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Sing Me the Alphabet

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In the end, tracking down the Winter Soldier is easy.  And it’s the last place Rogers would look, because it’s the last place Rogers would want to believe he’d be.  Fury finds him alone and docilely vacant at Pierce’s summer home in Narragansett, smooth clouds even grey over the pounding, restless water.  The soldier hadn’t struggled, hadn’t made a sound as the TAC team moved in and seized him, wrenching his arms into the mag cuffs, pinning him face down against the porch.  He hadn’t made a sound on the trip back to base, or during the scans and tests or surgeries to remove three tracking chips implanted in his spine.  Hadn’t said a word under any form of interrogation.  There was nothing worse they could do to him than what had already been done.  Fury had eventually passed him down for Coulson to deal with, a courtesy more than anything.  There wasn’t anything left to salvage.  That’s what Fury believed.  It would have been a kindness to put him down.

 

PART I

The soldier receives three meals daily, delivered on a plastic tray.  He eats mechanically, regardless of substance, and is otherwise entirely disengaged from his surroundings.  Three walls, a cot, a sink, and a toilet.  The fourth wall is a reinforced plexiglass derivative designed to contend with various superhuman strengths and abilities, and it’s by way of a sealable gap in this wall that the food is delivered.  When Steve is finally allowed to visit, it is by way of this gap that crayons and paper and peanut butter cups are delivered as well.  Steve visits every day, stubbornly talking and drawing and drawing while talking and talking while drawing, every day.  He says “I’ll see you tomorrow,” and then he comes back the next day.  “We’re friends,” Steve says.  The soldier doesn’t know what that means and after a time - a long time - he starts to resent it.  The resentment grows and festers, the first real feeling he’s felt since the numbness after Pierce had been confirmed dead when the soldier had felt a creeping cold sickness seep into his body that had congealed into a blank, pervasive nothing.  That’s what he had felt on the table, or in the cell, or alone, or in interrogation.  Nothing.  But when Steve says “we’re friends,” the soldier feels a thin, tight twist of something in his chest, and he glances through the glass where Steve We’re Fucking Friends Grant Rogers is sketching something stupid.  But he tamps the feeling back down.  He doesn’t want it.

Every day, three times daily, food is delivered on a plastic tray, with a sodden vegetable, a dry or drowning slab of meat, and either potatoes, corn, or a bread roll, and a candy.  The candies come in thin foil or plastic wrappers, with names like “Twix” or “Twizzler” or “M&M.”  The soldier doesn’t eat these.  He pinches them gently between his fingers, first flesh, then metal, feeling the crinkle of the wrapper, testing the texture of the treat inside.  “M&M” is hard little bullets.  “Twix” is two separate slabs, firm on one side, soft on the other.  “Twizzler” is springy, like a fingertip.  Sometimes a “Payday” or a “Butterfinger” comes in a wrapper like an air-filled pillow, and the candy rattles gently inside, but the soldier can’t pinch it without popping the pillow, so he doesn’t know their texture.  He keeps all his candies on the far side of his bed, away from the window.  Some day someone will come in and take them away, but for now they are his treasure.  He doesn’t know when he began to think of them that way, or even when he began to save them.  Sometimes he can’t remember things.  It’s better that way, for the most part.

Steve has left him a pile of drawings.  They’re piled up, scattered over the floor near the slot where the food comes in.  Drawings of strange animals and buildings and people the soldier doesn’t know.  Some long time ago Steve had given him “Crayola” and a pad of paper.  “Crayola” is crayons, and they smell like wax and dust and something else.  All the colors are different but the shapes are the same, they’re all the exact same width and height, tapering to a point with just the tip lopped off.  There are twelve colors.

Steve comes and talks and draws and talks.  Steve “We’re Friends” Grant Rogers.  When he leaves that day, the soldier draws him a picture.

*

Steve has been coming for six weeks, every day for six weeks when Bucky finally responds to him.  Leaning against the window of the cell is a crude crayon drawing.  Bucky sits unresponsive on the edge of his bed like he does every day, but the drawing is leaning against the inside corner of the window, so Bucky drew it.  It’s Bucky, or what’s supposed to be him, floating above spikes of green grass with a rainbow beside him and the sun in one corner.  Hair like a whisk-broom, metal arm raised, with a  U-shaped smile on his big round face.  Floating beside him are little brown rectangles, red ones, orange.  “Twix,” one says in careful letters.  “Skittle.” Scrawled across the bottom of the page in all capital letters: “FRIENDS.”  Bucky in paradise with candy.  Steve looks at Bucky, but he hasn’t moved.  Steve doesn’t know what to make of it.  It’s good that he’s shown some interest?  There’s a thrill of excitement and pleasure and dread that goes through him, and in the end he sits and draws and talks and draws, careful now to keep an eye on Bucky in a way he’d eventually forgotten to do before.  But Bucky doesn’t look at him or move.

The next day, there’s another drawing. Bucky in outer space, with candy.  “FRIENDS,” it says, in firm, black lines.

The next day: “FRIENDS,” on a floating motorcycle, big smiling Bucky and his candy.

On a steep green hill: “FRIENDS.”

Underwater with tropical fish and toothy, red-gilled shark: Bucky and candy, “FRIENDS.”

One day, Steve comes in to find a picture of Bucky alone in a tiny boat, a U-shaped frown and chain-linked tears streaming down his face.  “FRIENDS,” it says, the candy flying off the boat and sinking underwater.  Steve tries to talk to him about it, but Bucky has never once spoken to him since he’s been here.

After that, Bucky and his candy get hit by a car.  “FRIENDS.”

They fall out of an airplane.  “FRIENDS.”

The candy gets eaten by a shark and Bucky cries long blue strings of tears.  “FRIENDS,” it says, and Steve has had enough.

“You can’t keep him here forever,” he says.  Coulson says “I’ll do as I see fit.”

Bucky gets impaled on a spike.  “FRIENDS,” it says.

Bucky in five different pieces, limbs torn from his body, no candy anywhere.  “FRIENDS,” it says.

“He’s showing progress,” Coulson says.  

Steve says, “You let him out or I’ll give your coordinates to the CIA.”

“You would jeopardize the fate of the free world for one dangerous killer.”

“Yours isn’t a free world.”

Coulson says nothing.

“How many of Hydra’s heads started off just like you?  How long before you’re one of them?”

“He’s a killer.”

“He’s my friend.”

In the end, Coulson lets Bucky go because he’s a drain on resources, and Steve has been reckless before. In fact, Steven Grant Rogers behaves very little other than recklessly, his history shows.

*

The day will come, the soldier knows, when they take all his candy away.  For now, he lies with his cheek to the floor, arranging them in neat rows, categorized by color and name.

Chapter Text

SHIELD releases Bucky to Steve with a thin tracking anklet and their valueless word that he’s free of implants. It doesn’t matter, for now. It’s not the hill Steve wants to die on. He brings Bucky to his two bedroom apartment in Brooklyn which barely feels like home, only in shadows and glimpses of memory. Bucky has his SHIELD issue scrubs and a plastic bag stuffed with candy which he clutches to his stomach with both arms. He gazes vacantly around the space, moves where Steve tells him to.

“This is your bedroom. Everything in here is yours.” Clothes, blankets, toiletries. Steve backs carefully out of the room to give Buck a chance to settle in, but he hears no movement for a worryingly long time. Then, the crinkle of a plastic bag being carefully tucked away somewhere. Hours later when Steve finally checks, Bucky is tucked away on the floor on the far side of the bed with his arms wrapped around his candy, staring into the space between the bedframe and the carpet. Steve leaves him alone when what he wants to do is shake him violently and cry. He knows Bucky won’t snap out of it. But he knows Bucky had been sharper than this, before. He’d at least been functioning, before. What had happened between Insight and now? What had happened at SHIELD? Steve wants to hit something. He wants to fight someone. But there’s nothing to fight.

*

The soldier has to go with I’m Your Fucking Friend Steve Rogers. It’s different. But mostly the same.

*

Steve helps Buck with his toilet routine. “This is your toothbrush.” “This is the hot water.” “This is your towel.” Buck had been there for Steve when Steve had had nothing, when the whole world had thought Steve shouldn’t exist. Bucky had been there when Steve had been laid up in bed for weeks at a time, when he’d gotten the snot knocked out of him on the way home from work, or the pictures, or the bar. Steve wasn’t patient like Bucky, but he was stubborn. “This is your sweatshirt.” “These are your shorts.”

“This is the shaver,” he says.

It’s electric. Steve doesn’t want to hand Bucky a razor just yet, so he has an electric shaver that he plugs in and flicks on. It buzzes. For the first time, Bucky really looks at something.

“If you get sick of the beard,” Steve offers. He presses the shaver to the back of his arm and it buzzes clear a patch of fine blond hair. Barely a difference. Bucky raises his fingers tentatively, and Steve hands him the shaver. Bucky flicks it off, then on. Off, then on. He holds the shaving end to his metal fingers. It buzzes loud against the metal. He takes it away. Quiet buzzing. Presses again; louder. Bucky raises it to his cheek. He glances at Steve. The first eye contact since Buck tried to kill him. His blue eyes are wide, and Steve nods gently. Buck presses the shaver to his cheek and shaves a single bald patch into his ragged beard. He flicks the shaver off and looks at it. He presses a flesh finger over the end.

“It doesn’t…” he trails off. Steve holds his breath. “Cut,” Bucky finishes.

“No. Just the hair.”

Buck scratches his fingernail over the shaving end. “But,” he says slowly. “If you take this off, it will cut.” He carefully enunciates the T’s for some reason, making the words delicate and small;

“I don’t know. I never took it apart,” Steve says. Bucky sets the shaver down. After a while, Steve says, “Let’s eat.” Bucky follows him to the kitchen, gazing introspectively at nothing.

Steve holds his tongue about the bald spot and makes sandwiches. His hands would shake, if he’d let them.

*

“He’s not ever going to be the man you knew,” Nat says. Steve looks at her, blood rising.

“What the fuck do you take me for,” he spits. She raises her hands and backs down. Steve leaves a five on the table for coffee. He loves Nat but sometimes she really pisses him off.

*

Bucky does start to open up, slowly. Steve’s not patient, but he’s stubborn. He buys books on PTSD he forces himself to read. He knows Bucky should be in therapy because everyone these days says “You should talk to someone.”

Steve feels afraid sometimes, like asthma coming on, when he thinks about being old. He avoids the elderly sometimes on the street, then makes himself go back and talk to them because he’s not a coward. But the elderly make him feel sad and afraid and he doesn’t breathe easily until he’s put several blocks between them. He doesn’t “talk to someone.” He’s not insane. He can face his fears on his own. But Bucky should talk to someone. He knows that. Bucky is insane. But you can get better from that. Bucky can get better, Steve knows it. And then doesn’t know what that means. Better like the man he knew? Better like the man Steve pulled off the table in Italy, who back then had stared at nothing, who carefully separated stamps and squared them perfectly to the edges of letters, who didn’t always hear Steve when Steve called his name.

At the Playground, Bucky had been all but catatonic, so he already is better. Better’s not a benchmark. It’s a process, Steve decides. And Bucky’s getting better. He looks at things. Steve can hear him rustling through his candy, sometimes. He hasn’t drawn any pictures here yet, but he’s taken the crayons out of the box and lined them up across the table, rolled them under his hand like a conveyor belt, back and forth, then put them carefully away. He touches things and feels their texture. It’s a beginning.

*

The soldier isn’t allowed to leave the house. Those are the rules of living with Steve. But Steve leaves sometimes and brings things back and leaves them around and says “Bucky” can touch them. “You can touch ‘em, Buck,” he says. “Buck” is him. He remembers being Bucky but he doesn’t like to think about it. It’s bad to think about it.

Steve brings him a thing, like a gun with a trigger, and a white wheel with all letters and numbers on it. When you pull the trigger, a strip of black stuff comes out with a letter on it or a number.

“It’s a label-maker,” Steve tells him. “It’s outdated, I guess. Someone was getting rid of it.” Steve was a sucker for second hand stuff, when Bucky knew him. If someone was throwing it out, Steve wanted it. But people didn’t throw away too much back then. They didn’t throw away cool stuff like this.

Bang. Bang. Bang.

“EEE” the label says. “EEEEE”

*

Bucky likes the label maker. Steve had hesitated over it, not sure if he should get something that looked like a gun, but he knew Bucky would like it. Bucky would have liked it before. He’d always liked gadgets, and Steve has to remind himself sometimes that while there’s a lot he doesn’t know about Bucky now, he’s known Bucky a long, long time. Bucky has liked gadgets since he was a kid. So whether or not it looks like a gun, whether or not that’s “healthy” or “safe” or whatever everyone talks about these days, when he saw it in the box of junk on the sidewalk, he’d known Buck would like it. Steve has already ordered a stockpile of refill tape on Amazon.

Once Buck had found the scissor function, Steve had taken his “EEEEEEEEEEEEFFF22” and peeled the backing. Bucky had examined the tacky substance, tested it with metal and flesh, then stuck it to the coffee table, running his fingertip over the letters, then his fingernail, then a metal finger, back and forth. He slowly bangs out another label:

“IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII”

He zips his fingers across this one for the rest of the evening.

*

The first real word Bucky types is “BUCK.”

The second is “FUCK.”

Steve watches him press them onto the table. There’s something very slightly resembling a smirk on his face as he does it.

*

BUCK
FUCK
SUCK
MUCK,

the refrigerator says.

“What about ‘duck’ or ‘luck,’” Steve offers. “Your name has nice rhymes, too.” Bucky looks him straight in the eye, bland as toast.

Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang.

Steve cranes his neck to see what it says as Buck clips it off with the scissors tool. Buck peels off the back and smooths the word onto the table.

“FFFFFFFFFFFUCK.”

Steve raises his hands in surrender. “Just saying.”

Buck looks at his work, contemplative.

*

Bucky lies on his side on the floor in his bedroom, organizing his candy behind the bed. There’s a label on the bag that says “LUCKY BUCKY CANDY.” Steve is reading and watching TV in the living room. Steve never liked peace and quiet.

Bucky likes the crinkle the wrappers make when he touches them. He likes the buzz of the shaver in his hand and against his face. He doesn’t like to hold it in his metal hand because the vibration travels up through the socket down the reinforcements on his ribs and spine. It doesn’t really feel like electricity. He doesn’t like it.

He likes his thing that Steve gave him, the label maker. He likes Steve. But sometimes Bucky feels like…

Sometimes Bucky feels heavy. No one tells him to go on a mission. He’s good at missions. He likes them.

Alex had said, “You’ve shaped the century.”

Alex was nice.

*

Sometimes Steve goes out but Bucky isn’t allowed outside. But one day Steve says “Let’s go out.” Bucky knows he isn’t allowed out. He’s making labels for his crayons but he stops.

“Let’s get ice cream.”

Bucky thinks it might be a test. He’s either not supposed to go out, or he’s supposed to do what Steve says. He’s pretty much always done what Steve says. Even before. Bucky puts the label maker down and stands up.

 

They walk a few blocks to an ice cream shop. Steve orders butter pecan. “What do you want?” he asks. Nothing. Bucky doesn’t want an ice cream. He wants his orders, so he knows what he’s supposed to do outside. He’s outside for a reason.

“They got chocolate, vanilla, rainbow sherbert…” Steve’s looking at him. “Buck?”

Bucky ends up with a rainbow ice cream in a cup, feeling something wind up tight inside him. Steve is just eating his fucking ice cream!

“What’s the target?” Bucky asks. That’s the only reason he goes outside, to eliminate the target, and that’s why Steve had him, right? To shoot people for Steve? Like he used to. Steve stops with his ice cream halfway to his mouth and says “What?”

“The target.”

“There’s no target.”

Bucky throws his ice cream on the ground. This is complete bullshit. He starts walking back to Steve’s place. His eyes feel hot. His throat hurts. Steve calls out after him, behind him, but doesn’t tell him to stop, so Bucky keeps walking until he gets back to their building but he needs a key to get in and doesn’t have one. He stands aside while Steve unlocks the door and waits for Steve to go first. He follows Steve up the stairs to their apartment, and he knows he’s in trouble. He shouldn’t have thrown his ice cream Steve got him. It was ungrateful. He should be grateful.

“What was that about?” Steve demands, once they’re inside. Bucky doesn’t answer. He feels mixed up. He doesn’t know what answer Steve wants. He doesn’t know why he’s so ungrateful. “Buck?” Steve waits for an answer and then supplies his own. “We don’t have to go out if you don’t want.”

That wasn’t it! Bucky kicks the table. He’s gonna get punished anyway so who gives a fuck. He kicks the coffee table so it flips over and hits the couch and the label maker and crayons scatter across the floor.

“Why did you buy me?” he finally shouts. It feels ripped out of him, hoarse and loud. Steve is silent, tense, and still. “What did you even get me for?”

Steve doesn’t answer and Bucky sinks onto the couch, pushing the coffee table aside. He presses the heels of his hands to his eyes.

“I didn’t buy you,” Steve says. Fucking great! Bucky throws his hands in the air. “I didn’t fucking buy you, you’re my friend!”

“Fuck you!” Bucky flings the coffee table at him like a discus. “Fuck you.” He stands up. He goes into his bedroom. He lays down on the floor with his candy. A string of hot tears leaks out.

*

Steve doesn’t know what the hell is happening. He shouldn’t have yelled. He knows that. Bucky is...expressing something. He’s trying to express something. Steve’s job is to listen. Just listen to what he’s saying. It’s hard. Steve is pissed. He paces the apartment trying to cool off but he’d rather punch something or get in a fight, which was a lot easier when he was 5’4 and ninety pounds. He could fight without being a bully. Steve claps a hand over his mouth and breathes through his nose. He’s not mad at Buck, he’s mad at the situation. What the hell was he talking about “why did you buy me?”

He has to fix this. Fuck. Bucky had always fixed things when they fought. Every time. Steve taps on Buck’s door but there’s no sound from inside.

“Buck?” he calls. Nothing. “I’m sorry I yelled. I just thought it would be nice to go outside, is all. I thought you maybe felt cooped up in here.” Steve feels cooped up in here, is the thing. He just wanted...he just wanted to go outside and do something nice, is all. God damn it. He feels that feeling in the back of his throat, like asthma. He leaves Bucky’s door and sticks his head out the window.

*

Bucky waits for Steve’s punishment but nothing happens. He thinks...he feels, maybe… He shifts and runs his finger over “LUCKY BUCKY CANDY.” Sometimes when he sassed Steve he never got punished, before. Because they were friends. “Friends” meant you didn’t get punished.

But sometimes…

Bucky doesn’t know. Sometimes Alex had to correct his behavior. He doesn’t like to think about it. He can just be good from now on and do what Steve wants. But the old part who knows about Bucky thinks that’s not what Steve wants. But the old part is stupid and stinks and Buck hates him.

 

Bucky eventually comes out to use the bathroom, and the coffee table and everything is put back to normal. He raids the refrigerator while he’s out there because Steve said it was allowed and he can’t change the rules without telling. Bucky could argue that in a court of law. That's a thing people do, with a judge who tells them the punishment.

Bucky leaves the refrigerator door open so there's light. He sits on the floor and eats five pickles from the jar.

Chapter Text

STEVE IS MAD
BUCK IS BAD
WEAVE STEVE
STEVE WILL LEAVE
PLUCKY
BUCKY
MUCKY
YUCK.

Steve reels in a sigh and shuts the cabinet door, where this has been waiting for him who knows how long.

“It’s just rhymes,” Buck had said, when Steve was getting sick of finding “mucky bucky” and “bucky yuck” labeled all over the apartment.

“I don’t like you saying mean things about yourself.”

“It’s just rhymes.”

Steve is making pancakes from scratch, which he figures won’t kill him to learn how to do. Buck is perched on a barstool, idly kicking the counter. Steve swears to God Buck does it to aggravate him.

Pancakes are simple, they don’t have a whole lot of ingredients, but unless Steve keeps a recipe in front of him or he’s made it a billion times, he gets the amounts wrong. He doesn’t really like to cook, and of the myriad things that frustrate him about the 21st century, microwave dinners are not one of them. The frozen food section is mecca for Steve: bags of precooked chicken wings, bags of french fries, bags of tiny pizzas. Steve’s freezer is stuffed to the brim at all times, and he can’t help keeping his pantry that way, too. Packed with cans of food. He buys them by the palette. It’s something he can’t shake and doesn’t care to, stockpiling food. Just in case. Plus with the way he eats these days, he still surprises himself sometimes, how hungry he is. How fast he can put it away. He was always too sick to have much of an appetite, before. He wonders what it would have been like to just, you know, be normal. Eat a normal amount of food, like a normal person.

It doesn’t matter now. He checks the recipe on his tablet and triples it.

“What are you making?” Bucky asks.

“Pancakes.”

“Pancakes,” Buck whispers to himself. “Pancakes, pancakes.” He swivels on the stool and scrubs his finger over “TABLE” on the countertop. His metal arm is labeled “ROBOT,” with “TOBOR” underneath it. He has “BUCKY” on his forehead. He’d made a label for Steve too, and jabbed it onto Steve’s arm with more force than Steve had thought necessary. It said “BOOGER.”

“I don’t want to be ‘Booger,’” Steve had said. Bucky had ignored him and Steve had left the sticker where it was. He knows Buck is picking on him but he has no idea why or what to do about it. He’s scared he’s going to say the wrong thing and Buck will shut him out again.

Steve flips the tablet to Bucky and says “Read me the recipe, will you?” Bucky peels “TOBOR” off his arm and sticks it carefully along the bottom of the tablet casing. Then he checks the recipe and surveys the countertop where Steve is waiting with a mixing bowl, eggs, and flour.

“You need to get all the ingredients,” Bucky says.

“Just tell me the first step and we’ll go from there.”

“No. You need to have all the ingredients.”

Steve hates ingredients. Why can’t all the stuff just go in the bowl and pancakes comes out?

“What are the ingredients,” he asks.

It turns out he needs a shit ton more stuff than he expected and he kind of wishes he could switch to a simpler recipe, but he can’t say that to Bucky now, so he gets milk and vinegar and sugar and baking soda and baking powder and salt and butter and cooking spray and sets it out on the counter in preparation until Bucky is satisfied. Then, in a very high handed tone, Bucky announces, “Step One.” Good grief. “Combine milk and vinegar in a medium bowl and set aside for five minutes to sour. Medium bowl, Steve.”

Steve does as he’s told, but he’s grumbling on the inside. Five minutes to sour, he was supposed to be eating pancakes five minutes from now. Why would he want sour milk in his pancakes, Christ almighty.

They’re not really that hard to make and they don’t really take that long, and when he flips the first pancake he notices Bucky is practically falling out of his chair in anticipation, but then ignores the pancake Steve flaps onto a plate for him.

“You want to make one?” Steve hazards.

On the money. Buck rockets off his stool like he’s spring loaded. He doesn’t really smile any more but there’s a look on his face like he would be if, well. He’s almost smiling. Steve slathers some butter on the pancake he made and rolls it up, eating with his fingers while Buck pours the tiniest amount of batter onto the hissing pan. Then unwilling to wait, he pulls out a second pan and cranks up a burner beneath it.

He’s patient. Buck always was the patient one and that hasn’t changed. He waits until his batter drawings have about burned before pouring a full quarter cup more batter over each of them. Steve keeps his distance because Buck tends to clam up under too close scrutiny, and he’s enjoying watching him, so (comparatively) animated to his usual self these days. With an expert flick of the pan that surprises Steve, Bucky flips the pancakes over, chewing on the inside of his lower lip, pleased with himself.

Bucky carefully slides the first pancake onto a plate. It’s a generic happy face with a broad U-shaped smile, perfectly browned. The tip of Buck’s tongue is between his teeth. “That’s mine,” he says, eyes shining. He then practically hurls the other pancake onto Steve’s plate. It’s frowning a big, burned, U-shaped frown. Bucky pours about half a bottle of syrup over his pancake and slices it into smithereens while Steve’s still mulling it over.

“Why is mine sad?”

Bucky shrugs, stuffing his face and clearing his plate in about fifteen seconds. Steve shakes his head and butters his sad pancake. He knows Buck is picking on him, but what is he supposed to say?

Bucky cooks the rest of the batter, but they’re normal golden brown pancakes with no hidden messages.

*

FUCK BUCK MUCK LUCK
BAD SAD GLAD MAD
STEVE BEVE
BOOGER
MUD

Steve sighs and closes the bathroom mirror.

*

There’s a sheaf of drawings on the coffee table. Buck leaves this shit around for Steve to find on purpose, and Steve’s about to hit the fucking roof, especially this time. He pounds on Buck’s door and then opens it without waiting for an answer. Buck is half standing but lowers himself back down to the bed, watching Steve the way a caged rabbit watches a dog. Steve thrusts the drawing at him and he flinches in a way that would break Steve's heart if he wasn't so fucking angry.

It’s a drawing of Bucky and what’s obviously Steve, in his red white and blues, his shield in one hand, big U-shaped smile on his face while he holds a frowning, naked Bucky underwater in the tub. “TAKING A BATH,” the picture is titled, stuck on with the label-maker.

“I will fucking kill anyone who does this to you,” Steve shouts. He’s losing it. “I’ll fucking kill them.” He pulls the drawing back. He looks at it again but his vision is blurry and he shuts his eyes tightly. He’s dizzy, that’s how furious he is. The next picture is Bucky, naked again on a grey table, smiling while someone in a white mask stabs a knife into his back. Bucky, smiling, skin on his body peeled back to the skeleton. Bucky and his candy being electrocuted. Steve throwing Bucky off a train.

Steve has to sit down. He clutches the drawings in one hand and cradles his head in the other. He shouldn’t have done this, come in here upset like this. Steve, smiling, throwing Bucky from a train while Bucky cries a long blue string of tears that travel downwards on his face even though he’s sideways, plummeting through the air. Steve presses the back of his hand to his teeth. The drawing is shaking. His face is wet.

“I’m sorry,” he chokes out. His voice sticks in his throat. He stands without looking at Bucky. “I shouldn’t have come in here like this. I’m sorry.” He shouldn’t have yelled at Bucky for drawing. He shouldn’t have invaded his privacy. “I’m sorry.” Steve shuts the door behind him. His breath feels so tight in his chest. He wipes his face on the back of his arm. He sinks down against the wall and tries to calm down, drawing thin, knifelike breaths through his nose. “Fuck,” he whispers, crying. “God damn it.”

He leaves the drawings on the coffee table. He keeps his mouth shut about the labels the next day:

“ILL KILL”

“ILL KILL YOU”

“ILL KILL.”

*

They’re in the kitchen a few days later. The apartment’s been quiet. Bucky hasn’t drawn any more pictures and Steve has been warding off both intrusive memories of freezing to death and unbidden thoughts of stepping into traffic or jumping off tall buildings. It’s not on purpose and he shuts them out of his mind, but not before wondering if it would even actually work. He’s washing dishes while Bucky slouches over the counter, fiddling with his label maker. He spins the wheel around without spelling anything.

Nonchalantly, Bucky asks, “How much did you buy me for?” Steve is standing at the sink, elbow deep in dishwater and his body goes still and cold. He feels more miserable than he’s been in his life, and he thinks, Please, don’t do this to me.

With every ounce of fortitude he has, he says, “I didn’t buy you.”

“Why not?” Buck asks, like he’s asking why he didn’t buy a pack of gum. “I’m valuable.”

Steve slowly dries his hands. He has to handle this right this time, he can’t fuck it up.

“I know,” he says. “But you belong to yourself, not me.” Bucky levels a gaze at him, then goes back to his label maker, hiding behind his hair, which needs combing. He squeezes the trigger, cuts off a label. He peels off the back.

“This is the price.”

Buck sticks a “4” on his metal hand.

Steve stares at him, dumbfounded.

“Are you gonna buy?”

Bucky clicks out another single character label. “You should buy,” he says, and sticks a “0” next to the four. “The price is going up.”

“You’re worth more than forty bucks,” Steve tells him, and Buck pauses. Then, to Steve’s surprise, Buck cackles. It’s not quite a laugh, it’s not quite a smile. It’s a noisy expression of delight, and Steve suddenly figures out why. Buck adds another zero, then another.

“You should buy,” he taunts.

“I only need this Buck, right here,” Steve says, dead serious. Bucky grins, ducking his head all the way to the counter top. He pulls the trigger, bang bang bang, and it spits out a string of zeroes.

“You can’t afford it, now.” He’s at 4000000.

“Keep going,” Steve says. They keep going until Buck’s arm says:

4000000
0000000
0000000
0000000
0000000
00

“That’s the price,” Buck says.

“That’s a bargain,” says Steve, and carefully goes back to the dishes. “You’re worth a zillion times that.”

“A zillion,” Buck whispers, and bangs out more zeroes. He finally pulls “ROBOT” off his arm.

*

Buck draws another picture, which he sticks to the refrigerator with a label that says “FRIDGEFOOD.” It’s him and Steve, labeled “BUCK” and “BOOGER,” smiling while Steve leads the way with his shield, jumping over molten lava with skeletons in it.

“FRIENDS,” it says, in firm black lines.

Chapter Text

Back before some bad stuff happened, Steve and Bucky had lived together like they do now except Steve was smaller, and madder, and Bucky was Bucky Barnes who was different from the Bucky now who has a bad malfunction. This was before some bad stuff happened. Back then, one time, Steve got real sick and was shivering in bed real bad, and Bucky Barnes in his shorts and his undershirt had gotten under the blankets with him, and wrapped him in his arms which both were normal arms, and it was warm and really nice and the soldier remembers Steve’s hair feeling soft against his nose and Steve being little and warm, and just good and warm and nice. The soldier likes to remember this. It was before some other stuff happened.

*

“No, you have to do it,” Buck is saying, ducking his head so that Steve will wash his hair. They’re in the locker room showers at Stark Tower, where Steve has been taking Bucky to the gym. Buck leans towards him, and with a sigh that is purely theatric, Steve slathers a probably excessive amount of shampoo into his hair. They can afford excess, these days.

This is a new thing Buck does, telling Steve what to do. Tie his shoes, draw him pictures, cook the recipes he wants. “You do it,” he says, and with a look that says “this is the last time,” Steve does it. Every time. Buck gets a kick out of it, like he expects Steve to say no. Steve just likes feeling useful, like he can give Bucky something, because he feels helpless a lot of the time. When Bucky says “you do it,” he’s always almost-smiling. Why would Steve say no to that?

Bucky tilts his head like a dog and Steve vigorously scrubs his scalp, then sends him back under the warm spray to rinse.

After they’ve finished, Bucky wraps a towel around his shoulders, lower half free in the breeze. He ducks his head at Steve again. “You do it!” he demands, high on endorphins and never hearing “No.” Steve scrubs his head until his damp hair curls in thin tendrils.

They’ve been going to the gym lately, taking Steve’s car into Manhattan where he has a private parking space in Stark Tower. He books private gym time too, the reinforced, superhuman equipped one, not that it’s ever busy. They drive even though Steve hates it, goes from zero to maximum road rage in the first five minutes. He would rather walk and take ten times longer than sit in traffic for the duration of a single traffic light, but Bucky is still edgy about going outside. Edgy isn’t the word for it. He goes somewhere else, the Buck who wants his hair dried or clicks silly rhymes out on his label maker. He gets solemn and focused and intense to the point Steve gets anxious because the first time he saw Bucky like that he was on the receiving end of it fighting for his life, and it’s not-- Bucky’s not better, yet. Not like that. So they drive, and Steve pretends he doesn’t mind driving through midtown. What the hell has he got to complain about, anyway.

*

“They’re getting tiny!” Buck exclaims, delighted. He’s crouched in front of the oven, staring into it, both hands wrapped around the bar like he’s going to pull it open on top of himself. “Steve, they’re getting tiny.”

He’s talking about his Shrinky Dinks which Steve picked up from a sidewalk sale, an antique box half gone, with little blue creatures on it called “Snurf” or something. Bucky had carefully read the directions, then painstakingly colored in the remaining snurf things according to the colors on the box. Now they were shrinky-dinkying them in the oven. Bucky is making a noise, like a laugh but not really, teeth exposed, like “k-k-k-k-k-k-k-k-k-k-k-k-k” while he watches them do their thing. Suddenly he rockets upwards, hands pressed to his forehead. Delighted to distressed in a millisecond. He lunges back to the counter where he left his felt tipped pens and upends the empty box.

“I need plain,” he says, and whirls around, hands to his hair like he’ll pull out in a second. “Steve, I need plain.” He looks about ready to panic and Steve says, “Plain what?”

“Plain. Of the sheet.”

Oh, the plastic. “I’ll get you plain.”

Bucky crowds into his space without touching. He only very rarely touches Steve and usually not very nicely when he does. “Get it right now. On your phone.”

Steve takes out his phone and pulls up Amazon to search for Shrinky Dink plastic. “I’ll order some,” he says. Buck backs off and wraps his arms around his waist, worried.

“When is it coming?”

“I have to find it first. Check on your snurfs before they burn.”

Bucky crouches in front of the oven again. “They’re smurfs.” he says. Steve selects “Graphix Shrink Film,” and pays the exorbitant shipping fee to get it there fastest.

“How is it doing that?” Buck muses, about the smurfs.

“I’ll look it up,” Steve says.

*

When Bucky’s shrink film finally arrives, he turns on the oven, then hunches over the coffee table for a half hour coloring and drawing. Most of Buck’s drawings these days look like they were done by a severely disturbed child, but back in...before, he’d actually been decent. He hadn’t drawn often, but he’d had a firm, confident hand that wasn’t accurate to life but which captured what he’d meant to from his imagination. What he draws today is more like that.

It’s a guy with a shock of yellow hair, brown pants, white shirt, suspenders. Bucky cuts it out and sticks it in the oven. He crouches in front of it with the internal light switched on. Waiting. Steve knows it’s begun to shrink when he hears “k-k-k-k-k-k-k-k-k-k-k-k-k.” Quietly, Bucky murmurs, “You’re getting tiny.” Something in Steve’s chest clamps up, but he doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t know what this is.

When it’s done shrinking, Bucky doesn’t wait for it to cool. He cradles it in his metal hand. Then, curiously gentle, he presses it to his lips. He doesn’t look at Steve or let Steve see it before disappearing into his bedroom.

Outside, Steve can hear a couple children playing basketball, shrieking. The downstairs door slams shut and their fat old neighbor mounts the steps. Steve turns the oven off and switches off the light.

*


Bucky lies on the floor on the far side of his bed.

“I’m king of the candy,” Tiny Steve whispers, and does a little dance on top of the bag.

 

*

 

SHIELD wants Steve to bring Buck in for a “routine assessment,” and Steve’s been putting them off as long as possible. He knows they’re not going to take no for an answer much longer, so he focuses on getting Bucky to as good a place mentally as possible before laying it out for him.

It turns out he needn’t have worried, because Bucky just says, “Okay,” and goes back to coloring a sheet of paper completely purple. Steve watches him for a moment, unsure, then says, “Okay.”

 

The “assessment” is to take place in a discreet SHIELD facility downtown, and Bucky has showered, shaved, and is buttoning his shirtsleeves in the kitchen while Steve pauses in his bedroom door, uncertain. He barely remembers buying those clothes for him. Buck wears track pants and a sweatshirt everyday with his hair in tangles. Today it’s combed neatly back and Steve can smell that he’s used a small amount of Steve’s pomade. He doesn’t look anxious at all. He looks...normal. Like a normal person. Like he used to, almost. Steve watched him button his shirtsleeves often enough, ready for a night on the town. A date. Work, when he’d served as a waiter for a few months. Steve had been preparing for the worst, but Buck looks saner than he has since the 40’s. Steve slowly goes to brush his teeth, nonplussed.

Buck is quiet on the ride over. When Steve says, “Tell me if you need to stop,” he says, “Sure,” and keeps staring out the window. They park on the street and Buck lets himself out without prompting.

Maria is doing the assessment, which makes Steve feel marginally better. But he boggles when Buck shakes her hand, flashing her a smile. Buck hides his face at home when he smiles, ducks behind his unkempt hair. Now here he is laying it on Maria like he might ask her for a drink later. Steve stiffly nods at Maria’s greeting and she gestures them to a back room.

She asks Bucky innocuous questions like how he’s feeling, if he has any aches or pains, if he experiences confusion or nausea or dizziness. Buck pleasantly answers to the negative, and even says, “you’re making me blush,” when Maria tells him how much better he’s looking. Steve is gobsmacked. He keeps a lid on it, but he’s hurt and confused.

Steve is ready to call it off when Hill asks about Hydra, but again Bucky fields it with aplomb. He lists the location of every base he knows about and Steve’s stomach is twisting itself into a bowline.

Buck gives up every code word he knows, every name he knows--it’s massively more than Maria had expected and it shows in each curious pause before each question she doesn’t expect him to answer. Bucky answers them all.

“Well, Mr. Barnes. You seem to be making an impressive recovery.”

“I got Cap in my corner,” he says.

Buck agrees to come in for more questions another time, and shakes Maria’s hand again on the way out. Maria catches Steve’s eye with a questioning look, and Steve doesn’t have anything close to an answer, but he’s feeling a bit poorly used.

They get back in the car and Steve glances at Bucky from the corner of his eye, but Buck’s slouched in his seat staring out the window. Neither says anything on the ride home. Steve has no idea what to say.

 

There’s no parking open outside their building and they have to park around the block. Buck doesn’t move when Steve gets out of the car. Steve waits so he can lock it, but Buck doesn’t get out.

“You coming?” he calls. But Buck doesn’t answer. Steve raps on the passenger side window. Nothing. After a moment, he opens the door. Bucky is staring at nothing. Steve crouches down. He snaps his fingers near Bucky’s nose, and his stomach flip-flops. Is this an act?

“Buck.”

Nothing. In fact, he’s barely even breathing,

“Bucky.”

Steve tentatively rests a hand on his shoulder. Touches a palm to his face, puts himself in Buck’s line of vision.

“Hey,” he says gently. Buck’s vacant gaze shakily resolves on Steve’s, then latches on like a lifeline. Steve shifts him out of the car and he follows Steve’s guidance.

“We’re just around the block, okay?” He keeps a hand on Buck’s waist, nudges the door closed with his foot, and locks it with the remote. Buck is shaking by the time they start walking. It’s the longest single block of Steve’s life.

 

Once inside, Steve guides Bucky to the couch. He unties Buck’s shoes and pulls them off. They should never have gone to that fucking meeting, he should have told SHIELD to get stuffed. Why did he always do this, fall for this shit, these systems? He thinks SHIELD knows better than him? (Someone has to know better than him, good God.) Steve sits next to Buck on the couch and streams Cars to the TV. Mater is Buck’s favorite. “Like Tuhmater” gets him every time. But Buck just stares in the general direction of the TV and doesn’t respond.

*

Tractors is so dumb.

Plum.

Gum.

Scum.

*

Steve strips Buck down and puts him to bed. He leaves a glass of water on the nightstand with all the snurfs.

*

”No, this is the one,” Zola says, twisting Buck’s face towards him. “Get him washed up. He is disgusting."

*

Steve wakes up in the middle of the night because Bucky is trying to do something quietly. When he goes out to check, Buck is dragging all his sheets to the wash. He drops them and backs against the wall when Steve flicks on the light. He backs all the way to the corner and sinks to the floor.

Steve doesn’t try to approach him. He picks up the sheets and throws them in the washer. Grabs a clean set from the closet. He makes up Buck’s bed for him and even changes the pillowcase while he’s at it. A clean pillowcase can be nice.

Out in the hallway, Buck hasn’t moved or made a sound. But his face is wet and his eyes are rimmed red. He’s changed his shorts already. Steve approaches cautiously. Buck would probably rather not be seen but Steve can’t leave him here alone. He tries to think of what his Ma would do, but he was never anything like his Ma. He can’t remember. He just sits down next to Bucky like Bucky would sometimes do when Steve was sick and Buck had run out of gossip but wasn’t ready to leave. He just sat there. He stayed there. Till the end of the line.

Bucky leans away.

After a while, he swallows hard and starts to shake.  "I'm sorry," he whispers. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

“You got nothing to be sorry for.”

Bucky buries his head in his hands, sobbing silently. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

Steve starts to feel alarmed.  More than before. Bucky closes his fists in his hair and starts to tear it out.

‘Hey. Hey, hey-” Steve grabs his arms and Buck tenses up, then collapses against him, wracked with thick, quiet sobs.

“What happened in there, today?” Steve asks. Buck coughs wetly and gasps for breath. He doesn’t answer.

Steve holds Buck a long time, until he’s breathing weakly against Steve’s chest. Steve presses his nose against his hair and he smells like pomade. Underneath that, shampoo. Underneath that, he smells like Bucky, and tears jump to Steve’s eyes. Who the fuck did this to his friend? Steve wants to kill them. He wants to pound them into a pulp. Who would do this? Who would do this to a human being?

 

Later, Steve tucks Buck into his fresh clean sheets. “I’ll do it,” he tells him, pulling the blankets up to Buck’s chin. Buck’s hand snakes out from under the blanket to snatch something off his nightstand. He pulls his arm back in.

“You want anything else?”

After a moment. Buck shakes his head. Steve strokes his hair because it’s what Buck would have done. Buck had always been free with affection - an arm around the shoulders, a clap on the back. Everybody had liked Buck. Everybody. Why would anyone want to hurt him?

Steve switches off the light but leaves the door open just a crack. He goes into the living room. He doesn’t want to try to sleep. He puts on Cars again, on mute, and picks up one of the crayons that are always out on the coffee table. The gleaming cars race silently around the track, crashing and leaping into the air. Sometimes...knowing what kind of evil is out there, Steve doesn’t want to be on the same planet.

He slowly draws a big round moon. Some simple five point stars. He draws Bucky and Steve in outer space, with candy.

Chapter Text

Steve asks him to draw some pictures about his time at SHIELD but there’s not a lot, really. He draws a picture of himself on the table. Eyes closed. But he could just have his eyes closed. So he adds “Zzz” to show that he’s sleeping. There’s a doctor with a small knife, not like the last picture, and he’s making cuts on Bucky’s back. “Taking the Chips Out,” the picture is called. Then he adds three big yellow wobbly circles.

“What are these?” Steve asks, and Buck pauses.

“They’re chips,” he says. He clicks his teeth together like a nutcracker. There’s a feeling inside him like pink and yellow. Like bubbles. He flings himself back against the couch cushion, then rocks forward to draw a happy face on a chip.

Next he draws going into the machine, which actually came before the cuts but he’s drawing out of order. He draws himself on his back on a table going into a big machine like a tube. There were lights inside that went around but he doesn’t know how to draw them so he draws a big blue spiral inside the machine, but Bucky’s not in the machine yet. He was awake when this happened, so his eyes are open black dots. He’s not happy or sad, so his mouth is a straight black line. He’s not sleeping, but there was a feeling..of no feeling. He didn’t care about going into the machine, even though now he wouldn’t want to go in. He was awake but not awake. He needs a way to show it so he draws thinking about sleeping, in bubbles coming up from his head into a cloud with “Zzz.” This is called “A Fancy Laser.”

“Did it do anything?” Steve asks.

“No, it just went around.”

Then he draws himself sitting in his cell by himself on the bed but it’s boring so he scribbles it out. He draws himself on a different table. He was strapped on this table and he draws big brown straps over his body. Then some other stuff happened but he draws when they put the cloth on his face and poured water. But he didn’t care so he draws “Zzz” in a cloud and calls it “Boring.” Steve doesn’t have questions about that one.

Bucky draws a picture of a big window. He draws Steve outside the window with his sketchbook and a big speech bubble. He writes “blah blah blah blah blah” as many times as the bubble will fit. But he didn’t put room for himself so he writes “Zzz” down in the corner. It’s called “Thinking of Candy.” Then he draws another time sitting in the chair when a bunch of people came in and talked a lot and said things. Bucky is awake but thinking “Zzz.”

“Were you always thinking about sleeping?” Steve asks. What an idiot. What a putz! That’s what Mr. Averbach would have called him back in the day.

“I wasn’t thinking of anything.” He thinks it over. “My thoughts were sleeping.” That means his drawings are a perfect representation! He feels a feeling which feels like “I am right and you are dumb.”

Steve sifts through the drawings carefully. Of course he stops on the one of torture. Buck knows what torture is, he’s not an idiot. He shouldn’t have even drawn that one, it’s only because the other one was boring.

He waits for Steve to get all pissed off like he always does but all he says is “I don’t like that they hurt you.”

What a bunch of crap! “They didn’t hurt me, it didn’t even hurt.”

Steve doesn’t say anything.

“I was their enemy.”

Steve silently shuffles that drawing to the back and sets them all down.

“Did they do anything else?”

They did other things like cold water and being cold and tired and some electricity but their heart wasn’t in it and back then Buck didn’t care if he died, so...he doesn’t know how to say this to Steve. He presses his fingertips to the ends of a crayon.

“They gave me candy. And they let you come get me.”

Nothing. Steve’s just staring straight ahead like maybe he’s getting madder or sadder and doesn’t want anyone to know but it’s obvious. Buck wants him to be normal. Or maddest like when he’s stomping around like when he was little.

“I wasn’t scared,” Buck offers.

“No, your thoughts were sleeping.” Steve’s tone is clipped which means more mad than sad. Not glad. Too bad.

“I was their enemy,” Buck says.

 

*

 

A woman comes over that Steve’s talked about sometimes, called Natasha. She has curly brown hair, and then Bucky remembers her because he tried to kill her a few times and she almost took his head off with a garotte. Not really, not off. Steve is surprised to see her and she just shows up at the door looking tired but not in a way that you can really tell. She has takeout that smells like greasy food that Bucky doesn’t like. He likes when Steve buys vegetables and meat and not a lot of spices which still make Buck throw up sometimes. He doesn’t like greasy food. Natasha tosses the bag onto the table and knocks over some of Buck’s smurfs which had been standing up in folded paper clips. Buck is kneeling at the coffee table. He’d been searching for words to circle in his book of Word Search puzzles. He closes his book when Natasha comes in but leaves his crayon in to mark his place.

Steve gets Natasha a glass of water and glances at Buck as Natasha sinks into a chair at the table. Bucky wishes he could go get his smurfs away from her but it’s too late and he doesn’t want her to know that he doesn’t want her to touch his smurfs because then she might ruin them on purpose. He stays at the coffee table and makes sure his Word Search book is square with the corner of the table. He wouldn’t care if his word search book got ruined because it’s just a book. He didn’t make it with Steve. He really wishes his smurfs weren’t near her but he can’t get them now. Tiny Steve is in his bedroom on the nightstand and Buck wants to check to make sure he’s there but he can’t without giving himself away to Natasha. He really wants her to leave and his throat’s starting to hurt. He’s probably allergic to her stupid food! But he didn’t have allergies, he wasn’t an idiot. Steve had had allergies when he was little because he was an idiot. And he still is an idiot.

Bucky’s label maker is on the side table with the lamp on it, near the sofa, so he leans over and reaches for it. Then he slides up onto the couch. He spins the dial to “I”

Natasha takes the glass of water and casually glances around the apartment while she drinks. Some of Bucky’s nice drawings are on the fridge, and some of Steve’s too except Steve’s are more boring.

“Nice place,” she says casually, which could mean anything.

“Thank you,” Steve says, because he tries to have manners. Bucky used to have manners but he stopped. His manners were better than Steve’s! But then he forgot. He never used to get angry and start fights, like Steve. He always finished Steve’s fights. That was manners, finishing fights for your idiot friend. Bucky pulls the trigger and spins the dial to “D.”

“What are you doing here?”

Natasha doesn’t answer. She’s looking at her water glass, mostly empty. “Needed to see a friendly face, I guess.” Then she digs into the paper bag and pulls out a little white carton, then another. “Is he going to join us?”

“If he feels like it.”

Natasha passes Steve some chopsticks.

“How’s everything?” he asks her. She makes a waving motion with her chopsticks, mouth full of dumpling. She swallows and presses her knuckles to blot off the grease from her lips.

“Keeping busy,” she says.

“I’ll bet. Any visitors?”

She shakes her head. Pauses. Shakes her head again. “No one to worry about.”

They peck at their food for a little while. Bucky spins the wheel slowly back to “I” one letter at a time.

“I have some things I’d like to talk to you about,” Steve says. That’s Steve’s version of subtle. Natasha stares him down. “So talk,” she says, and goes back to her food. Steve is such an idiot. Bucky pulls the trigger.

“Alright,” Steve says. “SHIELD was supposed to be dismantled.”

“Talk to Phil about it. It’s his little pet project.”

“I just want to make sure we don’t have another…”

“SHIELD on our hands?” Natasha laughs but there’s no humor in it. “We do. But what do you wanna do, Steve?”

“I don’t know.”

“It’s the least of my problems right now.”

“I know.”

She sets her chopsticks down and rests her forehead on the back of her wrist. “I’m just really tired,” she says, quietly, like she thinks Bucky won’t hear. Or knows he will anyway and can’t care anymore. Bucky spins the wheel to “O.” Bang.

“Do you need to stay?”

No! Bucky accidentally bangs out another “O.”

Natasha shakes her head. They finish eating. Bucky finishes his word. It says “IDIOOT.” He sticks it on his Word Search.

 

As they’re packing the empty cartons away, Nat says, “I don’t want to have to ask you this.”

Steve drags a hand over his face.

“We’re close,” she says, still being quiet, like Bucky won’t hear. He’s opened his word search again and is circling nonsense words in purple crayon. He’s pressing too hard and the crayon is losing its point. He always draws on an angle, rotating the crayon so that it keeps its point, but now he’s smushing it flat. He feels like it serves this crayon right to be flat, and also feels sad because he’s ruining it and can’t stop.

“Nat,” Steve murmurs, shaking his head. “I can’t right now.”

“Why, because you’re babysitting?” She leans back in her chair. She’s talking about Bucky and his eyes feel hot. All his smurfs are on the table near where they were cleaning up and they might have gotten thrown out. Bucky’s chest feels tight and he forces his crayon to move. He’s circling a big long string of diagonal letters.

“You can do it without me,” Steve says.

“We’ve been doing it without you.” Natasha’s not bothering to be quiet now. It’s almost a relief. Steve is quiet. Then Natasha looks directly at Bucky. She says to Steve, “You’re gonna sit in here. And color.”

Steve glowers at her. Bucky carefully completes his circle. Natasha stands abruptly, snatching the paper bag from the table. One of the smurfs skitters to the floor. “He’s the Winter Fucking Soldier, not a baby,” she snaps. Steve leaps to to his feet and Buck freezes.

“Get out,” Steve says. Natasha crams the bag into the trash and leaves. Bucky doesn’t know if any of his smurfs are in there and he can’t check because Steve will know he’s thinking about them. Steve picks the lost smurf off the floor and sets it with the rest. Bucky can’t stop staring at the trash. He’s such an idiot. He doesn’t even notice when Steve comes over until he sits on the couch near where Buck is sitting on the floor. He doesn’t even notice. That’s how worthless he is. He could get shot in the back of the head and not notice.

“I’m sorry,” Steve says. “I shouldn’t have let her in.”

“It’s fine,” Bucky answers. He circles another couple of letters and Steve sighs deeply.

 

Later, in his bedroom, Bucky sits on the rug and pushes a pencil point through a sheet of paper, popping it through again and again. “Good boy, good boy, good boy,” he whispers.

 

*

 

Sometimes Steve needs to go out by himself to blow off steam, and Bucky would rather he not go so far like out of the building but he doesn’t want to be around Steve all the time either. Sometimes he likes to be by himself. Right now he doesn’t want to be around Steve at all. He wishes that stupid woman had never come to their house.

And now she’s back, standing in the doorway with another paper bag. Bucky had answered the door. That’s what you’re supposed to do when someone knocks. He wants to hide in his bedroom but he doesn’t because what the fuck would that even do. He knows he needs to be reset and be the soldier again.

“Can I come in?” Natasha asks. He stands aside and she enters.

“Steve isn’t here.”

“I know.” She sets her paper bag on the counter and looks at it. Then she slides onto a barstool. She opens the bag and pulls out a stuffed animal. A dog. It’s black and has brown feet and a brown snout and its back legs are short and stubby so it’s sitting. Natasha sets it on the counter and then folds the bag flat along the original fold lines the way Steve does. “I came to apologize,” she says.

Bucky goes to the cabinet to get down a glass. You’re supposed to give people water. That’s manners. He pours her water from the tap, and then has an idea. He pours the water back out and gets ice cubes from the freezer. He’s going to give her bubbly water from the bottle. It’s Bucky’s special water. When he opens it he can feel the bubbles come up along the side of the bottle and it feels funny on his hand, that’s why he likes it.

He brings Natasha bubble water and then has another idea. He has much better manners than Steve! He gets a lime from the bowl, which they use sometimes for cooking recipes. He slices a wedge, and then slices down the middle of the wedge. Then he sticks it on the rim of Natasha’s glass. She watches him.

“Thank you,” she says. She squeezes the lime into the bubble water. “It’s great on a hot day like this.”

Bucky looks at the thing that she brought. “Why did you bring that?” he says. Natasha runs her fingers over the stuffed animal’s back, then scoots it gently towards him.

“Because I was an asshole the other day.”

Bucky lightly picks up the dog. It has beady black eyes and a little pink tongue sticking out. It’s soft on his one hand but his other hand can’t feel stuff like that. He runs his fingers over the fur. He doesn’t want a present from Natasha. He sets it down. Natasha drinks her bubble water. They’re quiet for a long time, but Buck is good at keeping still. The Natasha says too loud, “I was jealous.” She sets her glass down and the condensation puddles up around it. She’s looking around the apartment, at the drawings on the fridge. She’s very stiff. Then she lets out a sound that sounds like crying but she’s smiling. Her eyes are wet. She shakes her head. They’re quiet again for a long time.

 

Later, they’re at the coffee table and Natasha draws a picture. She’s not very good. None of the lines meet up with one another, and the arms end in useless open tubes where the hands should be. The feet are the same, like they don’t really touch the ground. It’s three girls in a row, one behind the other, but facing front, so they’re overlapping, practicing ballet with a big mirror on the other side of the page and she draws their reflections in it. It’s a very ambitious drawing for someone who can’t draw very well.

“This is a memory I have of something that never happened,” she says. There’s sort of a flat, false happiness in her voice. Bucky looks at the picture. He looks at it for a long time.

“It happened,” he says.

“Not the way I remember it.”

Bucky takes her pencil and draws a big window in the back of the picture. He draws a big round head. A flat mouth that’s not happy or sad. Two eyes and messy hair. Then with his crayons he adds the edge of a red star on one shoulder. One of the girl’s hair he colors orange.

They both look at the drawing, sitting side by side.

Hesitantly, Bucky says, “If I was good, they weren’t...unkind.”

“What if you weren't good?”

It takes him a while to answer. “I was always good.”

Natasha whispers, “Me too.”

After awhile, she says “If someone tells you they’re kind, it means they’re not.”

Bucky’s eyes feel hot. His throat hurts.

Alex had always said how kind he was, to the Winter Soldier. He’d said “I take care of you.” He’d touched the soldier’s cheek. He’d said “Good boy.”

The soldier’s chest hurts like crumpled metal. He presses his knuckles against his eyes. His breath is thick and wet. He feels something warm against his back. Natasha’s hand. She rubs it up and down. He’s lucky to have memories of Steve. Even with the other stuff. He takes a big gasping breath, and then breathes slowly. Natasha takes her hand away.

She says, “I’ve been feeling like...all this time, wishing I were someone else. And that’s all I am, is someone else.” She leans back against the couch. She’s staring intently at nothing. The Black Widow girls weren’t allowed to be people. They were weapons from the beginning.

Bucky stands up, leaving her there. He goes into his bedroom and gets his bag of candy. “LUCKY BUCKY CANDY,” it says. He puts Tiny Steve in his pocket.

In the living room, he sets the bag of candy on the coffee table and sits down again next to Natasha. He’s going to find her a good one. He takes them out of the bag one at a time. Twizzler. Twix. Skittles. Skittles is his favorite. He likes saying the name. Then he likes Reese’s Pieces. He smiles thinking about Reese’s Pieces, and searches for one in the bag. Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups are good because they stack up. None of the others stack as good. Twix will stack but the wrapper is slippery and the top of Twix is lumpy. It doesn’t stack as good.

Bucky gives Natasha Skittles and Reese’s Pieces. She opens the Skittles and pours them out over the ballerina drawing.

“What’s your favorite flavor?”

“I never ate any,” he tells her. She raises her eyebrows.

“Then you have to try them all.” She slides him a purple one. Purple is his favorite color. “Come on. Taste the rainbow.”

He puts the skittle on his tongue. It’s so sweet it makes the saliva rush to his mouth in a weird way. He sucks on it, and then the hardness gives way and it’s squishy inside. He didn’t expect it. He looks at Natasha and she pops a purple skittle into her mouth, smiling.

“I’ll split them with you.”

 

That day, Bucky tries all of his candies, sharing them with Natasha. She likes Twizzler but when he tries it he spits it out and she laughs. “It’s gross,” he says.

“To each their own.”

 

Steve comes home. They hear the key in the deadbolt, but Bucky forgot to lock it after Natasha came in, so Steve enters carefully, slow. Natasha sits very still next to Bucky, and when Steve sees her Bucky can tell he’s trying very hard to keep his temper. He sets the groceries on the counter. Natasha stands up and wipes her fingertips on her pants. Bucky stands up too. Steve is going to make Natasha leave. Buck goes to the counter to check the groceries.

“Are we making a recipe?” Buck asks.

“Yeah.” Steve is facing him but looking at Natasha from the side of his eye.

“I want to make it,” Buck says, and now Steve looks at him, surprised. “Get the thing.” He means the tablet where Steve gets the recipes. Bucky could do it, but he doesn’t like to touch Steve’s things. He hovers over Steve’s shoulder while Steve brings up “Chicken Cordon Bleu,” then he snatches the tablet away and thrusts it at Natasha. “You have to read the instructions.” She takes the tablet, glancing at Steve, but Steve backs off and starts unloading the groceries. Natasha takes a seat at the counter.

“Start with the ingredients?” she asks.

Natasha is smart.

 

*

 

They’re in the hallway, a moment alone as Steve walks Nat to the door.

“He shared his candy?” Steve asks, incredulous. Bucky is still in the kitchen, washing dishes for the first time since he’s been here.

“Jealous?”

Of course not! Really.

“Yes,” Steve admits. Nat laughs.

“Don’t be. It’s because he thinks I’m pathetic and need cheering up.”

Steve studies her under the dim hallway lights. They exaggerate the tired lines under her eyes.

“The second part, maybe.” That was painfully like Bucky, back in the day. They pause at the bottom of the stairs, near the front door.

“I should apologize to you too,” she says. “The way he is right now...It’s good, okay? It means he feels safe enough to be…” She searches for the right word. “Gentle.”

She looks sadder than Steve’s ever seen her. “You can be, too,” he tells her. She smiles and shakes her head.

“Some things, you can’t go back and learn them, after.” She stares at her hand where it rests on the door handle. “I’m not a nice person.”

There’s no point in telling her different right now, but Steve knows it’s untrue. He squeezes her shoulder and presses a kiss to the side of her head. It’s something Bucky would have done, before. He'd done anything to make someone feel better.

“Catch you later,” Nat says, and pulls the door open.

“Nat,” Steve calls.

She pauses and looks at him. She shakes her head. “You’ve given enough.”

“No,” Steve says.

They're this close to nailing Hydra. After Insight, SHIELD was splintered and confused, but Hydra wasn’t. It won’t take long to regain a foothold. They need to press the advantage while they still have it. Bucky needs him, but so does everyone else.

“I’ll do it.”

Chapter Text

Nobody loves me,
Nobody cares,
Nobody picks me peaches and pears.
Nobody offers me candy and Cokes,
Nobody listens and laughs at my jokes.
Nobody helps when I get in a fight,
Nobody does all my homework at night.
Nobody misses me,
Nobody cries,
Nobody thinks I'm a wonderful guy.

Bucky runs his finger up and down the edge of the page. His stuffed dog is tucked in the crook of one arm. His heels are drawn up on the edge of the couch, which is clean and white and comfy.

So if you ask me who's my best friend, in a whiz,
I'll stand up and tell you that Nobody is.

It’s quiet, up here. He’s way up on the 31st floor. He can’t even hear the traffic like at Steve’s. Out the window he can see the whole city, and the people all tiny like ants down there. They’re all down there and he’s up here where it’s cool and quiet. He can hear the shushing sound of his finger against the page. His real finger he was born with, not the other.

But yesterday night I got quite a scare,
I woke up and Nobody just wasn't there.
I called out and reached out for Nobody's hand,
In the darkness where Nobody usually stands.
Then I poked through the house, in each cranny and nook,
But I found somebody each place that I looked.
I searched till I'm tired, and now with the dawn,
There's no doubt about it -

Bucky cracks a small smile.

Nobody's GONE!

*

“You’re not going,” Steve tells him, and Bucky stops in his tracks. His expression shutters closed and he squares his shoulders slowly, not looking at Steve. He’d been gently petting his stuffed rottweiler Nat had gotten for him and Steve had said “I have to go back into the field.” Bucky had set the dog aside and risen fluidly to his feet, a calm purposefulness to him that Steve knew meant he thought he was battle ready. “You’re not going,” he’d said.

*

Steve drops him off at Stark Tower and hangs around a little to “get him settled in” or something stupid. Steve is going into battle and leaving his best asset behind. It’s completely stupid. Steve has been stupid since birth. He says he has to go stop the people who hurt Bucky. That’s how stupid he is! The people who hurt Bucky are either dead or ancient by now. He’s way too late. They’re practically mummies like Tutankhamun.

They ride in an elevator to the 31st floor where they go to a fancy apartment that’s way nicer than anything Steve could afford. It has a shiny metal refrigerator and big huge windows overlooking the city.

“Pepper’s going to be checking in, okay?”

Who the fuck is Pepper? He doesn’t even care. He thinks he might have met her before but he doesn’t care. Steve doesn’t want him for the mission. He doesn’t want Buck to do any of the things he’s good at, all the things he worked really hard for. He worked really hard. And other things, and other stuff happened. And Steve doesn’t care. He wants Buck to stay trapped up here alone because he secretly hates Bucky and wants him to suffer. That’s the only reason he would do this. Bucky wants him to fuck off already.

Steve puts the duffel bag on the couch and sets the stuffed dog on top of it. Eventually he finally fucks off and Buck punches the wall as hard as he can with his metal arm and makes a big hole. He hits something metal on the other side.

*

Steve has to fly down to Washington and Nat picks him up in some fast fancy car it exhausts him to think about. He’s exhausted by the sheer multitude of status symbols in the 21st century and how in your face all of them are, all the time. You can’t scratch your ass this day and age without somebody trying to sell you something to scratch it better.

They drive three hours to meet up where Coulson’s parked his stolen quinjet. When Steve had first met him, Phil had been..a weird, but intelligent and largely harmless guy, for the field he was in. Now he sets Steve’s teeth on edge. He isn’t the same. And to tell you the truth Steve is a little pissed off everyone had said he was dead when he wasn’t, and guilt tripped him with his blood-soaked Captain America memorabilia. He’s done getting dicked around by SHIELD, they had fucking waterboarded Bucky, which is a God damned war crime.

“Save it for after the mission. We need them,” Natasha says. Steve bites back something scathing. He’s not sure what but it’s bitter and angry and festers on the edge of his tongue.

Natasha and Clint have been working in tandem, infiltrating Hydra with a thumb drive containing a subtle but powerful and highly targeted computer virus. They were after Zola’s algorithm, the one that had put 20 million people on his kill list. The thing is with an algorithm, Nat tells him, is you can’t get rid of it. It’s code. It can be copied and stored anywhere. They could chase it for the rest of their lives and only ever ensure that there were more backup copies than ever before. So their goal isn’t to eliminate it, but isolate the carriers, the people who know what it is and would use it, and then corrupt as many of the files as they can find, against future discovery and use. But they’re not always easy to get to.

“That’s why we have to bring in the muscle. That’s you, big boy.” She winks at him, a smirk playing at the corner of her mouth. Steve shakes his head and looks out the window at a farm they’re passing.

“I live to serve,” he says.

*

An asian woman debriefs them when they arrive - Agent May. She’s stoic and commands a good deal of respect on the ship, and Steve is careful not to let his anger with Phil interfere with his attention to the mission. May brings up the schematics and tells them their target is in the sixth level basement in an industrial complex outside of Charlotte. It’s largely legit; the employees are mostly civilians. But as usual with Hydra, it’s the underbelly that’s rotten. It’s all too easy for “civilian” to become “hostage,” then “casualty.” They have a man inside who can approximate when the target is in position, but security is tight in the lower levels, so intel is scarce and imprecise. They’ll get as far as they can as quickly and quietly as they can, and then it will be Steve’s job to get Nat and one of Phil’s agents to the servers while May and the rest of the SHIELD team secures the target, cleans up the rear, and keeps the exit route clear.

Their target, a blonde woman named Clarissa Babble, is in her mid 40s and is the only known remaining operative with knowledge of the Insight algorithm, who has recently been granted audience with Homeland Security.

“We need her alive,” May says.

“And then what?”

Natasha shoots Steve the barest glance from the corner of her eye, but Steve stands firm. He’s not going to lose his cool but he’s not going to let them violate Geneva either.

“Then we expose her as Hydra and turn her over to the federal government,” May says evenly. “We can’t expose her first and hope she sticks around to get arrested.”

It’s true. You can’t blame him for being touchy about it, alright?

They didn’t hurt me, it didn’t even hurt, Buck had said. Jesus Christ.

*

The suite at Stark tower has lots of food. The fridge and the cabinets and freezer are all nice and stocked up and tidy. Bucky pulls food out and eats it willy nilly, leaving it out on the counters, letting wrappers fall on the floor. He doesn’t care. Then he gets a knock on the door and if he had a gun he would shoot through the door and kill that person. But he doesn’t. So he opens the door, he wrenches it open so that they’ll know how angry he is and they shouldn’t fuck with him.

It’s Pepper Potts and he remembers her now and she’s carrying a book.

“Hi, Bucky,” she says, smiling. She’s really pretty. She came down to the gym one time and brought lemonade but she couldn’t stay very long because she was busy. She ran the entire tower and Stark Industries, Steve had told him. Bucky couldn’t do that. Pepper was really smart.

Bucky stands aside to let Pepper Potts in. He likes her name too because they both have “P” sounds. His names both have “B” sounds, Bucky Barnes. Pepper Potts. A “P” sound is better. Potts. Bucky suddenly remembers the kitchen is messy and his heart leaps up to his throat. Pepper is going to think he’s disgusting.

He closes the door and makes himself let go of the doorknob. His hand doesn’t want to let go.

“I brought you a little something.” She means the book. “It’s one of my favorites. And Steve tells me you like rhymes, so…” She doesn’t hand the book to him, and he’s relieved. She sets it on a tall little table near the door that has a fancy vase on it with some fancy plants sticking out. The book is called A Light in the Attic and has a picture of a guy with fuzzy hair and the top of his head is a house. Bucky wants to pick it up. He wants to look inside to see if there are other pictures like that. But he can’t move. He punched Pepper’s wall and left garbage all over her nice clean apartment with expensive nice stuff he could never afford. He feels like the worst piece of shit in existence.

Pepper sits on the arm of the couch and toes off her nice white shoes, sighing in relief.

“I hope you don’t mind. I just gave a presentation to the board and I think my toes are gonna fall off. You’d think I’d learn, right?” She laughs at herself. “I can’t resist a nice pair of shoes. What does that say about me?”

“Do you want water?” Bucky blurts out. It’s the only thing he can think of. It had felt like a good idea for Natasha but Pepper is different from everybody. Bucky feels like he should be offering her...diamonds in a crystal goblet. She’s in a different league from him and Steve.

“Could I have a club soda with a splash of cranberry juice? There should be some in there.”

Buck can’t even describe how relieved he feels to be able to get her just what she wants. And, he puts a lime on it like he did for Natasha, and puts a straw in it because there are straws here and so Pepper doesn’t have to mess up her lipstick which is pink. He hands it to Pepper and she thanks him like she’s been five days in the desert, and slides off the arm of the couch down onto the cushions, near where Steve left Bucky’s bag of stuff and clothes.

“Who’s this?” she asks. She’s talking about the stuffed toy. “Does he have a name?” Bucky shakes his head. She doesn’t try to touch his toy but he wouldn’t mind if she did. He doesn’t think Pepper would take away his stuff or ruin it on purpose, even though she could because she’s in charge. Bucky sits down in the cushiony chair across from her and rests his hands against his knees. He doesn’t lean back like Pepper does, he sits on the edge of the chair.

“I came to see if you wanted to do some work for me while you’re here,” she says. “I pay a fair wage, and dinner’s included. But you can say no and I won’t be upset.”

Bucky nods. He wouldn’t say no to Pepper unless she wanted something outrageous and then he might say no, but maybe not even then.

“It would be great if you could work with Jarvis and go over the security in the building, as much as you can get done while you’re here. We house a lot of sensitive information for the Avengers Initiative, and an outside eye can be invaluable.”

Bucky’s pulse jumps and he looks straight at her. He would be really good at that. He can’t believe Pepper would want him to do it. He would be really good. He waits for Pepper to take it back and say she’s just kidding but instead she says with her eyebrows quirked like he might say no, “Are you interested?” Bucky nods so fast he almost gives himself a crick in the neck. Pepper favors him with a big broad smile. “Great! That’s great. Have you met Jarvis yet?”

He shakes his head.

“He’s our computer system here, he basically runs the whole building, the technical end. I’d introduce you right now but Steve asked that he be disabled in here.”

Bucky feels the corner of his mouth turn down. The disappointment crushes him but he can’t lie to Pepper. “I don’t know a lot about computers.”

Pepper waves her hand like she’s frantically clearing something away. “Oh no, you don’t have to! He’s artificial intelligence, he’ll walk you through it. You just have to tell him anything you find that could be a weakness, and he’ll fix it if he can, or tell Tony if he can’t. Think of it as Jarvis consulting your expertise.”

A knot unclenches in Bucky’s chest, replaced with something light and warm. He nods again. “I can do that.”

“Why don’t you pop up to my office tomorrow morning and I’ll get you started. Eight o’clock?”

Bucky nods. Pepper sets her empty drink on a coaster and slides her shoes back on. “Great! Ugh, I’m so glad you said yes. You’re the best.” She stands up and then pauses. “Oh, and one other thing, I need you to tell me when it’s five o’clock because that is when I’m stopping working this week.” She makes a slicing motion with her hand. “So stop wherever you are at five and come get me. Don’t let me keep working even for five more minutes. And then we’ll do something for dinner. Agreed?”

Bucky nods again, biting down on a smile. Pepper is really funny and serious about nice things. And she’s beautiful and has a beautiful smile.

“Okay. I’ll see you tomorrow. Eight o’clock,” she says sternly, but Bucky can tell she’s joking. But he’ll be there at eight o’clock anyway, on the dot.

*

The mission is delayed when Babble attends a conference out of state at the last minute. On the one hand, it would be easier to detain her when she’s not six stories underground in a heavily guarded Hydra facility. On the other, it would be more difficult to prove she’s Hydra if she’s not detained there. So they sit on their hands and wait. Which Steve hates.

There’s not a lot of spare room on the quinjet, so he and Natasha are bunking together in a spare room which has been converted from a secure holding cell. That’s promising. A younger agent named Skye had offered to let Natasha bunk with her but Nat had turned her down with a salacious wink and the scandalous insinuation that she and Steve had “business to attend to.” Nat’s a piece of work and a God damned ball buster. Steve loves her like family.

She’s lying with her head at the foot of the bed and her feet propped up against the wall.

“A little down time won’t kill you,” she says.

“This isn’t down time.”

“It is for me.” She’s got her eyes closed and her hair fanned out above her head.

Steve tries to channel inner peace or whatever. “Is Clint coming?”

Natasha holds a finger to her lips and says “No” while nodding yes. Jesus fucking fuck, of course they’re listening.

“I guess he has better things to do.”

“He has his reasons. Or he fell down a mineshaft. About as likely.”

Steve sighs and drums his fingers against the bedspread. It’s a tiny twin cot, he barely fits on it. If he and Natasha did fondue it would collapse. It might collapse anyway.

Natasha rolls onto her side to face him and then just lies there, watching him.

What,” Steve says.

“Nothing.” But she doesn’t stop staring. Steve rolls his eyes. She says, “Can I tell you something?”

“I’m a blabbermouth,” he warns, not talking about himself.

Nat shrugs with one shoulder. “It’s not really surprising.”

“What, that I’m a blabbermouth?”

“No.”

“What, then?” Nat likes to be cryptic, or maybe she’s changing her mind about telling him and Phil. She tucks her hand under her cheek, looking deceptively small and fragile.

“You know the list?”

The Insight list. “Yes.”

“I’m not on it.”

Steve takes a moment to digest this statement. She says it casually, but she wouldn’t have said it if she meant it that way. Nat didn’t say things for no reason.

“You should have ordered more firearms off ebay,” he says. Her mouth twists into a wry smile. “You’re careful,” he tells her. “The only data they’d have on you would be what, Red Room?”

“Plus everything I dumped on the internet last year.”

Oh. She’s not on the updated list. And the list is being updated. Great.

“They don’t know you,” he tells her, and means it. “Anyway, at least one of us would still be around to pick ‘em off.”

She watches him again for a short while. Then she says “You’re not on it.” His blood runs cold. “Neither is Barnes.”

His mouth has gone dry but he swallows and says “It won’t matter by the end of the week.” He prays to God that’s true.

 

Knowing there’s no privacy on the jet, Steve calls Bucky right from the common room where anyone can hear. It takes a few rings for Bucky to answer, blinking into the camera, turning it over to face the floor, then turning it back to his face. He’s new to Skype.

Steve feels absurdly relieved to see Buck’s face, even though he’s looking up his nose now.

“How’s everything at the tower?”

“It’s good. Pepper gave me a job.”

Buck appears to be outside somewhere, maybe the roof? He’d half expected Buck wouldn’t talk to him, the mood he’d been in when Steve left, but it looks like he’s doing alright. Though Steve’s only been gone for two days, he misses Buck fiercely. He wants to go home.

Bucky tells Steve about his job with no trace of hard feelings. Steve knew he’d be okay with Pepper.

“And she gave me a book,” Buck tells him. “It has all good rhymes in it.”

“Oh yeah?” Steve wishes he could say more but it feels like his throat’s closing up. He shouldn’t want Buck to be on the list, but he knows what it means that he’s not.

“Yeah, and we’re going out for dinner soon.”

Steve tilts the camera away from his face. There’s only one other person in the common area, a big black guy named Mack. He’s reading a book and carefully not paying attention as Steve pulls himself together.

Steve faces the camera again. “I’ll bet she takes you to the moon.”

Bucky stops short and stares at the phone like Steve just grew antlers.

“She probably booked a private room-” Steve suddenly gets a very close look at the collar of Bucky’s shirt before the screen goes haywire, falling, and then he’s staring at the sky. From the side of the screen, the top of Buck’s head peeks over and disappears again. Steve grasps quickly for another rhyme, racing through the alphabet.

“Where you’ll meet a space raccoon-” He hears “k-k-k-k-k-k-k-k-k-k-k-k-” dimly on the line. Dune, foon, goon, hune- “And drink tea on the dune, at noon.” Bucky snatches up the phone and holds it so close that Steve can only see his nose. Then his eyes.

“You’re rhyming.”

“And...climbing.”

The ground rushes up behind Buck. He’s lying on his back on the roof of Stark Tower.

“When are you coming back?”

After this one last attack. Steve swallows hard and says “When the black jack quacks.” He doesn’t know what the hell he’s saying. Bucky rolls onto his side and softly says, “Okay.”

*

When Bucky goes to pick up Pepper, she orders some kind of gourmet French takeout to her suite.

“Did you come up with a name for your dog?” she asks.

“Nobody,” Bucky tells her. She smiles like she knows exactly what he means.

“I always liked that one.”

*

It’s five days before they can launch the mission, and when they do it’s a God damned disaster. The target is on B6 and what they didn’t know was that B5 was some kind of Super Soldier experimentation lab. “Centipede,” Nat had called it. They wouldn’t stay down unless they were dead, so every shot was a kill shot. Just like Nazi Germany, Steve tells himself. There isn’t time to think about how many are there voluntarily. How many were coerced or tortured or brainwashed. They’ll go down with the ICER and there’s a six second window to take out the brain-stem. The edge of Steve’s shield is slick with gore.

They take the elevator shaft to level six and Steve leads the way through a hail of bullets. He has no idea how things look behind them, how they’re going to get out now that they’re in. Skye and Natasha duck into opposite doorways and give him cover fire while he advances down the hallway. Hopefully the rest of SHIELD is holding off the lab rats upstairs. Steve takes a calculated risk and throws his shield to ricochet around a corner into the gunman waiting there. He follows through without missing a beat, icing the operative and snatching up his shield at the same time. Skye and Nat fall in quickly behind him. He can hear the elevator doors being wrenched back open and he knows that Centipede’s still on their tail. He falls back to hold them off and waves the women ahead to find the servers.

The soldiers are pouring down the hall one after the other. Even when Steve ices them he can’t always get in for the kill before they’re back on their feet. He wishes desperately for Bucky at his six. Together they could have moved through this like clockwork. But Bucky’s not here. That Bucky will never be here, and the Bucky who is will never have to face anything like this as long as Steve has anything to do with it. He catches a soldier at the bridge of the nose and cleaves clean through half of his skull. With a heel to the sternum, he pulls the shield free.

The bodies are piling up when Coulson’s team finally makes it down to level six, thinner now in numbers with agents stationed behind to guard the retreat.

Then Skye comes back from the way she’d gone, Natasha, unconscious, slung over her back.

“It’s done. Let’s go,” she yells.

Not right. This isn’t right.

“What happened?”

“Centipede.”

But Steve can see at the back of Nat’s neck the edges of spiderwebbed I.C.E.R. blue.

“Where’s the drive?” He blocks a blow from a centipede soldier, ices him and cracks open the back of his head before he even hits the ground. Skye tosses him a small grey drive. The dummy. The one with the virus is black with a tiny red hourglass Nat had fashioned with nail varnish. Steve ices two more soldiers and kills one before slamming Skye against the wall, catching Nat as she falls and lowering her to the ground. He knows he’ll find a drive on Skye, a different one, containing the Insight algorithm. But something else falls from her hand as he pins her. Some kind of fucking grenade and it rolls past his feet just out of reach down the hall. He throws Skye towards the elevator and grabs Natasha, leaping through a doorway for cover as the grenade emits a blast that shatters the plaster and leaves his ears ringing. Eight foot radius. He knows Skye is fine. He knows that was the entire point. He pants for breath. He curls Nat onto her side, not sure how much longer she’ll be out. There’s another body on the floor, civilian clothes, a woman. Steve rolls her onto her back out of her own pool of blood. It’s Clarissa Babble.

This was the last time, he’d told himself. Every single fucking time. Every single time he let SHIELD dick him over. He hears footsteps thundering down the hall. He levers himself to his feet. Bullets ping off his shield as he steps back into the hall. SHIELD is already gone.

Steve splits a soldier’s head with his shield, then another. He feels a punch, then a white hot pain spreading through his stomach and he knows he’s been shot, right through the soldier he’s just killed. He breathes through the pain and keeps his feet. Just until Nat wakes up and they can get out of here.

Then a soldier he’d thought was dead catches his hamstring with a shred of shrapnel from the blast and Steve falls to one knee. He puts his fist straight through the soldier’s skull, and several more bullets ping off his shield. There are far fewer soldiers than when they’d started. Coulson’s team had taken down a lot. But Steve’s bleeding like he’s nicked an artery. He’s seen enough death to know. He takes another bullet in the shoulder. His vision greys out. He hears another blast from up the hall. He keeps his shield up. Protects his head. From behind it he ices a soldier on sound alone and hears the body hit the floor. He has six seconds before they’re up again. Five.

Four.

Three.

Two.

Two more bodies hit the floor.

“Son of a bitch,” he hears Clint say, and it’s the last thing he hears for he doesn’t know how long.

*

I called out and reached out for Nobody's hand,
In the darkness where Nobody usually stands.

Bucky stutters back to wakefulness from almost sleeping. He’s curled on the floor by the side of the bed and he’d thought for a moment that he’d tripped and was falling. The bedroom is dark and enormous and not like his bedroom at home where he can hear the traffic and Steve watching TV or drawing with crayons.

He checks that Tiny Steve is still next to his nose. He pulls the blanket more tightly around him and clutches Nobody close to his chest.

Chapter Text

The upside to breaking into a secret Hydra facility is; it's a secret. Sure, there’s people around, but they don’t know what the fuck’s going on. So when Clint finally makes it down to level 6 and sees Cap bleeding like a water fountain and Nat out cold beside him, Clint’s fucked, but he’s not that fucked. Then Cap faceplants into the goopy brain sludge of what probably used to be some guys head, but still, it’s not the worst he’s seen. No one’s dead. Yet. But if he doesn’t get some pressure on that bleed, Cap will be in about thirty seconds.

First things first, he puts an arrow tip through each downed soldier’s brainstem (if they have one any more, which most of them don’t) and crouches next to Rogers. He rolls him over and presses a hand tight against the most alarming of multiple bullet holes, unclips Cap’s belt, and using a torn off and wadded up bad guy pants leg, has a serviceable field dressing in under twenty seconds, which is not bad! Hopefully it’s within the time frame of Cap’s healing abilities because Nat’s going to be pissed if he bleeds out on a mission while she’s - what is her situation, anyway? Alive; Clint can feel her pulse strong at her throat. No head trauma, no visible wounds. Right, well, she’s not gonna like this either:

He bites the cap off an epinephrine injector (shaped like an arrow head!) and jams it into her thigh. Nat hates adrenaline shots but they’re on a clock here and the shit works great against I.C.E.R.

She shoots awake, not gasping, but snorting in deep through her nose like she’s already ready to spit nails. She hates that shit but it’s kind of funny.

“Skye took the algorithm. I have to go.”

“Wha-”

But she wobbles to her feet, pulls her secret Widow Drive out of her side-boob hiding spot she favors and staggers down the hall where there looks to have already been some serious carnage. Clint pretty much gets the picture that Nat didn’t get to finish her task before a backstabbing pig-fucker back stabbed her. But Clint’s got 240 pounds - well, less without all the blood - of dead weight, prime Hydra brainwash pickings passed out on the floor in front of him, six floors underground in a Hydra super-soldier brainwashing facility, so he needs to get the hell out of dodge. Luckily there’s plenty of material for improv; for instance, the dead Hydra scientist right in front of him. Sure, she’s not Cap’s size, but his beefy arms will still fit in that lab coat. And the glasses - yep, they worked for Clark Kent, they’ll work for Grampa.

Clint grabs the scientist’s badge - fuck, wasn’t Babble the target? Like, for capture? As in, not to be executed with bullets the way she clearly has been? Whatever. Clint smears some gore over most of the name and picture, leaving some blond hair up top and CL------------BLE, which could be CLARK BIBLE. Or CLINTABLE! Anyway, then he has time to throw on some Centipede fatigues and grab a pair for Nat by the time she comes racing back, still strung out and wild from the epi like a border collie that’s been herding bottle rockets for an hour, which, Clint does happen to know what that looks like.

“I’m gonna fucking kick your ass later,” she says, breathless. She forgoes the fatigues; she snagged her own lab coat, and she licks her fingers to streak her mascara down her face like she’s been crying hysterically. Of course Nat’s wearing mascara to take down Hydra. It’s part of the Black Widow persona but it’s also just part of Nat: if you can’t look good doing it, don’t do it.

Together they heave Rogers onto one of those little science tables for carting beakers and shit from A to B, which isn’t good for his bullet wounds, but the bleeding is already slowing. Hopefully not because he’s out of blood. Clint suspects ten minutes of pressure is enough to stop even an arterial bleed in a super soldier of Cap’s caliber. Other super-soldiers, hell, sometimes an arterial bleed will make them explode. It’s crazy the shit science comes up with.

The science cart is only good for getting Cap as far as the stairs and then it’s Thank You Adrenaline Boost as Nat heaves the guy over her shoulder and makes like a bad crank rip off of Rescue Me. Seriously, Clint’s having a hard time keeping up. But he did fall down a mineshaft last week, which is why he’s taking it easy.

A door slams open a level above them, and Nat shifts Cap down to the floor and hands him off to Clint.

“Help!” She screams. “We need help!”

Fucking civilians! They don’t know anything, it’s great! They help him and Nat carry Rogers all the way to the ground level and get him into an ambulance that’s already waiting, and then it’s just a matter of stealing the ambulance. Easy peasy lemon squeezy. Clint wishes every mission could go this well.

 

*

 

Steve comes to very slowly. Very slowly. He can feel whatever drip they’ve got him on weighing him down, like a physical weight on his body, pressing him down onto the bed. He’s not sure where he is. He’s not sure how he got here. He can smell antiseptic and an unfamiliar cologne lingering in the air, as well as latex and something metallic. He knows he was in the Hydra facility. He knows he was killing people. The pull of the drug is dragging him under, and he doesn’t want to - he doesn’t want - he can’t move his arms.

There’s a beeping sound and someone touches his wrist, and he’s out of that bed like a shot, scrambling against the sheets, knocking the entire thing over in his haste to get away, to get away from - a nurse, wide eyed and backed against the wall. Steve’s heart is pounding so hard it hurts in his chest, spitting adrenaline through his drugged out system. He’s in a hospital. He’s in a hospital. He’s in a hospital, he tells himself. There’s a window. He can see outside.

“I’ll get the doctor,” the nurse says, and scurries out the door. In his panic Steve had dislodged the IV but it’s still taped to his hand, and he pulls it off. He’s in a paper gown. He’s been gut shot, he knows, because he knows what that feels like. He presses a hand to the bandage, lightly. The room starts to spin and he staggers for the bed but it’s sideways on the ground. There’s a chair there, that’s also knocked over, but he manages to set it on its feet before sinking into it. He closes his eyes and breathes. Oh yeah, Clint had shown up, hadn’t he. That’s why he’s alive and still knows his own name.

Steve braces his hands on his knees, takes a deep breath, and levers himself upright. Steady on his feet. He should go find Nat.

 

“Whoa, hey, pants are good, let’s get you some,” Clint says, and steers Steve back around where he just came from. Steve shrugs him off but it’s not as effective as he expects.

“Where’s Bucky?” he says.

Clint pats his shoulder. “Right where you left him.”

In the Alps?

Clint has his phone to his ear and he says “Hey babe, we got a D&D in 312.” Steve pulls away again.

“I’m not D and D,” he snaps. What the hell is D and D? Clint gets him by the arm again.

“Yes you are, you’re the sunshine of my life,” he says. What? Oh, he’s on the phone. “The apple of my...tree. Yeah, stat. Bring pants.” He ends the call and then uses both hands to maneuver Steve back into his room. He hooks the bed railing with his ankle and lifts it back up, then sits Steve down on it. He holds Steve’s shoulders and looks him straight in the eye.

“You’re going to be pissing propofol for a week. Just chill.”

Steve scrubs a hand over his face. Suddenly he feels like crying. He should have taken Bucky to the races. Bucky loved horses. Maybe there isn’t even a racetrack anymore.

There’s panic in Clint’s voice when he says “What? What’s wrong?”

Steve looks at him. He feels so sad. Here’s Clint, a young guy like Steve, but born decades after Steve. Decades after Steve’s neighborhood moved on. Decades after Steve first died. And then he woke up and everyone else was dead. “I’m old,” he says.

“Yeah...but you’re young at heart…?”

He doesn’t feel young at heart. He lays down on his side on the hospital bed and it groans like an old woman because he weighs a million pounds.

“And I’m fat.” Being fat is bad now, in the future. He would have given anything to be fat in the 30’s.

“You’re definitely not fat,” Clint mutters.

Then everything is kind of grey and fuzzy for awhile until the door opens and then Steve falls off the bed and hits his elbow.

“Easy, tiger,” Nat says. It’s Nat. She’s not dead. She’s alive. Steve feels like crying again. But the floor is kind of comfortable. It’s kind of cool. His body feels hot.

“The doctor’s on his way,” Clint says.

“Let’s just get him out of here.”

Then Steve has to ride in the wheelchair. It’s really fast for wheelchair and it makes him dizzy. He has to ride in the wheelchair because he’s old. He dreams his hands are all crinkly and liver-spotted, and then he falls out of the wheelchair and hits his same elbow and the wheelchair falls over on top of him.

“God damn it, Steve,” Nat says.

 

*

 

Steve’s stomach is beginning to hurt. And his head feels - it feels like something bad. He knows he’s babbling. He knows it should be weird that he can’t stop talking, but he can’t. He can’t stop talking. It’s weird.

“It’s the drugs,” Nat tells him. No, but drugs aren’t supposed to work, they’re not supposed to work on him.

“You have superpowers, not magic powers,” someone else says. Clint. “Drugs work.”

Well, if they say so. He guesses right now is pretty good evidence that they do work, if he takes enough. He wishes he’d known this when Bucky died, he’d have brought more than one bottle. When Bucky died, he’d been really sad. The thought makes him tear up. He’d been more than sad.

“He’s alive,” Nat says. That’s right, Bucky is alive. He is alive, that’s good. He’s not old. He’s not old, like Peggy, who got really old. He’s not going to die soon, like Peggy.

Steve can tell he’s crying really hard. His stomach hurts. His chest hurts. His lungs hurt, and there’s a bad noise coming out of him. When he tries to breathe in it rakes through his lungs like asthma. Natasha puts her hands on either side of his face and brushes her thumbs under his eyes. She’s really close. She says “Hey. Steve, hey,” and then she pulls his head against her shoulder and strokes his hair. He wants to go home, to Brooklyn. He wants to get Bucky and go home to the 30's. He never went back, and now it’s gone. Everyone he ever knew, everyone he ever talked to, everyone he ever even looked at, they’re all dead or really old and dying. All the USO girls, they’re not girls anymore, they’re old and lived their lives already and Steve has to stay here in the future, alone. He wants to go home, to Bucky.

Steve swallows hard and tries to catch his breath. He’s pressed against Nat’s shoulder and he can smell her laundry detergent and her deodorant and her lotion she uses that smells like flowers. He can hear a loud noise and he realizes they’re on an airplane. A small one with just him and Clint and Nat. Clint and Nat are chasing the algorithm, but it got away now and SHIELD has it. They’re gonna see that Bucky’s not on it. They’re gonna take him back. They think he’s a weapon. This thought makes Steve’s chest hurt more, like his heart is a crumpled up ball of tin foil crunched smaller and smaller. He doesn’t think he can stand it.

“Breathe in,” Natasha says, and Steve remembers to take a huge breath in, and then he’s panting for air. Bucky’s not a weapon. He’s nice. He likes horses. Steve is going to get him a horse. He’s going to keep it in the park near their apartment. He’s going to build a shed for it to stay in. Then he and Bucky will go to the park and they’ll pet the horse’s neck and give it carrots.

“That sounds really nice,” Nat says.

“I know,” says Steve.

 

*

 

When they get to the airport, Pepper is waiting for them personally, on the tarmac. Nat sees why a second later: she’s brought Bucky with her. Steve finally calmed down about halfway through the flight, and the massive amounts of drugs he was on seem to have worked their way through his system. He’s groggy and in pain, but he makes it down the steps leaning heavily on Nat and the railing, to where Clint is waiting with the collapsible wheelchair, below. Predictably, he doesn’t want to sit in it, but it’s been a long week for everyone, not just Steve, and Nat says, “Sit down before I make you,” and means it. Steve, wisely, sits.

Pepper has approached them briskly, but Barnes has held back, waiting near the car with the driver. She brought the limo. She must think everyone’s coming back to the tower. Nat could do with one of their deluxe steam showers and a long soak in the jacuzzi. Clint probably wants to head back to his hovel, give himself a paper towel wipe-down and collapse on a mattress he bought off craigslist. When you have your own suite in a billionaire’s highrise, there’s no logical reason to slum it in Bed-Stuy, in an apartment with shitty water pressure, but Clint is Clint.

Nat wheels Steve towards the waiting limo and the legendary, most feared assassin of all time. There’s no way Nat’s letting either of them go back to Brooklyn. There are things going on in SHIELD she’d hoped she’d never have to tell Steve, but they can’t avoid it now.

Pepper holds up her hand and Nat stops, halfway to the car. Pepper closes the distance, the wind across the tarmac blowing her hair almost whimsically aside. Nat misses red hair, but she doubts she could pull off the strawberry blonde with Pepper’s finesse. Well, that’s not true. Nat has pulled off every color hair can have.

Pepper doesn’t say anything. She looks at Steve intently, then Natasha. She’s concerned, that much is obvious, but not entirely for Steve. Whatever she’s looking for, she seems to find it, and she nods Nat through to the car. The driver gets the door for them, and Barnes stands silently aside. Clint whispers something in Nat’s ear and brushes a hand down her arm, and with a nod to Pepper and a nanosecond staring contest with the Winter Soldier, he takes off. Predictable. Steve lets the driver help him into the car with a muttered thanks. Pepper is next. Nat waits for Barnes to get in, but he stands where he’s been standing, utterly still.

Nat takes a step closer. He’s got eight inches and a hundred eighty pounds on her, easily. You can feel just standing next to him he’s immovable.

“Steve’s gotta stop leaving you home,” she says, and his eyes dart towards hers. It’s exactly what he had been thinking. She settles a hand on his elbow, and he turns and gets into the car.

 

*

 

Steve has to stop leaving him home. He can’t leave his best asset behind. Another part of Bucky says this is the first time he’s ever done it, but the same part also knows he intends to do it again. It pisses Bucky off. He’s not useless.

He’s inside the electrical cavity along the southeastern elevator shaft. Stark did a good job securing the shaft itself, but there are a few workable vulnerabilities within the electrical system, if, for instance, someone needed the elevator to stop at a particular point or fail altogether. Nothing easy; it was a job and a half getting in here, but if Bucky needed to kill someone this way, he could.

He has Jarvis on standby on his phone. There aren’t any internal speakers a lot of places the weak points are (and there are not a lot: Stark does good work,) so he connected through bluetooth and clipped the phone to his belt with this cool clip designed specifically for his phone, so it matches. He likes working with Jarvis, and Jarvis says Bucky is good at his job. He doesn’t have to say that. He could just say nothing. But he says it anyway, and it’s true, because Bucky is the best at killing people, so it figures he also could be good at getting people not killed. Not that Steve would ever recognize that Bucky could be good at anything.

Bucky climbs upward a level. He’s not the ideal guy for this method: one of the girls would be better, if there are any more, anymore. He doesn’t know what year it was when he met Natalia or if they’re still doing it now, training the girls like that. It was a good idea for making assassins, starting that early. They didn’t have to forget anything. They didn’t have to - they weren’t-

Bucky leans back in the narrow space, held up by just a foothold. It goes far down a long way below him. The reason Bucky is messed up is because of his memories. Not his memories of Steve, he likes those; those memories from before. Its not those memories. It’s after that, before he was an assassin, when he was still Bucky Barnes but not the Winter Soldier, and then not Bucky Barnes anymore but not the Winter Soldier either. When he thinks of those memories it makes him feel something all the way through like a spiky worm in his bowels and he has to pee. If he could just forget those memories, he would be fine. He tried to forget those memories, but then sort of everything went away and he wound up at SHIELD without knowing how. Now he tries to think about other things. He doesn’t try to forget, he just thinks about other things, like “weird beard,” because he saw a man out the window in Brooklyn who had a weird beard one time. But it’s getting harder to think about other things.

He does have to pee anyway, so it’s time to squirm out of the wall, back through the panel he accessed it from. It’s a few levels down. He’s really too big for this in here. If they put security measures on the panel and maybe pressure and heat sensors throughout, they wouldn’t have a problem. Their main problems aren’t infiltration like this so much as all out terror strikes like on the Trade Center a few years ago.

If Bucky could just forget those in between memories, he would be better. But treatment takes all the memories - all the memories that happened in time, but not the memories of stuff he learned. Or memories of stuff that happened, but not of people he met? Or some people? It’s too advanced for him. He doesn’t know how it works. But if he gets his treatment for this kind of malfunction, he won’t remember Steve, because he remembers he remembered Steve and then he got a treatment and forgot Steve but then remembered Steve… Or, how it happened, maybe, is that the treatment made him not want to think about Steve. Thinking about the treatment now makes him not want to think about Steve. Steve said “Your name is James Buchanan Barnes,” which was Bucky Barnes’ full name in the 40’s. He’s not supposed to be Bucky Barnes anymore. He knows that deep in the pit of his stomach, like he knows a knife will cut or electricity gives a shock. But Steve wants him to be Bucky Barnes, even though Bucky Barnes was stupid and smelly and only had one arm, and cried all the time and was pathetic and disgusting. It makes him feel sick right now thinking of how pathetic and disgusting Bucky Barnes was, how he sat naked in his own shit, with one hand ripped off from the end of his wrist, then the high pitched scream of the bone saw when -

Bucky jerks back from the memory. He hits the wall behind him, and the wall in front of him flat on his hand, and nowhere to go but up or down, no room even to turn to the side, he’s trapped in here, in this tiny crawl space, and his toe hold slips against the soffit but there’s not even room for him to fall. As he twists, his shoulders wedge against the walls and his knees draw up and his hands can’t even reach his ears as he tries to cover them. He doesn’t want to think about this memory, being on the table and the bone saw squealing. He convulses and braces his foot against the third wall, and the racket from the elevator trummels past down the shaft on the other side of the wall. He’s trapped in here.

He hadn’t wanted that. He didn’t want it to happen. He was weak, and pathetic, and needed it in order to be better; the wires going under his skin.

His breath comes out in quiet gasps. He knows better than to make any noise, but when he chokes on a single, silent word he’s not supposed to say, a small noise seeps out after. He’s not supposed to make any noise, but now a different, steady noise is coming, thump, thump, thump. He’s hitting his head against the wall. He wasn’t supposed to pee but he peed anyway and he can feel it, warm and dripping.

He hears something else, with his eyes shut tight. A voice. It’s saying words, and sometimes a word sounds the same as another word that came before it, but not the same word. He hears “willing” and then “one shilling.” He holds his breath.

“So they took it away, and were married next day, by the turkey who lives on the hill,” Jarvis says. “They dined on mince, and slices of quince, which they ate with a runcible spoon.” Bucky doesn’t know what any of those things are.

“And they danced by the light of the moon,” Jarvis says. “The moon, the moon, they danced by the light of the moon.”

He’s saying a poem. Bucky breathes in deep through his nose, and it rattles through the gross phlegm that’s gathered there.

“Would you like to hear another?”

Bucky shakes his head.

“My apologies, sir. This application does not detect movement the same as within the building proper.”

“No,” Bucky says.

There is a moment of quiet.

“Would you like me to recite this one again?”

Bucky swallows hard and shuts his eyes. He leans his head against the wall, against the thick electrical cables running there. “Yeah.”

 

*

 

There’s no point putting it off any more. It’s only going to get more dangerous. Nat at least gives Steve a day and waits until Barnes is out before she knocks on the door and waits a stupidly long time for Steve to answer because Steve won’t enable J.A.R.V.I.S. in his suite.

Then she waits a stupidly long time for Steve to pour her a glass of soda water when she’s not even thirsty, and cuts a fucking lime for her because he must have noticed Bucky doing it. The difference is, Bucky would have known he was taking too long and offered to let her do it, while Steve has to stubbornly do everything by himself.

“Thanks,” she says, and takes a sip. She waits for Steve to maneuver around the counter and lower himself onto a stool.

“How are you doing,” he asks, like she’s the one who got shot. She’s doing...fucking, not good. She got not even blindsided, but hoodwinked by a fucking amateur, she expected to happen. She was looking for it. And the bitch still got her. Natasha is doing Not Good, to put it plainly.

“Fine,” she says. “You?”

Through gritted teeth, he says, “Fine.”

Natasha takes another sip of water. There’s no point putting it off anymore.

“How’s Bucky?” she asks, instead.

Steve takes a deep breath and lets it out. “Not really talking to me.”

Natasha nods. There’s really no point in dragging this out.

“He wants to go back to Brooklyn,” Steve says. He pauses and shakes his head, then looks at the floor. “I can’t. Not while…”

“That’s smart. He’s vulnerable.”

Now Steve looks at her. She really can’t put this off. She sets her seltzer down. She should know exactly how she’ll say it already, and she has an idea, but the words are catching on her tongue. Not so anyone would notice, excuse you, but all the same.

“There’s some other things you need to know about,” she says. This is Steve. Dive right in. She gives him a moment to prepare himself because she knows he knows she doesn’t beat around the bush and she won’t give him a moment unless he’ll need one. He squares his shoulders and his jaw. He’s a human wonder of geometry. From a five foot straight line to a six foot polyhedron.

“There’s some other things SHIELD has been getting into - been into that you’re not going to like.” Again, she gives him another moment, because he’s really not going to like it.

“Just say it, Nat,” he says. He asked for it.

“Memory manipulation.” She watches the blood drain from his face.

“For what?”

“Assets and threats.”

There’s a very dangerous, silent moment before Steve launches away from the counter. He hurls his stool against the StarkTec window where it ricochets clear across the room. Natalia sips her water.

Rogers’ outburst only lasts a moment. He struggles to collect himself, his face now heated red, his breaths ragged and uneven. He holds one of them in for a long time. Natasha knows he has a temper, but he rarely lets it show like that.

Steve braces his arms against the counter and ducks his head. “It doesn’t matter,” he says. “They have to go, anyway.”

“I want you to be aware of the threat.”

He takes another calming breath. He lets it out. “I know. Thanks.”

Luckily, Pepper’s decorator didn’t hold back on stools at the counter, so Steve pulls up another one and sits. “Do you think they-” he starts. “Bucky?”

“No.” Natasha has her answer here but she’s not actually sure it’s better. She’s sure, actually, that it’s worse, for Steve. “The Winter Soldier project began in the 1940’s. This memory tech started in the 80’s, at the earliest. By the time it came around, he didn’t need it.” They broke Barnes the good old-fashioned way. There was nothing he didn’t remember they hadn’t patiently trained him to stop wanting to remember, which, count your mangled blessings, is probably why he’s able to remember it.

Steve has gone pale again. His circulatory system is getting interval training today. He nods stiffly.

“They’re coming for him,” Nat says plainly. She knows how SHIELD works. A bird in the hand is worth sixteen in Hydra.

 

*

 

“And the sun was shining brightly, for it rained all day, that night.”

Jarvis had begun a new recitation, sourced by rumor to “Haywire Mac,” he’d said. Bucky likes that name a lot. And the poem is good, too. His heart rate is slowing down. He’s starting to get kind of chilly from the bottom up, from what happened.

“Twas a summer night in winter, and the snow was raining fast, as a barefoot boy with shoes on stood sitting in the grass.”

Bucky shifts uncomfortably. His legs are starting to feel not as good from the way he’s been squished into this tiny space. Jarvis pauses, then says, “Shall I continue, sir?”

Bucky twists to drop his leg down and get his feet beneath him. He somehow has to get out of here and back to the suite without anyone seeing him, what happened when he was in here. He doesn’t want anyone to see.

“If it’s convenient, sir,” Jarvis says. “If you are able to access the elevator shaft, I shall have one brought to you privately. If you are still on the eighteenth floor, I will disable the alarm sensors so you may enter unimpeded.”

Jarvis is really nice, like Pepper. He would never try to embarrass Bucky or make him feel bad (not that Bucky needs help being embarrassed.) He keeps his manners.

“Yeah. Thanks,” Bucky says.

 

Instead of taking the elevator to the suite, he takes it down to the gym where there’s usually robes and clothes and stuff. He rinses his pants in the sink and waits a long time for them to dry. He doesn’t want Steve to smell what happened or ask questions. He’s trying to convince Steve he’s worthwhile, and he’s only proving what a piece of shit he is. Who needs someone like him on a mission? If he gets his memory wiped, he won’t even be Bucky Barnes anymore, so Steve won’t want him, but if he keeps doing this, because of his memories, he won’t even be able to leave his bedroom! It’s Steve’s fault, anyway, these memories. He didn’t used to be like this.

Bucky is good at waiting, and after a couple hours, his pants are pretty dry. Dry enough that he can get by Steve without him noticing, if he goes straight to the shower.

 

But Steve doesn’t let him get to the shower. When Bucky walks in, Steve stands up from the barstool. He’s holding scissors. Bucky stops and watches him warily. Steve doesn’t usually hold scissors. He’s not usually waiting, holding scissors.

“Bring your foot up here,” he says. Bucky feels a bad feeling in his bowels, like a worm. Steve is mad and holding scissors. And he never punished Bucky before, but it’s Bucky’s fault Steve got hurt, because he said “to stop the people who hurt you,” and then he got hurt. So if it weren’t for Bucky, he wouldn’t have gone, and that’s why he’s holding the scissors and looking like that. Bucky’s whole body feels cold. Steve never punished him before. He’s scared of the scissors and what Steve will do. But he knows he deserves it so he puts his foot on the edge of the bar stool.

“Other one,” Steve says.

Bucky is so stupid! He puts his other foot on the edge of the barstool.

Steve pulls up the hem of Bucky’s trousers and doesn’t say anything about how they smell or are a little bit damp. He pulls down the edge of Bucky’s sock, which Steve had given him when he first came to stay with Steve and didn’t have any socks. Steve slides the edge of the scissors under the tracking anklet, and Bucky jerks his foot away. He’s angry, all of a sudden. Steve’s going to get in big fucking trouble doing something like that!

Steve glares at him but Bucky’s not going to let him cut the anklet. Only SHIELD can take it off. That’s the rule. There are consequences.

“It’s going, Bucky. Don’t make me fight you.”

Steve is such an asshole! If he fights Bucky, he’ll get really hurt just from moving around, so Bucky has to let him kneel down and pull up his hem again and pull down his sock and slide the scissors beneath the anklet, and he’s going to get in such bad trouble. Bucky feels tears pricking hot in his eyes. No one ever asks about this stuff, they just do it. And it’s not fair.

Steve cuts the anklet. He labors to his feet. Then he puts the anklet down the drain and turns on a machine that chops it into tiny pieces and washes it away.

“We’re not going home,” he says.

Bucky doesn’t move until Steve says it’s okay to.

Chapter Text

Bucky has to go upstairs the next day because “Tony” is in town and he has to look at Bucky’s arm. He has to do tests. That’s why Bucky has to go upstairs to the lab, where Steve is bringing him. It’s good, anyway. Bucky needs to go to the lab. His arm has only been running at 30% since Steve broke it on the Helicarrier that time, and then Bucky got used to it being like that, but probably he’s going to need it again, if he’s going to be the Winter Soldier from now on. He’s not sure where Steve stands on that. If he’s bringing Bucky to the lab, he probably wants him to be the soldier now. That’s better, it’s safer for Steve. Except Steve doesn’t have his access codes, and he’s also a moron, so he probably won’t even know how to operate him. It’s going to be stupid. And annoying. At least the soldier won’t remember how stupid and annoying Steve is. And he won’t remember about Smurfs, so he won’t even miss them. He won’t remember about Tiny Steve. So who cares.

Tony is a short guy with a beard who moves a lot and doesn’t look Bucky in the eye. Usually scientists don’t. He makes Bucky sit down in a chair that’s fancy and made of metal and then he goes to stand with Steve to watch a monitor, and Bucky realizes suddenly that “Tony” is Mr. Stark and owns the building which is Stark Tower. Pepper talks about him sometimes, and Jarvis. All this work Bucky has been doing has been for Mr. Stark. And then Bucky remembers that he already knew that. He already knew Mr. Stark was called Tony. It makes the Bucky part want to cry knowing he’s so messed up and stupid and forgets simple things that are obvious. But the soldier knows it’s just a malfunction that’s not even that hard to fix. All the Bucky part ever wants to do is cry, that’s why he’s stupid. He’s the worst. The soldier will be glad to cut him out. Maybe Tony can fix him so that he never has to be Bucky again. Bucky’s a waste of space. A space waster. He’s dumb scum. That’s why Steve likes Bucky, because they’re both stupid. “I’m your fucking friend!” Fuck you.

A floating machine comes out and shines a light on his arm and then all over his body. Stark is watching the monitor, and he’s not moving, but Steve is getting that look like his butt hole is clenching up. That’s how Steve looks when he’s anxious. That’s why he’s a tight ass, ha ha ha. Steve is the fart that comes out of a dog.

“What is it,” Steve says. He’s talking to Tony.

“This needs major repairs,” Tony says. He hasn’t been moving a lot since he went behind the monitor. He does something with his hands like he’s turning something, but Bucky can’t see what. Stark studies whatever he’s looking at. He moves his hand again and looks at something else. He’s standing very still. Then he makes a move like he’s brushing everything aside and says “You’re going to need a surgeon,” and then he leaves the room. Steve is standing there like a putz because he is a putz.

Now Bucky has to get sliced up again because Steve broke his arm. Steve broke both his arms but his normal arm fixed itself. That’s why Bucky’s not sure metal arms are better, because when they break you have to fix them. But normal body parts will just fix themselves. Maybe that’s why he only has one metal arm instead of two, or a whole metal body. His hand got ripped off, but then he got fixed with a metal arm. He’s lucky he was able to be fixed with a metal arm or he would have had to go back to Experiments.

Steve comes around from the monitor and pulls up a chair near Bucky, but he doesn’t say what he saw. It’s none of Bucky’s business anyway.

*

After, when Mr. Stark comes back, he wants to talk to Bucky, not to Steve. He makes Steve go away. Then he sits next to Bucky in the chair Steve was sitting in and he makes a picture come into the air like a magic trick but Bucky knows it’s technology like other stuff he’s seen, doing work in the tower, but Bucky’s too dumb to understand how it works. The picture Tony pulls up is of Bucky’s metal arm, but then he makes it bigger so they can go inside it, in the picture. It’s a schematic. Bucky doesn’t know why Stark is showing him. He says they’re going to need to take the plates off and dismantle it from the shoulder, but since the arm doesn’t detach, Bucky’s going to have to stay in the lab while he does it which probably will take about ten hours give or take, and if Bucky wants, they can put Bucky under and take the tracking chips out at the same time, which probably also will take about ten hours because they’re wrapped around his spinal cord and could paralyze him if it’s not done properly, and also to take the remote explosive out of the back of his neck. Bucky doesn’t know why Stark is telling him this.

When Stark is done talking he looks past Bucky’s shoulder like he’s waiting for something. Waiting and waiting. Then he says, “I’ll track down Banner. He’s a personal friend. You’ll be fine.” Then he sits there waiting and waiting. Bucky’s not sure what he wants. Then Stark looks him in the eye and says “Are you okay with that?”

Bucky wonders how bad of trouble he would get in if he punched Mr. Stark in the face.

Later, Steve comes to collect the soldier and they go back down to their apartment where they’re staying and Bucky sits on Pepper’s nice white sofa and holds Nobody in his lap with both hands. Nobody’s pink tongue sticks out like a little kiss. Bucky squishes Nobody’s eyes until they touch the back of his head.

“Are you okay with that?” he says.

*

The real Bucky used to be friends with Stark Senior, during the war. They would talk about weapons, sometimes, and inventions. Stark Senior is the one who did experiments on Steve, so sometimes Bucky had wanted to kill him. And then he did. But not for doing experiments on Steve. He can’t remember why he killed Howard. It was for something important.

Bucky has a dream that he goes into surgery and they take his arm off and peel his skin open and take all the wires out. Then they leave. Bucky’s arm is gone and there’s just a hole. Then ants come, and they go in the hole, and they crawl around inside and come out of Bucky’s eyes and his mouth.

It’s dark and quiet on the 31st floor. Bucky presses Nobody against his mouth so no noise will come out. He doesn’t say the words that aren’t allowed, but he wants to.

*

Bucky changes into the paper gown that ties in the back and he lies face down on the table and some stuff happens and people come in and out and it’s stupid and boring and there’s a needle and he goes to sleep.

*

Tony hadn’t been able to get an answer out of Barnes, so he’s gonna go ahead and install the arc reactor over the damaged plutonium core that’s been irradiating him for God knows how long. He’s just fixing robotics. That’s what he does. Banner’s dealing with the bloody bits. Tony has all the pieces laid out so he can see how they’ll go back together. The neural interface isn’t damaged, so he doesn’t have to look at it. He hums along to some tune he’s not sure he remembers, removing a screw and setting it in a glass dish with the other screws of the same size. He focuses on the robotics and doesn’t have to think about how it’s irrevocably attached to someone who probably hadn’t wanted it, who just woke up attached to this thing that wasn’t part of his body.

“...in the park,” Tony mutters. “Must have been the fourth of July…”

“Would you stop singing?” Bruce says. Tony does, but only for about five minutes or maybe an hour.

*

Six years ago, or seventy-six, depending on how conscious you’d been for the better part of a century, Steve had had a problem. His problem had been an aesthetic appreciation for his roommate that had begun to border on inappropriate. Then his roommate had gone off to war, and Steve had undergone an experimental procedure that shot his testosterone through the roof, and after that, “inappropriate” didn’t even begin to cover it. “Obscene” was a better term. “Craven.” You just didn’t think those kinds of thoughts about your best pal without him knowing. It wasn’t right. And Steve had been in a bit of a fix after the procedure because he had those thoughts about pretty much everything that moved. It had been a lot to handle and he about rubbed his dick raw, but he has a better handle on it now. He doesn’t think those kind of thoughts about Bucky. If it wasn’t appropriate in the 40’s, it sure as hell isn’t appropriate now, thinking those kind of thoughts about a guy who hides in the closet and can barely string a sentence together unless he’s talking to a shrinky dink or a stuffed dog. Steve is hunched in a folding chair outside the sterile lab, biting his fingernails so bad they’re bleeding. They’re healing as soon as they bleed, and then he bites them again and they bleed and then heal, and so forth. The most important thing is that Bucky’s safe, not that - not that -

Steve stands up and paces the length of the hall. It’s not right that he has to wait out here. He needs something to do, he needs someone to - fuck, he needs someone to fuck or fight or just get some of this nervous energy out somehow. He swipes both of his hands over his face and pinches the bridge of his nose. The “security measures” SHIELD had installed were downright sadistic. Maybe he can blow some nervous energy by blowing chunks. His stomach hurts. His mouth tastes sour. He’s lightheaded and he wants to punch something. Preferably Bruce Banner. Steve often wants to punch Bruce Banner for no particular reason when he sees him, probably because he did experiments on himself that turned him into an unstoppable monster, which is what the Red Skull did to himself and like two degrees away from what Steve let Erksine do to him. What the fuck.

The only person who never wanted any of this was Bucky. Steve knows he broke Buck’s heart becoming Captain America. Pulling Bucky off the table that first time - Steve’s breath catches in his throat. While you were here getting pumped with poison against your will, I was doing it to myself, on purpose! It doesn’t change anything, Steve would do it all again, it’s just...That’s why he wants to punch Banner half the time. He doesn’t want to punch himself, but should. He can’t regret this body. He loves it. He loves everything it can do that he couldn’t do before. Sorry you didn’t want this and I did. Sorry I almost turned myself into an abomination, and I don’t regret it at all.

God, when Steve had joined the war - after he had the serum, and saved the 107th, saved Bucky, everything this body could do, to stand side by side with the Commandos, to see the good he was doing, to see the people he helped. To see the curve of Bucky’s ear again and the angle of his wrist below the thumb, that always made him want to grab his pencil and sketchbook. The way Peggy’s starched cuff just grazed her wrist, her manicured fingers smudged with grease, and thinking about the women Bucky used to see and the things he would say, after, the -

Why is he thinking about this right now? Bucky’s unconscious, he’s in surgery getting fucking explosives removed from his body and Steve’s thinking about the line of his shoulderblades under his shirt, the way he would stoop for his reflection in the spotted mirror that was mounted low for Steve, the way he would smile with half his mouth when he was wisecracking, which was all the time, or the boyish, full body grin that crinkled his eyes and danced straight down to his feet when he was really happy, which was...which was hardly ever, even then.

Steve sits back down on his folding chair, leaning over his knees. He presses his wrists against his eyes, then his hand over his mouth. He knows they’re never going to be happy ever again. Nothing will ever be okay. They’re never going home and every moment is going to feel just like this one. He knows. Peggy is dying. She’s going to die. He remembers her socking that recruit across the jaw like it was yesterday. It practically was, for him. It sure as shit wasn’t seventy years. Just a few years ago Bucky was buttoning his shirt cuffs and tossing a smirk at Steve over his shoulder, saying “She don’t got a lick of sense, Steve. Don’t know what she’s missing,” then turning his attention full to his button, and straightening his collar in the darkened window. Bucky had been the best of guys. The best. He doesn’t deserve what’s happening to him right now.

Steve fits his palms over his ears and jiggles his knees up and down. It’s not fair for him to have to wait out here. He’s useless.

*

When Bucky wakes up he has to stay on the table. The surgery is over but Stark isn’t done fixing his arm. The doctor lets Steve come in and Steve sits in a chair and holds Bucky’s normal hand in both of his hands. Bucky wishes he would stop but you’re not allowed to move during procedures, so he can’t pull his hand away. He’s probably not supposed to tell Steve not to do stuff, either, so he doesn’t say anything and just lets Steve hold his hand if he wants. It takes hours to finish fixing his arm and Steve doesn’t go away even though Bucky wishes he would.

*

Bucky has a dream, after the surgery, that he’s up on top of Stark Tower at night and it’s dark and it’s snowing and all the little lights are sparkling in the buildings that are far below and far away, and Bucky is crouched at the top highest point leaning against the radio antennae, and he’s holding Tiny Steve in both hands and he’s telling Tiny Steve a secret. Then a big wind comes and it blows all of Bucky’s smurfs away and he’s holding on, trying to hold onto Tiny Steve so he won’t blow away but no matter how hard he tries to hold on Tiny Steve blows away into the dark and Bucky screams and screams a high pitched, horrible noise and the light snaps on and Steve stands in the door in his T-shirt and boxers and Bucky heaves the bedside table at him and screams “Get out!"

Steve stands there for a moment longer looking pale and sick and then he backs up and shuts the door. Bucky is shaking so hard against the wall he almost can’t move but he has to get Tiny Steve. He keeps Tiny Steve next to his nose when he sleeps, on the floor with Tiny Steve under the bed near his smurfs and with Nobody. Bucky curls up on the floor where just his head fits under the bed but not his shoulders. He can’t help that tears and snot are coming. He doesn’t want that Steve. He wants his Steve, from before. He wants his Steve, and his Ma, who died while he was in the tank. He wants his Ma so bad. He’ll never see her ever again.

He presses his face into Nobody’s fur. He breathes in through the stuffing. A high, soft noise comes out of Bucky and he sucks in a snotty, wet breath. He wants to die. His body hurts so bad he wants to die. It hurts from missing his Ma, and Steve. His back hurts from his procedure.

Another little noise comes out. He says a word that’s not allowed, silently between thick wet breaths, silent, so no one will hear.

“Help. Help. Help,” he says.

*

Steve waits outside the door, but aside from heart-wrenching, snuffling breaths, Bucky is quiet. He doesn’t want Steve right now. Steve waits a little longer, and then goes back to bed.

*

“I mean, it’ll take years to gather enough data,” Skye says. She’s reconfiguring the algorithm for a slightly different set of criteria. Ironic how so many recruited by Hydra possessed qualities Hydra so devotedly tried to stamp out: a desire to change the world, for instance. Many of Hydra’s own members were, in fact, on the kill list. Mostly among the higher-ups. Followers were rarely a problem. They bent in the direction of the strongest wind. But Phil can’t help but notice a few conspicuous absences. “Can’t help” because he’s looking for them, actually. Namely, any variation of codename: Winter Soldier.

Though Rogers claims the soldier pulled him from the Potomac, Phil finds this statement dubious at best. The soldier weighs nearly three hundred pounds, and roughly a third of his body weight is solid metal. His cybernetic arm was damaged, and his biological arm at the time of his recovery showed signs of recent, significant damage as well, not to mention the recently healed fractures in his hip and lower vertebra. Swimming at all would have been a Herculean feat, not to mention then dragging the not inconsiderable heft of Captain Rogers through water rained down upon by flaming debris of three helicarriers. Phil hasn’t ruled out the possibility of it being true. He merely finds it dubious.

Bearing that in mind, along with the conditions of the soldier’s apprehension - Pierce’s summer home? Really? - Phil finds it prudent to exercise caution regarding the soldier’s loyalties. Sure, he’d been all but catatonic, but Hill had noted remarkable improvements in her last report.

To put it plainly, the soldier cannot be relied upon to align himself with SHIELD’s objectives, and Hydra clearly hopes to reclaim him. That SHIELD lost Captain Roger’s cooperation in the last mission is unfortunate. They’ve taken emergency precautions to remove sensitive intel from the Playground to a backup site outside of Omaha, lest Rogers make good on his threat of exposure. The man could be very narrow-minded, not to mention hot headed and impulsive. But, not everyone is meant to see the bigger picture. Not everyone is able.

Rogers isn’t an active threat. But the soldier very easily could be. It will be best, at least for the time being, to keep a close eye on him.

Skye uploads the altered algorithm to set of sample data. It quickly identifies Clarissa Babble, Grant Ward, and Jasper Sitwell, but not Alexander Pierce. Still, an improvement since this morning. Skye is a good girl.

*

Bucky hasn’t been able to go back to work. Stark said to “take the week off,” which means he doesn’t care if Bucky does his job or not, which means he doesn’t care about Bucky’s work. Bucky was stupid to think he did.

He’s sitting on the floor near the sofa in the fancy apartment. He has Nobody pressed to the floor on his back, and Bucky is pretending to draw with a crayon. “You’re nobody,” he says. He pretends to draw a line around the stuffed toy’s arm with red. Nobody has been bad recently. He needs to be punished.

Steve is in the kitchen, trying to bake something. He asked Bucky to help with the instructions but Bucky pretended not to hear him.

Bucky knows what the punishment should be. He needs a box. He knows Steve has a box where he keeps his nice shoes, in the same box they came in so they don’t get ruined. Bucky goes in Steve’s bedroom without asking and he takes the box and dumps the shoes out on the floor. Then he goes to the kitchen and he gets the knife that he uses to cut limes for Pepper. He doesn’t care if Steve needs it. Steve sees him take the knife and he sees that Bucky has his box but he doesn’t say anything. Bucky can feel Steve watching him from the kitchen so when he sits on the floor again he turns his back to Steve.

Bucky cuts a small, skinny rectangle in the lid of the box. That’s for light and air. He picks up the dog and looks him over. He’s in good health. He has no bald patches and he smells okay. His fur is a little bit matted from a spot where there’s snot. Bucky turns him over. He looks at his little pink tongue sticking out. Then he puts Nobody in the box and he closes the lid. He holds it on with both hands. He leans over the box to look down the small, skinny window. “You’re being punished,” he whispers.

He gets up and puts the box in his closet and shuts the door.

*

Steve’s trying to make a roast chicken, but it’s hard to do that and keep an eye on Bucky at the same time. Bucky’s been avoiding and ignoring him since he got back from South Carolina. But Buck was fine while Steve was in South Carolina, so it must have something to do with Steve getting hurt, and then on top of that the surgery and repairs yesterday went on past seventeen hours, and then Bucky had had a pretty bad nightmare after that, which would put anyone in a bad mood. So Steve tries not to overthink it when Bucky stalks into the kitchen and grabs the paring knife, and then shoves his stuffed dog in a shoebox. He’s...working through something, and the knife is in the apartment, it’s always here, he’s allowed to have it, so Steve keeps his distance. He’s trying to give Bucky his space. It seems to be what he wants.

Now Steve has to read through the God damned directions again to see where he is on the recipe. And the freaking recipe says things like “add the thyme and rosemary” and doesn’t say how much, so he has to reference the sidebar that lists the quantity, and then pick back up in the directions again. Why can’t it just say the quantity in the directions? Steve hates cooking. He should have just ordered take out. He was trying to engage Bucky in something nice, but he probably should have picked something he didn’t mind doing on his own in case Bucky didn’t want to join. Buck never actually turned down recipes before, so. Well, Steve’s on his own. He’s trying to make the best of it.

Aside from taking nearly twice as long as quoted, Bucky’s procedures went through without any dangerous complications or anything. He’s got about thirty stitches down his spine that should be healed up in a day or two. Steve hadn’t even known the metal arm was broken all this time, but it makes sense that SHIELD wouldn’t have fixed it. He’s surprised they even let Buck keep it. But Stark had shown him the schematics from the scan the day before, and removing the arm would have been a major procedure akin to amputation. It had made Steve nauseous, the full body scan. Bucky has metal reinforcements through his clavicle and rib cage, pins and plates along his right arm and both knees. He thinks of the picture Buck had drawn with his skin flayed open and his skeleton showing. And he lost his fucking place in the recipe again. Who the fuck fucking cares. He throws the whole thing in the oven. How long is it supposed to cook? He scrolls down to the bottom of the page. An hour and a half? Jesus!

Steve tries to find something else to do for twenty minutes but he ends up gravitating closer to Bucky. When Bucky notices, he picks up his crayons and paper, and moves away to the counter. Steve stifles a sigh. It’s bad enough being injured without Bucky hating him on top of it. Steve lowers himself onto the couch and sees the small rectangle Bucky had cut out of the shoebox. A forlorn little curl of cardboard. Steve grips the armrest and levers himself back up. He goes back into the kitchen under the guise of basting the chicken.

Bucky is drawing big black spikes on a blank sheet of paper. Steve knows something is bothering him but Bucky won’t just come out and say it. While Steve is spooning broth over the roast, he says as casually as he can, “Where’s Nobody?” Bucky had named his dog “Nobody,” for Christ’s sake.

Bucky pauses coloring in a black spike. Without looking at Steve he says, “He’s being punished.”

Great. Very carefully, Steve asks why.

“He peed on the floor.”

Okay.

Maybe he should just let it go. But he doesn’t think that a dog named Nobody should be locked in a box with a small sliver of light and air, even if it’s just pretend. Steve says (carefully, casually), “I wish I knew where he was so I could help him.”

Buck stops coloring again. He stares at the counter. Then very slowly, with his metal arm, he points at his bedroom. Steve hesitates. He puts the chicken back in the oven. He wipes his hands on his jeans. He moves towards where Bucky had pointed but Bucky makes no move to stop him, so he goes into Bucky’s bedroom.

The box isn’t on the bed (which is perfectly made and not even rumpled.) It’s not under the bed with Buck’s snurfs or Steve Shrinky Dink. He finds the box in the corner of Buck’s closet. He takes off the lid and there’s Nobody, staring back up at him, his little pink tongue in a cute, perpetual pant. Steve takes him out of the box and looks him over. He’s a little matted in places but Bucky didn’t take the knife to him or anything, so that’s good, he guesses. He takes the box and Nobody into the living room, not sure what to do with a rescued stuffed animal. But Bucky holds out his left hand again, still without looking at Steve. Steve hands him the dog and Bucky tucks it against his side.

Okay then. That’s the end of that.

 

But that’s not the end of that, at all.

All through dinner, Bucky doesn’t eat. He doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t look at Steve. He doesn’t move. He’s not zoned out like he would get more frequently when he was fresh out of SHIELD. He’s intensely doing nothing, nearly vibrating with it. Steve starts cleaning up the dinner that he made and served and ate himself. He puts the plates in the dishwasher, packs up the leftovers, leaves the baking pan to soak. He puts everything away and wipes down the counter. It’s seven thirty. If he goes to bed now, he’ll lay there for hours.

He looks at the stiff line of Bucky’s back, still sitting at the dining table; a massive mahogony construction that sits eight and easily cost thousands of dollars, for a suite no one stays in. There were tables like this when he was a kid, in places no one lived, and kids living out on the street, and girls whoring themselves and fellas breaking their backs out there, and places like this with no one in them. It just doesn’t make sense to Steve. He can’t understand it. Guys like Buck who’d give you the shoes off his feet, and had one time, working like a dog twelve hours a day, he just can’t understand it. Buck had been real smart. He’d liked learning things. He’d been a careful listener, he’d listen to what you said and care about it, too. He’d been - he’d been the best of guys.

Bucky leaps to his feet so suddenly Steve doesn’t have time to flinch before the mahogany table hits the wall and crashes to the floor. The chair is next; Buck grabs it by the back and clubs the other chairs like bowling pins, his eyes wild, his teeth clenched together. Steve reacts in a split second, hands outspread, saying, ‘Buck, Bucky-” and Buck’s eyes lock on him and Steve stops dead and goes cold all over. There’s a deadly silence in the air between them.  Bucky hasn’t looked at Steve like this since Insight.

Steve keeps his voice calm, his hands raised, and he says, “Bucky.”

Bucky lunges at him. His metal hand comes up for Steve’s throat, and Steve blocks it, barely. He can’t win against the Soldier in his current state, but Bucky’s not fighting like the Soldier. He’s fighting like a wild animal. When his grip doesn’t land, he rakes his fingers down Steve’s arm and twists his head to bite. He’s carried carelessly by his momentum and with a single side-step Steve is able to throw him off, but he doesn’t stop to regroup, he charges in blindly again and Steve catches his arms.

“Bucky, stop!”

All that weight is like a fucking freight train. He pushes Steve all the way back to the sofa before Steve can parry again and twist free, dancing back out of range in time to dodge the coffee table, then the queen anne, and then Bucky catches him around the hips and throws him to the floor, screaming like he’s been set on fire. He punches Steve with his human hand, and what is Steve supposed to do? He can’t hurt Bucky. And he can’t stop him. Bucky pins him to the floor with his metal arm and slugs him again. Steve could get him in a chokehold from here with his legs, but why?

Why is this happening? Bucky grabs him by the shirt with both hands and slams him into the floor. He grabs Steve by the hair and then scratches down Steve’s face. Steve smells the blood before he feels it. Bucky is crying. He’s making a horrible, choked off, screaming sound and he punches the floor near Steve’s head and shakes Steve again and scratches him. Then he catches his breath. Steve doesn’t move. Bucky stands up and staggers away. Blood spots the back of his shirt where his stitches have ripped.

Steve doesn’t stand. He scoots back away. Bucky pulls his own hair, then swats at a lamp. From there he goes on to demolish everything in the room. Steve doesn’t know what he did for this to happen. He doesn’t know what to do. He should know. He knows it’s his fault and he should do something, but he’s frozen in place. Bucky hurls a lamp at the wall over Steve and it rains shattered porcelain down on him. The lampshade bounces and rolls away. Steve presses against the wall and just watches. He doesn’t know what to do.

 

Bucky destroys everything in the kitchen, everything in the bathroom, everything in Steve’s room, and everything in his own room before he finally subsides into hiccupping, hysterical sobs behind his cockeyed, broken door. Steve hasn’t moved, where he’s backed against the wall. Distantly, he registers the sound of ringing. It’s his phone, amidst the wreckage. He doesn’t answer. Then later there’s a frantic rap on the door.

“Steve?” Pepper calls. “Bucky?”

Steve doesn’t bother to let her in. She’ll come in or she won’t. It’s her building. He hears the lock slide open.

Pepper must have been at home, in the upper East Side. She’s wearing jean shorts and flip flops. Jarvis must have called her. He’s supposed to be turned off, but even if he is, there’s no way he didn’t hear that from the elevator or the hall, or downstairs, or upstairs or anywhere in the building. Pepper kneels next to him and touches the side of his face. She ducks into his line of vision, but Steve just doesn’t feel like talking to Pepper right now. He can still hear Bucky gasping in his bedroom. He doesn’t know what he did, for this to happen.

*

Pepper finds Bucky on the floor in his bedroom. The mattress has been tipped over and ripped open. He’s limp on his side and staring at nothing, taking deep, shuddering breaths and letting them out with an almost inaudible keen. She enters cautiously, not for her sake, but for his. She takes a wide arc in so he can see her, approaches from the feet up so she’s not coming straight at his head. She kneels beside him and calls his name. When he doesn’t respond, she very gently touches his hair. He gasps and looks at her for a split second before burying his face against the floor. The shuddering tightens into a full body tremble.

“Bucky. Bucky, hey,” she says. “I’m not mad.”

The trembling slowly stops. He turns towards her and she traces a sopping clump of hair from his face. “What happened?” She keeps her voice quiet, just over a whisper. His breath catches and breaks in a sob. She runs her fingertips over his hair. “Honey, what happened?”

It takes a good while of waiting, but finally Bucky clenches his hand. He shifts his arm and points to something over his head, towards where the door is half off its hinges. Pepper spots the stuffed dog. One of his legs has been ripped off, trailing cotton batting. Pepper retrieves the dog and sits again near Bucky. Bucky reaches for the dog but doesn’t take it. He brushes his fingers over where the cotton sticks out.

“Is it because this happened?” Pepper ventures. Bucky shakes his head, his eyes closed tight. She gives him time to talk but he doesn’t say anything. She wants to pull him onto her lap and rock him. “I can see you’re really upset.”

That gets him. He nods and starts crying harder, and Pepper lies down next to him so their faces are close.

“I wish I knew why, so I could help,” she says. Bucky struggles to catch his breath. He says something so garbled by tears that Pepper can’t understand him. She keeps stroking his hair a little bit with just the tips of her fingers. “Can you say that again so I can hear?”

Bucky swallows thickly. “I put Nobody in the box.”

Nobody is the dog. “Okay.”

Bucky coughs and swallows again. “He was in the box. And Steve got him out.”

Okay.

“Why was he in the box?”

“He was being punished.”

Pepper takes a moment to try to parse this.

“And Steve got him out,” Bucky continues.

“And he wasn’t supposed to.”

No,” Bucky cries. He sits up. “That’s not it.”

Pepper follows him up but then he ducks his head back down to the floor and curls in on himself. “That’s not it.” He rakes in several scraping breaths and then launches into a coughing fit so severe he wretches. “That’s not it,” he says again.

But Pepper’s at a loss for what it could be. She doesn’t know what Bucky is trying to tell her. She starts over. “You put Nobody in the box.” Okay. “And Steve took Nobody out of the box.” He nods. “And you’re really upset…” She tries not to trail off but she does.

“Steve saved him,” Bucky whispers.

“Oh...” Pepper says. She gives him room. Bucky curls up like a snake and glares at her like he’s furious she doesn’t understand.

“He saved him. And not me.” His voice cracks. His eyes brim with fresh tears. “And I waited! I waited, and he never came!”

Oh.

Oh, God.

“I prayed, and he never came for me! He didn’t come. And they -” Bucky buries his hands in his hair and rocks forward. His voice is small again when he says “Why didn’t he come?” Pepper catches him and holds him close to her chest. There’s blood on his back from where Bruce had to pull out those horrible devices. She kisses the back of his head, where the hair is all sweaty and tangled.

“Why didn’t he come for me? I waited.

*

When Steve laid the Valkyrie down in the Arctic, it ripped the hull clean off the ship. The flooding was instant; so cold and so fast it drove the breath from his body and closed in around him. He could hear the blood pounding in his ears, and he knew that he was going to die and it was going to hurt.

That’s how he feels right now; his hands and feet numb, the breath driven from his body, a pain so acute in his chest he thinks he’ll die from it. He leans his head against the wall and doesn’t breathe.

Why didn’t you come for me?

I waited.

Steve did try to come for him. When the water closed over his head in the darkness, he thought he had.

Chapter Text

It takes a long time for Bucky to stop crying. Pepper waits it out. She holds him in her lap and smooths her hand over his shoulder, down his side, rubbing small circles. Sometimes you just have to get it all out. There’s no rush.

It finally subsides into weak, tired breaths. Bucky draws in a thick, snotty snort, and then starts to pull away. When he sees he’s left a trail of mucus on Pepper’s ratty cut-offs, his face creases in a mortified fret and it looks like the tears are going to start all over again. Pepper takes him by the shoulders quickly.

“Hey. Hey,” she says. She ducks into his line of vision and won’t let him not look at her. Once she has his gaze, she holds it. “These shorts can burn in hell for all I care. Okay?” She cups his face with her hand. He tucks his chin and his right shoulder raises defensively, but he leans his head towards her again. He’s still crying, but not like before.

After a couple hitching breaths, he whispers, “I wrecked all your stuff.”

“What, here?”

He nods.

Pepper traces his cheekbone with her thumb. “Honey, I don’t care about all that. It’s just stuff.”

This doesn’t make him feel better and she can feel him tense up again under her hand, rocking his body convulsively. “I wrecked it,” he says. Pepper pushes him back firmly, hands on his shoulder and face, and she gives him the tiniest shake. “Do you think I care more about stuff than I care about you?” She lets every ounce of incredulity she has seep into this statement. “This apartment is here for you. It’s yours, it’s a place for you to feel safe. If you want to fill it up with farm animals, that’s fine.” She strokes his hair back from his face. “I draw the line at forking straw - I won’t do that. But I’ll find the best pitchfork man in New York, okay? I’ll do that for you.”

The tears have stopped but he’s not mollified. Pepper drags over the corner of a bedsheet and pulls it up to him. “Blow your nose,” she says. He does and he doesn’t hold back. When he’s done, Pepper tosses the whole thing aside. “Tell you what. You want to make it up to me?”

His look says he doesn’t think it could ever be possible.

“I need you to go through the catalogues of the vendors where I get all my crap I fill this place up with, okay? I need you to pick out some new styles, narrow it down to three or four of everything. It’s a big job, and I don’t have time to do it myself. So when you have three or four, or two is even better, have Jarvis send them along to me, that way I only need to choose a couple things instead of going through everything. Okay?”

Pepper doesn’t choose the furniture in the suites, the designer does. Bucky doesn’t know that. He nods with such an expression of relief it almost breaks Pepper’s heart all over again. She really doesn’t care at all about the stuff, but Bucky does.

“If you want,” she adds, “Pick a few things that you and Steve like. Because I mean it when I say I want this to be your apartment. Even if you don’t live here, it’s here if you need it.” Bucky nods again, but Pepper already knows he’s going to choose variations of the exact same stuff that was already here. Pepper can’t really blame him. She stays in her suite here sometimes, but there’s nothing like having your own actual home to go back to. And he can’t go back to his own right now. On other levels, he can never go home. Not to where he’s from. Pepper strokes his hair again. He looks so tired.

“We’re gonna spend the night in my suite, okay? I want to get your stitches cleaned up and maybe have something to eat. Have you eaten?”

He shakes his head.

“Okay, and then we’ll watch a movie. Does that sound good?”

He nods.

“Okay.” She stands up, trailing her hands down his arms and lifting his hands so he’ll follow. “Do you have anything here you want to bring?”

He shakes his head, but then after a moment’s hesitation he darts behind the upturned mattress to retrieve something from under the frame. He shoves it in his pocket before she can see what it is.

 

Steve is still slumped against the wall where he was when Pepper first came in, staring absently down towards the empty space between his knees.

This one might be a bit tougher. Pepper doesn’t have the same rapport with Steve as she does with Bucky, and sometimes she gets the impression that the man doesn’t like her. God knows she tries! But it turns out it’s not an issue because Bucky takes the initiative, crouching down near Steve’s shoulder on the side that’s streaked with blood.

“Stevie,” she hears him say, just above a whisper. There’s trepidation in his voice, like he’s worried Steve won’t respond. And it’s not unfounded, because Steve doesn’t. Pepper sometimes forgets that Steve can’t go home either, that everything he has left of everything he ever had is leaning softly on his shoulder right now, pleading with him to stand up.

“I’m sorry I scratched you,” Bucky says, his voice disappearing behind budding tears. God, what a night. “And I’m sorry I hit you and broke everything.” His voice is so small and trails up at the end like he’s waiting for Steve to jump in with his usual righteous indignation. But Steve doesn’t. Steve’s lips part around a silent, broken breath and a tear finally drops from those impossible eyelashes. “Pepper says we can pick new stuff, Steve.” Pepper masks her surprise even though no one is looking. Maybe they’ll personalize after all. “I’m sorry I hit you.”

It’s clear Bucky’s terrified Steve won’t forgive him, but Steve’s hand comes up underhand to caress Bucky’s hair, and Bucky scoots down to rest his head on Steve’s shoulder. Then he shifts to dig something out of his pocket.

“Do you want a smurf?” he asks. Steve nods. He watches Bucky splay something out across his metal palm: little blue figures with white or red hats. Pepper recognizes smurfs, of course. These must be what he’d had behind his bed. He hands Steve Papa Smurf. “That’s the only red one.” He nudges it so that it’s up and down, facing Steve. Steve closes his palm carefully around the little bearded figure. Bucky says, “We’re going to Pepper’s. She says we can watch a movie.”

He stands and helps Steve to his feet.

*

(Bucky has a dream after he falls asleep during the movie, on Pepper’s couch with his feet tucked under Steve’s butt. He dreams he comes home from a long day at the docks and Steve is cuddled in Bucky’s bed. It’s big Steve and little Steve, his Steve from before and now, and Bucky climbs into bed with him and he has two normal arms and he wraps Steve in them and it’s warm and nice.)

(Steve has a dream. He dreams he’s standing on a beach in Normandy and the wind is blowing so hard it’s like a tornado, and it stings his eyes and strips him down to the bone.)

*

Pepper pushes her meetings the next morning and has some fresh produce delivered to the suite. She keeps it stocked with dry goods, but she doesn’t stay here often enough for perishables. She orders two dozen eggs, three pounds of bacon, and a loaf of french bread. There’s flour for waffles, a few onions and potatoes for home-fries. She checks the fridge. There’s cream for coffee, and some raspberries to snack on, and stale popcorn from last night. Pepper likes stale popcorn for breakfast. Sue her.

She’s up first, so she gets the coffee going, and takes a minute while it brews to brace herself for the morning ahead. After they’d gotten to her suite last night, things had gone fairly smooth. Steve had commandeered the sofa right away and Pepper had had to cajole Bucky into the bathroom to take a look at his stitches. That hadn’t been fun. He’d been hesitant to leave Steve’s side and then mortified by the prospect of removing his shirt in front of Pepper, to the point of nearly another breakdown. She’d finally had to call Steve in to do it. She just isn’t ready to be talking through someone else’s body horror right now.

Pepper takes a deep breath in, soothed for a moment by the routine, morning smell of coffee. God, she’s just a walking cliché, isn’t she?

She’d called Tony afterwards, retreating to her bedroom after both the boys had passed out watching Snow White. (“We saw this!” Bucky had said. Steve still wasn’t really talking.)

Anyway, thank God for memory foam and egyptian cotton, is all Pepper can say. Tony was still up when she called. He hasn’t slept in two days. She knew working on Bucky was going to set him off and he never wants to admit when he’s bothered, like it’s normal to zip around the lab in an office chair for fifteen hours at a stretch building mini-drones out of paperclips or whatever the hell he was doing. It had been easy enough to leave at a moment’s notice when Jarvis had called because she’d been eating lo mein on the sofa by herself watching Basketball Wives. Is this coffee done yet? For the love of Mike.

Pepper waits faithfully for the coffee to brew because otherwise it drips on the burner and scorches on the pot. She gets mugs down for Steve and Bucky. A text message alerts her to her produce delivery - she hadn’t wanted strangers banging on the door to wake the boys, who are still curled on either end of the sofa, even though there’s a spare bedroom and the sofa pulls out. Pepper tips the staff member cash because it’s just nicer to get something you can hold in your hand than “I’ll add it to your paycheck.” Rather, “I’ll have Jarvis add it to your paycheck.” It’s the last of her cash, too, because she does have Jarvis do most things. She ought to have him send someone to the bank for her, later. She’s not going to have time, crunching all her meetings into half hour slots in the afternoon.

Pepper plugs in the electric griddle and spreads out all three pounds of bacon. She’s seen the way Bucky can eat.

*

Pepper makes an enormous breakfast and Bucky eats a ton of bacon and it’s good and there’s coffee and waffles and raspberries. And, Steve let Bucky stay near him on the couch even though...some stuff happened and Bucky did something, but also Bucky gave Steve a smurf. So he feels like today is a good day. Pepper wants him to pick out stuff, and she’s not mad and helped Bucky and made him feel better. All he has to do is figure out how to make Steve feel better and today will be a good day. Maybe.

Bucky eats another waffle and he takes the last raspberry and no one says anything or stops him, so today is good so far.

*

After breakfast, Pepper clears all the plates to the side and resumes her seat at the head of the table, this time with a pad of notebook paper. She already went over the morning itinerary with Bucky and Steve: breakfast first, then Talking, with a capital “T.” Bucky hadn’t been phased at all, but Steve is still looking ragged in a way a strong cup of coffee can’t cure. He sits sullenly, staring at the table, and his recalcitrance is making Bucky fidget, glancing anxiously between Steve and Pepper.

“Okay,” Pepper says lightly. “This meeting will now come to order.” This gets her a small smile from Bucky and, predictably, nothing from Steve.

“The incident last night made me think you two might have a few things to get off your chest?” Again, Bucky reacts, and Steve doesn’t. Bucky drops his gaze to the table, contrite. “So I want to take some time this morning to moderate a discussion where you both hear and respect what the other has to say. Bucky - “ she turns to him pointedly. “You seem to be doing better today, but you were very upset last night. Can you explain what you were feeling?”

Bucky doesn’t answer for a moment. Then, slowly; “I...was mad.”

Pepper nods. On the pad of paper under “Bucky,” she draws a bullet point and adds “mad.”

Bucky fidgets for a moment, and then he says quietly, “You’re writing it.”

“Is that okay?”

He bites his lip, then says “You’re writing what I said.”

“Because what you say is important, Bucky, and it’s worth writing down.”

He stares hard across the table at nothing, and then wiggles in his chair. His shoulders draw up and a small smile plays about his lips in a way that’s just frankly adorable and heartbreaking at the same time. He tilts his head to look at the pad and Pepper turns it towards him. Steve is watching them now. Bucky points to his name. He says, “It says ‘Bucky.’” He traces down to the bullet point. “‘Mad.’ Because I was mad.” He sounds gleeful. Pepper turns the pad back to herself.

“Can you explain why you were mad?”

Bucky is practically vibrating in his seat, but he thinks it over carefully. “I was mad. Because. I had to get my tracking chips out.”

This answer surprises Pepper - it certainly hadn’t been what he’d expressed last night, but she writes it down without question with a second bullet point nested under “mad.”

“Why did that make you mad?”

“Because I didn’t want it, I didn’t want them out.”

Steve’s chair scrapes a bit as he plants both feet on the floor. “Bucky-” he starts, prepared to argue, but Pepper holds up her hand and says “Steve.” His jaw snaps shut but she can tell from years of working with people that his ears have already turned off. She adds another bullet point and says out loud as she writes, “Did not want tracking chips out. Why is that, Bucky?”

“Because they’re not supposed to come out! They’re supposed to stay in!”

“They had to come out, Bucky.”

“Steve-” Pepper warns, but he steam rollers over her.

“They rigged you with explosives-”

“They were supposed to stay in!”

“-they were wrapped around your spinal column, they-”

“You had scissors, and you didn’t ask,” Bucky shouts, and that shuts Steve up for a second. Only a second. He crosses his arms and squares his jaw.

“They had to come out, Buck. It’s not up for debate.”

“Okay,” Pepper says, spreading her hands between them. There are some issues here that need to be addressed but she personally can’t move forward until she touches on one: “Bucky, did no one discuss your procedures with you beforehand?” She knows Tony did.  She doesn’t know, but she knows he did, he would never-

Bucky looks at her blankly.

“Did Tony talk to you about what he and Bruce had to do?”

His forehead creases in confusion. “He...did, he said -” Bucky cuts himself off, getting lost in thought.

“Did you know that you could say no?” she asks gently. Bucky’s eyes brim with tears and he clutches the edge of the table like he’s forming a barrier around himself.

“I...can’t - “

Steve explodes out of his chair. “No! There is no way, Bucky. It’s already done- “

“Steve!” Pepper shouts and he bellows back “Stop!” Both of them are standing but Bucky is sitting in confused horror, gripping the table.

“SHIELD put those there, they fucking lied about it, they -” Steve has to stop suddenly to catch his breath and he sways like he’s dizzy. Pepper takes the opportunity to try to placate. They won’t get anywhere like this.

“Steve, I understand that you feel very strongly about being lied to, and about the tracking chips. I agree that SHIELD shouldn’t have done that.” Steve deflates a little and he sits back down. Pepper follows suit.

“Bucky,” she continues. He’s pale as a corpse. “Steve feels very strongly that SHIELD shouldn’t have put those tracking chips in in the first place. SHIELD has been very dangerous before, and Steve was worried. Okay?”

Bucky nods stiffly.

“But it sounds like you think you didn’t have a say, and that’s not okay. Okay? That’s our fault that we didn’t communicate with you in a way that you would understand, that we would respect your body. Okay?” She can’t be sure Bucky’s really hearing her. He nods again but says nothing.

“What could we have done differently to make you feel safe?”

Bucky struggles with the words that seem to not want to come out and all come out at the same time. “Why - wh - but -” His shoulders are shaking.

“One thought at a time,” Pepper tells him. He swallows hard and composes himself.

“Why do you not want a tracker? To find me? You don’t want it?”

Steve buries his face in his hands.

“We do want to be able to find you. But we don’t want there to be things in your body that you didn’t ask for, especially things that could hurt you. And SHIELD put them there without asking, for their own self interest. That’s why Steve is upset.”

Bucky points to the forgotten notepad. Pepper adds a column for Steve and writes “mad,” then “SHIELD didn’t ask,” and “SHIELD lied.”

“But Steve didn’t ask,” Bucky says, when she’s finished. Steve’s hands drop to the table with an angry smack, and he says “You don’t answer!”

“Okay,” Pepper intercedes. Bucky is stricken. He looks at Pepper and she tells him, “This is not your fault.” Steve pushes back in his chair so hard it jerks the table, and he paces away with his hands raked through his hair. Her PharmaCorp negotiations are going to be a walk in the park compared to this.

 

They end up having to call a timeout to cool off. Steve is stuck in a righteous rut about the trackers and can’t see the problem in how he handled it. Bucky has only the barest concept of what he’s allowed to communicate, and it doesn’t include much in the way of bodily autonomy at all. The whole thing has Pepper exhausted and sick at heart. She needs to put on her face for work soon and pretend to competitors nothing is wrong. She manages to take Bucky aside for a moment before she has to shower and get changed.

“We’re going to talk more about this tonight, okay?”

His lips compress slightly like he’s annoyed.

“I know, he can be hard headed, can’t he,” Pepper says.

Bucky mutters, “Like a brick wall.”

She rubs his arm in a way she hopes is reassuring, and squeezes his elbow lightly. “He loves you, and he’s scared to death, okay?”

“He’s gonna get in trouble.”

“Steve? With SHIELD?”

Bucky nods.

“Honey, SHIELD’s not the boss. They’re not even allies, right now.”

Pepper takes a chance and goes a step further. “How would you feel if SHIELD put trackers in Steve without asking?” The look he gives her is like she’d suggested they roast Steve on a spit. She looks him in the eye until she’s sure he gets it. He deflates and looks away.

“If you want, you can try to talk things out, but I think you should take a break for awhile. Oh,” she remembers, “Tony wants you to pick out, I think it was pressure sensors for the elevator or something?” His face smooths out like she’s caught him pleasantly off guard. “He says you’d know which kind would work best. Will you be able to do that with Jarvis today?”

He nods, and she gives him the biggest smile she can manage. “Great.” There’s one more thing. “Bucky,” she says, and waits until he hears how serious she is. “We would do everything it takes to find you, if something happened. You know that, right? Steve would tear the world apart.”

Bucky heaves a weary sigh, but he leans against her hand briefly before moving away. It looks like a small weight has been lifted from his shoulders.

 

Steve is another conversation. Pepper corners him after she’s had a shower, dressed, and done her make up.

“Do you have someone you can talk to?” She asks him seriously with every ounce of dominating energy she has. It takes a strong hand to deal with Steve Rogers. He mutters “I’m fine.”

She steps aggressively into his line of vision and holds unwavering eye contact. “Who do you have who you can call?”

He looks away first and stares at the floor. “I’ll call Sam.”

“Good. Do it by tonight.”

Today turned into a crap day. And it’s only eleven o’clock. Steve is being a smelly fart! Bucky scrolls through the series of pressure sensors Jarvis has compiled, but they’re all crappy, first of all, and enormous. A baby could disable them. Then Bucky thinks of a baby assassin crawling up through the electrical cavity with pliers and it stops him short. It’s ridiculous. And the baby has a head-lamp flashlight and a nozh razvedchika between its teeth but it only has two teeth on the bottom because it’s a baby. He thinks about the baby rigging the sensors. Biting the knife. Like a pirate. With a nefarious scheme. He’s going to draw a picture of Ubiytsa Rebenok for Steve because it will piss him off. Steve won’t like Assassin Baby even though it’s funny.

Anyway maybe Bucky will just have to build his own sensors somehow. Maybe Tony would let him use the lab to build a good sensor. But Tony could build a better one than Bucky. Bucky stabs the down arrow to scroll through more sensors. He’s on the desktop computer in Pepper’s spare room and he’s listening to music that Jarvis picked, which is all instruments and was written before Bucky was born which was almost a hundred years ago, so, pretty old.

“When’s my birthday, Jarvis?” Bucky asks.

“The tenth of March, sir, 1917.”

Jarvis always calls him “sir.” No one ever called Bucky “sir,” unless...something. Unless, a table... And flowers. Or not flowers. And...a person. People. Other people.

Anyway, Bucky is going to throw an enormous party for his one hundredth birthday, and he’s not going to invite Steve until the last minute. He’s going to make Steve think he’s not invited, until the last minute. And then he’ll invite him. But, Bucky doesn’t have any friends anymore. He used to have a lot of friends. But he guesses they’re old and died by now. And forgot about him. He’s not going to be one hundred for...another year and a half, so he has to make a ton of friends by then, to make Steve jealous.

Maybe this revenge is too long term.

A date! That’s what he was thinking of, when someone called him “sir,” and he was sitting at a table with his date. And his date had...red lips. And big...bosoms. Heh heh heh. Bucky taps the down arrow as he pretends to chuckle. He dated dames with big jugs, that’s what James Buchanan Barnes liked.

Except not all the time. Sometimes he liked little jugs. Or no jugs. This makes him feel sad, a little bit, because he’s thinking of Steve when he was little and skinny and liked Bucky because he wasn’t stupid and messed up like now. Now he’s messed up and scratched Steve and can’t think straight anymore. Bucky Barnes used to have a lot of friends. And people liked him. Now no one likes him. If they liked him, they wouldn’t be so mean. They wouldn’t do stuff and take his memories, and this makes stupid Bucky want to punch the computer because he thought Alex was his friend who liked him. But he wasn’t. He was a liar. And he didn’t care about Bucky. He said, “why do you do these things to make me have to hurt you?” What an asshole, Alex was a super asshole. He had a face like a cat’s butt. Even though Bucky scratched Steve, Steve let him say sorry and stay near him on the sofa and watch a movie. So maybe Bucky would invite him to his birthday. He wouldn’t play a trick.

But he will draw Ubiytsa Rebenok because it’s funny.

Actually some of these pressure sensors are okay, so Bucky picks the best kind, and then asks Jarvis to show some heat sensors too because they work from a distance and are subtle and difficult to navigate. It’s unlikely an assassin will come up the electrical cavity, but Bucky’s not going to slack on the job. Maybe he can have an old people party, with his friends from the 40’s. He’d better not wait for a year and a half, because they might die by then.

*

Steve is stewing. He may not be the most self-aware guy, but he knows that’s what he’s doing. He recognizes it because he used to do it a lot. He’s a grade A grudge holder, he knows that. It’s being laid up, at least in part. He's used to being able to blow off steam, go for a jog, to the gym, or anything, and he forgot how frustrating it is to have nothing to do but fester in a bad mood. Pepper had worked a fucking miracle for him last night, he has no right being pissed off at her. Pepper, in her five thousand dollar business suit she keeps in her spare apartment in her personal highrise in Manhattan.

What the fuck! What the hell is wrong with him? He scrubs at his temples and the corners of his eyes. He’d promised he’d call Sam, and he will. But it’s too much to admit that she’s right, that he should call Sam, and should have a while ago. Feeling like he does right now he’s going to bite Sam’s head off for no reason. He hasn’t felt like this since before the serum. This...what? Idiotically cranky. And useless. Jesus.

Steve is ducked over his knees on the edge of the couch. He’s been dizzy all day. And his wounds must not be healing up right because there’s this tightness in his chest and stomach that’s just not right. He forces himself to take a breath, drops his hands from where they’re clutching at the back of his head. He’s being stupid. He curls up on his side and draws his feet onto the couch. He’s such a dip.

He doesn’t want to talk to Sam. He should want to talk to Sam. He’s a good guy. He’s solid. Steve knows he’d drop everything he’s doing at a moment’s notice and shoot up here if Steve asked him. But Steve doesn’t want him to.

A shooting pain lances through his body and he still feels dizzy even though he’s lying down. He feels lightheaded, and it’s hard to breathe. The last time he felt like this - when he would feel like this - that’s when Buck would start to fuss and sit him down and start digging around for his asthma cigarettes. Steve would try to shrug him off, but he always - it was -

Steve’s heart is pounding in his chest. His hands and feet feel numb and there’s just this...darkness closing in around him like it’s pushing the air out of the room. He misses Bucky. He misses Bucky so much. Bucky’s in the next room over and it’s never - going - it’s never, it will never -

He’s never going to be the man you knew, Nat said.

He knows that. He knows that.

He knows that.

But he misses his friend so badly it’s literally killing him. That’s how it feels.

The door to the guest room slams open and Steve has to pull himself together right the fuck now. He can’t let Bucky see him like this. Somehow, that doesn’t lead to actually moving. Steve holds his breath and opens his eyes and hopes Bucky somehow just won’t notice.

It works and it doesn’t. It works because Bucky staggers out of the bedroom, careens into one of Pepper’s stupid end tables, knocking over a statue he barely manages to catch and set right. He weaves his way over to Steve and Steve is so out of it that as Bucky crumples towards him, Steve just opens his arms to catch him, and Bucky folds himself into the space Steve created, huddled there, shivering like a little bird. One that weighs three hundred pounds and had its bones sawed open and bracketed with vibranium alloy.

Steve just holds him to his chest. He can barely feel his arms, but he can feel Bucky. He’s warm, and solid. He’s choking on sobs he doesn’t want to let out, and dimly, Steve wonders what could have happened shopping for pressure sensors that led to this. Bucky’s never come to him like this before. Steve doesn’t even have the presence of mind to ask. He’s still dizzy. He just holds him.

Eventually Bucky starts trying to tell him something that sounds like a string of vowels steeped in snot. Steve tries to remember how to use words and eventually manages, “What?” His voice sounds far away in his own ears.

Bucky sniffles a couple of times and then coughs. He says “I was planning my birthday. And I wanted to invite - “ he breathes heavily - “old people. From before.”

Shit. Yeah, it sucked looking up people you used to know. Steve numbly tries to stroke Bucky’s hair but just sort of scrunches his fingers instead.

“And I looked for Eddie. O’Hare.”

O’Hare. Christ. That was a gal Bucky used to run with back in the day. She’d been...she’d been a pisser, a real piece of work.

Steve’s pretty sure he knows where this story is going. He’s been there a dozen times himself.

“She died,” Bucky cries. Yeah. Most of them had. Steve doesn’t know if it’s better or worse, if it was harder or easier, the people you’d known being gone, or so utterly altered, aged in an instant - if it would have been easier to not have seen Peggy, to just know she’d had a long, happy life and had gotten through okay.

Bucky crunches up smaller in his lap, taking pained, uneven breaths. “She died.”

Steve tries to stroke his hair.

“I was supposed to - I was - “ He chokes on his words and writhes, scraping his face on Steve’s shirt and twisting until the crown of his head is tucked under Steve’s arm. Then he catches his breath, panting weakly. “Why did that happen?” he whispers.

“People just get old, Buck,” Steve tells him. There’s nothing else to say.

But it’s the wrong thing to say because Bucky’s eyes clench shut and he digs his feet into the cushions, gripping Steve’s bicep hard enough to bruise for a moment. “I was in Zhitkur. She died, I was in - I was in the hole.”

A cold blankness settles over Steve. “When?”

“‘47.”

She would have been 29. God damn it. “I’m sorry, Bucky.”

Buck buries his face in Steve’s armpit. “I was supposed to - she wasn’t - she was supposed to have a happy life.”

“I’m sorry, Bucky. I know. I’m sorry.”

Bucky launches into another bout of inconsolable crying that seizes his whole body. Steve presses his cheek to Buck’s hair.

“I was scared to get the surgery,” Bucky cries softly. Steve draws very still. “I was scared and you didn’t care.”

Steve feels sick in the pit of his stomach. What the hell is wrong with him? What the hell is wrong with him that he didn’t even think, he didn’t think, of course Bucky wouldn’t, of course he would -

Steve presses his head to Buck’s shoulder, the real, human shoulder he was born with. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” What the hell is the matter with him? He squeezes Bucky and holds him for a long time. He’s so sorry. He rocks back and forth. “I wasn’t thinking,” he whispers. “I was - “ Terrified. Horrified. Of what SHIELD could do. Of what they could and would stoop to. “I just didn’t think,” he says.

They stay that way for a long time. Bucky smells like skin, and sweat, and person, like himself. He smells like Bucky. He smells like Bucky always smelled, but there’s the undertone of oil, now; electric heat and metal. Steve loves him, and misses him, and hurts for him all at the same time. He didn’t know it was possible to feel this way about another person. He didn’t know it was possible to feel this way at all.

“I know that you couldn’t...come for me, that’s why,” Bucky says. “I know you couldn’t. But I didn’t know, before.”

“I’m sorry, Bucky. I’m so sorry.” Steve is crying. It feels like he’ll never stop. He doesn’t want to. Years that Steve doesn’t even remember, Bucky waited for him, and tried to hold on. Everything this body could do - it wasn’t enough, was it? On the Valkyrie, it was his spirit that gave out, his will that couldn’t take it. He doesn’t know that it could have been different. He hadn’t known Bucky could have survived. What if Steve had lived and never made it to Triskelion? What if he’d never fought the Winter Soldier, what if he’d never seen his face? How can this be as good as it gets, how can this be lucky?

Bucky shifts out of his arms, and now it’s Steve folded against Bucky. Now it’s Bucky kissing Steve’s hair as Steve cries. It’s not fair that they never went home, that they didn’t die, but everything else did. Candace and Judy and Marlene and Verda. O’Harrigan’s Deli and Bucky’s Ma’s building that got mold every summer. Eddie O’Hare and her drunken pop. Eddie, who taught Bucky everything he knew about eating pussy, according to him, according to a Bucky who would never walk the earth ever again, to a Steve who was gone - long gone. They would never have that ever again. Bucky would never button his cuffs like that. He would never stoop for the mirror. He would never try to find Steve a date, say “She don’t got a lick of sense,” and Steve would never treat a gal to a day at the Bowery. He would never get his dance with Peggy, not with the Peggy he’d known, who could give as good as she got and had her whole life ahead of her. He’d never paint another sign for Murphy’s or surprise his ma with a cross rib from Delaney’s. The first gal to ever put lips on his dick is a grandmother now, if she’s even alive, and Steve remembers her, just a few years ago, and she don’t remember him. Why would she? Something that was so long ago. Eddie O’Hare had been a pain in his ass, and he’d worried Buck would knock her up and mess up his whole life. Now, if only he could’ve had the chance to muck up a life with Eddie. Steve would give his whole life to give Bucky the chance to wreck his on sad, lonely Eddie O’Hare.

“I’m sorry, Bucky. I’m so sorry.”

The O’Hares didn’t have money to spend on a burial plot, so Bucky and Steve bring flowers down to Owl’s Head Park, near Eddie’s old neighborhood. They get their pick of cars from Tony’s garage, but Buck sets his sights on the motorcycle, nothing flashy, that Steve suspects Tony (Pepper) got specifically to appeal to Steve, to try to lure him in here more. Well, it works on Bucky. Steve gets the keys and tosses Buck a black visor helmet. Buck puts it on for about eight seconds, still as a statue, then whips it off like it’s full of spiders. His look is one of burgeoning betrayal: he’ll wear it if Steve says he has to. Steve doesn’t have it in him to betray Bucky the slightest amount. He sets both the helmets on the handlebars of the next bike over.

 

This is the way to travel, as far as Steve’s concerned. You can see all the way around you, you can take in what’s going on, and Bucky’s wrapped warm up behind him like an octopus, ankle to elbow, with his head tucked down along Steve’s shoulder like he’ll just take a nap while they’re stuck in traffic. He can’t get back the last 75 years, but he has this, right now.

They cruise over the Brooklyn Bridge, past Greenwood, where no one Steve ever knew could afford to be buried. They split off 278 to the parkway and loop past the septic plant. It’s a nice little park, for what it is. A lot nicer than it used to be. Steve hasn’t been here since the 30’s, when it had been a “project” for over a decade, and mostly a dump for old junk. Steve had come scrounging a time or two and apparently Buck had come down here with Eddie.

They climb the hill and look out over the Narrows. They share a cigarette like old times (that Buck bummed off a kid wearing a wool hat in summer, carrying a “skateboard,”) and they set the flowers at the foot of a poplar. They rest on a bench and just sit still for a moment. (“I’m old, I need to sit down,” Buck said.)

It’s a nice afternoon. The sun has that golden, late summer quality, and the air is crisper than it’s been, with the approaching fall. Bucky sits quietly beside him. After a while, he scoots a sneakered foot over so that his ankle touches Steve’s. Steve lifts his ankle over Buck’s and tugs his foot closer.

“Better hope the rag don’t catch you smoking cigarettes and playing footsie with a fella, Rogers,” Bucky warns.

“The rag can suck my dick.”

Bucky’s eyes go comically wide and he says, scandalized, “Steven Grant!”

Steve tilts until his shoulder knocks Bucky’s. Then he might as well stay there, leaning. Bucky smokes quietly, and offers it to Steve. Steve angles his head to take a drag right from his hand. It’s the most peaceful he’s felt since...he doesn’t know how long. Maybe ever.

 

The sun’s getting low as they’re leaving the park. The air is the perfect temperature. Steve spots a vendor scooping italian ice, and he digs in his pocket for some cash.

“What flavor do you want?”

Lemon,” Buck says, like it’s the only favor. He stands with his gloved hand in his pocket, in the shade. He’s still not crazy about standing near people, so he won’t go near the cart. Steve heads over alone to check out what other flavors they have.

He turns his back for two minutes.

*

It wasn’t such a bad day after all. Buck feels sad about Eddie, but it’s the kind of sad you can get used to, something happened so long ago, you couldn’t have stopped it no matter what. Bucky remembers wanting to marry Eddie. Not the way you want to marry a dame, but the way you marry a friend, and keep them close to you and take care of them. Bucky had wanted to marry Steve back then, too.

The light’s hitting Steve’s golden head in a way that just takes your breath away. He’s peering into the cart to pick a flavor - kid’s had a sweet tooth since the day he was born, and always worrying he was gonna choose wrong, that the flavor he didn’t get was going to be the flavor he wanted most. Back in the day, Bucky just wanted to buy him every flavor. He wanted to buy him the whole shop.

A very old man ambles slowly down the path. His face is bruised down one side and he leans heavily on a cane. As he nears Bucky, he says, “Dobroye slovo i koshke priyatno,” and something just leaves Bucky.  He doesn't know what.  It goes right out of him.

The old man puts his hand on Bucky’s elbow and guides him to the street. A nondescript car pulls up; a minivan. There are men waiting inside. The door slides open, and the old man - Korjev, the soldier remembers - asks him kindly to get in.

The soldier complies.

The door slides shut.

They drive away while Steve chooses a flavor.

End Part I

Chapter Text

PART II

 

Bucky doesn’t want to be in the car. He wants to be back at the park, with Steve. He wants to get an italian ice. He wants the lemon flavor.

"Give me your arm," Korjev says, in Russian. Little Tolik, he’s so old now. He makes the soldier’s blood run cold. ”Please. Now.” He makes a gesture with his fingers and the soldier extends his arm. “Khoroshiy mal’chik,” he murmurs. Good boy.

With gnarled, arthritic fingers, he rolls the soldier’s sleeve to the crook of his elbow. He takes his time. They stop in traffic. They go again. There’s a horrible feeling, like a worm, slithering, cold in the soldier’s stomach. He knows better than to cry, here and now, in front of Anatoly. He knows better than to whimper. But he wants to.

Anatoly makes the gesture again, the give to me, please, and one of the men in TAC vests hands him a syringe.

Ne dvigaysya.Hold still.

He slides the needle into the soldiers arm and slowly depresses the syringe. The old man removes the needle and rubs his thumb over the pinprick of blood.  A heavy numbness spreads through the soldier’s body. Korjev pats the soldier’s wrist gently. Kind. “Da, you remember your Tolik, don’t you,” he says. The soldier wants to vomit.

Korjev hands back the syringe, and the other man exchanges it for a heavy set of metal cuffs. Korjev gestures him closer. The cuffs are too heavy for him to do, now. The soldier flinches as the stranger draws close, but Korjev says sternly, “Ne dvigaysya,” so the soldier lets the strange man fit him into the cuffs that encase each forearm, wrist to elbow, in front of his chest.

A phone rings. They’re merging onto the Verrazano-Narrows towards Staten Island. The phone keeps ringing. It rings again. The stranger shoves the soldier’s elbow out of the way and jostles him, digging into his pocket for the ringing phone. Tiny Steve is in that pocket. Tiny Steve is in there. The soldier wants to cry. He feels cold and heavy and sick.

The stranger checks the screen and shows it to his friend, another stranger. He doesn’t show Anatoly.

“Rogers,” the stranger says.

“Ditch it?”

The first stranger thinks it over. The soldier is watching them. Anatoly watches him. The soldier’s breath is frozen in his chest.

“Keep it,” the first stranger says. “We can use it to lure him in.”

To lure him in the stranger said. To lure Steve in. To get him.

They’re crossing the Narrows, over the bridge. Their car is flanked by two more cars, with people inside with gear and guns. The soldier is cold and heavy. His vision is going grey.

Be a good boy for Tolik,” Korjev says. He pats the soldier’s knee and squeezes it lightly.

We can use it to lure him in.

The light glints sharply off the cars speeding along the other side of the bridge. The sun pools in through the van’s tinted window. It’s warm on the soldier’s lap. There are four men in the car with him. Anatoly, two strangers, the driver. There is one more man, called “Bucky,” and Tiny Steve. The soldier’s body is heavy. It doesn’t want to move.

The phone rings again. The stranger shuts it off. The soldier lurches.

He jerks his elbow into Korjev’s face.  He feels the teeth crack. He feels the skull splinter and push into the brain. Blood comes out.

He lunges for the strangers in TAC vests. They can’t reach their weapons. They’re not fast enough. The soldier can’t use his arms but they didn’t cover his face. He sinks his teeth into the stranger’s throat and tears it out. He kicks the other against the door. He kicks his head. The window breaks. The head is smushed. It’s gone.

There’s blood. It tastes like pennies. It tastes like the playground, falling off the monkey bars and fighting other boys. It tastes like August and golden sun.

The van swerves. It tosses Bucky against the headless body, and then they’re reamed from behind as moving traffic collides and screeches to a burning, crunching stop. Bucky pushes with his legs against the seat. Tinted glass crunches around him and he falls from the window, heavy, onto his back. People are getting out of their cars. Strangers with guns are getting out.

Bucky staggers to his feet. He lurches for the railing. The water is a long way down. It looks silver. Like metal. Like cold. Like fear and dying.

The strangers are aiming their weapons. They’re shouting and moving in fast and low. The soldier leans back against the railing. He sees them aiming to wound, to capture.

Bucky thrusts himself over the edge. He thinks, “At least I know I can survive a fall.”

*

Steve turns around, and Bucky’s gone. There’s a violent spike of panic through his chest, but he reins it in. He doesn’t see Bucky right now, that doesn’t mean he’s gone. He went to the bathroom. He’s behind a tree. He’s not gone.

Steve has an italian ice in each hand, lemon for Bucky, and watermelon. They’re in striped cups with plastic spoons. Bucky is around here somewhere. Steve only turned his back for a minute. Nothing happened. Bucky’s probably fucking with him.

Bucky isn’t behind the tree. There’s a group of kids near the bathroom, so he isn’t over there. Steve’s breath is getting short and shallow, but he knows he’s overreacting. He was getting italian ice! Bucky was here a second ago. Don’t be a chump, alright?

Steve sets the ices down on the ground and his hands are shaking so badly, one spills. He fumbles for his phone in his pocket and has to swipe three times before the screen unlocks. It feels like the ground is spinning. He wants to puke. He’s being a fucking idiot. He keys into his contacts and hits “Bucky.” He waits. He glances around - maybe he’ll hear Bucky’s phone go off.

He doesn’t. The ring tone sounds four times and then cuts out. The ground lurches beneath Steve’s feet. He only turned around for a second. He only left for a second, he only -

It feels like it’s getting dark in the park, and his ears are ringing. He calls Bucky again and it only rings once. It only rings one time and then stops. Steve calls again and it goes straight to voicemail.

His breath is caught in his lungs. He can only take short breaths in and nothing’s coming out. He loses his balance and has to brace himself against his knees. Bucky was here, he left him right here. He turned around for a second.

Steve knows people are looking at him. He doesn’t know what to do. He’s going to fall over. He has to find Bucky. He doesn’t know where Bucky is. He’s going to puke. He’s going to cry. He’s going to have a heart attack right here. How could he be so stupid? How could he leave Bucky alone out here?

There’s a noise. It comes from far away. Screeching. Metal. Thump, from a long ways away. There’s been an accident. On the Verrazano-Narrows. The sound carried across the water to the park, big accident, a wreck. Before he knows what he’s doing Steve is sprinting for the bike, burning rubber around children in the lot, hauling ass for the Narrows like his life depends on it.

In his mind, it does.

 *

Bucky hits the water and sinks like a rock. The impact drives the air from his lungs and completely fucks up his ankles, which he has to ignore because they’re all he has to swim with. At least he’s wearing tennis shoes instead of combat boots and he’s able to kick them off while the spotlight of sun on the water gets smaller and smaller overhead. His lungs are already burning. The drugs are still making him sluggish. The cuffs are thirty pounds of solid metal and he can’t get out and he can’t use his arms. He’s not built to go in the water, and he already knows he’s fucked.

He kicks anyway, a paddleboard motion so he never loses upward thrust, but though the surface isn’t getting farther away, it isn’t getting closer, either. He remembers now, jumping into the water after Steve, the dead weight bulk of him, the agony in his broken arm, the sucking pull of the combat boots in the water, the desperate, absolute need to get to the surface, to get Steve to the surface. It’s possible to swim like that, when you’re half made of metal and every single odd is stacked against you. But you have to really want it.

Bucky really wants it now - to live. He really wants it. Surviving is the only thing he’s really good at, the only thing he can’t help doing, no matter what. And he wants to live. He wants to see Steve again so bad. That spot of light up top’s not getting any closer. His vision’s going red and black. It hurts like fire in his chest. He wants to live. He doesn’t want to die down here, in the dark, alone. He wants to be with Steve again, to see Steve one last time.

But sometimes wanting something isn’t enough.

It hardly ever is.

*

Morse sees the target go over - Hydra advancing, weapons enough to give The Banner a boner - and the target backs up to the railing, and then a little jump, like it’s nothing, pitches backwards off the bridge, so far away it’s silent, like it couldn’t have possibly just happened.

Morse presses her earpiece in close. “I need eyes on the water, ASAP,” she yells. Fuck. She can’t make a jump like that and still keep her spine. And she can’t take on the leftover Hydra agents on her own either. Jesus, the back of that van had exploded with blood! The cars behind are painted in it.

She hears the roar of the cloaked craft soar under the bridge and hover. They’d been waiting - she’d called it in as soon as she’d seen the old man lead the soldier away.

“We’ve got eyes on the target,” she hears over the comm. “Extraction imminent. Morse, rendezvous Casper. Over.”

“Roger that,” she says. She inches her bike around, then takes off down the shoulder. Traffic’s gonna be gridlocked for the next five hours. She hears the wail of sirens in the distance.

It’s a shame, she thinks. Barnes had been having a nice day. If anyone deserved it, it was probably that guy.

*

Steve gets to the bridge and there’s nothing there but a smear of blood and three bodies in the back of a minivan that looks like the inside of a slaughterhouse.

No driver. No bullet casings. No witnesses, nothing worth shit: people, smoke, guns; got out of cars, got into cars, drove away. Maybe someone fell off the bridge. Steve can’t even feel his hands as he pulls out his phone. He drops it. He picks it up. Drops it again. He picks it up. He can barely see it.

“Siri,” he says. “Call Jarvis.” He doesn’t even recognize his own voice.

Jarvis answers before it rings.

“I need cameras near the Verazzano. Traffic, last five minutes. Westbound. Find -” he stutters. “Find them.”

“Yes, sir,” Jarvis says.

*

Sam’s just getting out of work when his phone goes off. He keeps it on vibrate during the day and it startles him every time, that buzz on his ass like there’s a bee in his back pocket. It’s Steve, the screen says. About damn time!

“I was starting to think you lost my number,” Sam says.

There’s nothing over the line but the sound of ragged breathing.

“Steve?”

Sam ducks around the side of the building to get away from the traffic outside. The breathing takes on a sort of urgent, whistling quality, and markedly more going in than out.

“Hey, Rogers. I need you to hold your breath.”

The whistling stops. Sam counts to five.

“Now let it out. Hold it.” He counts to five again. “Now breathe in. Take a look around. Tell me where you are.”

Steve lets out the breath explosively and says “Brooklyn. I’m in Brooklyn. On the bridge.” He pants and holds his breath again. He’s obviously struggling to hold it together. Sam digs in his pockets for his keys and starts jogging for his car. He doesn’t like Steve standing on a bridge in Brooklyn, sounding like this. He doesn’t like Steve sounding like this at all, but particularly not someplace he can reach terminal velocity before hitting the ground. Or the water. Same thing at that kind of height.

“Are you someplace you can sit down?”

No. They took - they took -”

“Breathe, Steve.”

“Just get here,” Steve snaps. “The Tower.” He ends the call, and Sam has to stare at it for a moment to make sure it says “disconnected” instead of “caller died” or something.

“I’m on my way,” he says to no one, and gets in the car.

 *

Police try to pull Steve over speeding, and tail him all the way back to Manhattan. He ignores them, and traffic lights, and oncoming traffic, and ditches the bike on the Tower sidewalk to let security deal with it, and they can deal with the cops too, and they can send him a fucking bill. He commandeers his own elevator and bodily throws other people off of it and tells Jarvis to override the stops for the floors they had already punched in.

“Get Natasha back here, and Clint, if you can. Is Tony here?”

“He is on his way, sir. I identified two suspicious vehicles westbound off the Narrows and deployed two tracking drones to maintain surveillance.” Tony has fucking tracking drones - good. As long as the megolomania is on his fucking side for once, Steve doesn’t care. “How else can I assist?” Jarvis asks.

Assist. Assist. “Turn the air on?” Steve says. A moment later the AC blasts full. He gulps it down. “I need a shield.”

*

Bucky wakes up before the drugs have left his system, he can tell. They’re designed to last a long time. His arms are still bound. He’s flat on his back on a table. There’s a bright light overhead. It’s so white it’s almost blue. He’s not dead. In a second, he thinks, he’ll wish he were.

The noise is the hum of electrical, and aircraft. There’s a slight, subtle movement that says they’re in the air. Bucky tips his head to the side as far as he’s able, and throws up. It splatters onto the floor, dribbles from the corner of his mouth, down his jaw and the side of his neck. He’s not flat on his back, actually. He’s in a chair, leaning back. It’s hard to tell with the drugs in his system whether he’s strapped down or not.

The pressurized door wheezes open and a shape comes in. Bucky blinks hard and tries to breathe. The shape resolves into a man. It resolves into Phil Coulson in a light grey suit. Phil stretches his lips in a thin, pleasant smile and says benignly, “Mr. Barnes.  You’re very lucky.”

Bucky’s stomach revolts again and he pukes bile onto his shoulder.

Yeah, he thinks. He’s Lucky Bucky.

Chapter Text

There was one survivor on the bridge - the old man. Steve, being in no state to be involved in this in any way whatsoever, hadn’t even noticed the man was still alive, which, all things considered, is fortunate because he would have finished the job the Winter Soldier had started. And it was definitely the Winter Soldier: Nat had visited the morgue to see the other bodies, waiting for the third man to come out of what must have been touch and go emergency surgery. Sure, Steve is in a state, but there’s a reason he thought the guy was dead.

Nat is wearing a blue knitted cardigan and stonewashed jeans, with a blue tank top. In fact, she’s wearing all blue, with blue knock-off Vans and a touch of blue eyeshadow to boot. She’d have done her nails but it was overkill on a tight timeline while Steve and Clint scope out the model home the drones had tracked Hydra to, which Nat already knows will be empty. Hydra knows Tony owns New York. There’s no way they didn’t know they were being followed. The point in the boys going was more to run Steve out and make him feel useful until hopefully Sam can talk him down. There isn’t the tiniest chance in hell Steve will sit this one out like he should, and they need someone on damage control. Natasha checks her pink, square wristwatch. It’ll be another hour at least, even with the way Sam drives.

The old man’s been out of surgery long enough, but they won’t be allowing visitors in ICU on a John Doe. Nat stands around the corner from the emergency entrance and takes a few deep, brisk breaths. She jogs in place, shakes out her hands, and then bursts into the ED in grief-stricken panic, sobbing “Moy dedushka, moy dedushka!” She’s banking on no one on hand speaking competent Russian and she’s right.

“My grandfather,” she cries, in her thickest, most commercial accent. “I think he is brought to this place. I hear he is in…” She pretends to search for the word. She bumps her fists together and then blasts her fingers outward. “...big car, on bridge.”

Her “dedushka” was involved in a violent, bloody homicide that involved his face getting smashed in, another guy's head getting smashed off, and a third guy’s throat getting ripped out obviously by human teeth, but it’s not the hospital’s job to worry about that. She’ll have about ten minutes to suss out any kind of lead before the police arrive, and to be honest, it’s a long shot.

It takes some hysterics but eventually they let her in to ID the victim. From there she’s able to beg a few moments of “piracy,” she tells the doctor. The door closes, the tears dry up, and she surveys a body that’s about 24 hours away from being a corpse. She’s not new to the head smashing business, and John Doe will not be springing back from this one. His entire face is black with bruises. Bandages around his head suggest his skull has been trepanated to relieve pressure. The nasal bone had been smashed into the frontal lobe, just shy of killing him outright. Drugs is the only answer there. The Winter Soldier would never miss a basic kill like that otherwise.

Nat’s almost surprised the doctors bought that she recognized him as her dear old granddad, because there’s not a lot to recognize. Still. She draws in closer. She looks at his gnarled and arthritic hands. There’s an inexplicable...the Black Widow won’t describe it as queasiness. This man is basically dead. There’s something… There’s something bad. The tears she’d dredged up to scam her way in here are suddenly pricking at the backs of her eyes unbidden, and there’s a coldness to the room she hadn’t felt before. Something seriously is not right.

She knows this man. She knows she knows him. It makes her sick to her stomach, and she doesn’t know why. She searches for a memory and it’s like clawing through a gaping void, like when there’s a word on the edge of your tongue and you can’t think of it for the life of you, except if you think of the word it will rip you apart one piece at a time. She knows this man.

He’s beneath a thin sheet in a hospital gown. He smells of antiseptic. Though she doesn’t want to, the Black Widow gently takes his hand and smells the inside of his wrist. A person always has a unique smell, even in the hospital.

It’s like being hit with a sick, twisting, wall of horror, with absolutely nothing attached to it. No meaning to it whatsoever. She knows nothing about him except that this man was Red Room.

Natasha drops his wrist. He’s on a respirator and she thinks about pulling the plug. She doesn’t. She thinks about clawing his face in a kind of childish, impotent desperation that is wholly foreign to her. She doesn’t do this either. She turns around. She walks out the door. She doesn’t fake tears. She doesn’t fake shock. But she walks straight out of the hospital and though people look, no one tries to stop her.

*

“They brought one of his original handlers out of retirement,” Nat tells them. Based on the age, it may be the original.

“So...It was Russians?” Sam asks. They’re in the Stark’s suite, not eating a party platter of sandwich wraps ordered in last minute.

“No. The victim had signs of previous injuries. He was probably coerced. Hydra is the only organization aware that the Winter Soldier was with Hydra and is no longer with them.”

“How did you know who it is?” Steve asks. Natasha doesn’t answer for a moment. She looks him square in the eye and says, in all honesty, “I don’t know.” Steve studies her and then, to her surprise, lets it go.

“So what does that mean?” That’s Tony, spinning his fingers around like it’s time to get this show on the road. He’s practically vibrating and obviously hasn’t slept in days. He never really got over almost dying in outer space, and then Pepper’s abduction last Christmas has had him on a razor’s edge ever since. It’s basically down to Nat, Clint, and Sam, with the other two just to fuck shit up and get in the way and ruin everything.

Nat takes that back. She knows it’s anger talking. Even if it’s true.

Pepper is here too, who can at least be counted on to keep a level head, hold the fort, and keep Tony relatively stable and on task. She refuses to become an active Avenger, which is really annoying Natasha right now, but not everyone wants to use their superpowers to rip people into tiny pieces which is what Natasha feels like doing. Pepper says, calmly, but with her characteristic intensity, “What does it mean that they brought in his Soviet handler?”

“It’s not so much that as the fact that Barnes killed him. Basically. In a matter of time.” Is she yammering? She needs to get her shit together. “Obviously Hydra aims to reprogram him. There’s probably a protocol in place for this sort of thing. But what we know now is that Barnes shook off deep, original programming from an original handler. Whatever protocol they have in place will be based on stimulus conditioning, which isn’t a viable solution right now; if he’s shaken it to this extent, it could take months to reliably reinstate.”

Steve stands up and paces away. He knows what’s coming.

“They’re going to strip him with ex-SHIELD tech and do a full rewrite.”

Steve braces his arms against the counter and drops his head between his shoulders.

“Which means,” Nat says, before Steve flips out and wrecks the place, “if they still have him, he’s at one of SHIELD’s facilities. We just need to find out which.”

*

Phil does a weird thing which Bucky thinks is unwise: he waits hours for the drugs in Buck’s system to wear off. Then when he comes back, he brings a bottle of water and a styrofoam cup of noodles with steam leaking out of the paper lid. Then he unlocks Buck’s cuffs, which freaks Buck the fuck out.

“I imagine you’re hungry,” Phil says as he works some kind of gadget to open the cuffs, and lets out a small “oof” as he takes the weight. Bucky’s human arm is numb from the pressure, but his prosthetic doesn’t have that weakness.

Phil sits, then scoots a plastic fork towards Bucky over the metal tray-table next to the chair, but he doesn’t make Bucky eat, or say anything. Bucky could kill him with this fork. He could kill him without the fork. He could kill him without the fork, still handcuffed and drugged, and Phil knows that and knows Bucky won’t do that, but Bucky doesn’t know why Phil knows he won't, and knows that Bucky knows that Phil knows, and that’s why Bucky is afraid. He’s too afraid to eat a noodle. He’s too afraid to move.

Phil has another bottle of water and he cracks it open and takes a swig with a small, satisfied “ah” at the end. Then he presses his lips together like he’s thinking about what to say or how to say it. He didn’t come in here without knowing what to say.

Phil takes a deep breath, but Bucky doesn’t flinch because he’s been trained. He’s been trained real good not to do stuff like that near people like Phil. Only near people like Pepper or Steve, when he wants them to know he’s afraid, because then they’ll stop doing it, what they’re doing that makes Bucky afraid, but people like Phil who are in charge want the soldier to be a good boy. It’s better to be good. It's better to be a good boy. This makes Bucky feel sick, but he doesn’t show that, either. It’s bad and gross, and someone had to clean it up last time and probably thought Bucky was disgusting.

“We’re docked at the Ohana,” Phil says. “Naturally, I can’t tell you where, specifically, that is, but that’s where we are.” He eyes the soldier like he’s considering something. Then he says, “We have a bit of a problem. Well, you have a bit of a problem, which makes it our problem. And we have a solution. But you need to agree to it.”

He has to agree.

Did you know that you could say no, Pepper asked.

The soldier can’t say no. It’s not allowed. It’s really not allowed, it’s the most not allowed. He can’t say no to a procedure. He watches Phil, who continues:

“As the incident at Owl’s Head proves, you’re susceptible to conditioned stimulus triggers, which, for a person of your abilities, is an enormous liability.” He shakes his head frankly. “We just can’t afford it. We’ve allowed you to remain in Roger’s care because it seemed the most positive solution for all parties. But. Again, as Owl’s Head shows, It’s no longer viable or safe.”

Phil leans back and laces his fingers in his lap. He studies Bucky for a moment.

“On the other hand,” he says, “your current mental state renders you unfit for active duty. You’ll excuse me for being blunt, but, times being what they are, this greatly reduces your value to us.” He taps his fingertips together. Then he unscrews the cap on his water and takes another sip and the thin plastic bottle crinkles loudly in his hand. He rolls the bottle cap between his thumb and forefinger. “So you see, we’re in a bit of a pickle. I can’t send you back to Rogers, and I can’t keep you here. Not…” he hesitates. “...as you are. Which is where the solution comes in, if you’re amenable.”

Are you okay with that?

“We have technology at our disposal that can eliminate the risk of conditioned triggers and rehabilitate your ongoing stress response to...the...circumstances surrounding the implementation of those triggers.” He looks at Bucky like he thinks he’s talking in code and wants to be sure Bucky follows.

“What we would do,” Phil continues, “is overwrite the traumatic memories with something more pleasant. Or take them out altogether.”

Phil watches Bucky like he’s waiting for something. Waiting and waiting.

“Then what?” Bucky asks. His voice sounds like a frog voice. Phil spreads his hands in a gesture of open neutrality. “Then it’s up to you. You might choose to help us fight against Hydra. With an uncompromised psyche, you might choose to return to Captain Rogers, without the risk of being spirited away by a former handler. It’s up to you.”

Bucky mulls it over. He tries to. It’s hard to concentrate. It’s hard to think about stuff...that happened, and stuff that might happen, and what Phil is saying and what he means. The air vent kicks on. The room smells like savory noodle broth. His ankles ache from the impact on the water, and he’s cold from being damp for so long.

“The memory overwrite would involve a surgical procedure and, in your case, a modest recovery period of, I’d project, four to seven days.”

There’s a buzzing in Bucky’s ears that’s coming from inside, not the room. It makes it kind of hard to hear what Phil is saying. He can cut out the bad memories, and have only good memories of being Bucky Barnes who Steve loved and who wasn’t messed up. He just has to let Phil do the procedure and take his memories out. And Phil is asking. He’s waiting to see if Bucky says no.

(What if he says no? He can’t go home and can’t stay here, Phil said. He can’t go home and can’t stay here, he’d have to go nowhere, in the hole.)

Bucky doesn’t want to get a procedure. He doesn’t want a surgery. He doesn’t want to be all messed up and worthless. He has to choose.

“The alternative-” Phil says.  Bucky looks at him and Phil spreads his hands again and lets the silence speak for itself.

“We can’t allow you to return to Manhattan.”

To Steve.

“You’ve already attempted to kill Captain Rogers, twice.”

Bucky’s stomach twists and he looks at the floor, which gets blurry and his eyes feel hot. He punched Steve a lot and let him fall off the helicarrier. And he shot him four times and tried to kill him, and tried to stab him before that. And he scratched Steve, too, and broke all the stuff. He’s a waste. He’s the worst. Phil says he can make him better. Phil says he can take the bad memories, and make Bucky normal and safe to be around.

“Okay,” Bucky whispers. Phil claps his hands against his knees. His lips press into a smile, but not his eyes.

“Good,” Phil says.

Bucky is good.

*

The Memory Overwrite Project had been in development when SHIELD fell. Variations of it had existed for years, but this was their most thorough brain-fuck to date. Natasha had kept track of it for various reasons, some of which she suspected, refused, and inevitably had to admit were pathetically personal.

The details of the project were “disclosed” in Natasha’s epic, life ruining, Captain Stupid Rogers-inspired whistle blowing info dump last year, but there was so much of it, and all of it surrounding the MOP was shrouded in heavily coded jargon. There were four of them, and any of them were apt to have been moved as Hydra and SHIELD scrabbled after resources. Nat has a hunch that until now, securing a surgical memory overwrite machine was low on the list of priorities.  You know, after your secret, nefarious agenda has been blown out of the water into flaming shrapnel that killed over 1,300 people. SHIELD and Hydra, both. There literally was no difference.

Natasha knows better than to hope for anything, but in any case, her hopes are twofold: that Hydra hadn’t planned on needing the MOP on the Winter Soldier, who had responded for decades to conditioned stimulus control, and thus had not yet removed the tech from a hidden base. Or, they had done so recently enough to track. Nat is working with the JARVIS program to home in on the coded locations, and her blood sugar is low so she’s forcing a turkey wrap into her body even though it tastes like newspaper and she still wants to puke.

When abducting someone like the Winter Soldier, time is not your friend, so wherever they are, it’s close. That rules out the ones in Arizona and Washington state. The third comes up in Michigan, and the forth in - bingo. Pennsylvania, in a big old stretch of nothing near Tioga.

“Suit up!” Nat calls, and pushes away from the computer. “Leaving in T minus right fucking now.”

*

Phil and three other people lead Bucky off the jet and into a room, where they leave him and ask him to change into a paper gown. That’s usually because of blood, because of doing something with blood coming out. Bucky had a lot of blood on him from before but it washed out in the river, mostly.

Bucky doesn’t want to change his clothes. They’re his comfy clothes and his socks from Steve, and his jeans Steve bought him and his glove and his shirt and his jacket. Bucky reaches into his pocket with his chest tight and his throat a big lump, and his pocket is empty. His heart seizes up and tears spring to his eyes.

Who cares if anyone sees? Everyone already knows he’s broken. That’s why he’s here in the first place.

Bucky sits down on a hard chair that sags under his weight and he cries into his hands because Tiny Steve is gone.

*

They leave Manhattan in a cloaked quinjet that would have NORAD in a rabid frenzy if they knew about it. Honestly, Nat’s not sure how they don’t. Rather, she can’t quite comprehend how inept you would have to be to not know that unauthorized aircraft leave Stark Tower every other goddamn day, so maybe she’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and say they look the other way. Which seems negligent for a government agency that recently found out a major branch of it was Neo-Fascist. The country is a fucking disaster, that’s all Nat can really say.

They can be in Tioga in half an hour, and the crew is tense and quiet. If they don’t find Bucky tonight, it will be too late, and the thought has Nat’s stomach in a sour knot. The stimulus conditioning can be slowly unraveled, but once they physically fuck with your brain - there’s no coming back from it, as far as she knows. And she knows farther than most.

She doesn’t think she can stand it. She needs to get a grip. She doesn’t think she can stand it, if they’re too late. She doesn’t know what she’ll do if they lose Bucky. Some guy she doesn’t even really know. It makes no sense. She’ll just carry on like she always does. She’ll get over it. Some guy she barely knows, a guy who is so loved, who is so precious to someone in a way she’s never been - Steve sits stiffly in the jump seat, his jaw clenched, his hands in fists against his knees. Nat doesn’t know what she’ll do if they’re too late. So they won’t be too late. They just won’t.

*

Bucky has to go into a dark, sterile room and lie down on a table and there’s a machine that’s under a cover so he can’t see what it does. The doctor is a young woman, younger than Bucky, and she smiles at him and has an English accent and tries to look Bucky in the eye but then looks away and looks at the floor and then concentrates on her needle which gets attached to a tube which is attached to a bag hanging up.

“It will take a few hours, but will be,” she stammers, “It will be quite painless.”

He doesn’t know if she’s lying. She probably is. But he probably won’t remember it. He won’t remember anything. He doesn’t want to be a danger to Steve.

The doctor swabs his arm with rubbing alcohol in the same place where Anatoly put the needle. The smell makes Bucky sick with dread.

He needs this in order to be better.

He’s grateful.

“Just a little pinch,” the doctor says, and slides the needle into his arm.

*

They don’t bother with subtlety. They land the at the front door, which Tony blasts off its hinges in a move that’s apt to fill them with shrapnel before they even get inside.

“Watch it,” Nat snaps. Steve’s already running in. If they’d gone for subtlety, this would have happened anyway, which is why they didn’t bother.

 

Inside the base is dark and silent. Nat had drones sent to scout the other three, but this is the one she was banking on. She hears Clint fumble for the lights, but she can already tell Steve has drawn to a halt. She can already tell by the echoes and the quality of sound -

Flourescent lights flash and flicker on.  She hears a quiet whisper of air as Rogers reins in a whimper.  He cards his fingers through his hair, panic bleak on his face.

The cavernous room has a thin film of dust. The contents have been ransacked and stripped.

Barnes isn’t here.

No one is.

A sickening wave of disappointment washes over her, so severe it dims her vision and leaves her nauseous.  God fucking damn it.  God damn it.

She moves in.  They have to check all the rooms, all the chambers, anyway, see if they can find where the equipment has gone.   If they can’t save Barnes, the very least they can do is put him down.  She doesn't know what will happen to Steve.

*

When Bucky had been in the hole, he had prayed for Steve to come. He had begged and cried. He had sobbed for his Ma. He had cradled his ruined arm against his stomach. He had silently begged to be let to die.

Slowly, Anatoly Korjev had taken that from him. He had taken away the pain and the fear, and everything disgusting Bucky had become. Everything he’d become, and everything he had been, Korjev took it away.

It was years and years and years ago. And then Bucky took it all back.

He knows he’s messed up now, from it. He knows when he didn’t remember, he worked better. He wasn’t so scared all the time, he didn’t cry.  But it was his suffering.  It belonged to him, it was his. Now when he cries, Steve makes him feel better. Steve gets him smurfs, and makes recipes, and holds Bucky in his arms and lets Bucky hold him back. Pepper pets Bucky’s hair and says “These shorts can burn in hell.” Natasha says “I’m jealous,” and tries not to cry. They share Lucky Bucky Candy.

Bucky worked for all of that. He worked so hard to try to come back. He remembered the horrible things and they were his horrible things, and he survived them. He still came back.

He knows he should get better for Steve. He knows he should do the procedure and get better. But he wants to be selfish, just this once. He wants to be ungrateful.

The doctor pulls on a white mask. She’s about to inject something into the tube, so that it will go in his arm. Bucky pulls in a shaky breath. He shuts his eyes.

He says, “What’s your name?”

The doctor stops. She looks at him. The needle is still aimed at the tube. She pulls down her mask. Her eyes are clear and brown and nice. She looks too young to be a doctor.

“Jemma,” she says. “Simmons.”

He looks at her and she doesn’t look away. Bucky can feel his eyes prickling. He knows he’s gonna be stupid and cry. “Jemma,” he says, and his voice gives out. He has to say something he’s not supposed to. That’s really not allowed. He has to at least try, like Bucky Barnes used to try, even though it never worked. He swallows hard around the fear in his throat. He whispers, “Please don’t.” This never works. It only makes it worse. “Please," he says, which is not allowed.  "I don’t want it.  Please.”

It never works. The tears spill over.

Jemma Simmons’s hand shakes violently and the needle clatters down onto the tray. She backs away from the table, looking sick. She stares at Bucky. Her eyes are wet. She turns and leaves the room.

*

The hydraulic doors wheeze shut and Jemma leans back against them, her hand pressed to cover her mouth. She breathes jaggedly from her nose. Her heart pounds painfully, and she sinks to the floor. She hears footsteps coming closer, and she clenches her eyes against the tears that won’t stop coming. The Director puts a hand on her shoulder, crouched down beside her, and she sucks in a noisy, sobbing breath and shakes her head.

“I can’t do this. I can’t do this.”

Phil rubs his hand up and down her back. “We don’t have a choice,” he says.

She whips around to stare at him. He’s blurry, through the tears. “He just begged me not to.”

This news seems to surprise the Director, and his silence gives her a moment to collect herself. She dries her cheeks on the shoulder of her scrubs.

“He gave his consent,” Phil says.

Angrily, Jemma shoots back, “He’s revoked it.” The tears start up again, and she shakes her head again in a way that feels reflexive, like she can’t stop. “I can’t keep doing this. You can’t keep asking me to do this.”

“You’re the only one on the team who can.”

She hasn’t stopped shaking her head, and she doesn’t respond.

“Jemma, it’s for his own safety.”

Bollocks!” she spits. She never speaks to the Director like this. She just feels so tired and so empty. This isn’t how it’s supposed to be. This isn’t the way the world should be. Phil’s hand is warm and reassuring on her arm, but he wants her to do such horrible things, more and more, the worse things get with Hydra. She feels like they’re turning into them.

Coulson stands up and says quietly, “Okay.” With a hand on the back of her head, he leans her forward so that she doesn’t pitch over when he opens the door behind her. She doesn’t have it in her to stand. But when the door slides shut again, she shifts to lean against the wall.

*

The soldier is staring vacantly at the ceiling when Phil enters. There are tear tracks down the sides of his face, but his eyes are dry. Phil can’t help but release a long and troubled sigh.

“I’m disappointed,” is the first thing he says. “I’d hoped this solution would limit your liability, but it seems you’ve changed your mind.”

The soldier doesn’t respond.

“We can’t send you back to Captain Rogers in your current condition,” Phil says. “Do you realize that? The threat of Hydra to you personally and to the people around you is far too great. You are far too vulnerable.”

No response. Phil reins in another sigh. He’s exhausted from all of this. He just wants his team to be safe. He wants the world to be safe. But that’s looking more and more like an utter impossibility. Every option available to them, frankly, sucks. He wishes he could send Barnes back to Rogers. The man has suffered enough. He deserves to be allowed to stop, he deserves to be safe, he deserves to be allowed to finally, after eighty years of service, most of it coerced, he should finally be allowed to stop. But the Winter Soldier will never be safe from Hydra. He’ll never be safe from the Taliban. Christ, he’ll never be safe from the CIA. Once you’re seen as a weapon, no one wants to see you any other way. Not in a world where everyone is scrambling for the strongest arms. Not in a world where, more and more, the ends justify the means, and the ends are increasingly unclear. Phil can't deny it: he had hoped the Winter Soldier would join them against Hydra. SHIELD needs weapons, like everyone else.

And Phil still has a card to play.

He approaches the soldier and, with a hand on his shoulder, guides him to sit on the edge of the table. He’s blank, like he was when Fury first passed him down.

“Hydra is going to go after Captain Rogers.” It’s true. Rogers isn’t on Zola’s list. The soldier looks at him now, dully. “I’m willing to take a calculated risk,” Phil says, “on you. If you’re willing to help us against Hydra, we can take out their facilities for mind control, and mitigate the risk to Steve." Bucky’s gaze slides to the middle distance, and then he swallows hard and nods. “If,” Phil adds, “you can pull it together enough to help us. Can you do that?”

The soldier nods again.

“Excellent,” Phil says. Good. “We noticed your tracking device went off line several days ago. For your safety, I’d like you to be fitted with another.”

The soldier actually shudders, but he nods again.

“Good.” Not as good as he’d hoped, but salvageable, if the soldier can even remotely function with the efficiency he’d displayed in D.C. “I’ll send someone to get you settled.”

*

Bucky is given a room and a tracking chip that gets shot beneath the surface of the skin in his wrist. He’s given a change of clothes that aren’t his clothes, boots that aren’t his boots, and he still doesn’t know where he is. He knows Steve must be worried. He knows Steve must be going out of his mind. But Phil said Steve wasn’t on terms with SHIELD right now, and if he knew where Bucky was he’d cause problems and they won’t be able to keep him safe.

Bucky leaves his boots on the floor and curls up against the wall near the top corner of his bed which is small and has a grey blanket and a pillow that’s little and white and his room has no windows.

Someone knocks on his door and he doesn’t respond.  The door opens and a woman is standing there. She’s tall and has blonde hair that looks dyed. She stands in the doorway for a moment looking like she wants to say something, but she doesn’t say it. Then she takes something out of her pocket and sets it on the desk near the door.

“This was with your stuff, when we pulled you out,” she says. It’s Tiny Steve.

She stands there for a moment longer, watching him, and she looks sad. “I’m Bobbi. Morse,” she tells him. “If you need anything, just ask.”

But he doesn’t need anything. She leaves and the door gets closed. He doesn’t know if it’s locked. Maybe. It doesn’t matter. There isn’t a toilet in this room. Bucky can see the flat edge of Tiny Steve on the desk. He doesn’t go get him. He tries not to look at where the Bobbi person put Tiny Steve. If they’re watching, he doesn’t want them to see him getting Tiny Steve. If they see him getting Tiny Steve, they’ll know. They’ll know that he wants Tiny Steve, to hold. And then they might do something. Instead, he thinks of something else. He thinks of Coulson’s grey suit. He thinks of words to rhyme with suit. He thinks of boot, and root, and hoot, and loot. Then he sings silently through the alphabet to see if there are any he missed.

Chapter Text

The drone over the Michigan base gets shot down on arrival. Whoever’s there now has eyes on the sky, expecting company. It’s best practice to be cautious, but it tweaks Nat’s radar anyway, though she can’t bring herself to verbalize to the team right now. She let everyone down. She let Steve down, she let Bucky down, going all in on Tioga, for nothing. There should have been something, she should have seen something - what is she missing?

Everyone is sleep deprived and stretched thin as tissue paper. And Steve’s mannequin act is really worrying. He’s in shock and it’s only a matter of time before he snaps. Nat should have seen this coming! She’s trained better than this. She doesn’t make mistakes like that, she doesn’t pull shit like Tioga.

Stark’s already on route to Michigan with Clint as backup. Nat, Steve, and Sam are headed to Washington state.

*

It’s a gamble, dividing their assets. If Hydra has focused their efforts on a single base, in the event of a skirmish Phil’s team will be overpowered. If Phil puts his eggs in one basket and hits the wrong base, Hydra may waltz away with the other MOM, leaving no trace of where they’ve gone. At least this way, even if his team is outnumbered, they can fall back and track the rabbit to the warren.

Best case scenario, Hydra put their money on Tioga, which Phil cleaned out months ago, following the incident which obliterated The Guest House machine in Arizona. If he’s very lucky, Hydra is wasting additional resources there as well. Phil doesn’t bank on being lucky, of course, but it’s best to consider every contingency, even the good ones. Even the most pleasant of surprises is unwelcome to Phil; he prefers to be prepared.

Dividing assets means all hands on deck. There’s no one to spare to look after Barnes at the Ohana, so he’s here, on the Bus, where Phil can keep an eye on him. Skye has Hunter and Mack in Michigan: recon only, strict orders not to engage. May and Morse will do the same in Washington. Worst case scenario, Phil will join them on the ground, leaving Simmons to hold the fort. Simmons would hate that. So would May. Phil laughs a little, humorlessly, to himself. All their options suck.

*

Bucky hadn’t gotten to stay very long in his room. It seems like he wasn’t there very long. But maybe he doesn’t know. Sometimes things that seem short are actually years and years. The Bobbi person had come back to tell him he had to go with her, to get on a bus, which wasn’t a bus, it was a quinjet, so he doesn’t know why she said he had to get on the bus.

She had waited for him outside his door. He didn’t know if he was ever coming back, to this room with the little bed and the little desk with Tiny Steve on it. He didn’t know if he would ever come back. So he had to make a decision.

Bucky knows that, given the chance to make a decision, he always chooses wrong. That’s why Phil or Alex or Anatoly make decisions, and not Bucky, who is not very smart. But he’d had to make a decision, so when he’d stood up, he’d stood still, and waited until “I’m Bobbi Morse” stepped back from the door and then when she wasn’t looking at Bucky when he passed the desk, he picked up Tiny Steve. Then he’d closed the door behind him so maybe “If You Need Anything” wouldn’t see that Tiny Steve wasn’t there, and maybe if they weren’t watching the room they wouldn’t know that Bucky had Tiny Steve. But if he never came back there and Tiny Steve would be on the desk forever and get dust and Bucky would...Bucky thinks of Tiny Steve alone forever getting dust, and wants to die. So that’s why Tiny Steve is in his pocket even for right now when SHIELD doesn’t know he has Tiny Steve or are waiting for when they will take Tiny Steve away to make Bucky do something, he doesn’t care. Because otherwise Tiny Steve would be alone on the desk and get dust. Now he’s in Bucky’s pocket, where it’s warm. At least for now.

*

Skye’s at the Michigan base for all of ten minutes when fucking Iron Man shows up, not that it matters because there’s nothing there. Thank God she and Mack came in on foot for a low profile, because she’s not itching for a shoot out with the Avengers right now. Especially not when they’re probably in a mind to level some serious Avenging in her direction over their Hydra dirtbag Winter Soldier whack-job Phil’s been so keen on lately.

The base had to have been hit literally minutes before Skye showed up. The only thing missing is the Memory Overwrite Machine. Scrape marks fresh on the floor, tread marks fresh in the dirt outside - shit. Hopefully it’s still dark enough out that Stark won’t put two and two together that the footprints leading in from the woods haven’t led back out, and may or may not have been in association with the tire marks.

Stark has his visor up, scoping the place out, and Skye is in pretty much literally the worst hiding place outside of not hiding at all: behind a metal table that got knocked over in Hydra’s haste to haul ass with the MOM. Mack is down the hall, and Hunter better have the sense to stay quiet on the comm or they’re toast. He’s the one who gave them the heads up about Iron Man, and he’s not a complete idiot, so they’re just going to have to wait it out and hope.

“Don’t bother,” Stark says. Conversationally, into his comm. (Skye’s heart had done a back flip in her chest.) “Keep eyes on the roads. They were just here, they’ll be hauling it. Treads outside, I’d say commercial van.”

There’s a tinny sort of murmur as whoever he’s talking to responds. Then there’s the juggernaut clank of the Iron Man Iron Stomp as Stark heads back towards the entrance.

“What’s the ETA on Washington?”

Another inaudible answer.

“Right. You take North and West, I’ll-” His voice cuts out as the visor closes. He stomps out through the door he blasted open (which hadn’t even been locked shut, Jesus, trigger happy!) and then there’s the roar of micro-turbines as he blasts off, faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, “here I come to save the day.” Skye lets out a controlled breath.

So the good news is, the Avengers are after Hydra, which is what they fucking should be doing anyway. Bad news is, they’re en route to Washington, and the last thing Phil needs is a run-in with Justice Boy right now.

Hunter radios in through the comm. “He’s gone.”

“Patch me through to the bus,” Skye says.

*

They’re fifteen minutes out when the drone goes down over Yakima.

“Shit,” Nat mutters. Fifteen minutes is a long time. They’re already going as fast as they can.

*

Phil has to make an executive call. They were too late in Michigan. which means - unless the Avengers somehow mop that up - that Hydra has one overwrite machine in their possession, and, as Phil observes right now, are in the process of acquiring their second. An unquantified team of Avengers is en route, with no reliable means of projecting an arrival time, and no guarantee they’ll be friendly towards SHIELD if they do arrive. Quite the opposite, in fact, things being what they are.

As projected, Hydra divided their assets as well, and have sent a relatively small team to The Bunk House. The problem is, Hydra’s “smaller team” still outnumbers his three to one. They’ve been recruiting.

Phil can fall back and tail the rats to the nest, put his team’s lives at risk taking on a fully defended Hydra stronghold. A lot can go wrong in a plan like that. These aren’t amateurs. There’s the distinct possibility Hydra would pick up on the tail and either shake it or send reinforcements to challenge it, in both cases making off with the second machine and doubling their capacity for Memory Overwrite.

Still, it’s not the worst case scenario. In fact, Phil has another option.

The other option is staring at the floor in the common area while Jemma tries to feed him a muffin.

Phil ducks into the cockpit. He braces a hand on the pilot’s seat to look out the windshield.

“They already know we’re here,” May tells him.

Fuck, Phil doesn’t say. He doesn’t like to curse in front of his team. “How do you feel about working with the Winter Soldier?”

May doesn’t answer for some time. She’s never hasty. That’s why Phil relies on her like he does.

“Better than I feel about six on two,” she says simply. “Do you think he’s up to it?”

“I think he’s up to quite a bit more than he lets on.” He did escape from Hydra, after all. Even if, without SHIELD, it would have been to a watery grave.

“Brief him and take the wheel. We need to get in there now,” May says.

*

Bucky’s ankles are still sore and his back still hurts from his other procedure because he was supposed to take it easy for a week, Tony said, and then he jumped off a bridge and killed people instead of doing that. Now the doctor from before wants him to eat a muffin, but he doesn’t want to take it from her hand, and then she puts it back in the box where he can’t get it, so maybe she didn’t really want him to eat a muffin and it was just a test.

The doctor, Jemma Simmons, has a friend and he’s weird and doesn’t like Bucky and stands far away with his arms crossed looking at Bucky and when he talks the words come out weird like he can’t remember them but Jemma Simmons acts like she doesn’t notice. “This is Fitz,” Jemma had said. “Our engineer.” Then Jemma talks about how nice everyone is and how SHIELD is like a family but Bucky’s family is dead and his other family is Steve and he doesn’t want a new family with SHIELD but he doesn’t have a choice so this is his family now. He can’t get the muffin and “This Is Fitz” is staring at him.

This is Fitz. This is Fitz. The soldier says that under his breath. Without using a voice it sounds like “ssissffitss.”

“What’s that?” Jemma Simmons asks. Bucky freezes. Then Phil comes in and says “Barnes,” and crooks his finger, so Bucky has to go with Phil. He doesn’t let it show that his ankles hurt or that his stitches are coming out and they sting.

*

“I would have preferred to ease you into it, but we have a situation,” Phil says. Barnes is listening but won’t look him in the eye. “I need to know if we can count on you on the ground.”

Ah, there we go. Barnes pulls his gaze from the floor and looks Phil in the eye.

“If we don’t get in there now, Hydra will secure a dangerous piece of machinery, which they will not hesitate to use on Captain Rogers at the first opportunity. They have six operatives on the ground. I only have two to send in. Can you level those odds?”

Barnes gaze goes thousand yards again. Then he refocuses on Phil and nods.

“Good.” Phil hands him an earpiece transmitter. “This is to stay in touch with me, May, and Bobbi.” He waits until the soldier takes it, which he seems hesitant to do.

“In the event that a trigger phrase is used, we’ll drown out any subsequent commands. But I don’t want this to be an issue. They shouldn’t even get near you. Terminate with extreme prejudice.”

The soldier fits the comm into his ear.

“That’s how I roll,” Barnes says. It leaves Phil gaping for a full second.

*

SHIELD has some pretty good weapons, so the first thing the soldier does when he touches down is blow up Hydra’s truck that says “U-HAUL,” limiting avenues of retreat, which is standard. He has “I’m Bobbi Morse” and “Agent May” on support. They’re carrying more weapons for him. Then they do something stupid and try to take point, so he has to bellow “Fall back!” They don’t know not to get in the way.

“Agent May is leading this op,” Phil says in his ear.

Oh.

*

This guy is insane, like, crazy skilled. Morse is happy to let him take point, and in truth they could have probably just sent him. He’s like the fucking...who is that guy, the T-1000. They get into the base and he is just blowing the shit out of everything, he knows where shots will come from before they fire. May is leading the mission, but when Barnes waves Morse towards an open door jam, you bet your ass she does it. There’s a barrage of cover fire and he calmly waits it out, then stands up, fires a single shot, and a body hits the floor. He ducks back down under a hail of bullets.

“That’s three,” May says.

“At least we’ve ‘leveled the odds’” Morse quips. This deck was stacked the moment Bucky’s boots touched ground.

*

This was an easy mission. There were only six operatives, and only two were enhanced and needed more than one bullet to put down. There’s a lot of blood, as usual, but he’s not on cleanup, he doesn’t think. That’s not his purpose and he doesn’t know if there will be any cleanup anyway.

“Nice work,” says I’m Bobbi Morse. She raises one hand to slap him and he reels back and glares at her because she’s not authorized to discipline him, and he did a good job, so it’s not fair! The smile freezes on her face and then the other agent, Agent May, steps between them and hits her hands against Bobbi’s.

“Good work, team,” Agent May says. That’s why I’m Bobbi had her hand in the air, for Bucky to hit like that, but he ruined it and now her hand isn’t in the air anymore for him. He wishes he could go back and not be so stupid.

Agent May is talking to Phil on her comm but it’s not coming through to his earpiece because their conversation is private. But Phil’s voice is still coming through her earpiece and it’s easy to hear because the base is quiet and Bucky thinks they don’t know that he can hear because sometimes, a lot of the time, other people can’t hear as good as Bucky can, except Steve who used to not hear good but now hears really good, as good as Bucky.

“We don’t have time,” Phil is saying. “Rogers in en route, and I don’t know who else. Destroy it and pull out. I’m bringing the bus around now.”

As he says this, Agent May is surveying the scene, and she prods a Hydra agent with her toe, who is still breathing.

“We’ve got a live one,” she says, and Phil’s voice says to everyone, “Bring him in.”

Agent May bends down and rolls the enemy onto his side. Bucky still wants to eliminate with extreme prejudice but he’s not supposed to, now. Steve Rogers is en route to this base, where Bucky is right now, but Bucky wasn’t supposed to be here because it was a last minute decision, so he’s not coming because of Bucky. They were here because of Hydra, and Steve thinks Bucky is with Hydra, so now he’s chasing Hydra, and Hydra is going to do something to lure him in. They’ll give him a procedure and he won’t know who he is and he’ll try to kill Nat and Pepper and he won’t remember Bucky.

“Help me get this guy,” I’m Bobbi says. Agent May is attaching explosives to the machine. They need his help to get these machines so that Hydra can’t get Steve.

Bucky turns away from Bobbi. He goes to get a metal table that has wheels and he drags it to where Bobbi is waiting with the enemy and he makes a big show of how the table gets caught on something behind a table that doesn’t have wheels and is attached to the floor and has shelves on one side that will not get blown up when Agent May detonates the machine. There’s a dead body back here and blood all over, and Bucky pretends that the table is stuck on the dead body and he does something that is a decision.

His decisions are always wrong. Anatoly always said that he makes bad decisions that get him hurt and get Mishka hurt and that’s why he should listen to Anatoly and do what he says, because Bucky is not very smart.

So Bucky is very scared when he bends down for a second and pretends the table is stuck. His heart is pounding so hard he can feel it in his throat and down his arm that he was born with, the one he used to hold Steve that time when Steve was really sick and Bucky thought that he might die.

There is a part on the shelf that has blood and a little bit of brain on it, in a corner with a small circular saw that Bucky knows is for going through bones. As Bucky bends down, with one hand he pretends to pull a piece of scalp from the wheel of the table and tosses it so Bobbi will see. With the other, so she won’t see, he leaves Tiny Steve, alone in the blood, leaning against the bone saw.

*

Sam can’t believe that nobody called him before now, that everyone thought that Steve could do this on his own just because that’s what Steve wanted them to think. Sam had done everything he could to keep Steve in D.C., he knew moving to Brooklyn was just - he didn’t know what the hell he knew. Part of him is like, why didn’t I go with him to New York? And part of him is like...he doesn’t know. His family is in D.C., his job is in D.C., and he needs those two things, a lot since coming home. He can’t move to New York, do the exact same thing as Steve and cut himself off from everything he’s got. And if Sam’s the only thing Steve’s got then Steve was gonna have problems no matter what. Sam doesn’t know what he’s gonna do. He doesn’t know what he’s gonna tell the V.A. if this drags on again like last time. He doesn’t know if he’s ready to join the Avenger’s Initiative, like...Sam knows he looks like an okay, stable dude, but that’s because he’s put hours and hours of therapy into getting there.

Whether he’s ready or not, with the way the world is going, he’s gonna have to get back in the game. He takes a deep breath. Nat says they’re two minutes out from the target.

Man, Steve is a mess. He’s like a zombie. Sam’s not gonna push too hard, that’s like poking the bear with Steve, it won’t get you what you’re after. But he’s obviously been under a lot of stress, before this happened or he wouldn’t be like this now. Sam’s kicking himself for not calling more often, for not pressing, for not knowing, when he should have known, when he did know, and just like everybody else, took Steve at his word when he said he was fine. Dude’s not fine by a damn sight. Sam’s not sure he’s even cognizant of what’s going on around him right now, he sure as shit shouldn’t be on ops.

They touch down outside the base. Nat puts them down real gentle and doesn’t say anything. It’s still dark this side of the country, though it’s getting on towards morning in New York. Nat’s quiet, with none of the urgency of the Tioga run, and though Steve stands, suddenly animated and gunning for the door, Nat’s stillness stops him. That and she hasn’t activated the hatch like he obviously expected, so he can’t get out.

“There’s been a skirmish,” she says. “Recently.”

She gives everyone a moment to process that.

“It’s over. So this is another recon. Steve.” She’s looking directly at Steve but Steve’s still facing the door. Sam thinks his shoulders are shaking, just barely. He finally nods, and Nat opens the hatch. He stares into the darkness before taking a slow first step.

 

Okay, so here’s what’s going on regarding the “skirmish.” Someone blasted in here and killed a bunch of motherfuckers. This was not a skirmish, it was a goddamn blood bath, followed by a big ass explosion. You might have thought the explosion caused the bloodbath, except for the bullet holes in everybody, with debris on top and no one on top of debris. The explosion took out most of the overhead lights except on the farthest side of the lab. Nat rattles around in an electrical panel and some of the back up lights along the floor switch on. Sam moves in with caution and Steve doesn’t really move at all.

“These are all Hydra,” Nat says, kneeling near one of the bodies. Sam crouches near what’s left of a person far side of a table away from the explosion. The body is still warm.

There’s bits of blood and guts all over, over here, and Sam is about to move on when something catches his eye. It’s weird because it’s this little dude, like a plastic toy or something, down on the shelf but it’s in the blood, like, he’s in the pool of blood rather than the pool of blood having been added to his environment in the last ten minutes.

Sam wipes his fingers on his pants before picking it up, like wiping his fingers will prevent them from being about to get blood and brain matter all over them in a second. He picks up the little dude and holds it towards the light. He’s got little suspenders and all, a flat piece of plastic, smiling, with blood all over one side making him pretty grisly like something out of The Shining. Sam stands up and holds up the figure.

“What do you make of this?”

Sam feels suddenly like he’s holding up Baby Jesus because Nat and Steve both just freeze and stare.

“Where did you get that?” Nat says. Steve holds out his hand from halfway across the room like he still can’t move to come get it. Something in his face makes Sam rub the blood off the one side, as best he can since it’s sort of coagulated. He steps over a body and hands Steve the little dude. Steve’s hand is trembling and his lips are white like he’s about to fall over any second, and Sam is a breath away from voicing a serious concern. Sam’s strong, but Steve ain’t no lightweight, and if he’s gonna be passing out he should do it in the jet. (That’s not why he’s worried, but it’s what he’ll say, if he has to.)

Natasha is over where Sam just was, behind the table. She has her penlight out shining it around for clues. Sam joins her.

“It was on the shelf, here.” He points to the grim little outline in the gummed up pool of blood.

“The other side-” Nat starts.

“Clean.”

It could have fallen over from being propped up, but - no, even where it must have fallen from, leaning against a medical saw is splattered with blood and nasty bits, so the long and short of it is, it was left by whoever wreaked the carnage. Based on the reaction and the quality of said carnage, Sam has a pretty good idea of -

A metal chair smashes against the wall. A table follows, squealing screws where it’s bolted to the floor, then crashing into stainless steel smithereens as Steve hurls it across the room. A strangled noise works its way out of him and he starts pummeling a scorched computer, then picks that up and throws it too. Truly heartbreaking noises are wrenching their way out of the guy but Sam instinctively puts a hand on Nat’s shoulder in case she was thinking about going over there. Then Steve sinks to his knees with a hitched broken breath. It sounds like he’s quietly sobbing, until it works its way up to laughter, and then he’s laughing hysterically, kneeling in gunked up blood and body parts, and now is a good time to go over and get him out of here. Steve’s laughing like the Joker on a Batman cartoon, and there’s nothing remotely funny about it.

Nat kneels in front of Steve, her hands on his shoulders trying to look into his face. She’s tiny compared to him. She says, “He’s okay, Steve. Okay? He’s okay.” Steve folds against her like a little kid, crying like how Sam only does in the shower sometimes when he wants to pretend it’s not happening, being as quiet as he can even though the water’s pounding down loud and he’s alone in the house anyway. That’s how Steve’s crying now: silently, like his heart is broke and he can’t do this anymore.

*

That’s what she was missing. He wasn’t with Hydra. Nat holds Steve against her shoulder, stroking the hair at the back of his neck. Something ugly has unclenched in her chest but she doesn’t have time to examine it. The reports were true: someone had jumped off the bridge. It was Barnes and SHIELD must have scooped him up. He’s safe. He’s alive. He’s still Barnes.

And in spite of obviously being capable, he hadn’t escaped from SHIELD. That could be a matter of leverage. Or it could be a choice. It doesn’t matter. She knows that’s cold. She knows it’s heartless and calculating, and Steve would hate to hear her thinking this way, but it doesn’t matter.

Bucky’s alive. He’s still Bucky. And he’s inside.

They won’t get another opportunity like this. Nat scrunches her fingers against Steve’s hair. It’s soft and fine, especially where it’s shortest, like puppy fuzz. They’re going to take down SHIELD. They’re going to get Bucky back. And if anyone does this ever again, she doesn’t care who it is. She will personally dismantle them one joint at a time, with a surgical scalpel. She means that from the bottom of her cold, empty heart.

She pats Steve on the shoulder. She says, “Come on,” against his hair and guides him to stand. The sobs have petered out and he feels awkward and shaky in a way she would have never associated with Steve. He’s still recovering from being gut shot not even a week ago, he should be on bed rest for fuck’s sake.

“We’ll get him back,” she says.

They will.

Chapter Text

The Winter Soldier is turning the tides in SHIELD’s favor. Phil had misjudged the delicacy of his mental state: he’s rallied quite admirably. He’s still vulnerable, emotionally, as one might expect of a man who’d endured what he had, but in the field he is decisive, and quick, and nigh unstoppable. Phil feels a mild twinge of regret that he hadn’t forseen this capacity, that he hadn’t approached Barnes at the first signs of improvements months ago. Phil suspects the purposefulness of his employment with SHIELD is actually quite beneficial to his continued recovery. It is what he’s trained for, after all.

Phil maintains the holding pattern above a Hydra stronghold near the Canadian border. He’ll drop in for the extraction in a few minutes, but there’s nothing urgent about it. The Winter Soldier is very thorough. Phil watches a small plume of smoke rise from the building as the north wall is demolished.

Jeremy Slater, a recent recruit, a young man of about thirty years old, had been instrumental in the strike today. After the swelling had gone down and he’d been able to speak, he’d been happy to provide the exact location of every Hydra base in his personal knowledge.

His bullet wounds are healing nicely, as well.

*

They’re not any closer to Bucky. Nat feels like she’s banging her head against the wall, trying to get a step ahead of SHIELD and instead trailing miles behind on their path of destruction. Hydra facilities are being identified and annihilated with unheard of efficiency, to the point that Natasha can only conclude they have an ever-growing pool of insider knowledge, the kind you don’t have to tweeze out with torture.

If she can find a base before they hit it, she can draw them onto her playing field, but she’s going on zero sleep, here, and the fact of the matter is, they’re faster than she is. They’re too fast.

Nat knows Hydra has or did have at least one of the Overwrite units, from Michigan. It’s becoming pretty fucking clear that SHIELD has the other. Their strikes are targeted primarily at Hydra bio-tech labs and anything to do with Centipede, so it looks - from way out here in outer-fucking-space which is where she is compared to them - that they’re going after Hydra’s mind control projects.

She’d had a minuscule, pointless, tiny fucking breakthrough early on when she’d realized that even if she couldn’t track the tech, she could track the technician. The MOP had been top secret, only a handful of people had known about it. Fewer still were qualified to perform the procedure. Of them, all revealed in the info-dump, one of them had purchased a one-way ticket from Savannah to Detroit. That was two weeks ago, right after the Michigan base was cleared out, (and roughly a week before SHIELD started knocking down hideouts like dominoes.) But nowhere in or around Michigan has been hit. So what does that mean?

Nothing. It means fucking nothing. Natasha scrubs her hands over her eyes and buries her fingers in her hair. She’s been scouring info with Jarvis, all day every day. None of it means anything. Clint’s on the ground, checking out the wreckage: it’s always obliterated, burned to the ground. Even Steve has stopped coming along. He’s in his sad, fucked up apartment in the Tower that looks like the Hulk had at it. He won’t clean it up or let anyone else do it, and Nat’s pretty sure he’s been in bed for the last two days.

This is her fault. (That’s how tired she is. There are people out there with dead children, people who are blind or dead or quadriplegic, who literally are her fault, and right now she feels like the worst and most unforgivable thing she’s ever done is not stopped this from happening, not keeping Barnes safe, not keeping Steve safe, letting this happen to them. How could she be so fucking stupid? How could she have stopped this, and why is she wasting time dwelling on what she can’t fucking change? She needs to get her head together!)

Nat hears the door to the War Room open and shut, but she doesn’t glance up. She smells the coffee before Wilson sets it down before her, perilously close to the keyboard in a way that would usually prompt her to move it, but not today.

“It’s decaf,” Sam says then admonishes: “No amount of caffeine can substitute a good night’s rest. But I figured -“ he shrugs, hand wrapped around his own mug. “There’s something nice about a good cup of coffee. Or a bad one, even.”

He sits beside her at the computer terminal, blowing steam off his coffee, which is black but probably sweetened to within an inch of its life. Natasha’s before her is blended with cream the perfect amount, and there is a perfect amount, an objective, perfect amount of cream that should be in coffee, which is how she likes it.

“How’s Steve,” she asks. Sam shrugs again.

“He’s a shit show.”

The glibness fades, and he says, sadly, “I don’t know if he can come back from this. After everything. You know?”

“Bucky’s out there, and we’re gonna get him back. He’ll be fine.” Natasha doesn’t have it in her to doubt this. She has to keep going. (The longer Barnes is in there, the harder it’s going to be to get him out. She knows how this works.)

“We’re not gonna get anything if you keel over dead from sleep deprivation.”

Natasha picks up her coffee to have something warm to hold onto. Her hands are freezing. She’s being really unhealthy and her circulation’s going, but she can’t stop. She feels like the worst, most absolute worthless person in existence. Sam’s hand settles warm on her shoulder and he gives her a firm, gentle shake.

“Hey,” he says. “You’re doing everything you can.”

“No, I’m not.” God, she’s almost crying. Her voice is thick and scratchy, and somewhere along the line, her eyes squeezed shut. If she was doing everything she could, she would have found him by now. SHIELD would be gone and Bucky would be home with Steve. She can’t believe she’s letting them down like this, and now crying on top of it.

Sam’s arm slides around her shoulder. He takes her cup of coffee and sets it down. He’s cuddling her. No one has ever cuddled Natasha in her entire, fucked up existence, no one real. Or maybe she just doesn’t remember. She feels stiff as a mannequin and distantly horrified that this is happening. Less distant, it feels like Sam is warm. It feels like she could fall asleep right now. It feels like Sam is bigger than her, and for once, that would just be nice. But she’s too fucked up for a guy like Sam. She pulls away.

She takes a deep breath and Sam watches her.

“Why don’t you show me what you’ve got? I may not be an international spy, but I popped a Unisom last night and slept like a baby.”

It can’t hurt. Maybe all she needs is a fresh pair of eyes.

She outlines the situation for him, the attacks on Hydra, the technician’s exodus to Michigan, the whole bit.

“And they haven’t hit anywhere in Michigan,” Sam asks.

“They might not even be in Michigan. They could have driven anything anywhere.”

“But you think they’re in Michigan.”

“It doesn’t matter what I think” Nat says, with a lot more venom than she usually shows. Sam takes it, quietly.

“Okay,” he finally says. He never argues. He never gives in, but he never argues. “Let’s just say, just spitballing, that they did keep this hunk of junk in state. And Coulson knows they got it in Michigan, but he, what, he hasn’t looked for it there? He’s getting his intel from Hydra lackeys, he’s hitting where he knows he can score. What if those lackeys just don’t know?”

He’s getting at something, and usually Nat would be right there with him. Today, she says, “So what?”

“So, what if everyone on this project is at the project, at a base no one’s heard of.”

“A new base,” Nat concludes.

“Right. Now something like that is gonna need electricity, right? Is there any way you can track the energy draw? I’ve seen these bases, they burn through some serious wattage.”

He’s right, she realizes. He’s not right, but he’s on the right track. Her fingers fly to the keyboard before she’s fully completed the thought.

“There’s no way they’re on the grid with this,” she tells him.

That means they’re getting their power from somewhere else.

*

Bucky is a valuable asset. He’s doing a really good job for SHIELD and they’re happy with his work. That’s good.

He likes doing the work, because he’s good at it and it’s easy to know what to do. He feels like when he’s not doing the work he sometimes doesn’t know what to do, but when he’s doing the work, he always knows. He’s good at completing missions for Phil.

They’re taking out a lot of Hydra bases. They’re taking a lot of captives. Jemma Simmons has to stay at the Ohana all the time now because of how many captives they have, and when Bucky sees her she always looks tired because she’s working a lot. Bucky knows what that means. He knows because he knows what kind of work Jemma Simmons is for, and she’s working a lot with a lot of captives and that’s how they know where the bases are for Bucky to go to and do his job.

Bucky is being good at his job because it’s keeping Steve safe, but he misses Steve, and he misses Tiny Steve also. He thinks he made a bad decision leaving Tiny Steve behind, because maybe Steve didn’t even see him and maybe Tiny Steve just got blown up and died. Bucky wishes he had Tiny Steve to hold in his pocket, but he doesn’t. So he tries to forget about Tiny Steve because it makes him sad. If Phil finds out Bucky is sad from missing Tiny Steve, he’ll say “This greatly reduces your value to us.” Then he’ll have to go see Jemma Simmons and she’ll go in his brain and see that he misses Real Steve even more and she’ll say “I’ll fix this to make you happy!” and she’ll make him forget about Steve. Bucky would rather be sad, so he acts happy, instead. He doesn’t want an overwrite procedure.

SHIELD is his new family but sometimes they’re not as good. They’re not as good at all as Pepper. And they don’t like Bucky so it feels lonely except sometimes Bobbi Morse is nice to him, but Skye says he’s a Hydra dirtbag, and she doesn’t like him. That’s fair because he is a Hydra dirtbag. He worked for them for a long time. He liked it. He liked to do his missions. He thought he was doing a good job, because Hydra tricked him, and if he wasn’t so dumb, they wouldn’t have been able to do that, so he’s dumb scum. He wishes he wasn’t dumb scum. But he is.

It’s because he’s dumb that he feels worried. He feels worried about what SHIELD is doing. He feels worried because SHIELD “isn’t on terms” with Steve right now. But Steve is a valuable asset. If he becomes very much “not on terms” with SHIELD, they might send him to Jemma to change his mind. And they will ask Bucky to help and Bucky might help because he misses Steve so bad and then they could be together. He just wants to be together with Steve.

*

Bobbi is brewing another pot of coffee in the makeshift kitchen at the Ohana when the Winter Soldier appears over her shoulder and scares the shit out of her. She startles so badly it’s humiliating, but she tries to play it off like a joke, like “oh goodness me.” The guy is six foot, three hundred pounds of murder and he’s staring at her. God damn, and he would be good looking too if he wasn’t like, 90% dead on the inside. Bobbi has been trying to reach out to him because she knows he’s alone out here. Hunter thinks she’s a fucking idiot and isn’t shy about saying so, but he hadn’t seen Barnes sharing his cigarette with Captain America like two fucking puppies in love. There’s a person in there, who no one else seems to give a shit about as long as he blows shit up.

“You startled me,” she says like they’re bff, like startling a SHIELD agent wouldn’t lead to swift accidental death in other circumstances. “You want some coffee?”

He doesn’t answer. He’s just staring at her. He could really stand to shower and brush his hair. A shave wouldn’t go amiss, either.

Bobbi’s tired and she doesn’t really feel like dealing with this any more than she’s just tried to do. They’re finally back “home” after a week on the road blowing up base after base on the intel Phil is mindfucking Hydra for. She can’t think about it right now. She hasn’t even had coffee.

So she pours herself a cup and sits at the rickety table she thinks Hunter pulled off the sidewalk on trash day, and the Winter Soldier sits down across from her, still staring. Then he drops his eyes and fidgets.

That’s not good.

She doesn’t know, she barely knows anything about this guy, but she knows he rarely wastes a movement, and rubbing his thumb against his fingers before clenching his hand in his lap is nothing if not a wasted movement, an anxious tell. She doesn’t even know how to press him for what’s on his mind, so she doesn’t, and just endures the awkward silence with increasing dread.

She endures it for like a good three minutes, but in a suicidal way her curiosity is piqued, so she waits it out, pretends like she’s waiting for her coffee to cool to a drinkable temperature, which she is waiting for anyway, so whatever.

Barnes has ducked his head away from her and she can see his lips press tight together like he’s keeping the words behind them. Finally, she breaks the ice. “Good job this week,” she tries.

He looks at her with innocent surprise, like it’s the last thing he ever expected to hear, from anybody. She’s said it half a dozen times, after every single strike, so she doesn’t know why he’s shocked all of a sudden, now. Maybe he hadn’t heard her, if his head was in the murder zone.

“It’s okay that-” he starts and stops. He doesn’t continue. Bobbi doesn’t generally have this kind of patience and she could really stand for Barnes to spit it out, whatever he’s trying to say. She waits what seems to her an adequate period of time and then prompts, “that what?”

He looks at her like he has no idea what she’s talking about, like this wasn’t his conversation he was trying to have. She raises her eyebrows but keeps her lips pressed closed. Barnes’s gaze kind of slides into the distance. Then he says, haltingly, “Did Jemma…” He stops again. “Fitz?”

Did Jemma Fitz. Did Jemma what Fitz?

“Did Jemma…? Did Fitz…?”

Holy crap, just spit it out!

“Did they what?” Is he asking if they’re together?

“Did they do - did Fitz get-”

He gets incredibly and very visibly anxious all of a sudden, going rigid in his chair and staring hard at the floor between his knees.

“Did Fitz get laid, you’re asking?”

“No!” he squawks, and looks at her like she’s affronted his delicate sensibilities. It’s lightened the mood a little, at least.

He fidgets a bit, again, telegraphing his discomfort in a way she suspects may be deliberate. He says, “Did Fitz get the procedure?” He looks right at her again and Bobbi feels her expression sort of freeze in place. He’s asking about Fitz’s condition, which is still and likely will always be a very sore point with the team. She hadn’t known Fitz before, but she knows he’d been incredible. Brilliant. He still is. It just has a hard time coming out. And Barnes is asking if Simmons had performed a fucking lobotomy and botched it, and she realizes the fucking kicker; it’s a legitimate question!

The horror of that realization sinks over her like slow moving ice water. Barnes has legitimate cause for concern that their team lobotomized their own engineer and left him brain damaged and crippled for life. They’d had Bucky on that table, of course he’s worried!

“There was an incident last year,” she tells him, “where Fitz and Simmons were betrayed by a teammate who turned out to be Hydra. He suffered hypoxia and brain damage. He hasn’t been-”

She can’t even bring herself to say it. They didn’t cut the top of his skull off and jab needles into his brain, they way they’re doing to Hydra’s agents right now, they way they’d intended to do to Barnes.

She can’t do this right now. She stands up, jostling the table and her coffee sloshes over the rim of her mug. “I have to get to work,” she says. She can’t even look Bucky in the eye. She knows SHIELD does some shady fucking shit, but when did she stop trying, when did she get this used to it? They’re finally winning against Hydra, doing the exact same fucking thing Hydra does. Literally, the exact same thing.

*

Bucky has the day off today because he’s been working hard all week. “Get some rest,” Phil had told him. So even though it’s early in the day, Bucky goes to his room and lies down on the bed.

Bobbi said they didn’t do a procedure on Fitz. Then she ran away and was agitated. So Bucky doesn’t feel better.

He is really tired, and should rest, but he doesn’t want to go to sleep. Sometimes when he goes to sleep he has a nightmare and he doesn’t want Phil to know he has a nightmare because he needs to be healthy and valuable. And if Phil is watching and sees Bucky’s nightmare, and then sometimes Bucky wets the bed, sometimes, which is why he doesn’t like to sleep on the bed in case that happens, but if Phil sees he doesn’t sleep on the bed, he’ll wonder, and if Bucky wets the bed everyone will know and he’ll get a procedure and he doesn’t have to say yes because people are getting procedures without saying yes, now, that’s how they’re finding all of Hydra.

Bucky is scared. He wishes he had Tiny Steve, to hold. He lies on his tiny bed with his head in the corner. He turns his face down towards the mattress. If he stays like this, they can’t see his face if they’re watching. If he stays still, they’ll think he’s asleep. They won’t know how scared he is, so scared that he’s crying. He doesn’t want to get a procedure. So he has to stay very still.

*

“Take a look at this,” Skye says, and Phil leans over her shoulder to peer at the screen. In her down time, Skye has been calibrating the algorithm, and it looks like it’s finally pinged something useful. A considerable shipment of psilocybin had, after a series of diversions and reroutings, arrived at its final destination; a wind farm in Saginaw, Michigan. A moment later, the program pings a second time: same location, similar behavior regarding a load of temazepam. Both are psychoactives developed by MKUltra during the Cold War.

“Someone’s getting their brainwash on,” Skye says, grimly.

*

Back when he’d been five foot four, Steve didn’t have a lot going for him. His spine had been crooked, he’d been chronically sick, he’d been almost deaf in one ear, and he could see about three or four colors and more than one time, before they lived together, Bucky had marched him back into his house and made him change his tie, saying “where do you even get this stuff?” It looks fine, Steve would tell him and usually he'd got it for a penny down at Robinsons or someone was getting rid of it, and Bucky would say “Listen to your old pal Bucky,” even though back then he was like sixteen years old, and he would pick out one of Steve’s other ratty, second-third-ninth-hand ties and say “this one goes with this shirt, okay, just remember the pattern.” Somehow Buck had known Steve couldn’t see color, when Steve didn’t even know yet.

Back then, the only thing Steve had had going for him was he was friends with Bucky Barnes. But everyone thought they were friends with Bucky Barnes, and almost no one was. Bucky just had that way about him that made it feel like he liked you, and he did, but that didn’t mean you were friends. “Thought you were running with the Hanhauers these days,” Steve once said and Buck had shrugged with one shoulder, trying to roll a cigarette with tobacco he had pinched from his pop. “They’re alright,” he’d said, and Steve had wondered if Buck talked about him like that. “Steve? He’s alright,” like he was nothing.

But the Hanhauers came and went, and Bucky would still show up at the Rogers residence, wrap Steve in a headlock and throw him onto the ground, a split-second tussle before Bucky jumped back up, offered his hand and said “Let’s go to the lookout,” pulling Steve to his feet. Bucky had been the best of guys.

Back then, Steve had been sickly, asthmatic, short tempered, and stubborn. His only real quality that he had, his only real good quality, he thought, was that he could always stand back up. No matter what. No matter how many times you knocked him down, Steve Rogers always stood back up. Even when you thought it was over, even if you thought, “he’s down for good,” he always stood back up. That was all he had. He couldn’t fight. He wasn’t that smart. Couldn’t hear right, couldn’t see right, couldn’t breathe. But he could take a licking and stand back up. That was all he had.

Steve lies on his side on a bed with no sheets, the quilt pulled haphazardly over one shoulder. His dresser is still upended on the floor, the drawers pulled out, in pieces, his clothing strewn about the room. The lamp is still in shards on the living room floor. Bucky’s door still hangs precariously on a single hinge. I waited and you never came!

He never came for Bucky. If it had been the other way around, Bucky would have come for him. Bucky would have dragged his tattered body through the snow, he’d have dug a grave in frozen earth, he’d have let the world burn like it did anyway, to do right by Steve. Because Bucky always came back. He always came back to Steve no matter what. And Steve, for all he can see and hear and do and be, for all his peerless strength and endless endurance, his straight, perfect spine can’t lift him up anymore. His body is everything he ever wanted, but his soul can’t stand back up. He just can’t stand back up like he used to.

He hears the front door open and shut, and someone picks their way through the living room wreckage. Clint, or Natasha, or Sam. Sam, going by the quiet way he stands in the bedroom doorway. Even though Steve’s back is turned, he can tell from the sound that it’s Sam.

The far side of the mattress dips down as Sam sits. There’s a deep, quiet breath. The weight shifts and Sam is leaning, and then he’s leaning on Steve, leaning over, to look at his face. Then his warm hand clasps Steve’s shoulder and gives him a shake. He stands up, comes around the bed, takes Steve by the wrist and drags him upright.

“Come on, man,” he says. He grabs Steve by the back of the neck, and still gripping his shoulder just sort of levers him standing. Steve doesn’t have it in him to resist, and the sudden elevation change has him kind of dizzy. Sam stands in front of him and the hand on Steve’s neck shifts to his face in a rough, reassuring caress, and pats him a little like a dog until Steve meets his eyes.

“We got this, alright?”

Steve wants to believe him. Everything has been dead end after dead end. Steve is only good for doing, this not-doing, this nothing, he can’t-

Sam’s arm slides around his shoulder and then around his neck in a headlock and his other hand scrubs at the crown of Steve’s head. Then he pounds on Steve’s back like he’s dislodging calamari, and they’re moving forward, towards the door.

But Steve stops, and pulls away.

He has to get something from the bed. He searches for it under the quilt, then closes his fist around it and braces his arm against the mattress.

He feels heavy; his head an impossible weight on his neck. The distance to standing is immense. Sam is waiting for him, near the door. Bucky’s waiting for him, somewhere.

Stand up, he tells himself. Stand up.

Slowly, straightening his spine, he does.

*

They ship out again the next morning. Bucky still feels numb and tired, but he did rest since yesterday. He wakes himself up every hour and a half, and it’s usually enough to stop him having a bad nightmare. What he would really like is to go on the couch and watch a movie with Steve. But that’s not going to happen. And he needs to stop thinking about these things. He needs to stop being a stupid idiot. He has an important purpose right now. He doesn’t think about being nice and warm under a blanket. He tightens the straps on his holsters, one at a time. He checks the sights on his grenade launcher, and his pistols, and his rifle, and his I.C.E.R. Phil says there are civilians on this mission so he’s supposed to use mostly the I.C.E.R. That’s fine. The soldier prefers a clean kill but sometimes it’s nicer not to kill civilians, he guesses. And for getting prisoners, the I.C.E.R. is better. They’ve been taking a lot of prisoners.

They circle to touch down outside a big field filled with windmills. Bucky forgets the mission for a split second, but nobody notices. He’s looking at the big windmills spinning around. They’re huge! They’re smooth and white, the blades are probably about a hundred and forty eight feet, and with the way the wind is going - Bucky watches the blades - the tips are moving at least a hundred fourteen miles per hour and can probably go a lot faster, but he doesn’t know how fast. His heart lurches in his chest, he hasn’t seen something so neat in so long. He hopes he remembers this. He hopes some day he gets to see what they’re for. Maybe if they kill all of Hydra they can come back here one day to see what the windmills are for, if he behaves and doesn’t need a procedure. There’s so many windmills, like a garden for giants. Then the quinjet turns and he can’t see them anymore and he remembers he’s on a mission so he ties his hair out of his face because it’s long now like his sister’s when she was a kid, past his shoulders because he can’t remember when’s the last time he cut it, maybe 1945. No, it would be a lot longer, then. He doesn’t know why his hair isn’t longer than that, probably someone cut it for him.

See, he is doing a good job not thinking about Steve. He ejects the magazine on the Sig. It’s fully loaded. He slides it back in and chambers a round. Everyone watches him but he doesn’t care. He’s just doing his job. They should watch and learn.

*

Nat hasn’t run this part of her plan past Steve yet, and it’s not really much of a plan.

“We know where they’re going to be,” she says. It looks almost like Steve hasn’t heard her, or hasn’t processed what she’s said. Then he looks at her closely and his brow settles into that firm, straight line, and she knows he’s back in the land of the living, which for Steve by and large will mean “fight me.”

She knows he’ll want to rush right in. It might be their safer option. If they know where SHIELD is going to be, they can fight them, pull Barnes out, call it a day and be done with it.

But there’s something else. Something she thought was just cold and pragmatic, but isn’t. She holds up the thumb drive, the black one with the red varnish hourglass.

“If we can get this to Barnes-”

Steve’s puffing up like a blowfish.

“-he can infect all their systems. We can track him to their stronghold and take them apart.”

“We’re not using him like-”

“He’s the Winter Soldier, Steve!” Nat snaps. She doesn’t mean to. “You have no idea what that means.  You have no idea what it’s like to suffer for something like that.”

His jaw snaps shut and the muscles cord beneath his skin. She’s doing this wrong, she’s coming at this all wrong. “Have some fucking faith,” she says. She sinks down into her chair and shields her eyes with one hand. What the hell is wrong with her? They’ll fight SHIELD, they’ll save Bucky, they’ll call it a day and come home. That’s obviously the safer plan. They can track down the algorithm later, they can wring SHIELD’s secrets out of them later.

Silence stretches thick between them. Then Steve reaches into his pocket.

*

They don’t really use stealth anymore. The Winter Soldier is good at stealth, but stealth is for when you’re at a disadvantage and they’re not at a disadvantage right now. They go in through the front door, and most of the people are civilians and they just get on the floor when they’re told and don’t fight.

Bucky’s team sweeps through the building, heading for the lower levels which is where Hydra hides out of habit especially with civilians around who ask questions. Their brainwashing equipment will be somewhere out of the way, but this building only has one basement level and is not that huge. Most of the rooms are offices and they’re in a “visitor center” for Saginaw Renewable Energy and there are displays of small windmills and one of the displays has-

Bucky doesn’t look at it. He moves purposefully past it without looking, his heart in his throat. He can’t show that he saw it. He can’t show that he saw, standing up in a paperclip underneath a model windmill, a smiling smurf was waving.

*

“This is where they are,” Nat says, zooming in on Saginaw Renewables. “All we need to do is ping the algorithm and draw SHIELD's attention to it.”

She places a few discreet chemical orders and lets Jarvis handle logistics.

“And we need something only Barnes will see.”

*

They sweep the first floor and then head for the stairs, and since Bucky always takes point now, he kicks the door open, and when he does, he makes sure he kicks the smurf who is stuck there, who goes flying, and no one can see it was there.

They find the machine and the facility in the basement level where all the stuff and files have been moved and stacked up in the front and they’re pretending something flooded and is getting fixed but behind the big new doors that lock it’s the machine that Bucky recognizes like the one that got blown up when he left Tiny Steve.

They take down everyone in the room and are choosing their prisoners and pulling out the poison teeth so they don't escape by dying.  They're moving the machine to get it onto the Bus, and then Bucky sees it on a table.  He sees it behind a computer monitor.

It’s Papa Smurf.

It’s Steve’s smurf, the only red one.

Skye and Hunter and Mack are moving the machine.  May and Bobbi are taking out the teeth.

Bucky brushes his hand beneath the table and snags a stick of plastic that is stuck on there with Bubblicious.  He recognizes the smell because Nat brought some and shared it with him one time. And he also pockets Papa Smurf who is wearing a clear piece of tape around his belly because something is taped on one side.

No one sees.  Then he helps move the machine because he's bigger and the machine is big.

 

Later, Bucky lies very still on his bunk in the Bus, with his head in the corner so no one will see.

The little stick of plastic is black with a little red hourglass painted on it, for poison. It pulls apart, and one end goes in a computer, because it’s poison for computers. They’re giving him a mission.

The other thing he looks at is Papa Smurf who has clear tape, and on one side there is a chip, a tracking chip like the one in Bucky’s arm. Tears spring to his eyes, but they’re good tears. Slowly so it’s not suspicious, he presses Papa Smurf against his lips. Steve is going to come for him, and needs his help for a mission. It’s the best day! It’s the best day ever.

He tucks the computer poison into his pants. They don’t make him take his pants off at SHIELD so they won’t look there for stuff, mostly. But he holds onto Papa Smurf, who does a little dance.  They stay quiet so no one will hear.

*

Steve rubs his fingers over the worn edges of shrinky-dink Steve.  All he can do now is wait.

Chapter Text

Bucky makes a cut in his wrist where the tracking chip went in. Then he puts the new tracking chip in, from Papa Smurf. He puts it next to the other tracking chip and puts toilet paper over it and then the tape that was from Papa Smurf too. This way in case he has to get a scan, maybe no one will notice because they are already expecting to see a tracking chip there. He hopes they don’t notice.

He doesn’t know yet, what to do with the computer poison. He thinks that it’s supposed to go onto SHIELD’s computers without them knowing. But he doesn’t like the idea of sabotaging SHIELD. He doesn’t like it because he’s doing important work to protect Steve, but if he poisons their computers they might not be able to protect Steve as much. So he has what is called a “dilemma” which is when you don’t know what to do because both options are bad. If Bucky poisons SHIELD’s computers, they might not be able to protect Steve, but if he doesn’t poison the computers then he will fail his mission from Steve. Then Steve would be disappointed. Bucky knows it’s more important for Steve to be safe than for him to not be disappointed in Bucky. But it feels like they both are the same amount of important.

This week, they haven’t gone back to the Ohana yet, but they’re on their way back now. Bucky still doesn’t even know where that is because it’s not his business, but now soon Natasha and Steve and Pepper will know because of the tracking chip.

After he saw the windmills and got Papa Smurf, they went to a different dock for the Bus, and then the next day attacked Hydra again somewhere else and then somewhere else the next day. He knows the big main computer for Skye’s important work is at the Ohana. He thinks he probably is supposed to poison that one. But if he is supposed to poison every computer at every base for SHIELD this will be a really long mission.

Bucky is lying on his bunk in the Bus with his metal hand pressed to his wrist so it stops bleeding faster and then he can take the tape and toilet paper off. He doesn’t want to not do his mission from Steve. Part of it is because, also… Sometimes SHIELD has been doing some stuff. He doesn’t want them to change their mind and do that stuff to Steve. He thinks maybe Jemma says it doesn’t hurt but it does a lot. Sometimes he’s seen some of the people who had the procedure and it looks like it hurt.

*

SHIELD hasn’t sat still for more than twelve hours in the last four days. The amount of fuel they burn through on that goddamn jet is enough to fund Centipede. Wouldn’t that be perfect, a terrorist ouroboros, destroying and funding itself at the same time. It would go to show what fucking circle jerk this whole SHIELD/Hydra thing has become. Nat is staring at the map, where Bucky’s chip blips slowly, in transit.

Steve is ansty. Nat is, too, but she’s trained better than Steve. Steve is barely trained at all, come to think of it. Comparatively.

Steve paces away, then turns back to the screen.

“We should move in. Next time they stop, this is-” He cuts himself off and takes a deep breath.

“Give him a chance to get back to base, at least,” Nat says.

She says it confidently, like she knows what she’s doing. That’s how she’s been trained.

*

It’s been long enough for the bleeding to stop. There’s just a little pink cut you can barely see. Bucky swings his legs over the edge of his bunk. He has to do his mission. He has to do his mission from Steve.

He has to go to the “lounge” area for lounging and act not suspicious. He goes there with his jacket off, which he doesn’t like. He usually wears his jacket if he’s not on a mission, but he needs his other arm out if he’s going to do this and not be suspicious taking his jacket off later, it’s better to do it with people around, that means they aren’t watching as close on the cameras, if they’re watching on cameras.

He goes into the lounge area and gets yogurt. He gets the blueberry kind, which is not suspicious, because he likes it. He gets a metal spoon to eat his yogurt. Only Skye is in the lounge area, doing something on her computer and she has headphones in listening to music but she still glares at Bucky because she doesn’t like him and thinks he’s scum.

When he poisons her computer, she’s going to really think he’s scum, a lot. This thought doesn’t make him feel good. It makes him feel small and wishing for Steve to be here. But he takes his yogurt away pretending not to want to be near Skye, which isn’t even pretending. Then he flexes out the plating on his metal arm, which only creates a tiny gap, but he knows where the weaknesses are, especially near the armpit. He takes a bite of blueberry yogurt and then with the thin handle end of the metal spoon, he digs it beneath the plating and tears some of his wires.

Now he is damaged and has to go to the lab.

 

“This is Fitz” is in the lab, like always. When Bucky goes down the steps to the lower level, he sees “This is Fitz” in the lab, through the glass. A cold crawling feeling is in Bucky’s stomach, more than usual. He doesn’t like to go in the lab and he doesn’t like to talk to “This is Fitz.” If Steve gets a procedure, he might get a brain problem like “This is Fitz,” even though Bobbi Morse said he didn’t get a procedure Bucky doesn’t believe her all the way because sometimes SHIELD lies, which was on Steve’s chart of feelings from Pepper when Steve was mad and after Bucky broke the stuff and Pepper wrote his feeling on the chart and then Eddie died and Bucky jumped into the river and was drowning -

“This is Fitz” is looking at Bucky now, through the glass. He can see Bucky standing there. And they stare at each other for a long time. Bucky is afraid to go in. His legs don’t want to move. But he doesn’t want Steve to get a procedure like Fitz, so he makes his legs walk to the lab and he opens the door.

Fitz doesn’t say hi. He stands kind of sideways away from Bucky like he doesn’t like that Bucky is there. He almost looks like he might be afraid of Bucky. That’s better, then! Bucky is safer if Fitz is afraid. Maybe.

Bucky moves into the lab, pretending he is brave like Steve instead of a coward like Bucky. He holds out his damaged arm.

Fitz looks at him and says nothing but that is normal for “This is Fitz.”

“This needs a scan,” Bucky says. He holds out that arm so he’s facing away from the computer. He can see himself and the computer in the glass because it’s dark outside of the lab.

“Did you - is it -”

“It’s damaged,” Bucky says. Lots of times people finish sentences for Fitz because he takes so long and can’t think of words. Fitz nods and his fingers move in the air because he is anxious and fidgets. He goes to the computer. It’s behind Bucky, just to the right.

He puts in his access code. Bucky stares at the glass. Fitz puts in 2-2-9-7-3. That’s his code. And now, it is Bucky’s code. Bucky didn’t have an access code, and now he does.

Then Fitz comes near Bucky with a metal device and Bucky wants to puke. Fitz brings the device near Bucky’s arm that he’s holding out for the scan. 2-2-9-7-3, that’s the code. Bucky thinks of that over and over so he doesn’t forget and his mouth tastes bad like he ate a bad bug but he doesn’t flinch away from “This is Fitz” or punch him, but he wants to but it’s not part of his plan.

Then Fitz takes the thing away and goes back to his computer screen. “You can take a seat,” he says, so Bucky does. 2-2-9-7-3.

“This is Fitz” crosses his arms tight over his chest as he looks at Bucky’s scans. “This is - this is,” he says, and his shoulders inch up towards his ears. “Did this happen in Santa Fe?” he asks. He has a weird accent like sometimes men would have in the war, in the British army, but not from England, like Jemma or Peggy.

“Yes,” Bucky lies.

“May I see?”

Bucky nods stiffly. He has to follow through, so he can get to be alone in the lab. He lets Fitz shift his arm up at the wrist to peer under, where Bucky damaged with the spoon.

“It’s predominantly, um,” Fitz stammers. “Superficial. Does it impede..?” He spins his finger through the air in place of words. Bucky shakes his head.

“My fingers are numb,” he says, and wiggles the last two fingers on his metal hand. It’s true. He damaged the sensor wire.

“Are they?” Now Fitz sounds interested. “Can you - no, it’s not my business.” He turns away. “Sorry, I -” he spins his fingers again. “My - I can’t, as well as I used to. With -” He breathes hard through his nose and seems frustrated. For a scientist, Fitz is not scary. “Mack is better with his hands. It won’t be difficult to fix. Can he…?” He trails off and looks at Bucky, and Bucky nods.

But then Fitz pages Mack through the computer system and Mack comes in and Mack is scary.

Mack is very big.

Bucky doesn’t like how big Mack is. When they’re on missions Mack is good to have because he’s so big but they’re not on a mission right now and Bucky is sitting and thinking of the code, which is 2-2-9. 2-2-9. 2-2. Fuck!

Mack is coming really close. Bucky’s breath is staying even. He’s supposed to stay calm because he’s on a mission for Steve. But then Mack reaches and Buck doesn’t stay calm and he does something so stupid and his head makes a movement because he flinched and leaned away when he wasn’t supposed to. He doesn’t want Mack to touch him. He never should have done something so stupid. He doesn’t know what to do. He doesn’t know if he will have to kill everyone to get out of here and then jump out of the jet. He wants to jump out, it would be better than staying here. But then he would be in really big trouble with Phil.

Mack doesn’t touch him. He raises his hands in the air with his palms out because he’s not going to touch Bucky. Bucky isn’t looking but he can see from the corner of his eye. Bucky is taking little shallow breaths and his heart is beating so hard it might short circuit.

“You need a moment?” Mack says. Bucky’s not really listening, he’s not sure who Mack is talking to, if he’s talking to Bucky or Fitz? But then Mack backs away and Mack and Fitz go out of the lab.

This is Bucky’s fault because he hurt his arm on purpose and now it needs to be fixed. He doesn’t move for a long time. He doesn’t think he can move his body. It feels like it won’t move. It feels like he needs to pee. Another time, there was another man like Mack who was black too and had no hair but had a patch on one eye, and when Bucky thinks of him he wants to sit on the floor and go under the table. That’s why he doesn’t think of that man. Bucky killed him one time. But he didn’t die. And he came back and he did things, he watched when other people did things when Bucky’s thoughts were sleeping but they’re not sleeping anymore and he remembers the things, before he was allowed to go with Steve. He wants to be back with Steve. He has to complete his mission or else Steve won’t come get him, he won’t want Bucky anymore, that’s why Bucky has to do the mission right now.

Bucky moves his head a little bit. He looks through the glass, where Fitz and Mack went out. They’re not watching him. They’re giving him “a moment” like Mack said. They’re in the cargo area where the team preps for missions before they go out, and they’re talking and they go around where they can’t see into the lab anymore. They’re not watching.

Bucky leaps to the terminal, pulling the computer poison box from his underwear. He has to find the little plug part quickly, looking for a little rectangle of pins to go in and there’s a matching symbol like a bird foot and that’s where the poison goes in. He’s Lucky Bucky because he got this opportunity while “This is Fitz” was still logged into his computer! A box pops up on the computer screen and it has little pictures of file folders that you can tap like he can tap on apps on his phone that he used to have but someone took it who’s dead now. The files are labeled as stuff he doesn’t recognize except for one that says BUCKY READ ME.

It’s his orders! His orders are in a file with the poison. Bucky touches BUCKY READ ME and another box pops up with a message that Bucky reads in record time even though he wants to read it forever and hug the computer but this is serious business.

Contents must be uploaded to SHIELD MAINFRAME to corrupt Zola’s algorithm.

Optimal incubation period one week for corrupted backup files to be distributed to SHIELD safe zones.

TO SIGNAL FOR EXTRACTION disconnect Papa Smurf GPS 3x’s - waiting 5 sec btwn reconnect. Extraction pending 1 week from signal for optimal incubation.

DESTRUCTION OF GPS WILL TRIGGER IMMEDIATE EXTRACTION FROM LAST KNOWN LOCATION.

Love you. Miss you.

Steve, Nat, Pepper

Over the drone of the engine, Bucky can hear Fitz and Mack’s footsteps returning. He presses the X shapes to close the windows and pulls the plastic poison container out from the bird foot symbol. He didn’t get to read if there were directions of what “upload” is, but he thinks he needs the file folders to go from being in the plastic container to being in the “mainframe” like when Steve took a picture of a little dog in Charlotte and then did a thing so it went to Bucky’s phone so he could see it. “Mainframe” is the room at the Ohana where Skye does her important work, so it’s not going to be as easy as sending a picture of a little dog. Since it’s secret stuff in there, they don’t want anyone to be able to send pictures or poisoned file folders.

Then Fitz and Mack come back in but they stay far away from Bucky, who is sitting down and acting calm.

“It’ll take me a couple minutes,” Mack says. “You gonna be okay?”

Bucky still doesn’t want Mack to touch his arm but it’s part of the mission so he says “Okay.”

It does only take a couple minutes and doesn’t even hurt.

 

When they go back to the Ohana, Bucky runs into a hitch. The room to the mainframe where Skye does her work has good security. It has really good security, it’s the kind of security Bucky would have put in if they had consulted him to do security.

Only Phil and May and Skye have access to go into that computer room. They have to show their retinal scan, so unless Bucky gets an eyeball out, he’s not going to be able to get in the door. And if he takes someone’s eyeball, he won’t be able to wait one week for optimal incubation. He thinks that means that...well, he’s not sure. If something happened to the mainframe at the Ohana, it would be really bad for Skye’s important work, so she probably has a secret place where she keeps backup copies. She probably has a couple places. So “incubation period” he thinks means when she makes backup copies after he poisons the mainframe, those copies will be poisoned and they’ll spread the poison to her secret places. “Incubation period” is like for the flu, when you don’t know you have it and you can spread it to other people, and then later you find out you have the flu but you already gave it to Steve and he gets really sick.

On top of needing retinal scans, there’s no other door to the computer room, and Bucky doesn’t have time without SHIELD paying attention to go through the wall, and the ventilation system here is proofed against everyone except Assassin Baby who isn’t even real he’s just a joke Bucky made up. So he wastes two days at the Ohana not being able to get in to the mainframe to incubate Computer Flu.

Now he’s starting to get anxious and annoyed, as they get back on the Bus. He has a way to spread the Computer Flu, but it’s going to take time, and he knows that Steve hates taking time. He doesn’t want Steve to crash in like always, when Bucky is still trying to line up his shot. He hopes Steve doesn’t do that. He hopes Steve can be patient.

HA HA HA.

He hopes Nat has strong rope for Steve.

*

It's been six days. Nat finally goes to Sam for some of whatever he was talking about, she doesn’t remember.

“It’s just over the counter shit,” Sam says, and passes her a sheet of foil-backed tablets. Diphenhydramine, is all it is. She pops the pills out two at a time and takes six.

Sam is set up in one of the guest suites. (They’re all guest suites, no one lives here.) Nat folds herself up at the end of the couch. “Curls up” would suggest a relaxed sort of coziness that’s completely inappropriate for how she actually feels, so no, she folds up like a beach chair and waits to be uniformly somulated, or whatever “Unisom” is supposed to stand for.

Then Sam turns off all the lights and brings her a freaking blanket and puts it over her when she’s not even cold. Then he sits next to her and his hand finds her ankle and squeezes it, and it’s so stupid but it just feels good.

(If it felt good it wouldn’t be lumping up in her throat like a fucking avacado pit. What the fuck. She’s really losing it.)

Then a wall of antihistamine hits her and pulls her under and she doesn’t try to resist.

*

This week, Bucky lines up his shot.

He does his missions for SHIELD. He does a good job. Skye does her job, which is hacking into Hydra’s computers. She puts the information from their computers onto her own little plastic thing which is called a “drive.” Skye’s drive is password protected and the password is TmWStwDB050. It took having to see it a couple times and also it was confusing because Bucky didn’t know what the “shift” with an up arrow was but it’s for making capital letters, so that’s how he knows which of Skye’s letters in her password are capitals. Also she types really fast, so that so far has been the hardest part of Bucky lining up his shot.

He is keeping a close eye on Skye because she is going to be his plague rat. She’s going to be his incubator. After Skye collects information from Hydra, she goes to Phil’s office to debrief privately. Phil’s office is very private, and in order to hear what they were saying Bucky had to wait outside the door and Agent May saw him and asked what he was doing and Bucky had to pretend he wanted to talk to Phil for private reasons. Agent May can’t hear as good as Bucky can, so he thinks she didn’t know he was listening. He was trying to look like he wasn’t. And when Agent May came he acted like he was scared of her (which isn’t really pretending,) because it makes the SHIELD people go away if Bucky stares at the wall and leans away from them.

But then Skye came out and gave him a dirty look and he had to go in to talk to Phil because that’s what he told May he was doing. So he acted like he forgot what he wanted to say and Phil told him he was doing a good job and blah blah blah and shaping the century. Or maybe that was someone else who said that. It doesn’t matter.

What he learned from eavesdropping on Skye was that she has to comb the new information for “trojans.” “Trojans” is condoms so that when you’re doing stuff with a dame but you don’t want a baby, you use one. It’s based on when the Greeks built a big wooden horse and pretended it was a present, but hid soldiers inside to get into Troy in order to win a war that was going on for a long time, a long time ago. So it’s not “Trojans” like condoms, that makes no sense. Skye is looking for Computer Flu hiding in a file exactly like how Bucky is going to do, but she doesn’t think he is incubating a virus and is going to give it to her, she only thinks Hydra will. So Bucky has to get his trojan files off of his “drive” and hide them on Skye’s, after she's checked it for Hydra Flu.

That’s going to be the next hardest part of lining up his shot. He has to get Skye’s drive without her knowing, get onto Fitz’s computer without him knowing, move the file folders like how Skye does at Hydra, and then get the drive back to Skye still without her knowing, before she goes to the mainframe but after she’s checked for trojans. So that’s why Bucky has a grenade that he stole from a Hydra soldier when no one was looking.

Skye likes to look for condoms (ha ha ha!) in between missions, on her personal computer which she goes on sometimes in the “lounge” where the yogurts are. She finishes looking and then when they get back to the Ohana sometimes she goes to bed, but sometimes she goes to the mainframe room to do her important work. Bucky just needs to time it for a time when he knows she’s already found condoms and got rid of them.

It finally happens at the end of the week when they’re headed back to the Ohana and Skye is listening to music on her computer and Bucky has been “being more social” but actually spying on Skye. So he’s “talking to Bobbi” when Skye lets out a big sigh and stretches her arms over her head in a way that means “I’m finally done with something annoying,” not “I can’t bear this anymore, so I will throw the computer.” That’s how Bucky knows she will go to the mainframe and not look for more condoms when she gets back to the Ohana.

The reason Bucky has a grenade is because Skye does not like Bucky and does not like him to be near her, so if he goes near her for no reason, she will be suspicious.

Bucky is taking a calculated risk with the safety of the crew, but it has to be something he can do quickly without anyone noticing, so he rigs the grenade to the hydraulic machinery in the cargo doors so it will sort of if you’re kind of an idiot look like somehow Hydra was able to plant an explosive when they touched down for their last raid. The grenade Bucky has is a lock mine, so it latches onto stuff, that’s why he took it because it’s kind of plausible, like if they fired the lock mine and it got stuck on the door but it didn’t detonate. He wedges it down into the hydraulics so there’s pressure on the release plate, so when the cargo doors open, there will be an explosion. It will happen early enough so that probably no one will get blown up and the door will absorb most of the force. If anyone suspects it was Bucky he’ll just act scared of them because they don’t think he will do something.

But he is scared, that’s why he’s doing something.

*

When Nat wakes up on the thirteenth day, she’s done waiting. This is pointless endangerment. Even if the algorithm is in the wind, it’s not worth losing Bucky over. The next time SHIELD touches down, they’re moving in for extraction.

She leaves Sam asleep in the living room where she camps every other day or so, and hits the Common Kitchen before heading into the War Room to check on Barnes’s chip. She’s going to have to eat crow with Steve and just say she was wrong and she’s sorry.

Steve is in the War Room, alone, when she gets there. He’s watching the monitor’s GPS. Nat quietly joins him. The red light blips steadily near Omaha, Nebraska.

“How long have they been there?”

“Just now.”

So. Here goes nothing.

“I think we should move in,” she says.

Steve doesn’t even look at her. He doesn’t react, but it’s calm, not the checked out, worrying way he’s had since Bucky was taken. He watches the red light blink on the screen.

“No,” he finally says, and looks at her. He’s wearing that frank half smile he sometimes has when he’s thinking of Brooklyn or Peggy Carter or the Howling Commandos - something he can’t do anything about and can only remember fondly. He turns back to watch the blinking dot. Quietly, he says, “Let him line up his shot.”

*

They taxi into the Ohana cargo bay. The team is gathered at the rear of the Bus, waiting for the ramp to descend. Bucky breathes evenly, normal. Not looking at anyone, normal. Standing on the same side of the hold as Skye; not normal. But far enough away no one thinks it’s suspicious. Everyone is tired from fighting Hydra all week.

When the ramp descends, everyone hears the high pitched whine of the lock mine arming, and Bucky has time to push Fitz back before tackling Skye to the floor as the mine goes off, reaching into her jacket pocket where he saw her put her drive. He’s fast enough that as he rolls to a crouch above her, he’s able to nick her forehead with the small blade he smuggled from Hydra. The dust settles and the team, wide-eyed, alarmed, slowly get to their feet.

“What the fuck,” Skye shouts. Her hand is pressed to her forehead and blood is coming down from beneath it. She’s glaring at the ramp, and then Bucky. “What the fuck,” she says, louder and angrier. Bucky backs away from her. He doesn’t have to pretend to be scared. He doesn’t like to be yelled at by Skye or called “dirtbag.”

“Everyone alright?” Phil says.

Everyone is fine. Except for Skye, who’s bleeding.

“That must have been lodged in there at Truxton,” Mack says. That was their last base they just hit.

Everyone backs away from the ramp as it groans and then lowers all the way. Skye is staring at her hand now which is covered in blood. Actually Bucky nicked her kind of hard and she might need a stitch. That’s good because she’ll go to the doctor to get it and not go to the mainframe, so Bucky has time. The rest of the team goes down the ramp, but Bucky doesn’t. He stares at where Skye’s blood dripped on the floor. Then Phil comes over and says “She’ll be fine. Good reflexes.” Then he takes Bucky’s elbow like to guide him off the Bus but Bucky jerks away and lets Phil see every inch of how scared he is. Phil will think it’s for something else. Bucky wants to be sick but he’s not going to be. He has the drive but only for a short time before Skye sees that it’s missing. He backs away from Phil like he’s afraid to get off the Bus right now.

Phil holds up his hands the way everyone does when they want to show to Buck they won’t hurt him. “Join us whenever you’re ready. Hunter’s going for pizza. Any requests?”

Bucky shakes his head and watches Phil until he goes down the ramp and gets off the Bus. Now no one is on the Bus watching the cameras, which Bucky’s not sure there even are cameras on the Bus, but no one is there to watch them, so he goes back through the hold to where the lab is.

The computer is locked, so he puts in 2-2-9-7-3, and it unlocks. He puts in his drive to where the bird foot symbol is. It opens up the box with the files and he has to do the things he saw Skye do but in reverse, getting files off the drive onto the computer. He taps the file folder that says DE-021 and it turns blue around it.

Then what? Shit! He taps it again but then it goes into that file that has a million other files inside it. How does he get back to just the one folder? He can’t move one million files, he has to move the one folder they all are in. At the top of the box, there are a couple words and one of them says DE-021 which is the name of the folder, so he taps that, but nothing happens. There’s a little arrow pointing backwards. He taps that, and it goes back to showing DE-021 and BUCKY READ ME. Bucky lets out a relieved breath but he still is not moving forward! He is only moving not backwards.

He tries an experiment where he puts his finger over the folder and then drags it like a little bug. It works! It makes a ghost folder shape that says “copy” on it. He drags it out of the box so it’s on the main screen of Fitz’s computer. It worked and he’s a genius! He pulls his drive out and puts Skye’s drive in. It prompts for a password and he puts TmWStwDB050. It works and he’s the biggest genius ever. Skye’s drive opens up to a million files. They have the date next to them, so Bucky opens one of the folders by clicking it too fast like he did by accident before. It goes into the folder, which is filled with other folders. Then he presses over the poisoned folder and drags it like a little bug into Skye’s Hydra folder, nestled in the middle of a million files. So when she puts these files onto the mainframe...hopefully the point is that the computer flu will do this by itself. He hopes he doesn’t have to do something else. He hopes when Skye uploads the files onto the mainframe, the computer flu will incubate. Otherwise he failed his mission.

There are voices going on outside. They’re looking at the door to the cargo hold that got damaged from the lock mine. They’re looking to see how it got there. Footsteps are coming in and it’s easy to see into the lab from there because it’s glass. Bucky pulls out Skye’s drive. He sits in a chair and stares at nothing. They already think he’s weird and a freak, so when Agent May sees him there, he pretends not to hear her when she says his name.

“Barnes!” she says again, louder. He shifts his head towards her, a little bit but doesn’t look at her. “What are you doing?” she asks. Fitz’s computer isn’t on the light-wiggle design it sometimes does when he doesn’t use it for a long time. May looks at the computer and at Bucky, so Bucky says words really quietly. He says “V gostyah horosho, a doma lutshe,” which is just something sometimes Tolik would say when he was leaving and putting Bucky away. “Visiting is good, but home is better.” It’s just some words to say so that Agent May will think he’s having an episode. He says them over and over, while she hits a button so the screen turns off.

“Come on,” she says to Bucky. He looks at her and in his smallest voice says “I hurt Skye.”

“No you didn’t. Let’s go.”

Bucky lets some tears come out. “I don’t want a procedure,” he says. It’s hard to let out the right amount of tears, because a lot more want to come out than is useful right now.

“She hit her head, Barnes. She’s fine.”

But now Bucky can’t really stop the tears coming out. If Phil finds out he poisoned the mainframe, he’ll definitely get a procedure and become an automaton which is a kind of robot with no person inside.

“When’s the last time you slept?” May asks. It’s a weird question. Bucky sleeps all the time whenever he can for an hour and a half so he doesn’t have a nightmare.

May comes very close to the chair and she takes Bucky’s elbow, which startles him, but he doesn’t pull away because he doesn’t want May to be mad. She says “Come on,” again and lifts his arm so he will stand up, so he stands up. She guides him out of the lab, to the cargo hold. “You’re not going to get a procedure,” she says. “You’re doing fine.”

That’s the worst. He’s doing fine so he won’t get torture and Steve won’t and become an automaton as long as he does “fine,” that’s fine, that’s not fine, SHIELD is the worst, he hopes they all get a real virus and die. They’re going past the spot where Bucky cut Skye and Bucky still has one last step of his plan, so he pulls away from May. She’s not supposed to be around for this part so he has to think on the fly and pretends to be cleaning up the drips of blood with his sleeve.

“Just leave it,” May says, and reaches for him again but he skitters away from her and as he does he drops Skye’s drive under the crew seats along the wall so it’s like she lost it in the explosion. Then Bucky lets May guide him to his feet and down the ramp. As they’re going out one door from the hangar, a door on the other side opens, and Bucky can tell from the quick sound of footsteps it’s Skye going back for her drive. She’s the incubator, now.

*

The red light winks out.

It flashes back on.

It blinks two more times.

Steve smiles.

Chapter Text

Fitz finds something on the lab computer that’s not supposed to be there. It’s a file folder labeled DE-021, that’s been haphazardly plunked on the desktop in a way neither he nor Simmons would ever do. They’re the only two who use these computers, mostly, though he supposes it could have been Mack. He opens the folder and skims the contents. None of the secondary folder names mean anything to him, but when he opens those, it’s information on Hydra. But Skye certainly wouldn’t have left this here - she wouldn’t have even used the lab’s computers, and hadn’t, as far as Fitz knew.

He’s not meant to be on the Bus at the moment, not until May and Hunter have swept for more mines. But he has a bit of weapons analysis he wants to get a head start on, so he just needs to pick up a few files and then he can work from the shabby little lab in the Ohana. He clicks through a few more folders. It’s largely nothing, not any sort of vital information on Hydra. There’s no reason for it to be here. But then he notices something.

He opens up one of the files in the text editor. There’s quite an elaborate bit of coding going on here, and as he sinks into the data, Fitz understands what it’s for.

He can see it’s a form of computer virus, and simply by virtue of having been loaded onto the Bus’s network, it's worming its way into all of their data. Fitz’s primary reaction is to feel first panicked, then nauseous, then furious. This is his computer, it’s like his child! The thought of someone’s malicious software wreaking havoc on his processors, it -

Fitz keeps himself steady. Unless he understands what it does, he won’t be able to hunt it down now and get rid of it. But how in hell did Hydra get malware onto his system? And leave it on the desktop like amateurs, for anyone to see?

Then Fitz sees what the virus is for. And then, knowing who’s recently joined their ranks? And knowing his previous affiliations - not with Hydra, but the Avengers. The virus is the one the Black Widow had been infecting Hydra’s system with, hunting down the algorithm for which SHIELD had nearly gotten both her and Captain Rogers killed. The nauseous feeling is back, but not on account of the betrayal. It’s the thought of what will happen if he reveals it.

The Winter Soldier is too valuable to decommission. Fitz knows Coulson well enough to know that’s how he’ll perceive it. That’s how he’ll justify it. They need him in order to succeed against Hydra the way they have been these last few weeks, and if his loyalty wavers, they’ll simply change his mind. They will literally change his mind, and that means sending him to Jemma. And that’s why Fitz wavers. That’s why he closes the folders. That’s why he drags DE-021 towards the trash, with his heart in his throat.

A week ago Fitz had walked in on Jemma in the lab. Bobbi had just been leaving, and Fitz doesn’t know what they’d been talking about, but he does know that whatever was said had left Jemma looking sick to her stomach. When Fitz had tried to ask her what was wrong, she hadn’t even looked at him and had nearly begun to cry. It’s not like Jemma to cry. But she looks paler and frailer every time Fitz sees her, which is more and more seldom the more time they spend tracking down Hydra on the information she’s...the information she’s raping them for. SHIELD barely even needs the algorithm at all, not with this far more efficient, brutal method.

The Winter Soldier should be let to go home. He’s not a healthy man. Anything he’s done to Fitz’s system was at the behest of the Black Widow, who was trying to right a wrong committed by SHIELD, against her, in pursuit of an invasive algorithm that at this point would be just as likely to point to SHIELD as to Hydra. It would be just as likely to implicate Jemma as it would...as it would Ward. That’s what they’ve become. That’s what these compromises have done to them. And if Coulson knows what Barnes has done, he won’t let it stand, and he won’t let Barnes go, and he’ll put it to Jemma to alter his mind - a man who’s been violated over and over, all by people who have surely felt justified, who surely felt their cause was greater than the sum of their actions.

If Coulson sends Barnes to Jemma for an overwrite, Fitz is afraid of what might happen. He’s afraid of what that will mean for SHIELD. The Black Widow is right; something like that algorithm shouldn’t exist, and it doesn’t matter anyway; SHIELD doesn’t need it.

That’s why Fitz deletes the file.  He erases all trace but the virus itself.  He doesn't care if it spreads. He copies his schematics for analysis and returns to his bedroom. He says nothing.

*

Bucky wakes up from a bad nightmare. It’s harder and harder to go to sleep, and harder and harder to wake himself up every hour and a half. He knows that his reflexes have slowed down a lot. Slower and slower the longer he’s here, and the more tired and scared he feels every day. He signalled for Steve to please come to get him, but he doesn’t know if Steve will. Maybe Steve wasn’t looking at the computer and didn’t see that the light blinked off. Maybe he decided it was too troublesome to deal with Bucky. Maybe he was sick of Bucky being mean, because Bucky was mean to Steve sometimes and made his pancake have a frown and put a label on his shirt one time that said “DOG FART” and didn’t tell Steve about it before he went outside with his shirt saying that. He hopes Steve is not so mad about that that he throws away Tiny Steve and forgets about Bucky. Bucky is trying really hard to be worth coming back for but he doesn’t know that he is. Maybe Steve threw out Bucky’s clothes and his bed and put weights and a bench press in Bucky’s bedroom. He probably said “Ah, that’s better.” He probably threw out Bucky’s candy.

That’s why Bucky gets up in the middle of the night and is going to the kitchen to get hot water. Sometimes Bucky likes to put hot water in a mug and hold it so both his hands get warm. Sometimes this makes him feel better and not like crying like how he feels right now. He’s scared that somehow someone will know that he’s a traitor to SHIELD. In his dream, a mean person held him down by the neck on a dirty floor and peeled the skin off his back like a wet shirt and in the dream Bucky knew that having no skin on his back was going to be very bad, even worse than how bad it felt for it to be ripped off. He was scared that the mean person was going to leave Bucky having no skin, so in his dream he was trying to grow skin back fast so the mean person wouldn’t leave. And when he woke up he felt so scared because he wasn’t growing skin back fast enough and he would be stuck with no skin and it still felt bad even though he was awake and it wasn’t even real. But the feeling still felt real. So he got up to get hot water.

But then when he gets to the kitchen the doctor is in there drinking from a mug and Bucky stops and the doctor looks at him.  It's the doctor who does the procedures, Jemma Simmons.  She's the doctor who will do his procedure when Steve doesn't come get him and Phil finds out Bucky is a traitor to SHIELD.  Bucky is more scared of her than of anyone else.  He's so scared of her that by accident he sort of goes away without leaving and the Winter Soldier goes away and there’s nothing left standing there except the body.  The body doesn’t move until later someone tells it to.

*

“He came into the kitchen and then just...stopped, and now he’s been like this…” Simmons tells her. It’s bullshit o’clock in the morning, like three thirty or four, and Bobbi had been in a dense sleep when Simmons had come knocking on her door like - like she doesn’t know what. She’s too tired to think of what Simmons’s knocking had been like, like something quiet and incessant and annoying. Barnes is standing in the doorway to the kitchen, and Bobbi’s not keen on coming up behind him in the dead of night, but she also doesn’t feel like going all the way around to the other entrance, so she knocks on the wall to make sure he knows she’s coming.

She approaches cautiously. Barnes has been reaching out to her a little more, recently, spending more time with the team in the lounge, on the Bus. He’d protected Fitz and Skye from the explosion earlier, and just overall seemed to be doing pretty okay. But now he’s catatonic in the kitchen.

Bobbi waves Simmons back, because she suspects Simmons is all or part of the problem. Bobbi sidles around Barnes so she’s standing in front of him, but he doesn’t seem to have seen her. It’s like there’s no one there.

She’s not sure if she should touch him. She doesn’t generally have any occasion to, so it’s not like they’ve built up this physical rapport. Mack had said he’d had a little bit of an incident with touching, in the lab when Barnes had come to Fitz for some minor repairs. She remembers the way Barnes had flinched when she’d gone for a high five after that first mission, like a pit-fighting bull terrier who would bite her hand off if he thought he had to, like someone who didn’t even know what kindness- you know what, nevermind. It’s too early to be thinking about that shit, and isn’t helping anything right now.

“Hey, Barnes?” she says softly. She tries to put herself in the way of where he’s looking, but it doesn’t make a difference. She calls to Simmons, “I’ll handle this.” Simmons wavers like she thinks she should do something, but she knows Barnes is scared of her, and Bobbi had told her what he’d said, about Fitz, about Simmons destroying his brain. She’d watched the blood drain right out of Simmons’s face, like watching someone age ten years in ten seconds. It was just something to fucking think about - all of them - what they’re becoming and what this war has turned them into. Then, as Bobbi had left, Fitz, of all people, had been walking in. She’s not going to say it to him, what Barnes had said.  If anyone doesn't need a reminder of the price of this war, it's Fitz.

They need to let Barnes go. Whatever reason they’d had for keeping him here, it doesn’t hold water anymore. He’s done his time, they’ve put a crunch on Hydra, and Rogers isn’t going to let that happen again, what happened at Owl’s Head Park. But hey, you know what?  He's useful! Maybe they should just put him on ice until they need him again! Who cares, right?  It's war.

Bobbi releases a heavy sigh, then switches the electric kettle on for tea. It doesn’t take long to boil. It’s already hot, she thinks from Simmons having been in here for a cup of four AM chamomile. Bobbi rifles through the half empty boxes of tea and tries to find one that appeals to her, even though she’s not super big on tea. She doesn’t know what Barnes will like, either, if he comes around. She decides to go with some spicy smelling kind with a tiger on the box, some inoffensive sense stimulation to maybe bring Barnes around. Actually it smells pretty nice.

*

Bobbi Morse is in the kitchen with him, he realizes after awhile. It’s not the doctor anymore. He’s sitting down now because she said to.

It smells like cinnamon and chicory and warm stuff like cloves. That’s because Bobbi has a tea. There are two teas, with steam coming up. Bobbi is sitting at the table with her chin in her hand, but then she looks up at Bucky and sees that Bucky is looking at her. She pushes one of the steaming and nice-smelling teas towards him even though it already is near him.

Bucky wants Bobbi to help him. He wants her to be nice and be his friend. But that’s why he’s so stupid. He always wants for someone to be nice. That’s how they trick him. If someone is really mean so you get sad, and then they act nice to help you, that’s not nice. Bobbi isn’t mean but Bobbi is SHIELD and SHIELD is mean. So that is bad and tea is not nice.

Bobbi drinks her entire tea and steam stops coming off the other because it is cold. She puts both the mugs in the sink and doesn’t wash them. Then she brings Bucky back to his bedroom.  She stands in the door.

Softly, almost to herself, she says, “I should have Rogers come get you, this is ridiculous.”

Bucky stops moving even though Bobbi wants him to go into the room so she can lock him inside. He looks at her, hard. Steve is coming, but she’s not going to trick Steve into coming here. He says, “If you bring him here, I’ll kill you slowest, last.” But he says it accidentally in Russian, so she just looks at him and doesn’t know what he said.

*

They hold over for three days at the base. The damage to the ramp in the explosion was minimal but needs bodywork to maintain pressure at high altitude. There were no other explosives on the ship. It’s possible Hydra launched the lock mine as the door was closing, and it became lodged in there like that. It feels implausible to May, but she doesn’t have a better theory. She has a feeling, though, and she knows enough to follow up on a feeling even if it’s vague, so the next day, after she and Hunter have swept for mines and run diagnostics on everything, May finds herself back in the Bus’s lab, where she’d found Barnes last night, babbling quietly in Russian. If he weren’t such a valuable asset, he would be too risky to have on board.

She wakes up the computer and keys in her access code. It hadn’t been locked last night when Barnes was in here. He doesn’t have an access code. It was probably a coincidence. She studies the desktop, but nothing seems to be amiss. She roots through the computer’s history, but nothing catches her eye as suspicious.

She logs out and locks the computer again.  It doesn't hurt to be thorough.

 

They’re back on the road for the rest of the week. Operations are getting smaller, but trickier as Hydra is driven further underground. They’re losing their foothold in the US.

Barnes seems to have pulled it together since that night. He’s as efficient as ever in the field, but May still keeps a close eye on him.

It’s just a feeling, that’s all.

*

Bucky hopes that Steve is coming. It has been one week. Bucky is tired and starting to hear things that aren’t there, like laughing. Sometimes he hears a laughing sound when no one is laughing, or a scratching sound in the wall, but no vibration from scratching, so the scratching isn’t real. He had to get an alarm to wake him up every hour and a half because his body is glitching and not doing what it’s told. He forgets why he has to wake up every hour and a half but it’s an important reason. But he can’t remember. He’s not hungry enough and his arm is hurting from when he loses too much weight, it makes his arm hurt and not fit right. He tries to be hungry but he wants to throw up. His stomach hurts all the time.

He couldn’t confirm that his mission was completed. He only knows that Skye took the drive into the mainframe, and he hasn’t had a procedure so she must not have seen his condom.

The point of a Trojan Horse is that the virus gets inside. So it is not a good name for a condom. He is going to write a letter to Trojan. He is going to say they are dumb.

It has been one week, but Steve has not come. He might not be coming. He knows where Bucky is because of the chip. But he has not come to where Bucky is, which, he does not know where that is. But Steve knows. Bucky is on the Bus. He is tired. He wants to die if it means he can sleep and be safe. He doesn’t care if Steve comes. He will just die and not have a nightmare and no one else can bother him anymore.

*

They’re on their way back to the Ohana and Skye is fiddling with the algorithm when it starts completely fucking up. Thank God this is just the copy, but what the fuck?

She skims through the code and then her stomach tries to turn itself inside out because she’s watching the code devour itself. This is the Black Widow virus, how the fuck did it get on her laptop? If it was that fucking fucker -

Holy shit. Skye leaps to her feet but her next realization swoops through her and almost lays her flat. If she can isolate the virus on her computer, it doesn’t matter. But she knows the virus lays low for a week before taking effect, and it’s been one week since she lost track of her drive for five minutes after Bucky Fucking Barnes tackled her, it’s been one week since she uploaded it onto the mother fucking mainframe, Jesus Fucking Christ! That son of a bitch is dead.

*

Bucky is playing a card game with Mack. He is trying to act normal. And he is trying to act like he is okay with Mack and with everyone in SHIELD. Bucky remembers this card game and remembers playing it during the war with some other men who got blown up a little later and he can’t remember their names.

They are heading back to the Ohana and Mack says they should be there in about two hours. So Bucky is playing cards to pass the time. But then Skye comes in and aims an ICER at his head and if he didn’t move he would have gotten shot in the head with an ICER. He stays crouched on the ground not moving because he doesn’t know if he’s allowed to defend himself against Skye. But Mack is defending Bucky from Skye instead and trying to get the ICER from her, and she’s screaming a lot and calling Bucky a fucking mole and a dirtbag, so she must have found out about the virus so now Bucky will get the memory overwrite and be a robot. He wishes he was a robot anyway, who didn’t have feelings to feel bad or sad that Steve isn’t coming and if he changes his mind later Bucky will be gone forever anyway and it’s too late. When he’s a robot he won’t have to feel so bad. That’s what he’s thinking about while stuff happens and Skye is yelling and then Phil is talking and crouched next to Bucky talking and asking something. Bucky doesn’t care. He probably is going to get torture now and then made into an automaton so he won’t even remember or care about the torture so there’s no point.

Phil turns Bucky’s face to look at him but Bucky doesn’t look at him even though his face is facing Phil. The Phil stands up. He says “We’ll deal with this back at base,” and Skye says, “You’ll just let him sit there?” and Phil makes a noise like he’s tired. Bobbi says Skye is protective of SHIELD because it’s her only family and she took the fall of Triskelion really hard. She’s taking it really hard now because Bucky betrayed her and SHIELD.

 

Since Skye is so mad, Bucky has to go in the tank to wait until they get to the Ohana. Skye said to throw him off the Bus, so they might to that. If Bucky fell from that far, he would definitely be a splat, not like the other times. He almost wishes he was a splat from the first time falling, then none of this stuff would have happened.

Then they get to the Ohana and Phil comes to get him and May is there too with her ICER and everyone has weapons except Bucky who is a traitor. Phil puts Bucky’s earpiece in for him and Bucky doesn’t lean away.

“We’ll work this out,” Phil says. Phil is pretending to be nice.

The ramp lowers and everyone goes down. Bucky is going to the interrogation room, which he has never been to this one before.

But then there is a sound like fwew and an arrow goes by and makes an explosion on the door they were going to. It is from a person Bucky saw one time when Steve had a wheelchair. He is up on the catwalk, looking grim and he waves at Phil. Then Phil turns around and Bucky turns around too and walking around to cut them off from the Bus, it’s Steve and Nat. Bucky’s heart beats once, really hard, and goes back to normal. Look! Steve came. That’s pretty good. Or maybe bad. He doesn’t know anymore.

*

With Iron Man and Falcon undoubtedly outside, Phil counts six on three indoors, with Fitz a liability and Barnes in the air. If they were only facing Rogers, he would say his team could handle it, but they’re no even match for the Avengers in numbers like this. Phil hates to say that his team is outclassed, but he knows better than to lie to himself.

Still, though Rogers clearly came prepared to fight, there might be an agreeable way out of this for everyone. It’s a shame about the algorithm and Barnes defection, but that can’t be undone. Skye’s fury is personal and inconsequential, and Phil was more curious than anything else as to how Barnes had bamboozled them all when he could barely string two words together. But, Phil had once said that Barnes was capable of a great deal more than he lets on. Phil spares a moment to wonder how much of the deceit is intentional, or whether Barnes too underestimates himself. Perhaps a combination of both.

In any event, with Barnes no longer reliable, and Hydra gone deeply to ground for the time being, the risk of allowing Barnes to return to Rogers’s care has been greatly reduced. Rogers came prepared to fight, but if all he wants is Barnes, he can have him: a simple solution for everyone.

“I imagine you’re here for your friend,” Phil says. He turns to Bucky and says with both remorse and fondness, “I”ll be sad to see you go. You’ve been a great help to us. But all good things come to an end, don’t they?”

Bucky looks at him dully, then back at Steve.

“It’s not that simple,” Steve says, and Phil sighs. He has no interest in enduring a hypocritical moral lecture from Captain America, a man who has been content to sit on the sidelines while Phil and his team take the trenches, making the hard choices while everyone else buries their heads in the sand. Phil is not proud of the choices he’s had to make. But he believes in them. And he’s not going to be lectured by some starry-eyed idealist who was not there.

“What about Bucky,” Phil counters. “You don’t get to pick and choose who you implicate in this. He’s been instrumental to our success.”

Ah. Of course, now Rogers balks. If he turns SHIELD over to the justice system, the way he must intend to, James Barnes goes down right along with them; the man with the metal arm who wreaked havoc on D.C. in the days leading up to Insight.

The Black Widow spares a glance for the Captain and watches that ramrod straight posture curl down. The doubt is plain as day on Rogers's face, but Phil is unclear on Romanoff’s stake in all this. She wanted the algorithm gone, and it looks like she’s gotten that, as far as SHIELD is concerned.  So it's a simple matter of Rogers accepting the deal.  SHIELD will continue to put their lives on the line, and Barnes can finally go home.  Rogers shuts his eyes, conflicted, and opens his mouth to accept.  Compromises had always been Phil's strongsuit, in his days of middle management.

But then Barnes does something that surprises Phil. Phil is very rarely surprised except, it seems, in the case of James Barnes, who is one unexpected turn after another. Barnes steps forward, straightening up where Rogers had wilted, and before Rogers can accept, he says, quietly but clear, “It’s okay, Steve. I’ll go.”

Phil hates surprises.

Rogers's brow settles into that stubborn, bullheaded line.  Phil's last bargaining chip has flipped. They’ll have to fight their way out, and they’re no match for Avengers caliber warriors, without the Winter Soldier.

Phil reaches into his jacket.  He had hoped he would never have to use this, but he still has a card he can play; an emergency protocol. He must play it, in fact.  He has no choice.

*

Bucky doesn’t want to go to jail. He doesn’t want to go to the judge and tell all the horrible things he did to people. He doesn’t want to be called “Hydra scum” and “dirtbag." He wanted Steve to just come and get him and they drive away on his motorcycle and get Italian ice. But that’s not going to happen. He did bad things. And SHIELD did bad things. And if SHIELD has to face up to the bad things they did, Bucky has to, too. That’s fair. He can’t keep not thinking of it, the things that happened and what he did.

So he says, “It’s okay, Steve. I’ll go.”

Steve can’t let SHIELD go, to keep giving people procedures to make them think things. He can’t let them go just because of Bucky. Bucky can’t let Steve let them go. Steve would always think about it forever. Bucky would always know SHIELD could come do something bad to Steve.

Steve's look says he knows Bucky is right.  His look says he is determined to do the right thing.  That's because Steve is good, a good person. Bucky wants to be a good person.

Then, a noise comes. It’s in his earpiece.  It's the worst, most horrible, scary, hurting noise. It’s loud in his ear but he’s not allowed to touch his ears when this noise comes. He drops to his knees so the noise will stop. That’s how you stop this noise. Then there’s a hard, hurting shock that goes through his whole body, like his bones will lock together and break and be on fire. Then everything is quiet and clear.

*

Bucky says, “It’s okay, Steve. I’ll go.”  There is no way in hell he is going. Steve doesn’t care what kind of hypocrite this makes him. Bucky never chose any of this. He won’t be punished for Phil’s crimes, or Pierce’s, Hydra’s, or that dead, evil fucker from the bridge whose swollen, half-dead body scared the shit out of Nat. Bucky won’t be punished for any of that. Those aren’t his crimes.

Phil reaches into his jacket, and there’s a dim, high-pitched sound coming muffled from a receiver, and Bucky hits the ground like his cords were cut, his face a ghost-white rictus of pain and fear. Then the little shit who iced Nat - Skye - she leaps forward with a high-voltage micro-tazer which she jams down against Bucky’s neck. He seizes, his mouth a silent, open scream.

Steve will kill her. As plain as that. He closes that distance in a split second, shield raised to decapitate.  He swings the shield down with crushing force but a metal arm shoots up, clanging ferociously on the vibranium alloy.  The jolt jars Steve hard from his wrist to his hips. Bucky stares blindly from behind his tangled hair. The girl rolls away and escapes.

“Protect the team,” Phil orders.  "Guard the retreat."

He waves his team towards the jet as the Winter Soldier rises.

Chapter Text

Phil heads straight for the cockpit while Hunter and Mack cover the rear. Agent May is engaged with the Black Widow, which could prove problematic if she’s not able to extricate herself quickly. Phil doesn’t want to have to fire fatally on an Avenger, but he will if it comes down to choosing Nat or May.

Skye is hot on his heels. “What about Simmons,” she’s saying.

Iron Man and the Falcon are stationed outside the hangar. Falcon can do little against the bulk of the jet if they act fast, but Iron Man will be a problem until they’re able to climb high enough to outstrip his oxygen processors.

“Phil,” Skye yells.

That’s twice Skye has been personally attacked by Captain Rogers. He clearly doesn’t share Phil’s qualms with killing a former ally or comrade in arms.

“Cover Agent May,” he orders. “Make sure she’s on the Bus by the time I close the hatch.”

Iron Man will target their engines, trying to ground them before they take flight. But he’s still predominantly a close range fighter, so keeping the engines full throttle from standstill, though tough on their heat-sensitive electrical systems, will deter Stark from getting too close. Phil would prefer to avoid using the air-to-airs, if possible.

“What about Simmons,” Skye argues. “We can’t leave her here!”

Simmons has already been captured. It’s likely she’s no longer on base. If Skye doesn’t understand that, he can’t explain it right now.

“We’ll have to come back for her. Our priority is to shake the Avengers and regroup.”

They will go back for Simmons if they can, but there’s no telling how long the field wipe will hold on the Winter Soldier, and if it gives out while they’re still grounded, Rogers will easily take down the rest of the team. Phil turns to look squarely at Skye because she still hasn’t done as she’s told.

“Do what you have to do to get May on board. We have two minutes.”

*

They’re leaving Simmons to get totally fucked because of that fucking psychopath they should have never brought on board. They didn’t need him, they had never needed him: once Skye figured out the algorithm they would have annihilated Hydra - there would be no hiding. And it would be over, forever. That’s what the algorithm was for, that’s what they’d betrayed the Black Widow over, and now the Black Widow is trying to kill May, and there’s no way May can win that one - the fucking Black Widow, Skye worshipped her and now everything is so totally fucking fucked, and as Skye sprints back to the hatch she hears Fitz screaming, he’s wrestling with Bobbi who is bodily dragging him onto the Bus because they can’t leave without Simmons! This is their family, you don’t just leave them behind when the shit hits the fan. They should have never brought that fucker on board. You can’t bring someone in you can’t trust. This is what happens! This is what always happens.

Mack and Hunter are positioned on the ramp. Mack covers May, Hunter is pinning Clint down with cover fire. Clint, who was supposed to be Phil’s fucking friend, who was supposed to be on their side. Skye goes to draw her ICER to cover May, but it’s gone.

That algorithm was going to keep them safe. It was going to protect them from people like Ward, it was going to protect kids like Fitz so they could do their fucking science or whatever. What was wrong with that? What was wrong with wanting to know? If you knew who would go Hydra before they went Hydra, you wouldn’t have to cut off heads. You wouldn’t have to wait until it was too late, you could put them on a different path. With the algorithm, you could help people instead of kill them, you could prevent the war instead of chase it.

If Simmons is captured, she’s going to be slaughtered by the justice system for those overwrites. If Skye could have calibrated the algorithm faster, Simmons never would have had to do that. So this is Skye’s fault as much as the Winter Soldier’s. She knows that, as she retrieves a sidearm from the team arsenal and checks the magazine. They never should have let that nutjob on board but they wouldn’t have had to if she’d done her job, if she’d been faster, if she’d figured it out.

The glass to the lab room rattles as Fitz pounds against it. Bobbi has wedged the doors shut to lock him inside. Skye positions herself along the edge of the ramp hatch and draws a bead on the Black Widow. She needs to give May the opportunity to retreat to the Bus; that’s her priority. But for everything he’s cost them, for the safety they could have had - she’s got a bullet for the Winter Soldier if she gets the chance. She owes Simmons at least that much.

*

The soldier’s adversary doesn’t advance. Agent May has engaged with the Black Widow, but after his initial attack, Captain America has fallen back while the soldier’s team retreats.

The soldier narrowly dodges an arrow and in the same movement neatly fires off a return shot with Skye’s ICER. The archer has ducked for cover but the action draws in Rogers for a moment.

“Bucky,” Rogers says.

With the exception of Agent May, the team has made it back to the Bus. Hunter and Mack are covering May from the archer, leaving him to deal with Rogers. But the Captain isn’t an active threat and is reluctant to engage. Sidestepping smoothly, the soldier keeps up a slow, circuitous movement to keep the Captain, the Widow, and the archer in his sights. If he fires on the Widow, the Captain will interfere with the shot, so he needs to move in to disable from close range. The Widow specializes in hand to hand, but his main objective is to buy May some time.

The soldier squeezes off two quick shots to divert the Captain and the archer, and uses the opportunity to move in on the Widow, circling quickly around to attack from behind as May drives her towards him. The Widow sees him and angles back towards the archer, which is perfect because as the archer draws on the soldier, his upper body is fully open. Though he’s fast, the soldier is faster. The shot hits below the ribs and the archer drops. That’s how the soldier realizes the ICER is still set on stun, which aggravates him, because a stunned target is still a target and he’ll have to keep an eye on the catwalk still.

“Bucky, Bucky, Bucky,” that asshole is saying, and the soldier whirls around just in time to catch his fist against the flat of the shield like the idiot is trying to bump him into submission. He knows the Captain is a legitimate threat but so far all he’s doing is darting in and out like an anxious collie. The soldier can’t cover Agent May until he shakes this one or puts him down.

The servos in his arm scream as they recalibrate from the shock of the shield. The arm itself is fine, but the human body is damaged in its common stress points. It’s poorly balanced from lost muscle mass. The soldier shifts his stance outward to compensate. The body will need treatment soon, but there’s enough energy to cover his objective. He lunges for the Captain.

*

The first thing she has to do is get Fitz out of the line of fire. They’re halfway to the bus when he realizes what all this will mean for Simmons, and then he’s doubling back for her when there’s no way out of the hangar and Bobbi’s got enough to deal with without having to herd their neuro-compromised engineer through a superpowered skirmish. Get Fitz out of the way, that’s her priority, and then - holy fuck. Okay. Get Fitz on the Bus. Step one.

She has to get him in a fucking clinch hold and drag him kicking and screaming, and she’s got at least three inches on him, but when it comes to Simmons, you do not want to be on the wrong side of Fitz. She wrestles him into the lab and then has to blow the electronics to lock him in there. For now, okay? One thing at a time. She spins around to assess the rest of the situation.

She can’t believe what has just happened. Mack and Hunter are stationed on the ramp hatch exchanging cover fire with Clint. May is going toe to toe with the Black Widow, and Bucky -

Jesus Christ, Bucky. What the fuck just happened? What the fuck did Phil just do?

Skye has returned to the hold. She’s rifling through spare munitions and loading a Beretta. Bobbi draws her ICER but she doesn’t know what she’s going to do with it. A stainless steel table crashes against the lab doors and Fitz pounds on the glass. He has to know Simmons is gone, she’s not drinking chamomile in the kitchen right now waiting for the team to show up. If the Avengers are here, they would have to actually kill Steve Rogers to get past him for Simmons -

Skye sinks into position, leveling the Beretta towards May and Romanoff. She had just - what the fuck was happening to them? The Winter Soldier had destroyed the Hydra software they were using to spy on free citizens they exact same way Hydra used it, and then they had brainwashed Barnes into fighting his best friend. Bobbi hears Steve pleading “Bucky, Bucky, Bucky,” more desperately each time. (Steve had leaned against the Winter Soldier and shared a cigarette straight from his hand!)

Fitz is screaming. Simmons is gone. The engines roar to life as Skye draws a bead on the Black Widow.

This isn’t them. This isn’t who they’re supposed to be. Bucky had said “It’s okay, I’ll go,” ready to face a steaming pile of shit that wasn’t even his fault, ready to accept responsibility, and they brainwashed him so that they could run away and not have to read the writing on the wall. Fitz bangs on the glass, screaming, “Bobbi, please.” Bucky fires a shot that takes out Clint, and Mack moves down the ramp to cover May. Bobbi has to make a decision. And once she does there’s no going back.

It’s okay, Steve, I’ll go.

You want to talk about hard decisions and sacrifice? Bucky Barnes didn’t choose any of this. And after everything, he could stand up and say, “I’ll go.”

Fuck that.

Bobbi levels her ICER at Skye and fires. Skye drops like a sack of bricks to the ramp. Hunter backs out of firing range and, weapon drawn, just looks at her. Fitz is silent. The banging has stopped. Hunter holds her eyes for a long, hard moment. Mack glances back. He’s still drawn on the Widow, but he sees Skye down. He sees Bobbi, ICER drawn.

It’s the single scariest moment of Bobbi’s life. But this is what she’s chosen.

Then Hunter holsters his weapon. Mack glances back between her and the skirmish. Then he nods once and quickly moves in for an angle on May. Hunter gestures towards the fuel lines. Bobbi, shaky with adrenaline, relief, and fear, nods him through.

Bobbi lowers her weapon. She looks back at Fitz. He stands motionless behind the glass, like a ghost. She doesn’t know what will happen from here. They’re looking at hard time, all of them - Simmons worst of all. But they can’t keep ignoring it, what they are and what they’ve done.

Bobbi keeps her weapon drawn. Skye’s down. Mack’s on May. Hunter’s keeping them on the ground. She moves quickly up the stairs, towards the cockpit, towards Phil.

*

Bucky knows that something happened. He knows that he’s doing a thing.

Steve is faster than him, just barely. Especially after he drops the shield. He drops it so he can try to grab Bucky and he’s saying Bucky Bucky Bucky. Bucky has to stop Steve. He has to either kill him or immobilize him so that he can protect the team and guard the retreat. Those are his orders of what he has to do. He has to complete his mission.

Steve is trying to grab Bucky, but does not want to be grabbed. This is because Bucky is stronger and will really hurt him, if he gets grabbed. He is trying to use Bucky’s weight against him, to use his momentum and get behind Bucky, but Bucky’s not fucking stupid. He knows he’s not in optimal condition, so he has to fight smart. He uses Steve’s using his momentum to try to get them both closer to Nat because his primary objective is to immobilize Nat so that May can retreat. But Nat’s not fucking stupid either and she keeps trying to move away from him, without letting May get away.

“Bucky, Bucky, Bucky,” that idiot keeps saying until he’s practically screaming it. It’s annoying! Bucky makes a grab for him but he twists away and tries to get Bucky in an arm lock but Bucky breaks it and tries to knee the side of Steve’s knee to break that too but Steve dances away and if Bucky still had the ICER now would be a good chance to ice Nat but he dropped it when Steve hit his wrist with the shield, before he threw the shield away. He should throw the shield away and let Bucky punch him until he dies and falls in the water like last time. He should say “I’m not going to fight you.” Well he is fighting now, so that was a lie.

Steve lunges back in and parries Buck’s blow and tries this time to get him in a headlock like sometimes when they were kids Bucky would get Steve in a headlock and scrub his knuckles on Steve’s head which was called a “noogie” and Steve would squawk and punch him in the kidney. Steve was easy to get in a headlock back then but now he is bigger and it is not easy and if Bucky gets him in a headlock he will break his neck, which he would not have done before. He wouldn’t have done that, because it would have killed Steve and Steve would be dead. And then if Steve had died back then Bucky would have cried until he died, too. One time when Steve was so sick and Bucky thought he would die and then he crawled under the blankets with Steve and was so scared and he knew that if Steve died Bucky would be a ghost, the kind that walks around but isn’t dead yet. A ghost that’s still alive. That’s what would have happened if Steve had died that winter but he hadn’t but Bucky is trying to make him die now. “Die” is when there’s nothing and you can’t come back and that person doesn’t exist anymore even a little bit like how Bucky still exists a little bit because he didn’t die. If Bucky gets Steve into a headlock like before and breaks Steve's neck he will be gone and not come back ever even in the future when this mission is over then Steve will be dead and something will happen.

Steve does get in close and he is behind Bucky and he has his arm wrapped around Bucky’s arm trying to put it behind his back, and he gets his other arm around Bucky’s shoulders and Bucky tries to pry it off with his weaker arm and the machine in his metal arm that Steve is wrenching back is whining and grinding trying to pull out of Steve’s grip which would normally work except his body has not been receiving good treatment because he has not been feeding it, only yogurt, and no one has been using the tube to give him nutrients through his nose like usual.

If Steve will be dead, what will happen? Then Bucky’s mission will be over. Then what will happen? Then Steve won’t be here. Then Steve will be gone. And he will never say “This is your toothbrush” or “you’re my friend.” And he will never make a recipe for Bucky, and he will never say “You’re worth a zillion times that,” or “I only need this Buck.” And! He was supposed to buy Bucky a horse and keep it in the park, Nat said he said that and Bucky wants a horse. He doesn’t want to kill Steve and Steve is wrenching his arm back and Bucky is trying to pull it free and it is breaking where the metal is screwed into the body and ripping where the muscles are. It hurts and Bucky is screaming. He’s screaming “Stop, stop, stop!”

He gets his real arm free, that he was born with from his Ma and he shifts to knock Steve off balance and then he gets his left arm free and spins to punch Steve, screaming “Stop! Stop!”

But he can’t stop.

*

May is outclassed, but only just. It’s clear going toe to toe that Romanoff has undergone chemical enhancements, but not to the degree of Barnes or Rogers, or Centipede. May is pragmatic, but even the pragmatist takes a moment sometimes to acknowledge the unfairness. It doesn’t bother her, but she acknowledges it first as irritating, and secondly as unfair. May is skilled to the point that the “generic” supersoldier is still no match, and in a fair fight, she thinks she could take Romanoff. It would be a toss up, she thinks. But it’s not a fair fight. So she deals with it.

Her chances of neutralizing Romanoff on her own are slim. But the Winter Soldier - she’s not going to go into what Phil and Skye just did to Barnes. The Winter Soldier, regardless of reason, is on her side for the time being, and given an opportunity he will neutralize Romanoff, or provide an opening for May. May knows that she’s meant to extract herself and board the Bus, but she doesn’t know that Barnes is meant to do likewise. She’s happy to leave him behind if it comes to it, for various reasons. But he got Barton off her back for the time being, and he’s holding off Rogers, so if the rest of the team would take the shot she’s trying to line up for them, they could shut the hatch and get the hell out of here.

From the corner of her eye, she sees Mack move back down the ramp, cautious of Barton still, or the area where Barton had been. May just needs to give him a clear shot and they can go. Phil won’t be able to pilot them clear of Iron Man’s range, so she needs to get a move on.

*

Mack lines up his shot.  SHIELD can’t keep running the way it is. That shit with Barnes - and not just that. A lot of stuff. You make compromises in times of war, he knows that. But eventually that balance comes due, and it’s time to pay the piper on this one. He knows that. He doesn’t like it, but it’s true.

*

Bucky doesn’t want to do this. He doesn’t want to fight Steve. He wants to go home with Steve and share candy. He doesn’t like that Phil did a thing and hurt him, he did the noise that’s not fair, and did a thing with Skye. And now he’s fighting Steve and he can’t stop, and he wants to stop so bad.

“You can stop,” Steve says, but Bucky punches at him and Steve blocks it with his arm. “Bucky, you can stop.” But he can’t stop. And he doesn’t know why he’s doing it just because of the noise and of protocol. When he’s the Winter Soldier he wants to do his mission, and he wants his mission not to be this. He wants to stop. And he’s tired. And Steve grabs his right arm and Bucky punches him in the stomach with his left and he’s still saying a word, saying “Stop. Stop. Stop,” and Steve wraps his arm around Bucky’s shoulders still holding his wrist pulling him in close and he says “You can stop. It’s okay, you can stop.” But it’s not okay. Bucky struggles weakly in Steve’s grip, and then Steve lets go of his wrist and wraps both arms around Bucky’s shoulders and now Steve is holding him up instead of fighting him, and pressing his nose against Bucky’s shoulder, the metal one where the metal meets body under his shirt, Steve is pressing his nose there. Bucky grabs Steve’s hips to push him off and his fingers feel like angry claws but he doesn’t push hard enough and then his arms run out of strength and he says “Stop, stop,” quieter and quieter, with hot tears leaking out.  He wants to go home and share candy. They sink to the ground together and Steve holds him. "You can stop," Steve says, and then for some reason Bucky thinks about Papa Smurf that he has and he put in his shoe. His body is out of strength.

*

Steve lowers them both to the ground. Bucky still pushes weakly against him, but he’s run out of fight. He’s just done. He’s lost so much weight, he feels like - it doesn’t matter. Steve lowers them both to the ground, and kneels with Buck collapsed against his chest. “You can stop,” Steve keeps saying. He breathes in against Bucky’s tangled hair. He hears the familiar thump of a body hitting the floor. When he looks up, it’s Agent May down. Nat is crouched a few feet away. It was Mack who pulled the trigger. The ICER blue spiderwebs its way up May’s face. There’s no one else. There’s no one on the ramp, no noise from inside. The jet engines cut out and it’s dead silent, except for Bucky’s shaky breaths and his tiny whispered “you can stop, you can stop.” Steve holds him close. He tucks his face in the crook of Buck’s neck. It’s over and he doesn’t care what happens, now.

*

The engines choke and shudder to a halt. A moment later, the power goes out completely. A calm sense of dread descends over Phil, like sinking into stagnant water. The door opens behind him, but he doesn’t turn around.

“Two fingers, sidearm,” Morse tells him. Phil numbly complies, and wonders who else was in on it? Was it planned? Spontaneous? He thinks of Barnes frozen on his knees in pain and horror.

Phil drops his weapon and raises his hands slowly. When he looks at Morse, her hands are steady but her face is pale, as though battling motion sickness. She’s a good agent. What’s more, she’s probably a good person. Phil’s not even sure what that means, anymore.

He needed to keep his team safe. That meant making sacrifices. It means making those hard choices so you can live to fight another day. And the world, more than ever, needs fighters.

Phil was never a fighter, before. As Morse herds him at gunpoint down the steps to the cargo hold, he sees Fitz slouched in the lab with his shoulders drawn tight, staring grimly at his open hands. Fitz is a good kid. Smart as a whip. Proud to be an agent of SHIELD, like Phil had been: filing paperwork on the paranormal, working his way up through the bureaucracy until he got his first remote assignment in southern Idaho, with his team in ‘87. Unlike Fitz, it had taken him years to finally qualify for field work. As an analyst, he was more valuable behind a desk.

But he’d been eager, and loyal, and able, and when SHIELD needed hands on deck, he’d been first to volunteer. He’d dreamed of being a strong and competent leader, like Captain America from the stories he’d been raised on. But those were stories. The reality is far more grim.

Skye and May are down and bound, iced. Hunter and Mack stand aside, stripped of weapons, surrendered to the Black Widow. Romanoff. Natasha. Phil remembers when Clint had first brought her in: scared to death and hiding it. Combative, evasive, and so, so capable. Nearly ten years ago, now. She hasn’t aged a day, and hasn’t, he suspects, for longer than she’s able to accurately remember. No one truly knows what was done to her or where she’s from, least of all she.

Rogers and Barnes are heaped together on the floor - the heroes from Phil’s childhood. Righteous and loyal and brave. He looks at them now and sees two broken men, they seem hardly more than boys, to him. That’s what the world does to its heroes. It needs them, and takes from them, and grinds them down until this is all that’s left; two tear-streaked sacks of bones and flesh, whispering to one another, oblivious to what’s left of the world that destroyed them. And Phil is sorry. Because his was the hand that took and took, from Rogers and from Barnes especially. When he was their age, he’d had his future before him, his team and his first field assignment in Idaho, in a literal field. These two? And Skye. Fitz. Simmons. They’ll never have that. This is the world his generation built for them. They believed in him. And he’s sorry.

*

Steve gathers Bucky tight in his arms and lifts him upwards to stand. He’s dead weight but he struggles to do as Steve asks, shakily finding his feet beneath him. He sags against Steve and Steve holds him. Someone else can deal with SHIELD, he doesn’t care. Pepper set up a safe house in Honey Creek and that’s where they’re going. The rest of the world can burn.

Chapter Text

They don’t go home and share candy. They go to a weird house. They go in a car with no keys and it is a big car with wind coming in and Steve starts it up from wires coming out, that he makes come out from breaking something. Sometimes they did this, before. With cars. It has a name for doing that but Bucky forgets. He leans his head on a piece of metal and they drive on the road. It is called a “jeep,” the car they are in. It’s called a “jeep.” And for starting it with no keys, that is called something. And then they are at the weird house. Bucky doesn’t think he fell asleep, but he did maybe. His stomach hurts from being tired, and his arms from fighting, where the muscle is hurt. He doesn’t want to get out of the jeep but he thinks Steve wants him to. He is thinking “move,” to his legs but they are not moving. He is thinking “move,” to the body but it’s not doing that. His throat hurts, too, and his eyes close.

Then something happens and the wall goes away and Bucky’s heart rate spikes hard and he’s falling. But he’s not falling. It’s just that Steve opened the door that Bucky was leaning against. And he slides his arm in around Bucky and pulls and lifts him out of the jeep. Steve is big but he smells like Steve. That’s how Bucky knows it is Steve and not not-Steve or someone else, it is Steve.

“You’re okay,” Steve says.

Bucky is not okay. He is damaged. He can’t see anything. It is dark. But then he can see. His eyes don’t want to stay open, that’s why he can’t see, what a moron. He thought he couldn’t see but just his eyes were closed, what a putz. He tries to take a deep breath and stand up but he has Vertigo. Or not. He is either falling over or feels like he is falling over, he can’t tell. He thinks that means that Vertigo is happening and that’s why Steve’s arms are all around him holding him up. Then he really has vertigo when Steve puts his shoulders under Bucky’s chest and lifts him over sideways, then it really feels like he is spinning and will puke from tiredness and dizzy. And Steve walks like this with Bucky on him to the house that is not a house Bucky has seen before and doesn’t want to go in, they are going to their apartment in Brooklyn? Are they there?

No they are not there it is the weird house.

*

Steve carries Bucky inside and takes the bedroom on the first floor. It’s an old farmhouse rental Pepper booked last minute, so “safe house” is an overstatement.

He deposits Bucky on the bed, and Bucky doesn’t even try to move. He’s barely conscious, holding on by a thread, peering dazedly at Steve through his lashes. Something about that - something about that sliver of familiar blue through Buck’s thick, downturned lashes - Steve wants to lie down beside him and cradle Buck’s head and stroke his hair and press his lips to Buck’s forehead.

He wants to do that. But he doesn’t. He unties Buck’s boots and loosens them, instead. He pulls them off, and the sticky socks, and Bucky hasn’t washed in an age, that much is clear.

“I’m gonna run a bath,” Steve says, and Bucky’s lips fall open in a tiny pant, like he’s too tired to breathe.

But when Steve returns, hot water thundering into the tub a wall away, Bucky has struggled to sitting, leaning hard to one side like gravity is being particularly unfair. Steve helps him out of his jacket and his layers of sweat-stained shirts. He’s thin and pale, with the prosthetic abutted starkly to the gnarled, scarred skin. Steve helps him to his feet and half-carries him to the bathroom.

By the time Steve shucks the rest of Bucky’s clothes, Bucky is crying kind of absently, staring at the shower stall wall. Steve asks if he’s okay, but doesn’t get an answer. He doesn’t seem distressed about anything in particular, or anything at all. He takes weak, intermittent breaths with a long, forgetful pause after each exhale. Breathe. Forget. Remember to breathe - slow tears sliding down his face all the while. He’s so tired.

Maybe it’s not normal, maybe it’s not the done thing, but Steve strips out of all his clothes too and then steps into the tub, beckoning for Bucky to follow. The water is just hot enough to sting for a moment, but any cooler would feel cold too quickly. Bucky follows with his head but not his feet, and Steve catches him as he rests his head on Steve’s shoulder.

“Come on,” Steve says, and tugs him gently. Bucky steps into the bathtub and Steve lowers them into the water. He shifts Bucky against his chest. He cradles him between his legs. He buries his face in the nape of Buck’s neck, and they rest there with the steam rising up around them.

 

Steve hasn’t brought much in the way of clothes. After towelling off, he shuffles Bucky into a fresh pair of boxers and tucks him into bed, pulling the spare blanket over on top of him, and then the throw blanket from the couch for good measure. He looks at his friend. Bucky’s out cold. He’ll probably sleep for several days, and Steve wishes he could have gotten some food into him first. He leaves a glass of water on the bedside table, and writes a note, just in case. When Sam finally arrives at the safe house, Steve tells him to keep his distance, and call if Bucky wakes up.

Steve still has one matter to attend to.

*

“I promised Buck I would kill the next person who hurt him,” Steve says. Across the grim, dented table, Coulson doesn’t meet his eye. He gazes down to the side, his posture neutral; defeated. Steve watches him for a long, hard moment, and when he speaks again his voice surprises him by scratching in his throat. “You’re making me a liar.”

 

*

Phil thinks he may be in some form of delayed shock. He can hear Captain Rogers, but it seems as though from a great distance, and it takes some time before he consciously catches up with what has been said.

Phil turns his gaze slowly to the Captain. He knows the Black Widow must be on the far side of the glass, listening, watching, seeing through him as clear as day.

He doesn’t know where they’re going with this. He knows they must intend to turn them all over to the justice system, but it’s been several hours and they haven’t yet. But it would seem hypocritical, wouldn't it? To detain SHIELD much in the same manner as SHIELD had Hydra, and to detain them for having detained Hydra in this manner.

Although that’s not all they’d done.

“We’ve all done things we’re not proud of,” Phil says. He struggles to maintain eye contact against the urge to slip off into vague introspection. It’s hard to believe this is happening, honestly, even though he had thought himself mentally prepared for the contingency. Knowing, still, that Nat is behind the glass, he adds with more resolution: “Not a single one of us could cast the first stone.”

The Captain does have, in his way, a strong poker face. Stern and resolute. Phil doesn’t know if Steve will leap across the table to kill him or simply walk away. Either is equally likely.

“People change,” Steve says.

Ah, the star spangled man.

“I’m not talking about -” Phil casts about for a moment to sort out the words. “-various sordid activities of our own secret histories, Captain.” Feeling his resolve rise to match, he says, “Do you know how many casualties there were in Charlotte?”

Steve doesn’t answer. He doesn’t know or he would have.

“Twenty two,” Phil informs him. “Regardless of our own conflict of interests in that matter, twenty two lives were taken.”  Largely by Captain Rogers himself.

He gives the Captain a moment to fully absorb that information, because it’s important.

“Do you think it’s better that they should die? Do you find that preferable?”

Their recent methods with the MOM were unsustainable - Phil knows that. They’d acquired more captives than they could reasonably hope to accommodate for any great length of time. Long enough, though, to pull up the root system of the malignant weed that was Hydra. The quicker they were able to do that, the quicker they would have been able to pass their captives out of SHIELD custody.

“Where do you draw the line?” Phil asks. Is killing less evil than what he has done?

The Captain doesn’t have an answer. There isn’t one. But he says, “The people who died had a choice.”

“With Hydra, you know that’s hardly the case.”

Rogers slams his hand flat on the table. “That’s why we’re stopping them!” He struggles to recover his composure. “You make a choice to fight and die. And if that choice is taken from you, the person who took it is wrong.  And they need to be stopped.”

And there you have it.

Perhaps Phil is the one without an answer.

*

Natasha watches Steve through the one-way. The audio feed is tinny through the out-dated intercom. Not everywhere in the base has been updated like the mainframe. She knows from the back of her neck to the bones in her wrists that she’s overtired, running on empty.

She hasn’t interrogated anyone yet. It’s better to let them them stew for awhile, maybe a full day while each thinks the others are getting it. That and she doesn’t trust herself not to simply execute all of them. These people used to be her teammates. Phil had been almost a friend.

She doesn’t like that feeling; not trusting herself. It would be so much easier to kill them. That’s the kind of person she is. It would be easier to kill them all. She could do it without batting an eye.

*

Rogers says, “You told me Bucky had no implants.”

Phil puzzles this, briefly. He had told Rogers that Barnes was free of implants months ago. To his knowledge, it had been true, though he hadn’t verified it with scans of his own. The only tracking information he had had on Barnes had come from his tracking anklet, which had been destroyed shortly after the unfortunate skirmish in Charlotte.

“He was recently fitted with a device,” he offers. “We knew he was at particular risk against Hydra, and it had a greater chance of being overlooked if -”

“I’m not talking about that,” Rogers says, his temper rising.

After a moment, Phil says, “I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean.”

“The explosives, for one thing?” Rogers demands.

It becomes quite clear, at that moment. Several things do. Not just Rogers’s anger, but Barnes’s general skittishness at SHIELD, and, previously, his dissociative catatonia and habitual stupor. His recovery following release had been remarkable.

Cautiously, Phil says, “Barnes was handed down to us.”

Rogers leans back slightly. He doesn’t have the training to prevent his face draining to a sickly pallor. It’s not much consolation to Phil at such a time, but if Rogers had intended to rectify a particular wrong done to his childhood friend during his confinement at SHIELD, he had the wrong Director.

*

Bucky wakes up abruptly, out of habit. He’s not supposed to sleep longer than an hour and a half or else he might have a nightmare. But he thinks he’s with Steve now, so having a nightmare is not as bad. It doesn’t have the consequence. But still, Bucky is in the habit of trying to wake up and he knocks over a glass of water by accident.

He is alone in a neat bedroom that doesn’t smell like a bedroom he has been in before. The sheets smell like different detergent.

Steve is not here. He’s not in the bed with Bucky and he’s not in the bedroom. He might be in another part of the place they are at - a weird house, he remembers, is where they are. But Steve is not in this room, and Bucky sits up slowly and sees there is a note folded over that says BUCKY on one side but is a little bit wet now from spilling water.

Bucky reads it. He learns that Steve is not here right now and that “Sam” will be in the house. The note says that Steve will be back soon. It says some other stuff but Bucky is not being able to to concentrate and think good right now and his head hurts and he wishes he didn’t knock over his water and make a mess everywhere because he wants to drink water. He is so dumb.

He runs his hand over his tired face. His hair is kind of tangled and damp from having a bath, which he remembers. He had a bath with Steve and it was warm and comfy. He wishes he was in the bath again now with Steve and all of Steve’s soft skin touching him. But that isn’t going to happen.

Bucky lowers his feet to the floor. He is still very tired. He is only wearing boxers. They are not his boxers, so they are probably Steve’s. Bucky doesn’t see his clothes from before nearby. But he needs clothes. He needs to look nice. He needs to pull himself together because he is going to the judge and going to jail soon with SHIELD.

He tries not to think about that too much so he focuses on getting up and finding clothes. There is a duffle bag with Steve’s clothes inside and Bucky knows it is Steve’s because it smells like him and has the right detergent, and that is Steve’s duffle bag, too, that he uses. So Bucky looks for clothes inside. He normally wouldn’t try to touch Steve’s things but he is going to jail soon and they are not going to let him keep anything, probably not even his clothes and he wants to have Steve’s clothes with him as long as he can until they take them away. Then he can smell Steve’s detergent until the last minute.

Steve is a little bit taller than Bucky, even though Bucky used to be taller. So Steve’s jeans are too long for Bucky and don’t look as nice as when you have jeans that are just your size and fit right. They are a little bit tight at the waist because Steve’s hips are skinny. Bucky’s are not as skinny. But he can still wear them. They still look okay. He is worried Steve might be annoyed that Bucky is stealing his jeans for jail but Bucky will…

Maybe Steve will not be mad. If he is, then Bucky will give the jeans back. But for now he will wear Steve’s jeans, and his shirt which fits just fine, even on the left.

*

Steve should have known. He really should have. After the initial shock of the revelation wears off, he dully realizes it’s not a shock. At all. He knew Fury had had Buck first. And he knows what Fury is like.

It doesn’t change anything, does it.

His phone vibrates in his pocket and he checks it quickly. It’s a text from Sam saying Bucky is up.  

Steve slides the phone back into his pocket. “What happened in the hangar?”

Phil knows what he means but doesn’t have the decency to look ashamed. “A field wipe. We discovered the documentation early on. I’d hoped never to use it, but in the event that his conditioning was triggered in the field, I needed an option to subdue him.”

Documentation, what, a fucking user manual. Steve’s fists clench against his knees.

“I knew that it wouldn’t hold,” Phil continues. He turns introspective again, apparently oblivious to how close he is to death right now. “By the time it wore off, we would be in the air. You would have your friend back-”

“It doesn’t wear off” Steve bellows. He leaps out of his chair, looming over the table. “Shit like that doesn’t wear off, Coulson. It stays with you. Forever.”

He’s going to kill someone. He’s going to kill Coulson if he doesn’t pull it back right now.

By the time it wore off-

Steve remembers the way Bucky used sit rigidly at camp in Italy, staring just off to the side of the fire. He remembers the way he would pick at the threads of his buttons, absently, just catching his fingernail on the fiber. Steve remembers saying, “Bucky. Bucky. Hey, Buck,” to snap him out of it, to get him to look at a map or a battle plan, or listen to some stupid story. He remembers Bucky sleeping rigidly on his back, his face turned away, muttering his rank and serial number until Steve finally woke him up. He remembers the hollow, scared look in his eyes every time he did.

Steve lowers himself back into his chair. “It doesn’t ‘wear off.’”

He never should have dragged Bucky back into war. They should have both gone home to Brooklyn. With their pensions they could have moved to a nicer neighborhood, got some chickens like Bucky was always talking about. Live on a farm and let the world go to hell like it wanted to.

Phil has leaned back slightly, but if he’s surprised by Steve’s outburst, that’s all he shows. Suddenly Steve feels immensely exhausted. He needs to do what he came to do and go back to Bucky. He looks Phil square in the eye.

“He doesn’t deserve to go down for this.”

Phil looks away. He says, “I know.”

“You breathe a word about him," Steve pauses, "and I will bury Jemma.”  

Coulson looks at him sharply.

When the Avengers had arrived, Simmons had folded without so much as a cursory argument. She’d seemed almost relieved. It’s probable Coulson put a lot of pressure on her to do what she did. That could work in her favor.  Or it could be completely worthless, if Steve wanted it to be. She’s looking at a long, hard sentence, and Steve isn’t above making it a lot longer and a lot harder if it means keeping Bucky out of it.

Coulson nods silently. “I’ll have to talk to Skye. The rest of them won’t say anything.”

Steve stands up. He has better places to be.

“I’ll arrange it,” he says, and leaves.

He finds Nat waiting for him in the hallway. She looks pale and tired, her arms crossed over her chest.

She says, “Just go. I’ll take care of it.”

“You think he’ll keep quiet?”

She nods. “There’s nothing in it for him. He’ll protect Simmons.”

“What about Skye?”

She shrugs and shakes her head. “We’ll see.”

He knows what she’s thinking: it would be easier to put Skye in the ground. The exhausted pragmatist in Steve agrees. He laughs a little bit. Then they would need someone to hunt them down and do what they’re trying to do with SHIELD today. The "right thing." No one really knows what that is. He only knows what it’s not.

He claps Nat on the shoulder and squeezes it firmly. “See you back at the house.”

It’s a forty minute drive to Honey Creek. Steve doesn’t drive like Sam, but he makes it in thirty.

*

Bucky needs to use the mirror but when he leaves the bedroom, “Sam” is there. He is sitting on the couch and he looks at Bucky when Bucky comes out but he doesn’t say anything and goes back to reading a magazine. Bucky stands in the doorway. He knew “Sam” was going to be here, from the note, but he forgot.

Sam flips a page in his magazine. He doesn’t look at Bucky. He has dark skin like Mack, who Bucky was afraid of before but not now. And Gabe who was his friend before. Before before. Steve’s note said that Sam was nice. So, after Sam flips another page on his magazine, Bucky edges slowly to the bathroom, watching Sam. But Sam doesn’t say anything, not even “hi,” which, Bucky is glad. He goes into the bathroom and shuts the door.

There is still water on the floor from his bath with Steve. That is messy. Bucky uses a little towel to clean up the water and hangs it up to dry. That way the bathroom will be nice if Steve wants to use it later, when Bucky is in jail. He doesn’t want Steve to see messy water and then be glad that Buck is gone. But he doesn’t want Steve to be sad, either. So he thinks about putting the water back. But in the end he keeps it neat. He doesn’t want Steve to be sad, but he doesn’t want Steve to not miss him at all. That’s a lonely feeling, that no one will miss you, and Bucky knows how that feels, so he hopes Steve still misses him and thinks about him sometimes.

Bucky looks at himself in the mirror. His hair is long and tangled so he has to smooth it out. It’s not hard to do with his fingers because Steve put in the creamy soap that makes hair soft and not tangled called “conditioner.” He likes when Steve washes his hair but that is not going to happen anymore. Today was the last time.

Bucky’s not sure how to make his hair look nice now, when it’s so long. He wishes it weren’t so long. He wishes he had scissors to cut it short to look nice, because he has to look nice for the judge or else he’ll make a bad impression. He’s scared to make a bad impression for the judge, he wants the judge to like him. That way maybe the judge will be nicer with his punishment for all the bad stuff Bucky did. He doesn’t want the judge to hate him and give a really bad punishment.

It is hard to see the mirror. It is blurry. Bucky blinks until the mirror isn’t blurry and a tear falls in the sink and goes down the drain. Bucky parts his hair on the side like he would if it was short, and then he smooths it down as best as he can and tucks it behind his ears. It doesn’t look too bad.

Now he also has to shave his face. He looks in the drawers and behind the mirrors, but everywhere is empty. This isn’t a house where people live, it’s not even a safe-house which has stuff like toothpaste. Bucky cracks open the bathroom door and sees Sam still sitting on the couch, reading. Bucky knows there is a razor in Steve’s bag because he saw it when he was getting clothes.

There is no shaving cream, though. Steve must have forgotten it. So Bucky uses conditioner and shaves so his face is “clean-shaven” and looks reputable. He rinses the traces of conditioner off and dries his face with the towel.  He hears a car and then the front door opens and shuts and Bucky can tell from the footsteps that it’s Steve.

It’s time to go to the judge. He hopes Steve will think about him sometimes and miss him a little bit. He hopes Steve will take care of Nobody and Smurfs and Tiny Steve. He wishes he could see Tiny Steve one more time and give him a kiss and say sorry for leaving him in the blood and explosion. But Tiny Steve is not here. So he won’t get to say it.

Bucky straightens his collar and smooths his hair down. He goes out to meet Steve.

This is it. It’s the end of the line.

*

Bucky has raided the duffle bag. He looks like he did when he’d gotten ready for his assessment with Hill. Paler. Thinner. His hair is down past his shoulders now and is looking frayed at the ends. He stands in the doorway to the bathroom and fiddles with the cuffs of his sleeves. He stiffens when Sam stands up, but Sam only crosses the room and says quietly to Steve, "I’m gonna head back.”

Steve nods. Sam is worried about Nat.

Steve waits until the car starts and crunches over the gravel before he crosses cautiously to Bucky.

“What’s going on?” he asks, as lightly as he can. Bucky is picking at a button and his head ducks lower the closer Steve gets, so Steve stops moving closer. Then Bucky kind of shrinks against the wall and edges around Steve, towards the bedroom. Steve wants to follow but everything about Bucky is saying he shouldn’t. Or should. He doesn’t know.

It sounds like Bucky is looking for something, and he comes out a moment later with something between his fingers, pressed against his chest. He comes up to Steve. Close. Almost toe to toe. His head is ducked and Steve can see the care with which he parted his hair straight and even on the side. He’s holding Papa Snurf.

Then he holds it out at belly-button level. His shoulders are shaking.

Steve ignores the snurf. He cups Bucky’s elbow and the side of his face and says, “What?”

Bucky curls into his hand, ducking so he fits right under Steve’s chin. Steve’s heart is pounding and he strokes the back of Bucky’s head. What the fuck is going on?

Then Bucky pulls away and blinks hard. He looks at Steve and tries to smile, holding out the snurf again. This time Steve takes it, holding onto Bucky’s fingers as he does.

After a moment, Bucky says, “We can go.”

Steve’s stomach is curdling. He doesn’t know what’s going on. “Go where?”

Bucky’s face pinches into a fret, and he tilts his head like he doesn’t understand Steve. When he talks, his voice has abandoned him and he says, “To the judge.”

Jesus fuck.

Steve gathers Buck into a hug so hard he hears it push the air out of his friend. He takes hard, fast breaths against Bucky’s head. He feels like they just dodged a heavy shelling. He squeezes Buck’s shoulders and pushes his fingers through Buck’s hair, too hard. Compulsively. He can’t relax. He can’t let go. He can’t believe Bucky thought that - that he would -

“You’re not going,” he says. Then he pushes Buck back by the shoulders, still holding on, almost shaking him a little to look into his eyes and be sure he understands. “You’re not going. Okay? We stopped it. You don’t have to go.” He pulls Bucky back to his chest and just holds him. After a moment, the stiffness seeps out of Buck’s body. His arms finally circle Steve’s waist to hold him back.

*

Bucky keeps his face close to Steve’s chest so he can duck and be under Steve’s chin. It smells like Steve, the best smell. He brings his arms around Steve’s waist and holds him close.

Steve said he didn’t have to go to the judge. He doesn’t have to go. He doesn’t have to get a punishment and be away from Steve. Steve said, “We stopped it.” He stopped it. Bucky doesn’t have to go.  He curls his fingers into Steve's shirt.  

He is saved.

He's saved.

Steve saved him.

Chapter Text

The sun’s down by the time Sam gets back to the base. It’s down, but the sky is still that light grey, kind of periwinkle color with the trees all black against it. There’s a bite in the air because winter is coming. Motherfucker, that’s why he lives in D.C. and even that’s too cold sometimes. Sam jogs to the door and keys in the new code they set that morning, shivering once he steps inside as though to physically shake off the chill.

He hears Stark before he sees him, yammering one-sided per usual, except when Sam catches a glimpse of him in the shoddy little common area here, he sees it’s because he’s on the phone. Clint looks to be passed out sitting up in a hard-backed plastic chair, with his head dropped back against the corner. Sam shakes his head as he passes by. He’s only met him a handful of times but Clint’s an odd one no matter which way you slice it.

He knows he’ll find Nat near the holding cells that are past capacity, downstairs. They’d had to put all the Hydra prisoners together between two cells to make room to split SHIELD up a little better. Single cells for the ones who’d fought; a little cozier for those who hadn’t. Sam’s not completely clear on how it all went down - he was twiddling his thumbs outside for six hours, shooting the bull with Stark. Man, that dude could talk.

He finds Nat in the observation closet to the interrogation unit. And it is a closet. It’s all dark to see through the mirror better, and just cramped and tiny. Nat’s watching Phil Coulson talk to some young agent, Sam’s not sure what her name is. Coulson looks cool as a cucumber. The girl’s a wreck.

Sam shuts the door softly and sidles in next to Nat. Not too close: she’s overtired and extra prickly, and mostly Sam is here to convince her to take the night off, dump some K-rations into the cells and let Stark’s buddy Colonel Rhodes deal with this all tomorrow. Coulson’s saying about how they need to leave Barnes out of it, and the girl is spitting pissed. Sam stands beside Nat and just watches for awhile. She doesn’t even acknowledge he’s there until she says, “He did die.”

Okay… “What?”

She nods towards the middle aged white dude. “Before the Chitauri attack. We were told he was killed in action. Then when he turned up alive, we figured…” She shakes her in a kind of fed up, “what the fuck ever” kind of way. “To get us all on the same side. But it turns out he was dead.”

“Oh.” Sam doesn’t know what to say to that. He hadn’t known anybody back then, he was new to this all “cut your brain open, reprogram you like a roomba, bring you back from the dead, fly through the air with a hammer” kind of bullshit. He’s just a normal dude. He follows a blog that tells him new recipes to try each week. He buys his food on sale at Aldi. He watches Buffy the Vampire Slayer on Netflix. That’s who he is - that’s who he’s trying to be. A nice, normal person who’s adjusting okay, who’s got his life back on track, (who doesn’t need to excuse himself from the room every time he hears a good joke and accidentally thinks, “Riley will love that.”)

‘Turns out he was dead,’ about the dude sitting right there in front of them - that’s outside his wheelhouse.

“Apparently it was so horrifying they had to overwrite his memories of the entire process,” Nat continues, in a sort of dead-casual way. Sam says, “Hmm,” to let her know he’s listening, but really he doesn’t know what the fuck to say to this shit. It’s not important for him to say anything, he thinks. It’s important for Nat to be heard, whatever it is she’s getting at. Maybe she’s just letting him know? But she looks at him, so he knows that’s not it. He waits.

“Fury chopped the top of his head off and made him think he was in Tahiti, Sam,” she says. She looks back at the grim, grungy little tableau before them. The girl is crying now, her dark hair hiding her face.

“A year ago, I would have backed him up. I was his best agent. I-” she cuts herself off.

Sam goes out on a limb. He settles his hand on her shoulder, the far one so his arm is around her back. He rubs his hand up and down her arm a little. Sometimes when you’re not trying to talk all the time, it makes it easier to see what people aren’t saying.

“I think of it,” she tries. Her voice is getting thin. “-as having all this red in my ledger. And I try to balance it out.” Her shoulder shakes a bit under his hand. She takes a deep steadying breath. “If they hadn’t brought Barnes into this, I wouldn’t even care. What they did to Hydra.”

Sam doesn’t argue, but he’s not convinced that’s true. He draws her into a one armed hug. Then fuck it, he goes the whole hog and pulls her in against his chest. He says, “You write your red in big capital letters, and your black in tiny little chicken scratch.”

She snorts. “I don’t even have black pen.”

He rocks her back and forth like you would a little kid. She’s too hard on herself by a thousand percent. He drops his cheek against the top of her head. “Then you’re a shitty bookkeeper.”

She lets him hold her for about two more seconds before she pulls away. But when she crosses her arms, she lets her shoulder brush Sam’s and rest there.

*

They don’t go back to Brooklyn. They go in a private jet back to Stark Tower where there are lots of people, and Bucky doesn’t want to see them. He wanted to go home, to Brooklyn, with just him and Steve. He hoped maybe they would go to the garage and get the motorcycle and go home to Brooklyn but Steve presses the button on the elevator for their floor where their “suite” is, the one that Bucky ruined.

“I got some new stuff,” Steve says. But when the elevator stops and the doors open, Bucky doesn’t get off. He stays where he is. He doesn’t want to go to the suite he wants to go home. Steve waits for Bucky to come off the elevator but then when Bucky doesn’t move, he gets back on to put a hand on Bucky and then Bucky does a sneaky thing and tricks Steve and presses the button for the garage.

The doors close and Steve rides the elevator with him all the way down to the garage. Then Bucky gets off the elevator and goes to where the motorcycles are so they can go home. But Steve doesn’t get the keys or the helmets which Bucky would wear if Steve said to but doesn’t like his head and his ears to be in there. So Bucky waits near the motorcycle but Steve doesn’t get the keys. He says, “you want to go for a ride?” with one eyebrow quirked. No he doesn’t want to go for a ride! What the fuck!

Then Steve gets the keys and they get on the motorcycle and Bucky presses his body against Steve and they go out into the cold wind. But it’s not that cold. Steve is taking a weird way home.

They go to Central Park and they drive around Central Park and it smells like dry leaves. Then Steve stops the motorcycle and puts his foot on the ground and turns the motorcycle off. Bucky doesn’t move. He keeps his arms wrapped around Steve. He doesn’t know what they’re stopping here for and he wants to go home. His fingers clench in the front of Steve’s jacket. For a second he thinks Steve will kick him off the motorcycle and leave him here in the park but he doesn’t really think Steve would do that. Steve’s hand goes over Bucky’s hand. Steve’s hand is warm on Bucky’s cold knuckles that are cold from the wind. He wishes they wouldn’t be at this stupid park. Then Steve starts the motorcycle and they go back to Stark Tower. They’re not going home, to Brooklyn. That’s where Bucky’s candy is.

Steve parks the motorcycle and takes out the keys and they get off the bike and Steve goes to put the keys away but Bucky goes a different way, towards the door. He is going home by himself.

Steve jogs over and gets in front of Bucky and says, “Where are you going?” Bucky tries to go around and Steve puts his hands out, one on each of Bucky’s shoulders, lightly. Bucky tries to go around, and Steve’s hands get tighter and he puts himself in front of Bucky again. His eyebrow is quirked.

Bucky doesn’t understand this! He did all his stuff he was supposed to and Steve said he was saved and would go home but they’re not going! Bucky tries to go around but then instead of hands, Steve’s arms come all around Bucky’s shoulders and Bucky pushes forward so he can get to the door and walk. He’s going to walk to Brooklyn which is not that far.

“Bucky, where are you going?”

Bucky wiggles away from Steve. He doesn’t want to fight. He’s feeling a feeling because Steve is being a real asshole. He tries to go forward again but Steve stops him and this time Bucky takes some steps back and looks at Steve with his throat hurting. The feeling he is feeling is “betrayed.” Why is Steve doing this? The more Bucky feels this feeling, the more his eyes get hot and blurry. Why is Steve being so mean? What did he do to make Steve be mean?

The more he feels this, the more he feels dizzy and like he will puke. Then the ground is close like a thump. The thump is from his knees. Then Steve is on his knees too and he has his phone. He says, “Show me on the map where you want to go.”

It’s hard to see the map. Bucky still feels like puking. And sleeping. He thinks he feels like puke from needing sleep. He tries to concentrate to show Steve. He moves it so their little blue dot is gone and the map shows Brooklyn, and then he makes his fingers like an alligator so Brooklyn gets bigger and bigger. He is trying to find his street to go home. He doesn’t remember what street they are on.

*

Steve gets the idea as soon as Bucky scrolls east over the river. When he circles back for the fourth time to the street where his ma used to live, Steve gently takes the phone away.

*

Bucky doesn’t remember where he lives. He doesn’t remember where his apartment is with Steve. So even if he walked there, he couldn’t get home. He keeps looking for their apartment until Steve takes his phone back.

He can’t go home, ever. He doesn’t know where it is. Steve pets Bucky’s hair and puts his forehead against Bucky’s. Maybe they can just stay here and die and be dead. Steve kisses Bucky’s forehead and then hugs Bucky’s head against his chest. Bucky likes when he does that. Even if they don’t go home, here is a good place to stay, like this.

But they don’t stay like this. Steve pushes him back and looks into his face. He says, “Security’s better here.”

Bucky doesn’t care about security. He’ll kill anyone. He already did kill lots of people. He’ll make them scream.

“I’m just,” Steve says, and stops. He doesn’t usually stop. He puts his head as low as Bucky’s. They are both staring at the ground, where their knees are on the cold concrete. “I’d rather stay here, for now.”

That’s all he says. And then Bucky understands.

He understands that Steve is scared. He wants to stay in the Tower that has good security and Bucky knows that it is good because he looked at it with Jarvis. Bucky isn’t scared, but Steve is.

Bucky leans back. He pushes himself to his feet. “You should have just said you were scared,” he says, and holds out his hand for Steve.

Steve looks up at him from the ground and his face gets a big storm cloud for a second for being called scared. Then he takes Bucky’s hand and pulls himself to his feet. He dusts off his knees. Bucky waits for Steve to lead the way but he doesn’t. He straightens up slowly from brushing his knees. Then he pulls Bucky into the biggest, scaredest hug of his life, second scaredest after yesterday when Steve had squeezed his breath out and said he didn’t have to go to the judge.

Steve’s a punk.

They get back on the elevator and go to their other home on the 31st floor.

 

Nobody is there! Nobody is on the table with his little leg back on and there is a note from Pepper Potts! It says,

Dear Bucky,

We’re so glad to have you back home! Get lots of rest, and we’ll see you soon!

xox

Pepper

P.S. I’m not much of a seamstress, but Nobody told me he didn’t mind if his stitches were crooked, if it was just a little bit.

There is a little drawing of a pawprint and a smiling banana. Bucky looks at Nobody’s leg that was off. From here you can hardly see, only if you look close you can see it was off and got sewed up with black thread, but some parts Pepper got the fur caught under the thread and flattened it, but Bucky can pull the fur back out with tweezers if he wants to. Maybe he doesn’t want to. Maybe he wants to leave it fixed how Pepper fixed it, by herself. He’s glad Pepper didn’t send it to someone else to get fixed.

Bucky touches Nobody’s soft fur against his cheek. There is new stuff in the apartment. A blue couch and blue curtains. Steve always chooses blue. It’s good to go with blue smurfs. Bucky only has one smurf now, Papa Smurf who is in his pocket. He looks where Nobody was and Pepper’s note, but smurfs aren’t there. He knows that some smurfs were at the windmills and they might have never come back. They might have gone up the vacuum. He feels sad because he thinks of smurfs being all alone.

“What’s wrong?” says Steve. Bucky doesn’t want to cry anymore right now. He’s not crying. But he takes Papa Smurf out of his pocket and holds him between two fingers. Steve watches him. He knows because Steve doesn’t go get the other smurfs that other smurfs are gone. They died.

But Steve reaches into his pocket and takes out something. He holds it in his hand. Then he gives it to Bucky and Bucky takes it. It’s Tiny Steve.

Tiny Steve has a stain now, on his feet, from standing in blood. Bucky rubs his fingers over Tiny Steve’s edges. He remembers when Tiny Steve was bigger and Bucky put him in the oven to get tiny. That happened because Steve bought the plastic for Bucky to make Tiny Steve.

Now Bucky only has Tiny Steve and Papa Smurf. He knows that Papa Smurf belongs to Real Steve. But Bucky doesn’t want to give him back. Papa Smurf was his good friend when he was alone at SHIELD, and said “Steve is coming!” when Bucky was saddest and hiding his head against the wall.

Bucky holds Tiny Steve in one hand and Papa Smurf in the other. Now that other smurfs are gone he doesn’t want them to be alone. Steve puts his hand on Bucky’s shoulder and rubs up and down. Steve’s hand is big and warm. It feels heavy on Bucky’s cold body.

Bucky has Nobody under his elbow. He puts Nobody on the table. Nobody’s cute pink tongue is sticking out. His leg is sewed on perfect. Bucky balances Papa Smurf and Tiny Steve underneath Nobody. If it rains, Nobody will keep them dry. And if it’s cold, Nobody will keep them warm. And if Steve wants to take Papa Smurf back, he can. It’s okay because Steve and Bucky are together. And if Bucky asked to borrow Papa Smurf, Steve would say yes, because Steve loves Bucky. And Bucky loves Steve.

Bucky turns and rests his head against Steve’s neck. He wants to take a bath again with Steve and feel how Steve is warm and soft around him. He wants to go to the church with Steve and kiss and say “I do.” Bucky nuzzles so his nose is on Steve’s throat. Steve’s arms come up around him and Bucky leans against his Steve and Steve rocks him a little bit. They go to bed in Steve’s bed under the covers and it feels good and warm and safe and nice.

Finally after all these years, he’s home.

Chapter Text

It’s pink. A bright, purplish pink called “fuschia.” Bucky can see that one time, someone put a sticker on it and the sticker peeled off, but it used to be shiny, with sparkles. It has a button, and when Bucky presses the button, a shiny white card spits out. Bucky turns it over, but it is just white on both sides. He glances at Steve, who just brought this thing home. Steve is acting very nonchalant. And he’s not a good actor. Only for vaudeville and punching fake Hitler.

Bucky looks at the pink box thing. It looks like a future gadget. It has a little window like a scope. It has a lense like a camera. Bucky tests the button again and a shiny white card spits out. He thinks Steve got him a broken thing that does nothing.

But Steve doesn’t say anything like “Oh, it must be broken.” So Bucky is perplexed. And he’s a little annoyed. Steve is acting extra normal, which is not normal. So Bucky feels frustrated because he doesn’t know what’s so special about the thing!

He looks at his white cards again. Maybe Steve thought he would like them because they’re smooth and shiny, but Bucky doesn’t need a thing to make smooth, shiny paper. This is the weirdest, dumbest gadget. It makes Bucky’s face go into a scowl at Steve. And Steve looks at his phone and one side of his mouth is trying not to smile.

What a jerk! Bucky looks at him through the scope. He flicks the little switch for lightning. His finger hovers over the button. He’s going to get Steve with lightning.

But if something happens, he doesn’t really want to get Steve with lightning. So he lowers the thing, and he doesn’t press the button.

Then.

He sees something.

There is something!

A ghost is coming on the paper! Bucky’s heart beats so hard it’s in his throat and his eyeballs. A picture is slowly, slowly coming, on the shiny side of the card. Bucky stares at the card as colors come on and appear. It is a blurry picture of his knee. The other is a blurry sideways picture of the table.

This great thing made pictures right here! Not even his fancy phone can do that, with pictures coming out, they have to stay in the phone.

“There’s only about ten left in there,” Steve says. Bucky stops and stares. Only ten precious pictures can happen. But then Steve sees Bucky’s face and says “I already ordered more film.”

Oh, ten left right now. Bucky looks down at his cool pink thing that had a sticker. It’s a camera, like on his phone but better. It makes real pictures that you can hold in your hand. And Bucky has ten left that he can do right now. He used to have twelve but Steve let him waste two because he knew more were coming. And he was having a joke on Bucky thinking it was boring paper.

Bucky’s face goes into a small smile that he hides against his camera. Steve was having a joke on him.

*

“Oh my goodness, of course!” Pepper says and she smooths her hair down and comes to stand very close next to Bucky. Bucky doesn’t know how he is supposed to get a picture of Pepper when she is standing so close, he doesn’t even have room to put the camera.

Pepper puts her hair behind her shoulders and she leans in right beside Bucky and puts her face next to his and then she looks at him like she is waiting but not in a mean way. Suddenly Bucky understands that she wants them to be in the picture together. He feels a feeling that is “overwhelmed.” He is getting good at identifying his feelings with his therapist Ms. Borsao, that’s how he knows right away he feels overwhelmed. He didn’t know Pepper would want to be in the same picture as Bucky, he thought the picture would just be Pepper.

She says with her eyebrows crinkled like he might say no, “Can you take one for me to keep, too?”

Bucky has to look away from Pepper at the floor not in her direction. He didn’t think Pepper would want to keep a picture with someone like him.

“It’s okay if not,” she says quickly. Now she is misunderstanding Bucky! This has been happening really bad, worse than ever, ever since some stuff happened with SHIELD. His words get stuck and don’t come out and people misunderstand. That’s why Bucky is working with his therapist, Ms. Borsao even though she makes him feel really bad, horrible things. But then after, he feels better. Because the horrible feelings were there already. And she helps him take them out. It hurts like taking out a bullet. And Bucky is full of bullets. He thought Pepper wouldn’t want a picture with someone like him but obviously he was wrong because she does and just said so.

“It’s okay,” Bucky says, and holds the camera out so the lens is facing them. He’s seen people do this with their camera phones. But they don’t make a picture come out right here, like Bucky’s.

Bucky takes two pictures. Two blank, shiny papers come out. He holds one and Pepper holds the other. They wait and wait, standing close together even though they don’t have to because they each have their own picture.

Slowly slowly, the pictures come. It shows Pepper smiling big and bright next to Bucky. She is as tall as him when she’s wearing high heel shoes, but she’s leaning in, so she looks shorter. And she looks happy. Bucky doesn’t look happy, he looks scared. His eyes are open wide and his eyebrows are pinched like Steve’s get sometimes when he’s worried.

Bucky glances at Pepper but she’s smiling as her picture comes through, and she doesn’t care that Bucky doesn’t look happy like her.

“Thank you,” she says and hugs Bucky for a long hug. She smells nice and is nice. Bucky puts his arm around her a little bit, but not both arms and he doesn’t squeeze like she does. He’s not used to giving hugs, but he likes to get them. Especially from Pepper.

Then as she’s pulling away she gives him a kiss on the cheek and he gets a kiss from Pepper today is the best day! Bucky hides behind his camera and his picture of him and Pepper and he goes downstairs.

*

Tony Stark is in his lab. He working with robots. Bucky lines up his shot but then Jarvis spoils it at the last minute and Tony turns and gives a big smile and holds up a peace sign so in Bucky’s picture Tony is smiling, which, he was afraid to ask for so he got lucky because of Jarvis.

*

Jarvis is a bunch of glowing blue circles and that’s not even his body because he doesn’t have a body.

“If it were possible for me to smile, I certainly would be, sir, I assure you.”

Jarvis doesn’t lie, so Bucky believes him.

*

He’ll have to wait to get some other pictures. Natasha only comes by to the tower some days, and Steve’s friend Sam lives in D.C. but Steve says he’s thinking about moving to New York but needs a job. Sometimes Bucky feels jealous of Sam because he is Steve’s good friend and not a wreck like Bucky. But Bucky is not supposed to call himself a wreck even if it’s true. Ms. Borsao says it isn’t true. But she doesn’t know everything. But she has seen Bucky behaving like a big wreck, so maybe she does know. Bucky isn’t a big wreck all the time. He’s not a big wreck right now. He has lots of film coming for his camera, so he can use this up and have more later for Arrow Man, and Nat, and Sam, who is nice and Nat likes him.

Bucky thinks Nat is sweet on Sam but she won’t admit it and tries to act like she’s not. Bucky knows Sam is sweet on Nat because it’s obvious. But Sam “gives her space” which she needs a lot of like Bucky “needs his space” a lot too, that’s why he has his own bedroom with all his private stuff and Steve can’t go in unless he asks Bucky. And no one else can go in ever. Except Pepper.

Bucky has the lightning on which is the “flash” and he takes a picture of Tiny Steve against the window where it’s getting dark out. He has a picture of his knee and the table and him and Pepper, and Tony, and Jarvis, and two of Tiny Steve and one of Tiny Steve and Papa Smurf with Nobody, and one of Nobody’s tongue and nose that didn’t come out so good and one of everybody with candy under the bed. There’s just one picture left, now.

Bucky crawls on his elbows to the bedroom door, which is open just a crack. He sees Steve sitting on the couch reading. He spies on Steve through the scope.

It’s his last picture, until more film comes from Amazon. Who knows when that will be. Bucky spies on Steve through the scope with his finger hovering over the button. Then he misses Steve, from being so far away. He doesn’t want a secret picture, he wants one with Steve smiling. But he has to ask. Jarvis isn’t here to do the asking for him.

Steve turns a page in his book. It’s not a real page, it’s an electronic page. Steve likes to read biographies on his “e-reader.” He only likes to read things that are true. Or purport to be true, Bucky thinks, because plenty of biographies have been written on Steve now plus a whole exhibit that goes to museums, and not all of it is strictly facts. Not all that it says about Bucky is strictly facts. For instance: he didn’t die! That was a good fact to get wrong at least, because he’s here now. He gets up and he spies out the door at Steve.

Steve went somewhere this week and he saw this cool thing and he thought “Bucky will like that.” He was right and Bucky does like it and he likes that it’s from Steve. And Steve was thinking about him even when he wasn’t there, even when he wasn’t there for Steve’s speech he was giving, which, Steve has been giving some speeches lately and gets money. He says it’s important to do what he can to keep people informed. Bucky guesses that is important but he misses Steve when he goes away.

Bucky fits his fingernail around the button for lightning. He would like to have a picture of Steve for when Steve goes away sometimes, so he can look at it if he wants. So he goes into the living room where Steve is reading.

Steve stops reading and he smiles at Bucky. It’s the perfect opportunity to use his last picture. Steve is smiling the small smile that crinkles his eyes. But Bucky doesn’t use his last picture. He holds his camera in both hands. Then he holds his camera in one hand and he takes his pictures out of his pocket. He’s going to show them to Steve. But the feeling he is feeling is “shy.”

Bucky climbs onto the couch and sits down next to Steve. He sits down close to both see the pictures. And he only has his socks on so it’s okay if his feet are on the couch, it won’t get messy.

Bucky shows his pictures to Steve. He shows Tony, and Jarvis, and Bucky with Pepper, and Nobody and Tiny Steve and Papa Smurf who is the last of smurfs. Steve leans his head close. Then he puts his arm around Bucky and they look at pictures. Steve says, “One left?”

Bucky nods.

“Here,” Steve says, and holds his hand out for the camera. Bucky gives it to him. Steve holds it out pointed at them so they both will be in the picture. “Okay?” he asks. Bucky nods. Steve tilts so the side of his head touches Bucky’s. Bucky looks at the camera and waits for the click. Steve squeezes his shoulder and then he turns his head quickly and presses a big strong kiss on Bucky’s cheek. Then he turns back to the camera, grinning, and he clicks the picture.

The paper spits out. Steve sets the camera aside and they both hold one hand on the picture, waiting. They wait and wait. It takes longer the more you wait. If you don’t wait and forget for a minute, it goes quicker. But Bucky doesn’t want it to go quick.

He watches the ghost shape come in. First it’s mostly red and shadows. Then his eyes are coming in and Steve’s eyes. They watch the ghosts get darker and darker until they become people. It shows Steve leaning in against Bucky, smiling his big, happiest smile with his eyes crinkled. And Bucky’s eyes are crinkled too and his shoulders are up looking shy but he’s smiling a small little smile. It’s right there in the picture.

Then Steve hugs him close and kisses his head again, and Buck cuddles in, still watching the picture.

A feeling comes up, like pink and with bubbles. He feels happy.

Bucky smiles as Steve hugs him. He feels happy he’s with Steve.

 

THE END.