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Free to Be (You and Me)

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.01

Four months. That's how long it took before Bucky was ready to step foot outside of Steve's apartment, ever since arriving silently one night and crouching down next to Steve as he slept, whispering his name in a broken, desperate way that had almost been both of their undoing.

The first time he felt ready to leave the apartment, after four months of slowly carving out Bucky Barnes from the shell of the Winter Soldier, it was to attend a charity gala, of all things, for some kind of endangered sea creature.

He'd seen the invitation in the mail (Steve got dozens of them, but ever since Bucky had returned to his life, he'd turned down every single one), and casually suggested that maybe they should go. Steve had been so shocked, he'd choked on his cannoli, and Bucky had laughed more freely than he had in the past sixty years. It'd been worth it.

Still, Bucky's sudden urge to attend a suit-and-tie function baffled everyone, most of all Steve himself, who'd immediately realised that he needed a second – and third, and fourth – opinion on this unexpected development. Bucky was doing great, sure, but great enough for a public event like this?

So he'd sought help. First, he'd called Nick Fury, knowing that S.H.I.E.L.D. would likely be watching their every move anyway. Fury had been silent for a long time after Steve presented Bucky's suggestion, and had then said that ultimately, it had to be Bucky's call. The tests had been done, the evals had come back positive, and for all intents and purposes, Bucky Barnes was ready to return to the land of the living. Fury would ultimately leave the decision up to Steve (who would leave it to Bucky), but there was something sinister in his tone when he cautioned that just because Bucky was ready to embrace the world didn't mean the world would be as welcoming. The Winter Soldier still has enemies, Fury had said. And we're still working out exactly how to deal with them.

Steve had hung up not feeling much wiser about how to proceed.

Next, for reasons Steve couldn't quite explain to himself, he'd called Tony. Over the past couple of months, Tony had been a frequent visitor, officially coming to make some modifications to Bucky's arm, and unofficially to gawk at Bucky like he was some shiny new toy. But, for reasons completely beyond Steve's comprehension, Bucky seemed to find Tony's presence kind of soothing. It's cause he's so damn annoying, Bucky had grinned one lazy afternoon, flexing his metal hand and enjoying how the joints no longer squeaked. But Steve privately thought it had more to do with Tony's easy acceptance of the fact that it had been the Winter Soldier, not Bucky, who had assassinated Howard and Maria Stark.

When Steve asked Tony's opinion about the gala, Tony had rambled off some long spiel about suits and wires and prohibitors he could program into Bucky's arm, and Steve had eventually given up trying to interject, and left the phone on the table as he and Bucky settled in to watch baseball.

Ultimately, Tony ran out of words and hung up, and later texted Steve that he didn't think it was a good idea. It'd only been a couple of months, he written. Black tie functions were enough to drive anyone mad. What was the point of rushing?

Steve had called Natasha next. To his surprise, Natasha – who understood more about Hydra's conditioning than anyone – had pleaded, desperately, for them to reconsider (and Natasha? Not exactly the pleading type). Surely, she argued, it'd be better to start off slow. A small get-together at Stark Tower, perhaps? A trip to the park? A moonlight boat ride? (After that last suggestion, Steve had promptly hung up on her, cheeks burning.)

He knew that underneath the teasing, there was genuine concern for Bucky and Steve's well-being. And this, more than anything else, had given both of them pause when Steve had passed on her sentiments. It'd almost been enough to make Bucky reconsider.

But then Steve called Sam, on Bucky's behest. And Sam, surprisingly, had been all for it.

“Sounds like everyone's assuming Bucky'll wanna meet your friends before facing the rest of the world,” Sam's voice rang out on speakerphone; Steve had propped up the phone on the kitchen table as he absently started preparing his and Bucky's lunch.

Sam continued, “But you know, going to a place neither of you have been to before, facing a bunch of anonymous strangers... with you at his side, it actually might be easier for him. He won't have time to worry so much about himself if he's busy worrying about you.”

Steve smiled, chancing a glance at Bucky. He was lounging on the sofa, flicking through the channels on the TV, but Steve had no doubt he was paying close attention to the conversation. He didn't mind. He'd never had any secrets from Bucky, and he wasn't about to start having them now.

“That's what he said, too,” Steve said softly. “Said he'd only have to watch out for me, and counting the exits. Much less pressure.”

He glanced at Bucky again and caught him staring; Bucky shot him a roguish grin before turning back to the TV, and Steve angled his body away from him, fighting to keep the fondness out of his eyes. Having Bucky here, just sitting quietly, eating something, brushing his teeth, yawning... it was all just proof that he was really here, now, with Steve. He didn't think Bucky's return would ever stop feeling like a miracle.

“Well then,” Sam said, a note of finality in his voice, “I could waste half a day typing up a three-page pros and cons list for you. Or, you know, we could just listen to Bucky. If he says it's best, then it's probably true. He knows his triggers better than we do, after all.”

Steve hesitated for a moment, glancing at Bucky once more. He knew Sam was right. But he also knew that Bucky wanted, very badly, to be normal again. Steve wanted that too, of course, but more than anything else, he just wanted Bucky to be okay.

“You think he can handle it?” Steve asked Sam, voice barely more than a whisper. Because when it really came down to it, this was the only thing that worried him. Not Hydra, not S.H.I.E.L.D., not the public discovering who Bucky was. All of that, they could deal with. Bucky retreating back into his Winter Soldier shell, that was a risk Steve wasn't willing to take.

Sam was silent for a few moments. Then, “I think it's time to find out. And since none of your friends will be there, well, you won't be too distracted to notice if he can't. It's gonna be fine, Steve.”

Steve breathed a sigh of relief. Sam was, as always, bluntly honest. It was one of the things Steve liked best about him.

“Thanks, Sam,” Steve smiled, because if Sam believed it then maybe he could, too. He privately thought nothing – not even the Avengers – would ever keep his attention off of Bucky for any significant amount of time. But he wasn't gonna mention that. Ever since getting his best friend back... well, all Steve knew was that he never wanted to return to a world that didn't have Bucky Barnes in it.

“What'd Sam say?” Bucky asked, after Steve had hung up the phone. His voice was innocent, his eyes were fixed on the TV. But his knowing smile betrayed him.

“That your tux should be baby blue to match your eyes,” Steve grinned as he placed the sandwiches he'd made on the table. He nudged Bucky over, taking a seat on the couch next to him and slinging an arm over the back. Fingers almost, but not quite, touching the back of Bucky's neck.

Bucky snorted. “In your dreams, Rogers.”

The banter came easy to them, now. It had been the first part of Bucky to resurface, so intricately tied to his hazy memories of Steve that he'd clung to these quick, brassy remarks, using them as anchors to more substantial memories that, eventually, had given way to something more genuine.

Steve would have taken Bucky every which way, even if his old friend's memories had never truly returned, lost forever to the countless wipes that had shaped the Winter Soldier. But Bucky's memories had returned, and with them, his personality had begun to take shape – not the person he'd been before the war, not the person Hydra had created, but the Bucky he was today. An amalgamation of his past selves: Brooklyn boy, soldier, and weapon all wrapped up into one (more or less) flesh-and-blood package.

And Steve loved him. Loved him as he'd been, as he was and as he would be.

Bucky was his best friend, and was here, now, alive – surviving countless horrors, but making it through, finding his way back to Steve as though that'd always been a part of some great, cosmic plan.

Scars and all, haunted dreams and fragmented memories, metal arm and a pre-war haircut (Bucky had known exactly what to ask of Tony's private barber, before he'd even remembered the names of his parents), Steve loved everything about him. And even though what had happened to Bucky still left him with a seething rage he didn't quite know how to handle, Steve couldn't stop the surge of happiness he felt every time Bucky looked at him. Because whatever had happened in the past, it had allowed them to end up facing the present together. It felt like the universe had answered Steve's prayers, and sent him the one thing it knew he could not live without.

Steve leaned back against the couch cushions, watching Bucky unabashedly as the other man continued to flick mindlessly through the channels, already halfway through his sandwich.

“Seriously, Rogers, quit staring, you're making me blush,” Bucky said after a while, voice rough, but there was no bite to his words. Steve knew Bucky watched him sometimes, too, clearly still as amazed as he was that they were really here together.

“We do need to get you a tux, though,” Steve smirked, and Bucky shuddered.

“If I got Sam to convince you that wearing a tux was one of my triggers, would you let me go in jeans?”

“Don't be such a baby,” Steve laughed, using Bucky's shoulder as leverage as he rose from the couch, subconsciously seeking out the place where flesh fused with metal. “You're about a century too old for that.”

“You're one to talk,” Bucky mumbled, but he, too, was smiling. He did that a lot these days. Steve didn't think he'd ever seen anything more beautiful.

 

.02

The gala was fancy as all hell, and Steve shuddered as they entered the packed lobby, moving instinctively closer to Bucky. He would never, ever be comfortable at such an event, and neither would Bucky, but maybe that was the point. Put them both on away ground, and level the playing field. Maybe Bucky felt more comfortable here because Steve wasn't. Maybe he felt like it was easier to face it all, if they were facing it together.

All day, Bucky had been the picture of calm, but Steve knew better. This was a test, at least in Bucky's mind, of whether he had truly managed to contain the Winter Soldier. Glancing over now, Steve saw Bucky's jaw working, ever so minutely; his eyes were narrowed just the merest of fractions, and Steve resisted the urge to take his hand. He didn't care if Bucky let loose and tried to attack everyone (he'd hold him down, and keep him safe, and bring him home, and they'd be fine – even if the Winter Solder never relinquished his hold, they'd be fine), but Bucky wanted to do this alone, and so Steve would let him.

After all, in Steve's opinion, the only one who truly needed to be convinced that Bucky could do this was Bucky himself.

Steve did his best Tony Stark impression as he weaved through the crowd, glass of champagne in one hand and the sleeve of Bucky's jacket clutched in the other. He may not have taken his hand, but there was no way he was letting go of Bucky now (and maybe ever). And he was pretty sure Bucky felt the same way. He didn't have a glass of champagne, having warned Steve earlier that he'd probably squeeze the fragile crystal too hard and break it, and Steve had had no doubt that was true.

To most people, Bucky would seem like the vision of calm, with his head raised and his shoulders squared and his winning smile activated, but Steve knew better. Even before he became the Winter Soldier, Bucky would've been uncomfortable at a suit-and-tie function; he didn't even go to their senior prom, opting instead to stay home with Steve, who'd been suffering from a particularly nasty bout of springtime allergies at the time. He'd skipped it partly to take care of Steve, sure, but Steve had seen the flicker of fear in Bucky's eyes when he'd suggested he might be feeling better (he wasn't, but he hadn't wanted Bucky to miss out on such a momentous occasion on his account).

Bucky really hadn't wanted to be at that prom then, any more than he wanted to be at this gala now.

Maybe that was it, Steve mused as they settled down at their assigned table, Steve still gripping Bucky's sleeve, their hands hidden by the edge of the fancy white tablecloth. Maybe in some bizarre way, this was Bucky taking Steve to prom.

No , Steve corrected himself. Not taking him, because Bucky... well. Bucky would have taken that tall, blonde thing, Susie something, and Steve would've tagged along as he always did, with Bucky's reassurance that Susie had a friend who might wanna save a dance for him.

The kicker was that Steve would've taken Bucky to prom in a heartbeat.

But that wasn't a thought he ever let himself linger on for too long, especially not now, when Bucky had come back into his life and needed him, placed himself completely at Steve's mercy, making himself more vulnerable to him than he ever had before, to anyone.

Steve loved Bucky, and Bucky knew that, but anything more... if it hadn't already been impossible before, it certainly was impossible now, and not just because any confession from Steve would likely just make everything awkward and uncomfortable between them. Steve would never want to put Bucky in any position that'd make him feel obligated, not when Bucky was still regaining his memories and trying to figure out who he was supposed to be. Steve was there to be his friend, his rock, and he never wanted Bucky to feel pushed into something he might feel like he owed Steve--

“Penny for your thoughts.”

Steve started as Bucky's voice interrupted his inner tirade, and accidentally knocked their hands against the underside of the table, making the whole thing shake. Around them, people stared, some looking vaguely scandalised. Steve felt his cheeks flush, and drained the rest of his champagne in one go.

“Sorry. I went away for a sec,” Steve said bashfully, eyes meeting Bucky's for the briefest of moments before casting them down, willing his heart rate to slow. No one would be able to tell that anything was wrong, of course... no one but Bucky.

“And here I thought I was the jumpy one.” Bucky shook his head, but there was no panic there. Nothing but worry for Steve, and that old familiar note of affection in his voice.

“But you're not,” Steve realised, looking up and finding Bucky smiling faintly at him. Not relaxed, exactly, but it didn't feel like he was about to bolt, either. “Are you... managing?” Steve asked carefully, hating how banal the word sounded to his own ears.

“I'm managing,” Bucky shrugged, tilting his head and giving Steve a frank, open look, and Steve knew he was doing his best to let everything he was feeling show on his face. He'd been doing that a lot lately, too. No secrets had kind of become their mantra through all of this, the only thing they knew would allow them to reach some kind of coexistence.

Of course, at the beginning, coexistence had been their tentative end-goal. Neither of them had dared to believe they could ever be this. Bucky and Steve, the same yet different. Partners, in every way but one (although if it was up to Steve... no, he reminded himself for the millionth time. There was no wanting more, not now, not when he already had so much more than he could ever have dreamed of).

“Well, so far so good,” Steve allowed, forcing himself back to the present. Back to the Bucky he had, who was healthy and healing and here, and who would always be enough for him.

“You know, I feel so much contempt for these people, it's oddly comforting,” Bucky mused, glancing around the room in a way that almost looked casual. “I think I'm even centred enough to go get a glass of those bubbles they're giving away like candy. What do you say, Rogers? Steal from the rich, give to the poor?”

“We're not exactly poor anymore,” Steve reminded him, raising an eyebrow, amused despite himself. Between the two of them, the back pay they'd received for their troubles (and a more inadequate description of what they'd gone through, Steve had never heard) was enough to last them three lifetimes if they lived like Stark.

“Still. These bastards deserve it,” Bucky said conspiratorially, leaning over to almost brush his lips against Steve's ear as he rose from the table, and Steve had to force himself not to shiver at the contact.

“Socialist,” Steve mumbled after him, knowing that Bucky's enhanced hearing would pick up the slur (which was really a term of endearment). Bucky didn't turn around, but he did put a hand behind his back and give Steve the finger as he walked away. Steve laughed to himself, watching Bucky weave his way through the crowd, hyper aware of keeping his friend within his line of sight. The bar wasn't too far away, but it still felt too far.

He wasn't worried about what Bucky might do, even though he knew Fury and Hill would have wanted him to be. (Honestly, he wasn't convinced they hadn't planted a couple of agents here tonight just to make sure nothing apocalyptic happened.)

Bucky had been with him for four months, and Steve had seen him fight through impulses to hurt both Steve and himself, fragmented memories and – worst of all – periods where his brain seemed to shut down completely, seemingly trying to emulate cryo sleep in a last, desperate attempt to return to what it had come to know as normal. Steve had seen Bucky endure months of torture at his own brain's behest, unable to offer more than a voice and a hand and occasionally a chest which Bucky could lean against and fall apart. He'd seen Bucky pick up the pieces, the splinters of his humanity, and stitch himself back together bit by painful bit. The fallbacks had been less and less lately. They weren't out of the woods yet, but the trees were thinning, and the light was growing brighter. No, he wasn't worried about losing Bucky to the Winter Soldier.

He was just worried about losing Bucky.

Steve had lost Bucky once, and it had driven him into the ice. He had lost Bucky again, and it had almost driven him mad. He was not losing him a third time, not even for a second. And as long as Bucky wanted him close, as long as he needed him, he wouldn't let anything come between them.

“Erm, excuse me Mr... Captain? America, Sir?”

Steve started and half-turned in his seat to see that an elderly, overweight man with the thickest mustache in the world had sat down in Bucky's seat; Steve's fingers twitched at his side but he schooled his face into a mask of polite interest. It was just a seat.

He shifted back so he could still see Bucky out of the corner of his eye, while maintaining the illusion that he was looking at the man who'd addressed him. Bucky had already picked up two glasses of champagne but was hanging back by the bar, likely hesitant to return to the table too soon and risk getting wrapped up in a discussion he wouldn't know how to be a part of. Bucky wasn't exactly out, yet, as the fallen soldier Bucky Barnes who'd risen from the dead and turned into a mind-warped assassin working for the enemy. They were holding off on that reveal until Bucky had had some more time to fully acclimate himself back into the world. Steve had suggested 10-15 years; Fury had given him a pitying look and countered, Let's see where he's at in six months.

The man seemed hesitant to speak, and Steve fought to keep the impatience from showing on his face. “Yes?” he prompted, a little more abrasive than he'd normally be, but finding it hard to care when he really just wanted Bucky to come back.

“Oh, well, er,” the man started looking a little flustered, “I just wanted – it is such an honour to meet you, sir.”

Steve's eyes properly met the man's for the first time, for the merest of seconds, and he instantly felt bad for trying to brush him off. When had he ever been one to turn away from a stranger who just wanted to say hello?

“I'm sure the honour is all mine, Mr...?” Steve stuck out his hand and the man almost fell out his chair in a rush to grasp it, shaking Steve's hand with a vigor that was somewhat surprising for someone his age.

“Ryan. Oswald Ryan,” the man said quickly, mustache brimming with excitement. Chancing another quick, proper look at the man, Steve saw that his eyes were quite small, light blue and squinted; his nose and cheeks were a matching shade of splotchy red, suggesting that Mr. Ryan, at least, had not held back on the free champagne this evening.

“It's really nice to meet you,” Steve said, and he tried his best to mean it. If this Oswald Ryan thought this was his chance to become Captain America's new best friend, well, that place was already occupied. Just like the seat he was currently filling. This could be the nicest man in the world, but Steve wasn't here to make friends. He was here for Bucky.

He lifted his shoulders incrementally, hoping Bucky understood it as a shrug of apology; when Steve glanced towards the bar, Bucky was raising one glass of champagne into the air in response even as he appeared to be conversing lightly with the bartender. Human contact, then. No casualties, not even a slight maiming incident. So far, so good.

Oswald Ryan and his mustache were still sitting there, squirming slightly on the too-small chair, one single drip of sweat trickling slowly down his wide, lumpy forehead, heading solidly in the direction of his left eyebrow. Steve tried not to follow the lackadaisical movement of the drop with his eyes.

“Pardon the intrusion,” Ryan said at last, and Steve thought, Finally, we're getting somewhere, “but I just wanted to say... thank you. For reminding this country of what it used to stand for.”

Oh, Steve thought, spirits sinking ever so slightly. He's one of them.

Not that Steve minded. Not really. He got the whole nostalgia thing, sure. Fury had given him many a lecture about the continuing need for Captain America as a symbol of hope, reminding the country of what used to be good and right and all that crap. Steve had replied, every single time, that the values of the '40s weren't exactly what people today thought they had been. And every single time, Fury had waved him off, telling him that the only thing that mattered was that people were united again, so that they might work towards a common goal rather than waste time squabbling with each other. And Steve couldn't exactly argue with that.

“Well, I do what I can,” Steve offered, pushing a little bit of that grandiose quality people always expected him to have into his voice.

“I see you brought a friend tonight,” Ryan remarked, and Steve followed the other man's gaze to see that his eyes had landed on Bucky. Steve fought back the surge of panic; Ryan couldn't possibly know who Bucky was. He was just making conversation.

“I did,” Steve smiled. “He's – we're very close. It can be a bit dreary to attend these things alone.”

“Hmm,” the man said, eyes back on Steve now, eyes even smaller now that his gaze had narrowed. Steve didn't know why, but the stranger's scrutiny was making him a little uncomfortable. He shifted in his seat, and suddenly wasn't sure what to do with his hands. “You know, when you came back, there were a whole lotta people who doubted you,” Ryan said suddenly, and Steve frowned. Where was he going with this? “People asked, What's this guy doing in our time? What does he expect us to do, worship him like our parents did?

Yes, Steve thought, Ryan's parents would probably have been just the right age to worship the idea of Captain America. Maybe his father had even been deployed. Under any other circumstances, he might have asked, but Steve wasn't sure he wanted to keep talking to Ryan for longer than was absolutely necessary – and not just because Bucky was waiting for him. There was something about Oswald Ryan that just didn't sit right with him.

“Well,” Steve tried gamely, “lucky we live in a democracy then. Everyone's free to choose what they wanna believe in.”

He'd meant it as a conversation closer, but to his chagrin, Ryan seemed to take it like a challenge. “And that's exactly why I'm here, Cap-- Mr. Rogers. See, the thing is, when all those people were doubting you, I never did.” He paused, as if expecting Steve to express gratitude. Steve said nothing; eventually, Ryan continued. “I always said, That Captain America, he's back to knock some sense into the youth of America. Remind 'em what's right. Reinstate our country's proud traditions.”

Steve really didn't think he was going to like where Ryan was going with this. And after a very pregnant pause during which Ryan's tiny, beady eyes bore into his own, his fears were confirmed.

“People see you here with that man, Rogers, and I'm just gonna say what everyone's thinking,” Ryan said, voice pitched lower, leaning in so close Steve could smell the alcohol on his breath. He fought the urge to recoil. “Folks are gonna get the wrong idea, and that's the last thing we want. There's a right, and there's a wrong, and I know you and me see eye to eye on this. Picket fences, Rogers, that's always been the American dream. Don't play to the... the depraved . Don't let 'em think you're on their team, that's all I'm saying.”

Steve gaped. He didn't understand half the words Ryan had just said to him, but he was pretty sure he got the gist of it. And he couldn't even begin to formulate a response.

“I...” he started, but Oswald Ryan was already out of his seat, patting Steve on the shoulder (Steve had an immediate desire to burn his jacket) and nodding gravely, as though they'd just agreed on something. Steve desperately tried to find the words to express how deeply he did not agree, but no words would come, and then Ryan was gone.

It only took seconds for Bucky to return, reclaiming his seat and grinning at Steve as he presented the glass of champagne. The bubbles were all gone.

“Finally! I thought that old geezer would never leave,” Bucky proclaimed. His face fell as he noticed Steve's expression. “What's wrong? What did he say to you?” Bucky's tone was sharp now, and so familiar; he had fallen so seamlessly back into the role of Steve's valiant protector, and for some reason, Steve wanted to cry. He also kind of wanted to scream.

Oswald Ryan had practically warned him not to let the world think he and Bucky were... an item, because that wasn't what he thought Captain America stood for.

In an instant, Steve was back on that stage, lines of pretty girls dancing behind him, a spotlight in his eyes. Captain America was still just a dancing monkey, singing a tune that someone else had composed for him; a tune which he hadn't been able to hear properly until now.

And the worst of it was, Oswald Ryan had not only condemned some of the most oppressed people in history, that were finally meant to be free. He had condemned Steve, who – while he might never act on it – would like nothing more than to declare his feelings for Bucky to the world, baring the truth in his heart for everyone to hear. Without fear of condemnation from people like Ryan.

If he was unusually quiet for the rest of the evening, Bucky didn't remark on it. Steve knew he'd be cross-examined later, but right now, he just wanted to make it through this dreadful gala and get the hell out of here. Steve Rogers had hung his hat on the wrong stand, and everyone around him suddenly felt like enemies.

 

.03

They ducked out as soon as they could. The moment fresh air hit their faces Bucky breathed out an audible sigh of relief, and Steve finally realised how tough of a time Bucky had really had in there. But he'd powered through, like Steve knew he would, and Steve could only imagine how great of a victory Bucky would see this as. It was so very like him to dive in headfirst like this, tackling the hardest challenge first, knowing that everything that came after would feel easy in comparison.

Steve would commend him later. They'd celebrate, and kick their feet up, and revel in the fact that once again, they'd proven that together they were stronger than Hydra.

But right now, Steve just wanted to go home. They hailed a cab, Bucky shooting him anxious looks every so often, more restless on his feet now that they were in an open space, and there were too many exits for him to count.

Steve took his hand; it was an instinctive action which, once he'd done it, made him feel a little bit empowered. Perversely, he hoped Oswald Ryan and his no doubt equally prejudiced wife would walk by right now and see it. As it was, no one around them seemed to notice or care that the two men waiting by the sidewalk were holding hands, but Steve still held on. After a moment, he felt Bucky's fingers close around his own, skin warm where it pressed against his. It was the flesh hand, not the metal one. Not that that mattered to Steve anymore. It was all Bucky to him.

The cab arrived and they ducked inside, Steve only reluctantly letting go of Bucky's hand once the doors were shut and he saw the relief on Bucky's face which meant that the exits were all accounted for.

Bucky gave the driver their address (another nice bit of normal human interaction for him, Steve noted), and for the next twenty minutes, they could sit in comfortable silence... and Steve could try to get his raging thoughts into some sort of semblance of order.

Except, really, there was not too much to get in order at all. The simple truth was that Steve Rogers had loved exactly two people in his life: Peggy Carter, and Bucky Barnes.

As he stared out at the ever-changing city he could no longer quite call home rush by, Bucky right beside him but not quite touching (some part of Steve always wanted to be touching Bucky, just to make sure he was still there), Steve let his mind wander back. To 1945, to the bar where he’d finally let himself fall apart; where Peggy had held him as he mourned the loss of his best friend; where he’d realised that she was the only woman he could ever love.

 

.04

Peggy’s hands had been soft as she stroked his hair, her breathing steady and eyes clear even though Steve knew that she, too, was mourning Bucky's loss.

Whenever he closed his eyes, he saw it: Bucky’s expression of panic as the enemy had closed in on Steve, Bucky holding the shield, Bucky hanging on for dear life as the white abyss stretched out below him… Bucky falling. Steve not catching him, not saving him. Bucky’s eyes meeting Steve's one last time, everything from terror to desperation to guilt written in them.

Steve had been crying for a long time even before Peggy'd shown up, stopping for brief moments only to pick right back up, super-soldier serum making sure his eyes would never run dry. And Peggy had sat by his side the whole time, sometimes talking to him about Bucky, about the mission, about anything and everything… and sometimes quiet, giving Steve all the time he needed. And he knew she understood. He wasn’t quite sure what she understood (and at that moment, being careful to control his emotions was the last thing on his mind), until finally, after the longest stretch of silence yet, she spoke.

“You loved him.”

It wasn’t a question. He answered it anyway.

“Yeah. I did.” His voice was rough and shaky; he knew his eyes were red and bloodshot, and tiny tremors wrecked his body. He didn't think he'd ever stop shaking.

The knife of Bucky’s loss twisted and twisted in his heart, and he felt like the pain was only getting worse. The more time passed, the more certain his soul became that Bucky was never coming back. The more his world shattered, irreparable.

Peggy was silent for a long time after that, her knee touching his, a constant anchor in his sea of grief. And suddenly, in that moment, Steve felt oddly serene.

Love could mean a lot of things, of course, but he knew exactly what she’d been implying. He knew what he’d just admitted to, and for the first time in his life, he didn’t care. And neither did she. There was beauty in that, somehow, in the desolation of it all.

“I’ll wait. Until you’re ready. If... if you want me to.”

It was said so shyly, so timidly in a way Peggy had never sounded before – and would likely never sound again. She was looking at him now, with those big, brown, beautiful eyes, wide and earnest… and she was, Steve realised, truly in love with him. Despite what he’d just confirmed for her; despite the fact that she should by right be more disgusted with him than most women had been before he’d taken the serum. Despite everything, she still wanted to dance with him.

To his surprise, Steve managed the tiniest ghost of a smile, and carefully, gently laced his fingers through hers. He might not be able to love Peggy the way he’d loved Bucky, but he could love her in another way, a way in which he’d never been able to love his best friend: freely.

The unrequited love of Peggy Carter was a gift more generous than he’d ever felt he deserved.

But in the end, Steve only made it two months without Bucky, and then he crashed into the sea. And despite Peggy, despite all the dancing he knew was waiting for him, despite finally knowing he had someone who loved him and who he knew he would one day be able to love in return, he felt ready.

The moment he’d realised what he had to do, sitting in that cockpit and watching the clouds part before him, his chest had filled with something peculiar – not dread, although he certainly didn’t want to die. It was relief, he realised, because he knew his fight was over. Not the war; the war would never truly be over. It was the much more impossible fight within him, with nothing to win and no weapons or enemies to distract him: the fight to carry on without Bucky Barnes at his side, to survive from one day to the next knowing that he would never again see his best friend alive.

Steve looked out towards the horizon. He almost smiled. This wasn’t the worst place to spend your final moments.

Still, he felt bad for Peggy, who would be left waiting for a man who never came home. He felt bad for himself, and the life with her he’d never have. But he also felt hopeful. Steve wasn't sure he believed in God, but if there was any kind of an afterlife, he truly believed that he would find Bucky there. And maybe the need for such a clarity was the reason why people believed in anything in the first place.

Steve Rogers plummeted into the water with Peggy Carter’s picture on the dashboard, and Bucky Barnes’ dog tag on his chest, underneath his own, resting right above his heart.

 

.05

Steve was nudged back to reality, literally, by Bucky’s knee gently knocking against his own. He started a little and turned to see Bucky looking at him, an inscrutable expression on his face.

“What are you thinking about?”

Steve smiled sadly. “Peggy,” he said softly, because he never wanted to lie to Bucky. And there was no reason to.

To his – relief? Surprise? Disappointment? – Bucky smiled, too. The corners of his mouth stretched and his eyes crinkled, and at that moment there was absolutely no trace of the Winter Soldier on his face. Steve resisted the urge to reach out and touch Bucky's smooth, freshly shaven face, feeling like a parched man in a desert standing in front of a oasis mirage. He wanted to take that smile and keep it, because some part of him still feared that he'd lose it again. He worried that fear would never go away.

“She was one hell of a gal,” Bucky said softly, pressing his knee against Steve’s again and leaving it there.

“That she was,” Steve agreed, with a small smile of his own. The way Peggy had looked at him… even before the serum. Only one other person had ever looked at him that way.

Before he'd taken the serum, Steve had mistaken Peggy's look for pity. Many might have done the same with Bucky, catching his eyes roaming over Steve's slight, pale form on any given day before the war; tracking his injuries, carefully watching the way his chest heaved, looking for signs of muted pain in his eyes.

But Steve had known Bucky didn't pity him. And when Peggy had continued to look at him that way, too, after he'd become Captain America, Steve finally recognised her look for what it was: respect. Understanding. A hint of a challenge, which made him feel alive. And he’d realised that he’d finally found a woman whom he might one day care for, in the way society had taught him that a man was meant to care for a woman.

“She deserved you.” Bucky’s words were almost a whisper, but Steve heard them, of course; he would have heard them if he was standing on the street outside as the car had raced past.

So many replies came to him then: She deserved better and So did you and I missed you too much all racing through his brain before he landed on, “Thank you.”

Bucky’s eyes were searching his, and Steve realised that neither of them had broken eye contact for a really long time.

“I’m sorry you lost her,” Bucky said at last, and Steve could tell he meant it. Bucky had always wanted Steve to find a dance partner, but the pickings had never exactly been abundant – and Steve had privately thought that Bucky's standards on his behalf were unreasonably high. But Bucky had approved of Peggy. That had meant more to Steve than he could've ever expressed.

The Thank you was on his lips again before he changed his mind. That wasn’t what he wanted to say, and for once, he wasn't going to hold back.

“I’m glad I found you,” he whispered instead, and something flickered over Bucky’s face, gone too fast for Steve to be able to identify the emotion.

They sat in silence for the rest of the journey, knees touching, just as his and Peggy's had done that night, all those years ago, in the bar where his heart had broken apart.

But this time, Steve’s heart wasn’t broken. This time, he saw the future stretch out, bright and hopeful, ahead of him. He had Bucky by his side. Whatever else happened, he knew that would always be enough for him.

 

.06

“So, spit it out,” Bucky demanded, the second Steve had closed the door behind them. He was already heading for the kitchen and Steve trailed after him, confused. Thinking about Peggy and Bucky had driven all other things out of his mind.

“Spit what out?” he asked lamely, then blushed, for no good reason.

“Whatever it is that’s got your panties in a twist,” Bucky said, making a beeline for the fridge and grabbing a beer, tossing Steve one without missing a beat. Neither of them felt the effect of alcohol anymore, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t appreciate a cold Bud on a hot summer’s eve. Some things never changed. “You've been acting weird all night,” Bucky added, words muffled with his mouth pressed to the beer can; his hair was ruffled and his tie was slightly askew, and Steve thought the sight was more obscene than it had any right to be.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Steve mumbled around his own Budweiser's, feeling the condensation on the can cool his too-hot skin. It was a brief reprieve; Bucky had once called Steve a walking furnace, back during the war, in the much-too brief period they’d spent fighting side by side like they’d always been meant to do. On cold nights around the fire, Bucky would scoot closer to him, their sides aligned until Steve had taken pity on his old friend and slung an arm around him, pulling a weakly protesting – but always relenting – Bucky closer. And even if it'd only been for warmth, Steve had savoured those moments.

Bucky shrugged. “Oh, so I don't need to go kill that old man who was getting you all hot and bothered at the gala? Good to know.”

Steve had long ago resigned himself to the fact that Bucky occasionally made light of the fact that he'd worked as an assassin for the past sixty years, but that didn't mean he had to like it. Bucky clearly noticed his frown (Steve was terrible at hiding his feelings; Bucky had always said so), and sighed.

“I'm just saying, Steve,” Bucky implored, sliding along the kitchen table until they were almost shoulder to shoulder. That was another new habit of theirs: whenever either of them said something which made the other uncomfortable, they would always move closer to each other rather than shift away. It was probably due to some subconscious fear on both their parts that one ill-conceived remark could drive them apart again. And one thing Steve was absolutely sure of, even in the constantly suppressed confusion of his feelings: Bucky was as scared of losing Steve as Steve was of losing Bucky.

That's what gave him the courage to say, ever so softly, “He assumed... things. About us.”

“'You and me' us, or 'the Avengers' us?” Bucky asked innocently.

Steve still got a thrill every time Bucky referred to himself as part of the Avengers (even though he still hadn't met all of them, but as far as Steve was concerned, that was only a formality), and Bucky knew this. He was just buttering him up to spill the beans, but strangely, Steve didn't care one bit.

“That first one,” Steve sighed, resigned to getting this conversation over with. Bucky was going to wheedle it out of him anyway, and it would be a lot less suspect if he just came out and said it himself. Steve may not be worried about Bucky running out on him, exactly, but he didn't have to make things more awkward than they had to be. He'd survived this long without Bucky discovering his feelings, and he'd rather not rock the boat on this one.

At Bucky's expectant expression, Steve continued, “He was just being an ignorant ass, no two ways about it. He saw you, obviously, and assumed we'd arrived together... which we had...”

“So?” Bucky shrugged, taking another sip of his beer and not looking at Steve anymore. “That's hardly sensational.”

“Yeah, Buck, but now, I mean, it's different.” Steve wasn't looking at Bucky anymore, either, and speaking to the wall as they were, it was much easier to maintain a steady, matter-of-fact tone. “Two men go to a thing together, and... people might assume things, because things are a lot more common these days.” Steve was proud of how even his voice sounded, how controlled he kept his breathing. This didn't have to be awkward, he reminded himself; not unless he made it so.

“So... what'd you tell him?” Bucky's voice was carefully neutral. Steve didn't know what to make of that.

“I didn't tell him anything,” Steve insisted, the words coming out a little more defensive than he'd meant for them to be. “I was just... so flabbergasted, and he left before I could think of a response.”

He should have said something. Of course he should've. Problem was, he still didn't know what he possibly could have said.

“So he just... assumed the worst?”

The worst. Bucky's words cut deep, but his tone... there was something cynical there, a twist to his words that caught Steve off-guard.

“Well, yeah,” Steve said slowly, chancing a glance at Bucky out of the corner of his eye; the other man was still glaring fixedly at the wall. “Then he said all kinds of crap about picket fences and traditions, and protecting my image as Captain America--”

Bucky's sound of outrage surprised him so much, he actually turned to look at the other man, forgetting that he was trying to appear nonchalant about this whole thing. Bucky's mouth was hanging open as he turned to Steve, indignation clear on his face. “Your image? And what the hell's he think your image is, Steve?”

Steve blinked, completely nonplussed. He wasn't sure what he was expecting from Bucky (they'd never actually had a conversation about this before; it was one of the few issues neither of them had ever brought up), but anger definitely hadn't been on the list.

“Er, freedom?” Steve said dumbly. “And... peace, and values and stuff?”

Bucky snorted humourlessly. “Values. That's it. Traditional values. They're all saying it, those old assholes who talk about you when you're not around, acting like they knew-- like they know you. Think you're a relic on some great age where men were men and women were women and no one stepped out of line. I could just...”

“Er, Buck?” Steve said cautiously, raising his hand to gently still Bucky's, which had been slowly squeezing the (thankfully empty) can of beer into to a ball of metal.

Bucky's eyes shot down to their joined hands and he dropped the can as if it'd burned him; it bounced off the floor like a ball, and then rolled under the fridge. Both men followed it with their eyes.

“I should get that,” Bucky said abruptly, and the silence was broken; he bent down to retrieve the can and Steve carefully looked anywhere else but down.

When Bucky had straightened again, he looked a little more composed. But still pissed off, adorably so (adorably? Steve mentally admonished himself), eyebrows scrunched and mouth in a pout so irresistible, Steve felt at once pained with longing and unbearably in love. Both extreme emotions that he had gotten very, very good at hiding behind a vaguely fond smile.

“I'm just saying,” Bucky continued mulishly, casting his eyes down, “it's infuriating. How they think they can take what you are and turn it to their benefit, these hateful agendas that give them this feeling of, I dunno, superiority or whatever.”

“Wow,” Steve said, “that was almost poetic, Buck.”

“Shut up,” Bucky said, punching him lightly in the arm (it hurt like hell, but Steve could take it). He was smiling a tiny bit now, in an embarrassed sort of way.

“No, I mean it,” Steve continued, because joking was easier than feeling (and oh, how he felt; Bucky's little speech was almost everything he'd always dreamed of hearing his best friend say). “I feel like we should put it on a poster or something. 'Fight the oppressors. Take away their feeling of, I dunno, superiority or whatever.' It's got a certain ring to it.” This time, he dived out of the way of the smack Bucky aimed as his head, but the other man was laughing now, so Steve considered that a mission well accomplished.

Bucky was still smiling, turning to lean one hand on the kitchen counter as he surveyed Steve with something like amazement. “I just don't get it. How you do it. The...” he chuckled, shaking his head, his smile turning a little wistful. “The politics of it all. How you've survived this long in the new world without managing to piss somebody off, I'll never know. I wouldn't have made it a week.”

“Cheers to that.” Steve inclined his head at Bucky as he took a sip of his beer. Bucky eyed it longingly for a second, and Steve knew he'd be reaching for another soon. Immunity to the effects of alcohol or not, Bucky had always liked his beer.

“I mean, it's different now though,” Bucky said, seeming to find his focus again. “During the war, you were, like, Captain America. You were this symbol of hope and victory and all that crap, and people needed that. Now...”

“Now there's no common enemy,” Steve nodded grimly, putting his beer down. He was beginning to get the sense that there really was something on Bucky's mind, some issue greater than whether or not an old guy had pissed Steve off at a party. He didn't usually stay on the same topic this long.

Steve's thoughts drifted back to the war, as they often did: he remembered the way everyone had been so united in their suffering. There was still hate and pettiness then, sure, but there was also this incredible vision of a happier future uniting the nation. The vision that would drive millions to lay down their lives in order to bring America one step closer to this glorious, future world. An end to the horrors of war, a dream of some kind of modern eden.

Maybe that was the real problem today, Steve mused. There was no hope of a better future, no substantial enemy to unite against and defeat in order to gain some kind of tangible peace. Only humanity, destroying itself and its planet one plastic bottle at a time; lingering conflicts and old hatreds boiling under the surface, everyone just waiting and fearing some impending man-made apocalypse while trying to distract themselves by squabbling over old issues that should long since have been resolved; shouting blindly about what gods should be worshiped and who should be allowed to marry who, just because they needed something to divert their attention from the ever-looming, elusive doomsday that always seemed just around the corner.

The idea of a Captain America was far less substantial, far less impactful, in this cynical wasteland they called the present.

“Sometimes I wonder if Captain America wouldn't have been better off as a memory,” Steve said quietly; Bucky's head shot towards him, worry written plain as day on his face. “Not because I don't wanna be here,” Steve amended quickly. “But just, as Steve. The whole Captain thing... I'm hardly more than that dancing monkey I used to be before the Howling Commandos, am I?”

“You still fight bad guys,” Bucky said gently. They both ignored the fact that, until recently, Bucky had been one of those bad guys.

“Sure,” Steve shrugged. “And don't think I'm not happy to do it. I'm glad to be part of a team, to do good and all. But you said it yourself, people don't need me to be a symbol anymore. Not the way they used to.”

“Hmm,” Bucky said, tilting his head slightly as he continued looking at Steve.

Steve frowned; Bucky had that look on his face – the scrutinising, measuring gaze he used to fix on girls before the war, whenever he was trying to decide whether they were good enough for Steve.

“What?”

“I dunno, Steve...” Bucky shook his head slowly. “This might just be the old man in me speaking, but I think there's still people in this country that need a symbol of hope. Some solidarity, maybe, if nothing else. Someone to stand up for their rights, you know?”

Steve frowned. “You mean--”

“I don't mean anyone in particular,” Bucky said quickly. “I just mean... that guy tonight, whispering in your ear. Sounds like he's looking for people he can stomp down, just like those big guys on the playground. You always stood up to them, Stevie, even when they were three times your size and it all ended with both of us getting our asses kicked.” Steve smiled at that, and Bucky patted his arm, just once, eyes wide and earnest and so damn Bucky. “I get that you don't wanna ruffle any feathers, and I don't blame you,” he added, and there was nothing but understanding in his voice. “But I'm just saying. Maybe don't let 'em stomp, is all.”

Steve looked at Bucky, really looked , because although he'd always known Bucky wasn't one to stick his nose in anyone else's business, he'd never quite had this. Clear proof, however haltingly given, that Bucky not only accepted what Steve was (even if he didn't know Steve included himself in that category), but that he thought they deserved better than what they got. That he saw the people trying to oppress them as bullies, no better than the ones that had hounded Steve through most of his life. The bullies that Bucky had always protected him from, when Steve had been unable to protect himself.

“You're right,” Steve decided, and it might just have been wishful thinking, but he thought Bucky looked a little relieved. “What am I, Captain Switzerland? Of course I should take a side.”

And the side he would always take, no matter his personal wants or beliefs, would be the side of those that were trod down. That wasn't Captain America's way, though – it was Steve's.

Bucky smiled at him then, so much pride and fondness shining in his eyes, that Steve almost let himself hope that, maybe, some day...

But then Bucky turned, went to the fridge and grabbed another beer, and the moment had passed.

 

.07

Steve woke up slowly, blinking as his eyes adjusted to the near-darkness of his bedroom, wondering why he had stirred in the middle of the night.

Just as soon as he opened his eyes, all of his senses were alert: he realised at once that he was not alone. And yet, he didn’t feel threatened in the slightest.

He turned his head and saw the familiar shape of Bucky, silhouetted in the doorway, standing stock still like a statue as he watched Steve unblinkingly.

“Bucky?” Steve’s voice was raspy with sleep; he pushed himself up and back against the headboard, wondering if he should get out of bed. He didn’t want to scare Bucky away, but he also, instinctively, wanted to make sure Bucky was okay.

In the end, Bucky was the one who came closer, taking a few tentative steps further into the room.

“I didn’t mean to wake you.” Bucky didn’t sound like he was in pain; Steve felt some of the tension leave his body. But still, something was clearly wrong.

“How long…” Steve shook his head. It didn’t matter. “What’s wrong?” he asked instead, still scanning Bucky's body for any injuries he may be concealing under the cover of darkness.

To his surprise, Bucky laughed. A small, broken sound which sent a small pang through Steve’s heart. “Nightmare. Just a stupid fucking nightmare, Steve.” He sounded apologetic, and the merest shift of his stance told Steve that he was considering leaving the room again, probably embarrassed now that he’d been caught.

“Tell me about it,” Steve said softly, thinking of all the times he’d woken up screaming, Bucky’s name on his lips. Even after waking up in the present, he would dream of that day on the train, everything he should have done to save his friend. Every way he'd failed.

When Bucky just continued to watch him uncertainly, Steve scooted over a little bit, and raised his eyebrows. “No, really. Tell me about it.”

Bucky hesitated for a split second, then he smirked. “If you're gonna invite me into your bed you really oughta at least buy me dinner first, Rogers.”

Steve snorted. “If that’s the currency, you owe me a hell of a lot more than a bedtime story.”

Bucky raised an eyebrow, but approached the bed none the less, sitting down gingerly on the edge. After a moment he huffed, as if admitting defeat, pushing himself up to lean against the headboard next to Steve. Steve tilted his head, looking at Bucky’s profile in the dim light, and tried very much not to feel like another part of his world had just clicked back into place.

“This feels familiar,” Bucky said, looking straight ahead at something Steve couldn’t see. “We did this.”

Steve smiled. “We did.”

“Not much to do in the wee hours of the morning but sit and talk back then, I suppose,” Bucky mused, and although Steve knew he remembered, in that moment it felt like he was talking about someone else. And he supposed, in a way, he was. The Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes who’d crawled into the same bed on cold winter nights, talking about everything and nothing until they’d drifted off to sleep, wrapped around each other for warmth rather than comfort (or that’s what Steve had told himself, anyway), they were long gone. The Steve and Bucky who had reclaimed themselves in these new bodies, in this new time… they were something else. Something more. And maybe that was okay.

“Yeah. God. We talked about everything.” Steve remembered it all fondly, and he couldn’t help the small laugh that escaped him. “You knew everything about me.” Well… not everything, he supposed. There was still one secret left unshared between them. But maybe that was okay, too.

“What about me?” Bucky grinned, finally turning his head to face Steve, finally allowing himself to fully exist in the present. “Steve, man, there isn’t a thought in my head I haven’t shared with you at once point or another.” His face fell incrementally. “Or, at least… I guess, there wasn’t. Before.”

Before. Before Zola. Before Hydra. Now, Steve was pretty sure Bucky was doing his damned best to make sure the dark thoughts and deeds of the Winter Soldier would never pass over his lips, as much as he might want to share them with someone.

Steve cleared his throat, more to keep Bucky from slipping back into the shadows of his mind than because he actually had something to say. “You said you had a nightmare.”

For a moment, he worried it’d been the wrong thing to say. But then the shadows cleared from Bucky’s eyes and he nodded, looking almost relieved that Steve had brought it up again.

“It was stupid.”

“Nightmares usually are.”

“Got that right.” Bucky hesitated, eyes searching Steve’s before dropping to his hands. Steve followed his gaze to see Bucky’s hands – one flesh, one metal – clasping each other, an odd gesture of solidarity with himself. It was as though, for once, the two conflicting parts of Bucky were united as one. Steve liked the sight more than he could quite explain to himself.

After another long moment, Bucky finally began to speak. “We were on the bridge. I’ve been there before, many times. In my sleep,” he clarified. “I’ve seen it… a lot. But this time, I was there, but I wasn’t. I was watching it happen, but it was the Winter Soldier, not me, and I couldn’t stop it. I was just watching you stumble, and fall, and I—he—” Bucky’s voice was shaking now, ever so slightly, and it took everything in Steve’s power not to reach out to him in that moment. “He killed you,” Bucky finally managed, a wry resignation to his words. “He pushed me out of his head and finished the job when I couldn't, and I was like… a ghost, or whatever, watching the damn Soldier destroy the only thing I had left to live for.”

Steve waited for Bucky to say more. He wondered if this was how it’d been for Bucky before, when he’d been employed on other missions. If this was how the process had worked: Bucky had simply stepped out of himself, allowing the Winter Soldier to do his job, unwilling to see it through but unable to stop it from happening. This would certainly explain the persistent gaps in his memory from that time.

After a while, it became clear that Bucky wasn’t going to say anything else. So, finally, Steve allowed himself to let go, his hands reaching out almost as if he was being controlled by some unknown force, pulling Bucky roughly towards him and burying his face in his neck. He breathed in, deeply, feeling the at once familiar and unfamiliar shape of his best friend fold around him as though it had been made for that very purpose. Bucky’s hands came up to wrap around him – one flesh, one metal – and Steve held on as he would have done on that train, like he’d wanted to do every day since.

“I’m here,” he whispered needlessly, reassuring himself as much as Bucky. “I’m here, and you’re here, and we’re fine.”

“And isn’t that a fucking miracle?” Bucky mumbled into Steve’s neck, and for once the words were spoken with no trace of mockery or irony in his voice. It really was a fucking miracle if Steve’d ever heard of one.

If Steve was completely honest with himself, he’d have been perfectly happy to stay right here, just him and Bucky alone in the world, forever. But eventually, Bucky started to shift against him, and Steve realised that he’d had his eyes closed for a long time.

As Bucky slowly pulled away, the look he gave Steve was almost bashful. “I think the knots in my back would’ve had knots if we’d stayed like that for much longer,” he admitted, but he made no move to get up. Steve’s hands were still lingering on his arms, and he felt like a magnet, drawn to its opposite. There was nothing more he wanted in that moment – nothing he hadn’t learned to live without a long time ago, anyway – than to touch Bucky like this, to hold on, to be.

To his surprise, Bucky only scooted down to lie flat on his back, pulling weakly at Steve’s arm until he shifted to lie on his back as well, turning his head to watch the other man closely for any sign that he was about to bolt. But then, without another word, Bucky turned towards Steve and pulled himself closer, resting his head in the crook of Steve’s arm like it was the most natural thing in the world.

“Much better,” Bucky murmured, voice slightly slurred with sleep. His body was warm and solid against Steve’s side, metal arm cold where it rested against Steve’s chest. “Night, Stevie.”

“Night, Buck,” Steve whispered, hesitating only for a second before wrapping his arm around Bucky, pulling him even closer, feeling the most peculiar sense of peace wash over him: peculiar, because Steve was pretty sure he’d never felt quite so content in his life.

 

.08

When Steve woke up he was curled on his side, Bucky's arm slung around him, his entire body pressed against Steve's back. Steve waited for his moment of panic, of confusion at having woken up in such a compromising position, but it never came. He simply smiled, and relished in the soft, steady pulse of Bucky's body against his own. It all felt very simple, and very right.

He felt Bucky wake up slowly, and to his surprise, the other man seemed just as unconcerned with their current predicament as he was. Bucky merely made a contented sound, muffled against Steve's t-shirt, and pulled Steve just a little bit closer. Steve smiled.

“You awake?” Bucky mumbled after a moment, raising his hand to feel Steve's face; Steve endured the prodding for a bit (maybe a bit longer than he should have) before swatting Bucky's hand away; the other man chuckled and Steve felt a puff of air on the back of his neck.

“If I wasn't before, I sure am now,” Steve said, trying to sound annoyed, and failing completely.

“You know what I really want right now?” Bucky murmured, face still pressed between Steve's shoulder blades; his voice was low and gravelly from sleep, and Steve shuddered. He hoped Bucky didn't notice.

“What's that?” Steve asked, breath hitching in his throat.

“Breakfast.” As if on cue, Bucky's stomach grumbled, and Steve laughed, despite the slight disappointment he couldn't help but feel.

As they untangled themselves, Steve tried very hard to remember why he was trying to suppress his feelings for Bucky, why he couldn't just let himself have this every day. Bucky had come to him, Bucky had curled up beside him and fallen asleep, which was pretty much the biggest sign of trust someone in Bucky's position could show another human being.

But of course, things had been like this between them before, and Steve'd had to suppress his feelings then, too.

Back in their day, Steve never let himself pause to wonder if Bucky could possibly share his... what had Oswald Ryan called it? His perversion. Guys simply didn't like other guys like that. They could be friends, they could be brothers, but they could never be lovers – and if they were, may the devil take them. That's how his world had been.

The world today... despite Oswald Ryan and his hateful comrades, Steve knew that people were free, at least in theory, to love whom they chose, and a small thing like gender certainly shouldn't stand in the way of someone's happiness.

But when Steve had first woken up from the ice, his heart had still been broken – twice over, from losing both Bucky and Peggy within the span of, from his perspective, a couple of months.

Two years later, and Steve was still just getting used to the idea that maybe, one day, he could let himself love again. And then Bucky had returned to his life, and he'd pushed all thoughts of romance aside in order to care for his oldest and most beloved friend.

Of course Steve knew himself well enough to recognise that the thing he wanted most of all in the whole world was Bucky. Bucky's friendship, yes, and his happiness, but Steve wanted more than that. He wanted to be with Bucky. In the way which society now, for all intents and purposes, would allow him to be.

And if Steve had any hope at all that Bucky could ever possibly feel the same way, well, then... maybe Steve would allow himself to run with it.

But Bucky was just Bucky, as he'd always been, and although he wasn't looking at girls anymore (he wasn't looking at anyone but Steve, but that was cause they'd been cooped up in their apartment all alone for four months), Steve knew that Bucky wasn't interested in him like that. Never had been. And however much their circumstances had changed, Steve would never presume that Bucky could just suddenly start liking men. Folks liked who they liked, and there was no changing that.

Of course there had been one time, a few weeks after Bucky had returned, when... Steve suppressed an urge to shudder at the memory. Steve had gone out, just for ten minutes, down to the corner shop to buy eggs for the pancakes he'd been planning to make, and when he'd come back home, Bucky had been huddled in the corner of Steve's bedroom, shaking, eyes wild and full of fear.

Steve had dropped everything – including the eggs – to crouch down, taking Bucky into his arms, holding him until his fists unclenched and the shaking subsided, whispering endearments and encouragements into his not-yet-cut mane of hair.

When he'd eventually pulled away, Bucky had looked at him with wide, haunted eyes, and whispered, “I thought you'd left me.”

“Oh, Bucky,” Steve had replied softly. “I'd never leave you.”

And then Bucky had leaned in, ever so slightly, his nose sliding against Steve's and his mouth--

Steve had pulled back as though burned, his hands on Bucky's arms to keep him away. Bucky had looked hurt, and confused, and afraid, but Steve hadn't been able to think straight, terrified at what Bucky had just tried to do. Was this what he thought Steve wanted? Was this why he thought Steve was helping him?

“Bucky,” he'd breathed, “God, Bucky, please, you don't have to--”

Bucky had recoiled immediately, something shuttering in his eyes. “I'm sorry. God, I don't...” Bucky had whispered, looking half terrified and half ashamed. “Just... please, Steve. Don't,” he'd said, brokenly, when Steve had tried to reach out, and Steve had reluctantly pulled back and left the room, waiting until he was out of earshot before he allowed the tiniest of sobs to escape him.

Every time Steve thought of what Bucky had almost done, it filled him with guilt and regret, and a deep sense of shame that he couldn't shake. Somehow, in Bucky's horror, he'd been compelled to reach out like that. Because of his programming? Because he'd somehow figured out that it was what Steve wanted? Steve didn't know, and it didn't matter: the most important thing was that he never put Bucky in the position of feeling like he was required to... do that, for Steve.

Steve wanted Bucky, yes. But not like that. Never like that.

Bucky hadn't mentioned it again, and Steve had followed his lead. They'd had a lot of other things to work through and it'd taken a while before they'd really gotten comfortable with each other again, and now it was like it'd never happened.

Well, except for the fact that they'd just slept in the same bed, spooning like it was 1938 and Steve had been on death's door, suffering from... what had it been? Scarlet fever? The flu? Asthma? His former life had been one long string of illnesses that should have killed him, but hadn't. Bucky used to tell him it was because he was too damn stubborn; Steve always thought it had been Bucky, somehow keeping him safe.

Steve would never act on his feelings; the last thing he wanted was to put Bucky in a position that might make him uncomfortable. But if Bucky felt close enough to Steve again to sleep curled up together like that, well, Steve wasn't going to complain about it.

Chapter Text

.09

CAPTAIN AMERICA STEPS OUT WITH MYSTERY MAN

Steve stared at the newspaper headline, eyes bulging, for a good five minutes before Bucky grabbed it out of his hands, glanced at it, and then roared with laughter.

“Well, that's not exactly the coming out party I had in mind,” Bucky managed between wheezes. “But mystery man beats enemy of the state, I guess.”

Steve managed to shake himself of the shock, and looked at Bucky worriedly. He appeared to be genuinely amused. “You're not...” Steve started, then hesitated.

“I'm not...?” Bucky goaded, taking the seat opposite Steve by the small kitchen table and nicking a strip of bacon off his plate.

“I dunno, angry? Embarrassed?” Steve felt his cheeks grow pink as Bucky's look turned from amused to disapproving. He couldn't help it; he'd grown up all too aware of what society did to men who stepped out with other men. He'd spent a lifetime trying to repress his own feelings. Seeing a headline like that, even though he knew folks wouldn't judge him the way they'd once have done (at least, most wouldn't. In public, anyway), the idea that people had found him out still sent Steve into a blind, all-consuming panic which began and ended with, My life is over.

And Bucky, well, Bucky was being accused of – no, not accused – he was being labelled. That sounded better in Steve's head. It wasn't a crime, but for a straight guy to have people assume... no. He didn't think people really wanted that, even in today's supposedly open-minded society.

Bucky looked at him for a long time, expression unreadable. Then he sighed. “Steve.” The word expressed a hundred different emotions, none which Steve could identify. After a moment, Bucky shook his head. “You do realise that my face is on the front page of a national newspaper? Sure, no one reads those anymore, but I've been spotted. This means people will know who I am within a matter of hours. Maybe some already do. Maybe Hydra does.” His expression was grim, and Steve felt a shiver of fear at his words. “S.H.I.E.L.D. will be on our doorstep any minute. Hell, I'm surprised they're not here already. Why the fuck do you think I care if people think I'm your mystery man?”

Steve cringed. Bucky was right, of course. He felt like an idiot for not immediately considering Bucky's safety. What the hell was wrong with him?

“Bucky, I--” he started, but Bucky wasn't done.

“And by the way, Steve, I'd sure as hell like to think you knew me better than to think I'd be upset about something like that. Hell, I...” he trailed off, and Steve was alarmed to see that he looked hurt, of all things. “Look, I get it. I do. It's... uncomfortable for you,” Bucky tried again, clearly struggling to get the words out now, steeling himself as though he was preparing for battle. “But, this kinda thing? It doesn't have to bother you like it did. The world is different now.”

“I know, I--” Steve tried again, but Bucky shook his head and he fell silent, completely dumbfounded by how strongly Bucky was reacting to this.

“I said it before, Captain America could still stand for something. Look, I'm obviously not your publicist – although that'd be one hell of a career change --” a small smile graced Bucky's lips at the idea, but it was gone the next moment, “-- but I'm telling you. This stuff... petty hate, lingering judgement... it matters now, more than it did before. You don't have to pretend to be anything you're not, but just don't... don't be so scandalised, is all. It's very old man of you.”

For a moment, Steve had no idea where to even begin responding to Bucky's request. He was touched, beyond belief, that Bucky was one again practically begging him to paint rainbows on his uniform and march in the parades, but he couldn't say that, or Bucky would know. Was Steve a hypocrite, for being so stubbornly in the closet, while his best friend was ready to fight the fight on his behalf? Yeah, he supposed he was. Because Bucky was right, of course he was, but admitting... admitting his persuasion would put his friendship with Bucky in jeopardy, and Steve would simply not risk that. Not now, not ever.

He swallowed, and Bucky's eyes tracked the movement of his throat. “I'm not scandalised,” Steve said at last, speaking as plainly as he could. “I just didn't want...” he sighed, buying time, racking his brain for the right words. Bucky was looking at him with such an open, strangely vulnerable expression – and in that moment, a horrible, thrilling, impossible thought began to take shape in Steve's mind: maybe Bucky knew. Maybe he knew what Steve was, and this was his way of making Steve finally admit it. Maybe he knew Steve had been keeping this from him. How couldn't he? They'd been friends for decades even before they became super soldiers; Bucky and Steve had always been aware of each other as though they were a single person. But then... if Bucky already knew, why hadn't he withdrawn from Steve? Why hadn't he been disgusted? Why had he let himself curl up to Steve the night before, so freely, so unassuming?

Even though Steve knew Bucky was anything but close-minded, even though he knew it wasn't in Bucky's nature to actively hate anyone for being something they couldn't control, some part of him – the part still stuck in the 1940s – simply couldn't admit the possibility that it could be okay to be what he was; that the people he loved could ever accept him, and respect him, if they knew the truth.

Steve knew that the reason he'd never told anyone – except Peggy, and even then he hadn't really – was because a part of him hated what he was. Hated knowing that people's perceptions of him would change because of it.

And Bucky knew. Of course he knew.

Steve opened his mouth to speak--

A loud knock on the door startled them both, and a moment later, Natasha's deep, powerful voice rang through.

“Hope you're decent, boys, because I'm coming in.”

Even now, Steve couldn't help but smile at Natasha's forcefulness. He had no doubt that she would come in, whether or not he opened the door for her. He stood up and hurried to oblige her, just to save the hassle of them having to call someone to fix the door she was about the break down.

When he opened the door, Nat was leaning against the doorframe, all power and smirk. “Am I interrupting something?”

“In your dreams, Romanoff,” Steve laughed, relieved despite himself at the welcome interruption.

Natasha raised an eyebrow as she pushed past him and mock-saluted Bucky, who was still sitting by the table where Steve had left him.

“Not gonna lie, that is a recurring daydream of mine.”

Steve laughed again, rather more nervously this time, and chanced a glance at Bucky. To his alarm, Bucky's gaze was fixed on the table, unseeing. It was the closest he'd come to the Winter Soldier's despondency in weeks, and Steve did everything in his power to stay calm as he approached, surreptitiously, and placed his hand lightly on Bucky's shoulder. Whatever else, Bucky's well-being would always override all of his other concerns.

After a moment, Bucky lifted his gaze and gave Steve a short, reassuring nod. I'm still here, it seemed to say. I'm not great, but I'm still here.

It wasn't what Steve wanted, but it wasn't the Winter Soldier. So Steve nodded too, and reluctantly let his hand drop.

Natasha had been watching them closely during their silent exchange, of course. But she didn't comment; all she did was raise an eyebrow and grab an apple from the bowl of fruit on the kitchen table, the too-loud crunch of her first bite echoing through the apartment. She crossed the distance to where Bucky was sitting and slung herself into the chair Steve had been occupying moments before.

“So, what's the play?” she asked, when neither man seemed inclined to start the conversation.

Natasha had been a regular guest in the apartment for weeks now, more often than not dropping by with no warning. At first, Steve had been slightly suspicious of her interest in Bucky – she'd been working on Fury's orders without his knowledge before – but then he realised why she was really here: finally, there was someone with whom she felt a deep kinship. Bucky and Natasha hadn't been trained the same way, but the regular pain conditioning and brainwashing had left them both scarred in a way that no one else could understand. Steve knew that she got as much out of her sessions with Bucky as Bucky himself did, and it had warmed Steve's heart to see two of the people he cared most about being able to offer each other comfort.

It'd never even occurred to him to be jealous. For one, Natasha and Bucky were both way beyond the 'I'm a man, you're a woman, ergo sex must happen' state of mind, and besides... even if. Steve had no claim to Bucky. Anything that would help his best friend reconnect to the real world, well, Steve wouldn't stand in the way of that.

Not that there was anything there – nothing sexual, anyway. Only understanding, and genuine compassion. Natasha and Bucky were comrades, brothers in arms in the same way Steve and Bucky had always been (or at least, in the way Steve had pretended to be). They'd forged a connection which benefited them both, and Steve was nothing but grateful for that lucky twist of fate.

And when she was here now, Steve knew it was only on her own behalf. Fury hadn't sent her – or, if he had, it wouldn't matter. Natasha was on Steve's team now, one hundred percent. And, even more importantly, she was on Bucky's team.

“Play?” Bucky smirked, leaning back in his seat and assessing her, his gloomy mood from a moment ago seemingly forgotten. “Our love life is a game to you, Natalia?” he asked, with mock indignation.

Natalia. Bucky used that name to rile her up, Steve knew. But to her credit, she didn't even flinch.

“Oh, my word. You gotta make me your best man,” Nat fake-swooned, pressing the back of her hand to her forehead. “Steve can have Tony. Or Sam. I'm definitely sitting on your side of the aisle.”

“Would be pretty empty otherwise,” Bucky muttered, and there was a twinge of sadness there – but he was clearly amused by Natasha's little charade.

Steve cleared his throat, crossing his arms over his chest. Joking about his and Bucky's pretend wedding was all well and good, but it wouldn't ultimately solve the real problem: that Bucky being alive was about to become the worst-kept secret in America. Plus, he had to admit to himself, it was making his heart twinge. In Steve's most private thoughts, marrying Bucky was certainly no laughing matter.

“Can we focus, here?” he asked, a little more sternly than he'd been aiming for. “This is actually serious.”

Bucky sobered immediately; Nat glanced between the two of them, a calculating look passing over her face like a shadow before her expression settled into one of mild concern.

“The Captain's right, albeit dry as a cracker,” she acknowledged, tipping an imaginary hat to him. Bucky snorted. “I'm sure I only beat Fury and his team over here because I was passing through the neighbourhood anyway. Bucky Barnes is about to rise from the dead, boys. I hope you're ready for that,” Nat said, raising an eyebrow again. Steve shuddered. This definitely wasn't what they'd imagined would happen when they'd decided to wean Bucky back on social interaction. Maybe they'd been naïve.

“And I supposed claiming I'm just some lookalike for hire that Steve shacked up with cause he missed me so damn much is out of the question?” Bucky asked coyly.

Nat grimaced, and to Steve's horror she looked like she was actually considering it for a moment. “If only. Hell, if I thought the two of you smooching on the front step would distract the vultures, I'd be the first to suggest it. Believe me.” She winked at Steve, who promptly blushed, because of course he did. “People are gonna have questions. Questions you might not be prepared to answer.”

“Forget people,” Bucky said. “Hydra.”

Nat shrugged. “We've always known we'd have to deal with Hydra. At least you know you don't have to fight that battle alone.”

Her kind words belayed her air of indifference, and Steve didn't miss the look of gratefulness on Bucky's face. Thank God for Natasha.

With nowhere to sit, Steve leaned back against the wall, sagging as though a heavy weight was pulling him down. “I was hoping we wouldn't have to go through this so soon,” he admitted, eyes on Bucky now. The I'm not sure you're ready didn't need to be said. Of course any time Bucky stepped out of the apartment he would be exposing himself, but they hadn't exactly banked on one trip to a charity gala landing him on the front page of a national newspaper. Perhaps they had become complacent, so used to the privacy of their own home, still unaccustomed to how fast news traveled, how fast pictures and videos were being passed around these days.

“Yeah, well,” Bucky shrugged, surprisingly cavalier. “I went outside, showed my face. What did we expect?”

“But...” Steve searched his face, looking for the regret he knew must be lurking underneath Bucky's calm demeanour. It was there, sort of, but it wasn't the kind of regret Steve'd been expecting. “But what will we do now?”

The expression Bucky gave him was almost pitying. “I'm sure someone will tell us.”

“Honestly, Hydra tracking down Bucky's location is the least of our problems,” Nat chimed in, leaning forward on her elbows. “Well, okay, no, it's a pretty huge fucking problem,” she amended, off Steve's look. “But let's face it, S.H.I.E.L.D. has been preparing for this eventuality for months. When Hydra comes – and they will,” she cautioned Bucky, and he nodded once to show he understood, “we'll deal. We'll fight back. We'll take them down. We'll gather up the troops, bring out the big green guns. We're a team, remember?”

There was that damn team spirit again. Banner had been a good influence on her.

“So what is our problem?” Steve asked impatiently.

Natasha smirked. “Why Steve, the tarnishing of Captain America's impeccable reputation, of course. Don't know if you noticed, but we lost some serious ground with the public after that whole destroying-of-New-York thing. You were kinda supposed to be our frontman, the one black-and-white hero among all the loose moral freaks, and now look at you. Out and about, living it up. And forget about the fact that Bucky's a dude. People don't want their children idolising a manwhore.”

Steve spluttered, as Bucky barked out a laugh. “I am not a – a – that word!” he said indignantly, causing Bucky to laugh harder.

Nat shrugged, smirking. “If you prefer slut or floozy...”

“That is not the point,” Steve said, ears burning.

To his surprise, it was Bucky who sobered the mood, clearing his throat to get their attention. “Whatever the case, won't this mystery man scandal just blow over when people find out who I am? Obviously people know that we weren't... well, you know.”

Steve glanced over and caught Bucky's eye instinctively, and then... watched as something changed on Bucky's face. Petrified, Steve realised that Bucky had seen exactly what Steve was feeling: regret. And that emotion had been mirrored on Bucky's face, just for a second.

Steve swallowed audibly, suddenly brought back to that moment all those months ago, when Bucky had first broken down, when he'd touched Steve's face...

“Hmm,” Natasha said, and the pair started, breaking eye contact. “That won't make for nearly as good of a reunion story. But anything to restore Cap's good standing, I guess.”

“So you're telling me to shut the rumors down?” Steve asked, something fluttering in his stomach.

Natasha shrugged again. “I'm telling you to give the people what they want. Which, I guess, would be the truth.” She smiled, almost sadly, fixing him with a much too knowing look.

The truth. Steve was so busted. But if he couldn't even admit his feelings to Bucky, he sure as hell wasn't going to admit them to the world.

“Well, I expect I'm only the first of many well-wishers to arrive,” Natasha said, rising up from the table as if sensing she'd outstayed her welcome. It was one of her many talents.

“Thanks for the early warning,” Steve smiled as he followed her to the door, Bucky staying behind, lost in thought.

As Natasha reached the door she turned to glance back at Bucky, looking uncharacteristically worried. “Look, Steve, I don't wanna lie to you. This is gonna open a whole new can of worms, and I'm not sure either of you are really prepared to deal with what's coming next.”

Steve frowned. “Why do I get the feeling you're not talking about my impeccable reputation anymore?”

Nat quirked her mouth at him, but her eyes were sober. “That's on you to sort out, Cap. But I just need you to know... I'm on your team. Yours and Bucky's. I know I haven't always shown it, but the Avengers... it's us, against anyone who tries to hurt us. I hope you get that.”

Steve nodded solemnly, surprised by her sincerity. “You're really worried about this,” he said.

She shrugged. “I'm sure Fury's got a handle on it.” But the way she said it... Steve knew there was something there, something she knew that he didn't, just like last time. But unlike last time, he trusted Nat to tell him what he needed to know, when he needed to know it.

“Well, I guess we'll find out soon enough.”

Natasha said nothing, merely patted him lightly on the arm before turning and heading out the door, gone before Steve had even realised the conversation was over.

 

.10

After Steve had shut the door behind Natasha, he leaned back against it and turned to look at Bucky, who was watching him closely from the other side of the room, a tense energy simmering between them.

“So,” Bucky said, a forced lightness in his tone. “How about that. The world thinks we're dating.”

Steve sighed deeply, tilting his head back against the doorframe. Give me patience, he thought (and wasn't that oddly comforting, in the midst of his despair, that he was finally comfortable enough with Bucky to be annoyed with him?).

“Bucky. Listen to me. The world is about to know you're alive. What the fuck does it matter if they think we're dating?” He grumbled, and he half-meant it, too. Bucky shouldn't be stuck on this. Bucky shouldn't care about trivial matters like gossip. Bucky should be as terrified as Steve was – that Hydra would come, that the public would turn on them, that they'd demand a trial, that Bucky would be taken away from him.

Instead, Bucky's breathing was slow as he got up from the table, crossing the length of the room with measured, easy steps. When he was close enough to touch, he put a warm hand on Steve's shoulder, looking up at him with earnest eyes. Steve glanced down at the hand – it was the real one. The one Steve had spent so many nights, back when he was small and Bucky was still Bucky, imagining taking into his own.

“That's not the point, Steve,” Bucky said, voice low and even, and Steve wanted to shake him. He clearly didn't get it. But Bucky was smiling softly, as though he understood something Steve didn't. “This really bothers you, doesn't it?”

Steve let out a non-committal sound, looking anywhere but at Bucky.

“Why?” Bucky prompted. He still had his hand on Steve's shoulder, and squeezed, ever so slightly. Steve felt the weight of it, like a comforting anchor. He never wanted to lose this. He didn't want Bucky to resent him. But... was it unfair, for Steve to assume Bucky would?

“Does it make you uncomfortable?” Bucky asked. “This... people thinking that you...”

“No!” Steve said, too loudly, and Bucky withdrew his hand as though burned. Steve ran a hand over his face, eyes darting to Bucky's and he knew, he knew that Bucky deserved the truth. Even with everything that was happening, Bucky was more worried about Steve than about himself. Steve lying about his feelings wasn't saving their friendship; if anything, it was gonna end up pushing them apart.

“Then what?” Bucky asked again, seemingly insistent on staying on topic. “Every time I bring it up, you get uncomfortable, Steve, and I get if you don't – I was being too radical with the whole 'fighting their fight' thing the other night, I get that, but... I dunno. It's just not like you to be so judgmental.”

And in that moment Bucky looked so disappointed, so let down, Steve felt as though his heart was breaking into a million pieces. He never wanted Bucky to look at him that way again, even if what he was about to say ended up ruining the friendship they had worked so hard to reconstruct.

“I'm not judgmental, Buck,” Steve said, finding a wry smile creeping onto his face. Surprisingly, now that he'd decided to come clean, the words came easy. “I'm scared... hell, I'm terrified that people will think those things about me... because...” he hesitated, only for second. “Well, because they're true. And then people will know. Everyone will know.” Steve held his breath as he watched Bucky look at him incomprehensibly, mind working furiously. This is it, he thought, calm in a way he hadn't been expecting.

“What? Steve, I don't...” Bucky trailed off, and Steve could see the moment it clicked in his head. And there it is, Steve thought, bracing himself. This is where he walks away.

Bucky's eyes were full of confusion, shock, awe, and something else Steve couldn't identify. But he didn't walk away. Instead, Bucky stepped closer. Right into Steve's personal space, and Bucky's face was suddenly much too close – Steve had to keep shifting his eyes back and forth to keep going cross-eyed as he involuntarily pushed himself back against the wall, not sure if Bucky was going to punch him or hug him. So sure had he been that Bucky would move away in disgust, he suddenly had no idea what to do with his body. He didn't want to touch Bucky. Didn't want it to look like he was trying anything. He wanted, desperately, to make sure that Bucky always felt safe around him, whatever Steve might be feeling.

Bucky's breathing was off, Steve noticed; just a slight hitch as Bucky's eyes roamed Steve's face, landing briefly on his mouth before moving back to meet his gaze. His pupils had darkened, as though he was angry. But he didn't look angry.

“You...” Bucky's voice was hoarse, broken. Steve's heart sank. “You like...”

“Men,” Steve clarified, although all he wanted to say was you.

Bucky's eyes narrowed as though he was thinking hard. “You like men. For how long?”

Steve laughed nervously; he wished Bucky would give him some space. The air felt too charged between them, too uncertain. “I dunno, Buck. Forever?”

“But Peggy...”

“I liked Peggy too,” Steve quickly clarified. “Some guys... like both, I guess.”

To his surprise, Bucky laughed, sharp and fast and humourlessly, still too close; his breath ghosted across Steve's cheek. “You guess,” he echoed, almost bitterly.

“Look, Buck, if this is making you uncomfortable, I get it. That's why I didn't tell you. I didn't want you to think--”

“Think what?” Bucky asked quickly, accusing. “What would I think, Steve?”

It was like Bucky wanted him to say it. Maybe to get it over with, maybe to clear the air... Steve sighed, his breath shaking just a little bit. Bucky was still watching him closely, searching for something, and Steve wished he knew what it was.

“You're my best friend,” Steve whispered, and he couldn't quite keep the desperation out of his voice. “I don't wanna lose you.”

Once again, he watched as Bucky's eyes widened by the merest of fractions, as his mouth opened in a small 'o,' as his friend realised the true depth of Steve's feelings. He didn't just like men. He liked Bucky. He loved Bucky.

Steve opened his mouth to speak, to assure Bucky that this in no way had to affect their friendship – and that was when Bucky surged forward, lips crashing into Steve's, nudging Steve's lips apart to fit their mouths together. Bucky's hand was around the back of Steve head just before it collided with the wall; he felt no pain from the impact, felt nothing but Bucky's lips on his own and the burst of electricity that caused him to moan, a loud sound foreign to his own ears. His arms were around Bucky's waist before he'd even realised he was moving, and Steve felt Bucky push himself closer; Steve finally broke free of his shock and began to return the kiss in earnest; he slid out his tongue and swept it over Bucky's lower lip, mind still numb with shock, the only words in his brain being more, yes, oh. Bucky's free hand went to his cheek, the metal gently trailing over his face. Steve felt Bucky's tongue dart out to stroke his own and trembled, heart pumping, blood rushing downwards.

His mind was scrambling to catch up with his body. Bucky – kissing – kissing Bucky... but wait. Something wasn't right.

He wasn't supposed to do this.

Using every bit of self-control he possessed, Steve managed to put his hands on Bucky's shoulders and push the other man away, panting hard as their eyes met; Bucky's were dark and he was breathing heavily, and it was all Steve could do not to surge forward and continue where they left off. But he mustn't.

“Bucky, what're you doing?” Steve breathed, heart thumping wildly; he was trying very hard not to look at Bucky's pink, wet lips – lips that only seconds ago had been on his own.

“What does it look like, idiot?” Bucky growled, a familiar mixture of fondness and annoyance in his voice.

“Bucky, please,” Steve begged, squeezing his shoulders gently, “you know I don't need – I don't want you to feel obligated--”

Bucky's shove came so unexpectedly, Steve's hands dropped to his sides and he found himself pinned to the wall. It wasn't a hold Steve couldn't have broken easily if he'd wanted to, but Bucky's intent was clear. Stay. Shut the hell up. So Steve did.

“Listen here, you punk,” Bucky growled, face inches from Steve's again. “I'm only going to say this once, Steve, because it's really fucking sappy and I have a reputation to uphold,” he said slowly, and although his words were sharp, his eyes were soft. “If I kiss you, you better believe it's because I want to kiss you. If I tell you I love you, it's because it's true. And if I tell you that I've fucking thought about this moment since we were eighteen, that this us – was all that kept me going during the darkest, fucking darker than dark times I've muddled through, then don't for one second think that I'm saying it to make you feel better. I'm selfish. I'm weak. And I'm in love with you.”

Steve gaped as he watched Bucky – Bucky, his best friend, the person he loved most in all the world, the one person he wanted to spend his life with – standing before him, heart laid bare, every emotion laid out for Steve to see. Giving himself over. I love you.

Bucky...” Steve's voice shook on the word as though it were a prayer, and he licked his lips absently, at a complete loss for words. But then Bucky's eyes dropped to Steve's mouth, and he realised he didn't need them.

Their second kiss was slow, deep and oh, everything Steve had ever wanted it to be. Steve's hands found Bucky's waist again, and he pulled him closer, more slowly this time; Bucky went willingly, molding himself to Steve as though they were built to fit. Bucky's hands trailed up Steve's arms, surprisingly gentle, his fingers tracing up the sides of his face before settling in his hair. Bucky's mouth opened beneath Steve's, their tongues meeting as they moved together, found each other, breathed each other. Steve's hands tightened around Bucky's waist, a part of him still unwilling to believe that this was really happening. But it was. Bucky was kissing him. Bucky wanted to kiss him.

It was a long time before they pulled away. When they did, Steve didn't let go of Bucky; it still felt like a dream he wasn't willing to wake up from. Bucky was smiling and Steve couldn't help but echo the expression, the happiness crackling between them like a tangible thing.

“You should have said something sooner,” Steve breathed, fingers dipping under the edge of Bucky's shirt; Bucky shivered as the tips of Steve's fingers grazed his bare skin, and then let out a small chuckle.

“I tried,” he said softly. “You turned me down, remember?”

Steve's hands stilled. He did remember. “Oh, Buck,” he whispered. “I thought--”

Bucky tugged at his hair, pulling him closer and planting a small kiss on his lips. “Hey, I get it. You didn't wanna take advantage of me. Such a fucking gentleman.” He kissed Steve again, nipping at his bottom lip. “I kinda love that about you.”

Steve smiled softly into the kiss. “I still feel awful,” he murmured. He'd thought Bucky was trying to give him what he wanted; it'd never occurred to him that he might have been denying Bucky what he wanted.

Bucky's smile turned wicked. “I can think of a few ways you can make it up to me.”

“Yeah?” Steve laughed, squeezing Bucky's hips, taking way too much pleasure from the sharp intake of breath he elicited.

“Uh-huh,” Bucky managed, trying and failing at maintaining his cocksure smile.

Feeling bold, Steve rolled his hips ever so slightly against Bucky's, and Bucky's eyes rolled back in his head.

“Good to know,” Steve whispered, “because I was thinking--”

Steve never got to tell Bucky what he was thinking, because Bucky surged forward and kissed Steve again, harder and more urgently than before, his thigh wedging its way in between Steve's legs; Steve groaned, head falling back against the wall, but that wasn't what made him see stars.

“Nuh-uh,” Bucky murmured as his mouth moved from Steve's to trace against his jaw, moving down his throat, as Steve's fingers opened and closed around Bucky's hips as if they had a mind of their own. “No thinking. I'm the brains of this operation. You're clearly the brawn.”

The sound Steve made was somewhere between a whimper and a moan but he didn't even care as Bucky's tongue traced a fine pattern from his clavicle up to his earlobe.

“Fuck, Steve,” Bucky whispered, breath ghosting against the sensitive skin of Steve's ear, making his entire body shudder. “You have no idea how much I've wanted to do this. I never thought...”

“Me neither,” Steve managed between gasps. “I wanted – so much. God, Bucky, I love--”

And that was when the doorbell rang, long and loud; Bucky and Steve jumped apart as though they were fourteen and it was their parents on the other side of the door. Their eyes met, and for a moment, Steve saw his own wide-eyed panic reflected on Bucky's face. Then they both broke out laughing.

“Yeah, the fact that we're allowed to do this now is gonna take some getting used to,” Bucky noted, as the doorbell rang again.

Steve sighed, smiling fondly, moving closer and raising his hand to straighten the collar of Bucky's shirt. Of course both their clothes were ruffled and he was sure his own hair was no better off than Bucky's, but that wasn't the point. Bucky's eyes closed briefly as Steve's fingers dipped below his collar to trace a pattern on the sensitive skin of his neck.

“We'll pick this up later,” Steve murmured, low and sure, and Bucky shivered, instinctually leaning into him. Steve's eyes landed on his mouth again, hungry, but then the doorbell went off a third time, shrill and angry and insistent, and they both sighed heavily as they regretfully pulled away.

“You can count on it,” Bucky promised, and Steve had to stop himself from outright giggling as he forced his body to move away from Bucky's, towards the door and whomever had rudely interrupted them.

 

.11

He supposed he shouldn't have been altogether surprised to see Nick Fury waiting on the other side of the door.

“Rogers,” he nodded as he strode past Steve, not bothering to wait for an invitation. “Barnes.”

Bucky held back, as he always did around Fury (one of the many walking reminders of what Bucky had been, and what he'd been forced to do as the Winter Soldier), nodding once but saying nothing as he watched the newcomer warily.

Fury was alone, but Steve had no doubt that Hill and probably other agents were nearby. Despite the fact that S.H.I.E.L.D. had declared Bucky of sound mind (at least sound enough to be left in Steve's care), Fury was – understandably – wary of the Winter Soldier resurfacing. Steve got that, he did. Bucky hadn't hesitated when it was Fury's head he'd had in his crosshairs.

There was one vaguely awkward moment when Fury looked between Bucky and Steve, eyes narrowed as though he was trying to solve a puzzle. Then he shook his head as though dismissing the thought, and set his briefcase down on the coffee table with a heavy thud. When he sat down on the couch a moment later, Steve knew he was planning to be there a while. He repressed the urge to sigh impatiently.

“You, er, want some coffee?” he asked, remembering his manners.

“Only if you're gonna have some,” Fury shrugged, and Steve gave Bucky a questioning look. Bucky didn't look half relieved.

“I'll get it,” Bucky said, already halfway to the kitchen. Any reprieve Steve could give Bucky from his guilt, he would give freely and without hesitation.

“So,” Steve said, crossing his arms and hoping he looked more steady than he felt. He kept his attention focused on Fury, refusing to let his eyes wander to Bucky, who was moving around in the kitchen area just out of his line of sight. “It must be pretty big, for you to brave our doorstep.”

Fury raised an eyebrow, but didn't take the bait. “When is it ever not a national emergency, when your boy is concerned?” He asked plainly, opening the folder and arranging official-looking documents on the table.

“What's all this?” Steve asked, moving closer, curious despite himself.

“The resurrection of Bucky Barnes,” Fury stated plainly, opening his hands in invitation. Steve picked up the nearest sheet of paper, which appeared to list the finer points of a contractual agreement.

“Do we get any say in this?” Steve asked, chancing a glance at Bucky, who for all intents and purposes appeared engrossed in the task of brewing coffee. Steve had never thought twice about referring to himself and Bucky as a unit, but suddenly using the word gave him a little thrill of excitement. It meant more, now, somehow.

“Not really,” Fury said plainly, raising his eyebrow as though expecting Steve to protest. He didn't. If Bucky truly wanted to exist as Bucky Barnes again, he'd have to own up to his past. They'd known this from day one.

“So what happens now?” Steve jumped as he turned to see Bucky standing right beside him, two steaming mugs of coffee in his hands. He handed one to Steve, their fingers brushing briefly against each other, eyes meeting for the briefest of moments before Bucky moved to set the other mug on the table before Fury, who reached for it so instinctively, Steve thought the older man was probably more tired than he appeared. One could say a lot about Fury, but the man worked hard to keep the world safe.

“Well... now you go viral, I suppose, for lack of a word that doesn't make me wanna throw up in my mouth,” Fury frowned, before taking a long drink from his cup. “Mmmm,” he murmured in appreciation. “And then you open a coffee shop, Barnes.”

“What do you mean, viral?” Steve interjected, not exactly keen on watching Fury have a coffee-induced orgasm (although Bucky made a mean cup of joe).

Fury sighed. When he set the mug down, Steve was surprised to find it was already empty. “Well, your little outing last night sent the internet down a rabbit hole of speculation. Of course at first they were just trying to find out if you were dating.” Steve and Bucky both shifted awkwardly, but Fury either didn't notice, or didn't care. “Then people started digging into your past, looking for rumors about your love life, that kind of thing... and that's when the old pictures of Bucky cropped up. People made side-by-side comparisons, and, well. Word's out,” Fury finished simply. And there it was.

Steve blinked. It was terrifying, of course. But, he had to admit, “That's... kind of incredible.”

Fury shrugged. “All happened in less than an hour, if you can believe it. The hive mind is a powerful thing.”

“So everyone knows I'm not dead. What now?” Bucky asked, ever the strategist. His arms were folded over his chest but his stance was passive; Steve was beginning to wonder if it wasn't plain old dislike of Fury that had him acting this reserved.

“Well, that's where we come in,” Fury said, pointing to the papers spread out on the coffee table. “Obviously our enemies will already be aware of your identity. But the public hasn't connected you to the Winter Soldier just yet, and that's why we need to act fast. We've still gotta think of your public image, for both your sakes.” Fury gave Steve a significant look, and his intention was clear: he did not want the impeccable Captain America tied to a terrorist. Steve carefully set his mug on the table, afraid he might accidentally break it.

“So what do you suggest? A press conference?” Bucky guessed, and at Fury's affirming nod, added, “you sure that's wise?”

“It is if it's on our terms,” Fury said. “This isn't Howard Stark back at the SSR,” he reminded them. “This is still S.H.I.E.L.D., even if we're still keeping our heads down. We obviously won't put you anywhere exposed. And we've got a Stark of our own who can set this up all nice and proper.”

Steve turned to Bucky and noted, in a stage whisper, “That means Pepper'll take care of it.” When Bucky turned to glance at him, Steve tried for a reassuring smile. Something softened in Bucky's expression, and Steve felt a sudden urge to pull him close. With a small thrill, he realised that maybe Bucky wouldn't mind – but then Fury cleared his throat, and Steve remembered himself. “Well, it does,” he mumbled mulishly. Bucky snorted.

“Well,” Bucky said, turning back to Fury. “It all sounds simple enough. So why bring in the cavalry – and by that I mean yourself, and the... I'm counting six guard dogs you've got waiting in the hallway?”

To his credit, Fury looked marginally abashed as his eyes darted to the door, no doubt aware of exactly where his agents were placed. Steve started, horrified at having been caught so unawares, and automatically moved to block Bucky. But Bucky stopped him with a gentle hand on his wrist.

“He ain't gonna hurt me,” Bucky said, a study in calm, speaking to Steve but still training his eyes on Fury. “He's just being smart. I would honestly trust him a lot less if he'd dared to come alone.”

Steve wasn't sure he agreed with that logic, but thought it best to say nothing. He was perfectly aware that his fatal flaw had always been how easily he trusted people. Of course, the one he trusted most of all was Bucky – and that, in itself, said a lot.

“I thought it best to come myself,” Fury said at last, “because as I'm sure you'll have figured out, this is not just about a press conference. While you've been recovering, we've let you off easy, Sergeant Barnes. But now that the Winter Soldier's face is about to be plastered on every screen in the world, I'm afraid that's the end of your leave. Hydra, and every individual you've ever pissed off over the last sixty years, have been out looking for you, and now the Captain America fanboys have just gone and done their work for them.”

Fury paused, looking grim, and when Steve looked at Bucky, he felt his blood run cold. For the first time in months, Bucky looked terrified. “What are you saying?” Steve asked worriedly, suddenly not sure he wanted to know.

Fury opened his mouth, then hesitated, glancing at Bucky. Steve followed his gaze to see Bucky swallowing heavily, casting his eyes to the ground and whispering, with a bitter smile on his face, “He's saying that I'll have to go, Steve. Into hiding. I'm sure S.H.I.E.L.D. has a... bunker, or something.” Bunker. Steve knew how much Bucky hated being underground, and shook his head empathetically.

“No,” Steve said, with such force both Fury and Bucky looked at him, startled out of their solemnity. “Absolutely not.”

“Steve,” Fury shook his head, looking so calm Steve wanted to shake him. “We have hours, maybe minutes, before Hydra comes knocking. I'm not doing this to hurt your feelings.”

“Then we'll both go,” Steve said, standing up straighter and looking to Bucky for affirmation. But Bucky's eyes were sad, something shuttered in there that broke Steve's heart.

“You can't go into hiding, Steve,” Bucky said softly, voice barely audible. But Steve heard it, he always did.

Steve forced a laugh, ignoring the growing sense of panic inside of him, the voice screaming for his friend, the visions of snow and train tracks flashing before his eyes. “I've practically been in hiding for the past four months, Buck, why can't I--”

When Fury spoke, his voice was like a whip. Clearly, the time for sweet-talking was over. “We're not talking weeks or months here, Rogers. This is a long-term solution. Barnes is a former Hydra operative, he's got valuable intel, and S.H.I.E.L.D. needs him alive. He's too valuable an asset to risk--”

“Asset, my ass-” Steve began to interrupt, but the slight shake of Bucky's head halted his words.

“--Hydra tracking him down. We need Bucky alive, we're all on the same page here,” Fury continued, undeterred. “For him to stay alive, we gotta bring him somewhere we can protect him. Somewhere safe, hidden, cut off from the world. We'll need to move base occasionally, use aliases. You'd be surprised how many of our operatives we're already protecting in this manner.”

“But...” Steve looked from Bucky to Fury, a part of him completely unwilling and unable to accept that this was really happening.

Whenever they'd discussed long-term plans for Bucky, Steve had always been under the impression his and Fury's general idea had been the same: Bucky would eventually reveal himself to the world, then they'd fight Hydra, and if they survived, they'd all continue fighting the good fight together. Bucky would be at risk, yes, but no more than Steve, or any of the others, already were. Hydra wasn't exactly a new threat; Steve hadn't for a moment thought Bucky would have to have some kind of special protection when he didn't.

And he knew this hadn't been what Bucky had imagined would happen, either. By the way Bucky was clenching his fists, the way he looked at Steve now – desperate and devastated and so brokenly resigned – Steve knew that it was the soldier calling the shots now. Not the Winter Soldier, but Sergeant Barnes. Fury was his commanding officer, and he would do what was required of him. A dancing monkey, Steve thought perversely. Had the Captain America who'd toured with those girls really been so different from the soldier Steve Rogers had always dreamed of becoming?

“I can't let you do this,” Steve whispered to Fury, his voice pleading, desperate. Bucky might be a soldier, but Steve never had been, not really. He wasn't built to follow orders, and he wasn't about to start now. Not when he was finally whole again, and someone wanted to split him down the middle.

“You don't have a choice, son,” Fury said, almost kindly. When he spoke again, it was only to Bucky. “There are papers to sign, of course. Release forms, agreements, identity papers, that sort of thing. It's all here. We've already briefed Stark on the press conference arrangements, and as soon as that's done we'll be up and out. Quick and painless.”

Steve's chest hurt, so much it felt like all of his pre-war ailments had returned at once; he was angry, he felt disempowered and helpless. It was all happening too fast. The happiness he had felt less than an hour ago felt a lifetime away, everything he'd ever wanted held out in front of him only to be snatched away. He'd only had Bucky back for four months, and now Fury was taking him away again. And for what? A genuine desire to keep him safe, or a precaution, to make sure the Winter Soldier never ended up a black spot on the already so colourful Avengers palette?

It didn't matter what Fury's motivation was. Steve would not survive losing Bucky again, he knew it. And one look at Bucky told him the other man felt the same.

Steve saw it all play out as though watching through a window to the future: Bucky would go, marching along like the soldier he thought he had to be, getting into a plane, eyes hollow and slipping back into the Winter Soldier in an effort to survive the horrors of loneliness and confinement, until nothing of Bucky Barnes was left. Steve would carry on, running with Sam, bickering with Tony, throwing punches in whatever direction S.H.I.E.L.D. pointed him, waking up and going to sleep and living each day as though he were a ghost.

Ignoring Fury completely, Steve turned to face Bucky, putting his hands on the other man's shoulders and bowing his head until he could catch Bucky's eyes with his own. Bucky looked up at him with big, blue, terrified eyes, and he looked so very young at that moment, Steve felt like he was going to cry. But he didn't.

“You don't have to say yes,” he said softly, knowing Bucky would hear every word. “You don't have to sign anything. They don't own you.”

Bucky leaned into him and there was something unbearably fond in his eyes as he said, very plainly, “Of course I have to say yes, Steve.”

Steve shook his head vehemently. “There are other ways to avoid Hydra, if that's what you're worried about. We could go on the run, together. Hide out, keep moving, just the two of us--”

Bucky's hands came up to cover his own, and to Steve's surprise, Bucky leaned closer until their foreheads touched. He seemed completely unconcerned that Fury was still sitting on the couch in front of them, but Steve supposed that at this point, it hardly mattered. “Like I would ever risk your life when there's such an obvious alternative,” Bucky whispered, and Steve felt his heart break.

Bucky was making a choice. And Bucky was choosing Steve.

It was the strangest sensation, as Steve's heart seemed to simultaneously burst with love, and break with sorrow.

Without another thought to their audience, Steve pressed his lips to Bucky's, feeling the other man's sharp intake of breath and using Bucky's brief hesitation to nudge his lips apart, claiming them with his own. Bucky finally began kissing back, slow and desperate and full of longing, and Steve wanted nothing more than to freeze this moment forever, knowing that if Bucky really walked out of his life, it was the end of everything.

When they finally did break apart, Bucky stayed close, kissing Steve's cheek softly, lingering for a moment before pulling away.

“Tell me there is another way,” Steve said, turning to Fury – who seemed to have suddenly become very engrossed in the pile of papers in front of him. Fury looked up, and under any other circumstances, his wide eyes and pink cheeks would have been highly amusing.

Fury hesitated for a moment, and he genuinely looked like he wanted to help them. But, “I'm afraid it's all we've got,” he said at last. “I'm sorry.” And Steve knew he meant it.

“We gotta get it done,” Bucky said hoarsely, clearly fighting to stay on mission. “Before Hydra tracks us down. But...” he squared his shoulders. “I wanna get something straight before I sign anything: Steve's safety is still your number one priority. If there's anything tying me to this apartment, you move him. If there's any hint that Hydra thinks we're in contact, we let them glimpse me in China, send them as far away from here as possible.”

Fury regarded him, first with surprise, and then with something almost like respect. He nodded gravely. “Deal.”

Bucky nodded, too, and Steve could only watch, helpless, as his best friend's expression settled. In his mind, he had already thrown away his freedom.

Steve hated himself in that moment; hated Erskine, hated the serum, hated everything that'd made him what he was. He was big, he was strong, he was Captain America. But he could never stop Bucky making a choice which, if their roles had been reversed, Steve would have made in a heartbeat.

“Then where do I sign?”

BOOOOOM!

Fury, Steve and Bucky all jumped at the explosion, Bucky and Steve moving instinctively closer to each other, backs colliding as they both looked around for the source of the noise. After a moment, a loud crash sounded from right above them, and Steve only just managed to pull Bucky back and out of the way before the ceiling caved in, something huge falling through and colliding with the floor in a cloud of dust.

Three agents had burst through the door by the time Steve and Bucky had gotten to their feet, and Fury had two guns pointed at the huge, red figure that emerged from the rubble--

“Wait a minute...” Steve started, as Iron Man rose up before them. The visor went up, and the cocky smile of Tony Stark greeted the stunned onlookers.

“Am I late to the party?” Tony smirked.

Movement from above sent everyone into defensive postures, but looking up, Steve saw only Natasha, Sam and Clint peering down at them.

“Looks like you made it just in time,” Nat commented, eyes sweeping the apartment and taking in the crumbled papers that were now scattered everywhere.

“Right,” Tony said, looking much more imposing in the big, tall suit than he otherwise would have. He turned to look at Fury, who was staring back, eye wide, looking like he couldn't decide whether to be angry or impressed with Tony's grand entrance. “Mr. Fury. We figured we'd find you here.”

We?” Fury managed, and Steve couldn't help but notice the catch in his voice. Steve, on his part, was too wrecked at this point to even be that surprised that one of his most eccentric friends had just dropped through the ceiling.

“Well,” Tony shrugged – or rather, the suit did – “Romanoff did most of the figuring in this case. I did the fact checking.”

“And by fact checking he means hacking your phone,” Clint called down cheerfully from the hole in the ceiling.

“And by hacking your phone he means listening in when you told Maria the exact details of your plan,” Sam chimed in.

“Anyway,” Tony cut through, clearly not happy that the others were stealing his thunder. “I got your press conference notes. Wasn't hard to figure out what you're doing.”

“I'm doing what needs to be done,” Fury said, clearly struggling to keep his voice down even as he was shaking with anger. Fury, evidently, did not like to be upstaged any more than Tony did.

Steve chanced a glance at Bucky, but he looked as bewildered as Steve felt.

“And that's great,” Tony said patronisingly. “But we've got a counter-offer. You see... I don't know if you know this, but the Avengers? We're kind of a package deal. Well, except Thor; who knows where he runs off to half the time? And Banner, well...”

“The point, Tony,” Natasha reminded him.

“The point,” Tony agreed as though that was where his spiel had been going all along, “is that you can't just swoop in here and send one of us on a permanent time-out at the first sign of trouble.”

“One of you?” Fury's brow furrowed. “What are you talking about?”

Next to Steve, Bucky shifted awkwardly. But Steve felt something rise in his chest, something warm and strong, as he realised exactly what Tony was trying to say.

“We've known this day would come for a long time,” Natasha chimed in, as she finally dropped down to land next to Tony. As she continued, Clint and Sam dropped down behind her. Out of the corner of his eye, Steve noted that three more S.H.I.E.L.D. agents had crept into the apartment. He wondered if Bucky had counted the exits.

“We've been preparing, same as you,” Tony continued. “Just in case. Would've let Cap in on the plan, but we kinda didn't figure we'd have to fight your guys on this. We still hope it won't come to that.”

Steve couldn't keep silent any longer. “What are you saying?” He asked Tony, taking a step forward – away from the agents, towards his friends – and pulled Bucky with him.

It was Sam who answered. “We're saying there's another way to keep Bucky safe, to keep you both out of Hydra's clutches, at least for now. At least until we can take the motherfuckers down.”

“Which shouldn't be too long,” Clint added. “Cause, you know, we're awesome.”

“I...” Bucky's voice cracked as he tried to speak; when Steve looked at him, he was shocked to see tears in his eyes. “I don't understand.”

“It's simple,” Tony declared, armoured arms sweeping out as if embracing his bewildered audience. “You're part of the team, Bucky. Well, in theory. You will be. And Cap so clearly needs you to stick around, so... consider yourself Assembled.”

Fury cleared his throat then, glaring sternly at them all. “This is all very touching, Stark, but you do realize that Hydra will be banging on all of our doors looking for him. I'm trying to keep Bucky, and all of you, safe, here.”

“Sure you are. And I commend you, Fury, for finding the most devastating solution imaginable,” Tony said, and some of the lightness had gone out of his tone. “If Bucky was really the enemy you're so clearly afraid he'll turn into, I'd say it was a pretty solid plan. As it is, we're looking out for the team, here. And if keeping the band together means drawing a slightly bigger target on our collective ass, well, it wouldn't be the first time.”

Steve could hardly believe what he was hearing and seeing: his friends – friends, not just members of a group that called themselves heroes coming up like the goddamn cavalry to save the day. He glanced at Natasha, who winked at him before turning back to glare at Fury. Sam was beaming at Bucky and Steve like he knew something they didn't – and maybe he had known what the two of them had only just discovered. Clint was just standing there, strong and solid, ready to fight for the team like he always was. (And Steve suspected he was also here because he had a soft spot for Bucky, seeing as how they'd both been forced to hurt people against their will.)

He didn't know if what Tony was accusing Fury of was the truth. He couldn't believe that the older man would really take Bucky away from him because of a grudge, or some abstract fear... but then again, the Winter Soldier had almost destroyed everything Fury had worked so hard to build up. And he'd killed Howard Stark, who by all accounts had been one of Nick Fury's closest friends.

Maybe locking Bucky up again wasn't their only option after all – just the one that best suited S.H.I.E.L.D.

Not for the first time, Steve was seriously beginning to question his allegiance to that particular institution.

“So what do we do now?” Steve asked Tony, stepping closer to Bucky just in case there was any doubt that whatever the plan was, there would be no separation of the two of them. Preferably ever.

“Stark Tower, for starters,” Tony said, as Steve had figured he would. “That should be safe enough for now. It's obviously not the most covert, but if Hydra knew how to storm it, they would have done so a long time ago.”

“I really don't think--” Fury started, but one look from Steve, and his mouth clamped shut.

“Sounds like a plan,” Steve said, opting to pretend like Fury and his men (whose guns were still half-raised, as they watched the scene unfold in confusion) weren't even in the room.

Bucky cleared his throat, and all eyes went to him. “Ain't no one gonna ask what I think?”

Steve turned to face Bucky. Well aware that the last time he'd been facing each other, they'd ended up making out in front of the director of S.H.I.E.L.D. – but unlike last time, Steve didn't feel like the world was ending. “What do you think, Buck?” Steve asked gently. The thing about believing in freedom was that ultimately, Steve would never be able to force Bucky to do something he didn't want to. But he would do his damnedest to convince him, if Bucky decided to get any fancy notions of doing the noble thing. Bucky had done enough, and Steve was not ready to let him throw away both of their chance at happiness without a fight. Not when there was an alternative that wasn't likely to get Bucky killed.

Bucky's eyes roamed over Steve's face, and for a moment Steve thought he was going to kiss him again. But then he smiled. “If Tony can promise your safety, then I'm in.”

“Er,” Tony said, but Steve held up a hand and Tony fell silent.

“I'll be as safe as I ever am. That good enough?” Steve asked, a hand on Bucky's arm, squeezing ever so slightly.

Bucky rolled his eyes. “It's a start.”

And this time, Bucky did kiss him. Steve ignored the theatrical gasp of surprise from Tony (and Natasha's wolf whistle), pulling Bucky tighter and deepening the kiss. One of the S.H.I.E.L.D. guards dropped his gun, which luckily still had the safety on. Steve smiled against Bucky's mouth.

“I guess you got your outing after all,” Steve murmured as they pulled away.

Bucky shrugged. “I'm done keeping secrets.”

“Um.” It was Tony, who, for once in his life, sounded completely at a loss. Clearly, this was one development his calculations hadn't prepared him for. “So... should we go then?”

“Give the lovebirds a moment,” Natasha smirked. She didn't sound surprised at all.

Steve turned to Fury, who was watching him closely, his eye narrowed. But he hadn't ordered the agents to raise their weapons, and that gave Steve hope.

“Look,” Steve said, keeping a hand on Bucky's arm. Just because he could. “I know you mean well. I know you'd do everything in your power to keep Bucky safe. You need him, I get it. But I --” Steve shook his head; now wasn't the time to be selfish. “--We need him, too. Tony said it: he's part of the team. Or he will be. The Avengers don't turn people away because of their past, never have. You made sure of that.” He didn't look at Nat or Clint as he said it, but he knew they were grateful for the second chance Fury had once given them. The fact that they'd come here anyway, for Steve, meant more than he could ever express. “Let's play this one by ear, what do you say?”

Fury's expression was tight as he looked first at Steve, then at Bucky, and finally at the Avengers that had assembled behind them. A unit, plain as day. Fury sighed, defeated.

“Stark Tower, huh?” He said. Steve felt something unfurl in his chest, and he nodded, just once. “I'll be keeping my eye on you,” Fury cautioned, eye landing on Bucky once more. “All of you.”

“Yes, Sir,” Steve nodded solemnly. He turned to Tony – for once completely content with letting his friend take the lead. “Front door okay with you this time?”

Tony waved an iron-clad hand. “Eh, I've already made my grand entrance.”

As the agents moved aside and the Avengers moved as one past the stunned Nick Fury, Steve saw the smallest of smiles play on Bucky's face.

It was going to be okay. Bucky was going to be okay. And whatever Hydra threw at them... they would face it together.

Chapter Text

“My name is Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes, of the 107th Infantry Regiment.”

The room was small, no windows. Steve stood next to Bucky on a raised platform, behind a podium they had placed there themselves only half an hour earlier. Two dozen foldable chairs had been placed in the room, and now held the select few journalists and government officials who had been screened, searched and prodded before being allowed entry to the secure facility Nick Fury had provided for the occasion.

“I was born in Brooklyn on the tenth of March, 1917. I am a New Yorker. I am a soldier. I am the best friend of Steve Rogers. Captain America.”

Just before the doors had been opened to allow the attendees inside, Steve's hand had been on the small of Bucky's back; Bucky's metal fingers had curled gently around his neck as they shared a soft, lingering kiss.

“I am – I was, for many years – known as the Winter Soldier.”

As they had predicted, the onlookers let out a collective gasp, eyes widening and heads shifting nervously.

Steve was in full costume, standing just behind Bucky, figuring today more as a symbol than as a person. Fury had insisted.

Behind them stood Natasha, Bruce, Clint, Tony and Sam, in an orderly line. The Avengers assembled: theatrics, all of it. But necessary.

“I was kidnapped. Tortured. Broken.” Bucky was reading off a script. He'd rehearsed tone, speed, rhythm. And yet his voice faltered, just a little. “You all know some of what I've done. Not all of it. I don't even know all of it myself.”

The American flag hung gigantic and imposing behind them. More threatening than reassuring, in Steve's opinion, but he hadn't been in charge of the decor.

On the front row of chairs sat Maria, Sharon, Fury, and a number of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Steve couldn't identify.

“I was a prisoner of war for decades. Frozen in time, my mind and body instruments of the enemy. I did... terrible things.”

A single video camera stood on a tripod in the center aisle, red light blaring and constant, watching them. Broadcasting to the world.

Bucky raised his head, seeking the eyes of every single person gathered in turn before looking directly into the camera lens.

“The Winter Soldier should never have existed, and yet he did. I should not be alive at all right now, and yet I am. I am Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes – Bucky, to my friends – and I have been given a second chance. I won't waste it. And I hope that you will give me the opportunity to earn your trust and respect, as I work with Captain America to bring down the organization that did this to me. Thank you for your time.”

There was no applause as Bucky's short speech ended. No sounds at all, in fact, but for the rustle of papers and Bucky's footsteps as he stepped backwards off the podium, falling into line with Steve.

Steve hesitated, then reached out and put his hand on Bucky's shoulder. It was over. You did good.

Then, one timid hand rose up in the audience. Steve looked down to see a young man, skinny, dark-haired, with glasses too big for his face. He looked to be in his early twenties. Steve wondered which paper had sent him.

Steve opened his mouth to acknowledge him when Fury said, loud and clear, “We are not opening for questions at this time.”

Steve ignored him. “I think we can allow just the one.”

There was something in the boy's expression, something familiar. Steve caught his eye and nodded.

“Um, Rich Brooks, People Magazine?” The boy looked vaguely embarrassed as he gave the name of his publication; out of the corner of his eyes, Steve could see Fury make some kind of dismissive gesture. Steve kept his attention on the boy. Steve was pretty sure People Magazine was a gossip rag, and he vaguely wondered why Tony had allowed them a presence here at all. Then he remembered that it was Tony, and it all made sense.

“What is your question?” Steve asked, voice booming, at once powerful and reassuring. Just as instructed.

Rich Brooks' eyes darted back and forth, and Steve knew he'd inadvertently put the boy on the spot. A room full of seasoned journalists and officials, and here was this kid writing for a celebrity magazine, asking the only question allowed. Better make it a good one, Steve thought.

“Well, James Barnes' return has been rumored for weeks, and when you announced this press conference, obviously people didn't expect – I mean, some might have – but the general public had made completely different assumptions about what you'd be revealing, as it were.” The boy spoke very fast, as though the words were rushing out before he could stop himself. As his speech fizzled out, his face was bright red, and he looked about ready to sink into the floor in embarrassment. Steve could hear a faint, familiar wheeze in his chest.

“There a point to this, Mr. Brooks?” Fury said sharply under his breath, and Rich Brooks jumped.

“I just wanted to ask – Mr. Barnes, Mr. Cap-- I mean, Mr. Rogers – the rumours. About you. Your involvement. Is there... are they... true?”

A deafening silence fell over the room. Most faces in the gathered crowd expressed shock, embarrassment, even outrage. Fury's face was stony, Maria rolled her eyes.

Steve looked at Bucky. Bucky looked right back, mouth curving slightly upwards.

They hadn't been briefed on this. They hadn't even talked about what they'd say and when they'd say it, not really. What Bucky and Steve did in private, well, that was their business. If they stood a little closer than necessary during S.H.I.E.L.D. briefings, if their fingers twined together as they walked down the hallways, if every single inhabitant of Stark Tower had walked in on them making out at some point or another in the past two weeks, well... that was their business. This, however, was uncharted territory.

Bucky's look was open, unassuming, as he raised an eyebrow in question as he waited for Steve to respond. His job here was done, his expression seemed to say: his outing, as the Winter Soldier, had gone off without a hitch.

Steve realised, to his mild horror, that he could answer this question any way he liked.

Steve opened his mouth to respond, then hesitated. The denial had been on the tip of his tongue, the request for privacy already formulated in his mind. He didn't owe this kid anything; didn't owe anyone any details about his personal life.

But something in Rich Brooks' expression gave him pause. He might be a gossip journalist, sure, and most likely he was just looking for a scoop for his magazine. But he was young, scrawny and terrified, clearly out of his depth. The look he gave Steve didn't seem hungry. It seemed hopeful.

Then, the conversation Steve and Bucky had had what seemed like a lifetime ago came back to him; when they'd come back from the gala and Bucky had asked Steve to take a stand. To fight for those who still needed someone to fight for them. To not let the bullies stomp on those who were still trod down.

Was Rich Brooks one of those people? Steve didn't know, but it hardly mattered. They were out there, and they were afraid.

He hadn't been able to give Oswald Ryan the truth. But that had been before he'd even truly been able to admit it to himself. He had Bucky now, truly, after almost losing him again. And this was the moment when Steve had to prove that he was more than Captain America: he was Steve Rogers, and Steve Rogers was done hiding his true self behind silly costumes. He was ready to stand for something again.

“The rumours are true,” he said simply – and watched, vaguely amused, as the crowd gasped even louder than when Bucky had revealed he was the Winter Soldier.

Rich Brooks gaped, eyes bulging and mouth moving as though he was trying to speak but no words presented themselves. “You and Mr. Barnes are...” he managed, but the all-important word would not come. And Steve knew, in that moment, that scrawly little Rich Brooks with the oversized glasses had not only been asking for his magazine.

“We are an item,” Steve affirmed. His hand, he realised, was still on Bucky's shoulder. Bucky was looking at him, but Steve didn't trust himself to meet his gaze, afraid he'd lose his nerve. “We weren't always, not until we reunited. And even after that, it took a while. Bucky – Sergeant Barnes – was still recovering from his years of conditioning. And I... well, I was just afraid he didn't feel the same way.” Steve's lips twitched, and to his relief, a few of the reporters chuckled at his admission. “But now I know he does. And considering how much we've both been through, denying ourselves a chance to be happy seems, frankly, pretty ridiculous. So, there you have it.”

“It's... um. It's a brave admission.” Rich's eyes were a little too bright, as he gazed up at Steve with something like awe. “Most people wouldn't be as open.”

Steve shrugged, feeling the heavy fabric of his Captain America suit shift against his skin. It felt more like a disguise than it ever had before. “I'm not most people.”

He did look at Bucky then, to see his friend – his everything – looking back at him with nothing but love and respect. He let himself smile back, not letting himself wonder about what would happen tomorrow, the publicity nightmare they'd surely be facing as soon as this all went live. Ironically, Steve was pretty sure that people would care a lot less about the whole Winter Soldier thing now.

Someone started clapping. It was a slow, uncertain sound, but before Steve had located the perpetrator, the applause grew, until every single person in the room was putting their hands together, almost solemnly, looking up at Steve and Bucky as though they had just done something extraordinary. And maybe they had.

“See?” Bucky whispered in his ear. “Things have changed.”

Steve only smiled, not bothering to correct Bucky just now. Things had changed, sure, but the world wasn't perfect. There would always be ignorant assholes, people who wanted to prevent other people's happiness to feel better about their own misery.

But as Steve stood next to Bucky, his friends at his back and applauding strangers at his feet, he knew that maybe, just maybe, Captain America could still stand for something important.

Later, he'd kiss a trail down Bucky's neck and let Bucky's hands peel the Captain America suit off him slowly, revealing Steve Rogers underneath. Bucky would kiss him and tell him he loved him, and Steve would smile into Bucky's hair, whispering endearments into his skin, and he would never have to share a second of that with the world. But this – telling people that it was okay to love, and be loved in return – on this, he would never again stay silent.

 

FIN