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Steve was on his way home from the mission debriefing when the cheesecake store caught his eye. He drove his motorcycle around the block, and when he found a place, he figured it was a sign: he and Bucky deserved a treat for their first mission together.

It had gone well, he thought. He had worried about it beforehand, taking Bucky into the field when he was still so withdrawn. But clearly Coulson had been right: just as Steve had needed the Battle of New York to give him a sense of purpose and belonging after he had been defrosted, maybe Bucky needed to fight Hydra.

And God knew SHIELD needed all the help it could get.

And they worked together well, Bucky and Steve. Bucky still had his back.

Steve stopped in front of the plate glass window, admiring the rainbow of cheesecakes on display. Raspberry, passion fruit, Dreamsicle, key lime, blueberry, lavender. So many choices.

Hydra had fed Bucky with a nasogastric tube. When Steve read that in Bucky’s file, he had figured that all the refreezing must have messed up Bucky’s digestive tract; but now he suspected that there had been no physical reason for it. Probably Pierce wanted to emphasize the asset’s dependency on Hydra. If you leave us, you’ll starve.

It hadn’t stopped Bucky from leaving Hydra, in the end. The thought filled Steve with a fierce, painful pride.

He’d get a slice of each cheesecake, he decided. Give Bucky plenty of choices.

Bucky’s debriefing hadn’t lasted as long as Steve’s, and he was already settled into the apartment by the time Steve arrived. He lay on his stomach on the floor, looking through one of Steve’s history books: The Illustrated Battle Cry of Freedom.

“Hey, Buck,” Steve said, and smiled at him.

Bucky neither smiled back nor replied. He didn’t seem to be much for unnecessary chatter anymore, and Steve tried not to think about Bucky in Brooklyn, draped across the fire escape and shooting the breeze about nothing in particular for hours.

“I got us cheesecake,” Steve said, and set the box on the table. “You want some?”

Bucky dragged himself up from the floor and clumped over to the table. His boots were still caked with dried mud from the mission. It fell off in clumps on the floor. Steve thought about saying something, but he didn’t want to spoil the moment. “Here you go,” he said instead, and opened up the cheesecake box.

Bucky’s eyebrows snapped together. “What the hell is this?”

Steve’s smile faltered. “I got a selection of different flavors,” he said, and began to point them out. “That’s raspberry, and that’s – ”

“I don’t care,” Bucky interrupted. He smacked the lid closed again. “I don’t want it.”

Steve took a deep breath. He let it out slowly. Bucky had just been held captive by a bunch of people who never gave a damn what he wanted. Steve wasn’t going to be like that, even if Bucky was a little rude. “All right,” Steve said levelly. “What would you like?”

“Pancakes.”

Pancakes. Right. Pancakes again. Pancakes for the fifth time that week. “Okay,” said Steve. He forced another smile, and then his face softened into it, so he was grinning at Bucky. Sam had warned him it would be difficult. It was worth a little difficulty to have Bucky home. “Anything you want, Buck.”

Bucky didn’t smile back.

Chapter Text

There is a box sitting at Bucky’s place at the table, wrapped in red paper emblazoned with golden reindeer silhouettes. Bucky eyes it doubtfully. “I got you a present,” Steve says. “For Christmas. Well, for Christmas Eve, I guess. If you want to open it now.”

It’s probably okay, Bucky thinks. He is almost certain Steve has never played a prank in his life.

Steve watches bright-eyed as Bucky carefully undoes the tape. It makes Bucky feel skittish, like Steve is plotting a critique of his present-unwrapping technique. “Am I doing it right?” he snaps.

Steve looks abashed. “Yeah, of course. You’re doing fine.”

Bucky’s mom used to wrap packages in the funny pages from newspapers, and Bucky always unwrapped them carefully to save the Buck Rogers strips. He loved that comic, and not just because the hero shared his name.

Buck Rogers began his adventures by waking up five hundred years in the future. It’s kind of funny.

The flimsy paper tears a little on the final corner. Bucky glances at Steve sharply, but Steve doesn’t say anything, so Bucky turns his attention back to the box and gingerly opens the lid.

Chocolates. They are covered with little crystals of – Bucky picks one up with a fingertip and tastes it – salt. Salt. Who the fuck puts salt on chocolate?

“I wasn’t quite sure what you’d like,” Steve says. He sounds a little uncertain. “But salted caramel chocolates are pretty classic, apparently, so I thought…”

But then Bucky remembers a barista eagerly informing him that he “has to try the salted caramel mocha frappuccino, it’s one of my favorites, you won’t be sorry.” And she was right. Probably the flavor combination is good in solid form, too.

A ghost of good manners rises up in his mind. “Do you want one?” he asks, and gently pushes the box toward Steve.

Steve beams. “Thanks.” He takes one of the chocolates delicately and bites it in half. Soft caramel oozes out of it.

“I don’t have anything for you,” Bucky blurts, and is suddenly stricken with shyness.

Steve shakes his head, his mouth full of caramel and chocolate. “Don’t worry about it,” he says. “You don’t need to give me anything.”

Chapter Text

Bucky wasn’t in the cafeteria.

Usually if Bucky get out of their post-mission medical assessment before Steve – and he almost always did; the doctors hated working with Bucky almost as much as he hated them – he waited for Steve in the cafeteria, but he wasn’t there today.

Now Steve was walking around the halls of the DC SHIELD office, trying to stay calm as he peered into empty rooms to check for Bucky. Bucky had been back for months now. He wasn’t going to disappear again.

The building felt eerily empty, even for a Sunday. Once, SHIELD agents had filled the whole Triskelion. Now all the SHIELD agents in DC fit into this cramped aging office building with room to spare.

The sound of purring caught Steve’s attention, and he peered inside a conference room. A large box stood just inside the door, the words FREE TO A GOOD HOME scrawled in permanent marker on the cardboard.

Steve peered inside. A large hairless cat peered back at him out of the darkness, its eyes disconcertingly bright. A fat brown tabby lay in the corner of the box, ears flattened against its head as if it knew without looking that it didn’t approve of Steve.

Bucky used to love cats. Dogs too, but his mother would never allow a dog in the apartment. Steve peered around the room.

He didn’t see Bucky at first. Bucky sat on one of the windowsills, silhouetted by sunlight so bright that he blended into the darkness of the wall. He still wore his armor, except for one glove; and it was the movement of that ungloved hand that caught Steve’s eye. Bucky was stroking a white cat, which sprawled bonelessly over his thigh. It purred like a deliriously happy lawnmower.

Steve had about a second to take this picture in before Bucky caught sight of him. His face shuttered and his hand stilled, fingers spreading as if to hide the cat from Steve’s view. The cat was so small he almost managed it.

“Hi,” Steve said. He felt awkward. “You know we can’t keep one.”

“I know.”

“We’re away on missions half the time. It wouldn’t be a good home for a cat.”

“I said I know, Steve.”

The white cat popped out from under Bucky’s hand and began to prowl along the windowsill. Bucky scooped it up one handed. Steve stared, uncertain what Bucky would do and half-dreading it; but Bucky only deposited the cat back in the box. “Let’s go.”

The cat began to wail as they left the room. The racket barely seemed to get softer as they moved away from the conference room, a high keening noise that made Steve’s hair stand on end.

By the end of the hall, Steve couldn’t stand it anymore. He stopped. Bucky stopped too, so suddenly that Steve though perhaps he’d been hoping for an excuse. Bucky’s face was pale and sweaty. This from a guy who told Tompkins he would dropkick him out of the fucking van if Tompkins didn’t stop crying over his broken collarbone.

Clearly that meant Steve ought to encourage this. “I’ll talk to Sam,” Steve said. “Maybe he can find someone at the VA who wants a cat. A lot of people go through there, and he knows everyone.” Bucky looked at Steve, utterly still. Steve added, “We can look after it for a couple of days.”

Bucky’s swinging strides ate up the hallway back to the conference room. He returned with the cat cradled in his right arm, its head resting against its shoulder.

They kept it two days before Sam found a veteran with two little girls who wanted nothing more than a cat. “They’ve named him Snowball,” Sam told Steve and Bucky.

Bucky shoved half a slice of French toast in his mouth. “So the wings,” he said. “Can they reach escape velocity?”

Chapter Text

“Hilary Clinton’s officially announced that she’s running for the Democratic nomination,” Steve said, rustling the paper. He was (Sam liked to tease him) probably the only person under the age of sixty who read newspapers actually on paper, but he liked the way they felt in his hands.

And he liked the fact that a physical newspaper was big enough to act as a screen between himself and Bucky, so he didn’t have to face the full force of Bucky’s sullen stare.

Not that Bucky was staring at Steve. He sat slumped in an armchair, looking dully out the Starbucks window at the parking lot, the straw of his frappuccino clasped loosely between his lips even though he had finished the drink a while ago. He used to walk around with an unlit cigarette dangling from his lips like that. Makes you look like a hoodlum, Mrs. Barnes had scolded, and it just made Bucky grin.

Bucky didn’t even glance up at Steve’s newspaper tidbit. Bucky wasn’t interested in anything but food and explosions these days. Steve shifted in his seat. “Do you want another frappuccino?”

Bucky shook his head.

Steve ducked behind his paper again. He took another swig of his coffee and rubbed his eyes and wished they could get cracking on this mission already. The wait was killing him.

“’S not like it matters,” Bucky mumbled.

Steve lowered the paper. “Oh?” he said.

Bucky let the straw drop from his mouth. “Elections,” he said. “Everything gets decided by a bunch of drunk old men over dinner and cigars.”

Steve peered at him. Bucky used to say this sort of thing in the thirties just to rile Steve up: it’s all up to the bosses anyway, he’d drawl, and grin when Steve inevitably fell for the bait. Steve couldn’t tell if Bucky was baiting him now. “Do you really think so?”

“Nah,” said Bucky. He smiled the small sharp smile he got when he hit a difficult shot. “They like to think they decide shit. But really they’re all getting dragged along by history, just like the rest of us.”

“But someone’s got to be shaping history,” Steve objected.

Bucky shrugged. His gaze had drifted away from Steve, out the window, around the quiet Starbucks. “Give me your card,” he said, and held out a hand, his eyes fixed on the menu board. “I wanna try the caramel flan frappuccino.”

Chapter Text

Steve made the mistake of suggesting they should go to the farmers’ market early, “so we don’t have to deal with the crowds.”

“I don’t give a fuck about crowds,” Bucky snapped.

Bucky hated crowds. Not that he would ever admit it.

I don’t like crowds, Buck,” Steve said with asperity.

“Well, I’m not getting up early just because you’re a pussy,” Bucky responded, indignant.

And that was how they ended up at the farmers’ market at eleven o’clock, walking shoulder to shoulder with Steve on Bucky’s left so no one would bump into Bucky’s metal arm. The crowds parted for them, or more accurately, for Bucky’s murder strut. They didn’t even stop at any of the booths, just walked. Steve wished they hadn’t come.

At least it wasn’t as crowded as it would get come summer. When Sam dragged Steve here last summer (“You can’t search for Bucky all the time, man”) the place had been utterly packed. Sam knew some of the vendors. It had been fun.

Bucky took a sudden turn to the right. Steve had to bank sharply to follow, and was annoyed at himself for following so adroitly. It would serve Bucky right if Steve let him wander away on his own.

But Bucky wasn’t wandering very far. He stopped in front of a stall selling meat pies: sausage, venison, grass-fed beef. The juices had bubbled out over their crusts at the top, rich and brown, and they smelled delicious. “You want one?” Steve asked.

Bucky nodded. “One of each.”

“Two of each,” Steve told the vendor, because he might as well get himself lunch too. Maybe now that they had food, they could leave.

The vendor was staring at him. “Captain America?” he blurted.

Oh no. This didn’t happen all that often, and Steve still wasn’t used to it. “Please don’t tell anyone,” he said.

“Of course not,” said the vendor, his voice dropping close to a whisper. “Anything you like. It’s an honor to meet you, sir.” Steve shifted uncomfortably. The man was easily twice Steve’s age, much too old to be calling him sir. “My daughter lived in New York when the Chitauri attacked. I know she would have died if it weren’t for the Avengers.”

“I’m glad we were there to help, sir,” Steve said. He ought to have a prepared response to situations like this now. Something smoother than standing there wishing he were elsewhere. Would it be awkward to remind the vendor that he was trying to buy some pies?

But the vendor moved to wrap them up. Steve dug out his wallet, but the man waved him off. “No, you don’t need to pay for anything. On the house for you and your friend here.” He glanced at Bucky curiously, and Steve’s heart began to pound. No one had recognized Bucky so far; most people’s mental image of Bucky Barnes these days was Paul Newman, who had played him in the most famous Captain America movie. But if this man was a Captain America fan, if he’d gone to the Smithsonian exhibit…

“I’m his bodyguard,” Bucky said, adopting a square-shouldered and stone-faced stance to back up the assertion.

“Good,” the man said. “He’s a national treasure. He deserves any protection we can offer. You’re a national treasure, sir, and I hope you know that,” he told Steve, and he handed a bulging paper bag of meat pies across the booth. It looked like more than six. Maybe twice as many.

“Thank you,” Steve said, mortally embarrassed, and beat an ignominious retreat.

Once they’d gotten out of the farmers’ market, Bucky began to whistle the tune of “The Star-Spangled Man with a Plan.”

“Oh, shut up!” said Steve.

Bucky whistled a few more bars. Then he said, “Gimme,” and held out a hand; and when Steve tried to give him the bag, he said, “No, just one, Steve, Jesus,” he said. Steve handed him one. Bucky unwrapped it and chomped into it and said cheerfully, “They’re probably poisoned.”

“Bucky! Then why are you eating it?”

Bucky swallowed. “I’m protecting a precious national treasure.” He took another enormous bite.

“I doubt Hydra set up a meat pie stand just in case I happened to come to the farmers’ market again, so they could poison me if I happened to stop at one particular stand out of dozens,” Steve said.

Bucky shrugged. He ate the rest of the pie and they walked on in silence. It was a long walk back to the apartment.

“I would’ve been at the Battle of New York too,” Bucky said. “It took them too long to defrost me, that’s all. Crossbones and them were all bitching about how they missed all the action.”

That was more than Steve had ever heard Bucky say about Hydra outside of his debriefing. “Yeah?” he said, hoping Bucky would continue.

“Yeah,” Bucky said. He kicked a pebble across the street. “I would’ve been there too.”

Chapter Text

The drug’s called Russian Roulette, because it kills one out of ten people the first time they try it. The high must be fucking fantastic, though, ‘cause the other nine keep coming back, and it’s funding most of the Hydra ops in Europe.

That’s why Steve and Bucky are storming this old cave laboratory left over from World War II. If you can’t cut off the heads, you gotta cut them off at the roots.

Bucky hates these caves. They’re all blind turns and shadowed alcoves, bad lighting: anyone could jump out from anywhere, shoot your own teammates before you even realize it’s them. Steve’s got them using ICERs – he always does, his ops – but so what? They’ll knock each other out and wake up captive, fucking fantastic.

He told Steve they shouldn’t split up, but Steve never fucking listens to him anymore. He’s not at all like he used to be, like he was during the war.

So Bucky’s walking through the cave corridors, ears open as much as his eyes, listening for heart beats, rough breathing. Nothing but bats so far.

He turns one of those blind corners, ICER at the ready (and Steve would say something about his trigger discipline; fucking martinet), and then he hears something.

“It’s not often test subjects deliver themselves to us,” says the voice, same rotten lines that those Hydra bastards like to use seventy years ago.

“I can’t imagine why, when you’ve made the place so inviting.” And that’s – Steve, fuck, Steve, fuck, voice slurred, like they’ve ICEd him, probably stole his own goddamn ICER, fuck Steve fuck fuck fuck, and Bucky’s not sure how to get to them.

And this scientist, he’s got to be the only one of his kind who doesn’t like a good gloat (Zola never fucking shut up). The scientist says, “If you’ll just make a fist for me, that will make it easier to find a vein – ”

Bucky punches Katyushka straight through the rock wall. There’s a great crumbling and a yell and a clang, and the shock reverberates up his body; and he drags his hand back and, yep, there’s a hole in his glove and a dent in the knuckle plates.

He drives Katyushka back through the wall. It crumbles down and he steps through it, rocks falling around him, and ICEs the fucker standing over Steve with a syringe.

Steve’s still halfway across the room, looking groggy as hell, and Bucky hopes to hell it’s ‘cause he got ICEd earlier and not because that bastard got the Roulette in him after all.

“Look out!” Steve yells, and Bucky spins, but he’s too late, even super reflexes aren’t enough, he’s got the fucker in his sights, gets a shot off, but the guy’s already taken his shot and there’s not enough time to move –

He takes it in the left shoulder, armor and metal plating to stop it, but the impact still drops him, hurts like a son of a bitch. He can’t breathe, he can’t breathe, he’s on his knees gasping for breath, if there’s another gunman they’re done for, all because he was looking for Steve –

And Steve’s beside him, shaky as a calf on his legs. “Bucky,” he says, and drops down beside him, voice as shaky as his legs. “Bucky, Jesus, are you okay?” And his hand is on Bucky’s neck, gentle as anything, and Bucky flails to knock it away.

“Back off,” snarls Bucky. “Get your ICER.”

But Steve stays down beside him, won’t go away, never fucking listens, almost died because he insisted on this stupid splitting up plan. “Buck, are you – ”

That’s when Bucky hauls off and slaps him in the face.

It knocks Steve on his ass. His cheek is red, the rest of his face so white it still shows traces of blue from when he got hit with an ICER earlier.

“When I tell you to do something,” Bucky shouts, “you do it!”

And now Steve’s red all over, furious. “I have my ICER,” he snarls, and okay, he does. Must’ve nabbed it before coming over. “I don’t know how it was with Hydra – ”

“With Hydra,” Bucky screams, reckless with rage, it’s not like he can make things worse at this point – if you ever hurt Steve or SHIELD, I will lock you up so deep you will never see the sun – “people followed my orders!”

“But with SHIELD, you don’t hit your teammates!”

They’re so busy yelling at each other, it’s only then that they hear the sound of Hydra reinforcements tromping toward them. It sounds like a fucking platoon.

That’s just the echo, though. It’s only six guys, and they drop them, easy, and have time to smash the lab before hoofing it. Mission accomplished.

And Bucky must be doing an okay job being useful, because Coulson doesn’t so much as peep about locking him away.

Chapter Text

Bucky is fuming. It’s so far past midnight that the sky’s starting to get light, but he’s still pacing back and forth across his room. He’s trying to pace quietly, because he doesn’t want to give Steve the satisfaction of knowing how angry he is, but it’s fucking impossible to do anything quietly in combat boots, and Steve can probably hear him clomping away.

He wishes he had broken Steve’s goddamn nose. If Steve was going to be this pissy about it, Bucky might at least have done some real damage, not just a girly little slap that didn’t even bruise.

And Steve is fucking furious. He actually walked out on Bucky earlier, right in the middle of an argument (and Bucky’s chest is so tight with fury thinking about it that he can barely breathe), walked right out of the apartment, just disappeared for hours and hours, and he didn’t come back any calmer, no. Bucky had been all set to be reasonable by the time Steve got back, but Steve didn’t say a word, just tossed a bag of tacos on the kitchen table and locked himself in his room.

Bucky kicks the bed frame. Probably Steve will never talk to Bucky again, and Steve was the only one who ever liked him, which is fine, everyone else at SHIELD sucks anyway. But Steve’s so goddamn stubborn, he’ll never let this go, and there’s nothing Bucky can do to fix it (it’s getting hard to breathe), it’s not like Bucky can apologize –

Bucky could apologize.

It’s like pushing a dislocated limb back in its socket. The thought is agonizing for a few seconds, but then it slips into place, and the residual pain is swamped in relief.

He could apologize. He can apologize. He should apologize, he realizes in a burst of ecstatic self-abnegation. He shouldn’t have hit Steve in the first place, because Steve didn’t do anything to deserve it, and even if Steve had, it’s not Bucky’s job to punish him; they’re friends, equals, they shouldn’t do things like that. He’ll promise never to hit Steve again, even: if Steve was ever going to hit him he would have done it today, after Bucky hit him first, so it should be okay. Bucky will apologize and everything will be all right again –

And there. That’s the sound of Steve’s door: up ridiculously early for his run, the way he always is.

Bucky has to sit down on his bed because his legs won’t hold him anymore. He listens to the sound of Steve’s bare feet on the floor, soft and slow this early in the morning, the squeak of the cutlery drawer, the plink of the coffee maker; but he can’t force himself to his feet till the smell of coffee percolates into his room.

He doesn’t mean to slam his door behind him, but somehow that happens. Steve sits at the kitchen table, looking at him, wary, his butter knife embedded in the banana he’s slicing onto his toast. “I’m sorry for hitting you,” Bucky blurts, and some other things too, so embarrassed he can barely listen to himself; but it must go all right, because it ends with Steve making him some toast, too.

Chapter Text

A girl has stolen his table.

That’s the first thing Bucky notices when he walks into the DC SHIELD office’s basement cafeteria after his session with Dr. Charles. She’s sitting at his table, chowing down on a giant ice cream sundae, and it’s hard to tell with the curtain of hair hiding her face, but he’s pretty fucking sure she flashes a smirk at him.

The SHIELD agents all want the tables around the edges of the cafeteria, where no one can sneak up from behind: the tables with good sight lines, clear paths to the door. Spies are so predictable once you know their tricks.

Bucky’s table is near the center of the room. He’s not worried about anyone sneaking up behind him. Anyone tries it, he can knock them flat. He’s only had to do it one time, though, and the dumb fuck backed right down when Bucky knocked his tray out of his arms.

If he were with Hydra he’d do the same thing with this girl, toss her tray on the floor and toss her after it if she didn’t get the picture. But Coulson will have Bucky back in that interrogation cell in a second if he attacks a SHIELD agent, maybe not let him out this time.

Bucky’s close to crying with rage. She’s taken his table and there’s nothing he can do –

No, fuck that, there is something he can do. He’ll sit at his table, just like normal, like she isn’t even there. Glare at her until she goes away. Steve won’t like it, but fuck Steve anyway, he’s supposed to be on Bucky’s side but he always sides with everyone else.

Bucky sets his tray down on his table with a satisfying clatter. His cranberry juice slops over the rim of his glass.

“Here,” the girl says, and lunges across the table holding out a couple napkins. “I’m so glad you’re sitting here, I’ve been feeling totally new girl in school sitting here all alone, you know? Story of my life.”

Her friendliness gives him pause. Maybe she didn’t know it was his table? And she’s right, after all, the cafeteria’s pretty crowded.

“Oh, I’m Skye,” she says, and holds her hand a little higher so they can shake, except she’s still holding the napkins.

He’s heard that name. He hears a lot of things sitting here: that’s another reason he likes this table, he can eavesdrop on all sides. Skye’s one of Coulson’s team (and fuck, if he’d attacked her, Coulson probably would have thrown away the key), the one who “didn’t go to the SHIELD Academy” – always said in the same faintly snooty disapproving voice.

He retroactively loathes them all for it.

Skye looks at her hand and drops the napkins. Bucky finally takes his cue and shakes her hand.

“Soooo,” she says. “What’s your name?”

“James,” he says. He’s always hated the name James, but no one else in this stupid century uses the name Bucky, and people get this look when they realize who he is.

“Bond,” she intones, and he stares at her. “James – ” She breaks off and grimaces again, a different twisting of her face. It’s kind of fascinating how expressive her face is. “Shit, I bet you get that all the time.”

“No,” he said. He knows the reference for once, though. Crossbones loved those movies, always had them running on the TV in the safe houses.

Skye’s sundae is almost gone. She’s poking at the maraschino cherry floating in the ice cream goo, and all of a sudden he doesn’t want her to leave. “Do you like James Bond?”

She lights up. “Yes! The Daniel Craig ones especially.”

Crossbones hated the Daniel Craig ones. Clearly Skye has excellent taste.

“I’ve seen them all, though, all the other Bonds. I especially like – ” And she’s off to the races. He has no idea what she’s talking about, but he eats his fried chicken and nods enthusiastically and echoes what she says well enough to get her to keep talking, keep smiling, keep waving her hands so enthusiastically that she almost knocks over her empty glass. She’s enjoying herself. He can’t remember the last time anyone enjoyed talking to him.

She actually seems sorry when her phone squawks and she has to leave.

Chapter Text

“Good morning,” says Dr. Charles. He is sitting at his desk, surrounded by a coffee mug and a notebook and an army of paperweights.

Bucky stands in the doorway. He spent the weekend waiting for a telephone call canceling all further appointments (remembering the exhausted look on Steve’s face the last time they got a call like that. Bucky, these people want to help you), and now that he is here, he feels like he can’t breathe.

Dr. Charles is moving toward him. Bucky’s spine tightens, but Dr. Charles only moves around the desk to sit in his usual chair. “Please come in,” he says. “I’m glad you’re back. I know our last session ended abruptly, and that sometimes makes it hard for people to return. I’m very glad to see you again.”

Bucky stares at him. Dr. Charles, he realizes, is smiling.

“Won’t you come in? You don’t have to sit down, but I do think you should shut the door.”

Bucky realizes then how stupid he looks, hanging back in the doorway like an idiot kindergartner. He shuts the door and plunks down defiantly in his favorite armchair.

“When our sessions began,” Dr. Charles says, “I told you that there was one rule in this room: you can’t hurt yourself or others. Not just physically, but with abusive language, as well.”

“I remember,” Bucky says sullenly. “I’m not stupid.”

“I know you aren’t,” Dr. Charles says, unperturbed. “I have to enforce these rules to make sure we both feel safe here. That’s the only way these sessions are going to help.”

He pauses – he is always pausing, waiting for Bucky to say something. Bucky scowls. Eventually Dr. Charles continues, “But I’m not angry with you. A new session is a blank slate. And I want you to know that if you ever feel uncomfortable, you can always change the subject or leave a session too. I’ll never hold it against you.”

Bucky’s pretty sure that if he ever pulls that stunt, he’s going to end up having another talk with Coulson. But Dr. Charles, like Steve, is probably stupid enough to believe his own bullshit.

“Do you remember what made you so angry?” Dr. Charles asks.

“No.” Suddenly he’s so embarrassed that he can’t look at Dr. Charles anymore: he knows that sounds like a lie. “I – sometimes I get so angry I don’t know what I’m saying,” he mumbles. “Sometimes I don’t even remember afterwards why I got angry. I think – ” He puts his hand over his mouth. I think maybe that’s why I forgot things when I was with Hydra. Jesus. It’s much too easy to talk to Dr. Charles.

“How do you feel when that happens?” Dr. Charles asks.

“Angry! Aren’t you listening?”

“I am listening,” says Dr. Charles. “If we can figure out the physical sensations you feel when you begin to get angry, it might help you control – ”

“It won’t!” Bucky yells. He stops, covers his mouth again. “It won’t,” he says. “Nothing helps.”

“Why do you say that?”

He’s pressing his hand over his mouth so hard that his teeth are biting into his gums. He wrenches his hand away, presses it against the soft fabric of the chair. He rubs his hand the wrong way up the nap, feeling the tickle against his palm. His heart thuds in his chest.

“Bucky?” says Dr. Charles. “Are you all right?”

“I want to talk about something else,” Bucky mumbles. He’s horrified as soon as it leaves his mouth. Christ, he’s practically whimpering.

But Dr. Charles says, “All right. What would you like to talk about?”

“I dunno!”

Dr. Charles waits. Minutes tick by; Dr. Charles has a mechanical clock, a stupid novelty clocks with the numbers jumbled up at the bottom, so Bucky can actually hear the ticking. He can’t breathe properly. If he doesn’t say something, he is going to cry.

“Why do you have so many paperweights?” Bucky blurts.

Dr. Charles smiles. “My wife and I bought the first one in Venice on our honeymoon, and I’ve collected them ever since. Would you like to look at them?”

“No,” Bucky mutters, and then panics. Dr. Charles always takes his nos at face value, even when he ought to know Bucky’s lying. “Yes. Yes I do,” he blurts.

Paperweights, he figures, are probably safe. He won’t say anything else compromising if they’re talking about paperweights.

Chapter Text

“Do you worry about Steve?” Dr. Charles asks.

Bucky hunkers down in the comfortable armchair and scowls out the window. There’s slice of blooming magnolia tree on the other side of the glass, pink and white and browning at the edges. “Not now. He just used to be so little, and bullies always picked on him at the orphanage.”

The orphanage is the inspiration of a moment: he’s been wondering how well Dr. Charles has been briefed, and how better to check than by telling an obvious lie?

“At the orphanage?” says Dr. Charles.

“Yeah. We grew up at an orphanage together, after his ma died.” Bucky scoots sideways in the chair and flips his legs over one of the arms. “It got pretty rough sometimes.” He doesn’t peer at Dr. Charles. A glance right now would give the game away. “Guess that’s off topic, though,” he says.

“Nothing you want to talk about is off topic,” Dr. Charles says. He says this often. It has a dangerous lulling effect and makes Bucky babble on and on and spill stupid shit, like the crap he said about the last mission that made Dr. Charles wake up and take notice that he worries.

At first Bucky thought Dr. Charles was a completely shit interrogator, but he’s changed his mind. In the short term, sure, Dr. Charles sucks at getting information, but that’s because he knows he’s in it for the long haul. The information he’s after isn’t stupid little details about Hydra. He’s figuring out what makes Bucky tick.

He’s dangerous. He does the kindly sympathetic act even better than Sasha.

“Is it hard to talk about the orphanage?” Dr. Charles asks, and Bucky realizes that he’s been staring fixedly at the wilting magnolias for God knows how long.

“I dunno.” Bucky sinks lower in the comfortable leather chair, wrapping his good arm around himself. He considers pulling the hood up, but that might be a little too obvious. “I don’t wanna talk about it.”

He risks a glance now. Dr. Charles leans forward, all sympathy, not at all suspicious (not at all like he’s been the other times Bucky’s lied to him). Sucker, Bucky thinks, and is vaguely disappointed.

“He just couldn’t keep his damn mouth shut,” Bucky says. “Always got the shit kicked out of him by everyone. And he was so little then. Well, we were both little, I guess. It’s different now.”

“It’s hard to watch people we love get hurt,” says Dr. Charles. “Even if they’re big enough to take it.”

Bucky goes ahead and pulls up the hood on his sweatshirt, and hunkers down a little more. He’s practically lying in the chair now. “I don’t wanna talk about it,” he says again.

And that’s the last of the orphanage for that session. But Bucky returns to it, especially when their conversations wind around to Steve. It’s reassurance, he thinks, that he’s smarter than Dr. Charles.

Chapter Text

Snow fell outside their window: DC snow, wet and sloppy and likely to melt before tomorrow. But the big flakes were beautiful now, and Bucky lay on the couch, watching.

Steve had offered to turn on the TV for him, but Bucky waved the offer away irritably, so Steve had turned on the radio instead: NPR. Vivaldi. Soothing.

Bucky didn’t look soothed. He shifted restlessly on the couch. He hadn’t said much about it, except for brief demands for painkillers, but Steve thought the flu was making him ache. He was so sick he had taken the metal arm off, which gave Steve a bad moment that morning when Bucky dragged himself into the kitchen with an empty sleeve flapping loose at his side. Bucky kept the metal arm covered so assiduously that Steve sometimes forgot that it wasn’t Bucky’s own flesh and blood arm.

“Bring it out here,” Bucky had told him, and Steve brought the arm out and braced himself for a string of demands, because Bucky was demanding enough when he was well.

But once Steve had settled the arm under the couch, where Bucky could grab it easily if anyone showed up, Bucky didn’t ask for anything else. Steve, somewhat guiltily, was enjoying the unusual peace.

He sat in an armchair next to the couch. He’d been trying to read, but his attention had drifted to the feathers of snow falling out the window, and now it drifted to Bucky, lying there in a tea-stained sweatshirt. Steve had offered to get him a new sweatshirt after Bucky spilled the top inch of his mug of tea on himself, but Bucky refused with a flash of his usual fire. But the fire was gone now; his face looked slack and sad and tired.

Steve really wanted to get him a clean sweatshirt. He wanted to help him change into it and get him some fresh tea and hold it for him to drink, and tuck the blanket up under Bucky’s chin and bathe his sweaty face and press his hand to Bucky’s forehead. Steve’s mother used to lay her cool hand on Steve’s forehead when he was sick, and Steve had always thought it was the most soothing gesture in the world.

The soft music and the drifting snow had an almost hypnotic effect. Steve asked, unthinking, “Do you miss your mother?”

“That’s not fair,” Bucky snapped. “That’s not fair – that’s cheating – ”

“I’m sorry,” Steve said, taken aback. “I asked because sometimes I miss my mother. Especially when I’m not feeling well.”

Bucky shifted his head slightly to look at Steve. It looked like the movement hurt. “But she died before the war.”

Steve tensed up. He put up with a lot of shit from Bucky, but if Bucky was going to make fun of him for admitting to missing his mother –

But Bucky said, “It never gets better?”

Steve softened at once. “It gets better,” he said. “It doesn’t go away.”

When Steve first defrosted, he wanted more than anything to talk to someone about his dead friends, someone who’d known them, who understood that to Steve it felt like they had been alive yesterday, and had died in an instant. Steve’s SHIELD psychiatrist had never been able to see past the weirdness of the whole situation – not that Steve had given him much of a chance; he saw the guy twice and then refused to see him again.

Which was probably just as well. The psychiatrist turned out to be Hydra. Steve didn’t even want to think what the guy might have prescribed for him if he got the chance.

The silence felt sad instead of peaceful now. “Do you want to talk about her?” Steve asked.

“You’re not fair,” Bucky said again. His voice was hoarse. He tugged restlessly at the heavy blanket.

Maybe he didn’t remember her well enough to talk about her. Bucky had been back for more than a year, and there were still so many things Steve didn’t know.

Steve gave in to temptation and tucked the blanket up to Bucky’s chin. Bucky burrowed down beneath it till it covered his nose. “You want some more tea?” Steve asked. Bucky nodded.

Steve made another cup, heavy on the lemon and honey. He set it on the coffee table, where it would be easy for Bucky to drink it, and settled into his chair again and watched the falling snow.

Chapter Text

Clint has stolen their mission.

Bucky shoves the last piece of fried chicken in his mouth, glaring at Clint’s stupid smushed pug face. Better suited to his skill set, indeed. Like arrows are ever a better option than a bullet. Maybe if you want to make absolutely fucking sure that everyone in the world knows who did it, because who the fuck else uses a bow in this day and age?

He’s a glory hound, that’s what he is. Real assassins get in, get it done, and no one knows their names. Bucky shovels sweet potato fries in his mouth.

And now Clint has stolen their mission, and they won’t get to go to Australia (and Bucky has always wanted to go to Australia), and he’s not going to get a chance to ask Steve to get him off, either.

He could always sneak out the window – he’s done it a few times; Steve’s neighborhood swarms with guys just dying to be picked up – but it’s a stupid risk to take just to get off. If he gets caught sneaking out, Coulson’s going to think he’s gone to meet a Hydra contact.

It’s the dead of winter, anyway. Too cold for sneaking out.

Australia would have been warm.

And it’s nicer with Steve, anyway.

“I think I’m going to get that slice of pie after all,” Clint says. He heads back to the cafeteria line. Heads turn as he passes. All the SHIELD agents know who he is.

“Bucky,” says Steve. “Could you stop glaring at Clint?”

Bucky glares at his plate instead. His Jell-O doesn’t look good anymore. He stabs his fork in it and eats it anyway.

“Try talking to him,” Steve pleads. “I think you’d like him. You have a lot in common. His experience with Loki – ”

That cuts. “You think I’m a mindless puppet?”

Steve keeps talking. Bucky barely hears. Of course Steve thinks he’s a mindless puppet. They all think he was a mindless puppet: that’s the only reason they’ve forgiven him.

There is no percentage in telling them that he thought, that they had all thought, they were doing the right thing. All their suffering would be redeemed when Communism came. Happy children in Young Pioneer scarves, happy couples holding hands beneath a moonlit statue of Lenin, all wars done and gone away, when Communism came. I won’t live to see it, Soldat, but you will.

“Soldat?” That’s Steve voice, soft. Bucky plummets back into the cafeteria. Harsh fluorescent lights, laughter, the scrape of forks on plates. His tray is almost empty. He shoves the last few sweet potato fries in his mouth. His pie is long gone. He always eats it first when he has the chance.

Clint’s tray clicks on the table as he sets it down. A slice of pecan pie and a glass of milk. “They’re out of cherry,” he says. “Knew I should have grabbed it the first time – ”

“So tell me,” Bucky erupts, “what was it like being a Norse god’s meat puppet?”

Clint freezes, half-sitting down, his mouth still open from his half-finished sentence.

“Bucky!” Steve yells.

And now half the cafeteria is staring at them.

You told me to talk to him,” Bucky says, low-voiced. They’re going to overhear anyway. Bucky is angry almost to the point of tears. “Which god is Pierce in this scenario? The second coming of Alexander the Great? He would have liked that.”

“Bucky.”

“We have nothing in common,” Bucky hisses.

“We have nothing in common,” Steve repeats. He pushes back his chair. “I’m sorry,” he says, the apology oddly omnidirectional; and he leaves. So does Clint.

Bucky is sitting alone at the table. Everyone is staring at him. Even he is staring at himself, sitting like a lump at the table, catty-corner from Clint’s abandoned tray.

He makes himself eat Clint’s pecan pie. Drink the milk. Return the trays to the dish room. His body, at least, he can force to behave.

Chapter Text

Bucky’s eyebrows snapped together as he read the mission briefing. “They’re sticking us with Tompkins again?” he demanded.

“No,” Steve said wearily. “They’re sticking poor Tompkins with us.”

“Poor Tompkins,” Bucky mimicked. “Poor Tompkins is going to get us killed. No, poor Tompkins is going to get you killed, because I sure as fuck am not running back to save him when he collapses under the weight of his own damn pack while we’re under enemy fire. I’ve seen chickens with sturdier legs. I’d be surprised if he weighs ninety pounds soaking wet in full tac gear, not that we’ll ever find out because that puny little freak would probably drown like an unwanted kitten if his tac gear ever got a little damp– ”

“My God,” Steve snapped. “He’s bigger than I was before the serum, Bucky. You were right there the whole time, dragging my scrawny ass out of fights. Do you look back on that now and wonder what the fuck was wrong with you for bothering?”

“No.” Bucky’s voice was soft. His mouth looked small in his face.

Steve was so blindingly angry that he almost kept ranting. But he caught his breath, and didn’t speak, and in the next few seconds all his rage burned up, leaving nothing behind but a soft sad feeling, like ash. He was glad he hadn’t shouted.

Bucky’s momentary softness had already evanesced. “I’d give you cover fire,” he said. “When you run back to save Tompkins from his own incompetence.”

“He’s not going to collapse under the weight of his own pack,” Steve said patiently. “He fell down last time because he took a bullet to the shoulder. He’s the only one familiar enough with this equipment to work it quickly on a raid. We have to take him. Make the best of it.”

Bucky sighed. He picked up their briefing packet and gave the papers a snap. “Ours is not to reason why,” he said. He recited this poem sometimes, or at least these two lines; they both had learned it in elementary school. “Ours is but to do and die.”

Chapter Text

“Will you read to me?” Bucky asked.

Steve looked at him with surprise. He had told himself firmly that Bucky’s unusual cuddliness the day before was probably a one-time thing.

But of course Bucky was asking to be read to, not held. Steve was probably reading too much into it.

“Please,” Bucky added, like he’d suddenly remembered.

“Of course,” Steve said. “I’m going to make myself some tea with honey so I don’t get a sore throat while I read, okay?” Steve didn’t drink much tea, despite Peggy’s efforts, but coffee didn’t have the same throat-soothing properties. “And as soon as it’s ready, I’ll read to you. Would you like some too?”

Bucky nodded.

Once the tea was done, Steve settled two mugs on the coffee table and sat down in the armchair next to the couch. But Bucky frowned and patted the couch insistently.

Steve paused, more from surprise than hesitancy, then settled on the couch. Bucky scooted up, his head pressing against Steve’s stomach in a manner that pushed Steve awkwardly sideways against the arm of the couch.

Steve thought it was a demand, and, after some hesitation, he swung his legs up on the couch. Bucky scooted forward so he lay against Steve’s chest, as he had the day before, and Steve drew in a deep breath. It felt like he hadn’t breathed properly in years. He had wanted to hold Bucky for so long, and Bucky hadn’t wanted to be held.

“All right,” Steve said, picking up the tablet, glad it gave him something to do with his hands. “Where were we?”

“Looking for the Hogwarts Express.”

“Okay,” said Steve, and began.

He read and he read and he read. His tea got cold and he finished it anyway, just to get the last dregs of work out of his traitorous throat, which insisted on getting sore even though Steve wanted to keep reading forever.

But finally Steve’s voice was too exhausted to go on. He stopped reading. Bucky didn’t pull away. The top of his head brushed softly against Steve’s chin, and Steve unthinkingly pressed a light kiss to Bucky’s hair.

He felt a pang of worry the moment after, but Bucky stayed where he was. Steve wasn’t even sure that Bucky was awake, but he didn’t want to ask and maybe wake him up. He let the tablet slide from his hand. He looped an arm around Bucky’s waist, holding him there, secure, and rested his left hand against Bucky’s shoulderblade. Bucky’s breath was warm through his shirt.

Bucky lay quietly for a while. But then he snorted softly, shifting, and murmured, “You gonna read some more?”

“Not right now,” Steve said. “I’m hoarse.”

“But you have tea.”

“It’s tea, Bucky, not magic.”

Bucky wriggled. Steve’s arm tightened instinctively around his waist, and then he thought maybe that was a mistake and he ought to let Bucky go; but Bucky was already snuggling close again. His flesh hand rested over Steve’s heart.

“You want me to read to you every day?” Steve asked.

Bucky nodded faintly. He twisted the fabric of Steve’s shirt between his fingers.

“Okay,” Steve said. He moved his hand from Bucky’s shoulder blade to cradle the back of his head, arm resting along Bucky’s back, holding him close. “Let’s do that, then.”

Chapter Text

“You’ve got something in your hair.”

“Huh?” Steve paused in the shade of a maple tree that overhung the path, brushing at his hair.

“No, don’t. It’s a caterpillar or something, you’ll squish it. Here – ”

That should have warned Steve; but he wasn’t looking at Bucky, and when Bucky’s hand appeared suddenly in his peripheral vision, quite close to his face, Steve startled badly.

Bucky snatched his hand back. Steve felt like an asshole. “You surprised me,” he said, talking fast because his heart was still beating erratically. “You surprised me, that’s all.”

Bucky scowled. He had jammed both hands in the pocket on his sweatshirt. The sullen, smoldering look on his face did not bode well for the rest of the day, and they had a long hike ahead of them before they even got back to the motorcycle.

Steve expelled a quiet breath. “Is it still in my hair?” he asked. “Can you get it out?”

He expected Bucky to refuse. But after a long inspection of Steve’s face, Bucky reached up and delicately plucked something from the hair above Steve’s temple.

They both looked down at the little caterpillar crawling over Bucky’s fingertip. “Do you think it needs more leaves to eat?” Bucky asked.

“I don’t know.”

Bucky reached up, tugging down one of the maple branches above them, and rested his fingers against a leaf. The caterpillar crawled over his finger, up his palm, back along another finger, apparently doubtful about this sudden green apparition. For a moment it seemed about to crawl off, poking its antenna toward the leaf; then it crawled back up Bucky’s finger. Bucky huffed a sigh and waited.

At last it crawled off. Bucky let the branch spring gently back up and turned back to Steve. At some point the sullenness had softened out of his face. “We oughta get an identification book,” Bucky said. “For caterpillars and birds and stuff.”

“Sure,” said Steve, and managed to sound casual, though he was thrilled to see Bucky show an interest in something with no mission relevance. “We passed a bookstore in that town about twenty miles back. We can stop there on the way home.”

Chapter Text

“You realize why Steve never takes any of your dating advice, don’t you?” Clint said.

“Because he’s a giant stick in the mud?” suggested Natasha, contemplating angles of attack on her brownie sundae.

“Because you’re the one he wants to date.”

Natasha snorted with laughter. She had to set down her long-handled sundae spoon to keep from dropping it. “No way. I am definitely not the Russian assassin Steve wants to bang.”

“Oh? There’s another Russian assassin in his life?”

“Seriously? You’ve somehow forgotten Bucky Barnes?”

“But he’s not Russian,” Clint objected.

“Oh? Have you asked his opinion on that?”

“I realize Pushkin and pirozhki are awesome, but come on. After everything they did to him? There’s no way he wants to be Russian.”

“Coulson still wants to be part of SHIELD,” Natasha countered. “Even though he knows that Fury enacted the TAHITI protocol to bring him back to life, then wiped his memories of the whole program because Coulson was the one who shut TAHITI down in the first place.”

Clint stirred the ice cream around in his root beer float. “God, we live in a fucked up world.”

Natasha ate her sundae, watching Clint watch his ice cream melt into the root beer. “I bet you dinner that Steve and Bucky bang sometime in the next two years,” she said.

That got a small smile. “Done.”

“And no cheating by taking me to McDonalds this time. I choose the place.”

“Anywhere you want,” said Clint. He stuck out his hand to shake. “It’ll never happen.”

Chapter Text

“I know Skye likes dragons,” Bucky mused. He sat on the floor next to a wicker basket of secondhand Beanie Babies, a Beanie Baby in each hand: a white dragon with opalescent wings and a yellow duck. He bounced the dragon up and down, making the wings flap, then dropped it. It slid off the other discarded Beanie Babies on his lap and plopped on the floor. “But wings make it hard to cuddle. Sick people need cuddly.”

Bucky rummaged around in the basket again. Steve swallowed a sigh and shifted from foot to foot. This would go a lot faster, he felt, if Bucky would position himself so he could actually see all the Beanie Babies rather than just sticking his hand in the basket and feeling around at random.

But then, Bucky clearly didn’t want to hurry his search for the perfect get-well present. He was weighing all the options, trying to think what would make Skye happy, because right now she felt bad. Simple as that.

Things were never as simple as that with Steve and Bucky.

Bucky smacked Steve’s knee with a tie-dyed crab. “Steve,” he complained. “You’re not listening.”

Steve rubbed his knee. “I think she’d like any of them,” he said. “Skye’s not picky.”

“So? She’s undemanding, so we should get her any old piece of shit?” Bucky snapped.

Bucky never got annoyed at Skye this easily. Steve sighed. “You’re not getting her any old thing, Buck, you’re getting her a Beanie Baby. She’ll love it.”

A cascade of Beanie Babies fell off Bucky’s lap as he pulled himself to his knees so he could look into the basket. He poked through it for a few minutes, digging through the Beanie Babies. Then he plunged his hand into the basket and extracted a dark brown creature that clutched a strip of green felt between its stubby little paws. Bucky lifted it up so he and the stuffed toy were almost nose-to-nose. Steve smiled involuntarily.

“That’s adorable,” he said.

Bucky started at Steve’s voice and dropped the Beanie Baby. “Yeah?” he said, and picked it up again, inspecting its little face. “Skye told me sea otters hold hands when they sleep,” he told Steve.

“She loves sea otters,” Steve agreed.

Bucky smoothed a fingertip over the stuffed sea otter’s fur, then tossed the other Beanie Babies back in the basket and got to his feet. The otter looked small in his hand.

“Otherwise the sea would drag them away from each other,” he said. “And maybe they’d never find each other again. The ocean’s so big.”

“Yeah,” said Steve. “It is.”

Chapter Text

He doesn’t recognize her at first, is the thing. In fact, he doesn’t even see her: the first sign that there’s anyone else in the vault is the fact that the jewel is missing.

A baseline human wouldn’t be able to hear her heartbeat. He can, though. The thief’s still here, in this room, waiting for him to leave before making her escape.

He moves toward her, not purposeful, like a thief casing the place. There are some other nice rocks in this exhibit, no doubt about it, and easier to fence than that Asgardian jewel would be, too. But of course Bucky’s not looking to sell it, and he doubts she is either. Probably planning to take it to her Hydra masters.

Well, she won’t get the chance. He’s got her cornered.

Except she leaps out of it, just explodes out of her hiding place in a flip above his head, spinning so fast through the air his ICER shots never touch her. She comes down hard in a crouch behind him, one leg splayed out (he’s stealing this move from Natasha; it always looks sexy as hell when she does it), doesn’t even pause before she’s rushing him. He barely has time to spin around, grab her hand before she can stab him –

(Stab him? Was that her plan if she ran into a museum guard? Taylor Swift would not kill innocent museum guards.)

Before she can stun him. She has a stun patch, right, you slam it on the skin and it knocks the target out. He ducks just in time and she goes over his shoulder, almost like they planned it, diving over his shoulder and tucking and rolling on the tiles, and he’s spinning around to catch her, but oh shit, the exit’s blocked by Hydra goons.

He dives behind a sarcophagus. She backflips on top of an exhibition case. He’d crush the glass if he tried that, but she’s light enough to perch there. It gives her the perfect vantage point, gives all of them the perfect shot at her, and she’s shooting at them, she’s not Hydra at all.

Naturally he takes out a few of them for her. Just enough to even up the odds a little.

And when the shooting stops, and all the Hydra goons are lying on the floor blue in the face from the ICERs (how’d she get an ICER? But she’s gotta have an ICER. It spoils things if they’re standing next to a heap of dead bodies. Maybe she stole his second one off him when she dived over his shoulder, yeah, that’s great) – when everything’s quiet, she knocks her mask off her face and he takes off his, and they look at each other. She jumps down off the exhibit case, graceful as a cat.

“Miss Swift,” says Bucky, and he offers her his arm. “Can I have the pleasure of offering you a drink?”…

Someone was knocking on his cabin door. The fantasy dissipated. “What?” Bucky snapped, his hand hovering by the volume control to turn up “Bad Blood” and drown out this interloper.

“Mack made his grandma’s meatballs,” Simmons said. “We thought you might like some.”

Bucky sighed and switched off the music. He swung his feet off the bed. “Yeah, yeah,” he said. “I’ll be there.”

Chapter Text

The worst part is, this is all his fault.

Steve has plenty of time to think about this when he’s supposed to be sleeping. He lies in his cramped little cabin on the Bus, breathing in the recycled air and waiting for sleep to come, and praying for sleep to come; but dreading it, too, because it will bring nightmares with it.

At least he’s no longer waking up Bucky every time. He’s set the Bus like an alarm clock to wake him with a Glenn Miller song whenever his heartbeat gets too high; and how creepy is that, that the Bus can read his heartbeat?

But it’s his own fault if it creeps him out. He’s the one who rejoined SHIELD. It all goes, he had said to Nick Fury. And a few months later he signed up again, like a dog returning to its vomit; so stupid, such an idiot, a fucking moron, one of Bucky’s favorite phrases –

“Chattanooga Choo Choo” begins to play. Steve’s heart rate, already too high, spikes. He chose Glenn Miller music because he used to find it soothing.

He turns off the music. He sits up, head between his knees, and breathes.

A knock on his flimsy plastic door. “Steve?”

“What?” Steve snaps.

“Are you okay?”

“Yes.” He’s not going to be a burden on Bucky. Bucky is in Coulson’s clutches entirely because of Steve; and he had to put up months of Steve yammering on about how SHIELD was different, was safe, and God only knows what Coulson was doing to him – what Coulson might do to Steve, if Steve doesn’t get a hold of himself, go to sleep, at least calm down –

“Steve,” says Bucky. “Can I read to you?”

“Go away.”

The silence that follows is so long that Steve thinks maybe Bucky has followed this command. But then there is a rustle of cloth, of paper, and Bucky begins to read: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

His voice is so soft that Steve probably wouldn’t be able to hear him without his serum-enhanced hearing. Steve sits in the darkness staring at the closed door for the next two paragraphs. Then he summons the energy to lean across the cabin – he doesn’t even need to get out of bed – and open it.

Bucky practically falls in Steve’s cabin when the door opens. He must have been sitting with his back against the door.

“You realize this makes us both look insane,” Steve tells Bucky.

“Come out so I can read to you in the common room, then.” Bucky is lying on the floor, head tilted back to look at Steve.

Steve rubs a hand over his eyes. He is so tired. “Why do you put up with me?” he asks.

Steve didn’t mean to say that. Talk about burdens. That question must weigh a thousand pounds.

Bucky has his hand around one of Steve’s ankles. He tugs. “Lemme read to you,” he says. “C’mon, Stevie. I can’t sleep.” When Steve doesn’t respond, his voice sharpens. “Dammit, Steve,” he says, and drags Steve out of bed by his ankle.

“Sorry,” says Steve, even as Bucky says, “Oh, fuck – ” And they both fall silent at the same moment.

“Sorry,” Bucky says, soft-voiced, and he hands the book over to Steve. “Maybe,” he says, and there is a faint tremor in his voice, “you could read? If you don’t want me to.”

So Steve reads. It’s the least he can do, he thinks; because on top of everything else, he thinks he has made Bucky cry.

Chapter Text

“What’s Steve’s favorite kind of cake?”

Sam dusted flour off his hands onto his jeans and checked the screen on his phone, just in case it might tell him who owned the disturbingly buoyant voice on the other end. “Who is this?”

“Bucky. Do you think he’d like lemon poppy seed? Or just plain lemon? Maybe I should stick to chocolate.”

Sam bit back the words How did you get this number? It wouldn’t take a Russian spy to lift it off Steve’s phone.

Besides, he had more important questions to ask. “Bucky? How’s Steve?”

“He’s fine,” Bucky snapped. Then, cheerful again: “Maybe strawberry. He always liked strawberry milkshakes best.”

Sam gritted his teeth. Talking to Bucky always bore more resemblance to cutting into a monologue than an actual conversation.

At least he hadn’t brought up the wings this time. Yet.

“Maybe red velvet,” Bucky mused.

“Yeah, sure. Lemon poppy seed sounds good too. Bucky, I haven’t heard from Steve for a while,” Sam said, and all the concern he’d been trying to repress for the last few weeks bubbled to the surface. Steve often fell out of contact for a week or two for a mission, but week upon week of radio silence wasn’t like him at all. “How’s he doing?”

“He’s been busy,” Bucky snapped. “Making friends with everyone on the Bus. They’re going through a bunch of stupid old account books today. So I’m getting him cake pops.” The bounciness returned to his voice. “Do you think he’d like dark chocolate with bacon crumbles?”

Sam repressed a smile. So Bucky was jealous of Steve’s new friends.

Well, it wouldn’t hurt Bucky to have to run after Steve for once in his life rather than the other way around.

“He likes yellow cake,” Sam said. “With chocolate icing. That’s what we had for his birthday. Bucky, could you ask Steve to – ”

“Thanks!”

The line went dead.

“ – call me,” Sam finished, and set his phone down gently on the counter. His concerns crowded back in his throat.

He tried to push them away. After all, if Steve was busy with a bunch of new friends, that was a good thing, right? He’d always needed more friends. Maybe Sam was just jealous that Steve didn’t need him as much anymore.

Still. Sam picked up the phone again and shot off a text. You okay? Haven’t heard from you in a while.

Then he set the phone aside and rolled his sleeves back up to his elbows. He still had six dozen cookies to finish up for the St. Patrick’s Day party at the VA.

***

“Does Steve like gorgonzola?”

Sam opened one eye to look at the digital clock on his bedside table. “Bucky,” he said. “It’s 3:30 a.m.”

“Do you think he’s prefer cheddar?” Bucky asked.

“I have no idea. Why are you calling me about cheese at 3:30 in the morning?” Sam asked.

“I think maybe he’ll eat more if he likes the food.”

“No shit, Sherlock,” Sam snapped. “Next time, check the time zones before you call.” He hung up and turned off the ringer on his phone.

It wasn’t till he was drinking his coffee the next morning that his brain fully processed what Bucky had said, and he had to set his coffee down as his worries crashed down on him. Maybe he’ll eat more if he likes the food.

First cake pops, now cheese. What the hell was Bucky up to?

But there was nothing he could do: Bucky’s number was blocked. Sam had no way to call him back.

***

But Bucky called again just a few days later. “Does Steve like asparagus?” he asked.

“Bucky?”

“It’s so expensive. I don’t want to buy it if he won’t eat that, either.”

“Bucky, c’mon. Is Steve okay? I haven’t heard from him for – Jesus, nearly three months now. He’s giving a commencement speech at Georgetown and I didn’t even know he was going to be in town till I saw the posters. Is he angry at me or something?”

Silence. It carried on long enough for Sam to reflect that asking Bucky, of all people, whether Steve was mad at him was a really shitty idea. Bucky would probably delight in wrecking Sam and Steve’s friendship. Signs of an abusive relationship: the abuser tries to isolate the victim –

“Isn’t he staying with you when he goes to Georgetown?” Bucky asked. “I think he should stay with you.”

Sam’s hands suddenly felt cold.

“I’ll text him,” Sam promised, and he did, and sent an email too.

No response.

***

But about a week later, Steve showed up at Sam’s front door, worn and pale and much too thin. “Steve!” Sam said, staring at Steve’s gaunt face. It reminded him of a photo of he had seen in a textbook once, Steve Rogers before the superserum. “I wasn’t expecting you.”

“Sorry,” said Steve. His eyes dropped away from Sam, and his hand worked nervously on the strap of his gym bag. “I’ll go to a hotel. I don’t want to – ”

“You’re not imposing,” Sam interrupted. “I was just about to make breakfast. How do you feel about pancakes and bacon?”

“Toast is fine,” Steve said. “That’s what you usually have, right? Toast and honey?”

Sam almost winced. Figured that Steve knew what Sam ate. “I need to perfect my pancake skills before my nieces come to visit,” he said. He took the gym bag from Steve’s unresisting hand. “I haven’t even tried out my Star Wars pancake molds yet. C’mon, be my guinea pig. You want a stormtrooper helmet or a Yoda?”

“I don’t know,” said Steve. He looked overwhelmed. “Anything’s fine.”

“Great,” said Sam, calm and authoritative, with all the panic shut up at the back of his mind for now. “Then we’ll have bacon too. I’ll get you some toast and orange juice while it cooks.”

Chapter Text

May is the one who finds him, sitting in his cabin with the buckles of his armor only half done, his hands lying useless in his lap. “Why aren’t you ready?” she asked.

“Steve always used buckle – ” he begins, and the tears he’s been holding back rush to fill his throat. He swallows, and swallows again, and drinks some tea from the Thermos on his bedside table; and is so engrossed in this struggle for self-control that he is surprised to notice that May is now sitting next to him on the bed.

“Let me do it,” she says, and without waiting for him to answer (thank God: it’s not like he could say yes), she begins to tighten the buckles he’s already done.

“Tighter,” he mumbles. The armor works best when it’s tight.

The tears recede as she tightens the straps. He touches the corners of his eyes, just in case any tears escaped. “Don’t move,” she says, and he sits still.

She gives the straps a last tug and sits back. But she doesn’t tell him to get a move on yet. Instead she says, “You don’t have to do this alone.” There’s no pity in her voice.

He tugs at his cuff, checking to make sure it overlaps his glove. “I know.”

She raises her eyebrows.

“Simmons made me tea,” he says, and sloshes the Thermos so she can hear.

She nods. “Are you ready to go?”

He twists the cuff. “Does it show that – do I need to wash my face?”

She considers his face briefly but thoughtfully. “No,” she says.

He stands up. He stomps his boos twice to make sure they’re tight enough. “I lost track of time playing Angry Birds,” he informs her.

She smiles, just a little. “Of course,” she says. “That’s why you’re late.”

Chapter Text

“Oh, and I’ve started taking a Russian course,” Steve said.

He said it like an afterthought, as if it wasn’t even important at all. “Yeah?” said Bucky. Why? he almost asked, but he wasn’t sure how he wanted Steve to answer that, so instead he said, “Learned anything?”

Nyet.

A grin dragged at Bucky’s lip. “C’mon. You know that one already. I bet the Golden Tarantula says it all the time in those Agent Carter books.”

Da,” Steve agreed, and Bucky couldn’t help it. He was smiling. “Menya zavoot Steve. Kak tebya zavoot?

Soldat Grigorevich - that’s how he’d always introduced himself, back in the day. He wouldn’t say that to Steve. “Your accent is terrible,” he said, and he tried to sound severe, the way Grisha sounded when he coached the Soldier in his German accent.

But he sounded more affectionate than anything. Which made him sound even more like Grisha, really.

“I’ve only had three lessons,” Steve protested.

“Three lessons and all they’ve taught you is no, yes, and They call me Steve. What do they call you? Deplorable.”

“That’s not all they’ve taught me,” Steve said. “You want to hear the rest of it?”

Bucky covered his mouth with his hand. It wouldn’t hide the stupid smile crinkling up his eyes, but at least it was something. “Da,” Bucky said. “Da.”

Chapter Text

When Steve arrived home from his morning run, the apartment smelled like cinnamon and sugar. “Hey,” said Bucky. He was leaning over their new kitchen table, drizzling white icing over a plate of cinnamon rolls. “Perfect timing.”

Steve crossed the room, feeling faintly dazed. “It smells good,” he said, and reached out to take one of the cinnamon rolls. It burned his fingertips, and he stuck his fingers in his mouth. They tasted of cinnamon and vanilla and faintly of yeast. “Did you make these from scratch?”

Bucky smiled and lowered his head so his hair fell in his eyes and spooned up more icing to pour over the cinnamon rolls. “You have a good run?”

“Yeah.” You should come sometime, Steve thought, but didn’t say. Bucky was going back to the Bus in two days, and in any case, he didn’t like early mornings: one thing that had held constant since Brooklyn.

Though he must have been up pretty early to get the yeast dough going. “God, those smell good,” said Steve, and reached out again. Bucky swatted him with the icing spoon. Steve sucked the icing off the back of his hand.

Bucky looked away. “How was Sam?”

“He’s doing good. He wants me to meet this girl he’s dating.”

Bucky stuck the icing spoon in his mouth and sucked at it meditatively. Steve took the opportunity to snag a cinnamon roll. It wasn’t quite so hot anymore, but he made a show of tossing it from hand to hand as if it were too hot to touch. Bucky grinned. “You like ‘em?”

Steve took a bite. The vanilla icing and cinnamon filling and yeasty pastry melted together in his mouth. “Well, I dunno,” he said, and reached out to snag another. “Might have to eat two or three more before I know for sure.”

Bucky laughed. Steve tore another cinnamon roll free. “Four, tops,” he promised, speaking around a mouth full of pastry.

“Many as you want,” said Bucky. “I made them for you.”

Chapter Text

“Hey, Steve, come see this.”

Steve set a soup bowl on the drying rack, rinsed and dried his hands, and followed Bucky’s voice into Bucky’s room.

There was nothing to see. The room looked exactly like it had when Steve and Bucky had moved into the apartment two weeks ago. They had acquired a kitchen table and a couple of chairs, a couch, a bed for Steve; but Bucky had wiggled out of getting anything for his own room aside from a Venetian blind for the window.

Then Bucky flipped the light switch.

In the near-darkness Steve saw the soft green glow of the glow-in-the-dark stars stuck all over the ceiling. Swirls of stars, big stars and little stars and crescent moons and a couple of long-tailed comets streaming between the stars.

“This is beautiful,” Steve said.

It was not too dark to see Bucky smile. “I’ll finish the dishes if you want,” Bucky said.

“To hell with the dishes,” said Steve. He lay down on the floor, arms crossed behind his head for a pillow. He looked up at the stars and smiled up at Bucky, and Bucky sank down beside him and, almost gingerly, lay his head on Steve’s stomach. Steve rested a hand on Bucky’s hair, and smiled down at him. “I’ll finish them in the morning.”

Chapter Text

Bucky had his cabin door open, as usual, and Steve peeked in before knocking. He didn’t want to wake Bucky up if Bucky had managed to fall asleep.

But Bucky was awake, leaning against an awkward mound of pillows with one of Skye’s cats curled up on his lap. He smiled when he saw Steve. “Hey,” he said quietly. Most everyone else on the Bus was asleep. “Want a biscotti?”

“Sure.” Steve removed the warm Thermos and the Rubik’s cube from the lid of the Tupperware so he could get at the biscotti inside. He had enough experience with Simmons’ more experimental biscotti to be wary, but these turned out to be lavender and lemon, bright and refreshing but also gently flavored. Perfect for a sick person.

Steve was struck, not for the first time, how well everyone on the Bus looked after each other. An injured member of the STRIKE team would have been lucky if someone tossed him an ice pack.

“I was wondering if you’d like me to read to you,” Steve said, and held up a battered paperback book that he’d borrowed from Simmons: Agent Carter and the Platinum Web Affair. “Turns out Simmons has a stash.”

Bucky nodded eagerly. “Okay,” said Steve. “Scoot over.”

Bucky frowned. “What are you doing?”

“I need a place to sit,” Steve said. “And I figure it will do you good to lean on something more solid than those pillows.”

Bucky’s brow knit. “I’m in a lot of pain,” he said, like maybe Steve was planning to ravish Bucky then and there, broken ribs and bugs be damned.

But he did scoot forward. “I know,” Steve said, and removed some of the pillows to make room for himself to sit. “I hope this will help you rest.”

There was a slight awkwardness as they tried to figure out a comfortable configuration. Finally Steve just spread his legs so Bucky could sit in the V, and Bucky leaned gingerly against Steve’s chest. Steve put an arm around his waist, and Bucky tensed; and then quite suddenly he relaxed, warm and heavy in Steve’s arms.

If they had not discussed having sex, Steve would have kissed the top of Bucky’s head. But it felt too intimate now. Instead Steve fumbled his book off the bedside table.

“Special Agent Peggy Carter slid her two-inch dagger from the band of her wide-brimmed red hat as she crept down the darkened hallway,” he began, using his best overdramatic radio announcer voice. “But before she got a chance to use it, one strong yet slender hand grabbed her wrist, while another covered her mouth. ‘We must speak,’ breathed a voice that Peggy knew very well. It was the beautiful, deadly Russian assassin known as the Golden Tarantula.

‘You tried to kill me,’ Peggy pointed out, her voice cool despite the danger.

‘And again it is a matter of life or death,’ said the Golden Tarantula. ‘But this time, it is not merely your life or death – but life or death for the whole world!’”

Bucky sighed a little. His head lolled against Steve’s chest. Steve rested his chin on Bucky’s head, and settled in to read.

Chapter Text

“Rumlow,” said Sam. “You’re shopping for a present for Rumlow.”

Steve walked along the busy New York street, one hand in his pocket and the other holding a phone to his ear. “Yep,” he said. “I’m not sure what’s going to say ‘Sorry you got mind-wiped, bro,’ though. Tradition’s not helping me out here.”

“We’re talking about Rumlow who made me jump off the fortieth floor of a building without my wings. Or a parachute.”

“He doesn’t remember that anymore,” Steve pointed out. “Also, the building fell on him right after. So I think you got the better deal.”

“Rumlow who nearly killed you in an elevator.”

“I think they were just trying to capture me at that point,” Steve said.

“Rumlow who nearly blew all our heads off in broad daylight.”

“Yeah, that Rumlow. I’m glad you’re paying attention.”

“Steve,” said Sam. “What happened to Rumlow is terrible. Maybe you owed it to him to tell him the truth. But you sure as hell don’t owe him anything else.”

Steve stopped in front of the plate glass window of a chocolate store to look at the exquisitely decorated candies on display. Completely inappropriate for Rumlow. He’d dismiss them all as gay.

“Don’t I?” Steve said. He had a lump in his throat. “It happened on my watch.”

“No, Steve. It happened after you quit SHIELD, and they kept it so secret that even His Paranoidness didn’t suspect, and he was living on the same goddamn plane with the conspirators.”

Bucky would appreciate a box of chocolates. He had been very quiet in the three days since the mind-wipe revelations had grounded SHIELD. Steve suspected he was combing through his memories, searching for clues that he missed. The topic obsessed Simmons and Fitz and Mack; they seemed to talk of little else, not even their job offers with Tony Stark.

“Okay,” said Steve. “Maybe I don’t owe him. But I’m just talking about a few games of checkers with a miserable lonely guy, Sam. I know how hard it is to wake up and find out you’re all alone in the world.”

Once Bobbi had convinced Rumlow that she was telling the truth – she wasn’t his sister; she had helped mind-wipe him – he had refused to speak to her. In fact, he wouldn’t talk to anyone now except his dog, Lucy. He and Steve played checkers in total silence when Steve wasn’t talking.

“Well,” said Sam. “Just don’t get him anything he could stab you with.”

“I won’t,” Steve said. “It’s not even for Rumlow, really. I’m looking for a present for his dog.”

“His dog,” said Sam. “Well, I guess that changes everything.”

“She’s a great dog,” Steve said. “She deserves an excellent chew toy.”

Chapter Text

“Why did you tell us to go to that diner?” Natasha asked, flicking a glance away from the road toward Bobbi.

Bobbi had been staring out the car window at the dull brown November landscape, but at Natasha’s question, she turned away from it. “The cobbler’s fantastic,” Bobbi said.

“Bobbi,” Natasha said.

Bobbi’s gaze dropped to her knees. She tugged at the bow in her bootlaces. “He didn’t leave the house much,” she said. “I didn’t think he’d be there.”

“So you were careless.”

“No,” Bobbi snapped. Natasha repressed a smile. Nothing got to SHIELD agents like the suggestion that they were unprofessional.

“So you knew we might see him. You wanted us to see him?”

“No. Yes.” Bobbi untied her bootlace and retied it. “I knew shit was going to hit the fan,” she said. “And I knew…” Bobbi tilted her head, blinking. Natasha knew the signs of trying not to cry. “I always thought I was a good person,” Bobbi said.

Natasha sighed. “There aren’t good people and bad people,” she said. “There are people who know they’ve done bad things, and people who haven’t realized it yet.” She let her lips quirk. “Of course, you’ve done worse things than lots of other people. But so have I.”

“You were brainwashed,” Bobbi said.

“Whereas the SHIELD academy was a brainwashing-free zone. Obviously. It’s not like they told you to trust the system every time you questioned anything.”

“I was seventeen when I went,” Bobbi said stubbornly. “Not seven.”

Natasha had been five, actually, but that wasn’t the point. “I’m not talking about things I did for the Red Room,” she said. “I’m talking about all the people I’ve killed for SHIELD.” She glanced at Bobbi, and found that Bobbi was finally looking at her.

“How do you live with that?” Bobbi asked quietly.

Natasha faced front again. It had begun to rain, small drops spitting on the windshield. “You do what you’re doing right now. You make amends as best you can, and you accept that it may never be enough, and you keep going.”

The rain fell harder, obscuring the view even when Natasha turned the windshield wipers on high. She slowed down, guiding the car around a curve in the road. Bobbi didn’t speak.

The road straightened out. It was only three o’clock, but the clouds had gotten so low and dark that Natasha turned on her headlights.

“Clearwater’s the next right,” Bobbi said. Her voice was hoarse. She cleared her throat. “He’ll be in the library. That’s where he always is.”

Chapter Text

The Soldier is on his third plate when he finally looks around Andrushka’s apartment properly. “What’s this?” he asks, wiping cracker crumbs from his beard. “You’ve started a home for lost busts of Lenin?” They’re everywhere: on the table, on the windowsill, lining the floor along the walls.

“People just left them out on curbsides,” Andrushka says, and his old man’s face grows jowly and sad as he looks at the Lenins. Many of them are chipped. Not badly, just a bit of the ear or the nose. “Left him in the streets for the trash. Lenin, they left out for the trash.” His face is growing red. “Everything he did for us, and everyone betrayed him!” He turns on the Soldier. “You just as much as anyone! How dare you come back and face me now?”

The Soldier stifles a yawn. Andrushka’s apartment is terribly hot. “I forgot,” the Soldier says.

“You forgot!” Andrushka yells. “You all forgot, I suppose! You and that pack of dogs in the Politburo, you all should have died rather than betray the Motherland! Stalin would have snuffed you out like candle flames!”

The Soldier slouches back on the swaybacked couch and sips his tea and ignores Andrushka. He’d hoped Andrushka might be able to explain why he forgot everything when he started to work for Hydra, but of course Andrushka doesn’t know anything. Andrushka was just his handler, no one important, not someone anyone respected or told secrets.

His head hurts dully. He’s beginning to feel very tired. It would have been better if he could explain everything when he went back to Steve. I forgot, after all, is not very believable, not when he can’t explain why.

Oh well. So it goes. The Soldier interrupts Andrushka’s tirade. “I want more to eat.”

“Do you think I feed traitors?” Andrushka demands, indignant.

As if the Soldier hasn’t already polished off a sausage and half a loaf of black bread. The Soldier rolls his eyes and stands. His head swims with sudden vertigo, and he almost falls. He turns – it seems to take forever – to face Andrushka, who looks at him like a little boy with his hand caught in the cookie jar. “You drugged it,” the Soldier says, his voice a little slurred, and he lurches across the room.

“Now Soldatchka,” Andrushka begins, shrinking in his chair.

The Soldier looms over Andrushka. He almost loses his balance and he has to grab the chair arms, but that’s fine, Andrushka’s clearly terrified. “Money,” the Soldier orders, his spit flecking Andrushka’s face.

“Soldatchka – ”

The Soldier picks him up by his collar and lifts him out of his chair. He reaches out blindly and knocks a bust of Lenin from the side table onto the floor. “I’ll break them all,” he threatens, and he drops Andrushka again so he can use his metal hand to pick one up and squash the plaster into fragments.

The sirens are already starting by the time Andrushka retrieves an envelope from underneath his mattress. So the Chekists don’t even wait till nightfall now? The Soldier sweeps three busts of Lenin off the windowsill, breaks the window when he can’t open it on the first try, jumps, and runs like hell.

He slows down pretty quickly, because nothing draws attention like running, and also he twisted his knee when he landed. Sloppy. But it’s not his fault; he was drugged.

He starts to laugh. Figures Andrushka, with his brain like a sieve, forgot that he’d need to up the dosage to knock the Soldier out properly.

He laughs and laughs and comes to a stop at last on a bridge, leaning against the railing, gasping for air and still giggling. He takes out the envelope to count the money.

It’s all worthless. Andrushka gave him a stash of old Soviet rubles.

The Soldier hurls it into the river. The paper flutters in the air and fans out to fall quietly on the water. He stares at it, drifting onward on the slow current.

There’s nothing for him in Russia now. He might as well go back to the United States. Back home, he thinks, and he nods to himself, and straightens up and trudges onward. He will leave his ghosts behind here; and he will go back home.

Chapter Text

A three-tiered tea tray arrived at their table: white petit fours with sprigs of marzipan holly, tiny cranberry scones with a scalloped bowl of marmalade, cubes of gingerbread and sugar-dusted sugarplum spheres and tiny mince pies with stars cut into the golden top crust.

A sweet, subtly spicy scent drifted into the air as Pepper poured the tea. Natasha’s gaze rose from the tiers of tea cakes to Pepper’s face, and Pepper smiled at her. “My mother used to take me to a fancy holiday tea every Christmastime when I was a little girl,” Pepper said. “I thought you might like one, too.”

“It’s nice,” Natasha said, which would have been fine but for a slight hoarseness in her voice. She took up the teacup and sipped the tea, breathing in the steam. There was a hint of peppermint to it, just a faint glimmer of it underneath all the other flavors: cinnamon, clove, a whiff of chocolate. There was no quicker way to make a situation awkward than to say No one’s ever done anything like this for me.

It wasn’t true, anyway. Andrei Nikolaevich had taken her out to eat plenty of times when she’d done well in training, dinners in restaurants so fancy that she had to borrow a velvet dress and a fur-trimmed coat from Wardrobe. She nearly held her breath as she ate her soup, because one spilled drop would flatten the nap of the velvet.

She wasn’t supposed to spill, anyway; she was there to learn how to eat soup neatly. How to appraise a wine list, how to giggle against a man’s shoulder and pout as she asked him to pick out her entrée for her from that big long list, while she slipped a hand in his pocket to steal his ID card so she could sneak into his laboratory later…

“Natasha?”

Natasha set the teacup down on its poinsettia-painted saucer. Pepper looked concerned.
Natasha leaned forward, conspiratorial. “I’ve never had a sugarplum before,” she whispered, as if imparting a secret.

Pepper’s mouth widened into a grin. “Neither have I,” she said. “Should we try them?”

“I don’t know,” said Natasha. “Maybe we ought to start with the petit fours.” She frowned. “Aren’t we supposed to stop with the bottom plate and work up?”

“Does it matter?” Pepper asked. “Start wherever you’d like.”

Chapter Text

“Do you want to go camping?” Steve asked. They’d reached the halfway point in Bucky’s suspension, and Steve thought a camping trip might be a fun way to mark it.

Bucky took another bite of his Reuben. A string of sauerkraut hung from his mouth. He chewed and chewed and didn’t reply.

“You liked camping a lot when we were kids,” Steve pressed. “You remember that one time you went to summer camp? You wouldn’t shut up about it for the rest of the summer.” Steve had been so jealous that he had avoided Bucky for most of August.

Bucky smiled and finally swallowed. “I was a little shit when I was ten.”

“Nah. You were a kid,” Steve said. “Kids can be thoughtless, that’s all.”

Bucky bit the end off his pickle spear. He chewed slowly, ruminating. “Sure,” he said. “Why not?”

***

It was late in the season for campers, the trees turning yellow and the evening turning chilly, and they had the campground almost to themselves. They set up the tent, gathered an unnecessarily enormous pile of twigs and pine cones, and then settled back against a fallen log to cook hot dogs over the fire. Bucky kept tossing pine cones into the flames to hear them pop. Steve could hear the geese honking on the lake nearby.

“You wanna tell ghost stories?” Bucky asked. He stretched out his legs toward the fire.

Steve didn’t really. “I don’t think I know any.”

Bucky turned his hot dog over the flames. A drip of grease fell into the fire and sizzled, and he stuck the hot dog on a bun and ate it. “I’m bored.”

“I brought marshmallows,” Steve offered, scrounging them out of his pack.

“Marshmallows are boring.”

Steve hit him in the head with the marshmallow bag.

Time seemed to stop. Steve had not hit Bucky, ever, outside of sparring, since he’d gotten back; and Bucky stared at him, incredulous.

Steve was already moving to get out of swinging range. “I’m sor – ”

You’re boring,” Bucky said. He lunged at Steve, and Steve tensed, but he only snatched the marshmallows from Steve’s hand and then settled back in his place by the fire. “Hit me again and I’ll knock your block off.”

“Noted,” said Steve, and pondered trying to explain that he hadn’t meant it, it was supposed to be good-natured teasing; but he could just imagine what a Hydra team might try to pass off as “good-natured teasing.”

Bucky stuffed the marshmallow bag down at his side, away from Steve, and ate five of them in quick succession. He didn’t even take time to cook them properly, just stuck them into the flames so they caught fire and left a blackened hull around the marshmallow after he’d blown it out.

The sixth marshmallow caught fire too. Bucky inspected the charred black bubbles on its surface, then twitched his stick to the side so the marshmallow was almost under Steve’s nose.

Steve slid it off the stick. “Jerk,” Bucky muttered.

There was no force behind the word. It sounded almost teasing, but Steve couldn’t really tell. “Marshmallow rustler,” Steve replied, much too late and too uncertain for it to be funny

But Bucky’s mouth curved up just a little. “Greatest marshmallow rustler in the land,” he informed Steve.

“Well then. I guess it’s kind of a distinction to get robbed by you.”

Bucky didn’t reply to that. Maybe he couldn’t think of anything snappy.

But he didn’t eat any more marshmallows for a few minutes, and when he took another, he moved the bag of marshmallows so it sat between them. Steve took one too, and speared it, and they ate the rest together in silence.

Chapter Text

Joyce lay in an oversize armchair, curled up so tightly that she fit between the chair’s arms. She’d been sitting up when Bucky arrived, but over the course of two episodes of Peggy Carter Adventures, gravity had gradually defeated her.

“Until we meet again!” the Golden Tarantula crowed, jumping over the edge of a cliff with a box covered with flashing lights that was maybe supposed to be a bomb. Bucky hadn’t been paying enough attention to the TV to know. Bubble letters reading To Be Continued… scrolled across the screen. The credits started.

No one moved. The credits finished. The disk looped back to the menu.

“I’ll make us some fudge, shall I?” Simmons said brightly. She popped off the couch and all but pranced to the kitchen.

Bucky understood the forced perkiness. Joyce’s lethargy seemed to fill the room, like water, as if it might drown them as if they didn’t try their hardest to counteract it.

He wanted to say something, but he couldn’t think of anything that wouldn’t show he’d read her emails, or at least that he knew that she’d killed a lot of her colleagues while she was brainwashed.

Bucky had killed a lot of people, but they were strangers. Not coworkers. Not friends.

Joyce stared dully in the direction of the screen. Peggy Carter – or rather, the actress playing her – rode her motorcycle down a hillside in endless loop above the menu.

“It was hard when my memories first started coming back,” Bucky said.

Joyce angled her head so she was looking at him. “What?”

“After…” He studied his hands. There was a rim of dirt around the fingernails on the right hand. Everyone in SHIELD already knew he’d lost his memory and worked for Hydra; he had never had to tell them about it. “After Hydra wiped my memories. I worked for them for a while, but then I got away and the memories came back, and it was…” Words never felt adequate to describe what it had felt like. “It was terrible,” he said finally. “It seemed like they were all bad memories. I would have done anything to make it stop.”

Joyce made a shuddery sound. He looked over at her, and he realized, horrified, that he had made her cry.

“It gets better,” he said. “It really does. I’m not just saying that. The happy memories just take longer, I guess.”

But she was shaking her head. He could only see a little bit of her face, but it was red from her sobs. “Everyone thinks – ” she gasped, and gathered herself. “Everyone thinks I should be so happy. Everything’s finally coming out right, and I should be – ” She broke off to cry some more.

“And you’re not.”

She nodded. Her body twisted into a tighter knot.

“I’m sorry,” Bucky said. It was inadequate, but he had nothing else to say. He slipped off the couch to sit on the floor, and scooted so he was sitting at the foot of her chair, and couldn’t quite bring himself to touch her hair. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Sometimes things are just so hard.”

Chapter Text

He’s bumming around the U.S. Navy Memorial, trying not to sulk about how no one wants him at the Scapegoat hearings (even he doesn’t want himself at the Scapegoat hearings, no matter how much he’d like to support Natasha), when he sees her.

Skye. Walking out of a patisserie with a bag hanging from one small bare hand, dark red scarf drawn up over her nose, her hair hanging in her face as she walks with her head down against the cold.

He’s sure it’s her and not sure at all that it’s her, because she’s so bundled up. But then she sees him, and she stops, deer in the headlights, and it’s her.

He crosses the plaza to her. There’s a map of the world paved on the memorial ground. They meet somewhere in the south Pacific.

“Skye,” he says.

“Bucky.” She’s wary. The bag dangles loosely from her hand, like she intends to drop it and go for her piece if he makes a move.

He’s been angry with her. God Almighty, he’s been so fucking angry with her sometimes. Joyce curled up in her favorite armchair, crying because she’s remembered something she wrote in her emails to Skye, when she thought Skye was her old college friend Daisy who loved her, and had never heard of mind-wiping at all, and probably she was laughing at those overwrought emails the whole time, oh my God, I’m so sorry, I’ll stop –

He believed that then. Skye in the abstract was capable of any mockery.

Skye in the flesh, red-cheeked from cold, fingers clenching and unclenching around the handle of her patisserie bag; he can’t believe it of her.

“So,” says Skye. “If that’s all, I really need to get going now, so…”

She trails off. She doesn’t try to leave.

“You should write to Joyce,” Bucky says.

She steps back. “Write what?”

“An apology,” Bucky suggests. She’s leaning away from him. She will go away and try to forget all about this and never, ever write. “Or something. Write anything. She thinks you never liked her at all.”

Her lips part. She looks like she wants to speak, but Bucky speaks first, ruthless. “Why shouldn’t she think that? Everything else you told her was a lie.”

She sinks back behind her scarf, turtle-like. The wind whips her hair around her face.

“She doesn’t want to hear from me.”

“She emails you.” Bucky always tells her not to.

“I can’t check that email anymore.” She doesn’t meet his eyes.

“Then send a letter,” Bucky says. “Send it care of Stark Tower. It will get to her.”

Skye closes her eyes. Her bare hands tremble in the cold. “I wouldn’t know what to say.”

“Then say that,” says Bucky. “Say anything.”

She’s shaking her head. He wants to shake her. Instead he shoves his hands in his pockets and walks away, crossing close enough beside her that their coats almost brush. The wind blows her hair in his face. She still uses that grapefruit shampoo.

He stops to look back at the edge of the map. She’s twisted around to look at him. “And buy yourself some mittens,” he calls. “There’s no reason for you to get cold.”

Chapter Text

“Oh, hell no,” Rumlow muttered. He stopped stock still on the grass, and Lucy trotted back to him, leaning against his knees.

He wasn’t technically supposed to be on this part of the grounds, but Lucy was tired of taking the same old walk every day, and he’d figured to hell with their rules anyway.

But this was a better punishment than anyone in the Home could have dreamed up. Because there, walking up the avenue with Rogers, was Rumlow’s old STRIKE teammate Murphy.

No. Not walking. Skipping might be a better description of his gait. Rumlow strongly suspected that Murphy would be holding Rogers’ hand if Rogers would let him.

Was Rumlow that pathetic when Rogers first found him? All, Let me tell you about my awesome sister. His awesome sister who was secretly an agent who probably did hilarious impressions of his stupid telephone calls when he called her up after a nightmare. Crying all over the phone.

Rumlow had a nurse call button in his room now, but he never used it. Sometimes if the nightmares got really bad he’d get up and sit in the lounge. Half the time Sanderson was sitting there in his wheelchair reading one of his shitty mystery books anyway.

Lucy nudged her nose against his knee. Rumlow bent down painfully and looped his arms around her neck, and she licked his face. “Hey girl,” he said, pressing his face in her fur. He rubbed her behind the ears. “Let’s say we get out of here before PETA over there sees us, huh?” Murphy always hated that nickname. Had a whole rant about how PETA was damaging to environmentalism and animal rights activism.

But when Rumlow lifted his face from Lucy’s ruff, Murphy was already standing there, maybe five feet away from him, his hands clasped behind his back. He didn’t say anything, just stood there and stared.

“What?” Rumlow snapped, and he stood up slowly. It always took him a long time to stand, but he’d found that if he did it extra slowly, it looked like he was doing it on purpose.

Murphy looked unnerved. He stood there, still and unspeaking, until Lucy trotted up to him, tail wagging. Murphy fell to his knees in the dead winter grass and put his arms around her.

“Lucy!” Rumlow said sharply, and she came to heel, tail low and wagging slowly. “Good dog. Good girl,” he said.

Murphy didn’t move, just stayed there in the cold grass with his hands against his knees. “Sorry,” Murphy said. Rogers moved to put a hand on his shoulder, and Murphy looked up at him. “Is he one of my old friends?”

“Is that what you’ve been telling him?” Rumlow narrowed his eyes at Rogers. “Guess that got him to hop right in the car. No ICERs for him.”

Murphy’s face crumpled with uncertainty. Rogers squeezed his shoulder. “C’mon, Mur – Diego,” he said. “Why don’t we go inside and look at your new room? This one won’t have cockroaches, I promise.”

“I don’t mind the cockroaches,” Murphy said. He hauled himself to his feet. “I named one of them Delilah. Only I could never tell which one she was…”

They went away into the Home.

Murphy must’ve been talking about his post-mind-wipe room, wherever that was. SHIELD never would have let vermin into their prisons. Too much like entertainment for the prisoners.

Lucy pressed close against Rumlow’s legs. Rumlow stroked her ears. “Sorry, girl,” he said. “You just wanted to make a new friend, didn’t you? I guess I get kind of boring after a while.”

Lucy licked his hand. Rumlow turned to walk back to the yard he was supposed to stay in.

“He can probably throw a Frisbee farther than I can,” Rumlow said.

They trudged across the short stubby grass. Rogers hadn’t said anything about it, but Rumlow wouldn’t put it past him to send out an orderly to get Rumlow back into place. His scars hurt with the cold.

“But you’ve always gotta like me best,” he told Lucy. She danced along beside him, as if she didn’t mind at all that he walked so slow. “Okay? You can make new friends, but you’ve gotta like me best.”

Chapter Text

The second shrink is a little better. She lets Rumlow bring Lucy to his sessions, anyway, though he figures she’ll change her mind. The first one did. “You’re using the dog to avoid talking about your issues.” Rumlow’s pretty sure the dude was scared of dogs, anyway.

Lucy likes this shrink. She dances around the lady’s legs, and she asks, “Can I pet her?”

“I guess.”

So the shrink pets Lucy, but only a little bit. Then she sits down in a flowered armchair. It’s like they’re sitting in a fucking living room. Lucy lies down on the rug, chin on Rumlow’s feet. He scratches her with his toes. His feet aren’t half as fucked up as his hands. His boots protected them.

“What do you want out of these sessions?” she asks.

He wants to get them off his back. He’s not gonna get that, though, so he shrugs.

She smiles. “You’d rather not be here,” she says. “I know. But you’re stuck with us, so we might as well do something useful. What do you think would help you most?”

“A robotic body,” Rumlow suggests. He snorts. As if they’d let him have anything like that. Lucy licks his hand.

“It’s probably better if we confine ourselves to the possible,” the shrink says.

Figures.

“A new Frisbee for Lucy,” he says, just to be obnoxious. He knows that’s not the kind of thing she means.

The shrink maybe looks a little surprised, but she says, “All right. I can help you arrange that. There’s a way to request personal items, I think. Would you like help filling out the form?”

“I can do that myself,” Rumlow snaps. Great. Now she thinks he’s so fucking incompetent he can’t even fill out a form. If he has trouble with the pen, he’ll make Murphy do the writing, that’s all.

“All right,” she says. “That’s good.”

The silence lengthens. The shitty thing is, he can’t think of anything he wants. Anything possible. He wants to be free again. He wants his old body back. He wants to go back in time.

“I want to see Jack’s grave,” he says. There. That’s possible. They’ll never let him do it, but it’s possible.

“Jack – ?”

“Jack Rollins. One of my old Hydra buddies.” He glares at her, daring her to comment on that.

She just looks thoughtful. “I don’t know if that can be arranged,” she says at last. “I’ll ask for you, but it may take a long time.”

“Just in case the tombstone’s a door into a secret lab. I get it.”

“Something like that.” She looks sad. “Did he die in the fall of the Triskelion?”

“Yeah.”

“That sucks.”

And that’s it. That’s all she says. No one has ever said that to him before. “Yeah.” He swallows hard enough that it hurts his throat. “You could say that.”

Chapter Text

“Did you contact anyone from Hydra while you were on the run?”

He starts to cry because the sentence has stopped making sense. They’ve asked it to him, again and again – and other questions, too, but they always come back to that one. It feels like they’ve been talking forever. And suddenly it’s not making sense.

He starts to cry, and now he can’t stop.

“Did you – ah, Christ. What are you crying about? Jesus Christ. Stop that. Please? Please stop. Christ…”

And then a new voice. “Are you awake? You have to stay awake.”

The Director. He tries to sit up straighter and pull his thoughts together. The world seems fuzzy around the edges.

“Did you contact anyone from Hydra while you were on the run?”

He tries to lift his arm to wipe his face, but his arm seems very heavy. His muscles won’t work. He is trying to lift it by sheer force of brainpower.

“Sergeant Barnes, please focus. Did you – Sergeant Barnes, please. May I have your attention?”

His concentration breaks. His hand crashes back against the armrest.

“Did you contact anyone from Hydra while you were on the run?” The voice seems disembodied.

“If I say yes, can I go to sleep?”

“You can go to sleep if you tell me the truth.”

He has told the truth. He’s told nothing but the truth and now he’s crying too hard to speak.

“Sergeant Barnes, please calm down.”

He wants to calm down. He is trying to calm down. The chair is supposed to be attached to the floor and he is rocking it back and forth. He’s completely fucking useless and they’ll never let him out.

“No? You don’t want to calm down?”

He’s been speaking between sobs: “No, no, no, no.” It’s not an answer to a question. He’s not sure why he’s saying it.

“That’s too bad. Captain Rogers was going to come down, but if you don’t want to calm down, I think he’d better not.”

“No!”

Steve can’t see this. He sucks in his breath, tries to hold it, but he’s crying so hard he can’t get enough air.

“He would be very upset to see you like this,” the Director says, and Bucky vomits on the table.

It’s mostly bile. He gags again, and again, but there’s nothing left to come up.

Silence. “Please,” he says, and his voice is tiny and high and hurts his throat. He tries to swallow and nearly gags on it. He rubs the back of his hand over his mouth. He can’t even look at the Director. “Please don’t tell Steve. Please. Please.”

“I won’t tell Steve,” the Director says. “I promise.”

Chapter Text

When Steve arrived outside Bucky’s cell, he found Bucky staring down at a plate of meatloaf. Steve paused outside the barrier, watching. Bucky didn’t eat with much enthusiasm, but he always ate.

Not today, though. He wasn’t even picking at his food. He bent forward, his arms wrapped around his stomach, like he was cold, which he might well be in that short-sleeved prison shirt.

He looked so dejected that Steve exerted extra effort to smile as he went into the cell. “Hey, Buck,” he said, gently setting down a Styrofoam container. His latest mission had left him so exhausted that he almost hadn’t bothered getting that slice of pie, but now he was glad he had gone to the trouble. “I brought apple pie. Is that still your favorite?”

Bucky didn’t answer, but that wasn’t unusual. Steve didn’t push him. He figured Bucky needed at least one person in his life right now who didn’t demand that he talk. “I would have gotten it a la mode,” Steve said. He sat down, relieved to get off his aching feet. “But the ice cream would have melted, and I didn’t think you’d like soggy pie. I did get the caramel drizzle, though. You remember those caramels your mom used to make?”

Another inviting smile at Bucky. Bucky didn’t move.

Bucky’s head hung so low that Steve couldn’t see his face, even though he was sitting right across from him. The feeling of dejection was very powerful in the room. Steve wished for a window to open, as if a good airing might help. Couldn’t they at least program the barrier to show a sunny scene? Maybe even change the pictures occasionally.

As it was, it looked the same as the walls, as if Bucky was trapped in a box. He’d been stuck in this room for nearly three weeks. No wonder he was depressed.

Natasha had gotten yard time during her SHIELD debriefing. “I was sitting on one of the benches looking up at the sky when I realized they really weren’t going to torture me,” she had told Steve. “So far the whole interrogation had been chatting with Clint while playing cards, and I figured they’d been lulling me into a false of security so the torture would surprise me. But then I realized that gin rummy was as rough as it was going to get, and I knew then that I wanted to work for SHIELD. Not just because it was better than dying with an arrow through my neck and becoming the butt of Robin Hood jokes for generation of Red Room students. But because they really were good people.”

Maybe SHIELD didn’t have the resources to arrange for yard time now, but they could have sprung for a pack of cards.

“Bucky,” Steve said, and without thinking he touched Bucky’s shoulder gently. Bucky lifted his head, still not enough that Steve could see his face, and drew away. Then he gave an exclamation and lifted his forearm to his mouth. Steve saw the red mark: the metal plates on his left arm must have pinched the skin on the right.

“We really ought to get you a long sleeved shirt,” said Steve. Bucky still didn’t look at him, and he added, “I got you a sweatshirt. For when you get out.”

“I’m never getting out.”

His flat voice struck Steve momentarily dumb. “Bucky, no,” Steve protested. “You will. This is just a debriefing. You’ve been cooperating so well; I’ve seen the videos. They’ll let you out.”

Bucky lifted his right hand to his face. His fingers trembled. He snatched the hand back down, tightening his arms over his stomach, and Steve was swamped by the powerful sense that he needed to get Bucky out of here now. Take him through the barrier and just go.

He felt an equally powerful urge to hug Bucky every time he saw him. But that didn’t mean it was a good idea; Bucky didn’t much like being touched.

“I’m going to talk to Coulson,” Steve said. He opened up the Styrofoam container so Bucky could at least see the pie. It might make him feel better if he would eat something. “I really don’t know why they’re still keeping you here.”

***

“I’ve already given orders for his release,” Coulson said peaceably.

It caught Steve flat-footed. He felt like he’d hurled himself against a door to bust it open, only to discover that the door was made of cardboard. “I want to take him home tonight.”

Coulson shook his head. “You need to rest first,” he said, and before Steve could protest, he added, “This is going to be the first clear shot he’s had to kill you and get away clean, Captain Rogers.”

“Aside from all the potshots he could have taken while he was on the run,” Steve said peevishly.

“Which would not have netted him any intelligence about our facilities to take back to Hydra,” Coulson replied.

Steve felt exhausted. “All right,” he said, and rubbed his face. “Tomorrow morning, then.”

Chapter Text

He wakes up with a jerk and a gasp. He’s on his feet reflexively, and the thud of his boots reassures him: he’s not barefoot, he’s not wearing those shitty cotton prison pajamas, he’s in his own clothes and he’s standing in –

“Buck? You awake?”

Oh. Right. He’s in Steve’s apartment. He remembers coming in and setting down his backpack (his heart jumps. But wait, wait, it’s sitting on the floor right where he left it) and sitting down on the couch, and he must have fallen asleep. Good move, Barnes. Way to show Steve you’re a badass.

He sits down again. There’s a glass of water on the coffee table. He drains it.

“Hey,” says Steve. He sits down in a chair across from the couch, perches really, sitting just on the edge. He sets a plate on the coffee table, sausage and crackers and slices of cheese and dried figs and raisins and – olives? Are those olives? Bucky hates olives. Is this a test? “This is just to tide you over till I get some pancakes going. If you want pancakes? And I could make bacon too. Maybe cut up some apples. I got them at the farmers’ market when…”

Bucky can’t focus. “Olives are disgusting,” he snaps.

“Oh, right!” Steve says, and laughs, and whisks the bowl away. “I’d forgotten you hated them. I’ll get you another glass of water, okay? And then I’ll get started on the pancakes. Do you want pancakes?”

He’s not sure why Steve is laughing at him. He snatches one of the sausages, disgruntled.

“Bucky? Pancakes?” Steve presses.

Bucky’s mouth is already full of cheese and sausage. He could eat everything on this plate three times over and still be hungry. He nods.

Once he’s finished everything on the plate, he follows Steve into the kitchen. The bacon sizzles on the stove. Steve is flipping pancakes, but when he hears the scrape of the chair, he pauses between pancakes to smile at him. “It’s so good to have you back, Buck.”

“I’m thirsty,” Bucky says.

Steve gets him another glass of water. He also gets out a jar of raspberry jam and a bottle of maple syrup and a dish of butter, and Bucky tries them all on the plate of piping hot pancakes.

By the time the first slices of bacon are done, he’s beginning to feel better. He doesn’t have to impress SHIELD all at once, after all. He’ll probably need a few days feeding up till he’s at fighting weight to begin training again. They probably won’t be willing to send him on missions for a while, not till he’s proved he’s trustworthy, but that’s okay. Everything’s working out so much better than he expected. He never thought they’d let him go home with Steve right away: he figured he’d have to earn it.

And here he is and Steve is asking, “You want some chocolate chips in the next batch?” and Bucky nods. Maybe the olives really were just a misstep. Maybe Steve wasn’t even laughing at him, but laughing at himself for forgetting that Bucky hates olives. Steve is taking good care of him.

It’s a little weird that SHIELD hasn’t assigned a housekeeper or anyone to look after Steve – no, actually, not weird at all. Of course they don’t have the funds for that. It’s going to be pretty funny if he went through all this rigmarole with SHIELD only to have the whole damn thing collapse down around his ears next week.

He tucks into the chocolate chip pancakes with extra vigor. Better to get as much meat on his bones as possible in case he ends up on the road again.

At least he’d have Steve with him this time. That would make everything easier. He looks at Steve, slicing up apples, talking while he does so – “Should I put the apples in the pancakes? Or would you rather have them on the side?” – and he feels warm and happy and wants to say something. They used to talk all the time.

But. He can’t say anything about SHIELD’s weakness. He can’t say anything about current events at all, because he doesn’t know SHIELD’s line on them. He’s spent a lot of time eavesdropping the last few months, and he knows the kind of things people talk about: people they know (everyone they knew is dead) or movies they’ve seen (but he hasn’t seen anything recently, or read any books, or followed any sports teams) or catching up on everything that’s happened since they saw each other last.

No. No. Agnessa, he thinks, and Grisha. No. No, he can’t say anything about that either.

Steve is talking. “Bucky? Bucky? Earth to Bucky,” he says, and Bucky realizes that there’s a new plate of pancakes it front of him, irregular hexagons of apple poking through their surfaces.

“I’m thirsty,” Bucky says.

“Okay. You want more water? Or I’ve got milk or orange juice or ginger ale if you’d like.”

“Water,” Bucky says, and Steve refills his glass, and sits down across from him with a plate of pancakes of his own. They’ve done this before: pancakes, butter, syrup, eating at the kitchen table, Steve at the Barnes’s apartment for Saturday breakfast after he sells out of morning papers, radio on, Dad arguing with Steve about something in the news, Mama at the stove rolling her eyes at Bucky because Steve’s getting riled up, Dolly tugging at his sleeve because she wants to sit on his lap and read the funnies.

Steve’s apartment is quiet. He can hear the scrape of Steve’s fork on his plate. Bucky’s throat is closing up again. “I’ll show you around the apartment after we’re done eating,” Steve offers.

Bucky nods. There is nothing he can say.

Chapter Text

Bucky finally managed to steal Steve’s duffel bag in the Great Hall of Union Station. He had been trying all morning, long after his attempts passed from endearing to irritating, but it wasn’t till the soaring skylights caught Steve’s attention that Bucky managed to slip the duffel bag from his fingers.

Steve didn’t even notice for a moment, he was so distracted by the fall of light. But then he felt the lightness in his hand and turned to look, annoyed.

Bucky held the duffle bag’s strap with both hands, like a nineteenth-century orphan clinging to a carpetbag containing all his worldly possessions. On impulse, Steve asked, “You wanna come along?”

Bucky’s teeth sunk into his lower lip. He shook his head. But when Steve reached for the duffle bag, Bucky jerked it out of reach.

Steve watched him, perplexed. He wasn’t sure why Bucky was here anyway. Steve was more than capable of taking the L all by himself.

He also didn’t feel like playing keep away for his own damn bag. “I guess,” said Steve, filling his voice with warmth and sympathy, “you don’t want to see me go. I guess you’ll miss me, huh?”

Usually that would be enough to make Bucky drop the bag, maybe even toss it at him. But Bucky held on. He was looking at the skylights himself now, his expression oddly vacant.

Steve got his hand around the strap, but when he tugged on it, Bucky seemed to jerk back to himself, and his hand tightened. “C’mon, Buck, please?” Steve said. “My train’s in fifteen minutes. I have to go to New York to see Natasha.”

Bucky let go. Steve stumbled back a couple steps at the sudden cessation of the tug-of-war. “I’ll miss you,” Steve said, more puzzled still.

“I know.” Bucky backed away.

“I’ll see you at Thanksgiving,” Steve said. “Dum Dum’s been bragging about his granddaughter’s cranberry sauce for weeks.”

“Yeah,” said Bucky. “Yeah. I have to go.”

He strode across the Great Hall. His heavy combat boots thumped on the floor, echoing in the quiet vast space. Steve stared after him, and took a step back in surprise when Bucky actually turned around.

They stared at each other a moment. Then Bucky turned again – Steve had the odd sensation of a physical snap when they broke eye contact – and darted out the station door. Steve took two steps after him before he stopped himself. After all, he had a train to catch.

Chapter Text

Steve only drank a couple of glasses of champagne at Tony’s end-of-the-Scapegoat-hearings party, not even enough to get him tipsy. Certainly not enough to explain the giddy recklessness that made him let Bucky pull him in an alleyway and walk him right back up against the wall, crowding him back against the cold brick with his hips right up against Steve’s hips.

“Come on, jerk,” Steve said, and shoved Bucky’s shoulders, just enough to rock Bucky back a little. “You gonna kiss me? Huh?”

Bucky didn’t. He moved his hands under Steve’s haunches and lifted Steve right up off the ground.

Steve gasped. The heavy warm weight of Bucky’s body pinned him to the cold rough wall. His legs dangled on either side of Bucky’s waist, arms twining around Bucky’s neck. Bucky kissed him, light and hot and fast, and the wetness of the kiss turned cold on Steve’s lips in the frosty air.

“Jerk,” said Steve, clinging, wriggling against him. “Jerk – ”

Bucky kissed him again, harder this time, shutting him up. Steve braced himself, one arm pressed tight against Bucky’s back, his mouth open for the kiss.

Bucky shifted his weight. Steve slipped, just an inch or so; just enough for the shock of falling to startle him out of the moment.

They were in public. They were in a public alley and anyone might walk in.

Steve wriggled. Bucky scooted in closer, pressing him up against the wall. “Shouldn’t we do this at home?” Steve gasped.

“No,” Bucky said, and kissed Steve again, catching Steve on the jaw because Steve had turned his mouth away.

“We might get caught.”

Bucky sighed. He stopped mouthing at Steve’s jaw. “So?” he said. He rubbed his face in Steve’s neck. His stubble prickled the delicate skin. “At least here, we don’t know that someone’ll be listening.”

“We’ve destroyed the bugs in the apartment,” Steve protested.

Bucky blew a raspberry against Steve’s neck. He stepped away and stretched his arms, flapping his coat to let the cold in. Then he drew the coat tight around him, leaning against the far wall of the alley. “The ones we found,” he said, stubborn.

Steve closed his eyes. He leaned back against his own wall, head bowed. The brick felt much colder now. “You never want to have sex in our apartment?” he said, and it was a question when he said it, but he knew the answer as soon as it was out of his mouth. Of course not. Bucky had gone into the defensive shoulders-braced stance that made him look about twice as big as he was. He probably intended to sleep in that goddamn IKEA bed until the end of time. “Are you never even going to sleep in my bed in our apartment?”

Bucky glared. A muscle in his jaw jumped. Then he shoved off from the wall, propelling himself out of the alley, and made toward home.

Steve walked after him, not running, but walking fast to catch up. Damned if he would trail in Bucky’s wake like a lovesick puppy.

Bucky wasn’t walking very fast, so Steve soon caught up, and had to hold himself back to match Bucky’s pace.

They walked for a while. It seemed a lot colder now. Steve tucked his face down into his scarf.

“You wanna watch Sons of Anarchy when we get back?” Bucky mumbled. His head hung low. He had his right hand shoved deep in his pocket.

If they watched Sons of Anarchy, they could cuddle together on the sofa, and nobody listening at any hypothetical bugs would guess there was any cuddling going on. Just a couple of bros and their bro show.

Steve had a knot in his stomach. “Douglas Fairbanks,” he suggested. At least if they watched something he’d already seen, he might get a little sleep. “The Mark of Zorro.”

The Three Musketeers.”

“Done,” said Steve.

And once they were on the couch, Bucky snuggled up against Steve with a great big bowl of popcorn on his lap, the knot in Steve’s stomach relaxed. It didn’t matter that much, after all, if they were on the bed or on the couch. They were together either way.

Chapter Text

“I’m hungry,” Bucky said.

Steve glanced up from his book. Bucky lay next to Steve on Steve’s bed, his eyelids still drooping from his nap. “You said you were gonna be quiet and let me read,” Steve said, and poked Bucky in the ribs.

“I have been quiet. You’ve read like fifty pages. I’m hungry.”

“There’s a candy bar in the top drawer of my nightstand.”

Bucky sighed. But he rolled over and opened the nightstand drawer, and Steve could hear him rooting around.

Steve had almost settled into his book again when Bucky said, “You still have these?”

Steve closed the book over his thumb as he glanced over, then closed it for real when he saw the dog tags in Bucky’s hand.

Bucky’s dog tags. The Smithsonian had sent them back to Steve when the Captain America exhibit closed.

“Yeah, I have them. I wasn’t going to throw them out just because you didn’t want them.”

Bucky wrinkled his nose. He lay back on the bed, dangling the dog tags above his face. “Don't tell me you're sentimental about my fake dog tags."

“They’re not fakes,” Steve said. “They're the real thing, your World War II dog tags. Someone found them in the Alps in the 70s."

Bucky was silent. His forehead creased. The dog tags swayed in the breeze from the open window.

"They got sent back to your mother in the end. And then Rebecca inherited them, and she gave them to me after I defrosted. She said she figured I needed them more…”

The dog tags winked in the sunlight. Steve reached over and closed his hand around them. Bucky didn’t let go.

Eventually Steve let go instead. “She was one of the few people who really got that it didn’t feel like seventy years had passed to me. I still felt like you’d died just a couple weeks ago.”

Bucky let the dog tags fall to his stomach and rested his hand over them. “Andrushka could never wrap his head around it. Always puzzled why I was holding a grudge for something that happened five years ago. It was about five days for me, asshole.” He fell silent, flicking at the chain on the dog tags. “I’m glad Rebecca understood.”

Steve nodded. They were quiet for a while. Steve could hear a dog barking in the park across the street.

“She called me on my birthday,” Steve commented. “She invited me to have coffee at her place.”

He didn’t say anything else. Getting Bucky to do anything was a bit like getting a feral cat to eat out of your hand. You had to stay very still and make no sudden movements.

The room was warm. Steve began to feel a little drowsy.

“You think she’d want to see me?”

Steve opened his eyes. “Yeah.”

“She’s pretty used to me being dead, though.”

“I think she could get un-used to it real fast if she got the chance. She’s still pretty sharp. Told me to make sure SHIELD was actually dead this time around.”

Bucky played with the dog tag chain with his fingers. “So what’s your plan?” he said. “Gonna show up for coffee with her dead brother in tow?”

“Unless you’ve got a better plan.”

Bucky wound the chain around his knuckles. “No."

Steve sat up. “Then I’ll call her,” he suggested. “And you can start making a coffee cake.”

Chapter Text

When Rebecca opened her apartment door, her eyes skated right over Steve. They fastened on Bucky, who stood a little behind him, a box held tight in both hands. “My God,” she said, and adjusted her thick glasses with one bony, age-spotted hand. “It is you.”

“Who else was it gonna be?” Bucky asked. He might smash the coffee cake if he held the box any tighter. “Did you think Steve was pranking you?”

“You never know with kids these days,” Rebecca said. They looked at each other, Bucky and Rebecca, and then Rebecca held out her arms, and Bucky shoved the coffee cake into Steve’s hands and went to hug her.

Steve gently shut the door behind them. He carried the coffee cake to the round table, already set with the Barnes’ best china – “I’ve only lost two pieces over the years,” Rebecca had told him the first time he came to coffee, talking to cover the fact that the sight of the familiar china had brought him close to tears.

Steve went quietly into the kitchen to make the coffee. By the time he returned, Rebecca and Bucky were sitting at the table, hands joined. “You look just the same,” she said. He had cut his hair for the occasion, brushed it back just like he used to.

Bucky ducked his head. “It’s just cause you can’t see the metal arm,” he said. “You wanna see?”

“If you want.”

He let go of her hand, tugging the glove off his left hand and resting it palm up on the table. She adjusted her glasses, peering down at the metal fingers, and reached out to touch it. Her fingers withdrew just slightly at the touch: surprised by either the hardness or the coolness of the metal. “Did it hurt?”

“Getting my arm torn off? Not so’s you’d notice.”

She looked up at him. Her glasses magnified the tears pooling in her eyes, but she didn’t let them fall. Bucky’s mouth took on a lopsided smile, and then Bucky and Rebecca both burst into laughter.

They laughed and laughed and laughed so hard that they cried. Steve poured the coffee. He felt like an intruder, and when the gales of laughter subsided, he said, “I thought I might swing by Tony’s. I could come back later if…”

“Steve Rogers, you sit right down and have a slice of that coffee cake,” Rebecca said. She retrieved a rumpled tissue from a pocket, dabbed firmly at her face, and gave her nose a blow. Then she placed a fragile hand on Steve’s arm. He sat. “I’m not risking my remaining teeth on any coffee cake you two made until you’ve had a bite.”

Chapter Text

“I am not,” Bucky says, voice clipped and precise, “fucking Steve.”

“Dude, I don’t care who’s sticking what where,” Sam says, and almost says So don’t tell me, but he wouldn’t put it past Bucky to take that as his cue to tell Sam everything, just to fuck with him. “You guys are hooking up. Messing around. Whatever old-timey word you want to call it.”

Bucky inspects Sam’s face. It takes most of Sam’s concentration to keep his body language open and relaxed. They’ve gone on a couple of missions together now that Sam’s got his wings back, and they work well together in the field, and Bucky’s mostly civil to him; but Sam knows that doesn’t mean Bucky trusts him.

“Steve told you.” Bucky’s voice is sharp.

Sam sighs. “Steve didn’t say a thing. You two might want to reconsider this whole messing around in alleys thing.”

Bucky’s jaw juts. “You following us?”

At least he’s not trying to lie about it. “We were leaving the same debriefing,” Sam points out.

Bucky’s shoulders brace. “What’s it to you?” he demands.

“I just want Steve to be okay,” Sam says. “You know he’s not always good at looking after himself.”

For a second he thinks Bucky’s going to pop him one. But then Bucky rolls his shoulders back and takes a step away, and he looks – not small, exactly. He’s too big for that.

But he no longer looks like he’s about ten feet tall. His gaze drops to his feet. “I wouldn’t hurt Steve on purpose,” he mutters.

Sam is unexpectedly moved. “I know you wouldn’t,” he says. “A lot of the vets I worked with, they loved their partners and kids a lot. But sometimes they hurt them anyway because they didn’t know how to stop themselves.”

Bucky’s eyes are on Sam again. “So you’ll be keeping an eye on me,” Bucky says, voice clipped. “Message received.”

“That’s not – ” Sam begins.

But Bucky’s already walking away, left arm swinging, boots slamming on the pavement.

“ – not the only thing I meant,” Sam says.

It’s one of the things he meant, though. And he will.

Chapter Text

They were taking a cool-down lap around the reflecting pool when Sam brought it up. There was no delicate way to say it, so he just bulldozed right in. “So the other day after the debriefing,” he said. “I walked in on you and Bucky in an alleyway – ”

“Oh my God.” Steve stopped in his tracks. The slanted dawn light cast a long shadow in front of him. His cheeks turned red. He stared down at his running shoes.

“Didn’t realize public sex was a thing you were into,” Sam said, partly to lighten the mood, but beneath the joking tone it was a genuine question.

He did believe Bucky’s claim that he wouldn’t hurt Steve on purpose. But he didn’t have a lot of faith that Steve would say no to something that Bucky really wanted.

“Oh my God,” Steve said again, and lifted a hand to hide his face. Then, because he was Steve, he dropped his hand and looked Sam in the eye. “I was going to tell you,” he said. “This is all pretty new.”

“Having sex with Bucky, or having sex in alleys?”

“We weren’t – ” Steve began, and blushed harder, and said more quietly, “It didn’t go that far. It’s just…” His jaw clenched. His gaze drifted away, along the reflecting pool to the Lincoln Memorial, and then back to Sam’s face. “The apartment’s bugged,” he said. “We sweep the place, but…” He shrugged. He looked tired. “We’d only have to miss one.”

Sam kind of wanted to drive out to Langley and punch Coulson in the face right then. But it wouldn’t help. Coulson was only one of the lesser tentacles of the state security apparatus, and the others would jump in to watch Steve even if Coulson stopped.

“That’s crap, man,” Sam said, and squeezed Steve’s arm. “I wish they’d leave you alone.”

They had reached the Lincoln Memorial. A few tourists clustered around, snapping photos in the dawn light.

“You don’t think it’s a bad idea?”

“Alley sex? Hell yeah I think that’s a bad idea.”

“No. I mean me and Bucky.” Steve’s mouth tugged up in a small smile. Sam wondered sometimes if Steve and Natasha had both arrived at that anxiety-masking half-grin separately, or if one of them had borrowed the expression for the other. “You haven’t always been Bucky’s biggest fan.”

They swung back around the reflecting pool. Sam had to squint against the rising sun. “Bucky hasn’t always been good to you,” he returned.

Steve looked like he wanted to argue, but he didn’t. Sam went on, “But that was then. I want you to be happy, and if doing the dirty makes you guys happy, by all means, do your thing. But even if the alleyway is your thing, I sure don’t think the tabloid photos would be.”

Steve winced. “Yeah,” he said.

The newspaper and candy kiosks were opening up. Steve stopped and bought a Snickers. Sam thought it was mostly to have a chance to check the tabloids, just in case. “Tony Stark’s ALIEN BABY?” screamed a headline.

Steve ate the Snickers. Sam took a swig from his water bottle. “I know some pretty remote backpacking sites in the DC area,” he offered. “I could point them out to you.”

“Yeah,” said Steve. He crumpled up the Snickers wrapper and threw it away. “It’s a lot easier to check tent poles for bugs than an entire apartment.”

Chapter Text

Steve was pacing his third circuit around the large room in their apartment when Bucky’s door opened.

A brief flash of lightning illuminated the apartment. Bucky’s face looked bright and pale in that light. “Can’t sleep?”

Steve shook his head. “Sorry if I woke you.” The rain nearly drowned out his voice.

Bucky tilted his head toward his room. Steve hesitated. It might be an invitation, but he didn’t want to read too much into it; he almost never went into Bucky’s room, hadn’t been there since he’d helped Bucky put his IKEA bed together. They slept together – when they slept together – usually on the couch.

Another flash of lightning. Bucky jerked his head toward his room more obviously, and when Steve still hesitated, took Steve by the hand and led him into his room.

IKEA bed aside, Bucky’s room still looked pretty bare. A kitchen chair served as a makeshift bedside table. A reading lamp clamped to the chair back illuminated the bed, but its dim light seemed to make the room darker rather than brighter. The shadows crowded close around the small pool of light, as if they might extinguish it at any moment.

Thunder rumbled. Bucky hopped on the bed and scooted toward the wall, making room for Steve. Steve followed. He leaned gingerly against Bucky’s chest.

Bucky stiffened. Sometimes he needed a few seconds to adjust to being touched, so Steve waited; and sure enough, Bucky relaxed into it. He looped his arm around Steve like a bandolier, relaxing, then roused himself and leaned over to switch off the lamp.

The room seemed cozier in the dark. Bucky pulled his tangled blankets up to cocoon Steve. The stars stuck to the ceiling glowed softly. Bucky’s heartbeat thumped steadily under Steve’s ear.

“Buck,” Steve murmured.

One of Bucky’s fingers pressed against his lips. “Shh,” Bucky said, so soft.

Steve sighed. He kissed Bucky’s fingertip and rested his head quietly against Bucky’s chest. The thunder grumbled.

Steve didn’t sleep. Bucky did, and Steve rested against the quiet rise and fall of his chest, his hair stirring under Bucky’s breath. Steve pulled the blankets close around them both and waited for the storm to pass.

Chapter Text

“Bucky,” Steve says, lifting the tent flap so he can crawl in. Bucky’s lying on his side on top of his sleeping bag, still fully dressed. The early morning sunlight illuminates his face. Normally Steve would zip the flap shut behind him, but he tucks it up instead, because that light’s so perfect.

Bucky squinches his eyes tight against the brightness. “Mrph.”

“Rise and shine,” Steve says, cheerfully annoying. He knee-walks up the sleeping bags, flopping down so he’s lying next to Bucky. Bucky’s gorgeous in this light. Steve kisses him lightly on the neck. “Coffee’s hot,” he says. He noses at the soft skin behind Bucky’s ear. “I’m making bacon.”

Bucky’s sleeping bag rustles as he rolls over onto his back. “Are not,” Bucky mumbles. “I’d smell it.”

Steve pecks a kiss on Bucky’s stubbly jaw. “I’ll make bacon if you get up.” Bucky swats at him vaguely, but when Steve actually starts to move away, Bucky cups his hand around the back of Steve’s head. “And we’ve got pancake mix,” Steve says, nuzzling at Bucky’s neck. Bucky’s beginning to laugh. He’s ticklish. Steve scratches his fingers at Bucky’s ribs, because Bucky’s ticklish there, too. Bucky’s squirming. Steve kisses his ear. “C’mon, ptichka – ”

Bucky sits up, hooting with laughter. Steve, still lying down, twists his head to press his burning face in pillow. “What’s so funny?” he asks stiffly.

Like he doesn’t know. He never should have let himself linger so long on that page about endearments in his Russian textbook. Even as he rolled the words around in his mouth, he knew Bucky would think it was stupid. Zaichik, little rabbit. Kotyonok, kitten.

Bucky drags in his breath. “Your accent – ” he begins, and bursts into laughter again. “Your accent is ridiculous,” he finally manages, and snorts some more.

“Your face is ridiculous,” Steve snaps.

“You like my ridiculous face,” says Bucky, and quick as a flash he’s pinning Steve playfully to his sleeping bag.

Steve shoves him away. Bucky must take that for playfulness, too, because he moves to flip Steve over on his back. Steve flings him off in a burst of irritation. “Christ, Bucky, back off.”

Bucky scoots across the tent. He’s flushed and angry now. “You called me little bird,” he says. “How’m I not supposed to laugh at that?”

“My Russian textbook said it was a term of endearment,” Steve says, defensive, and feeling stupider by the minute.

“You always get your sweet talk out of a textbook, huh?”

“Well, what do you want me to call you?”

Bucky looks thrown. His gaze falls away from Steve. He fidgets with the laces on his boots. “What’s wrong with Bucky?”

“Nothing,” Steve says. “I just…”

He knows Bucky will think this is ridiculous, that he lets Steve cuddle him, kiss him, tickle him, play with his hair, and what other proof of affection could Steve want? But Steve wants to be able to say it.

Bucky’s picking dried mud off the sole of his boot. “The coffee’s gonna get cold,” he mutters.

“Yeah,” says Steve. The chill has crept into the tent. He shouldn’t have left the flap open. “I’ll start the bacon."

Chapter Text

They’re sitting at the kitchen table on the Bus, Bucky and Simmons and Skye. Skye and Simmons are tipsy and giggly and shrieking with laughter, already on their second bottle of champagne, and even though Bucky’s not drinking nearly enough to get drunk himself, their mood is infectious.

“ – and then the string of firecrackers went off.” Simmons is gasping out her story through giggles, not that it matters, because Skye and Bucky are both laughing so hard they can barely breathe, too. “And of course they got in so much trouble. The Academy isn’t very hard on pranks usually, but if you can’t even pull the prank off right – ”

“God, the SHIELD Academy sounds like so much fun,” Skye says. “I wish I’d gone.”

Simmons is still giggling too hard to speak, so Bucky fills the pause in conversation. “How did you join SHIELD, anyway?” he asks Skye.

“We kidnapped her!” Simmons says, and she and Skye both shriek with laughter.

The joke annoys Bucky, though he tries not to let it show. “No, really,” he insists.

“Well,” says Skye. “I was working for the Rising Tide – the hacktivist group, if you’ve heard of them –”

“I have.” They were the ones who made sure that Natasha’s SHIELD/Hydra datadump stayed online.

“And I hacked into SHIELD’s systems, so he arrested me,” Skye says. She’s so sloshed that her voice has taken on a sing-song quality. “Coulson. Oh, and Ward was with him too, and he put a bag over my head.”

“He’s the worst,” says Simmons, and kicks back half a glass of champagne. Some of it goes down the wrong tube, and she coughs.

It’s not a joke. Bucky’s ears are ringing. SHIELD really kidnapped Skye. Coulson kidnapped Skye.

“We didn’t know Ward was a Hydra scumbag yet,” Skye explains, like maybe that’s what’s bothering Bucky. “And Coulson injected Ward with truth serum so I could question him and then I would trust SHIELD more, and if only I’d asked the right questions we would have known he was evil from the start – ”

Skye’s getting teary. Simmons slings her arms around Skye’s neck. “It’s not your fault,” she says. “None of us would have known the right questions to ask. And I’m sure Coulson didn’t use real truth serum on Ward anyway. Far too great a security risk when he was talking to an outsider.”

Skye wipes her eyes. “Seriously? Coulson lied to me?”

“I’m sure of it,” Simmons says. She squeezes Skye, nuzzling her chin in Skye’s shoulder.

“That rat,” says Skye, but kind of admiring, like she looks up to Coulson for his excellent ability to lie to prisoners. She sniffs hard and wipes her eyes again and continues. “Coulson was so impressed that I’d managed to hack into the SHIELD system that he offered me a job,” Skye says. “Except – oh my God, this is so embarrassing – I thought I could be like this double agent in SHIELD, and then the Rising Tide hacked SHIELD again, and I got back in contact with my old friends, and Coulson was so mad – ”

Skye sloshes champagne on the table as she refills her glass. Simmons says, “It was dreadful.”

“Yeah, so after that Coulson wouldn’t let me talk to them anymore,” Skye says. “Or use a computers, or whatever, because of course I’d use them to contact the Rising Tide.”

“He cut you off from all outside contact,” Bucky says. He swigs his champagne. He’s hoping it will calm his stomach, like alcoholic ginger ale.

“It’s a good thing, too. Can you imagine the damage I could have caused if I kept siphoning information out to them?”

Bucky can’t think of anything to say that isn’t brutally sarcastic. Oh, maybe you would have released a cache of Hydra files, that would have been the worst. He takes another gulp of champagne. Not helping. “Couldn’t you visit your old friends now?” he asks. “You know better than to tell them anything.”

Skye’s face dims. “No. They’re so naïve; they wouldn’t understand the things I’ve done.”

“Oh, well, you’ve got us now,” Simmons says, and gives Skye a drunkenly affectionate kiss on the cheek. She makes a fierce face at Skye. “We love you far too much to let you go.”

They both collapse giggling into their chairs.

Bucky sees them through to the end of the second bottle of champagne. Then, once the conversation has turned definitively to Fitz’s monkey obsession, Bucky leaves. He goes back to his bunk, and lies down in the quiet with his face in his pillow.

There’s no reason to be upset. He’s always known what SHIELD is. The smiling veneer shouldn’t make it so easy to forget.

Chapter Text

“Natasha wasn’t kidding.” Bucky sounded appalled. “This is a disaster.”

If they had been in the middle of a firefight, he might have had a point. But given that Steve was standing on the threshold of their quiet apartment, drowning in a coat that had fit him perfectly that morning, Steve mostly felt annoyed. “Don’t exaggerate,” he snapped.

“I can’t believe they let you walk home like that,” Bucky added, and Steve’s precarious grip on his temper snapped.

“I used to walk all over Brooklyn like this!”

“Getting the shit kicked out of you in every goddamn alleyway.”

Steve attempted to push his way past Bucky into their apartment, but Bucky blocked the entire goddamn doorway and of course Steve couldn’t budge him so much as an inch in this state.

Finally, after standing immobile more than long enough to show that Steve was pathetic, Bucky moved aside. Steve stalked into the apartment. He hurled his coat onto the armchair and grabbed his oversized pants just before they fell down.

“Natasha said it won’t last,” Bucky said, in a way that made the statement half a question.

Steve rounded on him. “I got hit with a serum inhibitor,” he snapped. “It’ll wear off by morning.”

“How do you know?”

“It’s happened before. The STRIKE team was on a mission, and – ”

“The STRIKE team! Those bastards probably did it on purpose,” said Bucky, and he stomped toward the door, as if he meant to walk all the way to the Home right then purely for the purpose of chewing Rumlow out.

“Bucky!” Steve said. “For Christ’s sake. Sit down.”

Bucky glared at him. Steve put his hands on Bucky’s shoulders, as if to push him onto the couch.

Bucky never would have stood for it if Steve were big enough to actually push him around. But after a few seconds of standing immovable, he gave into Steve’s futile shoves. He sat down hard on the couch, and Steve followed him, straddling his lap, arms loose around Bucky’s neck. The sight of his own skinny forearms gave him a shock. “Bucky,” Steve said, with as much calm authority as he could muster. “It’ll be fine.”

Bucky hooked his thumbs in Steve’s belt loops. He cupped his right hand around Steve’s bony hip. “Did it hurt?” he asked.

“No,” said Steve. Bucky snorted. “Not much,” Steve emended.

It wasn’t exactly true. But it hadn’t hurt for very long, at least.

Bucky fiddled with Steve’s belt loops. He twisted up the excess fabric in Steve’s billowing t-shirt, pulling it tight for a moment then letting it go again. “Your voice still sounds the same,” Bucky said, his own voice gruff.

“I could become a radio announcer,” Steve said, trying to joke, his throat closing up at the thought that the serum might be gone for good and he might have to.

Bucky lifted him up by his belt loops, pulling him closer. “That’s the first thing I recognized about you,” Bucky said. “Not your stupid face. When you spoke to me on the bridge, I knew your voice.”

“Really?” Steve said. His cold fingers tangled in the back of Bucky’s sweater. “You never told me that.”

“Yeah,” said Bucky. “No matter what you look like, you always sound the same.”

Chapter Text

“You like trying new things,” Steve pointed out. He poked a stick at the campfire. “You liked that sashimi we had last night.”

“Yeah, but if the vice squad raided your apartment and found a stockpile of sushi, no one would fucking care. Whereas if they found a bunch of sex toys – ” Bucky tossed a small log on the campfire. A flurry of sparks shattered upward. He pulled his sleeping bag up higher. “Next week the papers wouldn't print anything but 'Captain America, Crazed Sex Fiend.' Bet the National Inquirer would sell out.”

Steve pulled his sleeping bag tighter, too. It was pretty cold for a camping trip. “You realize that the National Inquirer would be happy to print that without any actual evidence,” Steve pointed out. “They once printed a story about how Tony Stark had been impregnated with an alien baby.”

Bucky speared a marshmallow on a stick and poked it into the fire. “Thor’s baby?”

“No, no. Although probably they’ll get around to that someday. No, it was supposed to be some kind of bug alien that implants eggs in the small intestine or something like that. Tony may have started making things up halfway through the dramatic reading, though.”

Bucky frowned. He held out a hand. Steve slapped a graham cracker and a slab of chocolate into his palm.

“The tabloids probably invent an entire sex dungeon,” Steve said. “Probably in the basement of Stark Tower. And Avengers orgies.”

Bucky’s marshmallow caught fire. He drew it out of the campfire, holding it so the flickering flames illuminated his face.

“Bucky,” said Steve. “Your paranoia already controls 90% of our sex life. Let me have this one thing.”

Bucky wrinkled his nose. He blew out the marshmallow and mashed it between his graham crackers.

“Do they have to be proper sex toys?” Bucky asked. He took a bite of s’more. “We can’t just shove a cucumber up your ass?”

“You got an idea how to make a cucumber vibrate?”

Bucky shifted, slouching back against the log. He shoved the last of the s’more in his mouth. It left a streak of chocolate on the corner of his lips. “Bet I could come up with something.”

Steve leaned over and kissed the corner of his mouth, lingering just long enough to lick away the chocolate. Bucky leaned after him when he pulled away, ending with his head on Steve’s shoulder, and Steve put an arm around him and rested his face in Bucky’s hair. “You think about it,” Steve said. “Let me know.”

Chapter Text

The first time, he tries a bookstore. “Can I help you find what you’re looking for?” a perky salesman asks.

Bucky flees.

The next time, he tries a library. No one will ask nosy questions there. Probably.

The library, comfortingly, still uses the Dewey Decimal System. He finds a big, brightly colored poster explaining how it works. Ethics in the 170s. (Steve would doubtless want him to look into that.) German in the 430s. Medicine, including mental illness, in the 610s.

Sweat breaks out on his upper lip. He plunges down the nearest aisle, and winds his way around the library, and finally ends up in the cookbook section. He pauses for a long time in front of a book about Scandinavian food. The cover features a delectable photo of Swedish pancakes dribbled with lingonberry jam.

He should just read the stupid PTSD books Steve has at home.

(But then SHIELD will find out, and he’s on thin ice with them already since the Tompkins incident, and maybe it would count as a point in his favor that he’s trying to fix the problem, but – well, who the fuck knows how they’ll take it? Maybe they’ll decide to extend his suspension indefinitely.)

The library is safer. Or it should be safer. But he can’t shake the sense that someone is watching, so he leaves.

Next rainy day, he goes to a different library. He marches firmly and with purpose to the 600 aisle.

There are a lot more books about a lot more disorders than he was expecting. Bucky quails. He could use the computer catalog to find the exact number he needs; he’s used it before, when he was on the run, but he was looking up shit like “Captain America” and “fall of the Soviet Union” then.

Plus the catalog computers are practically in the middle of the floor. Anyone could come up at him from anywhere. At least with the aisle, there’s really only two lines of approach, and if someone shows up he could always turn around and pretend he’s looking at the books on the other side of the aisle, which are about –

Animals. One has a photo of a tiger on the cover. He picks it up and takes it to a corner and reads that, instead.

He returns to that library the next time their afternoon picnic gets rained out. Maybe he’ll just look at toucans all afternoon. Won’t even think about the possible PTSD books lurking in the shelf behind him. (The PTSD books, ignored, have multiplied in his mind to fill the whole shelf, top to bottom and side to side. His neck prickles under their judgmental gaze.) He focuses on the animal books.

There is a bright yellow book called Animal Madness.

The universe is mocking him. He pulls the book off the shelf. A tremendously sad dog peers up from the cover.

How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves, reads the subtitle.

He tucks the book under one arm and retreats from the aisle to find a good place to sit. A corner – a different corner than last time, of course. He keeps the cover pressed against its side so no one can see the title.

Not that it would matter if they did. If anyone asks, he’s trying to coax a traumatized feral cat out of its hard-knock life in the alley behind his apartment. That’s his story and he’s sticking to it.

Chapter Text

“Bucky,” Steve said, surprised, as he closed the door to the suite behind him. He hadn’t expected to find Bucky here; had only intended to drop by for a few minutes himself to put on something more casual before he headed down to the fireworks.

But there Bucky sat, one leg drawn up to his chest, watching the fireworks from the window seat in the fancy hotel room (paid for by the Chamber of Commerce, where Steve gave a speech that evening. Everyone wanted a Captain America speech for the Fourth of July, and Steve drove a hard bargain).

“Bucky,” Steve said again, taking off his tie as he crossed the room. But Bucky didn’t seem to hear, and Steve stopped a couple of feet back from the window seat, tie loose between his hands. Bucky’s face was lifted to the fireworks, his brow knit, his gaze intent on the bursts of red and blue.

“Bucky,” Steve murmured, and at last Bucky looked at him. He dropped his chin briefly to his knee, and swung around so he had both feet on the floor, his back to the fireworks.

“The bigwigs like your speech?” Bucky asked.

“They always like my speech,” Steve said. “Probably that means it’s not pointed enough.”

“Nah. People love being told they suck,” Bucky said.

A little silence followed. Steve shifted his weight, swaying forward slightly as if to put a hand on Bucky’s shoulder, and then hesitating. There was something remote in Bucky’s face, his voice, as if he weren’t really paying attention.

But he seemed to sense Steve’s hesitation, and smiled up at him, lopsided. “You want to go out to the party?” Bucky asked, and tilted his head to gesture toward the city.

Steve hesitated. “Depends,” he temporized. “Do we still have some cake?”

“’Course we do, birthday boy,” Bucky said. He gestured toward it vaguely. The remaining third of the cake stood on the glass-topped table, its white frosting ghost-like in the dim room.

“Well,” said Steve. “Maybe we’ll have that for breakfast.” He sat down on the window seat, hefting one leg onto the upholstery, leaving the other foot on the floor.

Bucky scooted over to him. He swung his own legs back onto the seat and leaned against Steve’s chest, scrunching himself down so Steve’s chin rested on his hair. Steve wrapped an arm around him. “You thinking about something?” Steve asked.

Bucky shook his head. “Just watching the fireworks.”

Steve kissed the top of his head. “Okay.” A shower of gold sparks drifted down from a firework, leaving trails behind like a weeping willow tree. “It is a pretty nice view.”

Chapter Text

“And furthermore,” Bucky said, his voice rising almost to shouting, “I turned out to be absolutely right about practically everything! I wasn’t crazy or paranoid or any of that! In fact if anything I was too fucking trusting of SHIELD, so where the hell do you get off going on TV to tell everyone that I’m fucking nuts – ”

“Bucky!” Steve yelled. “I’m not going to say anything like that! I’m going to talk about my mental health issues. Mine! My own! You won’t come into it at all!”

Bucky looked about ready to shout back. But then Steve’s words seemed to penetrate, and he caught his breath and glared at Steve. “You don’t have any mental health issues.”

Bucky sounded so accusing that Steve almost laughed. “I left SHIELD because I was having a nervous breakdown,” Steve protested. “I thought they might kill me if I tried to leave.”

“So? You’d just realized SHIELD was evil and it stressed you the fuck out!” Bucky snapped. “That could happen to anyone.”

Steve sighed. “Yes,” he said. “That’s the point.”

Bucky just glared. The doctors at the Home were apt to start explaining at the drop of a hat that anyone could have mental health issues and it wasn’t a sign of weakness, so Bucky had doubtless heard this a hundred times. But that didn’t mean he believed it; he didn’t trust psychiatrists any more than he trusted any other kind of doctor.

Maybe less, if it was possible to trust someone less than zero.

But now he just shrugged. “So fine then, you’re nuts,” Bucky said. “That doesn’t mean you gotta go on TV and tell everyone.”

“I wasn’t planning to say I’m nuts, Buck. I was going to say – ”

“It doesn’t matter what you call it. Everyone watching is going to think ‘Well fuck, Captain America’s fucking insane.’”

Steve controlled a wince. He already knew that plenty of people would think that. “There’d be no point in doing mental health awareness if everyone had a sympathetic understanding of mental health issues already,” he said.

Bucky sighed and moved to the window. They were standing in Tony’s suite on the second floor, and the green grounds spread out beneath them, lush and bright from the May rain.

“I should’ve let you do the dumb gay pride parade,” Bucky said. He sounded tired.

“You were right, though. You would’ve been dragged into it.” Even if Steve and Bucky didn’t admit anything, once Steve came out, the press undoubtedly would have found out about Steve’s roommate who looked like Steve’s supposedly-dead best friend.

It wasn’t the big gay scandal that worried Steve, but the fact that as soon as someone shone a spotlight on Bucky, people might figure out he really was James Buchanan Barnes. Might discover where he’d been all those decades during the Cold War. Maybe drag him to court.

He went to stand beside Bucky at the window. The DeathLoks were playing soccer on the other side of the field. “So you went and found a different grenade to throw yourself on,” Bucky said. “I get it. Fucking martyr complex. They got a diagnosis for that?”

“Probably,” Steve said.

“Well,” said Bucky. He watched the DeathLoks playing soccer, so far across the field that they looked like little toy army men. “Guess you’d better tell the world about that one too.”

Chapter Text

“He’s quitting,” Coulson said.

May closed the solitaire game on her phone. “No.”

“Yes,” Coulson replied. He sat heavily on the couch across from her. “Where did we go wrong?” he asked. “I was sure the Bus would help him. Camaraderie, a sense of purpose. It worked with the Avengers.”

“He was already exhausted and unstable when we brought him on the Bus,” May said. “A breakdown was inevitable.”

Coulson sighed.

“It’s not your fault, Phil,” May said.

“It’s not? I’m the one who left him alone with Barnes for so long.”

“He said he could handle it,” May said. “You can’t blame yourself for trusting your people.”

“I always knew he wasn’t objective about Barnes,” Coulson replied.

May waited to see if Coulson had anything else to add. The Bus was very quiet with the rest of the team gone for a assault on a Hydra base.

When Coulson didn’t say anything, May said, “He’ll be back.”

Coulson shook his head. “I don’t think so.”

“I never thought I would be back after Bahrain,” May said. “And look at me.” Coulson did look at her. He smiled, half-unwilling. “And Barnes is here,” May added. “That will draw him back.”

Coulson nodded. “He wants to Barnes to come visit him.”

May almost rolled her eyes. “Of course he does. How did Barnes react when you told him?”

“Who the hell knows? He said ‘Okay.’ I have no idea what he’s feeling.” Coulson leaned his head against the back of the couch. “I wish I knew that he was feeling something.”

“He broke the comscreen when Rogers left,” May replied. “He’s feeling something.”

Coulson got up and poured himself a glass of water. He drank it standing by the sink, then poured himself another and ambled back to the couch.

“Skye likes Barnes,” May pointed out. “She’s a good judge of character.”

“Yes,” Coulson said, but he wasn’t quite agreeing. “Too compassionate for her own good, maybe. Skye also likes her father, even though he has Hulk-like rage issues.” He sipped his water. “The fall-out of his attempt to replicate the superserum.”

“That never ends well.”

“No,” said Coulson. “It doesn’t seem to.”

Chapter Text

“Grisha,” says the Soldier, soft. Grisha wheezes on the divan, and the Soldier cannot tell if it’s a nightmare or sickness. “Grisha. Grisha. Wake up.”

The choking breaths continue. “Wake up!” the Soldier orders, and his voice rises and cracks. “Grigorii Mikhailovich! You have to wake up!”

“Soldat?” Grisha says. His voice is wet and heavy.

“I’m here,” says the Soldier, and he crosses the room and kneels by the divan. “You’re here. You’re not in Kolyma. You’ll never go back to the gulag.”

“I didn’t mean to wake you,” Grisha says. His breath smells like putrefaction. “You have a busy day tomorrow.”

The Soldier rests his forehead against Grisha’s shoulder. Grisha smoothes his hand over the Soldier’s hair, down his neck, and the Soldier presses his face in, smearing tears on Grisha’s nightshirt. “It’s all right,” the Soldier says. “It’s all right, you’re all right,” he says, and chokes. “You can’t die too.”

And then he is not there anymore. He is floating up near the ceiling, drifting on the draft of air from the poorly sealed window; and the scene below, the sick man on the divan and the young man kneeling next to him, is nothing but flickering shadows, and very far away.

It feels like only moments he is away, but he knows it has been a long while when Grisha says, “Soldat,” and the Soldier falls back to earth. Grisha’s hand trembles on the Soldier’s shoulder.

“I’m here,” the Soldier promises again. He swallows, and smiles, and says, “I was just remembering the time I killed the commander of Kolyma.”

He hopes this flight of fancy will cheer Grisha up, and is pleased when Grisha smiles. “Oh! Did you now?”

“I stabbed him with an icicle,” the Soldier invents. “Five times.”

“Only five?” Grisha asks.

The Soldier considers. He could just change the story, of course, but that will break the illusion that it’s real. “I hit the jugular vein,” he says. “And he died twisting in the snow like a dog,” he says, and demonstrates: he falls back on the threadbare carpet and thrashes, body twisting and leaping as if an electrical current runs through it. Grisha laughs and laughs.

Grisha never laughs now; and perhaps with good reason, because it makes him cough. His phlegm is speckled black. “Grisha – ” says the Soldier, kneeling at Grisha’s side again.

“No, go on, go on,” Grisha says. “Go on, Soldat, please. Who else did you kill in the camp? The norm setter? Oh, the cook. Did you drown him in that slop he called soup, Soldat?”

They have killed almost everyone of any importance in Kolyma before Grisha drifts back to sleep. The Soldier lies down on the carpet next to him, close enough to hear the rattle as Grisha breathes.

Chapter Text

“I saw your hearings on TV. You looked like a slut.”

“Fuck you, Andrei Nikolaevich,” Natasha replied.

“Language,” her old handler said primly. But he stepped aside, opening the door to his apartment to let her in.

She sat down on his sagging couch while he put together tea, his slippers dragging on the matted carpet. Precarious stacks of magazines and newspapers leaned against the walls and the tables, while dusty busts of Lenin congregated on every flat surface. Many of them had chipped noses or ears.

A cat meowed and jumped from the top of a bookcase onto the back of the couch. Natasha tried to pet it, but it leaped off the couch and streaked away into the next room.

“She likes you,” said Andrei Nikolaevich, shuffling into the room to place a tray of tea and shortbread cookies on one of the less precarious stacks of newspapers. “Usually she scratches.” He waited until she took up a cup of tea – and tested it with her detector ring, a gift from Tony Stark – then said, “What brings you here? If you hoped that database stunt would get you back in with the Red Room – ”

“I didn’t.”

That threw him momentarily. Probably he’d been hoping for years that she’d come crying back to the Red Room someday. “Well, good,” he said, regrouping. “Because there’s far too much of our information on that database. I suppose you helped put it there.”

Natasha didn’t reply to that. Instead she said, “We found the Winter Soldier.”

It wasn’t true, not yet, but Natasha wanted to be prepared when they did.

“Have you!” Andrei Nikolaevich said. His eyes brightened, and suddenly he seemed a much younger man. “Who took him? It must have been SHIELD. Goddamn sanctimonious sons of bitches – ”

“Language,” Natasha said, and smirked.

He looked angry for a moment. Then he laughed. “All right, all right, Natashichka,” he said. “But who?”

“Hydra.”

“So SHIELD,” he said. “You don’t expect me to believe that Hydra bullshit, do you? I wasn’t born yesterday.”

“Believe what you want,” said Natasha. “I’m not here to give you an update on your favorite assassin. I just want his files.”

“Want to figure out what makes him tick, eh? He always liked ice cream. Sweets in general. I remember on our last mission, when we went to Poland – we were supposed to kill Walesa, but the authorities got cold feet; it was always like that in the 80s, and that’s why you grew up in this shithole Russia instead of socialism – ”

“Files, Andrei Nikolaevich. Not all this rot about how things were better in the old days.”

Andrei Nikolaevich settled back in his chair. The fake leather squeaked. “Natka, you know I don’t have access to that sort of thing,” he said. “If that’s what you want, let’s see. You’d better talk to Yelena.”

Natasha was silent.

“She tried to kill you last time you met, didn’t she?” Andrei Nikolaevich said. Enjoying himself hugely, the rat bastard. She shouldn’t have cut short his reminiscences. Natasha unstuck her hands from around the teacup and set it on a perilous stack of newspapers.

Andrei Nikolaevich nibbled on a shortbread cookie. “She’s probably over the fact that you abandoned her by now.”

“You don’t get to talk to me about abandonment,” Natasha snapped.

Andrei Nikolaevich didn’t reply. His eyes grew soft, and Natasha saw that he was going to apologize, and she leaned forward and said sharply, “Yelena, then. Where is she these days?”

“Kiev, last I heard.”

“Thank you.” She stood.

He stood too. “Won’t you finish your tea?”

“I’m very busy, Andrei Nikolaevich. I don’t know if you heard, but my agency just fell to pieces.”

“At least have a cookie,” he said. “Have a cookie, Natasha, you’re too thin.”

“I can’t, Andrei Nikolaevich, I have to go.”

“At least take one with you,” he said. “Take it for the road. In case you get hungry.”

She wrapped a cookie in a napkin and put it in her purse. “Thank you, Andrei Nikolaevich,” she said formally, standing. “You’ve been very helpful.”

He stood too. He had shrunk with age. They were the same height now. “You were always my favorite assassin,” he told her. “Not the Winter Soldier.”

“Liar,” she told him. And: “Liar, liar, liar, liar,” she said, as she walked down the graffiti-covered stairs of Andrei Nikolaevich’s crumbling Khrushchyovka apartment building. Like she cared who was his favorite. “Liar,” she told herself, and let the door swing shut behind her, and rolled her shoulders as she stood in the sunshine.

Then she began to walk. Now to tackle Yelena.

Chapter Text

“I’m starting the fire,” Bucky announced. His raincoat hit the flagstone floor before Steve had even closed the door.

Steve picked it up and hung it on the ancient coat tree. Normally he might have said something about taking care of one’s own things, but today he didn’t argue. Sharon promised to ask the cottage caretaker to stop by the cottage to stock it and turn up the heat, but with English ideas about heating, that just meant that the cottage was chilly instead of ice cold. Not a cheery welcome after a long day hiking through the gray February drizzle.

The caretaker had left a wonderfully inviting array of tea things in the kitchen, though. Steve set the electric kettle to boil, ripped open a tin of shortbread, and thrust shortbread in his mouth with one hand as he grabbed up a sleeve of chocolate-covered digestives for Bucky with the other.

Bucky knelt on the floor by the fireplace, adjusting the newspaper on the logs. “Food,” Steve announced, spraying shortbread crumbs and tossed the biscuits underhand. Bucky caught them in his metal hand without looking, ripped them open, and stuffed two in his mouth.

“Tea?” Bucky asked, his mouth full.

“Working on it. Fire?”

Bucky, still bent over the logs, swatted a hand on Steve. Steve went back into the kitchen.

He came out only a few minutes later with two steaming mugs and more biscuit packets precariously balanced in the crooks of his elbows. Now the fire crackled, a bright and cheerful blaze, and Steve spared a moment to wish they had marshmallows to roast. Or perhaps crumpets. It was crumpets that the English toasted on an open fire, wasn’t it?

Bucky sat on the floor, his back against the couch, his feet stretched out toward the rollicking blaze. He had changed into dry socks, and wiggled his toes with pleasure.

“Tea?” Steve said.

“Yes.”

“More biscuits?”

“All of them.”

Steve dropped an entire packet of jammy dodgers in Bucky’s lap. He sat down too, on the couch rather than the floor, his knee against Bucky’s shoulder. Bucky had worn a stocking cap that day and it had left his hair rumpled. Steve wanted to smooth it, but when he reached toward it Bucky knocked his hand away without even needing to look at him. “Steve,” he reproved, and ripped open the packet of jammy dodgers, “I’m eating.”

Steve subsided onto the couch and ate some shortbread. He watched in amused amazement as Bucky gulped down the boiling hot tea and wolfed down the jammy dodgers as if they hadn’t eaten since they’d arrived in England.

But soon the package and the mug were both empty, and Bucky set them aside. He sighed, very softly, and scooted closer to Steve, and tilted his head to rest his cheek against Steve’s knee. The fire crackled softly.

Steve rested a hand on Bucky’s head. Then he drew his fingers softly through Bucky’s hair, moving slowly so he wouldn’t pull. Bucky’s hair was warm and dry on top, where it had been protected by the cap, and damp at the tangled ends, where the drizzle and the wind had gotten to it.

Bucky’s arm crept around Steve’s calf, his right hand wrapping lightly around Steve’s ankle, holding fast. Steve’s hand paused at the ends of Bucky’s hair, his fingertips resting so lightly on his thick Shetland sweater that he couldn’t feel the hard metal underneath, and then he lifted his hand to the top of Bucky’s head again.

Bucky’s soft straight hair never tangled badly, and Steve soon had it smooth. But he continued to stroke Bucky’s hair with those long, slow strokes, as the fire crackled softly, and the gray rain dripped down outside. Bucky rubbed his face against Steve’s knee, and then subsided into stillness again.

Steve’s hand and his eyelids began to feel heavy in the soporific warmth. He took a drink of his tea (lukewarm now), which was supposed to have caffeine, wasn’t it, supposed to perk him up? But perhaps he had drifted beyond the point of no return, because the warm liquid just made him drowsier.

“Steve,” said Bucky. His voice was much softer than usual. Steve roused himself, looking down at him, and Bucky tilted his head back and smiled up at Steve, catching his eyes.

The firelight caught on his exposed throat with a warm golden light. Steve wanted to touch it, and the wish turned into action before he could stop and think: he slid his hand down through Bucky’s hair to the nape of his neck, and then curved his hand around to stroke Bucky’s throat.

Bucky sucked in his breath, his chest hollowing out, but he didn’t pull away. The skin on his throat was warm and soft, much softer than his rough weapon-callused hands, and the contrast gave Steve a sweet tender feeling so intense that it looped back around almost to sadness.

Bucky’s lips had parted, just slightly. He was still looking into Steve’s eyes, his own eyes big and dark in the firelight, and suddenly the intimacy of that gaze was more than Steve could stand. He let go of Bucky’s throat. Bucky’s hand tightened briefly on Steve’s ankle, and then he let go. Steve slid off the couch and settled on the floor beside Bucky, and pressed his forehead into Bucky’s shoulder. The rain fell softly outside. A log popped in the fire.

Bucky kissed the top of Steve’s head. Steve lifted his face to catch Bucky’s next kiss on his lips, open-mouthed, sleepy, wrapping his arms loosely around Bucky’s shoulders; and Bucky put his own arm around Steve, warm and steady. He kissed Steve again, the corner of his mouth, his cheek, his ear, and murmured, “Happy Valentine’s Day, punk.”