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Project Phoenix

Chapter Text

She stood to attention. Back straight, chin up, eyes forward.

Drip, drip, drip, from a gash in her arm and trickling down her wrist, the back of her hand and the knife she was still gripping tight; thick red fluid pooled on the cement floor beneath her but she stayed as she was. Back straight, chin up, eyes forward.

One of her handlers, name not important, surveyed her handiwork, and a swift nod was all the dismissal she was going to get; she snapped her heels, one-hand salute smearing her forehead crimson. But that was par for the course, and she knew that no reprimand would be given.

She turned and walked out of the room, falling easily into the casual step of the unaffected. She did not bother to glance back at the body; she did not need to, never needed to. Her job here was finished.

All her life she had moved from one target to the next, on and on and on, back straight, chin up, eyes forward. She'd moved swiftly and fluidly, dropping body after body, hands stained crimson at the end of every mission but always pure and clean by the time a new day dawned.

She never asked questions. She'd never learned how.

She'd watched, from afar, as people around her laughed and cried; as they displayed anger and heartache and fear and joy, emotions beyond her comprehension. Nearing adulthood now, she knew how and why people behaved the way they did, but none of it meant anything to her. She understood human emotion only as a means of anticipating her targets' moves.

The perfect soldier, they sometimes called her, when she had been particularly efficient. But the sentiment meant nothing to her. She only ever did as she was told.

“Your next mission is ready,” they informed her, once she was back inside the compound, having gone straight to the briefing room as she always did, before even washing the blood off her hands. The wound on her arm had long since stopped bleeding.

One of the men in her unit stepped forward and produced a pile of still photos, laying them before her one by one, and she let her eyes slowly trace each face, feeling a spark of recognition every time. The millionaire, the shadow, the spider, the shield...

She looked up at one of the men, whichever one was nearest to her, allowing the vaguest hint of confusion to show on her face.

Her handlers had tasked her with killing the Avengers.

It was a suicide mission. This, in itself, did not bother her – nothing bothered her – but she needed to make sure that this was the outcome her handlers intended.

The man gazed back at her blankly, his face a mask, but she had learned to look through masks long ago. And she knew, just from looking at his face, that she didn't have to voice her question and risk a reprimand for insubordination. She cast her eyes down to survey the pictures once more.

She knew, like she knew most things, that Hydra was falling apart. They were losing assets and allies. Their control of SHIELD was slipping.

This truly was not a mission they expected her to return from. Best case scenario, she calculated, she would take out three or four of their enemies before she was neutralised herself. But at this point, three dead Avengers was a reasonable trade for Hydra's perfect soldier. Hydra was adapting to a new reality, the reality that Natasha Romanoff had created when she'd exposed them to the world. And it was willing to bury its past to secure its future legacy.

She was part of Hydra's past. She needed to be buried.

She nodded once, to indicate that she understood the full implications of what was to be her final mission.

“Watch out for that one,” one of the men told her, stepping forward and placing one outstretched finger on the very edge of Captain America's photograph, as though even touching his likeness repulsed him. “He'll be able to predict your moves.”

She nodded again. She knew he would, as she knew most things.

Steven Grant Rogers, she silently recited as her eyes lingered on the stoic, proud face of America's iconic hero. A series of images she'd been made to memorise materialised in front of her mind's eye, a life in still pictures. A wealth of facts, some useful, most not. She knew who he was. She knew what he was. It meant nothing; he was her mission.

“Do you accept your mission?” a third man spoke, stepping out of the shadows. This was part of the protocol: she must acknowledge she had fully understood and committed to her task. It was a formality (she could not actually refuse an order), but necessary before she could proceed.

She opened her mouth to respond. And that was when the first bomb fell.

She could smell the blood and guts long before she dropped down into the barracks.

Everyone at her briefing had died instantly. She had not, of course. It took more than a bomb to kill her.

The barracks was one of the few spots that had not been wrecked apart by explosives, but clearly, SHIELD – because that was who must be behind this attack – had already come through here, as evidenced by the bloody and broken bodies littering the room.

They were clean shots, she noted; the bodies were mostly undamaged, apart from well-placed gunshot wounds. It was honourable work, done with no intent to cause suffering. SHIELD had clearly sent their best men for this mission, which could only mean one thing: the Avengers were here. Based on their ruthless style of attack, she deduced that their objective must be to wipe out the compound, taking no prisoners. Just as she, in turn, was set to wipe out the Avengers.

That was the good thing about war, she mused, as she methodically checked the bodies of her comrades, looking for survivors: everyone was playing by the same rules.

It was easier like this, fighting on an even playing field, as opposed to when you were sent after someone who begged for their life. It didn't matter to her whether or not they begged, not exactly, but... yes, she decided. This was easier.

A light flickered overhead. The room was deadly silent, as lower-level Hydra agents and technicians lay in pools of their own blood, some still in their beds where they'd slept. No sign of movement anywhere.

This was a problem.

Her handlers had tasked her with killing the Avengers, but she had not had a chance to accept her mission before the attack started. Protocol dictated that if she could not accept her mission, she could not carry it out. And if she could not carry it out, she had no business lingering here; usually, in the case of an attack which might put her life in unnecessary danger, she was to seek refuge at one of Hydra's safe houses. Protect the asset: that order would always override anything else she had been told, unless express command had been given. She was very valuable to her superiors. Or at least she had been.

A gasp, followed by a stuttering wheeze, caught her attention. Someone was alive, after all.

She turned to locate the source of the noise, and found, to her mild surprise, one of her handlers: he was sitting propped up against the far wall, half-hidden from view by an overturned table, a deep, bloody gash running from his hip to his neck. A blade, she determined. Or a shield.

She estimated that the man had minutes, at most, but that was more than enough time for him to complete her mission brief.

He was one of the younger ones. Cropped black hair, an unremarkable face, an old scar running up his temple from his eyebrow and splitting his hairline. He was hardly much older than she was, and she had seen him go through training right on this very compound. Every once in a while, she had noticed him watching her.

Now, he was bleeding out on the floor, and she crouched down in front of him, one hand reaching out to touch his shoulder.

“There is nothing I can do for you,” she told him, making an effort to soften her voice for his benefit. His eyes were closed, but she could tell from his breathing pattern that he was still conscious.

She had no obligation to him. He had recently been promoted to her team of handlers, and as such she was to mind his instructions, but not otherwise engage.

But he was dying. She estimated that this small courtesy of kindness would be a permissible indiscretion.

He opened his eyes blearily, and she waited as his eyes found their focus, and he recognised her face.

“It's you,” he breathed, but offered no context for his redundant observation. She remained patient, reminding herself that he had not been trained like she'd been trained. He was liable to make irrelevant statements in inappropriate situations, as most normal humans were.

“You are dying,” she told him, because she could not think of a way to break it to him more gently.

He chuckled. She waited out the nonsensical reaction; she knew some people became sentimental in the face of death, and would respond to simple statements with bursts of emotion.

As he gathered himself, she considered the young man in front of her. Since completing his training and being promoted to asset handler, he had personally sent her to kill dozens of people, and had himself gunned down enemies and civilians alike as a willing servant of Hydra. She did not feel sorry for him now. But she did not wish for him to suffer, either.

“Yes,” he said at last, slurring his words. “It appears I am.”

A round of gunfire sounded, not too far away.

“They're coming back around,” she prompted, in case he had forgotten that they were under attack. “I need you to give me the go-ahead to commence my mission.”

She would not normally make such a bold request. She would not need to. But SHIELD had been efficient, and this compound now contained the body of every single Hydra agent left who had known about her existence. There was no one to authorise her mission but him, and he was fading fast.

The idea suddenly occurred to her that this man might be the last person alive with the authority to give her an order. She frowned slightly, the ghost of uncertainty forming in her mind.

Somewhere close by, a man shouted in English, his accent American. She tightened her grip on her handler's shoulder incrementally. “My mission is to kill the Avengers,” she clarified, in case he hadn't been notified.

He was losing focus again. His nonsensical smile was back.

“I know what they are to you,” he said, like it meant something.

“Yes,” she said placidly; she knew it, too, and it was of no consequence. He was wasting time. “Do I have your permission to eliminate the targets?”

One or more of the Avengers were here, in this facility. If they attacked her, she was expected to protect herself, to fight back in whatever way necessary for her survival. But if her handler wanted her to go on the offensive and specifically target Hydra's most high-profile enemies, she needed the instruction. She could not initiate an independent mission without explicit consent.

When he tried to laugh, his breath rattled wetly in his throat, and there was blood on his lips when he croaked, “No. No, don't do that. I think maybe this...” He glanced around the room, eyes already glazing over again. “I think maybe this is your chance, Solnyshko.”

She blinked at him, momentarily thrown by the term of endearment. Little sun? she thought, nonplussed. He'd called her that before, a few times, when he'd first been transferred to the covert Hydra branch overseeing her operations. She had ignored it then, on the basis of it being inconsequential, and he had eventually stopped speaking to her altogether, unless giving a direct order. “I don't copy, sir,” she stated frankly.

He wasn't smiling anymore, and she heard thundering footsteps right outside the barracks. She waited. There was no protocol for this.

He coughed, and whispered, “Go... to them.”

She watched the dying man closely, trying to make sense of his words.

“To complete the mission?” She asked, needing confirmation. She never did anything without clear instruction. It occurred to her that she wasn't sure she could.

He coughed again, and looked sad now, which seemed like a more appropriate expression on a man who was about to die.

“From this point, you no longer have a mission." He spoke the words almost gently, like it was she, rather than him, who was dying.

The lights flickered and went out, leaving her and her handler in total darkness. She listened for approaching enemies, and realised she could no longer hear the man's wet, rattling breath.

She hesitated only for a second, torn in something she couldn't identify as indecision, before rising swiftly and jumping for the ceiling, hands closing around the vent and pulling herself up, simultaneously pulling down the graft and swinging herself through the opening, crawling along the familiar system of pipes, fleeing the facilities in less than a minute flat, without encountering a single enemy.

She emerged a few clicks beyond the perimeter fence and ran towards the mountain without looking back, running uphill for three miles straight before she slowed, turning and gazing down to where the Hydra base was still burning far below her, the fire lighting up the dark sky, the thick smoke obliterating her view of the stars above.

As the flames rose up and the closest thing to home she'd ever known was destroyed, she allowed herself one small, rare moment of reflection.

Until yesterday, her life had been an endless string of missions. She'd never been programmed or conditioned; they'd never had to control her by force. She had been born and bred for one purpose only, allowed no human emotion but what she needed to understand her targets' motivations and behavioural patterns. She had developed no instincts to revolt, no desires that might have compromised her obedience.

She was nothing but a soldier. She did nothing but what she was told.

And now it was all gone. All of it, everything that had given her purpose. And she was nothing without purpose.

But perhaps there was something there, after all: not something conscious, not an awakening inclination or passion, but simply a spark, just enough to keep her from lying down right there on the mountain and waiting for death, like a dog that had lost its master.

She had no mission now. She had no handlers. What was left of Hydra was unaware of her existence, and there was no protocol for re-establishing herself with a new group of Hydra agents. She was alone – she was, as hard as the concept was for her to comprehend, unattached.

There began to form the beginnings of new thoughts in her head, the inklings of new possibilities, as she held the odd realisation that, for the first time in her life, she had something almost incomprehensible to her: she had a choice.

Her dying handler had told her, Go to them. She knew who he'd meant, of course. But she didn't know why he'd said it.

If not to kill them, why would she go? What would it accomplish?

She thought of the young handler, and how he'd always treated her a little bit differently from how the others had treated her. She had never reacted to his smiles or his erratic specks of kindness, as it had made no difference to her missions and she'd had no need for distractions. But if his final request had been for her to seek out the two men, then maybe... maybe his reasons had been valid, if unnecessarily sentimental. Maybe he was trying to guide her in the right direction, one last time.

After all, maybe he understood the one thing which she had never quite been able to acknowledge, even in her own mind: that these men held the answer to the only question she had ever had.

In the glow of the raging fire, she could see two figures running away from the compound, rushing towards a large airborne transport vessel, and she knew instantly, instinctively, that it was them. Go to them.

She stayed perfectly still, watching them enter the vessel, then watched as it lifted, tilted, and sped upwards, flying right over her head, whipping her long blonde hair up around her face. She turned to follow it with her eyes, tracking it as it disappeared over the mountain and into the distance.

Want was a concept so far removed from her reality, she wasn't sure she truly knew what it felt like. She had nothing to pull her in any particular direction, towards any particular thing. But she was pretty sure she did seek knowledge: she had always soaked it up like a sponge, needing facts like normal people needed the touch of their loved ones.

She took a step, then another, wondering if this was what it felt like to make a choice.

It was a long way from the deep forests of Kronotsky to New York City. Maybe, along the way, she'd figure out what to say to the two men she would not have hesitated to kill in Hydra's name. The two men whose blood ran through her veins.

Chapter Text

Punch. Block. Sweep. Parry. Sweat on his brow, hand swiftly wiping it away. It was an opening he hadn't intended, and in the next instant he was on his back, wind knocked out of him, his opponent's knees on his chest, pinning him to the ground.

He smiled.

“Uncle,” he wheezed, and the pressure let up; Steve watched Bucky's muscled thighs shift above him and forced his eyes to track up his body, without lingering, to meet the other man's gaze.

Bucky's pupils were dilated and he was breathing heavily as he looked down at Steve, mouth slightly open, sweat glistening on his temple. He moved to push his hair back before seeming to realise it was no longer there: after their last mission he had finally, grumblingly, agreed to let Steve cut it short like it used to be, once upon a time. For convenience, Steve had claimed. They both knew he was lying.

Steve was glad he'd just had his ass so thoroughly kicked, or Bucky might have wondered why Steve's heart was beating faster than usual, why his cheeks were just a shade more red than they should be. As it was, he could just play up his fatigue, leaning his head back against the sticky gym floor, content to watch as Bucky got his own breathing under control (much too quickly for Steve's liking), and pushed himself off with an apologetic half-smile.

A breath later, Steve accepted Bucky's outstretched hand, and allowed himself to be hauled to his feet.

“Good fight,” Bucky said, patting him on the back in what Steve was sure was meant to be a consolatory gesture. Steve rolled his eyes.

“Gee, coming from the guy who just wiped the floor with me, that really means a lot." He straightened up, trying not to wince. “Even if I would've got the other hand if not for that last sneak attack. Way to play dirty, Buck.”

Bucky raised an eyebrow. “Sometimes they do that.” His tone was light, but Steve understood the gravity of his words, and nodded solemnly: message received. That last Hydra raid in Russia had been a close call.

“I know,” Steve nodded. “That's why we're doing this.”

Of course, it had taken them a long time to get to this. But after months of rediscovering their friendship, of learning to trust each other and figuring out how to be around each other again, they'd had to face the fact (with more than a little nagging from Natasha) that their mutual instinct to protect the other's life at all costs would end up getting them both killed. So they'd taken to sparring, every chance they got, keeping each other sharp between missions.

And of course it didn't hurt that having Bucky back in his life had given Steve a brand new perspective on the 21st century. He was finally beginning to feel like maybe he wasn't a ghost picked out of time, forced to wander the world alone – now, at the very least, he had someone to wander it with. And, yeah, maybe that did make him take a bit more care of his own life - at least he'd think twice before jumping out of an airplane without a parachute next time.

He suspected that Bucky felt the same way, somewhere underneath all of his self-imposed stoicism (which, Steve had to allow, wasn't all Hydra's doing).

“Lunch?” Bucky asked, and Steve smiled, turning to follow Bucky as he climbed out of the ring they'd been using for practice. It was good, Bucky asking for things. Even though months had passed since he'd broken through his Winter Soldier programming, he was still re-learning how to take initiative and make suggestions – and, most importantly, to let Steve know what he did and didn't want.

For a long time, Bucky had hated himself. Hated that he existed, and hated Steve's attention and affection, claiming that he didn't deserve any of it and threatening to leave every other minute.

Despite his terror that Bucky might follow through on his threats, Steve had patiently waited him out, offering reassurances and promises and support, all the while doing his very best to give Bucky space, to make sure Bucky didn't realise just how bone-crushingly dependent Steve was (and always had been) on having his best friend back in his life, no matter what said best friend might have done under Hydra's control.

None of it mattered, he'd told Bucky, over and over and over again. Steve wasn't waiting, he wasn't hoping for the old Bucky to return. All he wanted was for Bucky to be himself – whatever that self might turn out to be.

And slowly, grudgingly, Bucky had begun to believe him. Or, at least, he seemed to be humouring Steve enough to actually stick around, and slowly allow Steve to get to know the new Bucky: the one who was part Steve's best and oldest friend, part Winter Soldier, and part something else, which Steve didn't yet fully comprehend. It didn't matter; Bucky was still Bucky, and Steve was as patient as he ever had been where Bucky was concerned. He expected nothing. Wanted nothing.

Well... nothing that he hadn't learned to live without a long time ago, anyway.

Right now, Bucky and Steve's lives were as close to normal as they were ever likely to be: they lived in Stark Tower, they shared a floor, fought side-by-side with the Avengers, learned about the modern world, and were slowly settling into a tentative but welcome routine.

In retrospect, Steve should've known that it'd only be a matter of time before another metaphorical volcano erupted over the Pompeii otherwise known as their lives.

It was Maria Hill who got to them first. Rather than calling ahead, as she usually did before dropping by with updates from SHIELD, she came straight to their front door, knocking three times in rapid succession. Steve jumped up from his seat by the kitchen island to let her in, and he didn't even notice Bucky's hand sneak into the kitchen drawer before he turned back to allow Maria to enter, and saw that Bucky had two giant steak knives in his hands, ready to launch them at any potential threat.

“Whoa, Buck,” Steve exclaimed, stepping in front of Maria instinctively and raising his hands in the air. He knew that, even at the height of his paranoia, Bucky would never throw the knives if there was any risk of hitting Steve.

Bucky lowered the knives sheepishly when he saw Maria, who peered out from behind Steve's shoulder. When she saw him she just snorted and rolled her eyes, pushing past Steve into the apartment.

“Glad to see you're staying sharp, Barnes,” she quipped without breaking stride, walking through the kitchen into the adjoining living room. Bucky and Steve moved to follow, Bucky shooting Steve an apologetic look which Steve dismissed with a small smile and a shake of his head. Bucky wanting to protect himself (and Steve) would never be a bad thing in Steve's book.

Maria spun round to face them, crossing her arms in front of her chest, the amusement already fading from her eyes. Only then did Steve notice how pale she looked.

“Maria, what's happened?” He asked urgently, fearing the worst. It must be really bad for her to come directly to them, rather than simply sending them off on some mission, or having JARVIS summon them to her. “Is Fury--”

“The Director is fine." Maria's voice was reassuring, though a crease between her eyebrows betrayed her composure. “This is... something else.”

Bucky and Steve glanced at each other, nonplussed. “You gonna share, or should we guess?” Steve asked. It wasn't like Maria to beat around the bush.

To his surprise, Maria let out a short, oddly hysterical laugh. She was definitely not acting normal, Steve decided. “Yeah... you're definitely never gonna guess this one, Captain."

Just then, Tony and Natasha barged through the door; Bucky jumped in alarm, moving instinctively closer to Steve, but Steve was relieved to see that he refrained from reaching for any sharp objects this time.

“Did we miss it? Has she told you yet?” Tony looked out of breath, and, bizarrely, seemed to be trying to push ahead of Natasha, eyes shining with pure mirth as they landed on Bucky and Steve.

Next to him, Natasha rolled her eyes.

“Told us what?” Steve asked, feeling increasingly unnerved by this whole thing. Bucky, evidently reassured that there was no immediate danger, just looked vaguely amused at Tony's bouncy enthusiasm.

“Can I? Oh, can I please?” Tony begged; Maria shot him a look so contemptuous, Steve might have laughed if he hadn't been so disconcerted.

Clearly deciding that ignoring Tony was the best course of action, Maria cleared her throat to get Bucky and Steve's attention again. “We had a walk-in this morning. A... Hydra agent." Her frown deepened.

Bucky stiffened, as he always did whenever the word Hydra was sprung on him without warning. Steve really hoped they had a good reason for this... whatever this was.

“And?” Steve prompted, when no one elaborated. For some reason, Maria seemed very uncomfortable about all of this, like she really didn't want to be relaying this information.

“It's a girl. Seventeen, by the looks of her. She claimed... some things. Impossible things. At the outset. But we did some tests. She was very cooperative.” Maria shook her head, as though she still couldn't quite believe it. “She just walked in here, put herself at our mercy. She had no demands, no caveats at all, in fact, except... she wants to see you. Both of you.”

“Uh. Okay?” Steve said, still waiting for someone to tell him why, exactly, this was worthy of the show they were putting on.

Stark, clearly, couldn't contain himself any longer because he giggled, clapping his hands together. “Oh, but it gets better,” he said, grinning from ear to ear. “Tell them, Maria, or I swear I'm gonna.”

Maria pursed her lips at Tony. She looked grave, an expression which seemed totally inappropriate for the occasion. But then she sighed, meeting Steve's eyes and looking almost pitying.

“The thing is... she says she's your daughter.”

Steve gaped.

“My-- but that's--” he started, completely thunderstruck. But after a beat, his blind panic gave way to reality. “Wait. That's literally impossible,” he blurted, then immediately wished he hadn't, when every pair of eyes in the room turned to him, filled with various shades of surprise. Steve reddened. “I mean, er...”

“He means that the girl's obviously lyin'. Having a daughter would require Steve to actually get horizontal with someone,” Bucky supplied helpfully, trying and failing to suppress a smirk. Steve's blush deepened, and he found himself wishing for the good old pre-Hydra days, where he would've been allowed to smack Bucky round the head without needing to feel bad about it (or fear for his life).

"Actually, I meant cause I've been stuck the ice for half a century, but thanks for that," Steve mumbled. Bucky snorted.

But nobody else was laughing. Maria still looked like she was about to tell them that somebody had died, Natasha was looking uncharacteristically uncomfortable, and Tony just had that same stupid grin on his face he'd had since barging into their apartment.

“Not to challenge your obvious authority on getting horizontal with Steve,” Tony smirked, ignoring Steve's splutter and Bucky's eye-roll, “but your methods are a bit last century there, tin soldier. Plenty of ways to have a kid these days without getting carnal. But hey, don't let me derail the conversation, because that is so not even the best part of all this.”

“Stark,” Maria warned, but he clearly wasn't about to be upstaged, because he hurried on before he could be shut down.

“This girl isn't claiming to be Steve's daughter,” Tony proclaimed triumphantly. “She's saying she's both of yours.”

Stark!” Maria exclaimed angrily. But the damage was done.

Steve blinked, waiting for the punchline. None came: everyone was watching him now, warily. Even Tony began to lose some of his initial glee as the silence stretched.

Bucky coughed. "Been a long time since I met a Hydra agent with a sense of humour," he said, but he, too, looked uncertainly around at the stoic faces of their friends.

"You're not actually taking this seriously," Steve tried, eyes on Natasha now. Stark might try to pull something like this, and Maria, well, he hardly knew her. But not Nat. They'd been through too much together for her to make him the butt of her joke, at least he'd thought so.

But she remained as tight-lipped and pale as she had been since coming into their apartment. When Steve caught and held her gaze, she nodded once, as though sealing his fate.

"There's... substantial evidence. And we know what they're capable of, Steve," Natasha said softly.

Steve and Bucky turned, as one, to look at each other. Under any other circumstances, the look on Bucky's face would have been priceless. Right now though, it didn't seem funny at all, because Steve was pretty sure Bucky's expression of disbelief was mirrored on his own face.

“I...” he started to say, then fell silent.

He wanted to laugh; he wanted to tell them this was absurd, completely out of the realm of possibility. Instead, he could only think: Oh god.

Because for all he knew, for all he'd seen of the future, it could be true. Look at how many impossible things have turned out to be possible, Steve thought, stomach sinking. Look at how many nightmares have come to life.

But it couldn't be true, Steve told himself as he looked into Bucky's disbelieving eyes. Him and Bucky. A child. Their child.

"That's impossible," he said out loud, and it sounded like a plea to his own ears. "Isn't it?"

Maria glanced at Tony as though worried he'd make it worse, but he seemed too busy enjoying Steve and Bucky's reaction to stir the pot further. “No, you're right,” she said. “It is impossible, even by today's standards. At least, it should be. But as I said, we've done some tests. Blood work, tissue samples. And, well...” she cleared her throat awkwardly, and mumbled, “the term we're going with is DNA composite.”

For the first time since Steve had met her, Maria looked nothing like the kickass agent he knew her to be. She looked more like she wanted to melt into the floor and disappear.

Steve stared at her. He couldn't quite seem to wrap his head around her words. Some part of him was still expecting this to all be some kind of trick, but one look at Maria's face told him that it was not a joke. Natasha was watching him carefully, sympathy in every line of her features. Tony looked like this was the best day of his life.

“DNA composite,” Steve parroted weakly, the words ringing in his ears. “Right.”

Bucky said nothing at all.

“Look...” Maria's eyes moved from Steve to Bucky, frown deepening. Her expression was one of grim resignation now, like the act of telling Steve and Bucky had finally made it real. “I think you need to go down and take a look yourselves before we discuss this any further.” 

In the two dozen seconds it had taken for them to get from the apartment to the elevator, Steve had come to a new conclusion: it was a trick. An evil Hydra trick. It had to be. The fact that Maria, Natasha and Tony had all fallen for it just showed that SHIELD was at a major disadvantage right now. The girl was lying. They were walking into a trap. There was no way – there was no way.

“But... how would it even work?” he found himself asking the elevator at large as they rode down; he was crammed between Bucky and Tony, feeling claustrophobic: Bucky's stony silence radiated off him in waves, while Tony was exuberant in his enthusiasm, making Steve feel even more unsettled than he already did.

“It's not usually done, but certainly not impossible,” Tony chirped, talking his usual mile-a-minute as he bounced on the balls of his feet, way too excited about all of this and pushing Steve closer to Bucky with every bounce. “Most of Hydra's many heads are stuck in the stone age, of course, but a few of them? Lightyears ahead of their time. And this kinda thing, I mean, all research suggests it'll be available to mere mortals within the next twenty years. Two men wanna have a baby? Boom. Done. Not that complicated if you know what you're doing.”

“But that doesn't mean this...” Steve's head was spinning, the words men and baby ringing in his ears – that was a whole other can of worms. “I mean, how could they have... they couldn't have...”

He tried to catch Bucky's eye, but Bucky was looking resolutely down at the floor, expression as neutral as he could make it. He was furious, probably. Disbelieving. Horrified. Just when he'd thought Hydra couldn't possibly violate him any more than they already had, it turned out there might have been one more way to break him.

Steve turned to Maria, imploring. “What are the odds that this is real? That it's not some kind of... fake-out? Is there any chance this girl is making it all up, or that the bloodwork isn't accurate?”

His heart was pounding faster and faster, the closer they got to the Containment floor. Your daughter, it whispered. Your daughter. For a wild moment, he honestly wasn't sure how he wanted Maria to respond.

Maria still looked like she wanted to be anywhere but here, and she sighed heavily before answering him. “The results are pretty definite, Steve,” she said at last, sounding tired, like she'd already asked all those questions herself. “There's always room for error, but...” she looked between Steve and Bucky for a moment, jaw tight, resigned now. “Well, I guess you'll just have to see the evidence for yourself.”

And as they walked through the doors into the observation room, looking through a wall-sized, two-way mirror at the tall, slender young woman standing to attention, Steve understood what she'd meant.

DNA tests and bloodwork were one thing. But looking at this girl, with her straw-coloured hair and stubborn chin, her wide-set, deep blue eyes...

He knew it was true.

Chapter Text

There was complete silence as Steve, Bucky, Maria, Tony and Natasha all stood staring at the girl behind the glass, each lost in their own quiet revelation as their minds worked through the full implications of what they were seeing.

Despite himself, despite his soldier training and strategic mind; despite the cold, detached part of his brain telling him that something as arbitrary as genetics shouldn't matter, Steve couldn't help himself. He stared, and stared, and stared like a blind man who had gained the power of sight, at this girl who could be nothing but his daughter. Bucky's daughter. Their daughter.

No. Not daughter, Steve tried to tell himself. DNA composite, Maria had called it. But the clinical description did nothing to quell the pounding of his heart, the almost physical pull he felt towards the girl.

She stood completely still, back straight, eyes forward, facing the glass and, presumably, her own reflection. She had not reacted to their entrance, but that didn't mean she didn't know they were there.

Steve knew it was only a matter of time until someone broke the silence, and he had a million questions. Was she dangerous? Hostile? She must be, she was Hydra. The mission hadn't changed. Family was a construct. He had to keep his head in the game, and he would.

But, just for a moment, Steve allowed himself to just look, to take in this mirage in front of him, letting himself believe that this was an impossible dream he wasn't quite ready to wake up from.

Despite her being barely ten years Steve's junior, he thought the girl looked very young. A child, wearing the expression of a hardened soldier. She was tall, about Bucky's height, maybe a little shorter. She was fair-skinned, with hair the same colour as Steve's: not quite blonde but not dark, either. (Steve's Irish and decidedly unpoetic mother had once described it as the colour of unwashed potatoes.) Aside from her hair, she looked to Steve a lot like Bucky: big, expressive eyes and a straight nose, a full mouth that looked like it could produce a wicked smile (if she ever did smile, Steve thought, stomach sinking). The chin was Steve's, and maybe, if he saw her make certain expressions...

His train of thought was rudely interrupted by Tony, because of course it was.

“I'm just gonna throw this out there, um, is it wrong if I think she's kinda--”

“Whatever you're about to say, Stark,” Natasha interrupted in a low voice, speaking for the first time since this whole mess had started, “it is most definitely going to be wrong.”

To his credit, Tony shut up after that.

Steve tore his eyes away from the girl to look at Bucky, wishing for the hundredth time that he knew what was going on behind that mask.

Bucky looked calm and unaffected, which was a sure sign that his emotions were raging wild; only when he was most at ease was he able to express his feelings openly.

Wanting to give Bucky time to process all of this (Steve wasn't sure he'd even processed it himself, but at least if Captain America had a meltdown, Stark Tower wouldn't end up burned to the ground), Steve turned to Maria, who had been watching Bucky with a similarly worried expression.

“Okay. Say it is true,” Steve allowed – even though it clearly was – “what's the play? Why is she here? Why now? What does she want?”

His heart was screaming at him, but he ignored it. He'd become pretty good at that. Do not get sentimental, he told himself, even though a part of him wanted to break down the glass and get the girl out of there, or at least tell her she didn't have to stand so rigidly to attention like that anymore.

Maria sighed, looking tired. “That's the thing, Steve. We have no idea. As I said, she just walked in here. She had no demands, no agenda that we know of. She isn't armed, she isn't laced with explosives, she came willingly when we told her we'd have to contain her. She seems to want nothing. Well, that is...” she hesitated, glancing at Bucky again.

“What?” Steve asked, not sure if he was wary or hopeful.

She pursed her lips. “She told us who she was. Told us she was... yours. And she said she was here to see you.”

Steve blinked. “Just like that?”

“Just like that,” Maria affirmed, clearly knowing as well as Steve did just how little sense this made. Whatever this girl was, a Hydra agent did not just hand themselves over to SHIELD with no agenda.

“Which obviously means there's some much more sinister master plan, because our lives are just not this easy,” Tony supplied unnecessarily.

“Well...” Steve turned to Bucky with a questioning look on his face, but Bucky was staring at the girl with that same unreadable, shuttered expression he'd worn before. “If she wants to see us, let her," Steve said, hoping that Bucky was okay with him speaking for both of them. Bucky'd gotten pretty good at telling Steve no when he was overstepping his bounds, but this was different. This was something they couldn't possibly have prepared themselves for.

“If that's okay with both of you,” Maria said, with a pointed look at Bucky, clearly thinking along the same lines as Steve.

Bucky continued to stare blankly in the direction of the mirror for a few moments before he seemed to realise that they were all waiting for his response.

His eyes flickered around the room before landing on Steve. He held his gaze for a long time, and for the first time in weeks, Steve had no idea what he was thinking. Then Bucky broke eye contact, turned to Maria, and nodded once.

Maria returned his nod, and glanced at Stark, who called, “JARVIS?”

At your command, sir,” the voice in the ceiling responded.

“Untint the mirror, please?”

Certainly, sir.

A whirring noise was the only indication that something had changed. The girl remained standing stock still, staring straight ahead, showing no sign of suddenly being able to see them. This told Steve that she'd definitely been able to hear them, or sense them in some way, even through the would-be soundproof glass.

Being a Hydra-brand DNA composite of two supersoldiers must, after all, come with some genetic perks.

Steve was the first to step forward, clearing his throat; he was almost by the glass before the girl made any indication that she even knew he was there. And even then, it was only to glance at him briefly, acknowledging his presence like a soldier might acknowledge a more highly ranked officer from another unit, before fixing her gaze straight ahead once more.

“Hello,” Steve tried, voice shaking. She made no indication that she'd heard him. He cleared his throat, determined to keep it together. “Uh, stand down, please?”

She immediately did as he asked. Her body relaxed, her face turned towards him, and her expression morphed from hard attentiveness into something which, at first glance, appeared casual and vaguely friendly.

But the shift was completely mechanical, and Steve didn't know if he was more alarmed by how long she'd been able to stand to attention, or by how, despite the apparent ease of her new pose, it seemed like she still was.

“Hi,” he tried again, with just a touch of that old reliable Captain America bravado. “My name is Steve. Steve Rogers.”

She inclined her head in polite greeting, same blank expression on her face. “Thank you for agreeing to see me, Captain Rogers,” she said. Her voice was clear and even; no inflection, no accent. He was beginning to feel like he was speaking to JARVIS.

“I don't...” Steve scratched the back of his neck, glancing back at the others uncertainly. Maria and Natasha looked as unnerved as he felt, while Stark still seemed vaguely amused. Bucky was looking directly at the girl – like her, his expression was neutral, but Steve could practically feel the conflicting emotions radiating off of him. The girl (the composite), he was pretty sure, was as blank and unaffected as she appeared to be. “Um,” he said, turning back to the glass, dizzy just by the sight of her, “we had no idea, about you. If we'd known...” he cut himself off. This wasn't the time to go there. “I'm sorry about all this,” he said instead, indicating the holding cell. “Honestly, this is all coming as a bit of a shock to us.” And wasn't that the understatement of the century?

The girl cocked her head at him, studying him for a moment. She said nothing.

Steve struggled to maintain his composure, saving all of his raging emotions for when he could be alone, talk it through with Bucky, figure out what the hell they were going to do about this.

Standing in front of the seemingly pliant, but completely placid, girl, he opted instead for something more direct. “You told Maria and the SHIELD agents that you wanted to see us. Will you tell us why?”

The girl's head stayed cocked to the side, but she appeared to actually be considering the question. Steve considered it a small victory.

“My base was destroyed. I had nowhere else to go,” she said at last.

She'd said it with the same lack of inflection as before, but something about her words – the sheer, brutal honesty of them – broke Steve's heart a little bit.

“Because your Hydra unit is gone?” he asked, wishing his voice didn't break.

She graced him with a curt nod. “I have no more missions.”

For a moment, Steve was reminded painfully of Bucky, when he'd first come back; when his Winter Soldier instincts had raged and clawed at him, desperate for a mission, desperate for a purpose.

It was immediately clear to Steve that whatever this girl was, she was nothing like Bucky.

Except that she is, his mind supplied, but he pushed the thought away. He couldn't think about that right now. He could not stand before this Hydra agent and think of her as... no. Not now. Not yet.

“You came to us for help?”

The question seemed to puzzle her.

“I require nothing from you,” she said. “Except...”

To Steve's surprise, she hesitated. For the first time, it looked like she had a shadow of an independent thought, and something inside Steve fluttered. He tried very hard not to identify it as hope. Not yet.

“Except?” he prompted.

“I had... questions.”

Under any other circumstances, Steve might have laughed. For a kid to seek out their absentee parents with questions, well... Steve couldn't say he'd never thought about seeking out his own dad, just to see, just to know where he came from. He'd had a lotta questions for his pa, back when those trivial things had still seemed important.

Yes, a child seeking out an estranged parent full of questions seemed like the most normal thing in the world. But considering they were dealing with a born and bred Hydra assassin, it sounded like a completely unfathomable agenda.

And yet, for all her seemingly mechanical behaviour, wasn't she a human being? Couldn't she want normal things?

Steve supposed he'd find out.

“What do you wanna know?” he asked.

She opened her mouth to respond, but Agent Hill stepped forward then, a hand on Steve's arm, and the girl immediately snapped to attention again, clearly recognising Hill as a superior authority figure.

“Sorry, Steve,” Maria said, and she looked like she meant it. “We have to brief you first, before we can proceed any further here.” To the girl she added, “thank you for your cooperation so far. It has been noted.”

The girl inclined her head incrementally: message received.

Maria signalled Stark, and he promptly looked to the ceiling. “Tint us up, JARVIS.”

Right away, sir.

A whirring noise sounded once more, and Steve presumed this meant the one-way mirror was back in place. The girl was once again staring at her own reflection, though you wouldn't know it by looking at her.

He stepped back, and it was like a spell had been broken. Steve let out a breath he hadn't realised he'd been holding in. He still couldn't quite tear his eyes away from the girl in front of him.

It hadn't sunk in yet. For all that he and Bucky had been through, this, this... this was something else. Something much too intimate.

It was like Hydra had known something no one else but Steve knew, like they had acted on his need to fuse Bucky and Steve together, in a way that Steve so desperately desired; made them one in a way they could never be, not even if Bucky knew how Steve felt about him, and miraculously returned his affections.

Steve had loved Bucky for as long as he could remember. Before the war, he had repressed his feelings out of fear for his life - and more importantly, for Bucky's life. During the war, repressing his feelings had been easier, since he'd been so busy fighting for both of their lives. And then, after Bucky came back to him, the mere idea of confessing how he felt had seemed so repulsive to Steve, only because it'd seem too much like coercion, like emotional blackmail. God knew Bucky had enough loose threads to sort out without Steve tangling up the pile all over again, for the sole purpose of baring his own selfish soul.

But now, now, they were standing in Stark Tower, staring at this impossible Hydra experiment: a human girl, a DNA composite, a fusion of Bucky and Steve which neither nature nor love could ever have given them.

Steve should probably be horrified by her existence. He wasn't. The only thing that horrified him was that she'd been bred in a lab, and raised as a Hydra soldier. Had she been treated like the Black Widow girls? Worse? If she really was half-Bucky and half-Steve, how the hell had they bred the insubordination and sass out of her? Was she as empty as she appeared to be? He almost didn't want to know. But he needed to.

Bucky hadn't said a word since they'd entered the observation room. In fact, Steve realised, Bucky hadn't said a word since Maria had knocked on the door to their apartment what felt like hours ago.

Steve looked at him, but he was still gazing at the girl. He looked calmer, since she'd spoken to Steve, but he was clearly still on edge. Steve glanced between the girl and Bucky. He wanted to stay with her, could hardly tear his eyes away, but he also needed to talk to Bucky. He needed to make sure he was alright.

But the first thing he needed to do was make one thing very clear. He turned to Maria. “You're not gonna harm her,” he said, hoping he sounded more authoritative than he felt.

To his relief, Maria looked right back at him, expression open and understanding. She was a far cry from Fury, but Steve was slowly beginning to wonder whether that wasn't a good thing. “Of course not, Steve, she's done nothing to antagonize us,” she said earnestly. “But you have to understand that if she does--”

“You'll call us first,” he said firmly.

“Of course,” she nodded. “We're not looking for trouble here.” All cards on the table -- or so it seemed. Steve had learned not to take anything for granted, no matter how much he wanted to call these people his friends.

But maybe, in this case, it was okay to take Maria at her word. Because as far as this girl was concerned, Maria was as lost as the rest of them. SHIELD was in shambles, and to anyone who wasn't Bucky or Steve, the arrival of the girl must surely be a headache they didn't need.

“Swear you didn't know.”

Everyone started, turning to see Bucky, paler than usual, looking at Maria with something Steve could best describe as calm rage. His voice was rough and dangerous.

To her credit, Maria did not as much as flinch, meeting his expression evenly. "I didn't know. No one did. Hydra kept a lot of secrets from us, as you well know. You used to be one of them.”

Bucky looked at her for a long time. Then he nodded, seemingly accepting her statement as the truth.

“Good,” he said simply.

Natasha stepped in then, and for all her apparent poise, Maria looked relieved that she had a legitimate reason to break eye contact with Bucky.

“We need to talk about this,” Natasha said, shooting Steve a significant look. “All of us.”

“Agreed,” Maria said. “I have people to notify, obviously--” she cast a worried glance at the mirror as though she, too, suspected that the girl might be able to hear them through the glass, “--and we need to decide exactly how to proceed from here.”

Bucky was looking at the girl again, expression blank, seeming completely unaware of the conversation going on around him.

“Actually,” Steve said, deciding on a whim, “would you mind... giving us a minute?” He cut off Maria's protest before she had a chance to voice it, adding, “we're not gonna talk to her. Just, this is a lot. Let us... process, for a sec.” He raised his eyebrows at Maria and cast a significant glance in Bucky's direction, knowing that Bucky wouldn't notice (or, if he did, he wouldn't care).

Maria pursed her lips, but Steve knew that Bucky's reaction was worrying her. Steve knew Bucky better than anyone. She had enough sense to let him call the shots, and she did, nodding once to give her consent.

“Take as much time as you need. We'll be...” she glanced at Tony, who raised a half-amused eyebrow. “Wherever our gracious host takes us,” she said, with a curt nod in his direction, an edge of sarcasm lacing her words.

“JARVIS will fill you in, boys,” Tony supplied cheerfully.

“Thanks,” Steve said, catching Natasha's eye as they all began filing out of the room. The look she gave him was uncharacteristically sympathetic, and he tried to smile reassuringly. He suspected it came out more like a grimace.

Nat shut the door behind them and Steve was left alone with Bucky, and the motionless girl still staring vacantly into thin air.

The moment they were alone, it was like something inside Steve crumbled; he let out a long, shuddering exhale, and felt for a wild second like he was back in his old body, feeble and fighting for every breath.

Bucky reacted instantly to Steve's distress: it was like he came out of a trance, moving closer to Steve instinctively, hands on Steve's arms to steady him as his legs gave out.

“Whoa, Steve, steady,” Bucky murmured, just as he had so many times before, so many years ago. Steve closed his eyes, feeling Bucky's hands on his arms, and imagined for a split second that they were back in Brooklyn. The two of them, alone against the world. Just like that, Steve felt his breathing even out, and strength returning to his limbs. He opened his eyes again, to find Bucky's worried face looking up at him. “You handling this?” he asked Steve roughly, though his eyes betrayed his concern.

Steve couldn't help the wry laugh that escaped him. “You're asking me?”

Bucky's expression shuttered slightly, and Steve immediately regretted his question. But instead of pulling away, Bucky merely let his head drop down, leaning into Steve for a long moment, grip on Steve's arms slackening.

“Every time I think I'm out, Hydra finds a way to poke its way back in,” Bucky mumbled, in the direction of Steve's chest, speaking so softly Steve almost missed it.

“You think this is what they're doing? With...” our daughter? Steve couldn't bring himself to say the words. “With the girl?”

Bucky looked almost like he was in physical pain, and Steve resisted the urge to reach out and pull him the rest of the way in. “I don't know, Steve,” Bucky admitted. “Fuck, I was there, all those years and I never knew, I swear I never knew, they never... I never even heard her cry--”

And Bucky did something then he hadn't done for fifty years, not while awake, anyway. He sobbed, just once. A hoarse, broken sound, breaking Steve's heart into a million pieces.

To hell with it, Steve thought, reaching out and, ignoring how Bucky tensed, wrapped his arms around him and pulled until Bucky's head was flush against his chest. He held on tight, unrelenting, until Bucky finally began to relax. He even lifted an arm and patted Steve on the back, taking a deep breath in before extricating himself with an embarrassed smile.

“Not in front of the kids, honey,” Bucky said, and it took Steve a moment to realise it was a joke. He barked out a surprised laugh, and Bucky managed a small smile in return.

“This is so messed up,” Steve shook his head, still kind of smiling. “The hell are we supposed to do now?”

“Fuck if I know,” Bucky sighed, turning to look at the girl again, something much softer on his face now. “It's like looking at a damn mirage, Steve. She looks so much like you.”

Steve snorted. “Are you kidding? She's all you, Buck.”

Bucky let out a long breath, almost like a laugh. “Not gonna lie, this is a conversation I never thought I'd be having."

“You think she's lying? About why she's here?” Steve asked, hating how Bucky's shoulders tensed again. But he couldn't help himself. As much as he wanted to keep the tone light, they couldn't pretend things weren't as they were. Not about something like this.

Bucky looked at the girl silently for a long time. “I know one thing,” he said slowly. “She can hear every word we're saying.”

For a long moment, it looked like she wasn't going to react to Bucky's words. Then, ever so slightly, she turned her head in their approximate direction, tilting her head like she'd done when Steve had spoken to her. She wasn't smiling, not exactly, but her face was slipping out of its mask, into something more relaxed (or maybe she just wanted to give them the illusion that she was relaxed; Steve had no idea).

“Kinda figured that,” Steve admitted, and this time the girl did offer them a smile – or rather, her lips tilted upwards in what looked like a poor approximation of one.

“Well, guess that makes some things easier,” Bucky said, and it seemed he had finally managed to pull himself together enough to acknowledge the girl. “You can start by dropping the pose,” he told her. When she didn't react, he sighed. “At ease, soldier.” He seemed a little pained to give such a direct order, but it worked: like when Steve had asked, she dropped her stance, falling into the more soft, but no less practiced, pose she'd adopted earlier.

While she could definitely hear them, Steve was pretty sure she couldn't see through the glass, as she was now looking in their direction, but not quite at either of their faces. Most likely, she was following the reverberations of their voices.

Steve and Bucky watched her for a moment, neither really sure what to say, but both reluctant to break the silence.

“Look,” Steve started at last, honestly not sure what was gonna come out of his mouth, but knowing he had to say something. “All of this... it's a lot. You, coming here, I mean, you already know we had no idea about you, and it's just... we don't know why you're here. We don't know anything about you. But if you give us time, we'd like to. Know you.” He paused, looking closely for any kind of impact his words might have on her. But while he knew she was hearing him, Steve honestly wasn't sure she understood. He tried again. “And uh, if you're planning to kill us all, maybe a heads up? Payback for all those father's days cards you didn't send us?” He scratched the back of his neck, feeling like an idiot.

The girl blinked. Hesitated. Then, to Steve's surprise, she got right up against the glass, eyes flittering around where she must be approximating Steve's face to be. It reminded Steve of the blind vets he'd been visiting with Sam, the elderly men who still remembered Captain America from their own fighting days. He wondered if this girl would ever have the chance to grow old and blind. Or if she even could succumb to such a mortal malady – if any of them could, with the serum still pumping through their veins.

After a long moment, she said, “You're funny.” A determination, not an opinion.

Bucky snorted. “Don't encourage him,” he mumbled, then looked like he wished he hadn't. Too familiar, Steve could almost hear him thinking.

“Yeah well, I'm full of surprises,” Steve said, and after a moment's hesitation added, “you should see my sketchbooks. I'm more than just an indestructible killing machine, you know.”

Something almost – almost – like surprise flittered across the girl's face, then it was gone. “You draw.” Another determination. A beat. “They... didn't tell me this.”

She fell into silence, no longer pretending she could see Steve through the glass. Her brows were furrowed, ever so slightly, just like Bucky's had been when he'd first come back, when his mind had still been in shambles. Was she thinking? What was she thinking about? Steve had so many questions.

"Ahem. Excuse me, Captain? Sergeant?" JARVIS called out, more cautiously than an AI had a right to be, "Miss Hill is requesting your presence in meeting room F."

Steve sighed, throwing a regretful glance towards the girl. "Right, of course. Tell her we'll be right there."

"As you wish, Captain Rogers."

“We uh, gotta go. But we'll be back,” Steve told the girl, expecting and receiving no response. “We'll answer your questions, anything you wanna know, as soon as they say it's okay. Just... sit tight, I guess.” He winced, but she didn't react to his poor choice of words in the slightest.

Steve and Bucky turned to go. When Bucky's hand was on the doorknob, Steve turned to glance back – and saw that the girl's hand was on the glass, and she was looking right at them. Or, Steve amended, where she could probably estimate that they were standing, based on the sounds they were making.

“They told me you were enemies,” she said suddenly, her voice even. Stating a fact. “They told me I had been forged in hatred.”

Steve and Bucky's eyes met, and Steve could see the same mixture of surprise and pain as he himself felt reflected on the other man's face. In Bucky's case, it was quickly tempered down. But Steve, as he so often did, let his own emotions linger on his face.

Neither of them said anything for a long time. The girl stayed with her hand pressed to the glass, waiting. This time, the question was there, even if she hadn't asked it outright.

Bucky cleared his throat, tearing his eyes away from Steve's and pushing down on the handle. “Well, they lied,” he said gruffly, and strode out the door without looking back.

Steve lingered, for a brief moment, looking back at the girl. Her face was a carefully composed mask, as it ever was, but Steve had spent enough time with Bucky to know that this didn't mean there wasn't a lot going on underneath the surface. He really wished he knew what she was thinking.

He opened his mouth to speak, then closed it, realising he didn't have the first clue what to say. He turned, and followed Bucky, closing the door behind him without another word.

It was only when they were back in the elevator that Steve realised they'd never even gotten her name.

Chapter Text

Steve and Bucky arrived at one of Stark Industries' many meeting rooms to find, to their complete lack of surprise, that Tony had prepared a presentation.

As soon as they took their seats Tony launched into a smug and pompous spiel about how, as Steve had expected, SHIELD had been caught completely unawares when the girl had wandered into Stark Tower; the organisation had been a mess ever since Natasha had broadcast Hydra's takeover on the Internet and those loyal to SHIELD had gone underground, and they simply hadn't the means nor the resources to verify her story.

In the end, it was none other than Tony himself who had worked it all out. And, as much as Steve loathed Tony's self-important manner, he had to give it to the guy: he was a damn genius. He had every reason to be smug.

“It was something the girl said when they first brought her in,” Tony monologued. “She referenced feniks - the Russian word for phoenix. And this reminded me of something I came across when I was looking through my old man's files once. Something called Project Phoenix." He looked around at them all, wanting to make sure they were all paying attention to him. Steve resisted the urge to roll his eyes.

"I dismissed it at the time," Tony continued, with enough enthusiasm for all of them, "but it stuck in my mind, so while SHIELD was busy working itself up into a blind panic about this girl - no offense, Maria, but it was pretty funny - I decided to dig around. And oh boy, did I strike gold."

"You just let us know when you're planning on getting to the point, Stark," Natasha said pointedly.

"I'm getting there," Tony pouted. "So as I was saying: back in the early days of SHIELD, Hydra was apparently working on something so unspeakable, the team that was dispatched to eliminate the new threat never even documented their findings. They just classified the project as terminated, and moved on with their lives. Project Phoenix became a footnote in SHIELD history, never to be spoken of again.” Tony paused theatrically, gazing at all of them in turn.

Steve fought the urge to admonish him for dragging this out. He knew that'd only make Tony more prone to dramatic interludes.

“I stumbled upon the name years ago, but I forgot all about it, until today," Tony continued. "When the girl first walked into my lobby and told her story to my poor receptionist – who is hopefully being debriefed in the most courteous way possible right now, and I expect him back at work on Monday--” he added pointedly to Maria, “--it got me thinking about those old Hydra experiments again. And then I figured it all out, obviously.” Tony winked at Steve; Steve prayed for patience. “See, here's where it gets interesting: I had JARVIS cross-reference Howard's notes... and it turns out that the Project Phoenix mission was led by none other than Mr. Rogers' best girl herself, dear Aunt Peggy.”

That got Steve's attention. He shifted uncomfortably, as he always did when Peggy's name came up unexpectedly. He glanced at Bucky – as he also always did when Peggy's name came up. Bucky was looking straight at Tony, but Steve had seen the twitch of his hand, and knew that Bucky, too, had reacted to her name. He didn't have time to wonder about that now, so he filed it away for later, turning back to Tony.

“Well, she led lots of missions, didn't she?” Steve asked. Peggy had continued to work as an active agent for years after the war; nothing but the relentless passage of time had ever managed to slow her down. “What made this one so special?”

“I'm so glad you asked, Cap,” Tony smirked, as if there was any way he wouldn't have told them anyway. “See, Peggy was the one who put this particular op on lockdown. Lengthy team debriefings, burned mission reports, the whole shebang. And the reasons she gave SHIELD for all this secrecy? Personal interest and, I quote, high risk of defamation of a war hero.” Tony held up his palms as though holding back applause. “Didn't take a genius – I'm sorry, my genius – to work out the connection to Captain America from there.”

Steve frowned. “This doesn't add up, though. The mission you're talking about had to have happened at least forty years ago. The girl down there can't be more than sixteen.”

“Seventeen, actually,” Tony said. “But excellent math skills, gold star for you. Will you let me finish my story now?”

Steve opted for silence, saving his half-a-dozen comebacks for a better occasion.

"Project Phoenix was destroyed, and a good thing, too," Tony said. "And as it turns out, that was the closest Hydra ever got to successfully mastering the art of human cloning.”

Human cloning, Steve thought with a wave of disgust, almost missing Tony's next words as he imagined an army of Red Skulls, marching across the snowy fields of Russia.

“As you all know, dear Zola and his lot were pretty unhealthily obsessed with big Cap here – Barnes can relate, I'm sure.” Tony's wink was directed at Bucky this time, but Bucky didn't seem to notice at all, too busy being unnerved by the narrative that was unfolding. “And speaking of Sergeant Barnes, obviously they already had the Winter Soldier dish cooking, stewing in the Captain America serum they had so nearly managed to replicate. But that wasn't enough for them. They were also working to replicate Captain America himself.”

Steve felt his face drain of colour, as the Red Skull army in his mind morphed into an army of Hydra-bred monsters wearing his face.

But, he had to remind himself, it never happened. “Peggy put a stop to it,” Steve breathed, not sure if he was trying to reassure himself or the others.

So Peggy had continued working to save his soul, long after he'd died. Even if they both lived another hundred years, Steve would never be able to repay his debt to her.

“Sure did,” Tony said, and for the first time he looked almost like all of this kind of bothered him. “Hydra abandoned Project Phoenix after SHIELD destroyed the lab and killed the scientists who were working on it. They got close, according to the records I've managed to scavenge, but they never quite managed to produce a living thing. So, they buried the project, and until today, everyone who ever knew about Project Phoenix assumed that was the end of it. But, evidently, Hydra wasn't done experimenting.”

“The girl,” Bucky said needlessly, in the heavy silence that followed. His tone was neutral, his face unreadable.

Tony nodded grimly. Clearly, the fun was beginning to go out of his little performance. “There was this one Hydra scientist, a few decades back. Real progressive fellow. He knew about the original Project Phoenix, even let a few loose-tongued assistants in on the finer details. One of them hinted at the project in his field report, and that's how JARVIS was able to piece all this together for us.” Tony glanced up, casting a proud glance at the ceiling.

Steve shivered. Sometimes he wondered if JARVIS hadn't long ago surpassed his master's knowledge and skill. The idea was at once reassuring and terrifying.

Tony continued, “This scientist had been watching the Winter Soldier at work, and then he had a wacky idea: how about, instead of trying to clone someone, which would be pretty damn conspicuous anyway once the kid got Cap-sized, perhaps they could create a child from two separate parents – who'd both been altered by the serum – and get a fully human, fully individualised, fully super-serum'ed up little soldier?”

The room fell silent, as Tony allowed everyone to wrap their heads around that notion.

Steve didn't need Tony's long-winded explanation to tell him that the girl in the glass cell was really his and Bucky's... composite. But listening to Tony speak, something more unsettling occurred to him: that maybe she was not so much his and Bucky's child, as she was the child of Captain America and the Winter Soldier.

He supposed it made no real difference. But Steve couldn't deny that he had, in his darkest moments, wondered what would happen if he could separate himself into two entities: Steve and Cap, skinny Brooklyn boy and perfect patriot. He knew the former version intimately, of course, but what would Captain America have been like without Steve Rogers? If he'd simply been born and bred as the hero his country wanted him to be, without ever having the chance to be himself. He'd always found that hard to imagine.

But now, Steve wondered if maybe he wouldn't have been a lot like the placid girl in the glass cell, who stood to attention even when she didn't. Maybe, Steve thought, it wasn't that she didn't know how not to be a soldier. Maybe she simply didn't have anything but soldier inside of her.

“Are there others?” Bucky asked suddenly, shaking Steve out of his reverie.

And, Oh god. He hadn't even thought of that.

To everyone's surprise, Tony laughed. “Hell no. Look, if they'd been able to perform that miracle twice, they'd never have stopped! Hydra would have comprised of a thousand adolescent Bucky-slash-Steve hybrids right now. Believe me, this girl's a one-of-a-kind collector's edition.”

“That confirms what she told us, too,” Maria chimed in, sitting up straighter as she spoke. “When she first came in, she said she was the only one of Hydra's DNA experiments to survive the gestation period.”

“Who was the mother?” Natasha asked suddenly, looking up, something haunted in her eyes. “Who carried her to term?”

Tony's answer was about as grim as they could have expected. “No one. She was created right there in that lab, they grew her in a tank like some rare exotic algae. The phoenix did, very literally, rise from the ashes.”

Everyone fell silent after that. Each one of them was trying in vain to imagine what it must feel like, to never have been born.

Bucky was quiet all the way to their floor, his eyes dark and his jaw clenched. As soon as they were inside he strode purposefully to the kitchen, wrenched open the door to the fridge, and proceeded to produce all of the beers in their possession. He lined them up on the kitchen table in silence, then cracked open the first bottle with his thumb, and downed the contents in one go.

Steve couldn't help the huff of laughter that escaped him. “Needed a drink, huh?”

“Need to get drunk,” Bucky amended, voice rough as he reached for the second bottle.

Steve fought the urge to smile. Whenever Bucky had acted like this before the war, before everything, Steve'd had no qualms about accusing Bucky of sulking.

He was pretty sure ex-brainwashed Hydra assassins didn't sulk, however, so he kept that particular observation to himself.

Bucky went through five beers like that before finally taking a break, glancing up at Steve and, after a moment's wavering, cracked open another bottle and handed it over. Steve accepted it with a small smile. Bucky tracked the progress of the bottle to Steve's lips with his eyes, probably regretting his decision to give up his precious beer.

“So,” Bucky said after downing another bottle himself, just as Steve took his second sip. “What d'you make of her?”

Steve took his time swallowing, setting the bottle down on the table. He swallowed again. He realised suddenly that this was the first time Bucky had asked his opinion about anything, since coming back from the dead.

“Well,” Steve tried, feeling absurdly like this was a test: if he got the question wrong, Bucky might never ask him another one. “I don't know if I can honestly trust myself to make anything of her, yet. I'm still kinda shell-shocked by this whole thing.”

“Makes you grateful there's not a whole herd of Hydra assassins running around with your head sown onto my body though, don't it?” Bucky said wryly, mouth around his seventh bottle. He really was trying to get drunk, though Steve suspected he'd need at least a hundred of those things before he even began to feel a buzz.

“At least they'd be pretty,” Steve smirked, and was rewarded with the sight of Bucky choking on his beer, the liquid dripping down his chin as he shot a surprised, and uncharacteristically open, grin at Steve.

“Girl's right. You are kind of funny."

The lighter mood was welcome, but short-lived. Steve's head was still spinning with the implications of it all – and, more troublingly, the lack of implications. Did Steve and Bucky even have a right to feel as affected by the existence of this girl as they clearly both did?

She had this whole fully-formed life already, and plenty of her own demons to deal with... and Steve knew from personal experience that sharing genes with someone didn't necessarily mean you had anything in common with them, or any reason to connect.

“I don't know how I'm supposed to feel right now,” he admitted, looking up at Bucky. He wished he didn't sound so hopeless. “After all this time, this girl comes along, all grown up, and she's all, Hey, you're my dad. Or,” he amended with a nervous chuckle, “dads, I guess.”

And wasn't that just a whole other can of worms?

“Sure,” Bucky shrugged. “Except when that happens to normal people, I'm pretty sure there's a predictable set of expectations involved.” For all that Bucky was trying to be blasé about it, Steve thought he sounded almost as wrecked as Steve felt. “Like, they want money. Love. A hand to guide them up the aisle, something dumb and trivial like that. But this...”

“Yeah, she probably doesn't want any of those things,” Steve sighed. “Probably doesn't need 'em.”

Are we anything to her? Technically?” Bucky asked, and when Steve looked up at him, he looked almost pleading. “Are we allowed to feel... anything?” It was almost like he'd been reading Steve's mind.

“Bucky...” Steve began, uncertain. He hated seeing Bucky like this.

“I'm just – fuck, Steve, I'm fine,” Bucky said, but the shake in his voice betrayed him. “I just – I find myself wanting... God, Steve, I spent so much time learning not to want anything." He looked up at Steve then, an odd expression on his face which Steve couldn't decipher. "I don't... it's hard, now, to let myself, and I'm not sure I should even bother. She's not – she's not mine, she's not anyone's, she's Hydra and she was never even--” Bucky broke off, shaking his head, and Steve was completely at a loss. Between the two of them, he hadn't expected that Bucky would be the one to react this way.

“Bucky,” he tried again, feeling desperately out of his depth, “it's okay to hope--”

“Hope is for fools,” Bucky interrupted ruefully, taking a step away from the kitchen table as though needing to put physical distance between himself and the world. “I deal in what I know. And what I know is that this girl was engineered by Russian scientists, designed to be the perfect weapon. Against you.” The look he gave Steve now was more Winter Soldier than Bucky. “Think about it. If she'd been anything other than... what she is... if she'd just been another Hydra soldier trying to get close to us, where would she be right now?”

Steve grimaced. Dead, probably, he wanted to say. Dead by your hand. People who wanted to harm Steve tended to end up that way, if Bucky got his hands on them.

“But she's not,” Steve said out loud, determined, as if his words could make it so. “She's... whatever she is, however they made her, she's not just a weapon. She's a girl. She may be made up of parts, but we know where those parts came from. That means something, Bucky, it has to. And besides, we don't even know what she wants yet.”

“If she wants anything,” Bucky said skeptically, though Steve could tell he wanted to believe it. Steve was just glad Bucky was still in the kitchen, that he still wanted to share this with Steve at all. He'd been so reluctant, for so long, when it came to sharing his Winter Soldier nightmares. This was a whole new kind of nightmare, but maybe, this time, it was one they could get through together.

“She wouldn't be here if she didn't.” Steve's voice was firm, and didn't sound like his own at all. He was the commanding Captain America now, brokering no argument, accepting no compromise. It usually fell like water on a stone where Bucky was concerned, but rather than arguing back like Steve knew he wanted to, Bucky just looked at him for a long time, blue eyes boring into Steve's own like he was searching for a particular truth. Then he nodded.

“Guess we'll see.”

They fell into silence after that, Bucky absent-mindedly downing another beer.

Steve's thoughts drifted back to what Tony had said, remembering his description of Project Phoenix and how this girl had been cooked up. Captain America's DNA mixed with that of the Winter Soldier, the product of which was a brand new person, serum already running through her veins when she came into this world. There was no her before the serum. No sense of self that wasn't intrinsically tied to her powers, to her strength.

Steve couldn't imagine what that must be like; all of his morals and his values had developed before he'd had super strength. When he fought now, when he kept fighting even when the odds were stacked against him, it was because of his mother, his friends, his neighbours... and Bucky. Always Bucky.

What reason did this girl have to fight? Did she believe in Hydra, or was she simply their instrument, like Bucky had been? Had they been feeding her lies? Had she believed them?

Steve shuddered, remembering something else Tony had said. The girl may have been the only successful product of Hydra's experiments, but they'd been trying to make more. He wondered why they hadn't kept trying.

His thoughts drifted back to the girl again, alone down in that stark, white room, with nothing but her own reflection for company. He wanted, so badly, to know what she was thinking. How she was thinking. Steve knew, of course, that he should not be so affected by this; he'd suffered too much by Hydra's hand already, to allow them to once again manipulate him in this way. And it wasn't like this was his child. He knew that.

Except... it was his child, wasn't it? However she had been created, she held parts of him in her palms, in her eyes, in her mind – that much was obvious to anyone who laid eyes on her. And there was so much of Bucky in her, too, so much it almost hurt to look at her. Wasn't she Bucky's child, as much as she would have been if she'd been conceived the natural way, with a mother instead of... this? And if she was Bucky's, didn't that mean that Steve would care for her, too, even if she hadn't been his own?

All the same. She was still Hydra, and she was still dangerous. Steve couldn't let himself forget that. It couldn't possibly be a coincidence that the girl had shown up now, nary a year after the Winter Soldier had not only failed to kill Captain America, but had defected Hydra and joined his team.

As much as Steve wanted to believe the girl was here of her own volition, nothing he'd seen so far convinced him that she had much initiative to strike out on her own. And she certainly wasn't here to ask either of them to walk her down the aisle. So it would be foolish not to assume that she was acting on Hydra's orders. Wouldn't it?

Bucky startled Steve out of his thoughts with an exhale: a huff of air so like a laugh, Steve thought he must have been mistaken. But when he looked up, it was to find Bucky looking at him, a small but unmistakeable smile on his face.

“What?” Steve asked, returning the smile despite himself. He never could resist that smile.

Bucky shook his head, eyes sparkling with wry amusement. “Just... look at us. I was so sure that life couldn't possibly get any more fucked up, and here we are.”

Steve laughed wryly. That was one way to look at it. “Must be Tuesday."

“Shit, Steve, a little clone of you I could understand, but this? Of all things...” Bucky trailed off, looking both amused and oddly melancholic.

“You know, I always imagined you'd have a daughter,” Steve said, surprising himself as much as Bucky by admitting what he'd always considered an embarrassing little daydream.

Bucky quirked an eyebrow, amused. “Yeah?”

“Mmhmm,” Steve nodded, taking another swig of his half-forgotten beer. What the hell, he thought, emboldened by the taste of alcohol and the weird, surreal turn this day had taken. “Tall, gorgeous girl. You'd spoil her rotten. I'd do the same, obviously. I'd take her clothes shopping and to the races, and she'd say, Uncle Steve, don't tell my daddy but I think I like you better.”

He'd pitched his voice high for that last part, and Bucky gaped at him for a second, and then – goddammit, but then he was laughing. He was laughing. Steve could have cried at the sound, it was so Bucky. He wanted to close his eyes again and imagine they were back in Brooklyn, that nothing had changed, that Bucky was just laughing his head off about something stupid they'd done, like he had a thousand times before.

He didn't close his eyes this time, but kept them on Bucky instead: glorious Bucky, who had been through so much that time could never erase, but who was here. That was good, too – it was infinitely better than a memory.

“Damn, Rogers.” Bucky shook his head, eyes still sparkling with amusement. “You really thought this through.”

“Yeah, well,” Steve shrugged. “All those dames you had wrapped around your finger, I figured I'd best be prepared.”

Bucky snorted. “And what about your own gaggle of kids? Wouldn't they be jealous?”

Steve's smile was more self-deprecating now. “Who's to say I'd have had any? To have kids you gotta catch a dame first. Or,” he amended with a smirk, “at least I hear that's usually the way.”

Bucky rolled his eyes, his laughter fading, to be replaced by a fond smile. Steve found he'd missed that almost as much. “Nah. It was only ever a matter of time until we found a girl worthy of you.” A beat; Bucky's eyes flickered to the bottle in his hands. “Take that Agent Carter. She'd have settled down with you with or without the serum."

“Yeah, maybe,” Steve acknowledged wistfully, smiling at the memory of Peggy: her fierce strength, her passionate heart, the fire in her soul. “Maybe she would've.”

I might have said no, he didn't say. I might not have wanted to settle down with anyone but you.

Another silence. Loaded, with so many things Steve so often found himself wanting to say, but never quite found the nerve to. Bucky downed another beer.

“Well,” Bucky said, setting the empty bottle down on the tabletop. “I need a piss.”

And that was that. Steve sighed. We have a kid together. Why is this still so hard? he berated himself, then snorted, at the ridiculousness of it all. He took out his phone, and texted Sam.

You're never gonna believe this, he wrote. He still wasn't sure he believed it himself. 

Chapter Text

“Why are you here?”

“To see Steven Grant Rogers and James Buchanan Barnes.”

“What business do you have with them?”

“I have questions for them.”

“What questions?”

“I wish to learn about them.”

“Do you want to harm them?”

“No.”

“Then why do you want to learn about them?”

“I was created from them.”

“Hydra created you.”

“Yes.”

“Are you loyal to Hydra?”

“What is left of Hydra has no knowledge of my existence.”

“Are you loyal to Hydra?”

“My handlers are dead. I no longer have an obligation to follow Hydra's orders.”

“Are you loyal to Hydra?”

“My loyalty was never required, only my servitude.”

 

Steve paused the recording.

The girl's face was frozen in that same impassive, blank expression she'd worn through the entire interrogation. They were three hours in and there had been no trace of impatience, or uncertainty, or deceit. She was simply telling the truth – this had given the poor interrogator a lot of great intel, but not much in the way of actual motivation.

She was here to see Bucky and Steve. Obviously. She had questions for them. So far, so good.

But what did she actually want?

Steve rubbed a hand over his face, eyes bleary from having being trained on the TV screen for so long.

He looked over to see Bucky still watching the screen, head cocked to the side, a thoughtful expression on his face. Steve realised with a pang that the girl'd had the exact same look on her face yesterday, when she'd been watching them.

“What are you thinking?” Steve asked. He hoped Bucky was getting more out of this than he was.

“I'm thinking that I'd really like to talk to her in person,” said Bucky, narrowing his eyes.

Steve huffed out an impatient breath. They hadn't, of course, been allowed to be present for the interrogation itself; Steve had been ready to riot, but in the end, Maria had convinced him that before they had any further contact with the girl, they needed to make sure she was clean.

Even Steve could see the reason in that. Plus, as he reminded himself, he'd gone this long without knowing about her existence. If he wanted to... get to know her, maybe, figure out what this meant for them, it'd be nice to know she wasn't actually here to kill them all.

Even though he'd been much quieter about it, Bucky was clearly as anxious as Steve was to see the girl. But he was also a lot more aware of Hydra's methods. Steve was pretty sure he was more terrified of the possibility that she really was lying than anything else – and Steve'd be lying if he said he wasn't, too. But that didn't mean he didn't want to see the girl, and the sooner the better.

“She seems... honest,” Steve said, leaving space for Bucky to contradict him. But Bucky merely hmm-ed his agreement. “I mean, yeah, she's a Hydra agent, we covered that. But she doesn't seem...” the word brainwashed was on the tip of his tongue, but he caught himself.

Bucky looked over at him, frowning, obviously having worked out what Steve was about to say. “Like me?” he asked.

“Shit, Buck, you know I didn't mean--” Steve started to say, but Bucky brushed him off with a wave of his hand.

“I get it, Steve, you don't have to dance around it.” Bucky said tiredly. “And you're right. She seems completely level-headed. Hydra clearly didn't need to condition her like...” he winced. “Well, you know.”

“Is that a good thing?” Steve asked uncertainly. The fact that she wasn't brainwashed meant that her mind was her own, but if this was really who she was – blank, apathetic, dispassionate – then what the hell were they going to do with her?

Bucky sighed, dropping his eyes to his entwined hands; the metal reflected the dim light coming from the TV. “Fuck if I know, Steve,” he mumbled, sounding defeated.

They were sitting on the couch, so close together their thighs were almost touching. Steve only hesitated for a second before reaching out, putting his hand on Bucky's leg, just above his knee. These small, casual gestures had come to them so easily before the war, but it was one of the things that still didn't feel quite natural in this new time, in these new bodies.

Didn't mean Steve wasn't going to fight to reclaim that piece of their friendship though, like he'd fought to reclaim everything else.

He was so busy looking at Bucky's face, he didn't see Bucky's right hand move until it was resting atop of Steve's, a warm, solid presence. Bucky looked down at their hands, then up at Steve, a small smile on his face now.

“Is this the part where you tell me to pull my shit together?” Bucky asked him, clearly only half-kidding.

Steve snorted, trying not to feel Bucky's muscles under his palm, the strong fingers dipping into the spaces between his own. “I was kinda hoping for a pep talk like that myself, actually.”

“We're a couple of sissies, aren't we?” Bucky sighed, leaning his head back against the couch. Exposing his neck, Steve couldn't help but notice. They'd come a long way. “Faced with an army of monsters, sure, we do alright, but throw a teenager our way, and what happens?” Bucky gestured at the TV with his free hand. “Guess Hydra has us exactly where they want us, if this was all meant to be some big distraction.”

Steve's brows furrowed, following Bucky's gaze back to the still image of the girl. “If that's what this is, I don't think she knows about it.”

“Hmm,” Bucky said again, fingers twitching atop of Steve's. “No. Probably not.”

“But?” Steve prompted.

This time, when Bucky looked at Steve, there was no humour in his eyes. “What if Hydra comes for her? She says there's no one left to give her orders, but what if there is? What would stop her from going right back to them?”

Steve heard the questions Bucky didn't ask: What if we get too attached? What if we have to fight her?

Steve's grip on Bucky's leg tightened. “Then we'll deal, as we always do,” he said, with a confidence he didn't feel.

Bucky opened his mouth to reply, then seemed to think better of it, squeezing Steve's hand once before letting go, sitting up straighter as he pressed play on the remote.

If Steve's hand stayed on Bucky's leg while they watched the rest of the interrogation tape, well, Bucky didn't seem to mind.

Dinner was a somber affair that evening. Steve had opened his mouth half a dozen times, intending to start a conversation, only to let the thought fizzle out. Bucky's mind was clearly somewhere else; he was poking at his food, hardly noticing Steve at all.

The interrogation had told them very little, despite the fact that the girl seemed willing to disclose any and all information she was asked about. She was an open book – and that was the problem. The book seemed scarily empty.

They were interrupted by JARVIS, who cleared his throat – or whatever passed for a throat – to get their attention.

Sirs, so very sorry to interrupt your dinner, but you are requested down in Containment Area 6. It's... our guest.

Steve and Bucky looked up at each other, matching expressions of apprehension on their faces.

“We'll be right down,” Steve told the AI, he and Bucky already moving towards the door, half-eaten cartons of Chinese food forgotten on the kitchen table.

They walked down the hall and into the waiting elevator, trading worried glances the whole way down. They weren't supposed to see her until Maria had reviewed the tapes. Surely she couldn't have made a decision this quickly?

As they arrived on the Containment floor and came through the door to the observation room, the first thing Steve felt was a mad, wild lurch of panic.

Agent Hill and Natasha were standing by the glass, arms crossed, matching expressions of half-concern, half-suspicion on their faces.

Behind the glass, the girl was leaning over a bucket someone must have provided her with, vomiting violently.

“What happened?” Steve demanded, striding up to the glass and pressing his hands against it. She didn't seem to notice, or maybe she just didn't care. “What's wrong with her?” Her interrogation had taken place this morning. She'd seemed fine. But what did Steve know; this girl looked like she could walk off a broken back. A little nausea probably wouldn't slow her down.

“We don't know,” Hill said, her voice tight, eyes never leaving the glass. “It started about twenty minutes ago.”

“And you waited to call us until now?” Steve asked angrily. Maria flinched, but didn't otherwise react. “Open the door, let me in there.”

The girl was retching, but she didn't seem to have anything left in her system to throw up. Her face was red and streaked with tears, but Steve knew from experience that it wasn't because she was upset. When your body let go like that, you had no way of controlling these things.

Neither Hill nor Natasha moved. “It might be a trick,” Natasha said at last, but her voice was pained. She clearly hated seeing the girl like that, too.

Steve glanced back at Bucky, who was looking through the glass, his face pale and drawn.

“Fuck that,” Steve decided. “Open the door.”

“Steve--” Natasha started. Steve ignored her.

Open. The door,” he snarled at Maria, who finally wrenched her eyes off the girl to give him a long, measured look, as though she had everything under control. Her eyes betrayed her. She obviously had no idea what to do.

“Fine,” she said after a long, torturous pause. She produced a device from her pocket and entered in a series of commands, angling her body so Steve wouldn't see what she buttons she was pressing. The thick, impenetrable door separating the observation room from the cell let out a series of clicks and whirrs as it began to slide back into the wall.

Steve was already through the gap and inside the room before anyone else had moved. He strode towards the girl, who was still bent over the bucket; he ignored the stench and told himself it wasn't death he smelled in the air.

“Uh, hey,” he said cautiously, remembering himself. She's like Bucky was, he told himself, even though that obviously wasn't quite right. But it did help him remember to hold back, to not overwhelm her with his presence.

She dry-heaved into the bucket. Her eyes were closed, and he wasn't sure she even knew he was there.

Steve knelt down beside her. Fully in view, if she should open her eyes. He hesitated. Then put a hand on her back.

It was a testament to how much she was suffering that she didn't react, not even a tiny jerk, to the unexpected physical contact she had surely been trained to anticipate. Steve could feel her muscles shifting beneath his touch, he felt her shuddering breath and her revolting stomach, and it was all much, much too familiar. He began rubbing small, careful circles on her back, like he remembered Bucky doing for him so many times, so many years ago.

The girl let out a deep, shuddering breath, head tilting forward until it was almost inside the bucket. It felt like a surrender, and Steve's heart thumped an anxious rhythm against his chest. The tips of her blonde hair touched the contents of the bucket, and she didn't even seem to notice. There was blood in the vomit, and on her lips, dribbling down her chin.

He felt, rather than heard, Bucky come to stand right behind him. To help the girl or Steve, he wasn't sure. He also wasn't sure there was much of a difference right now.

“Hey,” Steve said again, “hey, talk to me. We wanna help you. But we don't... you gotta tell us what's wrong. If you know, you gotta say.”

The girl's head was still drooping forward, sweat and tears rolling down her face, body still shuddering and jerking. Her knuckles were white where they gripped the bucket, as though they were all that was holding her upright. She looked nothing like the strong, unshakeable girl they'd seen behind the glass, or on the tape. She looked broken.

Finally, she twisted her head, ever so slightly. Her eyes opened, and Steve's worry increased tenfold when he saw how glassy they were. She didn't seem able to focus on him, or anything. Behind him, Bucky's sharp intake of breath told Steve that he'd noticed, too.

“It's...” her voice was barely audible. Her eyes flittered around the room wildly, before finally landing on Steve's face. It seemed to take her great effort to keep them there. “It's...”

“It's okay,” Steve tried, resisting the urge to get closer, to touch her hair, her forehead. His heart was pounding wildly; he was terrified. If this was a trick, he'd been had completely, he knew that. He also didn't care. “You don't have to talk.”

She blinked slowly, eyes tracing over his face like she'd forgotten who he was. “It's my birthday,” she breathed, and then sagged forwards, as though that one sentence had tapped all of her remaining energy.

Steve had one brief moment of confusion, wondering absurdly if he should have gotten her a present, before something knocked into him and Steve, completely taken by surprise, toppled over, shoulder colliding painfully with the cold stone floor of the cell.

“Fuck!” Bucky exclaimed, and Steve realised that it was Bucky'd who'd pushed him. Bucky jumped over him to grab the girl before she hit the floor, sweeping her up into his arms as if she weighed nothing. Her head was lolling back against his chest; she appeared to be unconscious. “Shit. Shit,” Bucky murmured as he strode past Steve. “Get Stark, NOW,” he commanded, turning back to meet Steve's gaze for one desperate, endless second. Steve froze at the look of blind panic he saw in Bucky's eyes.

Then Bucky turned and dashed out of the cell, and Steve scrambled up to follow. Maria was standing in a corner, speaking urgently into a walkie-talkie, but Natasha rushed forward to meet Bucky as he came through the room. She held the second door open for him and then waited for Steve to catch up, falling into step beside him as they rushed down the hallway after Bucky.

“JARVIS,” Bucky called out, already halfway to the elevator. “Stark's closest med lab, and fast.”

In a jiffy, sir,” JARVIS replied immediately, elevator door sliding open with a ding.

Steve and Natasha hurried to catch up with Bucky as he entered the elevator. Steve looked down at the girl in concern; her head was resting heavily against Bucky's chest, her skin deadly pale.

“What the hell is wrong with her?” Natasha asked Bucky, and Steve was surprised to register more than a hint of worry in her voice.

Bucky's expression terrified Steve even more than the prone girl in his arms. He looked haunted, almost as pale as she did. “It's her birthday,” Bucky said, echoing the girl's words, as though that was any kind of an explanation. “Her eighteenth.” He raised his eyebrows at Natasha, and she gasped, expression going from concerned to horrified in a second.

“Okay, what is going on?!” Steve exclaimed, trying not to let the pair's obvious fright rub off on him. Someone needed to keep a level head, and it seemed like he'd been unanimously selected for the job.

The elevator door ding-ed again and Bucky rushed out without another word. They were in one of Stark's labs, and Steve saw both Tony and Bruce rush forward to meet Bucky as he came. Steve started to follow but Natasha held him back, laying an uncharacteristically gentle hand on his arm.

“This is bad, Steve,” she said, and Steve nodded impatiently; that much was obvious. Bucky was turning a corner, both he and the girl disappearing from view. “Steve,” Natasha repeated. Steve forced himself to look down and meet her gaze.

“Tell me,” he demanded. She was going to, anyway. If she'd get on with it, then he could go after Bucky and the girl.

Natasha, frustratingly, hesitated, seeming to search for the right words for an impossibly long moment before she said, “The eighteenth birthday. That's... it used to be the day assets were tested.”

“Tested,” Steve echoed blankly.

She nodded. “On their eighteenth birthday, assets were run through a number of... well, they were made to do things. Things were done to them. When it was all over, their initiation would be complete.”

There was so much pain in her eyes, Steve knew at once that this wasn't something she'd been told. She'd lived through it. He'd always known that the KGB messed her up, but there was clearly a lot more to it than what she'd told him. She'd probably never tell him all of it, and that was okay. They all had secrets to keep. He held his breath, trying to be patient as he waited for her to compose herself.

“Thing is, it's her birthday now, and no one's here to take her through these tests,” Nat said at last. “Which isn't a problem. Actually, it's a damn fucking godsend, for her. Except for the last one.”

“Which is what?” Steve could hear Bucky and Stark talking, urgently, but he was too far away, he couldn't tell what was going on. He felt sick, like he, too, was going to throw up.

“There's a drug. It's in your system, all the time, from the moment you're first brought in. Or, in the girl's case... I guess always,” Natasha said, looking pained. “It's on a timer. If you pass the tests, they give you the antidote. If you don't... all they have to do is wait. They don't even need to waste a bullet on you.”

Steve's eyes widened as he realised the full implications of what she was saying. He felt like he'd had the wind knocked out of him, suddenly understanding full well the desperation he'd seen in Bucky's eyes.

“Oh god,” he whispered. “We don't have the antidote.”

The look Natasha gave him was so pitiful, it was all the confirmation he needed. Without another word he strode past her, and this time she didn't try to stop him. He rushed through the lab, rounding the corner to see Bruce working fast, connecting the girl to a series of tubes as she lay, prone, on a hospital bed.

Bucky and Tony were still debating heatedly, although they'd lowered their voices, and Steve hesitated for a moment before heading towards the unconscious girl, mind blank, taking her hand and staring down at her damp, tear-stained face, her eyes (so like Bucky's) closed tightly as if she were in pain, her mouth (so like his own) pinched into a tight line like she was trying to stop herself from throwing up again.

Her hand was clammy and cold in his grasp. A super soldier wasn't supposed to feel this way. He grasped it tighter – wanting, irrationally, to infuse her with some of his own warmth.

“Steve,” Bruce said softly from beside him, too close, and Steve started; Bruce looked apologetic as he gently nudged Steve's hand aside so he could insert yet another tube into the girl's wrist. Steve began to draw his hand back but Bruce reached out and grasped it, holding it in place. “You're good here,” he said kindly, taking a moment to squeeze Steve's hand before pulling away.

Steve took a deep, calming breath, trying to do what Bruce did. Contain his anger and his fear, wrap it up tight and exude nothing but serenity.

Bucky was usually pretty good at that, too. Not right now though. Right now Bucky was fuming with anger, hissing at Tony, who was hissing right back. Steve knew the pair had had their differences, but in general, he got the feeling that a grudging sort of respect had built up between them. But at this moment, they looked close to strangling each other.

Finally, Bucky broke away, walking with too much control, moving too rigidly, and Steve was painfully reminded of how he'd behaved when he'd first come back from Hydra, when he'd looked ready to murder anyone who came within as much as ten feet of him or Steve.

When Bucky was close enough to touch, Steve did just that, running his hand up Bucky's human arm as he'd done countless times before. I'm here, the touch meant. I'm fine. We're both fine.

Bucky closed his eyes and took a deep, steadying breath, nodding as though he'd heard Steve's silent reassurances. He opened his eyes again and glanced down at the girl, with something like pain on his face. Or was it rage? It all bled together in the shadows of Bucky's shuttered Winter Soldier expression, which he still wore sometimes to cover his true emotions.

“Nat told me about the poison,” Steve said softly, hand lingering on Bucky's arm. Wishing he could offer more. Wishing he didn't have to see Bucky in pain. “What can we do?”

“Not a lot without the antidote,” Bucky said, voice like gravel. He was staring at the girl, wide-eyed and unblinking. It was like looking at a ghost, Steve thought; he never imagined that he'd see Bucky like this again: standing by a bedside, looking like he was about to lose everything he'd ever cared about. Steve wasn't sure he'd realised, until this very moment, that this was how Bucky used to look at him.

“Okay. So let's go get it,” he said, shaking himself out of his reverie. Bucky snorted humourlessly.

“Sure, Steve. Let's go risk our asses to save a genetically modified super soldier who's most likely trying to kill us all.” But when his eyes met Steve's, they softened. Please, they said.

“Stark's words, not yours?” Steve guessed, something bitter curdling in his stomach. Bucky didn't have to confirm it, because at that moment, Tony had the brilliant idea of walking into their peripheral vision, and Bucky stiffened under Steve's touch, shooting Tony a look so chilling, Steve swore he felt the temperature drop.

To his credit, Tony didn't even miss a beat, despite the fact that Bucky could indubitably tear him limb from limb before Tony had as much as donned his iron gloves.

“They're good words,” Tony said, barely sparing a glance for the girl before meeting Steve's gaze evenly. “Look, I never once put my foot down when you invited your prehistoric boy-toy to stay with us, despite the fact that he tried to kill half my friends and did, in fact, do in my parents that one time.” He shot Bucky a pointed look, but Bucky, for once, remained unaffected by the mention of the Winter Soldier's crimes. “But this is a new level of wacko, even for you guys.”

“She hasn't done anything wrong,” Steve said, an edge of desperation in his voice. She's a stranger, a little voice whispered in his head. She's family, another voice countered. It sounded a lot like his old, pre-serum self.

He still had one hand in the girl's and the other resting on Bucky's arm, so he resisted the urge to pinch the bridge of his nose. He hadn't had a headache in fifty years, but it sure as hell was starting to feel like pollen season in here.

“Sure she has,” Tony shrugged, unmoved. “Lots of wrongs. Bad wrongs. And unlike Bionic Barbie here, Skipper's been aware of herself the whole time. Why should we treat her any different than the other Hydra agents we've brought down? That you've brought down?” He looked from Steve to Bucky, and then down at the girl. Something like guilt flickered across his face, but then it was gone. “Sentimentality is the enemy of good sense,” Tony said quietly, almost as if he were speaking to himself.

“Would you stop us, if we tried to go?” Bucky asked, voice barely more than a growl. He was looking at a point somewhere above Tony's head, like he didn't trust himself to look directly at him.

Tony hesitated. For a moment, Steve really thought he might say yes. But then, he let out a long-suffering sigh and looked at the ceiling. “JARVIS?”

I have already taken the liberty of finding the easiest route to a recently uncovered Hydra cell which hasn't yet been raided, sir, should you have need of it,” came JARVIS' unfaltering response. If the AI had a face, Steve could have kissed it.

Tony nodded, eyes meeting Steve's. If Steve didn't know better, he'd say that Tony looked concerned. “If you get yourselves killed for this girl, I will hunt you down and kick your asses when you inevitably spawn again fifty years down the line. Or my unborn son will. Three generations of Starks, out for your butts, and not in the fun way. You hear me?”

Steve nodded solemnly. This was the closest he was ever going to get to a take care of yourself from Tony, and he'd take it.

His hand slid down from Bucky's arm to his hand, before he'd properly realised what he was doing. When Bucky's relieved (and a little startled) eyes met his own, Steve just smiled in what he hoped was a reassuring way. “Let's go,” he said, squeezing Bucky's hand. Bucky squeezed back, and nodded.

As he left the room, Steve didn't let himself look back at the unconscious girl wearing Bucky's frown and his own pre-serum frailty. This was a mission, he told himself. Just another mission.

Chapter Text

Steve and Bucky suited up in silence. Steve hesitated in front of his Captain America suit for a moment before reaching down into a drawer, and pulling out some dark stealth gear Tony'd had made for him. This wasn't a statement. If they by some miracle managed to get in and out without any Hydra agents knowing they were there, then that was only a good thing. What was left of SHIELD would get a team together and go back in, raiding the facilities and shutting down the plant, like they'd done all the others.

He and Bucky just needed to get inside and find the antidote, that was all. Of course, Steve didn't have the first clue what to look for, but he had a feeling Bucky did.

Ten minutes later he and Bucky were on the roof of Stark Tower, automatics in their holsters and parachutes strapped to their chests, approaching the Quinjet which was already roaring to life, force of the propellers strong enough to knock any lesser men off the roof.

Steve wasn't altogether surprised when they stepped inside, and found Natasha sitting at the controls panel.

“And where to on this magical evening, fellas?” She smirked as they strapped themselves in, but she took off without preamble. Clearly, Stark – or JARVIS – had already briefed her on the mission.

Steve wondered what Maria thought about all this, if anyone had even told her what they were doing. It was a far leap from keeping a Hydra agent (whatever her lineage) in custody, to actively endangering themselves in an effort to save her life.

But if Maria knew about their impromptu operation, she hadn't tried to stop them. Good, Steve thought. Although it wasn't talked about much, he knew that she still answered to Fury, but since the former SHIELD director was still in hiding, she'd had to make a lot of calls on her own these days. And Maria, a field agent by trade, knew the value of delegating responsibility.

Bucky was silent beside Steve as they flew towards wherever this Hydra cell was located. Steve peered at him out of the corner of his eye, trying not to be too obvious about it. Bucky had been on missions like this one before, since officially joining the Avengers a few months back, and Steve knew that in some ways it was cathartic for him, to be able to physically demolish pieces of his nightmarish past.

But this was different. They were not going to destroy, they were going to recover. And whatever steps Steve was willing to take to make sure this girl – this strange and impossible girl – survived, his feelings about her weren't any less conflicted.

She could be a miracle. She could be a monster. She could be an enemy. She could be a... daughter? No, Steve thought. Probably not that. But she could maybe be something. To both of them.

But before they figured any of that out, they needed to make sure she lived through the night.

To his surprise, Bucky reached out towards him, fumbling in the half-dark for a moment before his gloved hand found Steve's. He grabbed Steve's hand tight, just like Steve had done earlier, and held on. Steve turned to him, but Bucky was looking straight ahead, jaw clenched tight, eyes shadowed.

They didn't let go the whole way, until Natasha called back and informed them that they were closing in on the Hydra base.

Bucky met Steve's eyes and nodded once, then dropped his hand, straightening up in one fluid motion and jumping out of the plane without looking back.

“See you down there,” Steve called to Natasha before following Bucky, letting the rush of air greet him and allowing himself one precious moment of ambiguity – existing outside of time and space, just falling, simply falling – counting slowly to five before pulling on the string of his parachute and feeling the familiar lurch as he was pulled upwards, then settled in the wind.

Steve manoeuvred his descent carefully, eyes trained on the subtle blinking light attached to the top of Bucky's parachute below. Covered by darkness and completely invisible to anyone looking up from the ground, Bucky and Steve soared down, landing within minutes of each other, just as they always did. There had been no learning curve on that front, when Bucky'd re-joined his team. Where Bucky had still had to re-learn what it meant to be Steve's friend, he'd never faltered when it came to being his teammate. Having Steve's back came as naturally to Bucky as breathing... and Steve would be lying if he said that fact didn't fill him with joy. It was another reminder that his and Bucky's bond was something worth fighting for, even during the times when it had seemed like Bucky would never regain even a semblance of his former self.

Bucky had regained his memories eventually, and his mannerisms, and his moods. He was learning to be both, he'd told Steve once: understanding who he used to be, in the context of what Hydra had made him. Now he was simply Bucky, as much as Bucky could be who he had been, after everything that'd happened to him.

Steve thought he could relate, at least to a point. Some days he felt like the skinny kid from Brooklyn hadn't been him at all, but rather a ghost whose life he'd taken over and molded into his own when he'd been altered by the serum. Both Steve and Bucky had changed so much, he wasn't sure either of their past selves would recognise what they'd become.

And yet Bucky remembered the old Steve, and Steve remembered Bucky as he'd been, and maybe that was all that mattered.

His feet touched the ground and Steve felt rather than heard Bucky approach in the darkness as he rolled up his parachute. For a wild moment, Steve wanted to hug him, to bury his face in his neck and breathe him in, to lose himself in Bucky and forget the world.

He didn't give into the urge. He never did.

“You good to go?” Bucky asked, voice pitched low. Steve nodded, knowing that Bucky would see the movement even in the near-darkness.

They headed out, Bucky navigating using a tiny tracker, only point of reference a dim red light pulsating and showing him the way. Nat's tech, Steve knew. He wanted to understand it, but sometimes it was better to just leave her and Bucky to it. That was part of the little world they shared, which Steve could never touch, and he'd made his peace with that.

He sometimes wondered if there was more to Bucky and Natasha's friendship than tech. Couldn't help but. He'd never ask about that, either. None of my business, he'd always remind himself. The last thing he wanted to do was smother Bucky, so happy to have his best friend back in his life, and always a little bit terrified of losing him again. Steve would be – had always been – happy with whatever of himself Bucky'd been willing to give. If Steve had always wanted more, well, that was his business.

“Stop thinking so loudly, you'll give us away,” Bucky mumbled, never taking his eyes off the blinking red dot.

Steve snorted, staying close to Bucky as they moved through the darkness, his breath puffing down against the other man's neck. “How can you tell?”

“You breathe different,” Bucky said shortly. “Like you forget yourself. Sounds almost like...” he trailed off.

Like how it used to, Steve thought, feeling oddly sad. Sometimes he wondered if Bucky even recognized Steve's post-serum self. But then, he supposed Bucky had the same concerns about him.

“Sorry,” Steve murmured. Bucky's only response was to shrug, and Steve was so close he could feel the movement, a barely-there brush against his chest.

“It's not bad. Just maybe save the thinking for when we're not trying to be all stealthy,” Bucky whispered, and was that a note of amusement Steve detected in his voice?

Steve smiled, and kept his mind very firmly on the mission at hand.

Minutes later, they encountered their first guard. Bucky took him down silently, and they moved on. They came upon another guard, this one out for the count already, and looked up to see Natasha smirking at them.

“Took you long enough,” she drawled. Bucky gave her the finger; she laughed soundlessly. And off they went.

As it turned out, getting into a Hydra base undetected was a lot easier than going in guns blazing, at least when you were in the company of two former Russian assassins. They had to drop a few guards along the way, and Natasha calculated a fifteen-minute window until the breach would be discovered, but that should be plenty of time if things went smoothly.

Things didn't go smoothly.

They hit their first bump when they entered the lab, dropping down from an air vent and finding the place blissfully deserted. Bucky's eyes lingered on the tell-tale chair for only a split second, and Steve knew he was fighting the urge to tear it apart as he had all the others, but that wasn't why they were here.

Moving further into the lab, Bucky and Nat began rummaging through the cupboards and see-through refrigerators while Steve played lookout.

Fuck,” Bucky breathed, when five minutes had passed. “There's nothing here.”

“I'm coming up empty, too,” Natasha chimed in, voice grim. “Where to next?”

Bucky worried his lip, an old habit he'd recently rediscovered. “Shit, I was really hoping it'd be easy.”

“Please. This is us. Where's the fun in easy?” Natasha said, clapping Bucky on the back as she passed. She was one of the few who could touch him without warning, and Steve was equal parts happy and disappointed about that.

“There's another lab, deeper in,” Bucky said. “For insurance.”

“Well, let's go,” Steve said.

“Won't make our window,” Bucky cautioned.

“Will we get the antidote?” Steve countered, raising an eyebrow.

Bucky sighed. “Maybe?”

Steve smiled, mind made up. “Good enough for me.”

To his surprise (when would Bucky ever stop surprising him?), Bucky returned his grin with a wicked one of his own. “You're one crazy son of a bitch, you know that, Rogers?”

Steve blushed, taking it for the compliment he knew it was. Natasha rolled her eyes. “Save it for the bedroom, boys, let's roll.”

Ignoring Natasha, Bucky gave Steve one last incredulous smile before crouching down, and pulling up the vent in the floor with his metal fist.

They clambered inside, and Steve checked his watch: seven minutes left. He had to agree with Bucky: no sane person would ever do something this stupid. But how could they not?

He wondered vaguely, as he shuffled along the narrow tunnel behind Bucky (resolutely not looking at Bucky's ass), if there was any way this could have been Hydra's plan all along. Send this girl to them just in time for the poison to kick in, knowing that Steve and Bucky would embark on some crazy suicide mission in an effort to save her life.

He knew that couldn't be it, for one simple reason: Hydra would never be able to comprehend the kind of compassion which would inspire someone to do such an inadvisable thing for someone they'd just met. The only reasonable reaction would have been Tony's: don't go out of your way to save the enemy super soldier, no matter what fruit is in her cocktail.

But Steve and Bucky were willing to risk it, because while neither of them knew what to make of the girl yet, they were already too invested. As for Natasha, Steve suspected she had her own reasons for wanting to free another brainwashed young girl from Hydra's clutches. Or maybe she was just here for the hell of it. It really could go either way, where Natasha was concerned.

Bucky stopped crawling abruptly, and Steve was very close to smashing his face against his backside. Only extreme self-control stopped him short.

They were right on top of the second lab now, and Steve realised why Bucky had stopped: there were voices coming from below them.

Shit, Steve thought. So much for those seven minutes.

With Bucky facing away from him, Steve had no way of knowing what he was thinking, but he didn't need to. He braced himself, and sure enough, Bucky slammed through the vent the next moment, sending both himself and Steve crashing down into the lab, guns already out and blazing before their feet hit the ground.

The doctors never knew what hit them. All five, dead in an instant.

But the sound of gunfire would surely have been enough to wake the whole compound, and there was no ease to Bucky and Natasha's movements as they surged forwards, picking up vials and wrenching open cupboard doors as they went.

“There's nothing!” Bucky exclaimed, growing desperate. “Fuck, there's nothing!”

Steve heard shouting from just outside the door, and heavy footsteps were thundering above their heads.

“Nat?” He called anxiously.

“Nothing here either,” she responded, voice tight. “Just fucking blood samples and cultures, all of it.”

“They're not training assets anymore, might not have need of the antidote here,” Steve said, a sinking feeling in his gut; the thought had entered his mind earlier but he'd dismissed it, so intent on at least trying to allow himself any doubt.

Bucky was back by his side, and he looked so torn, it took Steve's breath away. Something heavy collided with the door, and then again.

Then Bucky did something he'd never done on a mission before: he took Steve's hand.

“You're not dying here, Steve,” Bucky said, a fierce determination in his eyes. And Steve, despite the horrible rush of failure threatening to overtake him, nodded tightly, squeezing Bucky's hand.

“Neither are you,” he said, trying to pour every bit of conviction he felt into his words.

Something seemed to pass between them, a promise, and for a brief, impossible moment it felt like Bucky was leaning in – but then his expression hardened and he nodded once, letting go of Steve's hand.

They helped Natasha up into the vent first, then Steve followed, reaching down to grab Bucky's arm as he hoisted himself up, too. They scurried through the vent much faster than when they'd gone the other way, and Steve heard the guards barging into the lab below, heard them shout in panicked Russian, and heard the gunfire start. They were firing upwards, piercing rips in the vent right behind them. Steve crawled faster, impossibly fast, Bucky right on his heels.

They emerged, miraculously unscathed, into the first lab they'd searched, and Bucky had only just hauled himself up onto the floor when the door flew off its hinges; Bucky and Steve instinctively moved closer together, both intent on protecting the other, but then Steve saw just who had barged through the door:

“Don't say I never gave you anything,” Tony's voice rang out through the Iron Man suit, and Steve let out a relieved breath he didn't know he'd been holding in.

The scattered groups of Hydra guards were no match for the four Avengers, who efficiently shot their way out of the facility – a rather less stealthy operation than they'd planned, when all was said and done, but they all emerged alive and unharmed.

There was no need for secrecy anymore, so Tony lit up like an airplane and flew on ahead with Natasha to get the Quinjet, leaving Bucky and Steve to make their way to the pick-up point a half a mile north of the compound.

“I'm sorry, Steve,” Bucky said after they'd caught their breath, trekking along beside him, hands swinging by their sides and not quite touching.

“Yeah, me too,” Steve murmured into the darkness, trying not to think about the poor girl who would pay for their failure.

He tried to take comfort in the fact that he, Bucky and Natasha had all made it out alive, with Tony's help. But they hadn't found the antidote, which meant that their entire mission had been for nothing. The surviving Hydra agents would have alerted the other cells, they'd figure out what they were looking for, and then there would be no antidote to find anywhere – even if they did have time to locate the cells and raid every single one, which, obviously, they did not.

They had failed. And the girl lying drawn and dying in Stark Tower... a mere glimpse of a life, maybe, that could have been. Come and gone in the blink of an eye.

Impossible as her existence would have been if not for Hydra, Steve couldn't deny the rightness of her. When he stripped away all the science and the evil and the brainwashing, the idea of a child that was somehow, miraculously both his and Bucky's... it hadn't been something he'd ever even dared to dream about, and yet, now that she was here, now that he was faced with the very real possibility that he might lose her...

Of course it was too good to be true, he figured. Of course it was never going to last.

Steve closed his eyes and took a deep, steadying breath, trying to pull himself together; to not be overcome with grief for something he'd never really had.

For something that was never meant to be his.

No one ever said it, but Steve had a feeling that kids were no longer a possibility for him, after the serum. Not even if he'd actually fallen in love with a woman, instead of losing his heart to his best friend. And as for Bucky, he was not likely to reproduce, either. Even if he still could, Steve doubted that he'd want to.

So this was it. Their glimpse at another reality. And they'd just shot it to hell.

Neither man spoke as they approached their pick-up point, and they waited in silence for the Quinjet, which descended after a few long minutes.

They stepped inside and strapped in, and Steve very carefully avoided Bucky's eye as they took off, heading home as empty-handed as they'd come.

Tony was sitting across from them, out of his suit now, watching them with an indecipherable expression on his face.

“You know,” he said after a beat, because Tony wasn't one for long silences, “I'm kinda waiting for a thank you, here. Maybe with a, You were right, Tony thrown in for good measure.” Another pause. “I'm looking at you, Silver Fang.”

Bucky's eyes flickered towards Tony. He didn't look angry so much as bone-deep tired. Steve wondered if Bucky felt as defeated as he did himself.

“Thank you, Tony,” Bucky sighed after a beat, and there was no venom in his voice now.

Tony smiled. “That's all I wanted. Now for the good news!”

Steve looked up, despite himself. So did Bucky.

“You found the antidote?” Steve asked, hardly daring to hope.

“Well...” Tony grimaced. “No. But,” he added quickly, because Bucky's hands were balling into fists at his sides, “I had a thought. Or, well, Bruce had a thought. But we're brain twins, so I might as well take credit for it. So, the poison's in her bloodstream, right? And she's got this super serum stuff running through her veins, just like you guys. We've got her on drips right now, and it's helping some, but then we thought--”

“Transfusion,” Bucky interrupted, looking up at Tony with far more interest.

“Total switcharoo,” Tony nodded grimly. “Like they do with newborns who reject their mothers' blood. Which, when you think about it, is poetic irony at its absolute finest.”

“You couldn't have thought of this before we went on this suicide mission?” Bucky asked, but Steve could practically feel the relief emanating from every pore of his being, and knew in that moment that Bucky was as worried about the girl's fate as he was.

Tony looked vaguely embarrassed. “Hence the dramatic last-minute rescue plan, right? Figured that'd make us even.”

“More than,” Bucky said immediately, and even Tony looked taken aback by the sincerity in his voice.

“Yeah, well,” Tony said, and Steve thought it might be a trick of the light, but it sure looked like Tony was blushing. “Hold the gift baskets until we pull off the actual insane part of the plan. There's no guarantee this will work.”

Bucky and Steve nodded, not daring to look at each other. Tony was right, of course. No point getting their hopes up. But... it was a plan. It was better than nothing.

 

Chapter Text

They were too late. Steve was sure of it.

They hadn't even bothered changing, rushing out of the Quinjet and racing to the lab, only to find themselves freezing in their tracks as they turned the corner and the girl came into view.

She lay pale and still where they'd left her, and Steve could practically feel the death in the room, the way his mother's room had felt on the day she'd died. The way it'd felt that day on the train: like someone important was slipping away from him, and he was powerless to stop it.

But then Bruce greeted them with a cautious smile, emerging from around the corner with a blood bag. Steve saw now that the girl was already hooked up to several bags, that appeared to be providing her with the fragile speck of life she must still be clinging on to.

But she was so pale. Her sandy hair looked dark now compared with her ashen complexion; the skin around her eyes was bruised and sunken, and her lips were white and chapped. Someone had wiped the blood off her chin, at least.

She looked elegant, Steve thought absently. Royal. Not peaceful, never that, but proud, somehow. Unyielding. Even in death, he thought, she'd be unyielding.

For one moment, Steve was reminded of the Sleeping Beauty cartoon, the one he'd been forced to watch (and had later forced Bucky to watch) as part of his social education. He'd loved that movie, more than he'd ever dared admit to anyone, and watching the girl lying there now, Steve thought she was as lovely and tragic as he had thought Aurora to be.

“It feels like I've stepped back in time,” Bucky murmured, voice right in Steve's ear; Steve hadn't even noticed Bucky coming up behind him. “I used to pray for you so many nights, Stevie, when you looked like this.”

It felt like a confession. Steve found Bucky's eyes and held them, seeking strength. But instead he found such a wealth of emotion there, it almost took his breath away. It was at times like these when Steve could almost, almost let himself believe—

Bruce cleared his throat and Steve abruptly turned away from Bucky, to find Bruce watching them. He quickly cast his eyes down and Steve followed his gaze, to see that he was holding a long needle, connected to a thin tube. Right, Steve thought with a sinking feeling.

Before the serum, Steve had had a terrible phobia of needles. After the serum, Steve still had a terrible phobia of needles, but he also knew that nothing they pumped into him – or out of him – would have an effect. That still didn't help with the nausea, though.

But one glance down at the girl was all it took: Steve pulled up his sleeve without hesitation, holding his arm out for Bruce to take.

“Actually, I'm gonna need to do both of you,” Bruce said apologetically, glancing at Bucky before taking a hold of Steve's forearm. Steve had to look away as the needle pierced through his skin, and he felt the familiar vertigo settle in, despite desperately trying to remind himself that it was all psychological.

Psychological or not, he still felt like he was gonna hurl.

“Does it work like that?” Bucky asked skeptically; he surreptitiously placed a hand low on Steve's back, rubbing gently back and forth. The soothing, familiar touch helped a little – Bucky always used to do that when Steve had to get injections in the past. He wondered if Bucky remembered, or if this was just one of his instinctive actions, borne by some subconscious desire to make Steve feel better. Either way, it worked wonders: Steve almost forgot about the needle completely, every part of his body acutely aware of where Bucky was touching him.

Banner's mouth set in a tight line. “It has to. There's too much of that poison in her bloodstream already. I've been keeping her on O-neg since you left, which is holding the poison at bay, but it's not gonna work for much longer. She's got your serum in her blood, and you can't just put normal blood in her body and expect her system to accept it. So...” he paused, looking truly sorry, “it's pretty much all or nothing at this point. And you've all got the same stuff running through your veins, so if we can get the exchange set up, she should accept your blood no problem.”

“Guess the serum's a family trait now,” Steve huffed out weakly, and Banner smiled tightly.

“In a manner of speaking.”

“Alright, doc, let's do this,” Bucky said firmly, reaching back for a chair, which he pushed Steve into, before heading around the bed and sitting himself down by the girl's other arm.

Steve kept his eyes trained on Bucky as Bruce repeated the procedure, sticking the needle into Bucky's arm (Bucky didn't even flinch) and securing it to the tube already attached to the girl.

Steve watched, mesmerised, as thick, red liquid began to flow from Bucky's arm and into the girl's, imagining how it'd merge with his own inside her veins. He smiled, despite himself. Poetic irony indeed, he thought.

They sat like that for a long time, both watching the girl, blood pouring from their veins into hers, while Banner worked to draw out her own blood.

Steve thought maybe an hour had gone by, by the time he began to feel a little light-headed. Even a super soldier could only give so much blood, and although Bucky looked as unaffected as ever, Steve knew the other man must be feeling the same way.

“She doing better?” Steve asked, his words slightly slurred. He absently wondered what Banner thought of all this – Steve and Bucky, falling over themselves to help this stranger, this enemy, just because she was... not family, exactly. But blood, at any rate. Yeah, Steve definitely thought it was fair to say she was their blood, now.

The thought made him giggle; Bucky's eyes met his, and Steve thought they looked slightly unfocused.

So that's how we can get drunk now, he thought, then giggled again. The corner of Bucky's mouth tugged up into a lop-sided, lazy smile. Steve wanted to draw him. Or kiss him. Or both.

“Much better,” Banner said, breaking into his reverie. “It's working. We just gotta keep it up for a bit longer, make sure she has enough to avoid going into anaphylactic shock. How're you guys feeling?”

“Never better,” Bucky drawled, slurring his words. Banner shot him a worried look. “No, really,” Bucky said again, looking like he took great care to speak clearly. “I can keep going. Stevie?”

Stevie. Steve's heart was singing. He could hear it pumping, loudly, in his chest. Buck-y. Buck-y. Buck-y. He realised, with the startling clarity of the delirious, that his heart had always been beating Bucky's name.

“Steve?” Banner's voice was full of worry, and when Steve managed to focus, he saw Bucky frowning.

“Huhn?” Steve managed.

“Maybe you should cut him off, doc,” Bucky said, sounding much more alert now. “She can get the rest from me.”

Bruce looked torn. “Well... I can give you both another five minutes, or one of you ten. Or I can end it early and risk her life.” He looked from Bucky to Steve. “Your call.”

Steve looked at Bucky, who was glaring at him, and Steve felt something stir within him. He's gonna take the ten, he realised, and shook his head to clear it. Clawing his way back to consciousness.

Bucky opened his mouth to speak, but Steve was faster. “We'll take the five together,” he said, surprised by how steady his voice sounded. It clearly took Bucky by surprise, too: he blinked, heavily, looking for a moment like he wasn't going to open his eyes again.

Out of the corner of his eye, Steve thought he saw Bruce smirking, but surely that couldn't be right. Bruce didn't smirk.

“Okay, then, I'll start the clock,” Bruce said, and when Steve looked again, he had that same old frowny Bruce-look on his face. Steve liked Bruce. He smiled widely, suddenly loving the fact that he had friends who were so nice and smart. Bruce looked very alarmed, and Steve tried to stop smiling. It didn't work. “Er,” Bruce said, “you better keep yourselves awake, now, or I'm cutting you both off.”

Steve nodded sagely, and then his eyes drifted back to Bucky, all on their own, as they often did. Bucky was already looking right at him, blue eyes almost comically wide in an effort to stay awake.

A minute passed. Maybe two.

Steve felt lighter than he had in years. But not in the good way, not anymore. He felt... insubstantial. Fragile. So much like his past self, and a part of him wanted to weep. Another part of him welcomed it, the familiarity of it all. Especially looking into Bucky's eyes, knowing now as he did then that whatever happened, Bucky would always be there to take care of him.

He didn't realise he was smiling again until Bucky smiled back, that same lop-sided grin Steve loved so much, which Bucky had so little reason to use these days.

“Hey, Stevie? Stevie,” Bucky said after a beat, and Steve realised his eyes had closed. He blinked them open frantically.

“Yuhh?” He murmured, then cleared his throat. “I mean, yeah?”

“She needs a name.”

Steve blinked. “Whuh?”

Bucky tilted his chin, indicating the girl. Following his gaze, Steve saw that she'd regained a lot of colour since the last time he looked. It's working. The flood of relief seemed to give him new strength.

“A name,” Bucky prompted. “We can't just keep calling her the girl.

“Huh,” Steve said. “Well...” he racked his brain, trying to remember what she'd told them about herself. Not her name. In her interrogation she had referred to herself as a weapon. A prototype. A soldier. No one had said anything about a name. But... “Surely she has one?” he asked uncertainly. “Everyone's got a name.”

Bucky's expression was sad when he replied softly, “I didn't.”

If he wasn't halfway to unconsciousness, Steve had a feeling that Bucky wouldn't be showing any emotion at all.

Steve looked at Bucky for a long time, wanting to say so many things but knowing that whatever he said, it'd come out awkward. I'm sorry you had to go through it, but I'm glad you're here now. I wish I could carry your burden for you. I hope you can forgive me.

If the small smile on Bucky's face was any indication, he heard it all anyway, without Steve having to say a word.

They both looked down at the girl, whose eyes were flickering behind her eyelids. That was a good sign, Steve thought, heart fluttering. He hoped.

“We should ask her, when she wakes up,” Steve whispered.

Bucky nodded, but his eyes were still sad. “And if she really doesn't have a name?”

Banner waved his hand tentatively, catching their attention. “Bruce can be a girl's name,” he offered.

Steve met Bucky's eye, and after a moment they both dissolved into a fit of giggles.

“I find out I have a daughter, fuck if I'm calling her Bruce,” Bucky managed through hiccups. “No offence, Bruce. It's a lovely name. Brrrruce.” He giggled some more. Steve watched him dopily, wondering how long it'd been since Bucky laughed like that. Before the war, it must have been.

Bruce smiled wanly, waving Bucky off. “None taken. We're done here, by the way.”

He went to remove Steve's tube first, and Steve caught and held Bucky's gaze as Bruce pulled the needle out of his arm. But he was too spent to feel anything but relief.

He flexed his hand, noting how pale it looked, wondering if the rest of him looked the same way... then Bucky was by his side, stumbling, grabbing Steve's arms, hauling him up; Steve didn't remember moving, but suddenly they were in the elevator, then on their floor, then in their apartment... and then they were both in a bed, Steve didn't know whose, tangled up and asleep in an instant.

 

Chapter Text

Steve woke up slowly. He felt like he'd run headfirst through a brick wall, or ten. Hangover, he thought, before remembering that he hadn't been able to get drunk in years. And then, ow.

Moving his head felt like too much work, so he merely squinted open his eyes – then abruptly opened them wide, finding himself face to face with a lightly snoring Bucky.

Steve squeezed his eyes tightly shut, and opened them again. Nope, not a dream. Bucky was still there. He tried moving his arm, wanting to feel the reality of this -- whatever this was -- but his muscles were completely unresponsive.

Steve blinked slowly, wondering why the panic didn't come. He was unable to move any part of his body but his eyes, and yet all his attention was focused on Bucky, content to just drink in the sight of him (when would Bucky's mere presence ever stop feeling like a miracle?), waiting patiently for the fragments of memories to make sense. Hydra base. Iron Man. Helicarrier. Bruce. Blood. Girl.

His eyes widened. Girl. He tried to move again, and groaned at the effort; his limbs were tingling as they began to wake up. The noise made Bucky's nose scrunch up, and a moment later his eyes, too, were blinking open.

Steve held completely still, waiting for Bucky's freak-out, for his Winter Soldier instincts to kick in, already wondering how the hell he was going to protect himself when his arms felt like jelly... but nothing happened. Bucky watched him silently for a long time, no trace of panic or confusion on his face. Then he smiled slightly, and closed his eyes again.

Huh, Steve thought. But his eyes were already heavy again, like lead, and somehow the knowledge that Bucky was right beside him, letting himself relax, trusting him, made Steve feel like everything was right with the world. He closed his eyes, and was asleep within moments.

The next time Steve woke up, everything ached. He groaned and tried to roll over, but found himself restricted by a very heavy, very warm arm slung across his chest.

“They really make this transfusion thing look a lot more sexy in the pictures, don't they?” Bucky's murmured into his ear, voice low and gravelly, and Steve yelped; Bucky chuckled, and Steve tried very hard not to shiver as he felt Bucky's breath against the side of his neck.

“Hey, Buck,” Steve tried, voice only slightly squeaky. Bucky's arm tightened across his chest, only for a second, before he let go. Steve had kind of lost the desire to roll over now, and just stayed on his back, blinking up at the ceiling. He felt Bucky's eyes on him, but didn't dare look over. Didn't want to shatter the illusion just yet; didn't want to risk seeing disgust – or worse, indifference – on Bucky's face.

“Hey, Steve,” Bucky replied lightly, as though waking up together was normal for them. (And maybe once, it had been. But that was a long time ago, when they'd been kids ignorant of the horrors and pleasures the world had to offer. There was nothing innocent about their minds or bodies now.)

“How long were we asleep?” Steve asked, pretending like he couldn't feel the heat of Bucky's body, pressed along his side.

“No idea,” Bucky yawned. “A while.” Steve could still feel Bucky's eyes on him, but the other man exuded nothing but contentment.

Steve cleared his throat. “Any word on... the girl?” She needs a name, he remembered Bucky saying.

“JARVIS says she's awake,” Bucky said, sounding more relaxed than he'd been in a long time. “I was waiting for you to wake up. You're a much heavier sleeper than you used to be.”

Steve snorted, despite himself. “Well, I did just lose half the blood in my body, Buck.” He finally chanced a glance at the other man, to find him looking at Steve with a peculiar expression on his face. His blue eyes were soft and his smile was fond; Steve thought he must still be feeling the effects of the drain a little bit.

“Hmm, yeah, it really knocks you out, doesn't it? Haven't slept that soundly in years, myself,” Bucky said.

Maybe we should do it again sometime, Steve wanted to quip. Only, he wouldn't be talking about the blood transfusion part.

“We should probably go see how she's doing,” he said instead, wishing he could keep Bucky in bed forever.

And – was that Steve's imagination, or was that disappointment on Bucky's face?

Whatever it was, it was gone the next moment as Bucky said, “Yeah,” with a small smile, pushing himself up and wincing at the movement. “Hopefully she's feeling better than we are.”

He got to his feet, turning back to extend his hand to Steve. Steve accepted it automatically, letting Bucky pull him to his feet. He stumbled a little, and Bucky's hands went to his chest to steady him.

For one, impossible moment, Bucky looked up and Steve looked down, and their faces were so, so close. Bucky must have been able to feel Steve's heart beating up a storm underneath his fingertips. Buck-y. Buck-y. Buck-y.

“We should go,” Bucky said softly, pulling his hands away.

“Yeah. Yeah, let's go,” Steve nodded, pushing down his disappointment. It was his own fault for allowing himself as much as even a sliver of hope. Him and his stupid, treacherous heart.

They went down to the lab, only to find it empty. Steve tempered down his panic, calling out, “JARVIS?”

At your service, Captain Rogers,” came the courteous response.

“Where's, er, the girl who Bruce was treating here earlier?” he asked.

I believe they transferred her back to her cell, sir,” JARVIS replied.

“Wait, what?” Steve replied incredulously. Eyes falling on Bucky, he saw that the other man looked thunderous, and he knew they were both thinking the same thing: she'd almost died, and they'd put her right back into that glass cage.

It was beginning to feel like a repeat performance, Bucky and Steve storming angrily down into the Containment area, yet here they were again, slamming through the door to the observation room, only to find...

The glass cage was empty. The girl was standing in the observation room, in fresh clothes and looking like she'd just come out of the shower, conversing in low tones with Natasha. Agent Hill was close by, reading something off a tablet. Bruce was there, too, hovering in a corner, clearly ready to step in if his medical assistance was needed.

She looked up when she saw them enter. Her face was as impassive as it had been before she got sick, but Steve'd had enough experience trying to read the Winter Soldier that he thought he knew relief when he saw it.

Both Steve and Bucky stopped just inside the door. Suddenly, there was no reason to be angry, and neither man really seemed to know what to do with himself.

Natasha looked like she was fighting the urge to smile.

“Rogers. Barnes. Glad to see you both up and walking,” said Hill, breaking the tense silence and stepping forward. All business, but there was nothing threatening about her tone or stance. Steve's estimation of the agent was rising by the minute.

“Yeah, well, we took a nap,” Bucky said wryly, and this time Natasha did smile.

“I hear red wine is advisable in this scenario,” Hill said, raising an eyebrow. Steve wasn't sure if she was trying to be funny, or if this was just the way she talked.

“If you're trying to get us drunk, you're about fifty years too late, Agent,” Bucky drawled. Was it Steve's imagination, or had Bucky been a lot more quick to joke around lately? He wondered if Bucky himself realised it. He hoped he didn't. The last thing he wanted was for Bucky to feel like he needed to be an imitation of his former self – not even if it meant he'd never tell another one of the stupid jokes Steve loved so much.

The girl tilted her head to the side, eyes moving back and forth as she watched their exchange. Steve was beginning to notice that she did this whenever she was trying to make sense of something.

“Your breathing changed,” she told Steve, almost accusingly.

Bucky snorted. “Told ya, Steve. You think too loudly.”

“I promise I'm trying to quit,” Steve shot back immediately. He was rewarded with another half-smile from Bucky.

He tentatively took a step closer to the girl, who had lost a bit of her relaxed air since Steve and Bucky came into the room. She didn't look threatened – or threatening – exactly. Just more aware.

Steve's eyes met Natasha's for a moment and she nodded imperceptibly. Steve took another step forward, then stopped. Keeping a respectable distance between them. Don't smother, he reminded himself.

“How're you feeling?” he asked her. She looked up at him, but said nothing, and he fought the urge to smack himself. Cause that's not a loaded question, Steve, he berated himself. “I mean, physically. The poison... it's gone?”

She was silent for another long moment, then she nodded. “Yes. The poison is gone.” She hesitated. “Agent Romanov told me what you did. I... could not have asked. Thank you.”

No, Steve thought with a pang of fresh hatred for Hydra. She'd probably been conditioned never to ask for anything.

“You're welcome,” he said, and hoped she knew he meant it.

Bucky cleared his throat, and stepped forward too, looking almost... shy? Steve had gotten so used to Bucky's stock shuttered expression, it was both wonderful and strange to see him so openly display his emotions.

“You got a name, kid?” Bucky asked, trying (and failing) to sound nonchalant about it.

She tilted her head again, and it looked like she was deliberating how to answer him. “I was given a new name for every mission,” she said at last.

Bucky scowled. “That's a no, then. Figured.”

Natasha stepped in then, closer to the girl than either Bucky or Steve would have felt comfortable going, but she didn't seem to mind. Even though Natasha was a stranger, Steve figured the girl had probably known others like her. The Black Widow programme was very uniform. She'd probably worked with them before, and knew how they moved.

“It was different for you than for the rest of us,” Natasha explained to her, and Steve figured she was speaking English mainly for his benefit. “We all started out somewhere else. Some part of us, however hidden it was, knew we had a name to remember. Some did--” she indicated Bucky, and the girl's eyes followed her gaze, “--others shed their past completely. I wasn't always Natasha, but I'm Natasha now.”

The way Nat spoke to her... it wasn't kind, exactly. But it was sort of soothing, and clearly having the desired effect. Steve wished he knew how she did it. He was so on edge around this girl, too aware of what she was and what that meant (and didn't mean) to be able to put on any kind of front. Then again, Natasha had been putting on a front her whole life; he doubted there was any situation she couldn't adapt to.

Steve realised they were all waiting for the girl to say something. She seemed to realise it, too, looking as close to uncomfortable as he'd yet seen her. Her gaze flickered from Natasha to Steve to Bucky, and then to Maria, who'd been standing by silently, just watching them, openly assessing.

“Well, I never had one,” the girl said at last, the merest hint of defiance in her voice. Kinda sounds like Bucky, Steve thought, fighting hard to suppress a smile. So much for not getting attached.

“Then what are we gonna call you?” Bucky asked, a challenge in his voice. Like he, too, picked up on her defiant streak and was trying to coax more of it forwards. There's a personality in there somewhere, Steve thought with a surge of hope. She may not have a past to remember, but as long as she had a self, she wasn't a lost cause. Steve hadn't realised until now how much depended on that one, vitally important factor.

She opened her mouth, then closed it. Cast her eyes down, the picture of deference, but Steve saw it for what it was: frustration. He wanted to pump his fist into the air.

Maria cleared her throat. “I like Boomquifa,” she said mildly.

For a moment, all eyes turned to her in disbelief. Her face was impassive as she looked directly at the girl, and it only took Steve a split second before he realised what she was doing.

“Hmm. Boomquifa. Solid choice for sure. Or how about... Prudence?” Steve said, pretending to consider it.

Bucky rolled his eyes. “You're both terrible at this. I vote Dolores. I loved that pink lady in those magic school movies.”

“Grawp's got a nice ring to it,” Natasha chimed in, eyes sparkling.

“I heard Banner cast a vote for Bruce earlier,” Steve shrugged, struggling to keep a straight face now. “It's starting to grow on me.”

The girl's eyes were wide as she watched them all debate her future name, and her mouth was open the tiniest bit.

Come on, now, Steve thought, even as he said, “Or, you know, there's always Tony. He'd love that.”

“Now hang on a sec, if we have to name her after anyone, it really should be me,” Bucky said, arms crossed over his chest. “Bucky works for both genders.”

“I'm not going to answer to Bucky,” the girl finally exclaimed, looking more shocked than anyone else by her outburst, and she immediately fell back into her rigid stance, looking like she expected to be reprimanded. Or worse. Steve felt something heavy settle in his chest, feeling instantly bad that they'd been pushing her.

“Hey, no. You don't need to do that here,” he said gently, stepping closer, despite himself. The air was heavy all of a sudden, and he realised how this must all look from the girl's perspective: a group of strangers, debating her fate.

He hesitated, then reached out, putting a hand on her arm and tugging it down gently. She looked confused by the touch, clearly unaccustomed to kindness. Steve vowed, then and there, that he would rectify that. Screw caution, that had never been his forte anyway. He would be kind to this girl, no matter what else he did in this life. He would prove to her that she could be more than a soldier.

Whatever Hydra had used her for, she had never had a choice about anything in her life before. He would have tried to help her regain her freedom no matter whose DNA they'd used to build her with.

“Tell us what to call you,” he said softly, ducking his head down to meet her eyes. Hoping she understood the message he was trying to send her with his words and his actions, even if she'd never experienced it firsthand. You're safe here. I'm not going to hurt you.

Her eyes were still downcast as she said, very softly, “I thought, maybe... Brooklyn.”

Steve's eyebrows shot up, and he heard Bucky's breath hitch, ever so slightly, behind him. For a long moment, no one spoke.

“Oh.” He cleared his throat. Someone had to say something. “Uh.” Steve glanced at Bucky, but his face was a mask. The girl raised her head and looked right at him, challenging. Terrified?

And Steve saw, for a split second, himself in her eyes: small and fragile but wild and unrelenting, standing in that alleyway, fists raised, the bullies bearing down on him. Nowhere to run – and no intention of trying. He swallowed, and very deliberately tempered down all the questions he wanted to ask; he'd asked her to make a choice, and she had. “Brooklyn it is.”

“This is fucked up, Steve.”

Bucky was sitting at their kitchen table, head in his hands. He still looked a little pale, despite the fact that his blood should have replenished itself by now. Steve thought it probably had more to do with the girl currently sleeping three floors below them (they'd agreed to Maria's request that she stay in her cell for the time being, on the condition that she be given a comfortable bed to sleep in, and access to a restroom whenever she needed it) than it did anything else.

“Well, I'm open to any bright ideas,” Steve sighed, hands curled loosely around the cup of coffee he'd poured himself an hour ago. The heat emanating from his palms was keeping it warm, rather than the other way around. Just one of the many ways in which the serum had turned his life upside-down.

“It was easier when we were just shooting Hydra agents,” Bucky mumbled sullenly.

“Or when we were passing out at her bedside,” Steve nodded, absent-mindedly letting his eyes wander, tracing Bucky's hands, forehead, every part that was visible. He didn't get a lot of chances to watch Bucky like this, without the other man noticing. Silver linings, he thought wryly.

“Now she's just... here.” Bucky sounded so lost, and Steve wasn't sure whether to feel upset that his friend was in distress, or relieved that Bucky was able to feel this intensely about someone who wasn't Steve.

In the beginning, when he'd first begun to find himself again, Bucky's world had revolved around Steve, a fixed point in an otherwise confusing, terrifying reality. His circle of trust had slowly extended to include Natasha and Sam, eventually Bruce, and to a certain extent Tony, even if trust might be a strong word to use for that particular constellation.

“At least she has a name now,” Steve said, allowing himself a small smile. “Which she picked herself.”

Bucky snorted. “Brooklyn. Of all the fucking words in the dictionary.”

“Better than Boomquifa,” Steve shrugged, playing with the handle on his coffee cup. Of course, he knew exactly why this was bothering Bucky.

“She must know,” Bucky said, finally raising his head from his hands and watching Steve, as though he'd been locking eyes with him the whole time. Did he catch me staring? Steve thought wildly, trying not to blush. But, for once, Bucky seemed too distracted by his own thoughts to notice much of anything. “I mean, she must know. About us. Our past. She knew our names, who we were. They've taught her about us, where we came from. Is this a trick? She's looking for ways to exploit our sentimentality and gain our trust, right? That has to be her play here. Cause I don't know about you, but she doesn't exactly strike me as the sentimental type.”

But the look Bucky gave Steve didn't look accusatory as much as desperate. Like he wanted Steve to prove him wrong.

Steve sighed heavily. “I have no clue, Buck,” he admitted, wishing he had a better answer. But he had no idea what the girl's – Brooklyn's – plan was, if she even had one. “Maybe she was just trying to find a name that held some kind of meaning,” he said at last, grasping. “I get the feeling she doesn't have much of that in her life. So... maybe the closest she could get was something that held meaning for us.”

“Or maybe she's just a manipulative little fucker,” Bucky mumbled, but a smile was tugging at his lips now. Mission accomplished, Steve thought.

“Yeah,” Steve smiled back, because what else could he do? “That's also a valid theory.”

They sat there, smiling stupidly at each other, for a long time. It was odd, Steve mused, how something as absurd as this was what it took to tear down the final wall between them. While they were busy worrying about this new situation, it was like they'd both forgotten to act cautiously around each other. Steve forgot to treat Bucky like a fragile thing, and Bucky forgot to censor himself; Steve'd had a nagging suspicion that Bucky had been holding himself back, trying to not be so, well, Bucky, to avoid getting Steve's hopes up about his recovery.

He knew Bucky hated that look Steve used to get in the beginning, whenever Bucky would do or say something familiar. It makes me feel like I'm not enough for you, the way I am now. Like you're just waiting for a ghost, and I can't be that for you, Steve, Bucky had exclaimed one day, on one of the rare occasions that he'd allowed his frustrations to run free. Steve hadn't been able to explain that that, right there, was all he'd ever wanted: Bucky's honest, true self, no holds barred and no deceptions, nothing held back and nothing restrained.

When he said he wanted Bucky to be himself, he wasn't talking about the Bucky he'd once been, but the Bucky he was now. He'd told Bucky as much, many times, but Steve still wasn't sure Bucky really believed him.

But these past few days, Bucky had been so distracted by the arrival of the girl, he'd forgotten to put up his walls. He'd forgotten to try being something he wasn't. It was intoxicating. Steve thought he might never get enough of just watching Bucky be Bucky, doing mundane things, living his life.

And now, the girl was here. Brooklyn, she'd called herself. Steve thought Bucky might be half-right in his estimation of her reasons for picking the name. Yes, she must know the emotional resonance it held for them. But there was so much more to it, for Steve at least: Brooklyn was where Steve and Bucky had met. Where they'd fused their lives together and become inseparable, where their fates had forever been entwined. The Brooklyn they knew and loved was gone, as unrecognisable from how it used to be as Steve and Bucky themselves, but it would always be where they'd joined together as one. How fitting it was, that the girl should pick this name.

She definitely knew about their past. The real question was how much she understood. It was easy to write her off as a blank slate, ready to blindly follow orders without any independent thought, because of the way she acted. But Steve was starting to suspect that there was a lot more going on beneath the surface than anyone – possibly even Hydra – had given her credit for. Maybe the despondency was just her way of protecting herself.

“Still doesn't explain what we're gonna do about her,” Bucky sighed, as if continuing a conversation they'd just been having.

Steve shrugged, easily picking up the thread. It wasn't like he hadn't been wondering the same thing himself. “Not sure there's much we can do, at least not yet. I figure SHIELD will have some notion--”

“They're not keeping her locked up,” Bucky said, surprisingly firm, cementing Steve's theory that Bucky felt as strong of a connection to this girl as he did.

Sentimentality, Stark had called it. Perhaps it was the same kind of sentimentality that Bucky hadn't quite been able to muster up for himself, since he'd been the Winter Soldier. Perhaps it was easier to feel it for someone else. The old Bucky was gone, and so was the old Brooklyn, but this girl – this Brooklyn – was new.

“Agreed,” Steve said. “But then what? Put her up in the guest bedroom?” Actually, that doesn't sound like a terrible idea, he noted to himself, but he thought Bucky might not quite be as blindly trusting, all things considered. And he really shouldn't be. Whatever she might be to them, she had still been raised by Hydra, to be their enemy.

Steve knew he was far too ready to trust this girl, and he desperately hoped he wouldn't come to regret it.

Bucky sighed, looking as lost as Steve felt. “Hell if I know,” he said. “You wouldn't think I'd be calling for the liberation of any Hydra agent, but considering how she's... well, ours...” he smirked. “We should probably talk about that, by the way.”

Steve could feel his face reddening, and knew Bucky would notice. “What, you mean how she's technically...” our daughter? He couldn't make himself say it, but he didn't have to. Bucky knew.

“It's just... it's fucking weird, Steve,” Bucky sighed, running a hand over his face. Steve tracked the motion, noting the lines around Bucky's eyes, the stubble on his cheeks and chin. Despite the fact that they'd both slept through the night, for once, Bucky's exhaustion was bone-deep. Steve wished he knew how to help.

Bucky grimaced, and Steve wondered if he'd noticed him looking this time. He tore his eyes away, as Bucky continued, “I know this is the future and everything, but even Howard couldn't have imagined this kind of science. Mashing the two of us up and making this brand new person...” He looked like he couldn't decide whether to be amazed or disturbed. “Who ever thought that was a good idea, anyway?”

Steve smiled sadly. “Nah, I dunno,” he found himself saying. “I could think of worse people to have a kid with.”

That wasn't the half of it, of course. Steve could think of no one else he'd have a kid with, which meant that until two days ago, kids hadn't been part of the equation for him at all. But Bucky didn't need to know that.

Bucky watched him strangely for a moment. Then something seemed to break, and a fond smile transformed his tired face, making him look young again. Steve's heart ached. “Only you, Steve,” Bucky said softly, shaking his head with something like wonder in his eyes.

“I think...” Steve hesitated, very aware now of the dangerous territory they were skirting. Bucky raised an eyebrow, waiting. “I think it could be a good thing. The girl. Brooklyn. I mean--” he said quickly, “--I know the whole thing, what Hydra did, is awful. But she's here now, right? So, I dunno, maybe we could--”

“Steve...” Bucky started, frowning now, but Steve held up his hand and Bucky fell silent.

“I know what you're gonna say,” Steve said, and they both knew it was true. Despite all they'd been through, they knew each other better than anyone. “I know how many ways this can go wrong, believe me. But you know me,” he chuckled. “Optimistic to the point of stupidity.”

“Well beyond,” Bucky mumbled, but the smile was back on his face now.

Steve rolled his eyes. “But my point is, we can do this. Take her in, help her be someone. We... together, we can do this. I know we can.”

He found himself a little out of breath all of a sudden, watching Bucky, waiting for the rejection. He hadn't realised until he'd spoken the words aloud just how much he was asking, without asking at all.

“You'd want to?” The question came almost shyly, though Steve could tell Bucky tried his best to sound nonchalant about it.

Steve smiled sadly, hearing the weight of Bucky's question. “Of course I'd want to. It's us. We can do this.” But if Bucky doubted his sincerity, even now, after everything...

“Okay,” Bucky said.

Steve blinked, momentarily taken aback. “What, just like that?”

“Just like that,” Bucky shrugged, and for a moment he looked, absurdly, like he wanted to laugh.

“What's so funny?” Steve couldn't help but ask, wanting to keep that look on Bucky's face forever.

Bucky shook his head, eyes sparkling in a way they hadn't done in a long while. “Honestly? What part of this isn't?”

“I guess this is all pretty ridiculous, isn't it?” Steve allowed, smiling, some of the tension beginning to seep out of him at Bucky's obvious amusement.

To his surprise, Bucky stood up suddenly, coming around the table. He pulled Steve up from his chair, Steve only managing to catch a flash of Bucky's choked-up expression; the next moment, Bucky'd wrapped his arms around him. Steve was so thrown, he didn't react at first, just letting Bucky pull him close and feeling him take in a deep breath, exhaling heavily against Steve's neck. Steve had hardly had time to raise his arms and return the hug before it was over; Bucky pulled away, stepping back and bringing his hand up to rest on Steve's shoulder, his face carefully schooled back into a blank expression now.

“Well, Stevie. Guess we're adopting,” he proclaimed, and his poker face lasted for exactly three seconds before the facade broke and he snorted, the absurdness of it all clearly coming back to him. Steve couldn't help but laugh, overcome with the absurdity of it all, and maybe a little bit relieved; Bucky laughed, too, for the second time in as many days, and Steve couldn't remember the last time his heart had felt this light.

They turned in for the night in good spirits, but Steve realised as he lay in bed, listening to Bucky breathing heavily in the next room, that they'd never actually talked about what they were gonna do about the girl – beyond deciding to take her in.

It was hard to wrap his head around the whole thing. Not so much that she existed – after the initial shock had worn off, Steve'd had to reckon with the fact that, in comparison with all the other weird shit he'd experienced, combining the DNA of two men to make a baby really wasn't that incomprehensible – but that she was just... here, like Bucky'd said. Seemingly benevolent, and without agenda. No deadly poison to save her from, no immediate enemy to fight. She was just existing, being their daughter, but not their daughter, because she was also a barely-adult, genetically engineered super-soldier who had been at war her entire life.

It'd almost be easier if she was openly trying to kill them. At least then, they'd have a clear path to follow (Tony had once called the try-not-to-die-mode his easiest setting; at the time it had made no sense, but Steve was pretty sure he was starting to get what he meant). As it were, they were faced with a young girl, trained to be a killing machine, finding herself without a mission for the first time in her life, and... in her own abstract way, it seemed, looking to Bucky and Steve for guidance.

And that was the real issue. Not the girl herself, but what Steve was expected to be to her. Which role was he supposed to take on? How would he know if he was doing too much, or too little? Did he have the right to call himself her... father? Should he? And did he want to? He didn't know what it meant to be a dad, after all. He'd never had one himself.

Of course it'd really help once they actually got to sit down with the girl so she could tell them what she wanted... if she wanted. Steve imagined, with a certain sense of horror, that this was what the Winter Soldier would have been like if Hydra had truly managed to wipe Bucky from his brain. Just a mindless soldier, with no past life to interfere with his obedience.

Except Brooklyn, as she'd named herself, was clearly not mindless, for all her compliance. Steve knew for a fact that she did want one thing: to live. She'd been dying, and – subconsciously as it may have been – she'd sought their help, making her way to Stark Tower just in time for the poison to kick in. That had to mean something.

Steve remembered how despondent Bucky had been the first few months after he'd escaped from Hydra. He'd been at war with himself, trying to claw some semblance of self out from under the charred rubble of his mind, but he wouldn't have rolled if he'd caught fire. He simply didn't have that impulse of self-preservation.

Brooklyn definitely had a flame inside of her, even if it was only a flicker.

And maybe that was the role he and Bucky could play in her life: maybe they could help her strip away the soldier, and uncover the person underneath. Maybe, like actual parents, they could help her discover who she was supposed to be.

 

Chapter Text

As it turned out, Steve and Bucky deciding to take Brooklyn in wasn't enough to convince SHIELD to let her out of confinement.

In fact, Bucky and Steve soon found out that, as far as SHIELD was concerned, the girl's death may have been the preferred outcome of their little crisis. Because now, they actually had to treat her like a person – but they still weren't willing to let her roam around Stark Tower freely (and, Steve had to admit, genetics alone probably shouldn't give anyone a carte blanche, as much as he might want to bend the rules in this case).

Not that Maria would ever openly say any of this to them. At this point, Steve was pretty sure that Maria was more than willing to let him and Bucky take point on this – but despite acting in the capacity of Director, she was not, of course, the real person in charge.

They were awoken by JARVIS the next morning, who announced that Nick Fury was back from the dead. Bucky and Steve met in the kitchen, matching expressions of bleary-eyed confusion on their faces, and then hastily shuffled down to the Avengers' rec room after another prompting by JARVIS. The minute they arrived, Fury wasted no time with pleasantries.

“Gentlemen. I hear our surprise guest is sending you out on dangerous missions without my jurisdiction.”

Steve automatically stood up a little straighter at Fury's tone, but he was not about to let the old Director dictate the conversation. “We don't actually need your jurisdiction, Nick,” he said evenly.

As he spoke, Maria, Natasha and Tony quietly came in through another door, clearly having been summoned by JARVIS as well. Tony was wearing red and gold Iron Man pyjamas, which would have been hilarious under any other circumstances.

“You do when it involves risking your neck to save Hydra spies,” Fury declared, fixing Steve with a piercing look.

“Actually, I think you'll find we are very much in control of our own necks, and how we choose to risk them,” Steve said, standing his ground.

A vein ticked in Fury's temple. “Damn it, Steve,” he said, finally losing some of that pompous air which he'd clearly hoped would put the fear of God in them. Maybe it would have, once. Steve sure had a lot of respect for this man, but he wasn't SHIELD's dancing monkey any more than he'd been the government's back in the '40s. No one was going to dictate his life.

“What do you want from us, Nick?” he asked, hoping that they could drop the intimidation game now. They all knew why Fury was here, after all.

Fury regarded Steve for a moment, then deflated, suddenly looking much older than he was. He indicated the sofa, before letting himself sink down into one of the plushy armchairs. Not a surrender, but a retreat.

Steve turned to Bucky – his right-hand man in this, and all things. Bucky nodded; Steve took that as acquiescence to move in on hostile territory. Just like old times.

They went to the couch and sat down, even closer than they might have otherwise: a united front against what Steve very much hoped would not turn out to be the enemy.

Tony and Maria had been staying back, but they took their cue to move closer as well. Tony, Steve noted with pleasant surprise, took a seat next to him on the arm of the couch. Picking his side.

Maria came to stand by Fury's side. Natasha hung back – her loyalties, as always, obscure.

“What do you want, Nick?” Steve asked Fury, who was watching him and Bucky carefully. Planning his next move.

Fury took a second before he answered, deliberating his words. “From you, nothing,” he said at last.

Steve waited, but Fury did not elaborate. He opened his mouth to ask, but Bucky beat him to it. “You want the girl.”

Fury's eye landed on Bucky, frankly assessing. “I want Hydra destroyed. I was of the impression we saw eye-to-eye on that, Barnes.”

Bucky squared his jaw. “This girl is not Hydra. Not anymore.”

Fury's eyebrow shot up. “I'm sorry, are we talking about the same genetically engineered super soldier here? I watched the interrogation tape, she said herself that she didn't escape from her captors. She simply walked away after we annihilated them, choosing to come here on a whim. We're taking her on her own good word here, nothing more.”

“Nothing less, either,” Steve pointed out.

Fury's patience was clearly running out. “Damn it, I'm not going to risk half of my Avengers because of a genetic technicality, Rogers!”

Bucky was halfway out of his seat – Steve wasn't sure what exactly he was planning to do - when Tony spoke up from Steve's other side. “Uh, pardon me for interrupting your sexy smouldering contest, but did you say your Avengers?”

If Fury had been a lesser man, he might have backed down at that. As it was, he sat up straighter and met Tony's gaze evenly, ignoring Bucky completely; Steve put a hand on Bucky's arm and guided him back to the couch. Bucky allowed it, though his eyes were still murderous as they stayed locked on Fury.

“SHIELD has been instrumental to your success, and you know it, Tony,” Fury said, voice like ice.

“What I know is that SHIELD would be nothing without us, and that's a fact, Nick,” Tony fired back, somehow managing to maintain an air of authority even as the gold pyjamas shimmered when he moved.

Gentlemen,” Maria cut in sharply, and everyone shut up. Even Fury, finally, looked a tiny bit contrite. “This is not the time to have this conversation. We have one point on the agenda today, and that is the girl who calls herself Brooklyn.”

Maria may stand by Fury's side, but Steve didn't miss the fact that she'd chosen to call Brooklyn by her chosen name. And it seemed to have an effect: when Fury spoke again, his anger had mostly dissipated. But his voice was still loaded with disappointment when he asked Steve, “Don't you see the danger here?”

Steve sighed. This was a stalemate: Fury wasn't wrong, but hell if they were going to give into his demands. “Of course we do,” he said. “But we have to make a call here, and you just don't have the jurisdiction--”

“Oh, I have the jurisdiction all right, the girl handed herself in to my organisation--”

“Actually she walked into Stark Tower, which last time I checked does not belong to you--”

“Until we know what her endgame is, we can't possibly allow--”

“Which you know as well as I do will be never, because even if she did have a secret agenda she wouldn't be very likely to--”

“Shut. The fuck. Up.”

Steve and Fury both stopped mid-sentence, eyes locked, matching looks of surprise on their faces.

As one, they turned to face Bucky, who had stood up again. His expression matched the icy tone of his voice.

“Bucky, I--” Steve started, but Bucky raised a hand and he fell silent again.

“I like you, Fury,” Bucky said evenly, glaring down at the other man. “I'm glad you didn't die when I killed you. But this is not about me and you anymore. Unlike me, this girl is here, of her own free will. She didn't ask for any of this, and I don't give a fuck what she did, or what she might do. Steve and I can take care of ourselves, and we can take care of her. I am not going to hand her over to you so you can lock her up in the attic like some toy you decided you didn't wanna play with anymore.”

Nobody spoke. Steve looked from Bucky to Fury, the sound of his own heartbeat suddenly uncomfortably loud in his own ears. This was it, he realised. The turning point. Bucky had put up with a lot of shit from SHIELD since coming back; had jumped through every single hoop they'd put up for him, but if Fury didn't give in on this, Steve had no question that Bucky's days of cooperation would be over.

And if Bucky was out, Steve would follow. He always had.

Fury clearly felt the gravity of the moment, too, because he stayed silent, staring down Bucky as though he could make the other man bend to his will by the power of thought alone. Steve resisted the urge to laugh. Fury clearly didn't know Bucky at all.

In the end, it was Agent Hill who broke the silence. “So what do you propose we do?” she asked tacitly, looking between Bucky and Steve. “If we can't let her go free, and we can't keep her locked up?” Unlike Fury, she sounded like she was sincerely open to suggestions.

“Here's a radical thought,” Tony chimed in, and Steve turned; he'd half forgotten Tony was even there. “How about asking what she wants?”

Steve gave him a small, appreciative smile, despite himself. “That's a great idea. Except she doesn't seem to want much of anything.”

Tony shrugged, undeterred. “Maybe she needs time. Her world just ended. And she only just got a name, and two brand-spanking new daddies. Let her catch her breath.”

“You're taking about her like she's some normal girl,” Natasha broke in from the sideline, voice and expression carefully blank. “Don't forget, she's basically Captain America and the Winter Soldier combined, all wrapped up in a neat little Hydra package. She's not some abandoned kitten looking for a new home, you can't just take her in and expect her to be a part of your happy little family."

Et tu, Brute ? thought Steve. Out loud, he said, “But why not? Why the hell not? We're all super freaks here. You know better than anyone what she's going through.” Despite the direct dig, Natasha didn't even flinch; Steve kept going, refusing to be deterred. “If there's anywhere she belongs, surely it's with people who can help her understand herself, find her purpose--”

“You'd make her part of the team?” Hill asked sharply: an opening.

Steve opened his mouth to say yes, noticed Fury's skeptical gaze, and checked himself. “I don't know. Maybe. One day.” He glanced at Bucky, who was still glaring at Fury, gaze unwavering. “If she wants to be. And... if she proves herself,” he added, for Fury's benefit.

“Hmm,” Natasha said. Her gaze fell on Bucky, who was still glaring at Fury. “It's true, she can certainly be an... asset, to us.”

Steve was still looking at Bucky, so he didn't miss the way the other man's eyes hardened, finally turning from Fury to Natasha. Another enemy detected. Steve glared at her, too. Of all the words to use.

But Natasha knew exactly what she was doing. It was clear that she was expecting some kind of reaction from Bucky, the way she was watching him. She wanted him to show how he really felt about this. Bucky stayed silent, but Steve could see it was an effort.

“She will be no such thing,” Steve said firmly, cutting off the wordless standoff before it had a chance to properly begin. “Whatever she is, she is not something for us to... program, or break down. We just have to meet her where she is. Wherever that is.”

She wasn't like Bucky, and they wouldn't be able to bring her around like they'd done with him, that much should be obvious to all of them. She didn't have repressed memories – none that they knew of, anyway. She had never been unmade, because she'd never had the chance to be anything but what Hydra had made her.

What she could become, now that she was free to choose her own path... well, they had no way of knowing that before they actually spoke to her. It really was very simple: as far as Steve was concerned, they couldn't possibly make this kind of decision about Brooklyn's future before they got to know her. And, to get to know her, they'd need to keep her around.

At last, something in Bucky seemed to break. He finally turned to look at Steve, and Steve saw an odd mixture of emotions flicker across the other man's face before he got himself under control.

“What he said,” Bucky agreed, keeping his eyes locked with Steve's, even though his words were for everyone's benefit. “Whatever reason she came here, it wasn't to switch sides. She's not trading one handler for another, and we're not going to force her to fight in someone else's war.”

His tone was low and even, and it all sounded very cold and emotionless – but this was the most assertive Bucky had been since they had been reunited. This, right here, was the most uncompromising Steve had yet seen him, and he couldn't help the warm feeling spreading in his chest. Steve hadn't seen him fighting so hard for someone else since, well... since Bucky had been fighting for him.

“I'm not gonna convince you to hand her over, am I?” Fury asked, resignation in his voice, and Steve knew they'd won. He was relieved. They'd never have agreed to give up the girl, of course, and Fury didn't actually have the power to take her – but refusing his demand would have made an enemy out of the old Director. And Steve was already running out of friends.

“You're not,” Steve said, deciding that this was a good place to end the conversation. He stood from the couch, deliberately brushing his arm against Bucky's as he passed; Bucky seemed to take the hint, giving Fury one last cold look before turning, following Steve to the doorway. Steve opened the door and allowed Bucky to pass through first, then hesitated, turning to see everyone in the rec room watching him. He made sure he met every single pair of eyes before speaking.

“We take care of our own,” Steve said softly, because this was not a threat, nor was it a promise. He was merely stating a fact. “Always have. I know you mean well, and you're all very important to me. But Bucky...” he paused, searching for the words, not sure anything he said could ever make them understand. “Bucky's family. It's always been the two of us against the world, and you all know exactly what we're willing to do for each other. Nothing's changed for us, except that we've got someone else to look after now. And I don't expect you to understand. I'm still not sure I understand it myself. But we're gonna help this girl, if it kills us.”

Till the end of the line, he thought resolutely, hoping he wasn't making a huge mistake.

Fury gave him a long, almost sad look. “That's exactly what I'm afraid of, Cap.”

Bucky was quiet. That was nothing new, of course: Bucky was always quiet these days. But this silence was different. More... noisy.

The Winter Soldier's silences were long and empty, his eyes far away as his brain tried to shut itself down, tried to stop the memories that threatened to flood in and overwhelm him.

Bucky's silences were haunted, confused, and heavy like lead, a mess of strings calling out to be untangled.

But this silence was angry. Bucky wasn't speaking, had hardly moved from his seat on the couch since they'd come back to the apartment, but he may as well have been thrashing and screaming for all Steve could tell.

He wished he knew what to say.

Steve stood by the big window in the living room, watching the city below, listening to the deafening silence, wishing he knew what was going on inside Bucky's head.

The girl was secure in her cell, for now. SHIELD wasn't going to sweep in and take her away this minute, at least. Tony, and possibly Maria, were on their side. Natasha, Steve wasn't so sure of. She trusted him, or at least she had, and trusting Steve meant trusting Bucky by extension. But Natasha knew better than anyone – maybe even better than Bucky – how a human soul could be corrupted by prolonged exposure to the evils of the world. A Black Widow, Steve mused, was probably not that different from what Brooklyn had been raised as. That made her unpredictable at best; loyal to them only as long as it served her agenda.

The truth was that they had no idea what she might do to them, not unless they made themselves vulnerable to her first.

Steve fought the urge to beat his head against the window in frustration. Were they idiots? Sentimental to the point of extreme stupidity? Bucky and Steve had been bonded for life, brothers, more than brothers, without a drop of shared blood between them. In their experience, family was something you made, not something you were born into. This girl's blood was the only thing tying her to them, but did it count for anything? In Steve's experience, the answer was no.

And yet. And yet. If either of them had ever had a kid the conventional way, wouldn't they have had an obligation to that child? An obligation to protect them, to care for them, to set them on the right path in life? If Bucky'd had a kid, wouldn't Steve have loved it, just because it was Bucky's?

So lost was Steve in his own thoughts, he didn't notice Bucky come up behind him before he saw Bucky's reflection in the glass, right next to his own.

He watched the reflection of Bucky, as Bucky watched his, their eyes meeting in that odd, mirrored way that somehow should be impossible. Bucky looked wrecked. Steve resisted the urge to turn towards the real him, instead keeping his eyes locked with Bucky's through the glass.

“She could be my redemption,” Bucky said quietly, voice breaking on the last word.

“What?” Steve asked, trying to match Bucky's tone, not wanting to scare him away. Bucky was close to him, closer than usual, shoulder brushing Steve's, and Steve knew better than to move too fast, lean in too far, seem too eager.

Bucky was quiet for a long time. Steve was beginning to think he wouldn't elaborate, when, “Hydra took everything from me. My free will. My memories. You.” It seemed easier for Bucky to admit all this when he was speaking to a reflection, so Steve kept his mouth shut, trying very hard to keep his breathing even. Let Bucky get out whatever it was that he needed to say, on his own terms. “All this time, ever since I came back... even though I broke free, it felt like they'd already won. Like, whatever I did with the rest of my life, it wouldn't matter, because they were always gonna own my soul. But now...” Bucky shook his head, smiling sadly. “I know this sounds dumb, but I kinda feel like there's still some small part of me left to be saved now. Whatever's inside of her. I mean, god, Steve.” He laughed sadly, disbelievingly. “We've been in the same room with her a total of twenty minutes and it's already obvious how fucking strong she is.”

Steve turned to Bucky's profile, surprised despite himself. “What do you mean?”

Bucky looked striking in the low light of the living room, all shadows and sharp angles. He continued to stare directly ahead, clearly still not able to meet Steve's eyes. “All the conditioning they must have put her through, a lifetime of brainwashing, and she's still not broken. They never messed her up like they did me, cause she never let 'em. She locked herself inside her own mind, threw away the key and forgot there ever was a door... but now she wants out, that's why she's here. And we can get her out, Steve, I know it. And then she'll be free.”

Bucky practically breathed out the last words, so quiet, so hopeful, it nearly broke Steve's heart.

Steve wanted to move closer, to pull Bucky into a hug, but he didn't want to risk scaring the other man away. Instead he reached out, grabbing Bucky's hand with his own, and laced their fingers together. He didn't have time to wonder whether it was too intimate, too significant, before Bucky's fingers tightened around his own and he held on, firm, dispelling any worries Steve might have had.

“You're both worth saving, Buck. You know that, right?” he whispered, not trusting his voice.

Bucky let out a small noise of dissent, so Steve tugged on their hands, until Bucky had no choice but to turn from the window to face him. Sure that he had Bucky's attention now, Steve lifted their adjoined hands up between their faces. Bucky stared at their interwoven fingers, eyes wide, expression unreadable. “This, right here,” Steve said firmly, not taking his eyes off Bucky, “is what we are. Always have been. So whatever the state of your soul, it's already tied up with mine, and if you think yours can't be saved then we'll just have to be damned together. Doesn't make one lick of difference to me, because I will always be right here, with you.”

Steve held his breath, well aware that this was the closest he'd ever come to a confession. Bucky swallowed audibly, Adam's apple moving, mouth slightly open as his eyes slowly slid up from their entwined hands to Steve's face.

“You and your speeches,” Bucky said softly, but his eyes were suspiciously bright as he continued to look at Steve like he was something special.

“It's a gift,” Steve smiled, instinctively tilting his face down, letting his forehead rest against Bucky's, drawn into the other man's space like he always had been. This is okay, he thought to himself. If Bucky still cared about him enough to let him get this close, Steve would be just fine. Bucky closed his eyes, leaning in, breathing in deeply and letting out a long, shuddering breath. Letting something go – Steve just hoped it was some of that damn guilt he was carrying around. Let me carry it for you, he wanted to say.

“We have to let her out of that cell,” Bucky whispered after a moment, eyes still closed, leaning into Steve so completely it felt like they were one being. “I know it's a gamble, but there's no way to know, unless...” he trailed off, sounding conflicted.

“I know, Buck,” Steve said soothingly.

“I don't wanna risk you.” Bucky opened his eyes again, so close, and Steve could see the fine lines around his eyes. We've been through hell to get here, he thought.

“I know that, too,” Steve smiled. “But no one's risking anyone. There's two of us against one of her, if it came down to it.” He hoped it wouldn't. But there was no way he'd put Bucky in danger, no more than Bucky would him. They'd fought too hard to find their way back to one another.

“I don't think you get how important you are to me, Steve,” Bucky breathed, an oddly sad expression on his face.

“I got some notion,” Steve smiled, and thought, You have no idea.

Bucky reached up then, with his free hand – the metal one – and cupped the back of Steve's neck. Just as he had done before, so many times. Their foreheads were still touching. Steve couldn't see Bucky's expression, but he could almost feel the smile against his skin. He closed his eyes, breathing in the moment, ignoring every instinct to close the final gap between them. As much as he wanted to, he simply couldn't risk losing this, the closeness they had.

“I'm not sure you do,” Bucky whispered, so quietly Steve almost missed it.

And by the time Steve had opened his eyes again, Bucky had vanished, his Winter Soldier stealth sweeping him from Steve's grasp.

Steve was left standing alone in front of the window, staring at his own gaping reflection and feeling his heart beating in his throat. If he didn't know... if he wasn't sure that Bucky didn't feel the same way...

He went to bed, but lay awake staring at the ceiling, listening for any sounds indicating that Bucky was as restless as himself. There was nothing. He wondered if Bucky was even still in the apartment.

He eventually fell into a restless sleep, half convinced that he'd imagined the flash of desire he had been sure he'd seen in Bucky's eyes. 

Chapter Text

Bucky emerged from his room the next morning, as though he'd been there all night. Except Steve was almost certain he hadn't been.

Steve was already up, slouched at the kitchen counter, hypnotised by the drip, drip, drip of the coffee maker. When Bucky came into the room he felt his entire body spring to life, but Bucky's face was blank as he leaned past Steve, reaching for the coffee, not meeting Steve's eyes.

“Morning, Buck,” Steve said uncertainly, watching the other man warily.

"Morning," Bucky murmured. He looked exhausted. Steve wondered where he'd been all night, if he'd gotten any sleep – Steve himself had hardly slept at all, going over last night in his head, trying to work out what the hell it meant... if it meant anything at all. So many times, he'd wanted to get up, walk into Bucky's room, and just ask.

Hey Bucky, so I'm wondering if maybe sometimes you feel like you wanna kiss me?

Yeah, no.

And the thing was, as he'd had to keep reminding himself, that Bucky and Steve's relationship had always been intimate. Not exactly in the way Steve wanted, perhaps, but certainly more than your average friendship. They'd grown up together. They'd shared everything. Bucky had taken care of Steve when he was sick, and Steve had helped Bucky out of his dusty, oil-stained clothes when he'd come home from work, bone-deep tired and half asleep against Steve's frail frame. There were (almost) no lines they hadn't crossed. Their intimacy last night hadn't seemed strange to Steve, because it'd happened before – before the war, before they were ripped apart and before they'd put themselves back together again. He'd never questioned it then, and he wouldn't question it now.

Steve had figured out at a very early age that he was in love with his best friend. That he wanted to touch him, to kiss him; he wanted all the things he could never, ever have. He'd accepted his feelings, and locked them away deep inside himself, content with Bucky's friendship.

It wasn't even the fear of discovery that kept him silent, not really. He didn't give a crap what people thought (even though he probably should have; that'd have saved him a lot of cracked ribs and bruises over the years). It was the fear of losing Bucky.

Because Bucky liked women. Bucky loved Steve, sure, but not like that. Never like that.

Except... there had always been that unspeakable thing between them. That shimmering something between the lines, in every pause between words, every space between their bodies. The heat. The spark. The unnameable. Steve had felt it, had leaned into it, had relied on it, but he had never dared to wonder whether Bucky could possibly have felt it, too.

But the last few days, in all the excitement and confusion about Brooklyn, something had changed between them. Nothing specific, they were still Steve and Bucky, but their new shared goal had pulled down the final barriers between them, making Steve feel closer to Bucky than he'd ever allowed himself to feel before. The nightmares they'd faced together over the last few months had changed something; each man's memory of losing the other and sinking into their own personal hell had added an urgency to their touches and their looks now that wasn't there before (they'd always, foolishly, thought they had all the time in the world), and Steve suddenly wasn't so sure where to draw the line. And, more importantly, where Bucky wanted the line drawn.

And being in this new time, where the idea of two guys having a kid together wasn't in itself outrageous, where the only thing stopping Steve from being with Bucky was his certainty that Bucky didn't feel the same way... suddenly everything was different, and yet nothing was different, because hadn't the air always been crackling with this electricity?

Steve wanted to believe that it meant something, Bucky's closeness, his fiercely protective streak, his newfound tenderness. But he couldn't, and not just because he wanted to protect his own heart. Bucky was still vulnerable; the arrival of Brooklyn had torn him up all over again, even if he didn't say it. Bucky was seeking comfort, and the last thing he needed was for Steve to mess it all up by misunderstanding his intentions.

And this was a terrible time to suddenly be wondering about the nature of Bucky's feelings for him anyway. They'd agreed to take Brooklyn into their care, to keep her in their apartment and chaperone her until further notice, basically vouching for the safety of everyone in the Avengers' tower. And, sure, the building was full of superheroes, but despite not yet having seen her fight, Steve had a feeling Brooklyn was more than a match for most of them.

Still, as he'd told Bucky, there'd be two against one if worse came to worst. And they'd have to deal with that when and if it happened. Extending their trust to the girl was the only way they'd have a chance to get close to her, and figure out her true intentions.

Today was the day they'd bring her up from her cell, and into their apartment. Today was the day they could finally stop speculating and start doing something. And today was the day he'd need to be Bucky's friend, putting his own messed-up emotions aside, approaching this like he would any other mission. Keeping a clear head, both in order to protect himself and his teammates.

“So,” Bucky said, eyes on the coffee mug he was clutching. “You ready?”

For a wild moment, Steve wasn't sure what Bucky was asking. But his affirmative nod came without hesitation, because it was Bucky, and he wasn't sure there was anything Bucky could ask him that he wouldn't go along with.

When Bucky finally looked up at him, there was something like hope in his eyes, and despite his newfound resignation, Steve couldn't help but wonder whether Bucky'd been talking about Brooklyn at all.

“You have to tell us what you want,” Steve said, pleading. “Just give us something to work with here. Anything.”

They were back in Brooklyn's cell. She had stood blankly to attention, like every other time they'd come to see her, and Steve was growing pretty desperate.

One thing was deciding to bring her out into the open. Another was allowing a potential sociopath to run free in the Avengers' tower. Steve may be an optimist, but he wasn't – whatever Tony said – stupid. They needed a sign of good faith before they could extend any sort of trust, but she seemed completely incapable of giving them one.

Bucky stepped closer to the glass. “All we need's a word,” he said, almost gently, like he understood what she was going through. Steve hoped he did, because Steve himself had no idea.

“I want...” Brooklyn broke off, eyebrows furrowing incrementally; the only sign of emotion she'd yet shown. “I want...” It seemed hard for her to say the words, and Steve realised with no small amount of horror that she'd probably never had cause to start a sentence like that before. But, encouragingly, she seemed determined now, balling her hands into fists, her expression of discomfort becoming more apparent. “I want to know where I came from,” she said at last, looking up at Bucky, seeming relieved that she'd gotten the words out. “I want to understand... myself. What I am. What I can be.”

“And why come to us?” Bucky prompted. Needing more. Needing to be sure, before he committed fully. Steve himself was living proof of the fact that once Bucky put his faith in someone, he never let go.

This time, her words seemed to come more easily. “Because I came from you. Hydra shaped me, but I came from you. I understand Hydra. I understand my strength. I do not understand you. That's why I'm here. To understand... why.” She looked almost pleading, probably hoping they wouldn't wring any more independent thoughts out of her brain.

But Bucky only nodded, seeming satisfied. Steve smiled; relieved, despite himself. “That we can help you with,” he said, confident now to speak for both of them.

Maybe it was his unshakable optimism speaking, but it felt like a breakthrough.

Breakthrough or not, it was at least enough to convince Tony and Maria to let Brooklyn out of her cell.

Fury had disappeared back into his self-enforced exile, and Steve took that to mean that he was washing his hands of this whole affair.

So now, all that was left to do... was to follow through on all their big promises, and actually let her run loose. Steve steeled himself, and put on his brightest smile as he once again stepped up to the glass. “So, uh... we'd like you to come upstairs with us. To live. While we figure things out,” he said cheerfully, meeting the ever-blank gaze of Brooklyn.

As expected, she had no visible reaction to the news. She'd been sitting on the side of her bed when they'd entered, and now she stood up, looking at him. Just looking.

Steve kept his smile in place, until it hurt. But he kept smiling. And, finally, Brooklyn seemed to catch on to the fact that she was expected to make some kind of response.

“The two of you live together?” she asked, looking between Steve and Bucky with something resembling curiosity.

“Uh,” Steve said, his smile slipping.

“How else would we live?” Bucky shrugged as though that settled the matter, and Brooklyn blinked, eyes shifting from Bucky to Steve again, like they were a puzzle she couldn't work out how to solve.

If those eyes hadn't been so much like Bucky's, Steve might have been unnerved by the scrutiny. As it was, he took comfort in the familiarity, and forced a smile. He didn't need a smile back, he told himself. He just needed her to know that he was happy she was coming with them.

“Maria?” Steve called back over his shoulder, and Maria nodded, punching in the sequence on her little walkie-talkie thing; the thick metal slab slid into the wall, creating a broad space through which Steve could walk. Bucky followed along behind him, a silent shadow. Closer to the girl, and close enough to keep Steve safe.

You packed your bags? Steve wanted to quip, but he caught himself. “Ready?” he asked instead.

Brooklyn glanced at Maria through the glass, then turned back to Steve, and nodded, just like Maria had done.

Well... it was something, Steve supposed. She'd probably spent her whole life imitating human behaviour. It was up to them to help her figure out her own.

Steve let Bucky lead the way, motioning for Brooklyn to walk between them in what probably looked like an awkward sort of frog march, and, he realised belatedly, was probably making it seem like they were just taking her from one cell to another.

As soon as they were out in the hallway, Steve made a point to fall into step next to Brooklyn instead; she continued looking straight ahead, following Bucky.

“So, I, um,” Steve started, then fell silent. He realised with a lurch of panic that he had no idea what to say. But she hadn't attacked them yet, which was... something? The apathy was almost worse though.

Bucky half-turned back towards them, shooting Steve a vaguely amused look before he directed his attention at Brooklyn. “Did you walk here?” he asked mildly.

Brooklyn blinked at Bucky; surprised, perhaps, that he was speaking at all. It had mainly been Steve trying, and mostly failing, to lead the sparse conversations they'd had with her.

“Yes,” she replied.

“How many days?”

“Fifteen.”

“Boats?”

“Two.”

“Food?”

“Yes.”

Steve followed the impromptu Q&A like a tennis match, as Bucky continued asking seemingly arbitrary questions as they rode up in the elevator and emerged on their floor, all the way until they were finally in their apartment.

“Do you sleep?”

“Sometimes.”

“What do you do when you don't sleep?”

“I exercise. Or meditate.”

“What do you visualise when you meditate?”

“A forest.”

Steve had half-stopped paying attention at this point, but at this answer, he perked up. He looked at Bucky, who jerked his head minutely to one side, which Steve took for the Shut up, don't react it so clearly was.

He saw now what Bucky was doing: it was like a debriefing, probably, the way Brooklyn would have been conditioned to communicate. Questions and short answers. And without direct incentive to speak, she'd just fall silent.

Bucky was meeting her where she was, in a way Steve would probably never have been able to figure out how to do on his own. He was getting more information out of her in minutes than Steve had in all the staggered conversations he'd tried to have with her so far.

He left them standing there, going to the kitchen to make tea, in an attempt to feel useful. He didn't want to interrupt Bucky's flow, so he just made a cup for Brooklyn, deliberating the flavours for a moment before picking blackcurrant and hoping for the best. Steve liked blackcurrant, Bucky didn't.

“Resting temperature?” he heard Bucky ask.

“106." The responses came automatically, without inflection.

“Did your quarters have windows?”

“No.”

Steve sighed, trying to tune them out. It was important information, probably, but he was sure Bucky would fill him in later. It sounded too much like an interrogation for his liking, although he was getting the sense that it was probably reassuring – if that word could be applied – for Brooklyn to be treated more like she might have been at the Hydra base. Bucky wasn't abrasive or intimidating in any way, merely clipped and dispassionate, tone of voice hardly changing at all as he asked question after question.

“Do you carry concealed weapons?”

“Usually. Not now.”

“Did Hydra ever tell you to harm us?”

“...”

Steve froze. There was silence from the other room.

“They did tell you to harm us.” It was a credit to Bucky's self-discipline that his voice was as even and detached as it had been a minute ago.

“They...” For the first time since she'd come here, Brooklyn sounded unsure of herself.

Steve couldn't help himself. He abandoned the tea temples and made his way back to the living room, trying to make himself as inconspicuous as possible (which, he knew, was a pretty futile exercise).

“They?” Bucky prompted.

Brooklyn, Steve noted, was not looking at Bucky, but at a point just beyond his ear. If Steve didn't know better, he'd say she was embarrassed.

“They did task me with killing the Avengers,” she said at last, and only the unspoken but in her tone kept Steve from jumping in – pushing himself in front of Bucky, maybe; he hadn't really thought further than that.

“But you didn't,” Bucky said, still as calm as ever.

“I couldn't. They never finished executing my order.”

“But if they had? If they do?”

“They can't. You killed them all.”

“But if someone had survived?”

This was turning into an interrogation now.

Brooklyn was clearly feeling that way, too. She stood a little straighter, seemingly fighting the urge to stand to attention.

“I...” she hesitated again. Come on, Steve thought, wishing he knew how to help. “I cannot parse this hypothetical,” she managed at last, voice clipped like she was reading off a script.

“What are you, a computer?” Bucky asked, clearly exasperated – though he was clearly trying to hide it. “You can damn well tell us if you're likely to turn around and put knives in our backs, can't you?”

And that, of course, was the real issue. Bucky wouldn't risk Steve's safety any more than Steve would risk Bucky's.

To Steve's surprise, Bucky's question made Brooklyn glare at him – a glare so familiar, Steve had to turn away for a second to collect himself. He knew that glare intimately; had seen it so many times in the mirror. Whenever he had been knocked down, whenever he had been unfairly treated, whenever he was backed into a corner.

It was becoming very, very hard for him to believe that this girl could really turn on them. And yet she was Hydra. She had been willing to kill them before. He had to remember that. He couldn't let his emotions rule him on this one, as much as he wanted to.

After a brief but tense standoff, Brooklyn's expression softened. She looked at Bucky like she was in physical pain, and Steve thought she might be repressing her instinct to slip on that standard expressionless mask. She opened her mouth, then closed it. Bucky waited, not giving an inch.

“I want you to be able to trust me,” she said at last. The I want still came grudgingly, but at least it was voluntary this time. “I know you have no reason to. But if I told you I could unlearn everything I have been taught in a day, you would know I was lying. I don't know how to make you believe me, but I...” she hesitated, her eyes flickering between Bucky and Steve. “I have only ever been taught to follow orders. I don't know any other way. But I know how to learn. And since you both disobey orders frequently, I can learn that from you.”

As she finished speaking, her eyes widened slightly as she realised what she'd said. Steve fought to bite back a laugh, knowing she'd take it the wrong way. He wondered if Hydra had ever realised how sassy she was.

At the same time though, Steve knew she'd been on missions out in the real world before. She must be really good at making people believe what she wanted them to. The only thing convincing him that she was sincere was that this act, if that's what it was, wasn't good. It was awkward and stunted and very suspicious, and that, more than anything else, convinced Steve that she was telling the truth.

It took all of his self-control to stay silent. He wanted to see how Bucky reacted. Bucky was by far the better bullshit detector of the two of them, and Steve was glad, because every part of him was screaming to believe Brooklyn. He was too invested already – and he hoped fervently that Bucky wasn't.

To his surprise – and relief? – Bucky's lip twitched. “Well... honesty is a good place to start,” he told her, his tone much warmer than it had been a moment ago. “And I assume you know by now that we don't wanna fight you. But that doesn't mean we won't, if we have to,” he warned, though his voice was still mild. "Since we're being honest and all."

Rather than bristling at the implied threat, Brooklyn visibly relaxed at Bucky's words, clearly relieved that all cards were on the table now.

“I know,” she said. “I understand. You must protect each other.”

“That's right,” Bucky said, before Steve had a chance to ask why she'd assume such a thing. “And we'll protect you, too. If you'll let us.”

Steve saw something very close to amusement flicker briefly in Brooklyn's eyes before she said, “I'm grateful. But I... probably won't need it.”

For a beat, Bucky looked surprised. Then he laughed, a loud and wonderful sound to Steve's ears. “Of course you won't. I forgot who I was talking to.”

And for a moment, despite the fact that they'd just discussed who might be killing who and established that they couldn't really trust each other, things felt almost amiable between the three of them.

With bedtime came another, much more awkward problem. Steve had assumed that Brooklyn would take his room and he'd sleep on the couch, but Bucky outright refused that suggestion, claiming that since it was technically Steve's place (technically, Steve had tried to interject, it was Tony's place. Bucky ignored him), Bucky should be the one to give up his room.

Steve then tried to give Bucky his room, but Bucky refused that, too, casting a significant glance in Brooklyn's direction. Steve was nonplussed, until he realised what Bucky was getting at: if Brooklyn really was a threat, putting Bucky and Steve at opposite ends of the apartment was a spectacularly bad idea. Bucky was a much lighter sleeper than Steve, for obvious reasons, and he'd wake at the merest suggestion of movement from her room, leaving enough time for him to wake Steve in case of a sneak attack.

Sticking together was the smart thing to do. And, Steve had to remind himself, it wasn't like they'd never shared a room before.

Brooklyn followed their silent exchange with a modicum of interest (it was better than reverting to the despondent shell she'd been before, Steve thought), but asked no questions as Steve showed her to Bucky's room, while Bucky scrounged up a toothbrush, extra bedding, and some of Steve's old clothes she could use as temporary pyjamas. If she found it odd that Steve and Bucky were heading for the same bedroom, she didn't show it – but then again, Steve didn't think she'd admit surprise even if they'd had a pet elephant living in the apartment.

“God. You realise we'll need to take her shopping, right?” Bucky sighed as soon as he'd closed the door to Steve's room behind him.

Steve snorted, making for the bed, automatically heading towards the right side of the room, where his bed used to be back when they shared an apartment before the war. Only now they didn't have two rickety singles, but one very soft, comfortable double bed to share.

He tempered down any feelings of unease, reminding himself once again to think of this as part of the mission. Besides, he'd slept next to Bucky plenty of times; hell, he'd even had Bucky wrapped around him during the coldest pre-serum nights, when he'd been sick and shivering. This was nothing. Just another part of their friendship they needed to reclaim.

“Isn't that something we can plead ignorance about?” Steve asked, getting under the covers, feeling the bed shift as Bucky did the same. “Ask Natasha to handle it?”

“Really, Steve? This is when you wanna play the man card?” Bucky snorted, shifting to his side and meeting Steve's eyes in the near-darkness. Whatever had happened between them last night – Steve still wasn't sure what exactly had happened – Bucky seemed to have forgotten all about it. Or at least he was doing a damn good job pretending.

“I was thinking more like the centenarian card,” Steve smirked, doing his very best to keep the mood light. He couldn't imagine how Bucky would react if he realised that Steve was nervous about them sharing a bed, and he didn't think he was ready to find out. “Hell, we don't know what's fashionable, we'd risk sending her home with frocks and knickerbockers.”

Bucky barked out a laugh, eyes crinkling more deeply than they used to. Sometimes Steve forgot that they still aged, despite the serum keeping their bodies lean and strong. “I wasn't aware you knew so much about women's clothing, Steve,” he teased.

“I'm full of hidden talents,” Steve quipped back, realising as he spoke that the words came out a lot more flirtatious than he intended. But Bucky either didn't notice, or didn't mind.

“You're not even giving the rest of us a chance, are you, Rogers?” Bucky said fondly. He shifted on the bed again.

“I dunno. I seem to recall you always managed just fine,” Steve murmured, hoping Bucky would take the catch in his voice as nostalgia. Bucky had certainly not lacked for female company, even if most nights he'd come home early to check on Steve, a smile on his face and stinking of perfume. Steve had hated it.

Bucky's eyebrows furrowed, watching Steve closely. “Funny,” he said softly, “that's not how I remember it.”

For a moment, Steve's mind flashed back to Peggy and Bucky at that bar during the war, and how Bucky's eyes had flickered at Peggy's abject rejection. But somehow, he didn't think that's what Bucky had been referring to.

But before Steve'd had a chance to ask him what he meant, Bucky had closed his eyes, tucking the duvet a little tighter around him. Steve knew Bucky well enough to know that this meant the conversation was over.

Steve watched as the lines on Bucky's face disappeared, his features relaxing and breathing evening out. He looked younger like this. He looked innocent. He looked like the Bucky that Steve fell in love with.

But that love, Steve realised now, as he lay across from his best friend – a scenario so familiar, and yet so alien to them now – had been foolish. It'd been naïve, too simple. He had loved Bucky then, yes, but Steve's eyes had been bright and full of stars; he'd wanted to change the world and let it consume him all at once, he'd been full of art and righteousness and dreams of a better tomorrow.

Bucky had been young and strong, bright and fierce and Steve had loved him completely. Bucky had gone off to war and Steve had followed, because where else could he go? And that was when it'd all changed, and they'd both begun to experience the true, bleak colours of reality.

But despite all the horrors they'd faced, it wasn't until Bucky had fallen off the train that Steve had truly realised how cruel, how relentless, how terrible of a place the world really was. And there was no piece of art, no scientific invention, no comrade's compassion or lover's caress that could ever make Steve forget what he had lost – or rather, what had been taken from him. Steve had faced true darkness that day, and his innocence had been lost forever.

Even having Bucky back, he knew that either of them would never, ever be able to go back to the simple days of their youth. Steve's love for Bucky now was tied to pain as much as it was tied to happiness, but weirdly enough, that just made it stronger. Losing everything he'd ever cared about, only to gain back the one thing he'd only ever needed to be happy, had cast the world in brighter colours than he'd ever thought possible. Steve's love for Bucky was so all-consuming now, he sometimes wondered how anyone could love at all, when they had not experienced loss like he had.

He yearned for Bucky. Not in the heart-fluttering, pulse-quickening way he had before the war, but for the light of him. Steve didn't just want to touch Bucky, he wanted Bucky close, in every sense of the word, inside and all around, two parts of the same being.

But more than anything else, Steve just wanted Bucky to be happy. He wanted Bucky to be loved, and to be free, and to be at peace. He wanted Bucky to live his life without feeling like he owed Steve even a fraction of the devotion Steve had for him.

Steve closed his eyes, scooting infinitesimally closer to Bucky on the bed.

He lay completely still for a while, just listening to Bucky breathing. Steve smiled, letting himself take comfort in the fact that he was no longer the sole survivor of a long-forgotten age. He was no longer alone.

And then he focused his hearing on Brooklyn's room, seeking out her slow, even breathing. There was another life to look out for now. He knew she must be scared, hiding everything behind that carefully controlled mask. Maybe she wasn't even aware of her own emotions, her own fears. But if she'd let him, Steve knew he could let her into his heart. He had always loved too much and too easily, and he was no stranger to loss and disappointment. But he never gave up on those he cared about – his mother, Peggy, Dum-Dum, Falsworth and the others, Natasha, Sam... and of course Bucky. Always Bucky.

Despite everything, Steve fell asleep with a smile on his face, letting the steady rhythm of Bucky's breathing soothe his worried soul.

Chapter Text

“Steve? Steve. Steve.

Steve felt the tendrils of sleep loosening their hold on him one by one, reality seeping in and bringing the harsh light of morning with it. He'd had such a wonderful dream, of lying down with Bucky and putting his arms around him, keeping the other man close and just feeling him breathe, completely content just knowing that they were both alive, and together.

“Not that I don't appreciate the sentiment and all, but you're squeezing me to death, pal.”

Something moved and Steve moved with it, and he frowned as time and place came back to him: it was warm, and soft, and he was pressed up tight against a solid, comforting body.

He opened his eyes.

Bucky's face was inches from his own; Steve's arms and legs were wrapped tightly around him. He looked... amused. Sleepy. And a little bit suffocated.

Steve yelped and let go as though burned, allowing Bucky to roll away – though not far – and the other man laughed, lying on his back now and staring at the ceiling, metal hand reaching out to pat Steve on the arm (Steve could still feel every place of his body that Bucky had just been touching vibrating with electric heat, and resisted the urge to shiver).

“Well, Captain America is a cuddler. Who'da thunk it,” Bucky smirked, turning his face to look at Steve, eyes glinting with amusement.

Steve, for his part, was feeling equal parts mortified and defensive, knowing that his face was bright red. Right now, he wanted nothing more but to crawl through the mattress and disappear. Maybe JARVIS needed an assistant to hang out in the walls with him?

“You could have just pulled away,” Steve mumbled, trying not to let himself wonder why Bucky hadn't.

Bucky snorted. “Sure. But who am I to deny America's greatest hero his snuggles?” He affected the last word, sounding far too much like Tony in that moment for Steve's liking.

“Oh god,” Steve groaned, burying his face in his pillow.

But Bucky only laughed again, and only then – from below the protective layer of dune feathers – did Steve realise that Bucky was not angry, nor freaked out, by the scene he'd woken up to. By contrast he appeared, hard as it was to believe, completely at ease. Happy, even.

Happy. Now that was a word Steve honestly hadn't been sure he'd ever be able to use again when describing Bucky.

He poked his head out from under the pillow to find Bucky resting his head on his hand, looking at Steve, eyes still full of mirth.

“Sometimes you amaze me, Steve,” Bucky said, and Steve felt his heart clench, remembering how Bucky used to look at him whenever he'd do something particularly foolhardy or reckless, like standing up to bullies or running out into the street to save wayward dogs from oncoming traffic. Bucky would never get mad, not really; he'd usually be on Steve's heels, ready to fight the evils of the world with him. The few times Bucky wasn't around to have his back, and Steve'd come home bruised and bloody, Bucky would have this look... but his anger was never directed at Steve. All Bucky ever gave Steve was support, and mild wonder, like Steve was a puzzle he didn't quite know how to solve.

It was exactly how Bucky was looking at him now, for what might just be the first time in seventy years.

“Yeah, well,” Steve said, voice suddenly hoarse, “right back at ya.”

Bucky's eyes crinkled. “Well, I am amazing,” he quipped, and Steve rolled his eyes, secretly annoyed he didn't come up with a witty comeback like that.

The merest suggestion of feet on carpet alerted them both to the fact that Brooklyn was up and moving; by silent agreement Bucky and Steve both held their breath, listening, but she didn't appear to be doing anything except walk around in her room, maybe to get dressed. They let out simultaneous sighs of relief.

“Guess that's our cue,” Steve said, suddenly a lot less eager to leave his bed – and Bucky in his bed – behind.

“Operation Parent Trap begins,” Bucky nodded solemnly.

“You watched that movie? When did you watch that movie?” Steve frowned. He hadn't seen it.

Bucky shrugged. “Dunno, maybe with Nat or Sam? I don't do everything with you, Steve.”

“...Oh,” Steve said, feeling foolish. Of course he didn't. He tried very hard not to imagine Bucky and Natasha cuddling up together to watch a movie about parents getting caught in a trap. It was probably a sexy movie.

He didn't realise he was frowning until Bucky nudged him, his amusement now mixed with something else. “You jealous, Stevie?”

“Am not,” Steve said sullenly, acutely aware that he was the worst liar in the world. Bucky's face cracked into a wide smile. He was smiling a lot lately.

“Well, next time Nat and I have a naked pillow fight, I'll make sure and invite you,” he said, complete with an honest-to-god wink.

And wasn't that an image that set off all kinds of fantasies Steve really didn't need to be reminded of right now?

Bucky gave him a knowing look, and Steve really wished he wasn't such an open book – although Bucky probably thought he was thinking about Natasha. He kind of wished he was, because unrequited love for that particular Russian assassin wouldn't put his entire existence at the risk of imploding. Well. He supposed one never really knew what was in danger of imploding with Natasha around.

“The Winter Soldier and Black Widow, locked in a pillow fight to the death. Now there's an image,” Steve smirked, because Bucky wasn't the only one who could have fun with this.

Bucky opened his mouth to reply, then closed it, clearly taken aback by Steve's response. After a moment, he huffed out a small laugh. “Remember when we used to do this?” he asked, tone suddenly very different.

Steve snorted. “Between discovering we have a kid together and imagining your sexy superhero fantasies, I'm not sure there's any part of this we've ever done before, Buck.”

Bucky rolled his eyes, not rising to the bait. “Back home. We'd lie in our tiny beds, arms behind our heads and staring at the ceiling, talking about stupid shit.” The corner of his mouth quirked up almost imperceptibly.“There'd be these bare places where the paint had peeled off, and we'd describe the shapes to each other like they were clouds in the sky. You always saw the most incredible things up there. I could listen to you for hours at a time, just making up stories about cracks in the ceiling.”

Steve watched Bucky as he spoke; he wondered if Bucky felt the smile that was spreading across his face. Steve felt like a hand was gripping his heart and squeezing tight. He fought to keep his voice steady as he whispered, “You remember all that?”

Bucky sighed. “I remember everything, Steve.”

“Bucky...” Steve whispered, watching as Bucky's eyes tracked his face. Looking, perhaps, for traces of the little Steve Rogers who'd gone into Erskine's machine and emerged a different man.

Right now, more than ever before, Steve imagined how it might be to just reach out, bridging that final gap between them. His hand would caress Bucky's face, pushing back the hair that was already growing out again.

He would be intentional about it this time, leaving no room for misinterpretation. Bucky wouldn't think it was just another friendly gesture - he would look into Steve's eyes, and he would know. And he would...

...Let Steve down gently. Look embarrassed, maybe a little afraid, understanding suddenly that there was a huge dimension to Steve's feelings for him that he'd never known about. He'd start reevaluating all of Steve's actions, question his motivations. He would stop trusting Steve. 

“Hey,” Bucky said gently, a small crease appearing between his brows. "What's wrong?"

 “Bucky, I...”

CRASH!

Bucky and Steve were out of the bed and halfway to the kitchen before Steve was even aware of moving from the bed; they burst through the door and skidded to a halt; Steve's brain was somehow failing to comprehend the scene before him.

Brooklyn stood in the middle of the room, a cloud of white dust rising around her and covering every available surface.

As she met Steve and Bucky's eyes, she looked, genuinely, surprised. “Uh,” she said.

Excuse me, Miss, I believe that was my error.

Brooklyn's head shot up, looking around wildly for the source of the noise – exactly, Steve noted, how Bucky had reacted the first time he'd heard JARVIS' disembodied voice.

Bucky, who had long since grown used to - and even friendly with - the AI, scowled at the ceiling. “What the hell did you do to her?” he asked, making an aborted movement towards Brooklyn as though wanting to dust her off. Brooklyn stayed frozen in place, looking like she wasn't sure whether to make a run for it, or stay still and hope they forgot she was there. Steve couldn't help his grin; he thought it was adorable.

I observed our guest opening the knife drawer, Sergeant Barnes,” came JARVIS' plaintive response.

Bucky quirked an eyebrow at Brooklyn. Brooklyn made a small movement with her shoulders, like an involuntary shrug.

“I wanted to assess the arsenal at my disposal,” she said, almost sullenly. Bucky nodded as though it was the most obvious thing in the world, and it probably was, if you were a Hydra assassin. Steve privately kicked himself for not even giving the knife drawer a second thought – then again, he supposed it was part of the whole trust thing. And it clearly didn't bother Bucky.

“But why the... whatever this is?” Steve couldn't help but wonder out loud, indicating the white dust still raining down around Brooklyn.

“It's flour,” said Brooklyn, blue eyes blazing beneath a mask of white. She sounded vaguely pissed off; Bucky tried and failed to make his laugh sound like a cough. She shot him a betrayed look.

I did not wish to harm Miss Brooklyn, only stall her,” JARVIS said.

“With flour,” Steve said, nonplussed.

One of my many programming quirks, Captain Rogers.”

“Stark,” Bucky smirked. “Of course.” To Brooklyn he added, “You should probably go wash that off.”

Brooklyn shot one last, accusatory look at the ceiling, and nodded briskly to Bucky, turning to leave the room, a cloud of flour swirling around her as she moved.

The moment she was out of the room, both Steve and Bucky dissolved into bouts of laughter that was probably more like giggles - not that Steve would ever admit that.

“Suddenly seems a lot less scary, doesn't she?” Bucky managed, when they heard the shower running.

“Oh man, I feel bad,” Steve admitted, still chuckling. “What a welcome.”

“Yeah JARVIS, maybe lax the defence procedures a little,” Bucky said to the ceiling. “Not that we don't appreciate it.”

Certainly, Sergeant,” JARVIS said courteously.

Steve and Bucky put on their best poker faces as Brooklyn emerged from the shower, straight shoulders and looking for all the world like nothing out of the ordinary had just happened. Steve was just glad to see that she could be rattled at all.

“You alright? Sorry about the scare,” he said, smiling as he set a bowl of cereal in front of her. She blinked at it, hesitating only for a moment before picking up her spoon.

“Your security system is... peculiar,” she remarked around a mouthful of Cap'n Crunch (one of Bucky's acquisitions, Steve was sure), glancing around clearly still trying to locate the source of JARVIS' sound system.

“That's just JARVIS. You'll get used to him,” Bucky said, moving around in the kitchen. Steve wasn't sure what he was doing until he turned around and dumped an armful of kitchen knives onto the counter in front of Brooklyn. Both she and Steve stared at the knives in confusion.

“Uh, Bucky?” Steve asked; Bucky ignored him.

“These are all the weapons we keep in the kitchen,” Bucky said, sounding casual but looking intently at Brooklyn. “Most of the firearms are in my room. Steve has his shield, obviously, and we keep other defensive weaponry hidden around the apartment. I'm sure you've already identified most of them.”

Brooklyn looked at the weapons for a long time, eyes carefully tracing each one, before she met Bucky's eyes. Steve was amazed by the apparent openness of her expression.

“Thank you,” she said, and Steve knew she wasn't just thanking Bucky for showing her the weapons. This was just another way they were extending her their trust – and Steve really, really hoped they were doing the right thing here.

“Probably best to give JARVIS a heads up next time you wanna go snooping,” Bucky cautioned, beginning to scoop up the knives again. “You never know what other Home Alone tricks Tony has stuffed up his programming.”

Steve watched Bucky as he put the knives back, one by one, not realising that he was smiling until he noticed Brooklyn watching him curiously. He met her gaze, and she dropped hers to her cereal. “So,” Steve said, more to change the subject than anything else, “what's the plan?”

Both Bucky and Brooklyn turned to him, matching expectant expressions on their faces.

“Um,” Steve said, “I was asking, not propositioning.”

And it was only in that moment that Steve realised the three of them had absolutely no idea what to do next.

After a bit of awkward back-and-forth, Bucky and Steve decided to start by giving Brooklyn a tour of the Avengers' Tower. Now that she wasn't confined, or dying, technically she was free to move around (though Steve was pretty sure Tony expected either himself or Bucky to be accompanying her), and besides, it'd buy them time to figure out an actual plan.

Steve had never really been great at winging it. He always needed a plan – either his own, or someone else's. It was why he and Bucky had always worked so well as a unit; before the war their mission had always been to make the other's life as comfortable as possible, and during the war, they'd been fighting to keep each other alive. When Steve had woken up in a new century, SHIELD had given him orders, and the Avengers had pretty much made sure he didn't have a spare moment to himself. Then Bucky had come back, and Steve's quest to free him from Hydra's mind-control had taken over his life.

But now, not having a clear idea of what exactly to do with Brooklyn, being in a holding pattern with SHIELD, having actual downtime... well, it was all new and unchartered territory. And he was pretty sure Bucky was feeling the same way.

One person who never let himself grow idle, however? Tony Stark. So that, Steve figured, was as good a place as any to start.

Steve and Bucky led Brooklyn out of the apartment, taking her down to the lab where Stark was, predictably, working.

He looked up when they came in, not even bothering to feign annoyance like he usually was when he was interrupted. He was far more interested in staring at Brooklyn – he looked about as hungry as when he'd traipsed around Bucky's metal arm, begging to examine it. It made Steve very uncomfortable to know that Tony basically thought of Brooklyn as another weapon... but this was Tony. Steve had long ago learned to apply a different set of rules to his eccentric friend.

“I heard a little bird sing about our houseguest sneaking a peek in the knife drawer,” Tony said in a sing-song voice, and Steve was quickly beginning to rethink his benevolent opinion of him.

“Yeah, about that,” Bucky said, crossing his arms across his chest at Brooklyn's side, “you might wanna tell your robot friend to lay off a little.”

Tony shrugged. “I like to think of him more as an anthropomorphic extension of the human sensorium, actually.”

Steve and Bucky shared a look, and by silent mutual agreement decided to ignore him.

“So,” Steve said, directing his attention to Brooklyn, “this is one of Tony's many labs. And Tony himself, obviously.”

“Ah, but we haven't been formally introduced!” Tony said gleefully, springing to his feet, wiping his hands on his jeans as he crossed the room. “I'm Tony. Any offspring of Steve and Bucky's is definitely and friend of mine, because, honestly, this is all just so entertaining for me. Thank you for existing.”

He said all this while shaking Brooklyn's hand; Brooklyn was mild and pliable in her stance and expression, but Steve thought he was beginning to recognise her tells; her eyes were moving rapidly across Tony's face, and he was pretty sure she was trying to get a read on him.  Good luck with that, he almost said – but then again, if anyone  could  get a read on him it was probably a specially trained Hydra operative.

Only when Tony had evidently had enough hand-shaking and stepped back, eyes still shining with excitement, did Brooklyn allow herself a small smile. “Hello, Tony. I'm Brooklyn.”

Brooklyn. Yes. You certainly are,” Tony grinned, winking at Bucky, who looked totally nonplussed by the exchange.

“Anyway, we just wanted to give Brooklyn the tour, let her get the hang of this place,” Steve said, hoping to end the conversation. “Figured we'd start with your lab.”

Tony's eyes lit up in a way that made Steve very, very nervous.

“Of course,” he said slowly, looking like a kid on Christmas morning. “We want to make sure Brooklyn feels welcome. This sounds like a good excuse for a party if I ever heard one."

Steve wasn't sure he'd ever heard anything so ominous.

The party wasn't until the following night, because as Tony told them while ushering them out of his workspace, he needed time to plan. Steve was at once dreading it and looking forward to it, because frankly, he had absolutely no idea what to do with Brooklyn.

Since neither Bruce nor Natasha were around to entertain them, Steve and Bucky finished their tour of the Avengers' tower embarrassingly quickly, getting back to their apartment and standing, awkwardly, in the middle of the living room. Steve was just beginning to panic, realising that he really didn't have a clue how to entertain a teenage girl – Hydra agent or otherwise – when Bucky said, “You know the MET's open today.”

He fixed Steve with a significant look.

“So?” Steve asked blankly.

“So, you should go.” Bucky made a not-so-subtle gesture towards Brooklyn, who just watched their exchange impassively. “It'll be a nice warm-up for whatever insanity Tony has planned for tomorrow, right?”

Steve blinked. Obviously, taking Brooklyn to his favourite art museum, which Steve had loved since he was a kid, was a perfect way of helping her understand him. But... “Aren't you coming?” he asked, hating how disappointed he sounded.

Bucky grimaced. “Nah. I think I'm gonna hit the gym. I'm beginning to feel a little restless, playing babysitter. No offence,” he added, needlessly, turning to Brooklyn's general direction.

“Uh,” Steve said. “Okay. I guess. But I thought...” he glanced at Brooklyn. “I thought we were gonna do this together.” I thought it was too dangerous to split up, he wanted to add, and hoped Bucky sensed it in his tone.

“We are,” Bucky said. “But I think you can handle a field trip, Steve.”

And... ah. Steve thought he got it. The more people were around, the less chance that Brooklyn would outright try to harm him – and if it was only Steve, not Bucky, Brooklyn might think she had a higher chance of escaping, if that was her ploy. It was a test, then.

And it wasn't like Bucky and Steve had to do everything together. Boundaries, and all. Even if Steve didn't like it.

“Well, great then,” he said, bracing himself. He turned to Brooklyn, fixed smile in place. “Wanna go to a museum?”

The prospect of a day out alone with Brooklyn, who met his enthusiasm with complete disinterest and stony silence, really made him miss the good old days where all he had to worry about were Nazi soldiers and Chitauri armies.

Chapter Text

The MET was packed, as it ever was, but for once, Steve thought it fair enough to take advantage of one of the many lifetime passes he'd been given to the city's attractions - after all, he had very important company.

He and Brooklyn got to skip the queue thanks to one very flustered young museum employee (Steve made sure to sign every available scrap of paper she had on her, ignoring Brooklyn's vaguely curious gaze), and manoeuvred themselves around the MET's lavish spaces easily enough. As always, a baseball cap and a sweatshirt was enough to keep people from seeing Captain America in Steve Rogers' deliberately slouching step.

Brooklyn walked dutifully by his side, looking where he looked, that all-too-familiar blank expression on her face.

This was the first time Steve had seen Brooklyn interact with people that weren't him or Bucky, or their extended group of friends. He remembered how Bucky had acted, back when Steve had first begun reintroducing him to the world: he'd been anxious, on edge, treating everyone around them like a potential threat. But Brooklyn wasn't on edge. She wasn't afraid of Steve, and didn't seem particularly interested in the people around them. She was simply there. A hint of curiosity about why he'd brought her, perhaps, but no real awareness of anything or anyone – that he could tell, anyway. For all he knew, she was much better at appearing normal while scanning for danger than either Steve or Bucky, and he knew Hydra would have trained her to keep a low profile when out in public.

“Look at this one,” Steve said, as they passed one of his favourite paintings: The Portrait of Madame X. 

The Portrait of Madame X

Once, when he was very young, he'd gone to the MET with his ma, and he'd paused in front of this very painting, gazing up at the fair-skinned, elegant beauty. His ma had laughed at his obvious infatuation, and had declared Madame X to be his first love. His first love, of course, had been very different, though no less fair-skinned. Steve was pretty sure Bucky would never suffer being called a beauty though, even if Steve privately thought he was the most gorgeous person in the world.

Forcing himself back to reality, Steve let his eyes wander over the painting as they had that first time he saw it, trying to remember how he'd felt back then. Wondering if Brooklyn could ever feel a semblance of the emotion Madame X evoked in him... for a piece of art, or for anything else.

One of Madame X's hands was resting lightly on a table, and the other was clutching the folds of her black dress. The plunging neckline was at odds with the heavy fabric of the dress, at once concealing and revealing her hourglass figure. Her body was angled towards the painter, but her head was turned away; she was looking back over her shoulder, all feigned grace and poise, yet every muscle looked strained to Steve, like her bared neck was an illusion, a way of luring you close before she stroke. She reminded him a little of Natasha, or Peggy. Yeah, he definitely had a type.

“What do you see?” he asked tentatively, reverently, eyes still on the painting.

“John Singer Sargent, 1884,” Brooklyn stated promptly, eyes skimming over the canvas in a perfunctory sort of way. Seeing... but not seeing, Steve realised, with a sinking feeling. Knowing, but not understanding.

“Right,” he said, trying to mask his disappointment. “That's... accurate.”

Undeterred, Steve continued on, practically dragging Brooklyn to any piece of art he liked – Monet, Gaugin, Van Gogh – and every time he asked her what she saw, he'd get no reaction but a recital of the name of the artist, and the year of creation. (Despite his concern about her complete lack of emotional response, Steve couldn't help but admire her seemingly encyclopaedic knowledge of everything around her.)

“Hey, come here a sec,” Steve said at last, feeing as close to exhausted as he had in years, coming to stand in front of a sculpture of a little girl. Elevated on a table, the girl was not quite life-size, but close enough for her to seem almost real. Reproduced in bronze for the MET exhibition, the dark-hued girl struck an elegant pose, gazing up, looking lithe in her faded ballerina garments.

La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans

Brooklyn looked up at the statue in silence.

“Well?” Steve tried, watching her impassive face closely for any trace of variance.

Brooklyn said nothing for a long time. “La Petite Danseuse,” she said at last, in perfect French. “Little Dancer.”

“Yes,” Steve said impatiently; Brooklyn's eyes flickered at his tone but she continued looking up at the statue. “But what else? What does it... make you feel?” He cringed. This really was going a lot worse than he'd feared, and his expectations had been pretty low to begin with.

Brooklyn's eyes narrowed minutely, like maybe she, too, was running out of patience. Steve realised that she probably genuinely did not know what he was expecting of her, and felt instantly guilty for drilling her like this.

He was about to suggest that they move on, when she finally turned from the statue to look up at Steve, instead.

“I learned all of this by heart,” she said, the merest trace of uncertainty in her voice. “I know the name of every piece of art in this building. Every artist, every date.”

She held his gaze, almost expectantly, as though waiting for him to commend or reprimand her. Steve fought very hard to keep the frustration from showing on his face, but he knew he wasn't doing a very good job of it. He really wished she would stop treating him like he was her superior officer.

Instead of saying as much (she'd just think he was admonishing her), Steve sighed deeply, and decided to do what his superhero alter-ego did best: look at the bright side. “Okay. Okay, that's great. Knowledge is good. You know what her name is, what she looks like. But... have you ever really looked at her before?”

Brooklyn cocked her head, ever so slightly, her vaguely bewildered expression so like Bucky's it made Steve's heart ache.

Then she turned back to the statue, with something like resignation. Humouring him, but that was fine. Practice made perfect. She looked up at the Little Dancer. Let her eyes trace over the girl's face, her neck, her body. She walked around the table, head moving methodically up and down as she went, peering at the fabric of the ballerina dress, the shape of the statue's extended foot. Steve realized he was holding his breath, and forced himself to let it go, just as Brooklyn made her way back to his side.

Steve waited. Brooklyn opened her mouth, then closed it, eyes back on the statue's face. She opened her mouth again. Hesitated.

“She's small,” she said at last. Steve's eyebrows shot up. He was about to make some kind of reply when Brooklyn continued, “smaller than me.” A beat. “Natasha is smaller than me, too. Hill is not.” Steve was watching Brooklyn intently, but she was still gazing up at the statue. “I'm the same height as the Soldier,” she finally bit out after the longest pause yet, voice strained as though it cost her something to admit it. “And you're taller than both of us.”

She fell silent, clamping her jaw shut, looking for one wild moment almost defiant, before her expression settled back into one of familiar indifference.

Steve thought for a long time about what she'd said, the significance of it. He began to wonder if this was the first time she'd ever considered herself in relation to other people.

Did she like what she saw when she looked in the mirror? Did she even really look, or did she just take stock, learning facts about her own body the way she'd learned about the pieces of art on display in the MET?

You're perfect, he wanted to say. The best of Bucky and the best of me. That felt like something a dad might say. It definitely felt like something she needed to hear.

He said nothing. Instead, he let the silence stretch as she continued to watch the statue. Maybe it was wishful thinking, but he thought there was a speck of emotion in Brooklyn's eyes, now.

Steve took Brooklyn to the museum café after they'd finished the tour, mostly because he wasn't really sure what else to do with her, and he wasn't ready to go home yet and face an empty apartment. Besides, he'd never exactly had an opportunity to spend an educational afternoon with his daughter before. The thought sent him into an inner kind of hysteria, which would have had his former self wheezing and collapsing in an asthmatic fit.

They managed to find a free table in the cramped space and Steve left Brooklyn to guard it while he went to order food. He figured leaving her alone wasn't a great risk: if she'd wanted to escape, she'd had a million opportunities already.

While standing in line, Steve pulled out his phone – mainly to stop himself from glancing back at his companion every few seconds – and texted Bucky.

Grabbing lunch then heading home, he wrote, lingering on the last word for a split second before hitting send.

Bucky's reply was almost instantaneous. Enjoying your daddy-daughter day of fun?

Steve snorted, despite himself. Kindaand please don't call me that.

Aww. Daddy doesn't like?

Steve spluttered; a few people turned in his direction curiously and he pulled the cap down lower over his eyes. Ew, no. Gross, he wrote.

There was a pause, as the phone indicated that Bucky was typing.

But it's going ok?

Bucky's willingness to drop the joke betrayed his worry, and Steve quickly wrote back, As good as can be expected. I think she actually liked one of the pieces I showed her. Tell you about it later.

He hesitated, glancing at the large menu board above him, then added, Got any idea what she likes to eat?

A beat. The line crept forward, and Steve inched closer to the till. The little icon that meant Bucky was typing popped up again.

You didn't ask? Jeez, Steve, keep that up and you're gonna lose your weekend privileges.

Steve blinked, but before he could reply, his phone buzzed again.

Go for something with chicken. She always picks chicken when she's given a choice.

Huh, Steve thought, feeling a pang of guilt for the fact that he'd never noticed that.

Thanks, he typed back. See you later.

Don't smother her with your fatherly love. Be back by dinner or I'm not putting out tonight. xoxo

Steve let out a surprised bark of laughter, and self-consciously hid his face behind his hand. The last thing he wanted was to be recognised – too many questions about his companion he had no idea how to answer. Glancing back at Brooklyn, he saw her watching him curiously, but she immediately looked away when she saw that he'd noticed.

Steve was still snickering when it was his turn at the till. He ordered two chicken sandwiches and fries, with coke for Brooklyn and some fizzy orange drink he'd been meaning to try for himself. He felt light as he returned to the table, although some of the apprehensiveness settled back in as Brooklyn regarded the food he placed in front of her warily.

“Oh, do you not... should I have gotten something else?” Steve asked worriedly, wanting to smack himself for not ordering two different things. “I can go back--”

“No,” Brooklyn said quickly, seeming to surprise herself as much as Steve with her abruptness. “It's fine,” she added, casting her eyes down. “I... like this.”

“You do, huh?” Steve smiled, feeling irrationally proud on Bucky's behalf.

Her mouth was already around the sandwich and she was chewing enthusiastically; she'd clearly been more hungry than she'd been letting on.

“I do,” she affirmed, swallowing audibly. Steve pushed one of the sodas towards her and she took a sip, scrunching up her nose at the taste. “I don't like this.

“But it's soda!” Steve exclaimed, unable to hide his indignation.

Brooklyn just shrugged, clearly more accustomed to his outbursts now. “It fizzles.”

“It's supposed to do that,” Steve said, and he knew he was smiling like an idiot now but he didn't care. “That's what makes it soda!”

“Well, I don't like it,” Brooklyn said simply, wide eyes meeting Steve's as if daring him to argue with her. She wasn't smiling, but it was almost like she was teasing him. Hell, at this point he'd take anything he could get.

“I'll get you a water on the way out,” Steve chuckled, shaking his head and taking another bite of his sandwich to hide his grin.

Brooklyn watched him eat for a second, then nodded, and took another huge bite of her sandwich as though they'd just agreed on something important.

She was a peculiar person, Steve mused, as they sat there in silence devouring their sandwiches and fries. So malleable, generic by design, going along with whatever they threw at her... and yet, she was so clearly there, lurking just under the surface; choosing not to show herself, rather than having nothing to show. Locked in her own mind, Bucky had called it. But was she learning how to set herself free, or was she simply trading in one prison for another? It seemed to Steve like she accepted freedom as quickly as she'd been taught to accept servitude; she embraced congeniality as easily as she'd embraced death and destruction. For all he knew this was just another mission for her, a temporary state she could slip in and out of at will.

And that wasn't what Steve wanted for her. Just like how he wanted Bucky to just be Bucky, scars and damage and all, he wanted this girl to be real. If she was a super soldier assassin at heart, then fine. If she was a lost girl desperate to find serenity, then great. But right now, she was a blank canvas left on a sidewalk, open for anyone to paint their colours on. Steve wanted her to be the brush.

He had no right to want anything for her, of course. He knew that. But if she wasn't going to want anything for herself... well. He wasn't exactly an expert on fatherhood, but damn it if he didn't pride himself on being a fast learner.

Steve thought of how he, himself, had gone from scrappy city boy to hardened soldier in an instant: his body had emerged out of that box fully prepared for the trenches before he'd even felt the mud on his face.

Brooklyn, by contrast, had been raised in the trenches. Always at war, never missing home, because she'd never had one.

“I grew up without a dad,” Steve said out loud, just because he realised he might as well. Brooklyn kept chewing her sandwich, but her gaze was mildly attentive when she looked up at him. “I'm sure you know that.”

She nodded, taking another bite. Humouring him again. It didn't matter, Steve told himself. She was still listening.

“It was just me and my mom. Sarah, was her name, Sarah Rogers. She was...” He smiled, remembering. “She was something special. Took care of me, until the very end. She's one of only two people who never gave up on me. Bucky's the other.”

He hadn't planned on adding that last part, but once he had, it felt right. And why shouldn't he say it? It was the truth.

To his surprise, Brooklyn swallowed her food, cocked her head thoughtfully, and said, “You were best friends.” A statement, maybe, but Steve definitely heard the hint of a question in there.

Curiosity, he thought. Good.

“We were,” he smiled. “We pretty much adopted each other. I mean, Bucky had a family, too, but there was never... I dunno, I got the sense that they never really minded his absence. Or maybe he just didn't give 'em much of a choice. After ma died, we pretty much became inseparable. We became each other's family.”

Brooklyn stayed silent, watching him with that vaguely interested look which could mean anything.

So Steve kept talking, filling the silence. “My dad though, he wasn't... I mean, my ma told me he died. Not sure I ever believed her though. I have these weird blurry memories of him, picking me up, washing my hair, holding my hand as we crossed the street... and then, one day, he was just gone. Never saw him again. Ma never cried about it, at least not in front of me, and she never told me what happened to him. Sometimes I wonder if he didn't just leave, and she was trying to spare my feelings. I wouldn't blame her for that.” He shrugged sheepishly, half-ready to brush off an extension of sympathy before he remembered who he was talking to.

It was weird, talking about this. To anyone who wasn't Bucky, really, but to Brooklyn especially. This girl, who he had to keep reminding himself wasn't just a girl, but a super-soldier who had been killing innocent people her entire life, and had never learned how to navigate human emotions.

Still, except for the blank look on her face that Steve had quietly made it his mission to eradicate, she looked just like a normal girl whose boring (and very youthful) dad had dragged her to an art gallery on her day off.

As he watched, she reached for her coke again, taking a small sip and making the merest expression of distaste before setting it down.

“I think he did die,” she said, out of nowhere.

Steve raised an eyebrow, surprised as he ever was when Brooklyn said something unprompted. Even more unusually was the I think. It might be the first time she'd expressed something that wasn't a factual statement.

“You read that in a file or something?” he asked, going for light-hearted and missing by miles. Even without the years in the ice, his dad had been gone a long time, but he still felt something stir inside of him, like a wound that had never fully healed. Maybe Hydra did know what had happened to his dad. Was he really ready to find out the truth?

She took another small sip of her coke, and Steve suspected she was doing it more to give herself time to find the right words than because she really wanted to. Or maybe it was her desire to understand how someone could find the taste of it good, when she so clearly did not.

“No,” she said at last, and Steve honestly wasn't sure whether he was relieved or disappointed. He was about to say something else when she added, “But if he had not died, he would have returned to you eventually. That's how you find someone who doesn't want to be found – you just stay close to the thing they tried to escape from.” She picked up a french fry, contemplating it for a moment like she'd never seen one before. “People think they can run away and never look back, but they can't. They always look back.”

Steve could do nothing but stare at her, but Brooklyn just munched on her french fry, looking like she had no idea the effect her words had on him.

She scraped up the last handful of fries left on her plate and stuffed them into her mouth, in a gesture so like Bucky's, for a moment Steve could almost let himself believe that she was a normal girl, and not a former (and/or current) Hydra agent. Because that... even though she'd been talking about soldier stuff, tracking people down... that observation didn't sound like Hydra to him. That sounded like something she'd picked up on her own.

He had it all wrong, he realised. It wasn't that she didn't understand the world. It was that she observed it, and had only learned to analyse what she saw in a certain way. She certainly understood things; she'd just never had a reason to consider them from another point of view than that of a soldier's.

“You notice a lot about people, huh?” he asked her.

She looked up at him, eyes wide and earnest. “I notice everything.”

He snorted, trying to temper down his laugh. “I know you weren't trying to be cocky there, but man. You didn't get the self-confidence from me, I'll tell you.”

Brooklyn's eyes narrowed thoughtfully. She tilted the corner of her mouth up experimentally, an approximation of a smirk. “Hmm,” she said. “Maybe I got your sense of humour.”

Steve blinked. Then he barked out a laugh, not caring that half the café visitors turned to him, scandalised.

“You know what, I think you might just have,” he said, when he'd finally gotten himself back under control. “Come on, let's get you that water.”

When he put his hand on her elbow, she didn't resist his touch, and Steve decided that this outing had been a good idea after all.

They got back to the tower to find Bucky waiting for them in the lobby.

“I wasn't worried,” Bucky assured them immediately, which of course proved that he had been.

“Well, good, 'cause there was nothing to worry about,” Steve smiled, clapping a hand on Bucky's shoulder, hating the fact that he'd actually missed Bucky, after only a few hours apart. “We had fun, right Brooke? Or, at least I had fun.”

Brooklyn appeared to be considering it. “Yes,” she said at last. “You did have fun.”

Bucky snorted; Steve swatted his arm, suddenly a tiny bit less happy to see him.

“I was promised dinner,” Steve said, rolling his eyes, ignoring the way Bucky snickered behind him as he walked towards the elevator.

They got back to the apartment, and Steve watched Brooklyn carefully as he took a seat by the kitchen counter and she followed suit. Bucky set a pizza box down in front of them, and grabbed a seat on the other side of the counter, facing them.

“Aw Buck, a home-made meal? You shouldn't have,” Steve smirked.

“It's extra cheese,” was Bucky's only defence – and, Steve had to admit, it was a damn good one.

Steve and Bucky both grabbed slices. Brooklyn sat to attention; Steve caught Bucky's eye and shrugged. Rome wasn't built in a day.

“You like pizza, right?” Steve asked. When she didn't respond, he prompted, “Brooklyn?”

She looked up. “I... don't know. I've never had it before,” she said haltingly. He'd noticed that she didn't like to admit it when she didn't know something.

“Well, try it, and you'll find out,” Bucky prompted, shooting another glance at Steve, looking like he wasn't sure whether it was okay to laugh.

She picked up a piece and looked at it skeptically. “I've seen others eat it before,” she said, as though that excused her ignorance.

“And now it's your turn,” Bucky said, clearly amused now. “It won't bite. That's your job.”

Brooklyn looked from the pizza to Bucky, a similar look on her face as the first time she'd tried sitting on the sofa. “You both speak so strangely,” she determined. “You never say what you really mean. Not even to each other.”

This time, it was Bucky and Steve's turn to grow speechless, as Brooklyn bit into her pizza and chewed thoughtfully. When Steve tried to catch Bucky's eye, Bucky was studying his pizza intensely.

So Steve watched Brooklyn instead, as though very invested in her enjoyment of a piece of cheesy bread. “Well?” he asked her, to fill the increasingly awkward silence.

“I like this,” she decided. “And...” she hesitated. “Thank you, for the museum. I appreciate what you do for me. I know I haven't earned it.”

Steve wanted to reach out, but restrained himself. “You don't have to earn anything, Brooklyn,” he said, hoping she knew that he meant it.

In lieu of a response, she took another bite of the pizza, and Steve took that as his cue to resume eating as well. He chanced a glance at Bucky, who was looking at Brooklyn, frowning.

After a beat, Bucky cleared his throat, and Steve looked up at him fully. “I'm still trying to figure out how best to talk to you,” he admitted, and Steve looked round in confusion before he realised that Bucky was speaking to Brooklyn, not him. “You came all this way for us, and I'm glad. I'm glad you exist. But I'm... hell, I was still trying to work out who I'm supposed to be before you got here. And now, here you are. And... I guess it's all just happening so fast.”

Brooklyn was looking back at Bucky, fixing him with the same deeply contemplative gaze she'd given the Little Dancer at the museum. “I understand,” she said at last. “I apologise for causing you inconvenience.”

“You're not,” Bucky said quickly, shaking his head vigorously. He looked slightly pained, like this whole sharing-feelings thing was making him uncomfortable (and knowing Bucky, it probably was). “I just wanna make sure you know that if I'm ever rude, or short with you, I just...” he trailed off, eyebrows drawing together as if in actual pain.

“You'll know he's perfectly normal,” Steve cut in.

The unexpected joke made Brooklyn choke on her pizza. Bucky shot him a look that was half-grateful and half-annoyed, but Steve merely shrugged at him and grabbed another slice of pizza. They were making an effort to be more honest now, right? Might as well start here.

They continued eating in silence, Steve trying not to look at Bucky too much.

What did Brooklyn think they weren't saying to each other? Well, Steve had a list about a mile long of things he wasn't telling Bucky. As for Bucky... while Steve thought he knew his best friend inside out, lately, Steve honestly wasn't sure what Bucky was thinking. He knew they needed to have it out, and soon, but that didn't make him any less terrified.

This, the precarious little truce between the three of them, was about as fragile and ambiguous as a work of art. One wrong stroke of the paintbrush and the whole thing was ruined.

After dinner, Brooklyn went to take a shower – one of the few things she did without needing to be explicitly instructed to do so.

When Steve and Bucky were left alone in the kitchen, Bucky wasted no time before rounding on him.

“So? How'd it go?”

“It was... not terrible,” Steve allowed. Bucky raised an eyebrow, clearly impatient for details. “She knows like, everything. Honestly, it's pretty damn impressive. I didn't have much luck getting her to connect with the art, but I think she might have felt a connection to one of the statues, maybe. And yeah, I know,” he added, cutting off Bucky's rebuttal, “you think it's all bull. But we don't know, maybe she'll end up taking after me with this whole art stuff.” He blushed, acutely aware of how hopeful he sounded.

Bucky didn't laugh though, he just smiled fondly at Steve. “I hope she does,” he said, voice uncharacteristically soft.

Steve cleared his throat, not wanting Bucky to see how much his words – his approval – affected him. “Anyway, I think if nothing else she learned something about me, which I guess was what the exercise was all about anyway, right?”

“Hmm,” Bucky said, looking far away for a moment. “I'm sorry I didn't come with.”

Steve looked up, surprised. “That's... fine,” he found himself saying. “I mean, it's not like you're into all the art stuff.”

Bucky frowned. “I know. But I'd go, for you. I mean,” he added quickly – and was that a trick of the light or was he actually blushing? – “if you wanted. But I guess I thought, some one-on-one time with her probably isn't the worst thing. So it doesn't feel like we're ganging up on her.”

Steve didn't know what to say to that, inexplicably touched by Bucky's thoughtfulness. He should have known Bucky wouldn't have stayed behind if he hadn't thought he had a good reason.

“Well, next time we should all go,” Steve decided. “As a... team.” Or a family. But he wasn't sure Bucky was ready – would ever be ready – to hear that.

“Hmm,” Bucky said, eyes far away for a moment. “So I think I'm gonna take her to the sparring ring, for my thing.”

Steve frowned at that. He supposed he shouldn't be surprised – after all, Bucky's life had been all about fighting for a long time. And it wasn't like Brooklyn couldn't relate. But... “You think that's safe?”

Bucky shrugged. “It's about as safe as letting her stay here while we're sleeping. At least when she attacks, I'll see it coming.”

“You really want her attacking you?” Steve asked apprehensively. They still hadn't seen her fight, or even train. They had no idea what she was capable of.

“I don't,” Bucky said, as though they were discussing what to have for dinner. “But I can't deny that I'm curious about her skills. I don't know about you, but I'm dying to see what she can do. And not just cause I'm a distrustful son of a bitch, if that's what you're thinking. She's our kid, right? I got a feeling she might like showing off.”

Steve rolled his eyes, ignoring that last part. “That's not what I was thinking.”

“Whatever, Stevie,” Bucky mumbled, glancing over at Steve briefly, a small smile playing on his lips now.

For a while they sat in comfortable silence, both lost in their own thoughts. Then--

“Oh,” Steve said suddenly, remembering. “It turns out she doesn't like soda.”

Bucky had been picking at the label on his beer bottle, but at this revelation, his eyebrows shot up at he met Steve's gaze. “Why the hell not?”

Steve shrugged. “It fizzles.”

“But that's the best part,” Bucky said incredulously, beer label forgotten.

“That's what I said!” Steve laughed.

They both heard the shower turn off, and a moment later Brooklyn emerged, looking much younger than she was in the oversized shorts and t-shirt she'd borrowed from Bucky. Her long blonde hair was hanging loosely down her back, and the freckles on her arms stood in sharp relief to her pale skin.

She hesitated in the doorway for a second, fiddling with the string of her shorts, looking uncharacteristically uncomfortable.

“My hearing is as good as yours,” she said, apropos of nothing. “Maybe a little better.”

“Okay,” Steve said encouragingly, figuring there was a reason behind her random offering of information.

“I heard what you said. About the art.” She looked at the floor now, and if she hadn't been so insanely good at controlling her expressions, Steve swore she would have blushed.

“...Okay,” Steve repeated, nonplussed.

“And I do. Like it.” She finally looked up at him, the movement a little too quick. “It's not practical, I know that,” she added, as if there was any doubt. “But I... I thought you'd like...”

Only then did Steve notice that she was not fiddling with the string of her shorts at all, but rather with a tiny, folded-over piece of paper.

“What's—” he started, but she'd already rushed over, crammed the piece of paper into his palm, and rushed back out of the room into the hallway, shutting the door to the guest room behind her before he'd as much as finished the first word of his question.

He looked down at the folded piece of paper in his hand, and, after a cautionary glance at Bucky, began carefully unfolding it. Bucky, curious, leaned over the table to get a closer look, his head very close to Steve's.

It was a drawing. The scrap of paper was hardly bigger than the palm of Steve's hand, and yet the likeness of himself and Bucky was uncanny.

She seemed to have drawn it from memory, from the first time they'd seen her, when she'd been contained behind the glass and, for a few precious moments, had been allowed to lay eyes on them.

“Wow,” Bucky said softly, breath ghosting over the top of Steve's head as he leaned even closer.

Steve was speechless. The drawing was amazing, a perfect miniature replica of himself and Bucky, drawn with pen seemingly without the need for corrections.

But what really took his breath away was how she had depicted him and Bucky: Steve could have sworn they were looking at Brooklyn the whole time, but in the drawing, they were gazing at each other, and on their faces were matching expressions of... love?

He cleared his throat and felt Bucky shift, his body still so close to Steve's own.

“This is great, Steve,” Bucky said softly after a moment, and though Steve couldn't see him, he could tell he was smiling. “She's already doing something that isn't Hydra. And the drawing... if there was any doubt she was yours, there sure isn't now.”

Steve frowned. Had Bucky not noticed the way she'd drawn them? Maybe not; he wasn't an artist. Maybe he just saw two friends looking at each other. But how could that be possible? Every line of that drawing spoke of the love Steve felt for Bucky. Bucky must see it.

Steve looked up, realising as he did just how close he and Bucky were. Bucky's eyes were, for once, not full of pain or darkness. There was something like peace in there, and Steve wanted to keep that look in Bucky's eyes forever.

I love you, he wanted to say. So badly, the urge more strong than it ever had been before to just say it. I want you. I can't fucking live without you.

“I think you're right,” was all he said, blinking too quickly, pulling back with a smile he hoped seemed more casual than he felt. Coward, he thought to himself. Even after everything they'd endured, everything they'd suffered... in this, he was still afraid.

Bucky tilted his head, just like Brooklyn sometimes did, and his smile turned a little bit sad as he said softly, “Always am, Stevie.”

If Steve had been a braver man, this would have been when he'd acted. When he'd confessed everything. But as brave as he may be in battle, bold as he may be when facing someone bigger and stronger than himself, Steve simply could not face the possibility that he'd lose not just Bucky, but the tentative bond they'd built up with Brooklyn. If Bucky didn't feel the same way he did... well, things would change between them, even if they told themselves it wouldn't.

Steve let Bucky go to bed, but he stayed in the kitchen for a long time after that. Wishing, maybe, that Bucky would come back. He imagined all the ways he might tell him, finally, how he'd always felt.

But when he finally went to the bedroom, it was to find Bucky fast asleep. At least he's here, Steve let himself think, before crawling under the covers and letting himself doze off, as he watched Bucky's chest rise and fall steadily.

 

Chapter Text

Tony meant well. Steve knew that. But this... it was even worse than when Bucky had first moved into the tower, and they'd had to endure nightly video marathons in the Avengers' rec room, only attended by the two of them, Tony, and a very uncomfortable Bruce, who were taking them through the entire back-catalogue of Walt Disney. Not that the movies weren't great, but Tony had made them watch the sing-along versions, and had proceeded to sing along to all the songs.

This was kinda like that, except a little less singing, and a lot more embarrassment.

Somehow, in the space of only a few hours, Tony had managed to procure giant pink banners littered with hearts and showing Steve and Bucky's faces with a little plus between them, and an equals sign next to Brooklyn. Cupcakes read 'Baby makes 3' and 'It's a girl!', and confused party guests (mostly Stark employees and former SHIELD agents – evidently, whomever had been available on short notice) kept showing up with bassinets and strollers, all of which Steve desperately tried to avoid accepting without seeming ungrateful or impolite. Every time someone new arrived, Tony would rush over and welcome them to what he was, horrifyingly, calling “the baby shower.”

Poor Bucky looked as uncomfortable as Steve felt, sulking in the corner with a bright pink drink (non-alcoholic, as per the theme, not that this made any difference to Bucky or Steve) in his hand, and a huge scowl on his face.

But, to Steve's complete bewilderment, Brooklyn seemed – in her own ambiguous way – to be enjoying herself.

Since leaving her glass cage, Brooklyn had been dropping her militant stance and blank gaze by increments; she wasn't engaging with anyone in a way that could be considered normal (right now she was standing with Tony and Bruce, looking totally unfazed as they engaged in one of their impossible-to-follow scientific debates), but at least she seemed secure in the knowledge that she wouldn't be reprimanded for any break in protocol. If anything, Steve thought she was probably just humouring them and their clearly insane ways of trying to make her feel welcome, but he was used to her default mendacity by now. He was prepared to wait it out, and eventually, he hoped, she'd feel comfortable just being herself. After all, Steve thought wistfully, he had long ago learned the art of patience.

“Think anyone will notice if we just leave?”

Steve jumped; he hadn't noticed Bucky sneaking up behind him.

“Believe me, there's nothing I'd like more,” he sighed, leaning back into Bucky very slightly and feeling himself relax, even as he spotted the giant, baby-carrying stork piñata that Maria was currently going to town on. (As Steve and Bucky watched in a kind of fascinated horror, the monstrosity split open, and turned out to be full of candy pacifiers. Steve really hated Tony sometimes.)

Bucky seemed to follow his line of thought. “I guess it's kinda working though, this party thing,” he murmured, tapping Steve's shoulder and pointing discreetly; Steve looked over to see Brooklyn, now leaning relaxedly against the far wall as an over-enthusiastic Darcy was gesticulating wildly in her general direction. “At least it's keeping her entertained.”

Steve heard the anxious note in Bucky's voice, even though the other man was clearly trying to hide it. “You've got no more bonding exercises lined up either, then?” Or at all, he silently amended. It hadn't escaped his notice that Bucky had, for the most part, tried to keep out of Brooklyn's way, leaving the talking and the bonding (such as it was) to Steve.

“Believe it or not, Steve, but showing a teenage girl the ways of the world wasn't exactly on my bucket list.”

Steve smiled. “You could've just said no.”

Bucky shrugged, snatching a bowl off a passing waiter's tray. The bowl turned out to be full of tiny pink marshmallows. “I dunno, mmmb we're overfingnn it,” he said, voice muffled by the half-a-dozen marshmallows he'd just stuffed into his mouth.

“What do you mean?” asked Steve, grabbing one of the marshmallows and popping it into his mouth. To his mild annoyance, because he really wanted to hate everything about Tony's stupid party, it was delicious.

Bucky swallowed audibly. “Well, contrary to what Stark seems to believe, she's not actually a baby,” he said. “She's grown and trained, and perfectly capable of... well, something close to human behaviour, anyway,” he frowned, eyes tracking Brooklyn's form as she moved, a mite too stiffly, to follow Darcy to the drinks table. “She said herself that she's here to learn about us. I've been sweatin' the getting-to-know-her thing, but maybe all we really need to do is to show her who we are, like she asked. The art museum for you, the fighting for me.”

Steve frowned, processing Bucky's words. “You think that's all we are?” There had to be more to them, surely, than art and fighting.

“What if it is? Wouldn't that be enough?” Bucky shrugged, his tone dismissive, but the worry in his eyes betrayed him. Steve instantly felt bad – Bucky, more than anyone, knew what it was like to feel like he had no life beyond what the army – or Hydra – had given him.

But the thing was, they were more than that. They were scuffed-up knees and ink-stained fingers, greasy lips after Christmas turkey and shivering limbs under too-thin blankets, they were whispered confessions under European skies and the crunch of popcorn in the back of smoke-filled movie theatres; they were strength and fear and love and loss, and their lives were so much bigger than what war had taught them.

Steve smiled, laying a hand on Bucky's shoulder and relishing in the feel of warm flesh beneath the soft cotton shirt they could never have afforded in the '40s. His fingers skimmed over a crease, like they had a thousand times before. “I think it's plenty.”

Because whatever their lives amounted to, whatever banal words could be used to sum them up, Steve and Bucky had never needed more than each other. Anything else was just a bonus. He thought they showed Brooklyn as much of themselves by just being together as they did showing off their skills and interests... but he had a feeling that stuff would come all of its own.

Someone blew a party horn, and it sounded like a baby crying. Steve's eyes flickered to Brooklyn, and he wondered if she'd ever cried as a child. What Hydra had done to her if she had.

“Look, Steve,” Bucky said suddenly, and his tone was suddenly very different. Steve looked round and found, to his surprise, that they were somehow, miraculously alone in their little corner of the room, most of the guests having converged around Tony, who was holding court as usual. “There's something I wanted to--”

“MY FRIENDS!”

Steve and Bucky both jumped as two giant hands descended on their shoulders, and they spun round, half-ready for a fight, only to come face-to-face with the widely beaming Thor.

Steve's fists unclenched and he relaxed his stance; half the people in the room had turned at the commotion, and were now shooting them weird glances. He felt himself blush.

“You... made it,” Steve grimaced. “Great.” It wasn't. Under normal circumstances he'd love to see Thor, whom he'd come to regard as his friend, but Steve really would rather keep most of his friends from witnessing this embarrassing 'celebration.' His only solace was that Sam had missed his flight, and was still stuck in Washington.

“OF COURSE!” Thor boomed, waving his arms around in unbridled joy; Bucky had to duck to avoid getting swatted. “I wouldn't miss the birth of your child for the worlds!”

“I see you got my invitation,” Tony interjected gleefully, sidling up next to Thor before Steve and Bucky could even begin to process Thor's words. “Isn't it just miraculous?”

Oh, how many ways Steve was gonna kill him.

“It is marvellous indeed!” Thor beamed. “Two warriors, united by a love so true, it defies mere human biology! Tell me, which one of you has been blessed with the gift of life?”

His gaze flickered in the direction of Steve's and Bucky's abdomens.

“Okay. That's it. I'm done,” Bucky declared, throwing up his hands, marshmallows flying everywhere. He turned and stormed off, face a brilliant shade of red, and Steve watched him go, wishing that he'd thought to do that first so Bucky would've been the one who'd been left to deal with this madness. But he couldn't very well leave now, and risk Thor buying whatever mad explanation Tony had surely concocted for this so-called miracle. He sighed, resigned to his fate.

“It's uh, not what it seems,” he said delicately.

“No. It's so much better,” Tony trilled.

Whether by divine intervention or by the power of extreme foresight, Pepper swept in then, grabbing Tony by the elbow – and if Tony's yelp was anything to go by, her grip was less than gentle. “Alright, time to help me arrange the baby's breath bouquets.” She ignored Tony's protests and pulled him away, throwing Steve a look that was half-apologetic, half-see what I have to put up with every day?

Steve mouthed, Thank you, and she rolled her eyes, though the corner of her mouth was twitching. He'd always really liked Pepper.

“So? On what grounds was this miracle granted you?” Thor asked, clapping a hand on Steve's shoulder. Steve only stumbled very slightly at the impact.

“Yeah, the thing is... we're not so much talking a miracle as a little gag gift from Hydra here.” At Thor's nonplussed expression, Steve raised his chin and indicated Brooklyn, who seemed to have extricated herself from everyone else and was slowly making her way towards them. For a moment, Steve entertained the idea that she might actually be worried for his safety, but dismissed it immediately. Don't get your hopes up had become his default motto long before Brooklyn had come into his life.

Thor half-turned to follow Steve gaze, and Steve watched as he noticed Brooklyn, and as the wheels began turning in the Asgardian's head – and then the pieces came together.

“I-- oh.” For once, Thor's voice wasn't booming with exuberance. “I see.”

For some reason, he seemed disappointed.

“She was made from our DNA,” Steve explained, as Brooklyn moved closer still, watching Thor warily. “Mine and Bucky's. Supersoldier genes and all. She's not...” ours, he might have said, if she hadn't been within hearing distance. “So, yeah. It's not what you think.”

What had Thor thought, anyway? That Steve and Bucky had just... conceived? Together? Magically? And, Steve couldn't help but notice, he hadn't seemed the least bit surprised by that prospect.

Thor regarded Brooklyn for a long time, unable to hide his astonishment. Then, like clouds clearing from an overcast sky, his face lit up again and he extended a massive hand towards her.

“Greetings, daughter of Steve!” he exclaimed. “I am Thor, son of Odin.”

Brooklyn blinked up at him, then regarded his hand, which was still wavering between them. “You are Thor?” she asked skeptically.

“I am Thor!” Thor repeated, grinning widely.

Steve could see that it took everything Brooklyn had to keep herself calm, as she slowly extended a hand to shake Thor's. She let out the merest hint of a gasp when her hand touched his.

“Ah! A strong grip!” Thor exclaimed happily, turning to Steve with an approving expression, as though her handshake skills was somehow Steve's accomplishment. “You are indeed a warrior!”

Brooklyn stared at him. Then she said, more slowly, “You are Thor.”

And Steve realised that she was starstruck.

Thor, completely oblivious, turned to look around at the room, putting his hands on his hips, cape swaying behind him. “This party feels somewhat inappropriate for the occasion,” he remarked. “Since you are not a baby.”

Brooklyn opened her mouth, then closed it, looking completely out of her depth. Steve really wished Bucky'd been here to see it.

When she didn't respond, Thor sighed, looking crestfallen. “I fear my gift to you shall be a great disappointment.”

“Your... gift,” Brooklyn said, still seeming a little dazed.

Thor reached into his pocket and pulled out a small square package, which was wrapped in shimmering blue cloth. He extended it to Brooklyn, but she only stared at it.

Seeming to sense her hesitance, Thor reached out with his free hand and took a hold of Brooklyn's. Brooklyn, evidently never having encountered a god before, and having no protocol to rely on for how to behave around one, let him guide her hand to the box, and let him drop it into her palm.

To Steve's surprise, Brooklyn then looked not at Thor, but at him, a question in her eyes.

“Uh,” he said, caught off guard, “it's fine. Go ahead.”

That seemed to be all the encouragement she needed, and she finally closed her hand around the box, looking more lost than Steve had ever seen her. He wasn't sure why she was that rattled by meeting Thor... but then he realised: it wasn't just Thor. It was the fact that he'd given her a present. It was probably the first present she'd ever received that wasn't clothes or weapons. Steve wished he'd realised sooner.

“Hey,” Steve said, taking a small step closer to Brooklyn, “you can open it. It's yours.”

She looked, for all intents and purposes, like she wasn't affected by what was happening. But Steve knew she was. He could tell.

And he was pretty sure he understood her well enough now to risk reaching out and laying a hand on her shoulder. She started at the contact, but didn't otherwise react, which he took as a good sign.

She opened the box.

Inside, there was a tiny necklace, clearly meant for a much smaller child. The chain was silver, with a green, circular pendant, that sparkled strangely in the light. Whatever stone it was, it clearly wasn't of this earth.

“In Asgard, when a soul enters this world, it is customary to bequeath them a pendant such as this,” Thor said, voice pitched low for Brooklyn's benefit, clearly as aware of her inner distress as Steve was. “It is a birthstone. I was under the impression that the birth would take place today, so I apologise if it does not correspond with your--”

“I don't have a birthday,” Brooklyn interrupted him, looking first at Thor and then at Steve, a new emotion in her eyes that Steve couldn't identify. He waited, but she didn't say anything else.

When she'd been poisoned and almost died, she'd told Steve it was her birthday. But of course, that wasn't quite right, because as Tony had discovered during his investigation into Project Phoenix, Brooklyn had never actually been born. Her so-called birthday had been nothing more than a formality, a Hydra-branded expiration date – or, it would have been, if not for their last-minute rescue operation.

“Ah,” Thor smiled, clearly understanding something that Steve didn't. “Then perhaps your birthday can be today.”

Brooklyn grasped the necklace tight. “Thank you,” she told him. And, for the first time since Steve had met her, she smiled.

When Tony announced that it was time to play the “lamaze class game,” Steve decided to call it a night.

Figuring that it was okay to leave Brooklyn with Thor and Jane (who had barged in not long after Thor had given Brooklyn the necklace, out of breath, apologising profusely for any confusion Thor's arrival may have caused – clearly, Jane had also gotten Tony's misleading invitation), Steve left the rec room, wanting to check in on Bucky.

When he got back to the apartment though, it was bathed in darkness. Steve checked his room, but Bucky wasn't there. He wasn't in Brooklyn's room either, or the kitchen. Steve'd almost given up the search when he glanced out towards the balcony – and there he was.

For a moment – only a moment – Steve let himself stop, and just watch. Bucky was leaning his elbows on the railing, hands clasped in front of him, gazing out at the city. His face was bathed in the soft light coming from the streets far below, his expression soft and far away. His hair, which was slowly beginning to grow out again, was blowing gently in the wind.

Nothing in Bucky's stance indicated that he'd noticed Steve come into the apartment, but Steve knew that he was fully aware of his presence. Bucky always seemed to know when he was near.

So Steve tore himself out of his reverie and stepped forward, letting his feet carry him where he always wanted to go – towards Bucky.

“Hey,” Steve said softly as he stepped onto the balcony. Bucky didn't respond or look his way, but as Steve approached he saw Bucky smile softly, his muscles relaxing incrementally. As though he'd been waiting for Steve to arrive.

Steve walked up to stand next to Bucky, leaning forward to rest his elbows against the railing, copying his pose. The fresh air was a nice change from the cotton-candy scented air at the party. He smiled to himself. Tony was a ridiculous man, but he rarely did something without purpose. Perhaps Brooklyn had needed to feel like she'd been... well, born. So this had been her first birthday, as absurd as it'd been. Steve wondered what other kinds of firsts they could give her. Halloween was coming up, and Thanksgiving. Christmas. It'd be nice to do a proper Christmas, he thought.

“Sorry to leave you hanging in there,” Bucky said at last, breaking what had been a comfortable silence. Steve looked over to find Bucky already watching him. How long had he been watching him?

Steve laughed softly. “Hey, I was just mad I didn't think about running away first. But I wish you'd stayed. It was actually... pretty great.” He remembered Brooklyn's expression when she'd seen the necklace. She had been genuinely moved. He thought back to the museum, and how he'd wondered if she'd ever be able to feel something like what he'd felt for Madame X... well, this was definitely a good start.

Bucky looked skeptical. “What, did Tony bring out a bigger piñata?”

“Actually yes,” Steve grimaced, “but that wasn't the great part. Brooklyn... I really think she's gonna be okay out here. Away from Hydra. You should've seen her with Thor. It was... I dunno. Special.”

Bucky watched Steve for a long time, an indecipherable expression on his face.

Then he said, “You know what always ate away at me? From the day we met. In some form or another, wherever we were, whatever we were doing... I always worried about you getting your heart broken.”

Steve blinked, taken aback by the direction the conversation had taken. “Bucky, what--” he started, but Bucky ignored him, turning to look back out towards the city again. Back to where they used to live. Somewhere, out there, the ghosts of their old lives still lingered.

“When the other kids didn't wanna play with you. When your dad left. When your ma...” Bucky's eyes flickered in Steve's direction, just for a second, and Steve saw the same sense of loss he still felt sometimes reflected there. It hadn't been that long, to them. These wounds were still fresh. “And the girls, too, every single one of them. That Agent Carter, she was the worst, because she was so important to you. And then I come back to find you've given your heart away to all these people who can crush it with a thought, and now there's Brooklyn, and I just...” Bucky paused, blinking rapidly, looking furious for a moment – though whether with Steve or himself, Steve wasn't sure. “You're gonna worry me to death, Steve.”

Steve watched him, stunned, trying to process his words. Trying to figure out how the hell he was expected to respond to that. To his own surprise, he found himself getting angry.

Bucky made a move as though to turn away and Steve reached out to grab his arm before he realised what he was doing. It wasn't a hold Bucky couldn't easily have broken, but to his relief, Bucky stayed put, though he didn't meet his eye, jaw tense, resolutely silent. “Don't think you're just gonna walk away this time, Bucky,” Steve said, and Bucky tensed at his tone, metal whirring under Steve's grip.

“Why not?” Bucky said defensively, a stubborn set to his jaw, “I've said my piece.”

“And now it's my turn,” Steve said, letting go of Bucky's arm, reassured that Bucky wasn't gonna bolt – at least, not right this instant. “See, the thing is... it's not up to you to protect me. It's never been up to you. You've always been there, and I'm grateful, but I've made it this far. And, in case you hadn't noticed, I have super healing now. Even if my heart did break, I'm pretty sure it'd mend.”

Steve paused, acutely aware that Bucky was perhaps the person alive who best knew just how fragile Steve still was – the Winter Soldier had come closer to breaking Captain America's superhuman body than anyone else.

Bucky was clearly aware of this, too, and looked like he really wanted to say as much, but to Steve's relief he kept silent, though his eyes had narrowed slightly as he continued to stare down the city. Steve saw his window, and carried on, determined now. “Look, I know you're worried. Heck, I'm worried too. Cause, guess what, I'm as eager to keep you safe as you as you are to keep me safe. I always have been, and don't argue because we both know it's true. And I'm sick of having these talks with you. I'm sick of one or both of us feeling like we have to convince the other that we care. We obviously do. And, besides, you're the only one who--”

Steve abruptly cut himself off, snapping his mouth shut.

You're the only one who can break my heart.

Bucky's head snapped towards him, and he caught his gaze. And held it. Like with Thor earlier, Steve could see Bucky's mind working. Steve fought the urge to break the eye contact, now that he finally had it. There was something too intense in Bucky's eyes, and for a moment, Steve wondered if Bucky was going to hit him.

“You know,” Bucky said, after an impossible long silence, “Tony got one thing right.”

Steve blinked. “What's that?” he managed, throat suddenly dry.

“She may not be an infant and she may not have even technically been born, but this daughter thing? It's real now. She's real. She's ours.” Bucky was watching him closely now, clearly trying to gauge his reaction. Steve wasn't sure what he was looking for. “Guess we're officially stuck with each other now.”

“I...” Steve started. He meant to offer some witty comeback, he really did. But something in Bucky's expression stopped him. He swallowed. “Weren't we always?”

Bucky didn't respond. His eyes roamed over Steve's face, and Steve's breath hitched when Bucky's fingers – the flesh and blood ones – curled loosely around his wrist. A caress, almost.

Steve could do nothing but watch as Bucky slowly moved closer; Bucky's eyes flickered to Steve's lips and Steve swallowed. Bucky's eyes tracked the movement of his throat before one again meeting Steve's. His pupils were dilated, and Steve was pretty sure he wasn't the only one whose heart was beating faster than usual.

“Steve...” Bucky breathed, “I--”

A door slammed, and Bucky and Steve broke apart as though burned.

A moment later, a shifting shadow in the living room told Steve that Brooklyn had come back from the party; he saw out of the corner of his eye how she hesitated when she spotted them, and then began walking towards them. Steve's heart was racing – had she seen anything? Had there been anything to see? What would she even think, if she had seen them?

And then Bucky turned on his heel and rushed inside, leaving Steve alone on the balcony.

He hardly heard the questions Bucky asked Brooklyn about the party, didn't register Brooklyn showing Bucky the necklace, which someone had shown her how to wear as a bracelet. He couldn't understand how Bucky could sound so normal, seem so unaffected, when Steve himself stood frozen, head spinning, heart thumping a wild and erratic rhythm in his chest. And then, suddenly, the apartment was quiet, and he realised that he was alone.

Steve went back into the darkened living room. He listened for sounds. Brooklyn had gone to her room, and it sounded like she was reading. But when Steve went into his own room, Bucky wasn't there.

He went back into the living room, completely at a loss. He sat down on the couch. Clenched and unclenched his hands. He felt Bucky's fingers on his wrist, could sense Bucky's breath mingling with his own.

For a moment, Steve had almost let himself believe he might just get everything he'd ever wanted. For a moment, he'd almost believed that Bucky wanted it, too.

But then Bucky had taken off. Again. Leaving Steve here alone, with Brooklyn. Weren't they supposed to stick together? Wasn't Bucky the one who'd been worried that it might be dangerous to sleep alone when Brooklyn was in the next room?

Steve leaned his head back against the couch cushions and closed his eyes, convinced that he'd be able to hear Bucky when he came back.

But when he woke up in the same position the next morning, he realised that Bucky hadn't come back at all.

 

Chapter Text

Steve thought this was a spectacularly bad idea.

“This is a spectacularly bad idea,” said Sam.

Steve said nothing, watching closely as Bucky and Brooklyn circled each other slowly in the ring.

It had seemed like a good idea at the time. Learning more about Brooklyn's abilities and fighting style could only benefit them, and the whole Hydra soldier thing was definitely something she and Bucky had in common, but... that didn't quell the intense sense of panic he felt watching the man he loved circling the child he never knew he wanted. Especially since he and Bucky hadn't said a direct word to each other since last night.

Bucky hadn't come back to the apartment at all. It was strange, especially since he'd been the one so dead-set on them having to sleep in the same room, to better be able to protect each other in (the increasingly unlikely) case Brooklyn turned on them.

Steve had fallen asleep on the couch, and woken up the next morning to the front door opening. Bucky'd walked straight past him to the shower, and when Brooklyn'd woken up, Bucky had proceeded to set up the terms the fight that he'd apparently already decided would take place today, never speaking a word directly to Steve.

Then, to Steve's intense relief, Sam had shown up – devastated at having missed the party last night, but pleasantly surprised when Steve had tackled him with a massive hug. Damn, he'd missed his uncomplicated friendship with Sam.

“It'll be fine,” he forced himself to say now, pointedly ignoring Sam's derisive snort. Despite the fact that he really would have liked Sam to have been able to come sooner, Steve couldn't deny his excellent timing. If this fight somehow went south, they needed every available Avenger to help with damage control.

God, but he hoped it wouldn't go south.

Bucky feigned forwards. Brooklyn didn't react, having sensed the intention.

“If by fine you mean their Hydra instincts kicking in and them accidentally annihilating each other, then yeah. It'll be fine,” Sam said wryly. “Lucky for you, I'm a super-strong, genetically enhanced, all-powerful – oh, wait. I'm just a guy with wings. Who's not actually wearing his wings.”

Steve's fingers clenched around his forearms – he was crossing his arms across his chest more to restrain himself from interfering with the fight than anything else – when Bucky threw the first punch.

Clearly, the Winter Soldier had grown tired of waiting. This, Steve saw immediately, was exactly what Brooklyn had anticipated. Patience, he was beginning to understand, might just be her greatest weapon.

Brooklyn let the punch graze her jaw, only slightly, using Bucky's force to propel her entire body into an absolutely unreal acrobatic movement: she spun backwards as her legs twisted up and around, catching Bucky in a death grip with her thighs; Bucky reacted immediately by flipping them both around, but Brooklyn had already loosened her hold and was in the air before Bucky had even hit the ground. She jumped – soared? – halfway across the ring, spinning around just as Bucky hurled himself towards her; she let his own body weight work against him as she moved back and behind him, launching herself up and halfway across the ring.

She wasn't attacking at all, Steve realised suddenly. She was simply evading every single one of Bucky's attacks. Not defensively, but almost like...

“Fuck me, she's using him as a human springboard,” Sam observed, with poorly concealed awe.

And that was exactly right. Bucky was punching and kicking, spinning and moving his body in unbelievable ways – all the moves that would certainly give him the upper hand in a regular fight – but Brooklyn was fluid as water, powerful as an ocean storm as she bounced off him, slid around him, moving through the ring like it was nothing. Like she was seeing the world in slow motion; like gravity meant nothing to her.

Bucky was putting up a good fight. As always, Steve couldn't help but admire the way his muscles flexed and his expression hardened in intense concentration – he was good.

But Brooklyn... she wasn't even fighting back. She didn't need to.

“Alright, I gotta try something,” Steve said suddenly, moving forwards before he realised what he was doing, a thrill running through him as he saw a possibility.

He vaguely heard Sam's “Wait, what—” from behind him, but all his attention was focused on the two people engaging in an otherworldly dance in the ring.

“Double-team!” Steve called out just as he swung himself over the barrier. He landed next to Bucky, who didn't even glance at him as they moved forwards as one, coming at Brooklyn from different angles.

Her movements changed as she realised she had two adversaries now. Something gleamed in her eyes as they met Steve's for the merest of moments – and then it was on.

After all, this was what their bodies were built for.

Brooklyn blocked Steve's punch as Bucky aimed a low kick. The kick landed, but she grabbed his foot as it collided with her hip and sent him flying; she elbowed Steve in the stomach with enough force to shatter the bones of a lesser man. Steve doubled over, feigning more pain than he felt, using his brief window to push into Brooklyn's space, grabbing her waist and managing a half-flip before she, unbelievably, managed to push back while halfway to the mat, pushing herself up as if fuelled by rockets and landing squarely on Steve's chest as he toppled over. Bucky was on her then, hauling her off; she did a full backflip, landing a kick to his jaw and sending him stumbling backwards. That one looked like it hurt.

Brooklyn stood between them for a moment, hardly out of breath. Steve stayed on the mat, staring up at her. Bucky was leaning against the edge of the ring, surreptitiously re-setting his jaw. Something cracked back into place, and Steve tried not to wince.

“Well,” Bucky said, after a breath. “That was fun.”

Brooklyn hesitated. Then her face split into a wide, sunny grin, transforming her face so that, for a moment, she didn't look like a soldier at all. “Yes,” she said. “It was.”

Bucky's eyes met Steve's across the room. In the heat of battle, Bucky's barriers had fallen completely, and Steve saw everything: the exhaustion, the triumph, the relief... and, if Steve didn't know better, he'd say that he saw the same kind of love reflected in Bucky's eyes which Steve himself always tried so hard to hide.

Sam laughed his ass off for about an hour. Steve left him to it as he took a shower, got dressed, and met up with the others in the kitchen. He could hear Sam's stupid laugh the whole time.

“She would have kicked your asses,” Sam wheezed, tears in his eyes. “That was amazing. I never thought I'd see the day.”

“I dunno, I think we could've taken her,” Steve shrugged, smiling. Something very much like a snort came from Brooklyn's direction, but when he looked her way, she was innocently eating her tuna sandwich.

Sam turned to Brooklyn. “Whenever they decide you're not actually a threat to humanity, you're more than welcome to have my back in a fight, just so you know.”

Brooklyn chewed her sandwich more vigorously, and was that... was she...

She was blushing.

Steve raised an eyebrow. He locked eyes with Bucky. Amusement warred with murder in the other man's eyes (it was a peculiar expression).

They turned as one to glare at Sam. His eyes widened.

“Hey, I was just saying,” he said quickly, raising his hands defensively. And that, Steve hoped, was the end of that discussion.

Well, he thought to himself, at least she has good taste.

They ate lunch in silence, Steve glancing at Brooklyn every few minutes. It must be so odd for her, he thought. He'd been so busy wondering how this all would affect his and Bucky's lives, but she was just... playing along with their game. Biding her time, seemingly for no reason at all, basically staying with them because she might as well. She'd stayed with Hydra because she'd never known anything else. He had to make sure that, once the dust settled and SHIELD was satisfied with her progress, she knew that she'd be free to do whatever she wanted.

“You know,” he said to her, and she glanced up at him with something almost like friendliness for a second before the familiar mask slipped back into place, “now that we've both shared something with you... I think it's time you return the favour.”

Blankness was replaced with confusion. “I don't understand,” Brooklyn said.

“Well,” Steve tried, “I like art. Bucky likes... the art of fighting, I guess.” He threw a fleeting grin at Bucky, who smirked in response, their earlier awkwardness temporarily forgotten. Steve tried not to let his eyes linger on the curve of Bucky's mouth, instead turning back to Brooklyn, staying in the moment. “I get the sense you like both of those things, but what else?” he asked. “We're obviously trying to get to know you, here. There must be something.”

He looked to Bucky again, suddenly unsure. Was it too much to ask? But Bucky merely shrugged, clearly as interested in hearing her answer as Steve was.

Brooklyn's brows furrowed. “I might need to think about it,” she admitted. “I'm trying,” she added, apologetically, looking around at them all as though seeking benediction.

Steve smiled warmly. “I know. And that's all we ask.”

A beat. Then – “So, since we're all sharing stuff... when can I show you guys my model train collection?”

Everyone, even Brooklyn, rolled their eyes in Sam's general direction.

“I hope you know what you're doing,” Sam told him. Steve had offered to walk him down to the guest apartment, in a thinly-veiled attempt to get out of Brooklyn and Bucky's hearing range. He was pretty sure they saw right through him, but hey, he was still allowed his privacy, right?

Steve sighed. “Does it look like I know what I'm doing?”

Sam snorted. “Fair enough. And hey, it's not like any new parents really know what they're doing, right?”

“Right,” Steve sighed. “Except we're not exactly changing diapers here.”

“I sure hope not,” Sam laughed, as they entered one of the small apartments reserved for Stark Tower visitors. Even though he'd served as an Avenger for a while, Sam hadn't yet been offered his own floor (or maybe Tony had just run out of floors to give away).

“I guess I just wish...” Steve hesitated. Sam turned, halfway towards the fridge, having undoubtedly been in search of beer (he and Bucky really had a lot in common, Steve mused absently). His expression had immediately gone from playful to concerned – one of the many things Steve admired about his second-best friend.

“You wish...?” Sam prompted.

Steve stalled, moving across the room and sinking down into the couch by the window, suddenly feeling bone-deep tired.

Before the serum, he'd get these bouts of random fatigue all the time, his body being under constant stress and just suddenly running out of energy... but obviously that didn't happen anymore. This was purely psychological, but that didn't make it feel any less real. It was like the stress of the past few weeks had suddenly caught up with him all at once, the moment he was out of Bucky and Brooklyn's company.

And he had to admit, with only himself and Sam as witnesses, that even though this thing with Brooklyn was great in many ways, it sure wasn't making Steve's life any easier. Not with Bucky, or the Avengers, or everything else on top of his already complicated life. Hell, he hadn't even had time to visit Peggy since this whole thing had started.

Steve sometimes wondered if the serum hadn't altered his brain, too, along with his body. It must have. No normal person would be able to handle this much insanity and still manage to function on a day-to-day basis.

“I wish I wasn't so afraid,” he said suddenly, the words bursting out of him without warning. It wasn't what he had been planning to say at all, but once the words were spoken, Steve found he had no desire to take them back.

Sam said nothing, but merely came over to sit next to Steve, his body language open, inviting conversation. A born counsellor. Steve wondered – not for the first time – what he'd done to deserve such a great friend.

Steve felt it all come pouring out of him then, beginning to bite back the words before realising who he was speaking to. If there was anyone he was comfortable baring his soul to, it was Sam Wilson. So he did.

“I feel like it's all on me,” Steve confessed. “Everyone around me is damaged and I'm the one expected to be whole, and I'm terrified that one day they'll wake up and realise I'm not.” He tried to swallow down the lump in his throat, looking anywhere but at Sam, guilt welling up in him as he started saying everything he shouldn't.

“Hell, Bucky's been saying since he came back how he's broken, how he's not good enough, how I shouldn't expect him to be the same as he was... but all the while, I'm so damn scared that he's only here because he thinks I'm the same person I used to be. And I try to be, I do. But now, with Brooklyn here... I wanna be everything for her, too, I wanna be... her dad, if she wants that. And if she doesn't, I'm still gonna be there for her, and I want her to know that. But this whole thing... with Hydra, with the responsibility, with the guilt, it's harder on Bucky than it is on me, I know it is. And what if I can't keep it together? What if they both need me and I can't give enough, and Bucky doesn't--” he faltered, searching for the words. “What if I can't be what he needs me to be?”

A beat. It was completely silent in the apartment; Steve couldn't even hear Sam breathing. Then--

“You're in love with him.”

It wasn't a question.

Steve waited for the shame to set in. The terror. To his surprise, he just felt a little bit lighter, from finally having someone else know. He had expected Sam to figure it out before now, actually... and maybe he had.

“You know,” Steve said softly, “even after all this time, it still sounds like I'm confessing a crime.”

Sam raised an eyebrow. “That wasn't a denial.”

“Were you expecting one?”

Sam gave Steve an assessing look. No judgement in his eyes – and, even though Steve had known there wouldn't be, he still felt a surge of relief, and affection for his friend. “No, I suppose I wasn't,” said Sam frankly.

He paused for a moment, looking at Steve thoughtfully, as though knowing Steve had more to share. Steve took a deep breath, steeling himself.

“I almost kissed him.”

Sam's eyebrows shot up. “Okay. So... why didn't you?”

Steve sighed. “Cause I was scared? I just don't wanna mess up what we have.”

Sam's eyebrows rose, impossibly, higher. “And why, exactly, would you kissing him mess that up? Don't tell me you're that bad of a kisser.”

“I--” Steve stopped. “Huh? What? No! That's not – I meant, what if he hadn't kissed me back?” For a moment, Steve had almost been sure that Bucky would've. But then he'd left, and now Steve once again had no idea what was going on inside his best friend's mind.

Sam's eyebrows stayed frozen in place for a moment. Then he laughed, loud and uninhibited. Steve tried not to take it personally. “You – fuck, Steve, are you actually a fourteen-year-old girl?” Steve was pretty sure the affront was showing on his face because Sam quickly sobered, and added, “I'm sorry. I'm sure it's all very angsty and serious. This is just... not a conversation I ever imagined I'd be having with Captain America.”

“I'm sure I've shattered a lot of your illusions about Captain America today,” Steve muttered, and he knew the words came out more bitter than he'd intended them to.

“Nah,” Sam smiled, clasping Steve's shoulder reassuringly. “I was always more of a Bucky Bear kind of guy anyway, you know that. Besides,” he added, off Steve's look, “after the shit I've seen you wade through... you're the biggest, most noble, stupidly handsome hero I know. Nothing's gonna change that, alright?” He frowned. “Don't tell Tony I said that, I'm hoping he'll upgrade my wings if I convince him he's my favourite Avenger.”

Steve snorted, cheered up despite himself. Trust Sam to know what to say. It still didn't bring him closer to solving any of his problems though.

“I just... don't wanna ruin things,” he confessed after a beat, all the while wondering if he already had. “Bucky's been through so much, and the last thing I wanna do is complicate the one thing that's familiar in his life. He needs me to be his friend. And since last night... he left. He's been taking off a couple of times now, since coming back, and... shit,” Steve wiped the tears away angrily, infinitely grateful that Sam was acting like he hadn't noticed, “he can have his own life, I know that. But I'm afraid he's pulling away from me. And I don't know how to fix it. I just... wanna be what he needs.”

Sam said nothing for a long time, eyes slightly narrowed as he considered Steve. Then he said, slowly, as though carefully weighing his words, “Did you ever consider that maybe Bucky doesn't want you to be what he needs?”

Steve looked up in surprise. But Sam's expression wasn't mocking or mean. “I don't--” he started, but Sam waved him off.

“Hey, I'm not saying he doesn't need you. You've been invaluable to his recovery, and you know that. He knows that. Hell, the whole world knows that. But the way you're talking, Steve, it sounds like you think the only reason Bucky hangs around you is because he expects you to... I don't know, fix him? Make him all better again and send him on his way to a two-point-five, picket fence life?”

“I don't...” Steve started again, then hesitated. When Sam said it, it sounded absurd. And yet... wasn't it kind of true? Bucky had needed him, still needed him, to help break free of the Winter Soldier. Steve had done everything in his power to help Bucky, and he'd do it a thousand times over, never expecting anything in return. But now that he was Bucky again... yeah, maybe Steve had kind of been expecting him to move on. Steve had expected Bucky to wake up one day, a smile on his face and a suitcase in his hand, ready to face the world on his own. Maybe he'd find a girl – Natasha, or someone else. Someone Steve didn't know. Someone who'd give Bucky everything Steve couldn't.

Steve had never stopped to wonder why Bucky stuck around. He hadn't ever asked himself what Bucky actually wanted from him.

“Look, Steve, I'm gonna be honest with you here,” Sam sighed, as though he knew exactly what Steve was thinking. “I don't know Bucky very well. He tried to kill me that one time, and as awesome as that was, I haven't exactly been around much since then. Sorry about that, by the way.” He waved away Steve's attempted protest. “All I'm saying is, I'm probably the last person who can tell you what Bucky's thinking or feeling, and I sure as hell am not gonna start gossiping with you about who's kissing who and for how long. However much I might want to.” Something almost like a smirk crossed Sam's face for a second, before his counsellor mask fixed itself back into place. “But I do know a thing or two about being damaged, and not wanting to ruin a good thing. And from everything I've seen of you guys, it doesn't seem to me like Bucky's expecting you to fix anything. That's not the kinda pressure you put on someone else when you're carrying around that much guilt of your own. Hell, if anything, Bucky is as convinced that you need him as you are of the opposite.”

“I do need him,” Steve said automatically, and it was true: Steve needed Bucky like breathing.

“I'm gonna choose to think your co-dependence is cute rather than disturbing.” Sam smiled wryly. “Believe me, I have no doubt that you two need each other. But that doesn't mean that Bucky's your project, Steve, no more or less than the girl who somehow manages to be your daughter – and don't even get me started on that, by the way, because that is all so beyond me.” Sam paused, shaking his head in disbelief. Sometimes Steve forgot that Sam, unlike the rest of them, was more or less normal. How bizarre their lives must seem to him.

Sam collected himself, and surprised Steve by reaching out, putting a hand on Steve's shoulder, serious again as he leaned in. “Their burdens aren't yours to bear on your unfairly muscled shoulders, Steve," he said gently. "Bucky's your friend, and he's always been your friend, and I'm pretty sure he always will be, whatever other feelings may or may not be brewing between the two of you. And, more importantly, I think he just wants to be here with you. Fixing everything together and saving the world, like you crazy-ass heroes always do.”

“Huh,” Steve said, feeling like an idiot. Had he really been so focused on making sure Bucky knew he'd accept him no matter what, he'd forgotten that Bucky would do the same for him? If there was anything Steve was sure of, it was that Bucky would walk through hell for him, like Steve would for Bucky.

Bucky didn't love Steve because Steve had something he needed. Bucky just loved Steve. Whatever else they were or weren't, the certainty of their friendship was something Steve had carried with him all his life. It was what had kept him going when there was no hope, no joy, no redemption in his life. It was what had made him so sure that Bucky would return to him, even when it seemed the Winter Soldier was all that remained of his childhood friend.

He looked at Sam, who returned his gaze, all too understanding.

Sam squeezed Steve's shoulder. Then he raised his eyebrows again. “Can I go get my beer now?" he asked; Steve laughed, the tension broken.

“Damn, I wish I could get drunk,” Steve confessed.

“Gotta have some advantage,” Sam said, using Steve's shoulder as leverage as he rose from the couch. “Drunkenness versus invincibility? I think I come out on top, here.”

Steve snorted. “Well, that makes one of us.”

Sam turned on his heel. He opened his mouth, then closed it again. “Captain America,” he said at last, astonished, “did you just make a dirty joke?”

Steve felt absurdly proud of himself, and laughed loudly. Thank God for Sam.

When he got back to the apartment, it was to find Bucky and Brooklyn sitting on the floor, their legs crossed as they faced each other, a deck of cards between them. Bucky appeared to be teaching her how to play blackjack.

“I leave you alone for two minutes,” Steve said with fond exasperation, trying to ignore the way his heart fluttered nervously at the sight of Bucky and Brooklyn together. It seemed like Bucky had been right: the fighting thing really was something they had in common, and it'd obviously helped Bucky feel a bit closer to her.

As for how Bucky felt about Steve, however... they hadn't spoken since the balcony. Steve had no idea what to say to him.

Luckily, Bucky seemed to have no such problem.

“You and Sam have fun?” Bucky asked, voice just the wrong side of casual.

“Why, you jealous?” Steve managed to tease, trying to lighten the mood. Whatever conversation they needed to have, it could wait till they were alone.

Bucky shrugged, not taking his eyes off the cards. “Maybe I am.”

“Uh,” Steve said, glancing at Brooklyn. She was watching him with an odd expression on her face, one which he'd never seen before. It was almost like suspicion. Steve frowned, utterly nonplussed. Bucky had never seemed to care whether or not Steve had other friends. “Well... don't be?”

Bucky jumped to his feet so abruptly that even Brooklyn look a little taken aback.

“I'm gonna take off,” he said.

“What?” Steve felt all the warmth from Sam's reassuring words leave him. “But--”

"Just need to get some air,” Bucky mumbled, not meeting his eyes.

“Well, are you--”

Bucky was out the door before Steve could finish the sentence.

“--coming back?”

Silence greeted his question. Brooklyn slowly began gathering up the cards, and when Steve looked down at her, he saw that she was frowning. As though she, too, was trying to work out what the hell was going on with Bucky.

Chapter Text

Steve found it really hard to believe that Bucky would seriously leave him alone with Brooklyn, again. Sure, they'd come a long way with her; sure, she'd had plenty of reasons to ambush them and she hadn't. But still. Surely Bucky wouldn't take the risk.

Unless... maybe he just didn't feel like there was a risk. Maybe, having faced Brooklyn in the ring, Bucky was finally convinced that she was safe - that Steve would be safe with her.

Maybe he just doesn't care.

Steve shook that thought away immediately. No matter what was going on with them, Bucky would never put Steve's life in unnecessary peril. Hell, even brainwashed he'd hauled Steve's sorry ass out of the Potomac.

So it must be that he thought Brooklyn was safe. After all, Steve'd thought that long before today. He was sure Brooklyn wasn't out to harm them, and being alone with her wasn't what bothered him. It was the fact that, whatever Bucky was feeling, he clearly would rather distance himself from Steve than talk it out. Did Bucky know how Steve felt about him? Did he think avoiding him would make it just... go away?

Steve fought the urge to call him, or text him. Whatever was going on with Bucky, he wasn't going to play the pining spouse, or the needy friend. Bucky clearly needed his space, even if it hurt Steve more than he cared to admit that Bucky couldn't just tell him outright, instead of running off like that.

That night, Steve stayed in the living room again, as though he could will Bucky back by sheer power of thought alone. No such luck.

Brooklyn, awkwardly, bid him goodnight, clearly sensing his distress but not knowing how to voice... well, whatever she might have wanted to voice.

Steve didn't know how long he sat there alone in the darkness until a door creaked open; Steve's heart went straight to his throat, pounding a desperate rhythm against his skin. “Bucky?” he called hopefully.

But it was Brooklyn who emerged from the dimly lit hallway, hovering half-illuminated in the doorway.

Steve unclenched his hands, not realising until now how tense he'd been. “Couldn't sleep either?” he asked softly, hoping he sounded more calm than he felt. Whatever was happening between him and Bucky, he couldn't let it affect how he behaved around Brooklyn.

He almost laughed out loud at that thought: since when had he started thinking so much like a parent?

“No,” she confessed, her long blonde hair falling forward to frame her face as she moved out of the shadows tentatively, and Steve noticed with a pang that she was still wearing Bucky's old shorts and t-shirt as makeshift pyjamas. Her arms and legs were long, her skin pale and freckled, and as she came towards him, Steve's breath hitched, and he felt like he'd seen a ghost: for a moment she wasn't Brooklyn at all, but Bucky's little sister Becca, pale and freckled, her eyes sparkling with amusement, grinning widely at Steve as he sat in the windowsill of his and Bucky's little apartment, the sky darkening outside as he drew objects after object at her command, keeping them both entertained while they waited for Bucky to come home from work.

Then the light shifted and she was Brooklyn again, somber and silent and with eyes much too old for an eighteen-year-old. And, the more he got to know her, the more he saw himself in her, too: in the shift of her eyes, in the way her smiles sometimes looked a little apologetic. In the fierce set of her jaw.

Brooklyn moved forwards, and took a seat next to him on the sofa. Steve couldn't help but admire the apparent ease of her movements; he knew how much she struggled to make it all seem natural. He just hoped it was starting to feel natural, too.

“Dreams?” he asked, turning his body to face her.

She hesitated for a moment, then mirrored his pose, and nodded, her big blue eyes meeting his. They looked uncharacteristically vulnerable, though Steve thought that may have been a trick of the low light.

Steve cringed sympathetically. “Yeah. I got them, too.”

Brooklyn looked like she was gearing up to say something else, so Steve waited patiently, glad both for her company and for the distraction it provided from his own angsty thoughts. He noticed that she was wearing Thor's necklace-turned-bracelet again; she'd taken it off during the fight.

“What do you dream about?” she asked at last, voice merely more than a whisper, like she hardly dared voice the question. She immediately looked like she was expecting to be reprimanded.

Steve considered her for a brief moment, wondering whether or not he should give an honest answer. A part of him was acutely aware that every piece of himself he gave to a may-or-may-not-be-former Hydra agent could come back to bite him, but another, larger part knew that, if Brooklyn was genuine in her desire to get to know him, she needed every scrap of personal information he was willing to part with. When Bucky had been at his worst, it had only been Steve's stories, Steve's emotions, Steve's honesty, that had grounded him to a reality other than the horrible world Hydra had forced him into.

“I dream about falling,” he said at last, not taking his eyes off her face, trying to gauge the response he knew she'd be doing her best to mask.

Brooklyn looked momentarily startled by his response – or perhaps by the fact that he'd given her one at all. She considered him for a moment, then asked, “The Soldier – Bucky falling?”

Steve smiled wryly. Of course, he'd forgotten that she'd memorised all the details of his past. Still, it was strange that she should assume it was that particular fall which haunted his nightmares. Or, well, maybe it wasn't that strange. Brooklyn probably saw right through him.

He sighed. “Yeah,” he said, because why deny it? “Bucky falling.”

Sure, sometimes he dreamed about plunging into the ocean and freezing solid in the ice, too, his last thought a fervent hope that he'd see Bucky again. And sometimes he dreamed about falling from the helicarrier, the Winter Soldier fading from view above him. But he always woke up with Bucky's name on his lips, so he supposed it all amounted to the same thing.

“Hmm,” Brooklyn said. Steve looked up, surprised by her tone. She sounded almost... amused?

“What?” he asked, instinctively defensive.

Brooklyn looked like she was deliberating something for a moment. Then she very carefully shrugged, the movement a little too slow to be casual. “Nothing,” she said, glancing his way with a smug little smirk, like she'd just unlocked another achievement in the How To Be Human game.

“Sure. Nothing,” Steve snorted, inexplicably feeling a little lighter about all this. His feelings for Bucky, so wrought up and anxiety-inducing, must seem bizarre to someone like Brooklyn, who clearly saw the depth of his emotions clear as day. He almost wanted to ask her... but no. Not yet. So he settled for raising his eyebrows at her, delighted when she raised her own eyebrows conspiratorially. Did we just have a moment? he thought, and his smile widened until it actually felt genuine, his heart a little lighter despite everything.

They sat in companionable silence for a bit after that, before Brooklyn said, “Love isn't something I usually think about.”

Steve opened his mouth, then closed it. How the hell was he supposed to respond to that?

Luckily, she seemed to sense his confusion, and continued, “I was taught to kill, I was taught to fight, and I was taught to observe, in that order. I don't think, I know. And I know you might think that... arrogant,” she added, with something close to a smile, “and maybe it is. But for me, it's simply the truth. It has to be. Or, it had to be.”

She fell silent, putting her elbows on her knees with almost painstaking precision; Steve knew that Bucky would often sit like that, and wondered if Brooklyn was aware that she was imitating him. If what she was saying was true, he guessed she knew exactly what she was doing.

When she continued to sit quietly, either waiting for him to speak or gathering her own thoughts, Steve took a moment to look at Brooklyn; really look. Not at the Hydra agent, not at the DNA composite. At Brooklyn. And he wondered if this was what it felt like to have a daughter.

“You know what?” he said softly. “Nobody understands love. That's the big secret. You being as lost as the rest of us just means you're human.”

Brooklyn raised her eyebrows, a perfect imitation of Bucky. “Huh,” she said.

They fell silent once more.

After what felt like forever, Brooklyn got to her feet. The movement was so silent and fluid, Steve didn't realise she'd moved until she was standing in front of him.

“I'm going to bed,” she announced.

“Uh, okay,” Steve said, trying for a smile. He suddenly couldn't imagine going back into his bedroom, knowing he'd have to spend the night alone.

“Goodnight,” Brooklyn said formally, then turned, and began marching out of the living room.

“Hey, Brooklyn?” Steve called out, when she was almost at the doorway. Brooklyn turned, looking mildly expectant. “What do you dream about?”

Brooklyn stayed quiet for a long time, and her gaze shifted to the big window exposing the twinkling lights of the city far below them. She stood there for so long that Steve was beginning to think she just wouldn't answer, but then she said, very softly, “There is nothing. I'm in a room, I look around, and there is just... nothing.” She turned to look at him, and he could hear her breathing hitch, just a tiny bit. “I hope to one day not be nothing.”

Steve swallowed. “You're not nothing,” he said emphatically; when her gaze wavered, he stood up, as if it would somehow give his words more weight. He wanted to move closer. He was almost sure she wouldn't mind, but he didn't want to risk it, so he stayed where he was. “I know you think that. I know you've been taught to think that. But you're...” he searched for the words, knowing that this was important. Feeling the weight of it. “You're brave. You're smart. You're strong. You're stubborn.” She still looked skeptical. Steve smiled, despite himself, recognising in her his own complete lack of ability to take a compliment. “You're a lot like me,” he said, and found that he truly meant it. “A lot like Bucky, too. And you're something else. Something uniquely you.”

“I'm a soldier,” she whispered, defiantly. Uncertainly?

Steve shrugged. “Sure you are. So is Bucky. So am I.” Even before he became Captain America, Steve had been a soldier. But he'd been a lot of other things, too. Brooklyn didn't know it yet, but her time at Hydra had only been the first of many lives she'd get to lead. He smiled, and stepped closer, letting his instincts guide him until he was close enough to put a hand on her shoulder. She looked down at it, but she neither tensed up nor moved away from him. Steve knew Bucky would think this move a risk, if he was here. But he wasn't. “People change,” he said, allowing his grip to tighten a fraction. “I've changed, and I don't mean the just mean because of the serum. But whatever I used to be, whatever I've become... it's never made me any less me.”

The same could be said for Bucky, he realised with an odd, calm clarity. Even when Hydra had scrubbed him clean, a spark of his old self had remained, hidden deep inside. The Winter Soldier had been Bucky, too, however minutely, with or without his memories. Now, Bucky was a new version of himself. No more or less Bucky than the boy Steve had grown up with. Just different.

Brooklyn frowned thoughtfully, as though she'd never considered the possibility that one could be both a soldier and a person. “The decisions I make now are mine,” she said, the words hanging in the air like a question.

“Yeah,” Steve said.

She nodded, and looked at Steve decisively. “Alright then.”

And then she pulled out a gun, and aimed it as his chest.

Chapter Text

He hadn't seen it coming. He'd been an idiot. He hadn't even realised she'd had a damn gun on her person – and where she'd even gotten it from in the first place, he had no idea.

Steve stood frozen, hands halfway raised in surprised surrender, as Brooklyn continued to aim the gun at the centre of his chest.

“Brooklyn--” Steve breathed. Unable to comprehend what he was seeing.

“Don't move,” she said tonelessly, her eyes blank, every trace of familiarity wiped from her gaze.

“But--”

“Just. Don't move,” she repeated. And he thought that was odd; if she was going to shoot him, why didn't she just do it? But he did as she said, and stood stock still, staring into those eyes, so much like Bucky's.

He didn't wanna die. But, he thought wildly, if this was really how he went out... looking into Bucky's eyes wouldn't be the worst way to go, would it?

Except... oh. Bucky had left him alone. What would this do to him, knowing that Brooklyn had done this when he hadn't been here to prevent it? Steve couldn't even bring himself to blame her – he knew what she was fighting against, had seen Bucky struggle with it every day for months – but he couldn't let it happen. Not like this. It would destroy Bucky.

“Brooklyn, please, let's talk about this,” he tried again, desperate now, because if it had been Bucky in his place, and Steve hadn't been there to help...

“Stand still,” Brooklyn said, and her eyes narrowed a fraction as she kept them locked with Steve's. Her hands were completely steady around the gun, except as he watched, she twisted her right wrist and the little pendant Thor had given her caught the light and reflected onto him; Steve watched the light, transfixed. Something was off. But he couldn't place it. He couldn't think.

She pulled back the safety on the gun.

Silence. Steve didn't think either of them was breathing. It felt like they'd been standing there for hours. Why didn't she just pull the trigger?

And then--

CRASH!

Steve jumped at the sound, registering blurred movement, and then Brooklyn was on the ground, gun flying across the floor; she was being pinned down by--

“Bucky!” Steve gasped.

There was a fury in Bucky's eyes as he bore down on the girl, the like of which Steve had never seen, not since Bucky had been the Winter Soldier. He was holding her down, ready to strike, but she was... she was...

“Bucky,” Steve repeated, softer, tentatively approaching, feeling like he'd had the wind knocked out of him, “wait.”

She wasn't struggling. In fact, Brooklyn was lying flat on the ground, staring up at Bucky with an expression that looked bizarrely like triumph.

Bucky,” Steve said for the third time, when Bucky didn't move, “Bucky. Buck. I'm okay. She didn't hurt me.” His mind was racing as he desperately tried to make sense of everything. Why had Brooklyn pulled out the gun? Why hadn't she shot him? Where had Bucky come from? Why was Brooklyn not fighting back now?

Steve crouched down, and put a hand on Bucky's arm. And only then did Bucky loosen his grasp on Brooklyn, if only a fraction.

Brooklyn stayed prone even as Bucky shifted back, into a crouch position. They were staring each other down, but where Bucky was angry, Brooklyn was calm. Superior. Smug.

Steve felt a gust of wind on his face and realised that Bucky had crashed through the (enforced, supposedly unbreakable) window to get in here. Had he been watching them? And for how long?

No one spoke for a long time, the wheels in Steve's head turning as he watched first Bucky, who was still as a statue but clearly a hairsbreadth away from going on the offensive, and Brooklyn, who was looking right at Steve. She raised her eyebrows, just like before.

And then, it all clicked into place.

“Bucky,” Steve said again, and something in his tone must have startled the other man, because Bucky's head jerked in his direction. “It wasn't... she wasn't gonna hurt me.”

For a moment Bucky just stared blankly at him, completely uncomprehending. Then he narrowed his eyes, suspicious.

“Don't, Steve,” he growled, and Steve was taken aback by how angry he sounded. “She pulled a fucking gun on you. I didn't fight so hard to come back to you for you to throw your damn life away!”

Brooklyn cleared her throat; a smart move, Steve realised a moment later, as Bucky's entire body tensed up again, all his attention back on her. If she'd moved, or spoken, he probably would have seen it as an attack.

“He's right,” she said, exuding total confidence even as she stayed on the floor, propped up on her elbows, looking up at them. Steve was acutely aware that she could probably still take out both of them, right now, if she wanted to. But she didn't.

“Like I'm gonna fucking believe that,” Bucky snarled, but there was something – just a hint – of uncertainty in his voice. And Steve knew Bucky wanted to believe it, knew that the only reason he didn't let himself was because he thought there was a danger to Steve. And here Steve had thought Bucky would actually really leave. He was suddenly filled with an overwhelming fondness, for both of them. He laughed.

Both Bucky and Brooklyn's gazes snapped to him, identical expressions of incredulity on their faces. That only made him laugh harder.

“Bucky,” Steve managed, “if she'd wanted me dead, I'd be dead. She didn't pull the gun on me, she pulled it on you.” It really wasn't funny at all, but he couldn't help it. Their lives were ridiculous.

Bucky looked like he really, really wanted to argue. But, it seemed like he couldn't come up with a suitable rebuttal, because he grudgingly turned to Brooklyn.

“Explain,” he said.

She shrugged. “I knew you were hiding out there. Watching over him. But he didn't know, and he missed you. I wanted...” her eyes flickered to Steve's and he nodded encouragingly, holding his breath, hardly daring to believe what he was hearing, “I wanted to fix it. So I made you blow your cover.”

Bucky stared at her. And stared. Then he swallowed heavily. “You could've just waved,” he said hoarsely.

Brooklyn smiled sweetly, an expression she must have picked up from Natasha. “That was plan B.”

Bucky looked on the verge of laughing at that, but he still looked shaken. Steve looked to the ceiling. “JARVIS?” he called. “You saw all this happen, right?”

I certainly did, Captain Rogers,” JARVIS replied. Was it possible for an AI to sound entertained?

“And you didn't intervene. Not even with that flour stuff. Why?”

I detected no danger to your person, Captain.

Steve raised an eyebrow at Bucky, but he still didn't look convinced. Steve didn't blame him. Bucky had no reason to trust anything to do with Hydra, and Brooklyn had just confirmed his worst fears.

“Pass me the gun, please,” Brooklyn told Steve. He only hesitated for a second before complying, completely confident that she wasn't going to hurt him – just as he had been for a long time.

Bucky tensed when Steve put the gun into Brooklyn's hand, but he didn't move. It seemed like everyone was holding their breath as, slowly and deliberately, Brooklyn shook the chamber open, never breaking eye contact with Bucky. The gun was empty.

“Huh,” Bucky said.

And, to Steve's intense relief, Bucky finally relaxed, standing up and offering his hand to Brooklyn. She hesitated only for a moment before taking it and letting him haul her to her feet.

“Sorry. And thanks,” Bucky said to her, “for the wake-up call. I was being careless, leaving him at risk.”

“Actually I think you were being stubborn,” said Brooklyn pointedly. She looked, briefly, like she couldn't believe what she'd just said, but the uncertainty passed and she fixed Bucky with a quirked smile, which was just like his own.

Bucky barked out a surprised laugh. “Whatever you say, Steve.” Brooklyn's eyes lit up like he'd just paid her the highest compliment. And... Steve felt his heart skip a beat. Maybe he had.

Brooklyn dusted herself off, then glanced between the two of them. “Well. I'm going to bed,” she announced abruptly.

She didn't wait for them to acknowledge her, simply marched away, and under any other circumstances Steve would have celebrated her little stab at independence.

As it was, he couldn't tear his eyes away from Bucky.

Bucky was looking right back at him, scowling now. “You're still an idiot, Steve.”

Steve snorted. “Says the man who broke my window trying to protect me, when he could have just stayed in the apartment in the first place rather than running away.”

Bucky rounded on him so fast, Steve almost took a step back. But he held his ground – he'd taken down armies. He could keep his chin up in the face of a furious Bucky Barnes.

Running away?” Bucky snarled, blue eyes flashing, fists clenching at his sides. He looked like a wild animal in that moment, but not like the Winter Soldier at all; no, this was the Bucky that Steve remembered from their younger days, full of a restless energy and an anger at the injustices of the world. And that was a hundred times more dangerous. “Who's running, Steve? Last I checked I was right fucking here, with you, at your bid and call every single day, waiting for you to realise that I wasn't made of fucking glass.”

“I...” Steve's prideful anger melted away in a moment at the hurt look in Bucky's eyes. “I don't ask you to be at my--”

“I know you don't ask,” Bucky said bitterly, eyes flickering away. “You never had to before, did you?”

Steve's heart sank. He had asked, once. And Bucky had said yes.

You ready to follow Captain America into the jaws of death?

And look where that had gotten them both.

Steve swallowed, knowing that the next words out of his mouth might change everything. “Look, Bucky, if you don't wanna stick around, I'd--”

Bucky was on him the next moment, pushing him backwards until Steve's lower back collided with the kitchen counter, grabbing his wrists in a death grip.

“Of course I'm gonna stick around, I'm trying to fucking protect you here, Steve!” Bucky's look was almost feral; there was no trace of a mask on his face now. “God, I wanted to believe her, but when I saw her pull that gun on you, I thought--” Something flashed in his eyes for a second, something Steve couldn't identify, and then he let go of Steve as though burned, taking half a step back. He ran a hand over his face, and Steve noticed that he was shaking.

“Bucky,” Steve breathed, truly worried now. Bucky wasn't angry, he was scared. What he'd seen Brooklyn do... or, what he thought he'd seen her do, it had really frightened him. “Bucky, look at me.”

Bucky did. His eyes were wide and too bright. Steve never wanted to see that look in Bucky's eyes again.

So he reached out a hand, much gentler than Bucky's had been, and touched Bucky's arm. The metal one. Bucky looked down, eyes following the movement.

“When I thought she was gonna hurt you...” Bucky whispered brokenly, “fuck, Steve, what if I'd...”

“But you didn't,” Steve said firmly. He knew Bucky didn't trust as easily, knew he didn't let himself notice all the little things Steve had noticed, things that'd convinced him long ago that Brooklyn meant them no harm.

Where Bucky still saw a potential enemy, Steve already saw a daughter. But Bucky hadn't been there when Thor had given her the bracelet, or when she'd looked at the Little Dancer, or when she'd talked about her dreams. So, when she'd pulled the gun on Steve, Brooklyn had confirmed Bucky's worst suspicions; she must have been fully aware of Bucky's doubts, and what effect her actions would have on him. She really had been playing with fire... and she'd done it all for Steve.

“Look,” he tried, when Bucky continued to stare, guilt-stricken, at a point just past Steve's ear, “even if you had done something, she wouldn't have let you hurt her.”

To Steve's relief, this made Bucky's mouth quirk up, even though his smile was still sad.

“Yeah, well. Guess it's a good thing you were right about her.”

“Is that why you left? To see if she could really be trusted?” Steve asked softly; his heart fluttered hopefully. Maybe he'd been wrong; maybe Bucky hadn't been running away from him after all. Maybe he'd just needed proof of Brooklyn's sincerity.

Bucky cringed. “That was part of it.”

“And the other part?” Steve asked, though he wasn't entirely sure he wanted to hear the answer.

Bucky still wasn't meeting his eyes, which only made Steve more nervous. “Dunno, guilt?" Bucky mumbled. "Fear. Confusion. Wanting to see what you'd do. If you'd be relieved to get some space to breathe.”

“Relieved?” Steve asked, bewildered. “Bucky, why on earth--”

“I should really try getting to know her, huh?” Bucky interrupted, finally meeting Steve's gaze, albeit briefly. The anger was gone, now, replaced by something that looked almost like longing.

Steve faltered. “I... yeah. You should,” he managed. “Cause I'm guessing she's planning on sticking around.”

He knew that was another thing Bucky'd been scared of. Giving a piece of himself to one more person who was going to disappear out of his life, lost to war or time, or both. He wondered if Bucky sometimes saw Becca in her, too.

Steve's hand was still on Bucky's arm. When Bucky didn't move away, Steve pulled him closer until he could wrap both his arms around his old friend, holding on, breathing him in, grounding them both. We're here, he reminded himself. We're okay. We're together. Whatever else was going on with them, this was truly all that mattered. And he needed Bucky to know that.

“You really are stuck with me now, you know.”

The words were barely more than a mumble, muffled against Steve's shoulder. But he heard them loud and clear.

“Huh?” Steve asked, pulling back a bit until he could see Bucky's face.

Bucky rolled his eyes, like Steve was the one not making any sense. “I told you before. I'm not going anywhere. Especially not now. This, us, what we've been through... and now her. Brooklyn. If she's really here, if she's not actually here to hurt us, then she's...” he broke off, shaking his head, looking almost... shy?

“She's what, Buck?” Steve asked gently, not wanting to spook him. Bucky struggled with sentimental moments at the best of times.

“Well, ours,” Bucky managed, moving away and looking oddly annoyed by it all. “Our kid. Not some robot soldier monster pretending she's a person. Not a double agent. That we could've dealt with.” He laughed bitterly. “But no. She's a real fucking girl with talents and emotions who's really bad at card games and who laughs, Steve! So whatever happens, whatever this --” he cut himself off, shaking his head. He took a deep breath, and then said: “You didn't seem to get it before, and I'm still not sure you do. But I need you to know this. You're always gonna be stuck with me, because we have Brooklyn now, for real, and I'm not gonna be able to stop myself from seeing myself in her. Seeing you. So there's no... I'm not gonna be outta your life, not ever.” Bucky looked sad, apologetic, as though he thought Steve would see this as a problem.

Despite himself, despite everything, Steve smiled. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been on the receiving end of one of Bucky's outbursts. “Don't take this the wrong way, Buck, but you're kind of an idiot sometimes.”

Bucky looked somewhere between affronted and amused. “Aren't I supposed to be too fragile for you to be rude to me now?” he asked, only half-teasing.

“Well, I'm embracing our new honesty policy,” Steve shrugged. “And, sorry, but if you actually thought I wasn't stuck with you long before Brooklyn came along, then you are kind of an idiot.”

Bucky didn't smile. Instead, he took a step back, out of Steve's grasp. He looked at Steve for a long moment, as though he was working something out. Steve realised a split second before Bucky spoke what his words must have sounded like to him. “I see,” Bucky started, stonily, “I didn't realise I was--”

“Bucky,” Steve said quickly, “Be quiet. Come back to me.”

To his mild surprise, Bucky actually did, moving closer, just close enough to touch. But Steve didn't. Bucky looked like he was trying and failing to look unaffected even though he'd clearly taken Steve's words the wrong way, and Steve didn't want to spook him.

Instead, he said softly, “Look... whatever you're thinking right now, stop. You and I got stuck together the first time we met, and I do mean that literally, because you had gum on your hand and it ended up in my hair, and my ma had to get out that pair of giant rusty scissors that used to give me nightmares. Remember?” Steve smiled encouragingly, and was rewarded with the tiniest of smiles in return. So far, so good. “And I'm not complaining, believe me. I'd never keep you here if you wanted to leave, you know that, but I sure as hell am counting myself lucky for every day you choose to stay. I don't want anything from you. I just... I thought I'd lost you, and then I got you back, and I'm planning to keep you for as long as you'll let me. You got that?”

While Steve had been speaking, Bucky's expression had morphed from one of pure hurt, to amusement, to... something else. It was a look Steve realised he'd seen in Bucky's eyes often these days; more frequently as Bucky had become more unguarded around him.

“I think I do,” Bucky said softly.

“And... in the spirit of honesty,” Steve added, heart skipping a beat, because what the hell, “back in Washington, before I'd found you... someone asked me what made me happy. I said I didn't know. I'm pretty sure I do now.”

Steve wasn't sure how he expected Bucky to react, but it sure wasn't with a half choked-off sob which turned into a laugh.

“Not exactly white picket fences,” Bucky said, sniffling surreptitiously, eyes a little too bright. He looked oddly relieved, which Steve took as a good sign. At least it wasn't repulsion.

Steve had never quite been able to guard his expressions when it came to Bucky. Childhood adoration had turned into infatuation which had turned into pure, unadulterated love, but if anyone had ever questioned the way he looked at his best friend, he'd always attributed it to their deep friendship. He hoped that old excuse still held up now, because he was sure that the depth of his feelings was laid bare on his face when he softly replied, “Yeah, well. That was never our style anyway.”

Bucky was looking back at him with that familiar look of devotion Steve knew so well, and Steve knew he'd always be content with knowing that Bucky did, truly, care for him. He looked at him like he had on the day of Steve's mother's funeral, and on the day Bucky had shipped out. On the day Steve had found him again, and on the day he'd lost him. Steve realised that maybe Bucky had looked at him like that every day of his life, and wasn't sure what to do with that revelation.

He definitely wasn't prepared for Bucky to reach out and take Steve's hand into his own, lacing their fingers together like they'd done that night by the window, when they'd decided to take Brooklyn in.

Bucky's eyes never left Steve's as he lifted their joined hands up between them, just like Steve had done. “In the spirit of honesty?” Bucky whispered, and Steve nodded, suddenly breathless. “This.” He brought their entwined hands to his chest, pressing them to the place directly above his heart. “Right here.” Bucky's heart was beating a steady rhythm against the back of Steve's hand. “Is all I ever wanted, too.”

Steve swallowed, his mouth having gone dry during Bucky's little confession. “What are you saying?” he breathed, uncertainly, trusting Bucky to guide him in this – as Bucky had always guided him.

"You know what I'm saying, Steve. We've both been saying it for years."

Steve watched as Bucky's free hand reached up, and felt Bucky's fingers trace his cheek before sliding down to cup his jaw. It felt familiar, and yet so new, Steve's pulse beating an erratic rhythm against Bucky's palm. Bucky could surely feel it, Steve thought wildly, but there was nothing in the world that could make him pull back now, when Bucky was looking at him so reverently, so...

Bucky's eyes dropped to Steve's lips, and Steve's heart surged. "Buck," he breathed.

He wasn't sure who moved first: Steve's fingers tightened around Bucky's just as Bucky's hand on Steve's jaw pulled him down, and then Bucky's lips were on his.

Something electric unfurled in Steve's chest like he'd been waiting his whole life for this moment - and maybe he had. Steve felt Bucky's smile against his lips and smiled, too, their breaths mingling as they kissed, seeming simultaneously relieved and astonished that this was really happening.

Bucky traced his tongue over Steve's bottom lip, and Steve moaned at the sensation, opening his mouth to Bucky's. Their lips moved tentatively at first, Bucky's thumb tracing a path along Steve's cheek, carefully, as though he was as overwhelmed as Steve himself by what was truly, finally happening.

He allowed his free hand to move to Bucky's waist, fingers trailing a pattern over Bucky's t-shirt, and Bucky let out a sigh, pushing himself closer to Steve and tilting his head, fitting his lips to Steve's properly, his own hand moving back from Steve's jaw to the back of his neck, pulling Steve closer and deepening the kiss.

But something nagged at the edge of Steve's consciousness. He tried pushing it away, almost lost his mind completely as Bucky's teeth grazed his lower lip and oh... but, no, wait, there was something... something important.

“Wait,” Steve managed breathlessly, managing to pull back slightly due to some otherworldly sense of restraint. He rested his forehead against Bucky's; Bucky's eyes were slightly unfocused, his lips red and swollen. “Why are you doing this?”

Bucky frowned, blinking sluggishly, pulling back a little to meet Steve's eyes. “What do you mean, why?”

“I mean,” Steve stammered, heart pounding, please don't fuck this up, “I'm... I don't want... if this is because you know I want it, or because you think you have to--”

Bucky pulled back. He grabbed the collar of Steve's t-shirt. His eyes were dark, his pupils blown, but he was clearly working hard to keep himself in check.

“No. You don't get to do that, Steve,” he said. He didn't sound angry. Resigned, maybe. Annoyed. Like maybe he'd been expecting Steve to react this way. “You know as much as I do how many times we almost...” Bucky did break, then, just a little. He paused, closing his eyes for a second, composing himself before continuing, “It was always there. This, with us. But the timing... it was never right. And my damn cowardice. Then I fell, and it was too late, and after I came back I didn't know if you still... but I always wanted this. I still want this. You got that?”

Steve swallowed audibly at the look in Bucky's eyes. Pure want, like he'd never seen before. Yeah. He believed it.

“I'm gonna need you to say it, Steve,” Bucky prompted. “We're not gonna have any doubts that this is me and you here, both wanting this, alright? I've waited too long to fuck this up now.”

“I...” Steve started, feeling like he was on the edge of a freefall. “Alright, Buck. I got it.”

Bucky licked his lips. “Good.”

And this time, Steve couldn't stop himself from reaching out and pulling Bucky back in, kissing him deeply, relishing in the way Bucky shivered at his touch and kissed back with equal fervour.

This is real, Steve had to remind himself, even as Bucky's metal hand moved from Steve's own to join the other in Steve's hair, fingers tightening there. Wanting more, Steve let his tongue dart out to sweep across Bucky's lower lip, just as Bucky had done to him; he wanted to find out what Bucky felt like, what he tasted like. After all this time, he finally could.

Bucky opened his mouth and Steve gasped as his tongue met Bucky's; a jolt went through him at the contact and he knew his hands had tightened around Bucky's waist, but Bucky didn't seem to mind.

Bucky groaned, and suddenly their tentative kiss wasn't tentative at all, but frantic, desperate, all those years of pent-up tension pouring into this one euphoric moment and making them desperate for this, more, now. This time when Bucky pushed him back and he collided with the kitchen counter, it was a very different kind of feeling that rushed through him. God, Steve thought hazily, he'd always imagined that kissing Bucky would be good, but he couldn't possibly have prepared himself for this. Their tongues moved together in a passionate dance as their hands grasped at clothes, arms, hair, anything they could reach. He wanted more. He wanted to be closer.

But then Bucky, to Steve's utter frustration, pulled back. His pupils were dilated, his hair was a mess and his cheeks were flushed, and Steve had never wanted something so much in his entire life as he wanted Bucky right then, wanted, this indefinable longing for more, please, yes. The want so much intensified because he knew he could have, that Bucky wanted this as much as he did. He drew Bucky back in.

“Steve, wait,” Bucky whispered against his lips, before ducking his head down to rest against Steve's collarbone, breathing heavily, as if in actual pain. “Supersoldier hearing.”

“Whuh?” Steve managed, fingers moving on their own accord as they skimmed over Bucky's hair, his neck, his arms, every part of him he could reach.

“Brooklyn,” Bucky said, regretfully, and Steve's hands stilled.

My hearing is as good as yours. Maybe better.

Steve's eyes shot open. He chuckled, because what else could he do? “Fuck,” he breathed.

“You can say that again,” Bucky snorted, lips brushing against Steve's throat as he spoke, and Steve shivered.

“She knew, didn't she?” Steve laughed, still unable to believe he'd really kissed Bucky – that Bucky had kissed him. That they both wanted this. “She fucking knew.”

“'Course she did,” Bucky murmured. “She's got my beauty and my brains.”

Steve pushed him lightly. “And what'd she get from me, huh?”

Bucky tilted his head back, considering Steve for a moment. “Your sense of humour?”

Steve laughed. “The two of you are more alike than you know,” he smiled, leaning in to plant a soft kiss on Bucky's lips, because he could. “Same dumb jokes at my expense.” They both lingered, lips barely touching, Steve fighting a losing battle against deepening the kiss because oh, how he wanted to.

To his relief, and disappointment, Bucky pulled back.

“We should...” Bucky started, then seemed to catch himself, smirking. “Go to bed.”

Steve felt a pang of desire at those words, and closed his eyes. “Fuck,” he said again, emphatically, because that was a sentence he'd dreamed about hearing Bucky say forever.

“Mmm,” Bucky murmured, mouth right on Steve's ear, making him shiver. “But not tonight.”

“Right. Not tonight,” Steve echoed. Although if Bucky kept whispering to him like that, he didn't think he could trust himself to go to bed with Bucky at all.

“Guess we'll have to wait. We're good at that,” Bucky breathed, breath tickling Steve's ear and making his toes curl; Steve could hear the resignation in Bucky's voice and once again let himself relish in the fact that Bucky really wanted this, wanted Steve.

Steve turned until they were flush against each other; he knew Bucky would notice how hard he was, and his breath hitched when he felt the evidence of Bucky's arousal against his hip, too. He closed his eyes, not trusting himself to look at Bucky, and leaned his forehead against the other man's.

“I am so sorry it took me so long to tell you,” Steve said softly.

Bucky's breath was ragged against Steve's cheek; Steve could hear his heartbeat beating rapidly against his own chest. “Don't be. I might've fucked it up if you'd told me before,” Bucky confessed, sounding so vulnerable now, a sharp contrast to his teasing before.

Steve cupped his cheek softly, dipping his head down to kiss Bucky softly in response. “Let's go to bed, Bucky,” he whispered, and Bucky responded with a lingering kiss of his own.

Steve took a little longer than usual in the bathroom, splashing cold water on his face and trying to will himself to stop grinning like an idiot.

Bucky really wanted him. What Steve had been feeling all these years, it hadn't been all in his head. Bucky had felt it, too.

And Brooklyn hadn't turned on them. In fact, it'd been the opposite. She'd used Bucky's lingering fears to force him to reveal how he really felt about Steve.

There was still a lot of trust that needed to be built between Bucky and Brooklyn, but Steve was optimistic. Bucky had needed a sign of good faith from her and, ironically, pulling a gun on Steve had done the trick.

He emerged from the bathroom to find Bucky lying on his side of the bed, looking at Steve as he entered with an indecipherable expression on his face.

“I keep waiting for you to change your mind,” Bucky confessed, as Steve lay down next to him. “I keep expecting to see that look in your eyes.”

“What look?” Steve asked.

“The one that tells me it's too late, that I've missed my chance.”

Steve pulled Bucky up to lie half draped over him, Bucky's tentative smile making Steve dizzy with want.

“Are you kidding? I've wanted to do this for so long,” Steve confessed, tightening his hold on Bucky. Fearing, for one wild moment, that it was Bucky who'd change his mind.

“I know,” Bucky whispered. “I'm sorry. I wasn't...” he hesitated. His fingers traced distracting circles over Steve's side. “I wasn't ready to believe it was really me you wanted. After... everything.”

Steve reached down, grabbing Bucky's arms and nudging the other man up; Bucky rose, shifting himself to rest one elbow on either side of Steve's torso, a solid weight against him. It was a temptation he almost couldn't resist, but it was also oddly familiar. Safe, right, like they'd been built to fit. He suspected they always had been.

For a moment, Steve allowed himself to just gaze up at Bucky, who looked so hopeful, so vulnerable, that Steve struggled in that moment to see as much as a shadow of the Winter Soldier on his face. The two of them had literally walked through fire and ice to be here together – changed in every way, damaged beyond repair, and yet they could still have this. As far as Steve was concerned, it was nothing short of a goddamn miracle.

“Hey," he said softly, "I wanted you before. I want you now. I'll want you in fifty years, no matter how much you change. You get that, right?” Steve watched Bucky carefully as he spoke, wanting to make sure he believed it.

Bucky leaned his head down to rest his forehead against Steve's. “Yeah. I get that now. You big sap,” he mumbled.

Steve laughed, freely, for what felt like the first time in forever. “You started it.”

Their lips met. Steve had to remind himself, again, that they were not alone in the apartment, and pulled back regretfully.

“And to think we had this place to ourselves for months,” he sighed, but it was hard to stay disappointed considering he had Bucky in his arms at all.

“The irony isn't lost on me,” Bucky sighed, but he was smiling, too.

For a while, they just lay there, looking at each other. Then Bucky kissed him again, as if unable to stay away, their lips slotting together as if designed to fit. Steve melted into it, almost losing himself again. Luckily, Bucky had a little bit more self-restraint.

“Unngh,” Bucky managed as he pulled away, breathing hard. “We need to stop.”

“Right,” Steve groaned. “The hearing thing.” He could feel the evidence of Bucky's arousal against his thigh again, and tried very hard not to think about that. Brooklyn was still in the next room. They really couldn't.

“Fucking genetics.”

“Blame the parents, right?”

Steve met Bucky's eyes and they both giggled like teenagers, high on want and each other.

“It's very hard for me to feel too guilty right now,” Steve admitted.

“Fuck it,” Bucky yawned, relaxing a little against Steve's chest, not making a move to get off. “She'll be fine. I get the feeling she kinda knew this was coming.”

“Yeah,” Steve chuckled. “She's perceptive like that.”

“Wonder who she got that from?” Bucky teased, lifting his head and sneaking another soft kiss from Steve, letting it linger. When he finally pulled away, much to Steve's regret, he added with a shrug, “and hey, she better get used to it. This is what it's like to have parents.”

Steve tightened his arms around Bucky, pulling him closer. “Well, I wouldn't know.”

Bucky pressed a light kiss to the side of Steve's neck, making Steve shiver. “But you always had me,” he whispered, so softly Steve almost didn't hear.

And that, Steve knew, was all he'd ever really needed. Anything else that life threw his way, he could handle, as long as he had Bucky.

He'd been okay, before Bucky came back. And he'd have been fine on his own – Steve was nothing if not a survivor, dead-set on making the most of a bad situation. But after Bucky had joined him in the 21st century... that's when Steve had really come alive.

They fell asleep tangled up in each other, Bucky draped across Steve, and Steve couldn't stop smiling even as he began to drift off. He imagined every one of his past selves – the skinny kid walking through the streets of Brooklyn, the miserable dancing monkey hopping from stage to stage, the untested soldier on the battlefields of Europe, and the lonely relic of a lost time – somehow knowing that he would end up right here, with Bucky in his arms. He doubted if any of his past selves would have believed it. He still wasn't sure he believed it now.

Steve remembered being so happy when he'd found out Bucky was alive, so stupidly hopeful despite everyone and everything telling him he shouldn't be. But getting to have this? This was a dream that even Captain America, optimist to the point of obstinance, could never have imagined would come true.

Happiness. It was a foreign emotion, but Steve thought he could get used to it.

Chapter Text

In the blissful moments between sleep and wakefulness, Steve allowed himself to believe that it had really happened.

He allowed himself to feel the press of Bucky's lips to his own as though it'd been real, recalled the words he dreamed that Bucky had said to him, words that Steve could almost believe had truly been spoken.

He opened his eyes, and found himself alone.

Right.

Steve gingerly got to his feet, smiling wryly to himself. You're a fool, Rogers, he told himself, heading for the bathroom before going to the kitchen for a much-needed cup of coffee. He'd let his imagination run away with him before, but this was a whole new level of delusional, even for him.

When Steve arrived in the kitchen fifteen minutes later, still feeling groggy and weirdly out of sorts even after a scalding hot shower, both Brooklyn and Bucky were sitting by the kitchen counter. They'd been talking before he came in, but as he walked through the door they fell silent, and looked up at him, identical smirks on their faces. It was uncanny.

“Uh. Morning,” Steve said, blinking against the harsh light coming from the... broken window? Wait a second.

“Good morning,” Brooklyn said, sounding oddly smug for some reason.

And before Steve's tired brain fully caught up with him, Bucky rose from the table and crossed the room in three easy steps, and kissed him.

Steve was so stunned, he didn't, couldn't respond, standing completely still until Bucky pulled away slowly, eyes dancing. “Mornin', Steve,” he drawled.

Only then did Steve finally let himself believe it – it was real. It had really happened.

Bucky was already turning away, so Steve grabbed his arm and pulled him back, kissing Bucky deeply. Bucky kissed back, sneaking his hands around Steve's back.

Brooklyn coughed pointedly, and Bucky and Steve broke away, flushed.

“Sorry,” Steve said, but he wasn't. Bucky just laughed.

“Don't be,” he said. “She knows, the sly fucker, she practically set us up. She's definitely related to me.”

Brooklyn apparently opted to pretend she hadn't heard him, getting up to pour herself another cup of coffee. Steve didn't miss the fact that she reached for his favourite mug and poured a generous amount for him, too.

“So... we...” Steve felt like an idiot, floundering, still somehow refusing to believe it. He'd spent so long convincing himself that this could never happen, so the fact that Bucky wanted him too... it was still hard to believe.

Bucky stepped right up to him, hesitating for a moment before reaching out to trace one metal finger down the back of his hand, the gesture oddly more intimate than what they'd just been doing. “If you want,” he said quietly, a hint of a question in his eyes despite his earlier audacity. He hooked his little finger lightly around Steve's, like he used to do when they were kids.

Now it was Steve's turn to laugh. “Oh, I want,” he said, pulling Bucky close and kissing him briefly – aware of their audience now – before wrapping his arms around him.

“Good,” Bucky mumbled, returning the hug.

“I can go...” Brooklyn started hesitantly, but Bucky pulled away.

“Nonsense!” he proclaimed imperiously. “We're going out.”

“Uh. We are?” Steve asked.

“We are,” Bucky nodded, in a better mood than Steve had seen him since... god. Since forever. If only Steve'd known. It wouldn't have fixed everything - nothing could - but it sure would've made some things easier.

“Where are we going?” asked Brooklyn, for once not bothering to disguise her curiosity. This day just kept getting better.

Bucky pursed his lips, turning to survey Brooklyn critically. “Somewhere we should have gone a long time ago.”

And that's how Steve and Brooklyn found themselves dragged to the most flamboyant, overpriced department stoe in New York City, by a much too enthusiastic Bucky.

“But what I'm wearing is fine,” Brooklyn insisted, again, but Bucky just continued throwing clothes at her, seemingly at random. A sales assistant hovered a few feet away from them, looking halfway annoyed, halfway terrified.

“You're wearing my clothes,” Bucky scoffed, and as much as Steve hated clothes shopping (and he suspected Brooklyn felt similarly out of her depth), he had to agree with Bucky there.

“Just grab something, ease his guilt about attacking ya,” Steve murmured when Bucky wasn't looking. Bucky didn't turn around, just raised his middle finger as he continued to pile up clothes with the other hand.

Steve laughed at the gesture, but Brooklyn, to Steve's mild surprise, actually looked at Bucky in concern. “You really don't have to feel guilty,” she said earnestly. “I know why you did what you did. I understand how much Steve means to you.”

Bucky had been in the process of sifting through a rack of plaid shirts when he stiffened, and looked round. His smile was a little strained, but it was there. “Yeah well,” he said, with a forced shrug. “Doesn't mean I'm not still sorry. I'm really glad I didn't hurt you. And that you're not evil and all.”

Brooklyn did laugh this time, if it was still somewhat forced. “Okay,” she said, like they'd just agreed on something. “I'll take these.” She held up a couple of t-shirts, two pairs of jeans, and a leather jackets.

“And shoes,” Bucky said. “That's not up for negotiation.”

One pair.”

“Fine.”

“Fine.”

Steve didn't say anything, because Bucky would just accuse him of being a sap again, but he knew the happiness he felt was showing on his face. Yeah, they'd be okay.

Back in the apartment, Brooklyn went to put her clothes away, leaving Steve and Bucky alone in the kitchen.

In the rare moments when Steve had allowed himself to imagine that Bucky might ever return his feelings, he'd assumed that things would change between them. He'd even been worried that confessing their feelings might ruin their friendship. Yet, without any effort at all, Steve and Bucky had fallen right back into their old, comfortable routine: walking a little too close, fingers occasionally brushing, leaning into each other, and turning around just in time to catch the other staring. These were all things that Steve'd thought was mostly in his own head, but now he knew better.

All morning they'd talked and they'd laughed and they'd been just as close as ever... but they hadn't been alone together, until now.

Bucky seemed to realise it the same time Steve did, because they both stopped what they were doing, looking up at each other in unison.

Bucky's mouth curved into a suggestive smile. God. Steve had seen that smile directed at so many girls before – how many times had he imagined that Bucky might one day look at him that way, too?

And all this time, Bucky had wanted this as much as Steve. Struggling with all the same doubts, all the same fears.

Steve was the one who crossed the distance between them this time, walking slowly and deliberately across the kitchen, for once not caring that his heart was pounding loud enough for the whole Tower to hear. Bucky's eyes followed him the whole way, his smile growing more and more confident as he sensed Steve's intention.

“What's up, Steve?” Bucky smirked, when Steve was so close that Bucky had to lean his head back slightly to meet his gaze.

“Hmm. Not much. Took my daughter shopping today,” Steve shrugged, pretending to think about it. “You?” His hand drifted to land loosely on Bucky's hip, a thrill running through him just because he realised that this was a thing he could do now.

“Oh, you know. Same,” Bucky murmured, eyes growing darker. “And trying very hard not to do this.” He curled his fingers around Steve's wrist, the other hand going around his neck, and pulled him down into a kiss.

It was soft and sweet for only a moment, before Steve felt the grip of Bucky's hand tighten and then they were kissing for real, a day and a year and so many more years of pent-up want and frustration, yearning and need driving them, making them desperate for more.

“God,” Steve breathed, when they finally pulled up for air, “Bucky.”

“I know,” Bucky groaned against him.

Their eyes met for a long moment, saying everything they couldn't. This – finally knowing they both wanted it – was amazing. But they had to hold back. At least while Brooklyn was here.

Bucky licked his lips and Steve tracked the movement. He leaned in, just a little, as if their lips were magnets incapable of staying separated.

Steve stopped himself, just in time. The last thing he wanted was to make Brooklyn uncomfortable, and for things to get weird between the three of them – well, weirder than their fucked-up lives already were. He could want Bucky a little longer; he'd had plenty of practice, after all.

“Next time maybe she can get her own clothes,” Steve whispered, letting the tip of his nose trail over Bucky's cheek, in lieu of a kiss. Bucky raised a half-frustrated, half-amused eyebrow.

“I don't know, Steve, I get the feeling neither of you really appreciate fashion,” Bucky teased, leaning in again to let his lips brush Steve's ear; Steve shivered, feeling his knees go weak. “How about me and Brooklyn go, and you stay here—”

“You're such an ass,” Steve laughed shakily, pulling Bucky closer, allowing their bodies to slot together for one glorious, toe-curling moment.

“You love that about me,” said Bucky, all confidence and conviction.

“I love most things about you,” Steve murmured, meaning every word. He never wanted to hold anything back from Bucky ever again.

“Most?” He couldn't see Bucky's face, but his tone was teasing.

Steve shrugged, hands tracing idle circles on Bucky's hips. “Well, you go to war with a guy, you pick up on his bad habits.”

“Oh please,” Bucky said, pulling back until Steve could see his smirk. “They could fill history books with your elaborate bedtime rituals. The weird way you brush your teeth, getting toothpaste everywhere. The stupid haircut you used to make me give you. For not to mention your unfaltering righteousness, your smug little smile when you think you know better, how I'll ask you to do one thing and you'll always do the exact opposite...”

“Okay, I get it,” Steve said, trying not to feel just a little bit hurt that Bucky apparently had a whole list prepared.

“Nah, you don't,” Bucky smiled, leaning into him again. “I'm lyin'. Those are the things I love best.”

Steve laughed. “Well, you're still an ass. Good thing we already established that I love you for it.”

Bucky raised his eyebrows, and Steve leaned his head down, bumping their noses together, skin to skin. It was like gravity, pulling them together. Now that they could, it was almost impossible not to.

But this time, it wasn't Brooklyn that interrupted them, but Sam.

Steve and Bucky broke apart as though burned, but who were they kidding? Sam walked in, stopped, glanced between them, and laughed.

“About fucking time,” he said, and that was that.

They went for a late lunch, just the four of them, and to Steve's relief they didn't talk about his and Bucky's latest... development. Instead, Sam wanted to know about Brooklyn.

“But where did they keep you?” he asked now; he'd been growing increasingly more horrified at her blunt answers to his rapid-fire questions.

“I had my own room,” she said, taking a sip of her milkshake. “Well. No windows. But it was a room, with a bed.”

“And they made you...” Sam swallowed audibly. “When did they start sending you out on actual missions?”

Brooklyn cocked her head, looking like she was trying to remember. Informing Brooklyn of her age probably hadn't seemed like an important priority to Hydra. “I must have been about six or seven years old,” she said at last, much too casually.

“God,” Sam said, shivering. “That's insane. You must've been like Chucky in real life.”

Steve missed the reference, but if Sam's haunted look was anything to go by, this Chucky person couldn't have been very pleasant.

“Fuckers,” Bucky grumbled into his pie, quietly fuming.

“Killing must come so naturally to you.” Sam was still looking at Brooklyn like he couldn't quite decide if he was scared or in awe of her.

“Yes. I mean, it does...” Brooklyn paused, considering, “and it doesn't. I have never made a kill because I wanted to. I was always following orders. That is all I ever did.”

Sam's frown deepened. “Hm. Even so, I'm sure you know that it'll take a lot of time for you to get outta that mindset.”

“I know,” Brooklyn said, glancing at Bucky and Steve with something like uncertainty. “But I'm ready to try.”

Steve did his best to give her a reassuring smile. He had always admired Sam's frank approach to everything. He always managed to say things Steve would never have dared, in the most straightforward ways, and it never seemed offensive or intrusive.

For his part, Steve thought he'd gotten the hang of rousing speeches. But when it came to quiet reassurances, he always found his words lacking. He just hoped, at this point, that Brooklyn knew he'd stand by her however long she needed. Both he and Bucky would.

Sam stayed for dinner, catching up with Steve and letting Bucky and Brooklyn talk weapons for a while. Steve tried not to glance across the room at Bucky too often, but he knew he was utterly failing when Sam had to call his name for the umpteenth time that evening.

“Man. You're really gone for him,” Sam laughed. “I'm happy for you.”

“Yeah,” Steve smiled, catching Bucky's eye and quickly looking away. “Me too.”

Sam snickered; when Steve looked round, he immediately tried to hide it, but without much luck. It was refreshing, Steve thought fleetingly, to be around someone whose emotions were displayed on their face clear as day.

“What?” Steve asked.

“Nothing,” Sam shrugged. “Except, well... yeah. You are. Happy, I mean. I don't think I've ever actually seen that look on your face before.”

Steve knew he was blushing when Sam started laughing again, but he didn't care.

 

They'd had a pretty nice evening, Steve thought, and he didn't think he'd been too conspicuous about glancing over at Bucky every chance he got.

He just couldn't get over the fact that he could, now. And Bucky would look back at him, and smile a tiny, private smile just for him, and Steve struggled to remember that there was a world outside this apartment, this person, this feeling.

Sam cleared his throat; Steve jumped, calling himself back to reality, wondering just how long he'd spaced out this time.

It took him a moment to notice that Sam had stood up.

“Oh, you're leaving?” Steve asked. He checked the clock – it was 9:30. “It's not that late,” he said, even though a part of him kind of did want to go to bed, with Bucky... wait, no. That wouldn't do. He suddenly really wanted Sam to stay. It was easier to distract himself from all the things he really, really wanted to do with Bucky when Sam was here.

But Sam just shrugged. “I'm tired,” he said, the traitor. He glanced over at Brooklyn, who had kind of checked out of the conversation and was reading something. She was always reading something.

“So Brooke, I was thinking,” Sam said, and she looked up curiously, “I've got a few books you might find helpful. It's about soldiers settling back into normal life after deployment, but still. It might give you some pointers.”

“Oh,” Brooklyn said. “I don't--” Sam made an odd jerk of his head and she hesitated, then her expression subtly changed – Steve would have missed it if he hadn't come to know her so well. “Actually, that sounds good. Shall we go right now?”

“Yeah, I think we shall. So... we'll be downstairs,” Sam told Steve cheerfully, clapping him on the back.

“Okay,” Steve shrugged. “Knock yourselves out, I guess.”

“We'll be a while,” Sam called over his shoulder, as Brooklyn got up to follow him.

“Sure, however long you need,” Steve smiled, wondering how many books Sam had even brought on the off-chance that Brooklyn would want to read them.

“We're going now,” Sam said, hovering in the doorway.

Steve stood up, casting an uncertain glance at Bucky, who for some reason looked like he was trying not to laugh.

“Well... want me to come with?” Steve asked awkwardly, not sure why Sam was looking at him so strangely, his eyes unnaturally wide.

To his further confusion, Bucky broke into a full laugh then, and the corner of Sam's lip twitched. “Nah, man. You just stay right here.”

“I'll be back later,” said Brooklyn, who was also looking like she wanted to laugh. "Goodnight."

Sam and Brooklyn continued glancing back at him all the way out the door, and Steve was left standing in the centre of the living room, not really sure what had just happened.

“You,” Bucky snickered, crossing the room to wrap his arms around Steve's waist from behind. “Are.” He leaned his chin on Steve's shoulder. “A.” Steve leaned back into Bucky subconsciously, though he was still confused. “Moron.”

Steve spun round in Bucky's arms, affronted. “Jerk!” he shot back instinctively.

Bucky laughed again, long and loud. “Honestly, Steve, I've been called a lot worse. But at least I can take a hint.”

He spread out his arms, indicating the apartment.

The empty apartment.

A smile slowly formed on Steve's face as he took in the full implications of what Bucky was implying. What everyone had been implying.

“I'm an idiot,” he chuckled, as Bucky's hands trailed up his sides, moving across his chest and making swift work of the top buttons on his shirt.

“You're pretty thick-headed, mmm,” said Bucky, leaning in to brush a kiss against Steve's jaw. “Stubborn, too.” Another kiss, to the side of his neck. “Proud." He flicked open the top button on Steve's shirt. "Rash." Another button. "Noble as fuck.”

“You say it like they're bad things,” Steve murmured, finding it increasingly difficult to concentrate on their conversation. God, he'd wanted this. How was it possible to want someone this much?

“They're not,” Bucky breathed against his lips, before finally closing the distance between them. They kissed deeply, Steve losing himself in Bucky's embrace and wondering, with the speck of rational thought still left in him, how he could have lived this long never knowing how good kissing Bucky felt.

They finally pulled back, regretfully, after what felt like an age – and only then did Steve realise that Bucky had somehow managed to get both their shirts off.

Steve huffed out a laugh. “Should I be worried about you being so good at this?” he murmured, ducking his head to press a kiss to Bucky's shoulder, where flesh met metal. Bucky shivered beneath him.

“No,” Bucky said firmly, hands gripping Steve's waist possessively and looking into his eyes. “Because no one else was you.”

Steve had no reply for that, so he merely whispered, “Let's go to bed, Bucky,” before kissing the other man deeply and manoeuvring them to the bedroom.

It wasn't until a couple of weeks later that Tony found out about them, when he walked in on them making out in the rec room – Steve and Bucky had started to find pockets of time for themselves, either leaving Brooklyn in the apartment by herself, or sending her off to train with Natasha or Sam.

For her part, Nat claimed she'd known all along. When they told Maria, realising that this was probably a thing she should know, she simply pursed her lips and asked if they expected it to interfere with their SHIELD duties.

As it turned out, it really didn't. Steve and Bucky were as in sync as ever, and they managed to take out several Hydra bases before, finally, the question Steve had been dreading arrived.

“When can I join you on missions?”

Brooklyn had been doing good – really good. She was still quiet and introspective, slow to smile and quick to retreat to the privacy of her own room, and increasingly to other areas of the Avengers Tower. But she was learning, slowly but surely, to speak out about the things she wanted. Just like Bucky had done.

She was also training, every day; sometimes with Steve or Bucky, but mostly by herself. Her superhuman muscles were crying for combat, and Steve knew the feeling.

“Would it bother you if I said you couldn't?” Steve asked her; they were sitting on the couch, eating lunch and waiting for Bucky to come back from a SHIELD eval session.

“Of course,” she said at once. “But I would understand. It's not your call to make.”

“I know you wanna help. But you know Maria. It might be a while until they vet you.” Steve hesitated, watching her face. Not open, exactly, but not a mask. He preferred it that way – he liked to think he could tell what she was feeling, without her having to put on a show. Too much emotion, and he'd know it wasn't genuine. “Will that be a problem?”

Brooklyn took a while before she answered this time, her gaze off somewhere past Steve's shoulder. Going somewhere Steve couldn't follow. She had a lot of skeletons in her closet. But she was strong – she was his daughter. She had already proven that she could take whatever the world threw at her, and throw it right back.

“Nah,” she said at last, eyes finally meeting his own. For a second it was Bucky looking back at him, with a streak of his own stubbornness. Sometimes he still couldn't believe she was really theirs. “If it was, I wouldn't be here. SHIELD couldn't hold me if they tried.”

Steve was about to remind her of the glass cell they'd kept her in when she'd first arrived, then he remembered that she'd walked in there of her own free will. No, the only reason she'd stayed put was because she'd wanted to. And to think that he'd ever considered her empty.

“Would you leave? To fight Hydra on your own?” He almost didn't wanna ask. He wondered if she'd answer honestly.

She shrugged. “I have no obligation to SHIELD. But I'd rather not have to leave you.”

"What do you want, Brooklyn?" Steve asked her. He wasn't sure what prompted the question - why here, why now?

But Brooklyn didn't look like the question bothered her.

"I want..." her mouth quirked, and Steve wondered if she, too, was remembering the first time she'd made herself say those two, all-important words. "I want to do what I was made to do. I want to fight. But I want to fight for something believe is right. I just need to figure out what that is. And... I want to fight for it with you. With both of you."

She'd said it casually, a truth easily granted, because she still didn't fully comprehend the emotional weight that words could hold. But Steve felt something tight in his heart unclench: he knew that, in Brooklyn's world, being an ally was better than being a friend – it was better than family. Fighting side by side, trusting each other in combat, was the highest level of affection he could ever have imagined for the one-woman army that Brooklyn had raised herself to be.

He hesitated only for a second before leaning over, his movements slow as not to startle her, and pressed a kiss against her forehead. When he pulled away she looked briefly startled, and then pleased.

“I love you too,” he told her. And she smiled. 

Chapter Text

≈ ONE YEAR LATER ≈

“You think he'll like it?”

Steve looked up from the ties he'd been examining, to see Brooklyn holding up a gorgeously carved silver pocket knife for his examination. Her expression was mild but her eyes were anxious. Steve glanced round the store; they were nowhere near the jewellery section, and he doubted very much they even sold ornate weaponry in Bergdorf Goodman.

“Where'd you even—” he stopped himself, grinning and shaking his head. “You know what, I don't wanna know. Yeah, Brooke, he'll love it.”

“Good, cause there's no way I'm giving it back,” she murmured, flashing him a cheeky smile when he raised an inquisitive eyebrow. “Let's just say the owner wasn't gonna go out and fight bad guys, okay?”

Steve held up his hands. “Hey, you're an adult. Whatever minor crimes you commit are between you and your criminal record.”

Brooklyn sauntered over to Steve, absent-mindedly twirling the knife between her fingers. “Are you saying that as Captain America, or as my father?”

Steve snorted. “Neither. I'm saying it as the skinny kid from Brooklyn who'd have done the same thing if he'd had the chance. Disarmed a bad guy, not committed petty theft,” he amended quickly, for posterity.

Brooklyn cocked her head as she considered the tie he was still holding up. “I admit I don't know a lot about Christmas present etiquette, but isn't this a bit impersonal?”

Steve fought the urge to commend her on her thoughtfulness. She hardly needed the reminder that she was even doing it; not anymore. “Actually, it's not for Bucky. It's for me.”

“It's nice,” she remarked, clearly losing interest already. But then her eyes narrowed and she looked up at him. “Too nice.” She glanced between Steve and the tie again, clearly curious now. “Why?”

“No reason,” Steve mumbled.

“You never cared about ties before,” she immediately countered. “It must be a special occasion.”

“Alright Nancy Drew, let's just get outta here before someone spots that thing you're twirling,” Steve said briskly, trying to will his cheeks not to go red. He was pretty sure he failed.

“Lucky for you, no one usually pays attention to the random teenage girls stalking Captain America,” Brooklyn said, loud enough for the pair of teen girls who'd actually been sneaking after him to hear (they shrieked and ran the other way before Steve had a chance to apologise). But there was a hint of something new in her eyes now – Steve liked to think it was hope.

She didn't say another word about the tie as they wrapped themselves in coats and scarves, nor when they trekked through the white winter streets of New York, side by side. But Steve felt it, the presence of her suspicion, the question she wouldn't ask. He smiled.

There was only a week till Christmas, and Steve still hadn't gotten Bucky a present. But that wasn't why he was pacing, nor why his palms were sweaty or his pulse was racing. He pulled on the tie for the millionth time; the damn thing felt like a noose. Why were ties so tight, anyway?

“You okay?” Bucky asked. He was already dressed and was now lounging on the bed, flipping through a field report; their latest op had been a bust, and Steve knew it was only a matter of time now before Maria and Fury allowed Brooklyn to join them on missions. Her expertise was just too valuable to waste, especially now that most of Hydra's heads had gone deep underground.

And she was ready. Steve knew she was. Not because she was loyal to SHIELD – Steve wasn't even sure he could say that she was exactly loyal to him and Bucky – but she'd proven herself to be a person. A good person. A person who'd been raised as a monster, but who'd clawed out her own humanity from the shell of evil she'd been cast into. A person who'd forged her own destiny, and who had only ever made one choice: to live life on her own terms.

Steve and Bucky just counted themselves lucky that the life she'd chosen involved them. She may be an adult, and she may have super-powers that rendered her nearly unbeatable in combat, but they still got to be her parents, teaching her what they knew about life, and experiencing the world through her eyes. They lived with her, trained with her, and laughed with her. They were a family.

There were even rare moments, like tonight, when they had the place to themselves. Sometimes Brooklyn would be off training with Natasha; other times, she'd just be gone. Off on her own missions, her own little quests for vigilante justice. She'd target muggers, rapists, murderers, and thieves: anyone who hurt or intimidated the innocent. Keeping the streets of New York safe from bullies. Steve was so proud of her.

Usually, Steve and Bucky took full advantage of their moments of privacy. But tonight, Steve's hands were shaking with nerves – otherwise he definitely wouldn't have been able to resist the happy, relaxed, inviting form of Bucky Barnes sprawled out on the bed they shared.

“Yeah, Buck,” Steve smiled, stealing another glance at Bucky through the mirror, “I'm great.”

Bucky returned his smile, leaning up on his elbows. “Come here.”

And, shaking hands or not, how could Steve refuse such an invitation?

“We have a reservation,” he warned, even as he spun round and walked to the bed, crawling on his hands and knees until he was hovering over Bucky, who was smirking up at him as though he'd just won some game Steve wasn't aware they'd been playing. “Don't want them giving our table to someone else.”

“We'll make it,” Bucky murmured into his neck, hot breath making Steve's skin tingle. “Nice tie.” He grabbed it, pulling Steve down and pressing their lips together softly, just for a second, before he opened his mouth and licked Steve's bottom lip; the kiss turned deep and filthy in a heartbeat, Steve pressing himself closer to Bucky and losing himself to the sensation. He'd never get tired of kissing Bucky, of licking into Bucky's mouth and making the other man moan, the deep, throaty sound sending a thrill of want through him. He fell into the kiss, letting it soothe his soul like it always did. He ran his fingers through Bucky's hair slowly, carefully, reverently.

They pulled away, an indefinite amount of time later, clothes slightly rumpled, both breathing heavily. Bucky's hand had found its way to Steve's cheek, and he stroked a metal finger down to rest against the corner of Steve's mouth. Steve leaned into it, closing his eyes. “There,” Bucky murmured. “You're not shakin' anymore.”

Steve couldn't help the laugh that escaped him. No, he wasn't. Of course he wasn't. Because there was nothing to be scared of.

He almost asked, right then and there. But he couldn't. Because there was one, important thing missing.

“I love you,” he said instead. He felt Bucky's reply breathed against his lips right before they lost themselves to another kiss.

“Not that I'm complaining, but what exactly are we celebrating?” Bucky asked, after the waiter had seated them. He glanced around not-so-subtly, taking in the extravagant decor, and the other patrons, who were all dressed like they were meeting the Queen. Even with the fancy tie, Steve suddenly felt very under-dressed.

It was a very nice place; nicer than either of them would have felt comfortable going under normal circumstances, even with all the money SHIELD had kindly sent their way as compensation for all their combined suffering. And they'd suffered a lot – they could probably eat here every day for years if they wanted to. They wouldn't, of course; that would drive them both crazy. But tonight was special. And Steve wanted it to be perfect.

He was also a little proud that he'd managed to impress Bucky at all - it was very hard to phase a former Hydra assassin, as Steve was now doubly aware.

Another waiter (Jeez, Steve thought, it's like an army of Jarvises) poured two flutes of champagne. As he was about to retreat, Steve stopped him with a hand on his arm and a kind smile. “Would you mind pouring another? We're waiting for our... friend.”

The waiter nodded pompously. “Certainly, Captain Rogers.” Despite himself, Steve was impressed that the man didn't even spare Bucky a second look – it showed just how much of an effort he was making to be polite. There was no way Bucky Barnes showing up in a fancy restaurant like this wouldn't surprise even the most celebrity-saturated waiter, and Steve was already looking forward to seeing Mr. Fake-British here trying to keep his composure all night. At least Brooklyn's identity was still a secret to the general public – now, that reveal was gonna be something.

“Not like her to be late,” Bucky murmured, when the waiter was out of earshot.

Steve shrugged. “Probably got held up with Natasha. You know how they get.”

Brooklyn's friendship with Natasha had developed at an alarming rate, and the pair of them were somewhat terrifying together, but Steve was glad of it. Natasha and Brooklyn had shared life experiences that Steve could never even begin to understand. Same as Bucky. To imagine he'd ever been jealous of Nat because of her connection with Bucky was laughable.

Bucky, whose eyes were always the last thing Steve saw before he fell asleep. Bucky, who'd taken care of him when he was sick, who'd followed him to the end of the world and back. Bucky, who'd taken him past the point of oblivion, sharing himself so fully with Steve and loving, so generously, with all of his body and soul.

Bucky, whom Steve had always known he wanted to spend the rest of his life with.

“Hmm,” Bucky said, making a show of scanning the menu. But Steve could tell he was distracted.

“You're worried,” Steve said, smiling fondly. He checked the clock on his phone. It was only five past seven; hell, Steve and Bucky had almost been late, too, but for very different reasons. “You know she can take care of herself.”

“So can you, but I'm still allowed to worry, aren't I?” But the bite in his words was tempered by the fact that his foot was slowly curving around Steve's ankle underneath the table. It was probably meant as a comforting gesture, but Steve found it very distracting.

Steve was about to make some sassy reply when his eye caught the elaborately carved oak doors of the restaurant opening, to allow in an elegantly dressed, beautiful young lady. Their daughter.

Bucky must have seen the change on his face because he looked round to follow Steve's gaze, and completely failed to hide his relief at the sight of Brooklyn.

“You made it,” Bucky said, getting to his feet and pulling out the remaining chair for her, ever the gentleman. Steve took a sip of his champagne to hide his smile.

“Hi Bucky,” she smiled. “Steve.” Brooklyn's eyes moved very indiscreetly to Steve's left jacket pocket. “Having a good night?”

She knew. She so knew.

“Better now that you're here,” Steve said, because it was true. He wanted her here for this. He couldn't imagine doing this without Brooklyn.

“I apologise for the delay,” she said mildly, as she carefully lay her phone on the table, and then aligned the cutlery like she'd already finished eating. "I got held up."

Bucky's eyebrows drew together, just a fraction. Something skipped in Steve's throat, like a warning, despite the fact that nothing unusual had happened.

Steve glanced down at Brooklyn's phone, and noticed that the screen was shattered.

He tried to ignore the growing unease in his chest. She could have dropped it, he tried telling himself. She could have...

No. She was a genetically engineered supersoldier trained for combat since birth. Of course she couldn't have dropped it.

Steve looked back up at Brooklyn; really looked. Her expression was the same as ever, her movements careful and controlled. Her blonde hair was tied up in an elegant bun, but one small strand had escaped. There was the merest smudge of dark red on her collarbone, very nearly hidden by her soft yellow dress.

Steve's heart sank, and he felt cold all over.

“You expecting a call?” he managed to ask, eyes flickering from Bucky to Brooklyn. They were both smiling. Steve tried smiling, too, but found he couldn't. He had never been as good as hiding his emotions as they were.

Brooklyn shook her head slowly, deliberately. “No signal in here,” she said. But Steve knew what she meant: No backup.

Bucky's hand made an aborted movement, as though he'd been about to reach for Steve, but thought better of it.

Steve sat up straighter, trying very hard to keep his face neutral. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the waiter from earlier standing by the big oak doors with a couple of guys Steve hadn't noticed before. They weren't speaking.

One of the other guests glanced over at Steve, and quickly looked away.

Somewhere, a woman laughed, the sound oddly hollow in the big room, which had suddenly gone deathly quiet. The woman's laugh trailed off uncertainly as if she, too, had noticed that something was horribly wrong.

There was one shining, glorious moment of calm as Steve, Bucky and Brooklyn sat at the fancy table in the fancy restaurant, holding fancy menus describing fancy food they wouldn't get to eat, and Steve just had time to think, But I was just about to get everything I ever wanted.

And then all hell broke loose.

There were Hydra agents everywhere. At least ten men dropped from the balcony while another dozen sprang up from the nearby tables; the pompous waiter and a dozen of his friends had them surrounded in a heartbeat and there was nothing they could do but watch as the remaining patrons fled the restaurant.

At least Hydra wasn't looking for collateral damage. Thank god for small favours, thought Steve.

“Where's your Avenger friends now?” said a short, dumb guy.

Steve knew he was dumb because, in his experience, the clever ones stayed quiet.

“Knowing Tony Stark, he's tracking our heartbeats right now,” Steve said, sizing up the room. 30 guys that he could see, and there were probably more of them, hiding. The restaurant had a second floor with a balcony, which meant that he, Bucky and Brooklyn were all probably in someone's crosshairs right now. Fuck. Why hadn't he brought his shield? Why had he let himself get so complacent? He should have known it'd only be a matter of time before Hydra would make their move.

He looked at Bucky, then at Brooklyn. Steve didn't fear for himself, but oh, god, he was afraid.

The dumb guy's mouth twisted grotesquely. “Good. He'll be the first to hear them stop.”

“Sarkovsky!” Another guard called, stepping forward to murmur something in a language Steve didn't understand. Steve took advantage of the distraction to try and catch Bucky's eye, but Bucky was looking at the newcomer. So was Brooklyn. They wore identical expressions of defiant anger, but remained prone as they watched the new guy carefully.

Steve waited, desperately, for an opportunity to present itself. They couldn't fight their way out of a 30-man holdup situation, not when they were so exposed. And they couldn't call for backup. Steve felt the tiny, cold weight in his pocket. He'd waited too long.

The new guard stepped forward. He was taller, older, a thin man with silvery hair and a wry smile that suggested he took pleasure in pain.

Steve fought the urge to put himself between the man and Bucky and Brooklyn. He had 30 loaded weapons pointed at him, at least, and even Captain America was not bulletproof. They could jump up, try to fight their way out – but they wouldn't make it. Not all three of them. And Steve couldn't – wouldn't – risk it.

The man walked forward until he was standing right in front of Brooklyn. She looked up at him with quiet condemnation, like she was simultaneously bored and disgusted by him. Take him out, Steve thought wildly. We could use the distraction. He saw her hand inch towards the butter knife by her plate.

“Hello, Solnyshko.”

Brooklyn paled. Her hand dropped.

“Yes,” the man smirked, drawing out his words because he could, the fucker, and letting his cold, blue eyes roam freely over Brooklyn in a way that made Steve sick. “I see what he saw in you,” he told her – whatever that meant.

Brooklyn clearly knew what it meant. Her eyes widened and, for the first time Steve could remember, she looked genuinely afraid.

“Brooklyn, what--” Steve started but the cold-eyed man held up a hand, an insufferably smug smile on his face.

“No. You don't speak.”

“Says fucking who?” Bucky growled, as ever unable to stand by when someone threatened Steve. Steve loved that about him, but right now he hated it. Stop, he thought. Please. Don't.

“Says the man who can kill you both with a word,” the man smiled. “And I'll start with the one who doesn't speak. Ah yes,” he added, off Bucky and Steve's stricken expressions. “I know your weakness, Soldier. But I don't care. We've upgraded.”

His attention was back on Brooklyn now.

“You know why I'm here,” he said sweetly. “It's time to come home.”

“You are not one of them,” Brooklyn bit out, voice shaking. “You can't be. They're gone.” Her hands were curled into fists at her sides. Seeing Brooklyn afraid was the most terrifying thing Steve had ever experienced.

The man looked almost pitying, the expression twisting up his face. “Oh, dear. Did you honestly think there would be no one left to handle you? That no emergency protocol would be activated to ensure the retrieval of our most precious asset?”

So this was it. They hadn't come for Steve or Bucky this time; they'd come for Brooklyn. Which meant that Steve and Bucky were... disposable.

They'd try to fight their way out, of course. They might even make it.

But they probably wouldn't. At least, not both of them.

And Steve made a decision then. He would no more allow them to take Brooklyn, condemn her to some brainwashing hell, than he'd have allowed Hydra to take back Bucky. He began to rise from the table, no plan in his mind but defend.

“Don't.” It was Brooklyn's voice; she wasn't even looking at him, but her voice was so full of panic, Steve actually hesitated. “Steve, please. Don't.”

Steve locked eyes with Bucky. He hadn't said a word – he wouldn't – and Bucky didn't speak either. They both knew what was at stake. But their eyes said it all: they'd get Brooklyn out of here if it killed them. We'll go down together. That's how he'd always imagined it would end. He nodded at Bucky, and Bucky nodded back. Steve sat back down, ready to wait for the right moment.

“I'll come with you,” Brooklyn told the man, and Steve had never heard her sound quite so afraid. “We'll go right now. Anywhere you want.” She was practically begging. This was nothing like the Brooklyn he knew, and Steve had no idea what to do. What to think.

The man smiled. “Oh yes, you will come with us. After you complete your mission.”

“No,” Brooklyn said quickly, “I can't, it was never authorised, I can't--”

“Do you accept your mission?”

Brooklyn's mouth clamped shut.

A flash of memory came to Steve, then:

Are you loyal to Hydra?”

What is left of Hydra has no knowledge of my existence.”

Are you loyal to Hydra?”

My handlers are dead. I no longer have an obligation to follow Hydra's orders.”

Are you loyal to Hydra?”

My loyalty was never required, only my servitude.”

...She had never actually said no.

At the time, Steve hadn't thought she needed to; surely, a person as compromised as Brooklyn had been had no obligation to the concept of loyalty.

But now he understood why she hadn't said no: because she couldn't.

“Do you accept your mission?” the man said again, more urgently, his false smile beginning to slip.

Brooklyn said nothing, her jaw working furiously but her mouth staying stubbornly shut. One angry tear trickled out of the corner of her eye and made its way down her cheek. She was shaking.

Because of course, Steve realised with a cold, sick sense of clarity: this wasn't just brainwashing. It was programming. Some tiny, latent bit of code for insurance – not enough for scans to pick up on, nothing that would ever matter, except for in exactly such a situation as this.

Of course Hydra would have wanted to make sure that she would always do as she was told.

Oh god.

“Do you accept your mission?”

Her mission was to kill the Avengers. Which meant killing Steve and Bucky.

Something like a whimper escaped Brooklyn's mouth.

Steve fought the urge to speak. He wouldn't, and neither would Bucky, because with one word, they were dooming the other. And yet if they stayed silent, if they didn't help Brooklyn remember who she was, if they didn't somehow try to stop her from saying the word she was trying so hard to suppress...

“Do you accept your mission?”

Brooklyn's head turned towards Bucky. The look he gave her broke Steve's heart: it was full of nothing but understanding and... love. Yes, Bucky had found it harder to trust Brooklyn, but once he had, he had loved her. And when Bucky loved, he loved fiercely. Bucky met her eyes, and nodded once.

Then Brooklyn turned to Steve. Tears were flowing down her cheeks now, and Steve saw, truly, how real she had become over the last year. He could hardly recognise in her the shell of a girl who had come to find them because she'd had nowhere else to go.

She was theirs and they were hers, and they'd been a family.

He smiled at her. It's okay, he wanted to tell her. I forgive you. Just don't let them break you. He let his eyes flicker down, significantly, to the birth stone she was still wearing around her wrist. Her tearful eyes followed his, and she gazed at the bracelet for a long time.

They'd celebrated her birthday this year, too. They'd called it her first.

They'd discovered that she loved lemon cake. Just like Bucky.

Sam had arrived, unexpectedly, and Brooklyn had blushed to the roots of her hair again. Steve suspected Sam wasn't just showing up to see him and Bucky anymore, and he wasn't sure how he felt about that.

Brooklyn had kicked all their asses at their sparring session that day though, which had made him feel a little better about it all. Whatever happened, he knew she could take care of herself.

“Do you accept your mission?”

Except, Brooklyn couldn't take care of herself. Not like this. She needed them. She needed her family.

Steve's eyes met Bucky's again. It was now or never. They could provide a distraction, at least, give her a chance – and, as long as she could resist the programming, she had a chance of making it out of here. Hydra wouldn't want to harm her if they could avoid it. She might be okay.

And, after all, Steve had always imagined that he and Bucky would go out together.

I love you, he thought, willing Bucky to hear the words he couldn't speak. You would have said yes.

“No.”

Steve and Bucky both looked up as one, stunned out of their wordless exchange by the one single, impossible word that fell from Brooklyn's lips.

“What did you say?” the cold-eyed man hissed.

“I said no. Asshole.” Her chin was raised high in defiance, the tears were drying on her cheeks, and she looked vaguely startled, like she couldn't believe what she'd just said. But she'd said no.

The blue-eyed man blinked at Brooklyn stupidly for a long moment. “But you can't say no,” he said, as though his words could make it true.

Brooklyn, more composed now, managed a thin smile. “Wrong. She couldn't say no. But I've filled up the spaces where Hydra used to live. There is no room for your asset in here anymore.”

And then she shot him.

He looked startled as he died, crumbling to the floor in slow-motion, his eyes following her all the way down until, at last, the life left them. Brooklyn stood frozen, the smoke from the gun swirling around her face.

No one moved.

Steve blinked. He had no idea how she'd swiped the gun off of the man called Sarkovsky, but she had; it hardly mattered, because the next moment the room erupted in chaos. But the brief moment of panic, the Hydra agents' shock at losing their leader, was all the advantage they were going to get, and Bucky and Steve took full advantage. Bucky knocked over the table as Steve sent his champagne flute flying towards the nearest soldier, the glass slicing through the man's neck like butter; he heard gunshots as Brooklyn ploughed down anyone who got in her way, and he went on autopilot after that. Protect. Survive. Endure.

And they did.

The first thing Steve did when the dust cleared and they were left standing was to grab Brooklyn and pull her into a massive hug. Fuck being careful with her; they were way past careful.

She didn't seem to mind. In fact, for the first time, she hugged him back with all her might. It was painful, but Steve didn't care.

“I'm sorry,” she whispered as they pulled away.

“You should be sorry,” Steve said, more sharply than he intended, and Brooklyn's eyes widened, the hurt on her face brief, but definitely there.

Steve,” Bucky warned, looking up from where he'd been using his shirt to clean the blood off his metal arm.

“No, she should be,” Steve insisted, rounding on Brooklyn again. “You'd been fighting them, in the alley. You knew they were gonna ambush us. But still you came in here. You could have escaped, run for backup.”

Brooklyn went from shocked to angry in a second. “They were after me, not you! If I hadn't come in here, they'd have killed you both!”

“They almost did anyway!” He said, gesturing around the restaurant-turned-battlefield. You almost did, he didn't add. If she hadn't been able to fight off her programming...

“But they didn't, Steve,” Bucky said; he'd stood up now, and was crossing the room to join Brooklyn, crossing his arms over his chest as he faced Steve with her. “We're alive, thanks to Brooke. And if it'd been either of us out there, we'd have made the same choice and you know it.”

“But...” Steve sighed. He hated when they ganged up on him. “But she shouldn't have to make that choice,” he finally said, a little bit desperately.

Bucky sighed, putting a hand on Brooklyn's shoulder. She seemed to visibly relax at the show of solidarity, and Steve suddenly felt like an ass. “I know she shouldn't have to. But she didn't do it because she had to.”

“I did it because I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I didn't try to help,” Brooklyn said, so softly Steve almost missed it.

And, as much as Steve wanted to protect Brooklyn, to wrap her up and keep her safe, he knew they were both right. All Brooklyn had was her freedom, and he sure as hell wasn't gonna try to take that away from her.

“I'm sorry,” he said. “I'm just looking out for you.”

Brooklyn looked up at him, and after a moment, nodded. “I suppose that's what you do,” she said, somehow managing to sound overbearing even while keeping her voice completely neutral. Steve shrugged; she wasn't wrong.

But... “Apparently it's what you do, too,” he pointed out, indicating the mess they'd made. She had walked right past enemy lines, risking her life to save theirs. If that wasn't a Rogers family trait, Steve didn't know what was.

Brooklyn opened her mouth to respond, then closed it, eyes darting around the room in quiet realisation. “Oh,” she said. “I guess you're right.” He didn't miss the soft smile she tried to hide by turning her face away; it would appear that she had just found another piece of self to fill up that empty room of hers.

There was a beat of silence. Then Bucky turned to Brooklyn, amazement in his eyes. “You broke the programming! Why aren't we celebrating?”

He bounced away and began scouring the nearby tables; Steve didn't realise what he was doing until he produced one, amazingly intact, flute of champagne. He took a swig and passed it to Brooklyn.

Brooklyn took a sip; Steve didn't miss the small scrunch of her nose. Evidently, she still didn't like fizzy drinks.

“Actually, I think the programming broke itself,” she said, passing the champagne to Steve, who downed the remaining contents in one go. It'd been a long day. “The girl they trained, she couldn't disobey an order. But like I told him, I'm not that girl anymore. Once I got that into my head, his words lost their power.”

“Hmm,” Bucky said, smiling to himself.

“What?” Steve asked.

“Sounds familiar, is all.” He slung an arm over Steve's shoulder, taking the empty flute out of his hand and tossing it away; the sound of shattering crystal echoed in the otherwise silent, destroyed restaurant. “We're idiots. Slaves to sympathy, all of us. It's amazing we've survived this long.”

“It's cause we're a team,” Brooklyn said, as though it was the most natural thing in the world.

Bucky snorted. “At the risk of damaging my reputation, here... I'd say it's cause we're family.”

Steve laughed, and Brooklyn's smile widened, growing ever more genuine. They fell silent, looking around the destruction they'd caused, the first war they'd won together. And Steve realised, with a rush of excitement, that this was only the beginning.

Steve leaned into Bucky and squeezed his hand, which was still around his shoulder, resting right above his heart – and his left pocket. Metal to metal.

And it was the perfect moment.

“Marry me,” Steve said.

And Bucky said yes.