

Steve went to check on Sam when his after-dinner nap had stretched for two hours without a sound from the bedroom. Bucky looked up from the tablet he was frowning into, and when their eyes met Steve tilted his head toward the bedroom. Bucky glanced down--checking the time--and nodded, settling back while Steve went to see to Sam. Steve was warmed all out of proportion by that easy moment of silent communication.

In the bedroom, Sam was still fast asleep, and Steve sat down on the edge of the bed beside him. Mindful of what Sam had told Bucky the day before, he curled his hand around Sam's left hand, resting on his chest, and squeezed, gently at first and then progressively harder, until Sam blinked groggily up at him.

"What's..." Sam said. "Good morning?"

"Nope," Steve said, leaning down to kiss him, which Sam could do just fine without being altogether awake. "Going on ten, though. I thought you might want to change into pajamas if you're going to sleep straight through until morning."

"Ugh," Sam let his head fall back against the pillow, and Steve tried not to smile too much at Sam's half-awake irritation. "Now I'm all fuzzy. I'm not gonna wake up, but if I don't stay up a while I'll be waking up in the middle of the night."

"Solvable problem," Bucky declared, and Steve looked over his shoulder to see Bucky stripping out of his shirt as he walked over to the bed.

"I thought I was handling checking on Sam," Steve observed, trusting Bucky to hear the complete lack of censure in his voice. He was only a little distracted by Bucky's bare chest.

"You did. I'm here for the follow-up," Bucky replied easily, crawling across the bed to lie down along Sam's left side. Steve watched him kiss Sam hello and thought that he could happily watch nothing else for the rest of his life. He was torn for a moment between marveling at his luck and wishing for a sketchpad.

Then Bucky turned his head and said, "Come on, Steve, you gonna just sit there, or you gonna help me wake Sam up and get him back to sleep?"

"Might be polite to ask Sam if he wants to," Steve pointed out, though when he transferred his gaze to Sam's face he found Sam looking more awake and definitely amused at Steve's demurral on his behalf.

"I'm a grown man, I can tell my boyfriends I'm not in the mood when I'm not," Sam said, still sounding sleepily relaxed. "How about you figure out a plan of action here, Rogers? How are we doing this?"

Steve felt his blood start moving south as he eyed Sam and Bucky, considering options, preferences, and limitations. Then he leaned down and gave Sam a long, promisingly filthy kiss, which Sam returned with interest, his good hand gripping the back of Steve's neck to keep him there. When Sam let him up Steve only had to turn his head to kiss Bucky, who had leaned in close. Sam's hand was still warm on his nape, pushing him gently toward Bucky, and Bucky's left hand slid down his back to tug up the bottom of his shirt.

"Hold on," Steve said, breaking away. "Here's the plan. Sam's going to fuck me, but I'm going to ride him and do all the work. Buck, you're going to sit behind him, help him hold still so he doesn't hurt his shoulder, and prop him up." Bucky had seemed pretty overwhelmed by Steve's mouth on him yesterday; this would give him some flexibility about exactly how he wanted to get off, but still include him intimately in what Steve and Sam were doing. It wouldn't be any hardship to take care of him directly if that was what Bucky wanted once they got going.

Sam tugged Steve in for another kiss, which seemed to indicate that he approved of the plan, and when Steve looked again Bucky was already naked. Clearly he was on board. Steve stopped to stare at him for a second--this was only his second time seeing Bucky entirely naked, and he was a long way from being used to the sight. Then Sam started pushing his own pants down, and Steve got into motion, standing up to help Sam out of them while Bucky eased him out of his shirt. When Sam was done Steve got out of his own clothes, not making a show of it, just getting them off so they could get on with it.

When he tossed his underwear away, he looked back to the bed to find that Bucky was kneeling next to Sam, a pillow in his hand, and both of them were staring at Steve. Steve felt the blush flare in his cheeks and spread south as he said firmly, "Come on, fellas. Positions."

Sam raised his right arm and Steve took it, helping him sit upright while Bucky rearranged the pillows and slid in behind him, spreading his legs around Sam's hips. Bucky curled his left arm around Sam's protectively, linking his silver fingers with Sam's where his hand rested against his chest. When they were both settled, Steve grabbed supplies from the nightstand drawer and joined them. He straddled Sam, with his knees planted on the mattress between Sam's thighs and Bucky's feet.

He dropped the lube and condoms on the bed within easy reach--there was no rush to get to the main event--and leaned in to kiss Bucky over Sam's shoulder while he curled his hand around Sam's cock. It felt good in his hand, perfectly familiar, right down to the half-hard thickness of it. Sam was still waking up and getting with the program, but they could take their time now.

Bucky kissed Steve like he was putting on a show, pulling back again and again to leave a gap between their mouths where their tongues met, teasing Steve as much as Sam. Steve felt Sam's cock jump in his grip and smiled into the fleeting touch of Bucky's mouth.

Sam's hand closed on Steve's cock as Sam said, "Hey, come here."

Steve obeyed, redirecting to kiss Sam, firmly and deeply.

Bucky obeyed too, wrapping his hand around Sam's on Steve's cock, only his thumb touching Steve directly. That was more than enough to make Steve groan into Sam's mouth, stroking Sam's cock as Sam and Bucky's hands moved on his.

The kissing and stroking stayed sleepy and unhurried for about ten seconds, and then it turned into something between a race and a duel. Their hands were moving faster and faster while Sam's mouth broke from Steve's again and again to pant against his lips. His cock hardened in Steve's hand with every stroke. Steve tried to hold still under the combined attention of both of them, but he was hard within a few breaths from that dizzying double touch, his hips working in little jerks to get closer.

Bucky's hand wandered after a while, stroking restlessly over Steve's chest and teasing his nipples. Steve's breath caught hard at the first pinch. Sam made a little triumphant noise and tipped his head back against Bucky's shoulder.

"Whatever that was, do it again," Sam said, giving Steve's cock a long, twisting stroke. "I wanna see."

Bucky grinned at Steve and then held his gaze while he kissed along the side of Sam's throat, raising his hand to Steve's nipple again and pinching down deliberately. Steve gasped and pushed into it, his cock throbbing in Sam's grip and his hand falling still for the perfect clear bolt of pleasure-pain. He stared right back at Bucky until Bucky let go, and then lunged in for a kiss, stroking Sam furiously as he did.

Steve felt Sam arch up into it. He dropped his other hand to Sam's hip to steady him and pulled back from kissing Bucky just in time to see Bucky's left hand flattening against Sam's chest.

"Bucky," Sam said. "Grab the lube. I think we can move this op along now."

Bucky pressed harder against Sam's chest for a second, reminding him to be still. Steve loosened his grip on Sam's cock as Bucky brought the lube over to Sam's right hand.

"Now," Sam said, looking Steve up and down slowly, making Steve acutely aware of his hard nipples and harder cock, his eagerly spread thighs. "From what Steve's told me, you guys never fucked before. Is that right?"

Steve's eyes went wide and Bucky mirrored him. "We didn't," Bucky said firmly. "I would remember that."

"Hell yeah you would, believe me." Sam grinned and turned his head to kiss Bucky. Steve squirmed a little, watching them and wanting, already imagining what it might be like to really have both of them.

"You ever get close?" Sam asked, reaching out with his good hand, ignoring Steve's cock to slide between his thighs, touching him so lightly it almost made him shiver. "You ever get your fingers into him?"

The fingers of Bucky's left hand twitched against Sam's chest, and Steve dropped his own hand to grip his cock while Sam's finger pressed directly on his hole.

Bucky shook his head slowly, his gaze flickering from Steve's face down to where Sam's hand disappeared between his legs. "No."

"Well," Sam said, rocking that dry fingertip against Steve's hole. Steve knew he wouldn't actually push in like that, but he ached for it anyway, to be opened up for Sam, for both of them. "Good thing you've got me to here to teach you then, huh? Get your fingers nice and slicked up--Steve likes to try and rush this part, but we're not going to let him, so you can start with one finger."

Steve groaned, tipping his head back, but that didn't save him from the sound of Bucky squeezing lube out onto his finger, and the filthy sound of him spreading it around.

"Okay, now just like before," Sam said, "put your hand around my hand."

Steve spread his knees further apart, making room and inviting more. Bucky's right hand--just one finger slick and dripping--joined Sam's between his thighs. He felt Bucky's knuckles brush against him first, and then the wet touch of Bucky's fingertip, pressing against him right behind Sam's.

"Good," Sam said, "now push. Gently."

Steve's eyes closed as he focused on the sensation--Sam's finger curling slowly against him while Bucky's slippery-wet one pushed, probing tentatively. Steve made himself relax for it, and then Bucky's finger was inside him, a slick short glide that stopped too soon.

"More," Steve demanded, and Sam chuckled a little as he pushed his finger in along with Bucky's, stopping just inside too.

Steve tried to push down, to get more, but his brain was fizzing with the awareness that--if only a small way--he had Sam and Bucky both inside him.

"And then when his face does that," Sam said, and Bucky said, "I remember that, he makes that face."

Steve opened his eyes to glare at both of them, except that both fingers pushed further in right then, one and then both curling forward to make him gasp with the burst of pleasure.

They never let him catch his breath after that, moving in tandem and then in opposition, stroking and stretching him open, and when a third finger pushed in Steve didn't know whose it was and didn't care. He was too busy rocking on their hands, begging for more with every twitch of his hips, while Sam and Bucky muttered to each other--"See, like this," and, "What if I," and "Oh, he liked that."

Steve braced both hands on the headboard and leaned in to kiss Bucky and Sam in alternating brushes of his mouth, too eager to stop for long on either of them.

"You know," Sam said after a while, as one of the fingers inside Steve stroked along his rim and two pushed in further, "I can fuck you a lot sooner if you get me ready."

Steve made a broken sound against Bucky's mouth and fumbled one hand down to Sam's cock. Sam was already hard, and after a few quick strokes Steve reached sideways, groping for the condoms and lube. He looked up as Bucky's left hand plucked something from the covers, just in time to watch Bucky tear open a condom with his teeth.

Bucky tilted his head, raising his eyebrows, but at least one finger curled distractingly in Steve's ass, and he gasped out, "No, after you, by all means."

Bucky bared his teeth and plucked the condom out with shining fingers, rolling it down onto Sam's cock with a delicate precision that was eerily beautiful. Sam made a little breathless noise of his own, and Steve looked up to meet his eyes and saw his own fascination reflected there.

"You do the slick," Bucky directed, raising his left hand and wiggling the fingers illustratively as he said, "It's hell cleaning colloids out of my hand."

Steve laughed a little, startled somehow by the mundane logic of that. Sam laughed too, tilting his head to kiss Bucky's jaw while Steve grabbed the lube and slicked Sam up, winning a low moan from Sam that was muffled against Bucky's cheek.

Sam and Bucky's fingers slipped free of Steve's ass. There was some careful repositioning to line everything up, and then Steve was sinking down onto Sam's cock. He had his eyes closed to concentrate on the feeling of it, being filled up by Sam, the exquisite stretch and friction of it even with lube easing the way. He rocked as he went, adjusting the angle to get Sam's cock pressing right where he wanted it.

"God, that's pretty," Bucky said, his voice gone low and rough, and Steve's eyes flashed open to see Bucky and Sam both watching him. He was too far gone now to flush again. He watched them through his eyelashes, head tilted back, as he kept working himself slowly on Sam's cock. Bucky's eyes were riveted on him, dark with lust and fascination; Sam was a little tensed with concentration, like he was already trying not to come, or just trying to remember not to move.

Steve grinned and sped up a little, shifting tactics to driving Sam wild. He had Bucky to hold him still, after all. Steve saw the realization of it going over Sam's face--the wave of pleasure as Steve worked him just right, in the rhythm he couldn't resist, and then recognition.

"Oh, we're playing that game," Sam observed, sounding only a little strained. "Bucky, help me out here, man, Steve thinks he's gonna make me come--" Sam's words and breath cut off as Steve twisted his hips just right.

"I told you I'd do all the work, didn't I?" Steve pointed out, keeping his own voice steady with an effort, and then Bucky's metal hand closed around the back of his neck, tugging him down for a kiss. Steve moaned helplessly as Bucky kissed him hard and fast and fierce.

Sam's hand found his hip, tugging him into the exact angle for Sam's cock to set off sparks behind his eyes on every thrust. He could break Sam's grip, but--just once more, he just needed to feel that lightning sensation one more time, and Bucky--he might not be able to break Bucky's grip. Bucky kept him angled there, kissing him over Sam's shoulder, not letting him up to breathe. It didn't matter. He didn't need oxygen when he had Sam and Bucky both at the same time. He didn't need anything but this.

Steve reached out for something to hold on to, his left hand finding Sam's good shoulder, his right catching Bucky's knee and sliding down his thigh. He felt Bucky tense under the touch, Bucky's kiss faltering into something shocked and needy. Steve pushed into it, sliding his hand all the way to Bucky's hip, and Sam said, "Go for it, baby, you got this."

Bucky whined into Steve's mouth, and Steve could feel him grinding up against Sam in tiny sharp jerks. Steve broke the kiss to watch Bucky's face, his eyes fluttering shut, his mouth hanging open like he couldn't get enough air. That little line appeared on his forehead and Steve shuddered at the knowledge of how close Bucky was; he slid his hand up Bucky's side, curling it around his back to pull him close, pressing him into Sam. Bucky's breath hitched sharply and then he was coming on a long exhale, trembling under Steve's hand and then slowly sagging back.

There was a second of perfect stillness, and Steve was conscious of his own cock throbbing, his balls drawn tight, and Sam hard inside him, Sam's chest rising and falling fast against his own.

Then Bucky opened his eyes with a wicked grin.

"Your turn, Stevie." He hauled Steve into another kiss, and there was a hand on Steve's cock between his body and Sam's. Steve honestly couldn't tell whose it was. He didn't need to know; Sam was kissing the side of his throat, little bites that would only mark him for a second, and Bucky's metal fingers were cool and steady on his shoulder, and he couldn't hold back from the two of them. He didn't want to. He gave himself up with a sob muffled against Bucky's mouth, shaking through an orgasm spilled over someone's fingers, Sam's cock buried inside him.

He was careful not to slump forward as he came down. He straightened his spine, squirming on Sam's cock, and met Bucky's eyes with a wink. Bucky tilted his head thoughtfully and then nodded, and Sam said, "Oh, hell."

"You want to play this game, you have to take your turn," Steve pointed out. "You've got our absolutely undivided attention now."

Bucky tugged Sam into a kiss while Steve focused on riding him--every rise and fall felt more intense now that Steve had come, but Sam was close, twitching up under him. Steve settled his weight a little more firmly on top of Sam, grinding on him and clenching tight on his cock, leaning in to brush his lips across Sam's jaw an inch from where he was kissing Bucky. It didn't take long before Sam groaned and gave up under the onslaught, his hips pressing up hard against Steve's ass as he came.

He sagged back against Bucky when it was over, letting his head fall back on Bucky's shoulder. "I don't know if anybody's mentioned this before, but you two make a pretty scary good team."

"Lucky we're on your side, huh?" Bucky said, brushing a last kiss across Sam's cheek while Steve carefully pulled off, stripping the condom off Sam and standing up with a wince to throw it out and stretch his legs. He cleaned himself up a little and then offered a cloth to Bucky, who made a face but nodded, pushing Sam to sit up slightly so he could wipe them both off.

"This was great," Sam said, yawning, "but now I just want to go back to sleep."

"Good," Steve said, climbing back onto the bed and stretching out in the middle, just across the pillow barricade from Sam. That left plenty of room on his other side--and a pillow going unused there--but he didn't point that out to Bucky by word or gesture. "Then our devious plot has succeeded."

"Bastards," Sam muttered, but he let Bucky help him settle down in bed.

Bucky leaned down to kiss Sam, and then came around to the other side of the bed, crawling across the space Steve had left to give Steve a kiss too.

Steve tried not to ask, but he could feel himself looking up hopefully at Bucky, who huffed softly against his lips.

"JARVIS," Bucky said, looking up. "Get the lights."

Bucky didn't lie down, but he settled with his back to the headboard, close enough for Steve to sense his presence, and he said, "Go to sleep, both of you. I've got this watch."

Steve reached across the pillows to find Sam's right hand already reaching out for him, and he closed his eyes as their fingers twined together. He could sleep easy tonight.

Bucky didn't realize he'd dozed off until he woke up curled against the headboard. He looked down at Steve and felt the same old helpless ache of longing for something impossible--to belong in Steve's bed for real, not just to watch over him. He was already reaching out to touch Steve's cheek when everything snapped into place.

The hand he was reaching out with was metal, and the rhythmic burr in Steve's breathing was a snore, not a catch in his lungs. Steve hadn't had even a touch of asthma since the serum, and on the other side of Steve Sam was also asleep in their enormous bed in their enormous apartment in Stark Tower.

The ache in his chest didn't belong there, because Bucky had nothing left to want; he'd gotten all of it and more besides, in a future he'd never imagined despite all the time he'd spent reading comic books and pulp novels, dreaming of making things better for Steve somehow. He hadn't been the hero of the story--that was Steve, through and through--but Bucky was here anyway, rewarded all the same.

His chest still ached, and he rubbed absently at the spot with his left hand, not bothering to try to name the feeling. It was the way he always felt around Steve--no surprise he should feel it even more now, with Steve and Sam both sharing the bed. He sat watching them for a while, feeling bewildered and lucky and rich, and then it occurred to him that he was feeling something else too.

For maybe the first time--certainly for the first time that it lasted long enough for him to put his finger on it--he felt the truth of what Steve had told him back there on the helicarrier when the world was crumbling all around him. He'd always known it was true--he'd made every decision since because he trusted it was true--but it had never felt real like it did now.

My name is James Buchanan Barnes. I'm your friend.

More than a friend, by now, and more than that to Sam too. Partners, Tony had called them, and it was as good a word as any. They were a team of three, in bed and out.

Bucky thought of the tomb he'd seen pictures of with his own name engraved on it--not far from the one they'd discreetly dismantled that had borne Steve's name until a few years ago. It would be his turn now. He was alive again. He'd have to figure out how to be really alive again--he was Bucky for sure now, and he shouldn't keep hiding under the false names on the IDs Steve had given him.

"Steve," Bucky said softly, wondering how to set that in motion--SHIELD must have taken care of all that for Steve, but Steve might know how it had been done.

Steve came awake all at once, and a funny sweet smile dawned on his face when he looked over at Bucky. "Bucky, hey. You're still here."

Bucky couldn't help smiling back. He knew that Steve wasn't quite as awake as he looked. Steve was just looking at him and seeing Bucky, not all the years and strange circumstances that had led them here.

That was enough right now. They could figure out the rest in the morning.

"Yeah," Bucky said softly, settling lower on the bed, pressing his cheek into his pillow. "Yeah, it's me."

They arranged the meeting for a café in the Tower. It suited everybody--Sam wanted neutral territory, and Steve didn't want Sam to have to travel far, since he still wasn't supposed to be straining his leg or shoulder too much a week out from being shot. Bucky liked it because he could link in with JARVIS from the interior utility corridor at the back of the café and have full security surveillance access and a route to Sam and Steve that he could cover in four seconds in the event of emergency.

So far everything was going smoothly, though. Sam had called this a dress rehearsal--Steve was only being introduced to Sarah and Jody today, testing the waters before Sam introduced his (easier to explain) boyfriend to his parents.

Jody was happy to see Sam, and accepted the temporary rule against climbing on her uncle with reasonably good grace, especially when Sam told her that his boyfriend Steve loved kids and she could absolutely sit on his lap. Steve gave his most politely frozen smile at that, and Bucky had a perfect camera angle on Sarah's face to see her smothering a laugh.

Sarah was as ruthless as Sam was, though, and kept up a cheerful barrage of conversation while Steve gamely tried to cope with a friendly three-year-old sitting and then standing on his lap. Sam or Sarah occasionally corrected Jody's manners, but mostly they let Steve suffer with her affection and fidgeting and occasional questions. By the time they'd all finished their coffee and desserts Steve hadn't actually shown fear in a way Jody picked up on, so he was doing pretty well.

The waitress came by, and Steve glanced over at Sam, who gave a minute one-shoulder shrug. Steve turned a winning smile on the waitress and said, "Could we also get a slice of lemon meringue pie to go?"

Bucky grinned. He could have asked JARVIS to send up pie any time, but he knew what this meant; Steve and Sam had decided to include him a little in this.

Sarah looked back and forth between Sam and Steve as the waitress walked away. "Okay, I'll bite. Who's the pie for?"

Sam sat back, waving his good hand, and he said with the most elaborate casualness Bucky had ever heard anyone pack into two syllables, "Bucky."

Sarah frowned instantly. "Bucky like..."

Sam nodded.

"Bucky like who?" Jody demanded as Sarah's eyes went wide, her hand rising to cover her mouth. Jody tugged on Steve's shirt when he hesitated to answer. "Who is Bucky, Uncle Steve?"

Steve looked down at her for a moment, and then he glanced up, looking directly into the camera whose feed Bucky was watching.

"JARVIS," Bucky said. "Tilt that camera ten degrees left."

Steve smiled slightly as the camera tilted. JARVIS corrected the image automatically for Bucky, so Steve stayed at right angles.

"He's my best friend," Steve said, looking back down at Jody. "I've known him since I wasn't much older than you are now. He's watching over us to make sure we're safe. Look up there, do you see the camera?"

Jody followed Steve's pointing finger, and for the first time in days of watching over her, Bucky looked directly into Jody's face as she looked for him, smiling with cheerful curiosity. His throat went oddly tight.

"JARVIS," Bucky said. "Wave for me."

The image shook slightly as the camera oscillated back and forth. When Jody waved back, Sam and Steve both raised their hands to wave too.

"Hi," Bucky said softly, knowing they couldn't hear him but needing to say it anyway. "Hi. I'm here."