After he takes Bucky back to SHIELD headquarters in Times Square (the Helicarrier is still in dry dock), Steve doesn't see him again for fifty-eight hours. He waits around for the first twelve or so, before Darcy talks him into eating something, escorts him to the cafeteria, and chatters at him while he pushes food around on a plate.
"I'm sorry," he finally says. "I can't--I need to go back and see what's happening."
"They're still questioning him," she says.
"It's been twelve hours."
"First they did a quick medical exam," she says, sipping calmly on her soda. "And then they had to wait until Professor Xavier arrived." She sticks her fork into his plate and spears half a meatball. "You're not gonna eat that, are you?"
Steve shoves the plate over to her and stands. She sighs, drops the fork, and gets up with him, grabbing both plates and making him feel like a jerk for leaving the clean-up to her.
"All right," she says, more serious than he's ever seen her outside of mission briefings. "But you know they're not going to let you see him."
"I have to try."
"Of course you do."
Natasha is leaning against the wall outside the interrogation room, arms crossed over her chest, the repeated tap of one red nail against her elbow equal to a full-scale meltdown from anyone else. He doesn't like to think about what that composure costs her.
Darcy glances between them and attempts a strained smile that Natasha doesn't return.
"You can go now," he says, and Darcy flees, the click of her boot heels loud on the linoleum floor.
Natasha raises an eyebrow at him, but he just leans against the wall opposite her and crosses his arms over his chest, as well.
Steve's not sure how long the two of them stand there, staring at the blank gray walls--long enough for him to count the cracks in the ceiling four times--but Coulson comes by and collects them for a briefing that goes in one ear and out the other. He vaguely recalls hearing something about a potential imminent threat from Latveria.
"Get some sleep," Fury says when it's done. "We'll let you know what develops." It takes Steve a second to realize he means with Latveria, not with Bucky.
Darcy walks him back to his quarters, and he knows Coulson thinks he's clever, using her, using their friendship, this way. Which isn't fair--he knows Darcy probably wants to help him (he knows Coulson probably wants to help, too). But he just can't deal with her right now.
"You want to talk?" she asks. "Or play cards or something?"
"I don't need a babysitter," he says as gently as he can.
"Are you really going to sleep?"
Steve laughs softly, no humor in it. "I'm going to try."
Darcy puts a hand on his arm and goes up on her tiptoes to give him a quick kiss on the cheek. "You've got my number if you need me."
"Thanks, Darcy." He hesitates, then, "Go home."
She gives him a nod and a tight smile that tells him more than anything else how worried she is. But she doesn't understand that he's not the one who needs to be worried over right now.
He manages four fitful hours of tossing and turning, nightmares of watching Bucky fall playing out over and over, the sick jolt in his gut as he falls after him waking him each time. He's had the nightmares since the day it happened, and they've never gotten any easier to bear.
He gives it up as a bad job and heads down to the briefing room, which is dim and quiet. He thinks about calling Darcy, even though it's after two in the morning. She'd pick up, but there isn't really anything he can say, so he doesn't.
Natasha joins him at some point after three. "They've moved him to a holding cell," she says.
Steve pushes a hand through his hair. "I don't suppose they're allowing any visitors."
She huffs softly. "Not at this hour. And certainly not you or me."
He reaches out and takes her hand. She shoots him a surprised look but lets him hold it for a little while. It's warm and callused and feels deceptively fragile. He wonders vaguely about the last time she held hands with someone; he can't imagine it happening very often, which is kind of sad, though he's sure she wouldn't appreciate him feeling that way.
She takes her hand back and he's starting to wish he'd brought a deck of cards when both their phones ring at the same time.
The lights go up in the briefing room and this time they're sent out to stop a group of HYDRA agents who've hijacked a jet out of JFK.
All his old angry feelings about HYDRA have resurfaced and at least now he gets to hit things. It only takes a couple of hours, but he's able to sleep for a while afterwards, right up until the dreams start again and he watches Bucky fall and fall and fall.
Even a hot shower doesn't make him feel any better. He's glaring at the coffee maker on the counter and wondering if they'd let him bring Bucky coffee (if he had any coffee in his kitchen; he knows they won't let him bring anything in from outside) when his phone goes off and he's summoned to another briefing.
"You look like shit," Tony says, pressing a large cup of coffee into his hand. Steve takes it gratefully and swallows a long gulp, burning the roof of his mouth in the process. "You know what this meeting is about? I thought the Fantastic Four took care of the Latverian thing. It was all over the news this morning. And we kicked HYDRA's ass last night, so it shouldn't be that." He glances over at Clint, whose eyebrows furrow in a weird kind of face-only shrug, and then says, "You were a little, um, intense last night. Is there something we should know about?"
Steve blinks at him, surprised, and takes a sip of coffee to cover until he can think of a response.
Coulson and Fury come in, then, saving him from having to answer. Darcy is with them and she gives him a small, apologetic smile that makes him anxious. He sets the coffee down on the table so he doesn't accidentally spill it all over.
"This is just an informational update," Coulson says. "A few days ago, Captain Rogers and Agent Romanoff brought in the assassin known as the Winter Soldier."
Clint sits up a little straighter, but the rest of the team continues to look bored (Tony) or confused (Thor, Bruce). Natasha's expression is neutral, but she hasn't bothered to cover up the dark circles under her eyes.
"Is it true that he used to be Cap's partner?" Clint asks. They all turn to him in surprise. "What? I hear things." Steve glances over at Darcy, who avoids looking at him.
"Yes," Steve says before Coulson or Fury can say anything infuriating or wrong. "Yes. It's Bucky. He was brainwashed by the Russians, but he's okay now."
That makes Tony sit up straight and lean forward. "Seriously?"
Steve holds his gaze steadily. "Yes."
"That sounds like the plot of a bad Syfy channel movie."
"I know, right?" Darcy pipes up and then covers her mouth with her hand and gives Steve another one of those apologetic looks.
"It remains to be seen whether Sergeant Barnes is okay now," Fury says, cutting off the discussion. Steve can hear the quotes around "okay now"--it's one of the weird skills he's had to pick up here in the future--and he knows he should keep his mouth shut, but he can't.
"He is," Steve insists, ignoring Fury's powerful one-eyed glare.
"He's being examined by Professor Xavier," Coulson says, giving Steve an unreadable look, "while we determine whether he'll be brought up on charges."
"What?" Steve jumps to his feet.
Fury just keeps glaring at him. "This is not the time, Captain."
"But--" Steve looks over at Natasha, who looks unhappy, but shakes her head at him.
Coulson says, "While Sergeant Barnes is in custody, security will be heightened, so don't expect to get anywhere within the building without your ID badge."
"If there's anything further you need to know, you'll be informed." Fury sweeps out of the room, with Coulson and Darcy trailing him. She's talking low and fast in Coulson's ear while still shooting Steve apologetic glances. Clint claps him on the shoulder once and then follows her out. Bruce nods and goes with him.
"I am pleased your friend is no longer dead," Thor says gravely. "I hope you find that he is truly well."
"Thank you," Steve says. Thor inclines his head regally as he leaves. Steve turns to Natasha. "He needs a lawyer."
"I have a--friend who might be able to help," Natasha says. "He's here in the city."
Her hesitation over the word friend makes Steve uncomfortable, but it's not like he has a lawyer on retainer. "Can you give him a call?"
"I was already planning to."
"If your friend can't help," Tony says, "I've got a guy--a whole team of guys, actually. Probably some ladies, too." He looks at Natasha. "You still have access to Pepper's contacts, right?"
Natasha nods. "Yes."
Steve glances back and forth between them. "Thank you."
"Least I could do." Tony shrugs. "Okay, then. I have a thing I'm going to try to avoid going to now, so I need to leave before Pepper finds me. I'll see you all later."
"You're not the only one who cares about him, Steve." She takes his hand and squeezes it once before letting it drop. "I'll let you know when I've lined up a lawyer."
"Thank you," he says again. It sounds--feels--so inadequate.
He does what he usually does when he feels helpless and angry--he heads down to the gym in the basement and starts punching things. He knows it's small and petty, but he feels a vicious satisfaction in breaking things, especially things he doesn't have to pay for himself.
He's working up a good head of steam when he hears a cough behind him.
"Come on," Darcy says. "You can see him for a few minutes."
Steve wipes his sweaty forehead on his sweaty t-shirt and says, "Okay." He smiles at her, because he can't help himself, and because it's not her fault she works for his bosses.
She smiles back, a little tentatively. "You have ten minutes," she says, holding up a hand to silence him when he opens his mouth. "Fury didn't want to let you see him at all, and I had to convince Coulson that you could be in there for more than five minutes without either getting killed or giving up state secrets."
"And when you're done, you're supposed to meet with Professor Xavier. Natasha's with him right now."
"Bucky's not psychic!" Steve yells. He has to take a couple of deep breaths to get hold of himself again. "He's not going to infect me with brainwashing or something. And he's--he's himself now. He shook off their mind control." He manages to keep his voice steady, even if he can't keep the anger out of it.
"I believe you," Darcy says. "But you know Fury's old school. Trust but verify and all that."
Steve grunts, annoyed but aware that Darcy's not the one throwing obstacles in his way. He's not willing to risk his chance to see Bucky by fighting with her.
They have to swipe their badges through no fewer than three checkpoints before they get back to the holding cell, and Steve almost ruins the whole thing when he sees Bucky is handcuffed to the table.
"What the hell--"
"Don't, Steve. Please." Bucky looks pale and sweaty, worse than he had when Steve found him on the roof of their apartment building, the circles under his eyes dark and deep. His hand trembles in the metal cuff.
"You still have rights. Even if--even if you are this Winter Soldier character, you still have rights as an American citizen. We're going to get you a lawyer."
Bucky's laugh is rusty, like he hasn't used it in a long time. He shakes his head, a fond smile on his face. "You haven't changed a bit."
Steve doesn't argue, though they both know that's not true. "Listen, I know that it all seems overwhelming now, but we're going to get you out of this. I'll make sure of it."
Bucky shakes his head. "You don't understand. It doesn't matter." He puts something on the table that looks like a hand encased in a metal glove, like some prototypical version of Tony's armor. But that can't be right. They wouldn't let a prisoner keep something like that.
The fingers curl into a fist and Bucky says, "I went off-mission once, a few years ago." Steve nods. Fury had mentioned that in the briefing that started this whole thing. It feels like forever ago; Steve thinks it's only been four days, but it feels like another seventy years. "Ever since then, they've programmed my arm to release a slow-acting poison that only they have the antidote to." Bucky looks down at the metal fist resting on the table. "If I don't complete my mission, the poison is triggered." He sounds like a child reciting his multiplication tables by rote. "If I try to remove the arm, the poison is triggered." He looks up and meets Steve's gaze, mirthless smile on his face. "If I'm late to my rendezvous by more than an hour, the poison is triggered."
Steve blinks, still trying to process that Bucky's not wearing an armored gauntlet, that he has a metal arm. "Wait, what?"
"I was supposed to meet Lukin in Amsterdam eight hours ago."
Steve jumps up and pounds at the door. The guards rush in, guns at the ready, but Steve looks past them to where Darcy is leaning against the wall, staring intently at her phone. "Darcy, get Coulson and Fury down here now."
Eyes wide, she raises her phone to her ear. He gives her a tight, grateful smile, waves the guards away, and turns back to Bucky. "SHIELD has a state of the art medical facility. I'm sure they'll have an antidote to whatever it is. But you should have let someone know sooner."
Bucky snorts. "Steve, listen. It's not--I'm not--I told you, I'm not the guy you knew. I've done things--I can't--" He shakes his head, and Steve can see the tremor in his right hand, the one that's still flesh and bone. "They sent me to kill you, but you saved me."
Fury shoulders his way into the interrogation room then. "What's your problem, Captain Rogers?"
"Bucky needs medical attention, sir. He's being poisoned by his mechanical arm."
Several more hours pass before they let Steve see Bucky again. He spends most of them sitting in an uncomfortable chair outside the infirmary. He thinks of all the times Bucky waited for him when they were kids, in places that were a lot worse than this, that stank of illness and antiseptic and death. Here he smells only recycled air and the occasional whiff of soap when a nurse or doctor goes by.
Bruce sits down next to him at some point and gives him a tired smile. "It's a pretty nasty poison, but we were able to synthesize an antidote and get it into him in time. He's stabilized now. He's resting, but you can go in."
Steve nods and says, "Thanks," already pushing his way through the heavy white door, turning Bruce's words over in his mind and then filing them away.
Apparently "resting" is code for sedated, which he should have known, but his ability to hear the ironic quotes around words isn't working too well at the moment. Bucky's covered in tubes and tape, monitors blinking and beeping around him. He looks small and pale against the sheets, and Steve wonders if he's always been that fragile, and he'd just never noticed. He forces himself to look at the empty left sleeve of Bucky's hospital johnny; he can't flinch at the sight once Bucky is awake, so he'll have to get that out of the way now. It doesn't seem to have slowed him down any, and Steve's already got a bunch of texts from Tony about building a new, non-poisonous arm without even having to ask.
He settles heavily into the slightly more comfortable chair at Bucky's bedside, then reaches out and hooks his fingers around Bucky's, holding on the way he didn't--couldn't--all those years ago.
He doesn't know how long they sit like that, the only measure of time the beeping of the machinery and the soft counterpoint of their breathing; he thinks he dozes off but he can't be sure. The next thing he knows, Natasha is sitting next to him. She gives him a small smile that he returns, and takes his free hand in hers. He squeezes it in thanks, and drifts back into sleep, secure in the knowledge that someone else is watching over him and Bucky both.
Steve wakes suddenly, startled. Natasha is standing by the door. "Director Fury is on his way," she says. "I've been in touch with my friend, and James will have proper representation if it comes to that. Remind Fury of that if you need to." And then she slips away before Steve can ask why she won't stay.
"Captain," Fury says with a curt nod, filling the room with his presence, and a team of white-coated doctors trailing in his wake. "If you'll excuse us."
"No," Steve says. "I don't think I will."
"I'm not leaving until Bucky's lawyer arrives."
"There's no need to bring lawyers into it," Fury says. His hail fellow well met act is starting to irritate Steve.
"There is if you're bringing him up on charges."
Fury shakes his head and gives an incredulous little laugh that is the fakest thing Steve's ever heard. "We're just planning to continue questioning him."
"I see." Steve clenches his jaw around the words he really wants to say, and instead he says, "I have a few questions of my own. Such as, why, if you had the world's best telepath interrogating him, nobody picked up on the fact that he was slowly being poisoned?"
"You're upset, Captain. I understand."
"Don't patronize me, sir. I'm not an idiot."
Fury sighs and rubs his forehead, dropping the false geniality. "Professor Xavier spent most of his time with...Sergeant Barnes trying to ameliorate the effects of the conditioning, and searching for hidden triggers. We're not sure he caught them all, and as a security precaution--for everyone involved--he will continue to do so until he's certain that...Sergeant Barnes is no longer programmed to kill you, himself, or anyone else."
"Himself? He tried to kill himself?"
"They implanted a kill switch, yes. Professor Xavier believes they also put in a subconscious command that made him unable to tell us that he was being poisoned until it was too late to save him. It's only because his programming was already breaking down that he was able to say anything about it at all. And luckily, Dr. Banner had some familiarity with the poison and was able to formulate an antidote fairly quickly."
Steve opens and closes his mouth, unable to come up with a response to that. He doesn't know why the horrible things people do to each other keep surprising him, but somehow they do.
"We'd like to make sure the Red Room didn't leave any other surprises for him, or for us."
"Fine, okay. I get it," Steve says. "But either Natasha or I need to be there when you do. Or we'll wait for the lawyer."
Fury glares at him, but Steve plants his feet and crosses his arms over his chest. He's not going anywhere any time soon, and Fury will just have to deal with it.
Steve and Natasha switch off sitting with Bucky while he's recovering. Steve would do it all himself, but it's clear that Natasha cares as much as he does, even if she's more guarded about showing it, and Steve tries to be generous, even if Bucky's attention is the one thing he's always been greedy for.
"I think he's waking up," she says softly as she leaves him to it.
"Okay," Steve says, trying not to get his hopes up.
He leans forward, elbows on his knees, and he's almost asleep, head too heavy to keep upright anymore, when Bucky's eyes open. He stares at Steve, his pupils wide and black in the dim light.
"Hey," Steve says softly, not sure he's actually awake.
Bucky glances down at the tubes in one arm and the empty space where the other should be, then up at Steve again. He looks like he's just lost his best friend (and Steve knows all too well what that looks like).
"Seemed so real this time," he says quietly. "I should have known. Should have told you before how I feel." He mutters something in Russian that Steve doesn't understand. Then, more clearly, "Seeing you again would have made the poison worth it."
"Hey," Steve says again. "Don't say that. You're gonna be okay, Buck. You're gonna be fine."
But Bucky's eyes are already closed again.
The next time he wakes up, he looks at Steve like he didn't expect to see him there and says, "Huh." The surprised confusion is there and gone so quickly Steve's not sure he actually sees it before Bucky's face goes blank and then settles into a thoughtful frown. "I need to piss like a racehorse, and then I would kill for some pancakes." His mouth quirks in a familiar half-grin and he raises his voice. "Not literally, so tell your goons to stand down."
A nurse comes into the room and says, "Captain Rogers, if you'll excuse us?"
"Yes, ma'am," he says. "Of course."
Bucky rolls his eyes. "You mean I don't get a complementary sponge bath from Captain America?"
The nurse huffs but Steve laughs, almost lightheaded with giddiness at how much like himself Bucky sounds. "I don't think you're well enough to handle that," Steve says, and the sound of Bucky's startled laughter follows him out into the hall.
Steve settles into a weird new routine over the next few days. He spends most of his time in Bucky's room in the infirmary, reading or sketching, while Professor Xavier--a bald man in a wheelchair who actually looks like a professor--and Bucky stare silently at each other. Steve knows they're communicating telepathically, or at least, he believes Bucky when Bucky says they are, but there's no external proof, except that Bucky's exhausted, his face pale and drawn, after every session.
When Bucky's asleep, Steve searches the room, finds some scrubs and a faded cotton robe in the drawers next to the bed, a few extra boxes of tissues, and the crumpled up half-finished drawing of the IKEA ferry that Bucky'd taken from his apartment the day they got him back. Steve's surprised they let him keep it. He folds it carefully and tucks it into his back pocket for safekeeping. He also finds at least two bugs, which means there are probably three more he's not technologically sophisticated enough to suss out. The bugs don't matter, though, because they don't do much talking. Mostly they play gin.
Bucky looks up from the hole he's trying to stare into the bed (Steve doesn't think he has heat vision, but who knows anymore?) when Steve pulls out the cards and starts shuffling, and he grins. "Oh, I am so going to kick your ass, Rogers."
As if Steve hasn't heard this a million times over the years. "I seem to recall the last time we played, I was beating you to the tune of two hundred and fifty thousand to one hundred three thousand."
Bucky grunts. "I think my luck is about to change."
At that, Steve looks up and grins. "You may be right." He deals the cards deftly, and silently congratulates himself on how much more alive and engaged Bucky looks over a hand of cards.
On the fourth day, Maria Hill shows up and says, "Professor Xavier's been called away, but we're going to continue with the debriefing."
"Is that what we're calling it?" Bucky asks. "Feels more like I'm getting screwed with my briefs on."
"We're actually trying to help you," Maria says. The you bastard is implied, and if Steve picks up on it, he's sure Bucky gets it loud and clear. "If you don't want to be court martialed--"
"Didn't I get discharged when I died?"
"You were listed as missing in action, not dead," Steve says, having become intimately familiar with Bucky's (and everyone else's) files when he first got out of the ice.
"And if you're not in the army, I can just take you out back and shoot you," Maria says with an evil grin. "People disappear in SHIELD custody all the time."
Bucky laughs. "I like you." He sobers quickly. "But I'm not talking to you."
Maria sets her jaw and visibly swallows before she speaks. "I don't think you get a say."
"Can't Natasha do it?" Steve says before the situation escalates.
Bucky nods. "I'll talk to the Black Widow."
Maria stands and nods in return. "I'll have to check with Director Fury."
Steve follows her out into the hallway. "Look, I didn't mean to undermine your authority," he starts, but she shakes her head.
"Agent Romanoff is the best interrogator we have, Captain. The fact that he's willing to talk to her just makes it easier on all of us."
"You knew he wouldn't talk to you?"
She huffs softly. "I had an idea. I do know what I'm doing, you know." She points her chin towards Bucky's room. "You wait with him. Agent Romanoff will be along in a few minutes."
Steve goes back into the room to find Bucky out of the bed, poking around the narrow armoire against the wall. His hospital gown doesn't close all the way around the back and Steve takes in the view for a moment before he says, "There are some scrubs in the bottom drawer."
Bucky straightens up and glares at him. "Why didn't you say so?"
"I thought you knew."
"You thought I liked having my ass hanging out the back of this thing?"
Steve has to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing at the indignant expression on Bucky's face. When he's sure he's got it under control, he splays his right hand over his heart and says, as sincerely as he can manage, "I don't judge. If that's your thing--"
"I'll show you my thing."
"If I'm interrupting something, I can come back later," Natasha says. "I've already seen it."
"I haven't." Darcy is hovering outside the half-open door. Steve gives her a look that's meant to be quelling but she just shrugs. "Well, I haven't."
"Get dressed," Natasha says to Bucky, ignoring them. "If we're going to do this, we're going to do it in a place I can get a decent cup of coffee."
She leads them to a small private dining room on the thirty-eighth floor that Steve didn't even know existed. The windows overlook Times Square, the lights bright and garish even during the day, and not that different from the Times Square of his youth. With the usual SHIELD efficiency and unobtrusiveness, a tray of muffins and bagels appears on the table and an urn of coffee--with real ceramic mugs and saucers--appears on the credenza against the inside wall. Once they've all served themselves (and Steve is a little embarrassed at the way his stomach rumbles in the presence of food), Natasha says, "Let's get down to business."
Darcy sets up one of those tiny voice recorders in the middle of the table and then flips open her notebook.
Bucky takes a seat at the far end of the table, facing the windows and the door. Steve takes the seat next to him and gives him an encouraging smile he doesn't return. He speaks in an even monotone, familiar to Steve from the war, from the first time he rescued Bucky from HYDRA and sat through one of these debriefings. It's the same tone the men used when they just wanted to get through the meeting and get to a hot shower and a bottle of rotgut. Steve had always joined them, even though he couldn't get drunk; he's pretty sure the drinking didn't help anyone forget, but he never stopped them from trying.
Steve tunes it out--he can always read the report later--and focuses on Bucky's face. The circles under his eyes are fading, but his hair is still long and lank and in need of cutting. Steve remembers doing it for him when they couldn't afford to go to the barber. He wonders if Bucky would let him do it now.
Armed with a thousand yard stare that's clearly not seeing anything in the room with them, Bucky finally talks about his latest mission, how his boss, Lukin, had wanted Captain America dead and SHIELD discredited and in disarray. "He was so pleased with his own cleverness that he half-assed the programming protocols," Bucky says. "I knew something was off as soon as I landed, but I didn't know what until I saw the apartment building."
"That's why you didn't arm the bombs?" Natasha's voice is businesslike, brisk. If Steve hadn't already known how wound up she was, just being in here and talking to Bucky, he never would have guessed.
"No. It just made me angry, that some poseur was living in our old apartment. I wondered if he had some fake version of--of the Commandos hanging around too." The hesitation is small but Steve hears it, knows Bucky was going to say, Some fake version of me before he changed his mind. "It wasn't until I searched the place--until I was looking at sketches of my own face--that I realized that it was really Steve." He blinks, then, and turns, his eyes going from dead and faraway to something more human, more recognizable. "It's really you."
Steve smiles. "Yeah," he says, reaching out and curling his fingers around Bucky's wrist for a brief moment. "It is."
Over the next few days, interspersed with his sessions with Professor Xavier, Bucky gives Natasha names and dates and details, fifty years' worth of missions. He talks until he's hoarse. She nods, as if none of this is news to her, and maybe it isn't. She was his partner on some of them, and she, more than anyone, knows what Bucky--what the Winter Soldier--was capable of. Steve fills up glass after glass of water for him, pleased at how well Bucky's doing and trying not to be jealous at the easy back and forth he shares with Natasha. Sometimes they communicate in half-sentences, quirked eyebrows, and nods, their own version of telepathy that leaves Steve a silent witness, an outsider.
After a particularly long session that was conducted almost entirely in that shorthand (and was gruesome in its detail when it wasn't), it must show on his face despite his efforts. Bucky gives him a searching look once he's settled back in the room they've assigned him, now that he's out of danger from the poison. (It's still a cell, as far as Steve's concerned--it locks from the outside, so the fact that there's a bathroom attached and a couple of pieces of furniture besides the bed is meaningless.)
"You and Natasha were close," Steve says, fussing over the plastic pitcher of water on the small dresser so he doesn't have to face that knowing blue gaze.
"She was the only good thing in that place," Bucky says, and Steve can't begrudge him that. "She made me remember what it was like to be human, and they punished us both for it."
Steve stops what he's doing and lays his hands flat on the dresser, forcing himself to breathe deep through the anger at what was done to Bucky, to Natasha, to all the nameless people he doesn't know about and can't help now. The fake wood laminate cracks under the pressure.
"I'm sorry," he says, finally, turning to face Bucky. "For both of you. But if you had to be there, then I'm glad you had each other."
Bucky nods once in understanding. Steve doesn't ask about it again. He knows everything he needs to.
The SHIELD doctors give Bucky a temporary prosthesis; it creeps Steve out by trying to look real and failing completely.
He lets Tony's calls go to voicemail, and when Tony shows up a couple of hours later, Steve doesn't know how to approach the subject, is afraid Bucky won't thank him for it however he does, but it turns out it doesn't matter. Tony is already ten steps ahead of him.
"I already told you I'm working on a new arm," he says, like he knows Steve's still chewing the words over and figuring out which ones are the right ones to use.
"Yes. Several times, if you listened to your voicemail. An arm for your friend. Who I'd like to actually, you know, meet. And measure."
Steve blinks. "What?"
"Not like that." Tony makes a face at him. "I have no desire to get into a dick-measuring contest with your one-armed Russian assassin boyfriend."
"He's not Russian."
"Whatever, I know." Tony taps Steve's chest with his knuckles. "Seriously, Cap, I know. He's your BFF forever." He cocks his head thoughtfully. "Which is redundant, right? Because doesn't the second F stand for forever?"
Steve rubs his forehead, wondering if he's imagining the throbbing sensation behind his right eye or if Tony's sometimes just too much even for the serum to circumvent. "I haven't had nearly enough coffee for this conversation."
Tony makes a scoffing noise. "Caffeine doesn't affect you. And anyway, there probably isn't enough caffeine in the world--trust me, Pepper would know--but that's okay. I'll slow it down for the non-geniuses in the audience." He points at Steve. "That'd be you. I've already started working on a new arm, but I need to take some measurements so it will fit properly. I was able to get a rough idea from the old arm, but that thing was ancient, and who knows how well it actually fit."
Steve pinches the bridge of his nose, this time to stop his eyes from welling up. "Thanks," he says. "I just--Thanks." He claps Tony on the shoulder.
"Hey, yeah, no. Whatever you need, okay? Anything for a friend."
Steve nods, astounded as always by Tony's easy generosity. "Thanks." He leads Tony to the room Bucky's stashed in, the sound of Darcy's laughter floating down the hall as they get close.
She slips out of the room when they arrive, her cheeks pink and her mouth curved in a wide smile.
"I see you haven't lost any of your charm," Steve says, giving Bucky a narrow-eyed glare.
"You got yourself a swell dame there, Steve."
"She's not--" Steve starts, and then just waves a hand dismissively. "She's a good friend."
"No wonder they don't let you talk to the press anymore," Tony says, pushing past him. "I know you're not sleeping with her and even I didn't believe that denial. Of course, you didn't deny Sergeant Barnes here was your boyfriend, either." He turns towards Bucky with a grin. "It's always the quiet ones, am I right? I'm Tony Stark. Cap never shuts up about you. Don't worry. Only the good stuff. Or the not-classified stuff, anyway."
Bucky nods. "Stark. Good to meet you." He sits on the edge of the bed and pulls off his shirt. It requires a bit of undulating Steve finds fascinating. He's never seen Bucky move like that. "Let's get this over with."
"Usually when people strip for me, they're a lot more enthusiastic," Tony says.
"Am I getting paid?" Bucky asks. "Because for money, I can fake it."
Tony laughs. Steve rolls his eyes, because it's expected, but he's mostly taken up with staring at Bucky's chest--he's not as bulky as Steve (Thor's the only one who is), but he's well-built beneath a light dusting of curly dark hair, and Steve takes the lack of shirt as permission to look. He does a quick inventory of old, silvered scars that he's never seen before, and tries to avoid staring at the metal protruding from what's left of Bucky's shoulder.
He has to curl his hand into a fist to keep from reaching out and touching it, and he forces a smile that feels more like a grimace when Bucky catches his gaze.
As Tony looks over Bucky's shoulder, he talks non-stop about all the new features he's going to build into the permanent replacement arm, until finally, Bucky says, "I just need it to work. I don't need it to have a built-in rocket launcher."
"Wouldn't be big enough for that," Tony answers, "but I could probably give you a laser that pops out of the forearm. Or a repulsor in the palm. Maybe some firepower from the shoulder. That'd be pretty cool, right? And way better than that old piece of shit that was poisoning you." He grimaces in sympathy. Steve wonders if he knows his hand has settled on his chest over the arc reactor.
Steve lets Tony go on like that for a little longer but he can tell Bucky's losing patience, so he says, "Just an arm, Tony. No need for all the bells and whistles."
Tony pouts. "You guys are no fun."
"That's not what your girlfriend--" Steve clamps a hand over Bucky's mouth before he can finish that sentence, but Tony brightens.
"You're a funny guy, Barnes. I like that." He shoots finger guns at Bucky and then he leaves, clearly already lost in the changes he needs to make to the arm he's building. It's times like these that he most reminds Steve of Howard, but he's learned not to mention that.
"He really is just like his dad," Bucky says, as if he knows what Steve's thinking, but Steve shakes his head.
"No, I don't think so." But it's not a conversation either of them really wants to have, so Steve hands Bucky his pills and leaves him alone.
Three days later, Tony arrives with a prototype.
"That was fast," Steve says.
Tony scoffs. "Would have been here sooner, but you know how long it took to convince Fury I needed the adamantium before he'd let me have it?"
"Adamantium?" Bucky says. "Really?"
"Well, it's a titanium-adamantium alloy. Probably punch through a brick wall with this baby, no lasers required."
He unwraps the package and the arm gleams gold and red in the light. It looks like it should be part of the Iron Man suit.
"Seriously?" Bucky says.
"You don't like it? All the new Avengers have to wear Iron Man colors. Didn't they tell you?" He starts getting his tools out. Steve feels vaguely nauseated at the sight of them, at the idea that Tony's going to work on Bucky like he's one of the robots. Of course, Tony likes his robots better than he likes most people, so maybe it's a good thing. "Not that we've had any new recruits yet. But when they see how cool it looks on you, I'm sure people will start lining up to be a member."
"No? You don't think people are gonna line up to join our superhero supergroup? Not that we let just anyone join. Though I did like that spider kid. If he ever hits puberty I think he'd be a real asset."
"Am I not speaking English here?" Bucky glances at Steve and Steve can see the flash of worry in his eyes that maybe he really isn't before the cocky grin is back.
"Fine." Tony huffs a theatrical sigh. "I suppose you want it to look like a real arm? I can do that."
"No, not that either."
Steve puts a hand on Bucky's (good) shoulder. "Bucky--"
Bucky looks past Steve to Tony. "You've seen the old arm, right?"
Tony nods, silent for once.
"Then you know what I want, and what I want fixed," Bucky says, holding Tony's gaze.
Tony glances at Steve and then back at Bucky. "Like that, is it?"
Bucky just keeps glaring steadily at Tony.
"Of course it is." Tony laughs. "This shit is better than Days of Our Lives." He takes off his jacket and starts rolling up his sleeves. Steve still has no idea what just happened, and neither of them seems likely to enlighten him. "Let's get started. I'll redo the paint job after we know it works."
Bucky looks exhausted after Tony leaves, so Steve doesn't push him on it, and then the team is sent out on a mission, and after that, Steve is stuck with monitor duty on the newly air-and-sea-worthy Helicarrier for thirty-six hours because the others all found somewhere else to be. By the time he gets back to dry land, Bucky's new arm is installed and Tony's preening over the excellent craftsmanship. Pepper's smiling at them both, pleased with the opportunity for Stark Industries to provide superior prosthetic limbs to people all over the world. There's no time to ask Tony anything because Pepper's escorting him out while barking into a cell phone about donating arms to Doctors Without Borders.
"You're gonna love the arm, Cap," Tony calls out over his shoulder and lowers his sunglasses so he can wink.
Steve can only stare after them and shake his head.
"They're really engaged?" Bucky asks once they're gone.
"Yes," Steve says as emphatically as possible.
Bucky lets loose a dramatic sigh and slumps back against his pillows.
"It's okay," Steve says with a sly grin. "Everybody has a crush on Pepper."
Bucky snorts. "I see. I don't suppose Maria Hill is available."
"I don't know. I thought you didn't like her." He frowns. "I thought she didn't like you."
Bucky shrugs. He does it a lot more now than he used to, at least according to Steve's recollection. "She did threaten to shoot me. That's a good sign, isn't it?"
Steve laughs through the ache of recollection. "I always thought so."
Bucky hums thoughtfully, and then grimaces.
"The arm okay?"
"Bucky." It comes out more of a reproof than he means.
"It's fine, Steve. Seriously. The guy's kind of obnoxious, but he knows what he's doing. It's definitely an improvement. Just takes some getting used to."
"Well, he is a genius."
"He mentioned that. Several times," Bucky says dryly.
"He's been a good friend to me," Steve says, staunchly defensive. "Tony can be a bit much sometimes, but he's a good guy."
"Yeah, I'll bet."
Steve doesn't know what to make of that. If he didn't know better, he'd think Bucky was jealous, but that's ridiculous. It's true, Steve didn't have a lot of friends before the serum, but Bucky had accepted the Commandos with open arms and genial wisecracks. It'd taken him a little longer to warm up to Peggy, but that was only because he'd been afraid she'd break Steve's heart. Steve had long ago given up on the idea that Bucky was interested in him--it wasn't acceptable in the forties and even if it had been, he knows Bucky still looks at him and sees the skinny, asthmatic kid he was, not the man he's become. Not that he wants Bucky to want him just because he's Captain America now, but--
"You okay there, Steve? You look like you got lost in your own head again." Bucky's voice is sympathetic and it shakes Steve out of the complicated tangle of thoughts he's caught up in.
"Yeah, I'm good. I'm fine. You ready to go?"
"Hell, yeah. I've been ready since I got here. Be nice to see Brooklyn again."
"Well, you still have to convince Fury and Coulson of that."
"Pfft. Piece of cake," Bucky says, smoothing his hair back.
Steve wishes he were that sure.
Steve argues that Bucky should be allowed to wear a uniform--his US Army uniform, complete with the medals he was awarded posthumously--for this meeting, but Fury vetoes that.
"It's not a formal hearing," Coulson reminds him as they settle around the conference table. "Professor Xavier says Sergeant Barnes has made excellent progress, and his cooperation during Agent Romanoff's interrogation is also a point in his favor."
"And I'll speak on his behalf," Steve says.
"It's not a formal hearing," Coulson repeats, conciliating. "It's unlikely that Sergeant Barnes will be brought up on charges, and Director Fury is no longer concerned that he's planning to blow us all to kingdom come--"
"Then there should be no problem releasing him into my custody," Steve says. He's in his service uniform, medals gleaming on his chest, willing to use every advantage he's got short of calling in Natasha's lawyer friend (Steve didn't need her to point out that it would only piss Fury off) to get Bucky away from SHIELD.
"But he still has a long way to go."
"He'll recover better at home, without everyone looking at him like they expect him to go berserk at any moment." Steve's seen what that did to Bruce, how he's still wary and skittish, though he's proved himself repeatedly since the Chitauri attack.
"If it were up to me, he'd be home with you already, but it's not." Coulson's sympathetic but unyielding; Steve has to respect that.
Natasha walks in at the head of the detail of SHIELD agents escorting Bucky. Steve would question why Fury trusts her so much, but since it works to Bucky's advantage, he doesn't.
He waits until Bucky is seated before settling in next to him. He knocks his foot against Bucky's and Bucky knocks back, and it's like they're ten years old again, sitting in church and trying to amuse each other under Sister Bernadette's watchful eye.
Fury sweeps in a few minutes later. He tosses a file folder down onto the table and says, "I don't know why you're so eager to leave us, Sergeant Barnes. Do you have complaints about how you've been treated while in SHIELD custody?"
Bucky leans back and looks as nonchalant as he can while still dressed in hospital scrubs. "I've been mind-fucked by the best, sir. Compared with that, this has been a day at the beach." Steve kicks him. "No, sir, I have no complaints."
"Professor Xavier seems to think you'll be better off in more familiar surroundings," Fury says. "If we let you go home with Captain Rogers, you will, of course, have daily screenings with a SHIELD telepath, and meet with a SHIELD-appointed therapist three times a week."
"For how long?" Steve interrupts.
Fury eyes him levelly. "For as long as necessary, Captain."
"And what about after that?"
"That's a matter for future consideration."
"What exactly does that mean?"
"It means we'll cross that bridge if it doesn't blow up in our faces first." Fury clasps his hands together and leans forward. "I'm giving you a chance, Barnes. Don't fuck it up or it's all our asses on the line." He waves a dismissive hand at them. "Now get the fuck out of my conference room. Darcy will be in touch with your schedule and other paperwork." He gets up and sweeps out of the room the way he swept in, leaving the rest of them sitting there, speechless.
"Well, that was..." Steve says, bemused.
"It was what it was," Natasha says as they get to their feet. "Don't spend too much time thinking about it." She squeezes Bucky's shoulder. "I'm glad for you, James. Make it count."
"Thank you, Natalia." His words are formal, but he hugs her and she lets him, and then she's gone, as well.
"Stop by my office," Coulson says. "Darcy has everything ready."
"Do I get clothes or are you gonna send me out into the world the way I came into it in the first place?"
"I'll see what we can arrange." And then he disappears, too.
"Come on," Steve says, pulling Bucky in for a too-quick hug of his own, "let's get you home."
Steve knows it's safer to take Bucky to the Tower, where there are both security measures and superheroes in case something goes wrong, but both Professor Xavier and the psychiatrist agreed that familiarity was more important than security at this point. Bucky had remembered New York before, and he'd specifically remembered their old apartment this time, and taking him there should be easier on him than forcing him to deal with the various personalities that make up the team all at once. And if Steve wants something that belongs just to him for a little while, well, he just doesn't mention that part.
Bucky slots back into Steve's life like he's always been there, like Steve was holding open the space where he belonged, and maybe on some level, he was; he'd never accepted Bucky's death before he'd put Schmidt's plane in the water, and he still hadn't, after waking up. He'd been stuck somewhere between anger and despair for a long time, and even helping save the world hadn't completely fixed that, until Fury had told them about the Winter Soldier, and Steve'd had a whole new set of failures to grieve, where Bucky was concerned.
Their first night together back in Brooklyn, they go grocery shopping (Steve hasn't spent much time in the apartment recently, and it shows in the emptiness of his cupboards) and they get Chinese takeout on the way home. They have a desultory conversation about baseball, neither of them managing to work up the appropriate amount of anger at the Dodgers' defection to Los Angeles, and except for the fact that they're eating dumplings instead of potatoes and eggs, it could almost be any night they've spent together over the years.
Steve makes up the second bedroom with his spare set of sheets and an afghan he got as a gift from one of the ladies at the Senior Center where he volunteers.
"The pillows are kind of flat," he says apologetically. "We can buy new ones in the morning."
Bucky laughs. "It's the Ritz compared to where I've been, pal."
"Yeah," Steve says, and his own laugh is a little shaky. "I guess it is."
He stays up late, reading through the reports Natasha had filed until he can't take it anymore, and then the book on PTSD the SHIELD therapist had given him when he'd begun his own therapy. He's only been asleep for an hour or so when the shouting starts. Steve flings himself out of bed and grabs the shield on the way into Bucky's room, which is where all the noise is coming from.
Bucky's standing in the middle of the room, bedside lamp raised like a weapon, his eyes cold and dead. He brings the lamp crashing down at Steve, and the base bounces off the shield. The impact jars Bucky awake and he shudders.
"Steve? What the hell? Did I hurt you?"
"No, though the lamp might be a lost cause." He takes it out of Bucky's now-loose grip and plugs it back into the wall. Amazingly, it lights up without a flicker. "Huh. Okay." The bed, which had been in the middle of the room, has been shoved up against the wall, as far away from the windows as possible. "Are you all right?"
"Yeah. You know. I just woke up and didn't know where I was for a second."
"Uh huh." Steve wonders if any of the pills they sent him home with are sedatives, and if Bucky's just not taking them like he's supposed to. He'll have to keep a closer eye on that process.
"So you still sleep with that thing?" Bucky nods his chin at the shield.
"It's better than a teddy bear," Steve answers with a grin, and feels a little burst of pride when Bucky grins back, the same thing he always used to feel, before the war, when he made Bucky laugh.
The next night, Steve wakes to a shadow standing at the end of his bed. He has a moment of disorientation--is it real? Is he still dreaming?--but he blinks the sleep out of his eyes and the shadow reconfigures itself into Bucky. Steve would be lying if he said he didn't have a moment where his heart was in his throat, wondering if they'd all missed something, if Bucky was going to finally finish the job he'd been sent to do, but the moment passes quickly.
"Hey," he says, his voice thick with sleep.
"So, I, uh, might have knocked a glass of water over," Bucky says. He doesn't actually shift from foot to foot, but the sheepishness in his voice is ridiculously familiar to Steve from incidents such as the baseball through Mrs. Moynihan's parlor window and the appearance in Steve's pockets of the penny candy he used to steal from Woolworth's because they were Steve's favorite. (Steve used to trudge back down there with the pennies he'd scrounged up before he started working as a newspaper boy, and old Mr. Kenneally had always let it pass.)
"Okay," Steve says encouragingly.
"Into the bed. It's all wet and--"
Steve stifles a laugh, shifts over, and lifts the covers. "Idiot. Come on."
Bucky climbs in and Steve closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. They used to do this as kids, and even later, when they were older and couldn't heat the apartment or when Steve was sick enough that Bucky thought he wouldn't make it through the night. And they had always shared a tent during the war. Nobody thought anything of it then, or if they had, they never said anything to Steve. Steve doesn't say anything now, and after that night, Bucky doesn't go back to the guestroom.
It's nice that some things haven't changed, because Bucky's different now, quieter, though his sleep is restless and full of exclamations in Russian that Steve doesn't understand. Having Bucky curled up behind him is its own kind of delicious torture. He doesn't even mind that Bucky's pushed his bed up against the wall, too.
Bucky scopes out all the exits wherever they go. That seems par for the course to Steve, who knows a thing or two about protecting yourself from the damage the world can inflict. He can be patient, can spend the rest of his life waiting for Bucky to uncurl and let him in again. He's happy just to have the chance.
So, he's got Bucky back, and if he's not exactly the same guy Steve knew, he's still Bucky in the ways that matter most, and that's all Steve really cares about. He knows the others all think he's some kind of naïve saint or something, even now, but Steve's always been selfish when it comes to Bucky, and that hasn't changed either.
Bucky has daily meetings with a SHIELD telepath and goes to therapy three times a week. They don't let Steve stay with him for those appointments. Steve remembers what his own sessions with the SHIELD psychiatrist were like and wonders if Bucky's playing it straight or blowing smoke up her skirt. He doesn't really want to know the answer, especially if it means they'll try to take Bucky away from him. He's usually so clear-eyed about everything, but as always, Bucky's his blind spot.
Their first day, Steve hovers outside the therapist's office like a nervous parent on the first day of school, until Darcy comes by to escort him to a meeting with Coulson and Hill.
"Your team needs to set up a schedule so that one of you is on call on the Helicarrier at all times," Hill says. "Since it's back up in the air."
"Director Fury would like a more regular presence now that the team is official," Coulson says.
Steve leans back and lets them play good cop, bad cop on him for a little while. Bucky's going to be tied up for at least an hour, so it's not like he's leaving before then. After their back-and-forth has wound down, Steve says, "I can't speak for the team, but we'll put together some kind of rotation and get back to you."
"Good," Coulson says, "that's good."
Hill frowns but doesn't contradict him.
"If that's all," Steve says, "I'm going to head down to the gym."
"Of course," Coulson says.
Natasha's there, sparring with a couple of junior agents who look a little wild-eyed at having to go up against her.
"Can I tag in?" he asks when he's done taping his hands. The junior agents flee gratefully, and Natasha gives him a sharp-edged smile.
"How are you doing, Cap?"
"Okay," he says, blocking her punch and ducking under her kick. "Bucky is--" She knees him in the stomach and he grunts. She follows the knee with an uppercut that snaps his head back.
"I was asking about you."
"I'm good. Well. You know what I mean." He sweeps a leg out, but she jumps over it, and uses her momentum to tackle him. They grapple and he breathes in the scent of her sweat and shampoo. At least he doesn't feel awkward and embarrassed anymore as she shifts beneath him; he's more concerned about not getting his ass kicked than he is about any reactions his body has to hers. "I do have a favor to ask."
She rolls them over and he lets her pin him. Her lips purse in disappointment but she doesn't give up the victory. "Oh?"
"Can you teach me Russian?"
The emotions flit across her face too quickly for him to identify--her jaw tightens and her eyes narrow and he's not sure if that's anger or pain or some combination of the two. She pinches the bridge of her nose and lets out a soft sigh. "You think it'll help?"
He nods. "Yes."
"Okay. Lesson number one: Ty mne dolzhen," she says. "That means you owe me one."
"Whatever you need." He's glad he doesn't have to resort to giving her a pleading look. It's one of his best weapons and he doesn't like to trot it out needlessly in case it loses power. And there's no guarantee it'd work on her anyway.
"That's a dangerous offer." She bounces to her feet and offers him a hand up.
He grins. "I'm sure you won't take advantage. Much."
She laughs. "You've got yourself a deal."
They shake on it to make it official, and agree to meet the next day in the cafeteria while Bucky's with his telepath. Steve feels like he's accomplished something and it's not even eleven o'clock yet.
A couple mornings later, he and Bucky are in the bodega picking up bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches when a car backfires and they both dive for cover behind the shelves of Entenmann's cakes. Steve's pretty sure he's the only one who sees the gun Bucky pulls from the waistband of his jeans, and he files that away for a conversation when both of them are more able to handle it.
"Did you give him a gun?" he asks Natasha, in lieu of a greeting when they arrive at SHIELD.
"Would I do that?" she responds, cool as a cucumber.
"Yes," he answers without hesitation.
She huffs a small laugh. "You're right. I would. But I didn't."
Steve wishes he believed her. He decides not to push it, in the unlikely event she's telling the truth.
They fall into a routine after a few days. Since neither of them is sleeping much, they go for early morning runs, and then, after breakfast (Bucky eats with the same wolfish ferocity Steve does, as if he's afraid someone might take it all way if he doesn't get it in his mouth right now), they head into the city to SHIELD HQ, so Bucky can meet with his telepath and his shrink, and Steve gets briefed about the state of the world and has Russian lessons with Natasha when she's available. Then they head to the gym and they spar. Steve is still stronger, but Bucky's quick and smart and flexible, and he's been trained to go for the kill. Sometimes, Natasha joins them, and watching her and Bucky in action makes Steve's breath catch in his throat. He's not the only one who stops to watch when they go at it; usually they all three attract an audience that only dissipates when the fight is over and they suddenly realize they've all got somewhere else to be.
Today, most of the audience watching them has wandered away when Bucky, familiar with all of Steve's moves since they were twelve, ducks in under his left hook and sends him flying to the mat with a full-on tackle. They roll around for a little bit, grunting and shoving, and then Bucky honest to God tickles him, fingers skittering up along Steve's ribs in a way that's guaranteed to make him curl up with laughter.
"Cut it out," Steve gasps, but Bucky doesn't stop, so Steve flails out with a hand and yanks hard on Bucky's too-long hair. He still remembers how to fight dirty, even if he's big enough now that he doesn't always have to anymore.
"Ow, what the fuck?"
"I've seen thirteen-year-old girls handle that maneuver better," Natasha says, arms crossed over her chest and her mouth quirked up in a reluctant half-smile.
"I think we were thirteen-year-olds the last time you tried that," Steve says, shoving Bucky off him and jumping to his feet before they can descend into slap-fighting.
"Well, you both need to take this a little more seriously," she says, glancing up at the cameras overlooking the floor.
"They're watching us?" Steve says.
"If you don't think James's every move is being recorded and dissected, you're not as bright as I thought you were," she answers.
Steve nods, though it's easy to forget how many cameras are around, just in the normal course of a day in the twenty-first century, and how that's probably tripled within SHIELD's walls. (He'd asked Jarvis to keep the filming to a minimum after his first two hours at his suite in the Tower.) Going by the storm clouds gathering on Bucky's face, it looks like he forgets sometimes, too. To head that off, Steve says, "I can't believe you tickled me. Jerk." He bumps his shoulder against Bucky's as they head towards the locker room.
"You're the one who went with hair-pulling." Bucky hip-checks him, hard enough to make him stumble. Bucky's rough-housing is a lot rougher than it used to be; Steve's not sure if it's because he knows Steve can take it now, or because he doesn't remember how to be playful anymore.
"Well, it is kind of long," he says, tugging on the curling ends. "Soon you're going to have flowing locks like Thor's."
"So you're saying I have hair like a god's." Bucky smirks.
"It works for him. You, not so much."
"You wish you looked as good as me," Bucky says, and then he ducks into a stall to change before Steve can think of a comeback.
It makes Steve a little crazy, because no matter what they're doing, Bucky keeps his mechanical arm covered, as if he's ashamed of it, and Steve doesn't understand, because Tony could have made it look real--he's seen the prototypes Tony's working on now, with synthetic skin over synthetic flesh and bone, nothing like the gray metal Bucky'd insisted on but won't ever display. He even changes in the bathroom at home, which would be funny if it didn't make Steve worry so much, because Bucky had never been modest. They've known each other since they were skinny boys with scraped knees, and living with a dozen other boys in the orphanage had never given them much sense of privacy, and what little they might have had left after that had been stripped away by life in the army. So Steve's concerned, and he's not sure how to say anything that won't come off as a creepy attempt at a come-on. Especially since they're sleeping in the same bed and it would be so easy to--Steve doesn't know what. Press Bucky back against the pillows and kiss him until his mouth is red and swollen and the shadows have fled from his eyes. Until he knows how Steve feels about him.
Because back before everything, it'd been Bucky's body Steve had coveted, strong and lithe and lean. He'd wanted to look like Bucky, yes, but he'd also wanted to press up against him, feel those muscles move under that skin, map every inch of it with his fingers and his mouth. He'd always shoved those feelings away, not wanting to make Bucky uncomfortable, but they keep surfacing again now, making Steve unexpectedly awkward around his closest friend, and giving him hope for things he can't have.
What he has gotten is a whole new set of fantasies not just from sleeping with Bucky pressed up against him, but from sparring with him, relearning the feel of that body shift and give under his. Steve's usually breathing hard at the end of their sessions, and not just because of the workout. He's used to the frustration, though, has been dealing with it since he was a teenager. It used to be just more fuel on the fire in his belly; now, he can laugh at himself, and know that there are people who want him like that, even if Bucky doesn't.
But Bucky hides beneath oversized t-shirts and baggy sweats, even to sleep in, and Steve wonders if it's some kind of penance, if Bucky thinks he doesn't deserve--Steve isn't sure what. Forgiveness, maybe, or basic human kindness--after what he was made to do.
"It wasn't just that they made me do it," he says one night, when Steve broaches the subject after Bucky's had enough bourbon to make him talkative. Steve would feel guilty about that, but he also misses his Bucky, who'd opened his eyes and his mouth at the same time in the morning and even mumbled in his sleep at night, and he's willing to fight dirty to get him back. "It was how good I was at it."
"You'd already been trained," Steve says. "If you hadn't been, there's no way we would have survived taking out those HYDRA bases."
Bucky snorts. "We didn't survive that."
"Oh, yeah, right." Steve wishes he had his own drink to sip right about now.
Bucky shrugs and splashes another two fingers of bourbon into his glass and then drinks it down in one long gulp. Steve watches the way his throat works when he swallows, and then distracts himself with wondering why Bucky's even bothering with the glass.
Bucky must be thinking the same thing, because he sets the glass down and takes a swig straight from the bottle. His mouth glistens wetly and he licks his lips. That's even more distracting than the motion of his Adam's apple, and Steve has to look away so he can gather his thoughts to make his point.
"Listen," he says, after he's collected himself enough to look directly at Bucky, to try to make him hold his gaze. "Listen to me," he says in his best Captain America voice. "You were a soldier and it was war." He grabs the bottle and takes a sip himself, the acrid taste and the heat of it burning down into his belly familiar, even if he's lost the ability to feel the world turning under his feet after a few sips. "We all did unspeakable things."
"You didn't." Steve opens his mouth to argue but Bucky keeps talking. "And I'm not talking about the war. I'm talking about all the things I did after."
"Wasn't you." Steve's certain of that, and he's never needed Professor Xavier's telepathic confirmation to believe it.
Bucky reaches for the bottle and Steve shakes his head. Bucky's smile twists into something grim and sad. "I remember it like it was."
Steve lets him have the bottle.
Later, he carries Bucky to bed; Bucky curls up on his side and sighs into his pillow, and Steve resists the urge to brush his hair off his forehead and give him a kiss goodnight. Instead, he leaves a bottle of aspirin and a bottle of water on the night table, where Bucky will easily find it in the morning. He doesn't sleep much that night himself, spends most of it sketching Bucky the way he remembers him from before the war.
In the morning, Steve eases out of bed, and waits a few seconds for Bucky to mumble and subside back into sleep before he slips out of the apartment to go for a run, as if he can escape the memory of the devastation on Bucky's face, the wreckage of his voice as he'd talked last night. People keep telling Steve they're doing everything they can for Bucky, but it's not enough. It'll never be enough, because Steve couldn't save him from falling, and he couldn't save him from the Red Room, and he doesn't know if he'll be able to save him now. It's a long time before he goes back to the apartment.
Bucky is awake when he gets there, sitting at the kitchen table with wet hair curling over his collar (he really does need a haircut, Steve thinks absently, and he forces himself not to take out the scissors right now and give him one) and a mug of coffee in his hand, the paper spread out on the table. Steve pours himself a cup, takes a sip, and nearly spits it back into the cup.
"They gave you all those super-assassin skills, they couldn't teach you to make a decent cup of coffee?" He freezes as soon as the words leave his mouth--they've always joked about everything, but not about this. Not yet.
Bucky laughs, though, and Steve relaxes. "Looks like mine, they knew I'd be wasted in the kitchen," Bucky drawls.
"Yeah, looks like yours'd curdle milk."
Bucky gives him the one-finger salute, and it's Steve's turn to laugh. "I'm going for a shower. Try not to get into trouble while I'm gone."
Bucky snorts and goes back to reading the paper.
Steve's rinsing the shampoo out of his hair when he sees it--a series of green dashes drawn on the far wall of the shower, where the water doesn't normally reach. He steps closer, trying to figure it out. It's not Morse code. There are seven dashes, a space, four more dashes, and then one longer line, all drawn with the crayons Darcy had bought him after he'd told her he thought best with a pencil in his hand.
"The shower's the best place for thinking," she'd said a few days later, handing him the box, "and you can work out your masterpiece on the wall and then wash it off when you're done."
"I like the future," he'd answered, and though he hasn't used them that often, he's occasionally indulged himself in drawing fanciful pictures on the walls of his shower, especially after he discovered the wax really did wipe off with soap and water.
He looks at the marks again, blinking water out of his eyes, and starts to laugh. He writes an E under the single long line, unsure what set of rules they're playing with, and then finishes his shower.
He doesn't mention it to Bucky, but over the course of the next few weeks, they play hangman in the shower. Steve doesn't read anything into the words Bucky chooses (Yankees suck, maple syrup, and in a stroke of genius he's still crowing about, xylophone), and keeps his own words fairly generic, as well. Still, it's another sign that Bucky's coming back to himself more fully; they'd spent hours playing hangman as kids, when Steve was sick and their deck of cards was so beat up that they always knew who had the ace of spades or the jack of hearts (and even with that advantage, Steve could still beat Bucky two out of three hands on a good day).
Steve surfaces enough to notice when Bucky gets out of bed in the middle of the night, but usually he comes right back after taking a piss or getting a drink of water, and Steve goes right back to sleep. Tonight, he rolls over and the space beside him is empty, the sheets already cooling.
He pads into the bathroom to find Bucky hunched over the sink, the fluorescent light glinting off the scissors in his shaking hand.
Steve freezes. He sucks in a breath or two, but it feels like the air isn't reaching his lungs. He forces himself to do it again, slow and steady, remembers Bucky's hands on his back a lifetime ago as he huddled in a steamy bathroom, trying to catch his breath.
"Hey," he says softly once he finds the air and his voice. "Hey, Bucky, hey."
Bucky looks up, meets his gaze in the mirror. His eyes are dark and shadowed, and when he drops his gaze, Steve looks down into the sink to see clumps of dark hair scattered over the porcelain. He gulps down another long breath, this time in relief.
"You need help with that?"
Bucky nods, his mouth drawn tight and his hand still shaking as Steve takes the scissors from him.
"Come on, sit down," Steve says, nudging Bucky onto the lowered lid of the toilet. "I need to see what I'm doing. Unless you want to end up looking like Moe."
"Nyuck nyuck nyuck," Bucky manages softly.
"Attaboy." Steve pats his shoulder and then drapes a towel around his neck. "Remember when I used to do this for you?"
Steve nods. There's always a chance that he'll get that answer when he asks a question like that. It hasn't happened often, but Steve feels it every time like a punch to the gut.
"Yeah, for a long time, we couldn't afford the barber, so we'd cut each other's hair," he says. "Yours was always curling like little lord Fauntleroy if you let it get too long, and you hated that, though you said the dames liked it well enough." Even though it's been more than seventy years since he's done it, it doesn't take long to find the rhythm. He runs a wet comb through Bucky's hair and starts cutting away, the snip-snip sound of the scissors lulling him into a reverie.
Bucky sits completely still, no fidgeting, no complaining, no threats to shave Steve's head if he screws up. It's a little unnerving, even at three o'clock in the morning, when it could easily be attributed to sleepiness. When he's done as much as he can with the scissors, he pulls out the trimmer and plugs it into the outlet under the mirror. The buzzing sound is loud in the silence and Bucky flinches.
"I can skip this part," Steve says, laying a hand on the nape of Bucky's neck. He squeezes gently, in what he hopes is a reassuring manner.
"It's okay," Bucky says. "I'm fine."
Steve hums noncommittally, not wanting to call him on the lie, and tips Bucky's head forward so he can make a nice, neat line that will keep his hair above his collar. When he's done, he dusts the hair off Bucky's skin (and if his hands tremble a little when he brushes them over the warm skin of Bucky's collarbones, Bucky doesn't call him on it), and pulls him up to stand in front of the mirror. He looks more like the Bucky Steve remembers from those months right before he died, his hair parted and slicked into submission like the overgrown choirboy he never was.
"What do you think?"
Finally there's some life in Bucky's eyes. He looks himself over carefully and says, "Well, it's better than a poke in the eye."
Steve grins and lets out a sigh of relief. "I can live with that." He throws the towel in the hamper and says, "I don't think I'm getting back to sleep tonight. You want some hot cocoa?"
Bucky looks at him for a long moment. "The kind with little marshmallows?"
"No," Steve says. "Ovaltine. The kind we drank when we were kids. If you want little marshmallows, the bodega's open all night."
That actually makes Bucky laugh. "Punk. I'm not going out now for little marshmallows. But I'm adding them to the grocery list this week."
Steve laughs, too. Maybe they're both a little punchy. "I'm not supporting your weird marshmallow habit, Barnes. That one's all on you."
They don't talk much while Steve heats the milk and stirs in the Ovaltine, but the silence is less fraught now, and when Bucky heads back to bed afterwards, Steve goes with him, even though the early predawn light has started seeping through the blinds. They can sleep in for once. They've earned it.
The first couple of times Steve is called on for a mission, he takes Bucky back to SHIELD HQ with him.
"You should let me go with you," Bucky says.
Steve gestures at the car they're riding in, that Tony sent to pick them up. "What do you think this is?"
"I mean, on the mission. Let me fight. I don't have to be an Avenger to watch your back."
Steve looks at him incredulously. "You're not in fighting shape yet."
Bucky laughs harshly. "I'm always in fighting shape, Steve."
"Tony's still testing the arm."
It's Bucky's turn to look incredulous. "That's the hill you're going to die on?"
"What do you want me to say, Buck? You haven't been sleeping, and when you do sleep you have nightmares. A week ago, you couldn't even handle a pair of scissors without your hands shaking." The idea of Bucky fighting again makes Steve's heart seize in his chest, because on the one hand, of course he wants Bucky at his side more than anything in the world, but on the other, he never wants to have to watch Bucky fall again.
Bucky sets his jaw and looks away. "You don't trust me."
"You know that's not true."
"Your team doesn't trust me."
Steve feels his heart break a little. "Give it time, okay? They don't know you like I do." He puts a hand on Bucky's arm. "You know there's no one else I'd rather have at my back. But you're not ready yet, and I don't want to have to worry about you on top of everything else."
"Then why am I even going with you?" Steve watches the penny drop. "Oh, I get it. You think I'm going to run off and cause mayhem if I'm not in SHIELD custody."
"I don't think that," Steve says. He doesn't, though he's still afraid sometimes that it could happen. He squeezes Bucky's arm. "Come on, you know you're not ready for this yet."
Bucky grunts and doesn't speak to him for the rest of the ride, but he eases up once they arrive and Coulson lets him sit in on the briefing.
He doesn't ask to go out on missions again, though he complains that he doesn't need to be babysat every time Steve drags him into the city. He contributes at strategy sessions, and it feels a little like old times, only better, because not only does he have Bucky watching his six, but he's doing it from someplace far away from the fighting (Steve's not sure anyplace is safe anymore, but he'll take safer if he can get it). And Bucky's always there when he comes back, waiting for him with tired eyes and a lopsided smile.
It happens often enough that Steve doesn't worry (much) anymore that a briefing is going to be cut short by alarms that Bucky's gone on a rampage or that he's being taken into custody for some newly-revealed thing he did as the Winter Soldier. It also gives Bucky the opportunity to spend time with the team, let them size each other up.
After a mission to Melbourne, it takes longer than expected to get back to New York, and Steve's not surprised Bucky got tired of waiting and went home. He takes a quick shower after the briefing, declines Tony's offer to come by the Tower for a late dinner, and heads to Brooklyn.
Steve is surprised that Bucky's not there. The apartment is empty and there's no note stuck to the fridge or message for him in green crayon in the shower. He doesn't panic. He's Captain America and the leader of the Avengers and he absolutely does not panic when Bucky isn't where he's supposed to be.
Okay, maybe he panics a little, because he knows that for every good reason he can think of for Bucky's absence, he can come up with a dozen bad ones. But since he's alone and Bucky disabled the SHIELD cameras in the apartment after the first week (at least the ones they found), nobody knows about it.
His phone pings then, and he almost drops it in his haste to pull it out of his pocket.
The text is from Darcy and it says, B's here at the tower with me and Pepper.
His phone pings again and this time it's Bucky. Sorry. Got distracted by two gorgeous dames.
Steve lowers himself slowly into one of the kitchen chairs and texts back, You want me to come and get you?
It feels like forever (but is only twelve minutes according to the timestamps on his phone) before Bucky answers, No, I think I can manage the subway by myself.
There's really nothing Steve can say to that except, Okay. See you soon.
He takes another, longer shower and spends some time drawing cartoon figures on the walls. He missed his weekly visit to the pediatrics ward at Bellevue because of this mission, which will set back the wall-sized mural he's been painting with the kids, and, more importantly, make him seem unreliable to kids who need stability, because he wasn't where he said he'd be. He remembers being one of those kids, his mother reading softly to him from a book he stupidly thought he was too old for at the time, and then brushing his hair back off his forehead so she could kiss him good night. He wipes away the images of Pooh and Tigger, Kanga and Roo, with an annoyed swipe of his hand and sets up another game of hangman. It's too easy, and they're not supposed to use proper names, but right now, he feels like Eeyore and he wants Bucky to know.
He heats up some soup and makes himself a couple of sandwiches with the cold cuts that are left in the fridge. He's made a shopping list (he purposely leaves off Bucky's marshmallows, knowing Bucky will add them himself; it's just another game they're playing, though Steve wonders now if Bucky finds it as amusing as he does).
Bucky looks as tired as Steve feels when he finally stumbles home, dark circles under his eyes, two days' stubble shading his jaw, and his lips pressed tight and thin. He certainly doesn't look like he was out having a good time with two gorgeous dames. Steve remembers what that looks like, and it isn't this.
"You okay?" Bucky asks, tossing his keys into the bowl on the counter and slouching against it, arms crossed over his chest.
"Yeah," Steve says. "There's some soup, and I made you a turkey sandwich, if you're hungry."
"We ordered in," he says. He pulls a beer out of the fridge and pops the top off. Steve wonders if he should worry about that, on top of everything else. Bucky must see it on his face because he says, "What?"
Steve bites back the comment he was going to make and gives voice to his relief instead. "I'm glad you're home."
Bucky nods, a short sharp jerk of his head, and takes a long sip of his beer. "Right back atcha, pal." He offers the bottle to Steve, who takes it and drinks down half of it in one gulp while Bucky gives him the stink-eye.
"You shouldn't have offered if you didn't want to share."
Bucky snorts and scrubs a hand through his hair. "Keep it. I'm going to bed."
Steve blinks. "What?"
"You sleep on the plane?"
Steve shrugs. "Same as ever." He'd never slept well in the air, and since he's been back, he can't sleep on the Quinjet at all.
"Then we've both been up way too long."
The silence as they get ready for bed is oppressive, and it makes Steve feel like he's going to jump out of his skin. "You could have left me a note, is all," he says when Bucky's tossing around under the covers trying to get comfortable, and Steve's still standing next to the bed, t-shirt in hand, and it's clear that Bucky's not going to say anything.
Bucky rolls over to face him. "I figured Coulson would tell you. Since I was in custody at all times, I didn't think it was a big deal."
"Only technically, because let's face it, you and I both know that it would probably take your whole team to put me down if I went off the rails, and Darcy and Pepper are swell gals, but they're not exactly field-rated."
Steve pinches the bridge of his nose. He hasn't slept in three days and he spent most of that time fighting giant robots dressed like clowns. Fatigue is starting to be a factor. He might have nightmares about the one with the curly red wig and the economy-size bottle of seltzer, if he doesn't have them about Bucky killing Darcy and Pepper instead.
"Maybe that's true," he says slowly, "though I think Natasha could probably do it on her own, and I know you're susceptible to hair-pulling, but that's not what I was worried about." Which is ninety-nine and forty-four-one-hundredths percent true. "And not what SHIELD is worried about." Which is the opposite, and Bucky knows it.
"Then what's with all the tests, all the cameras? They're perfectly happy to pick my brain for intel but they won't tell me jack shit about when they're going to give me something to do other than wrestle with your friends and a bunch of junior agents who'd piss themselves if they knew who I really was."
Steve focuses on the only part of that he knows how to answer. "You're really Bucky Barnes, American hero. The other--that's what was done to you, not who you are."
"Give me a fucking break, Steve. You're the hero in this room, not me."
"You were right there with me--"
"But I wasn't, was I? I was already strapped to some table in Moscow while you were saving the world and getting yourself turned into a popsicle." Bucky's up and pacing now, his left hand curled into a fist. "You came back and they rolled out the red carpet, treated you like a fucking hero. Which is fine, because you are. I'm not--I don't disagree with that. But me, I can't take a shit without someone watching on a secret camera."
"And I get it, I do. I wouldn't--I don't trust me either. But sometimes I just--I need to get out, okay? I need to go somewhere where people aren't watching me every minute, waiting for me to go crazy and start shooting." He rubs his chin, and Steve feels a phantom prickle against his palm, curls his hand into a fist to stop it, to keep from reaching out and pulling Bucky into his arms. "Sometimes, I'd just like to have dinner with pretty ladies without having to call home to mother first."
"I--I hadn't realized it was that bad. I'm sorry."
Bucky shoves both hands into his hair. "It's not you, Steve. Well, maybe a little. You've got this whole mother hen thing going on that I don't remember being this bad before." Steve opens his mouth but Bucky shakes his head and keeps talking. "But stop apologizing. It's not your fault. I just--It's just making me a little crazy, is all. Crazier."
Steve moves, then, puts his hands on Bucky's shoulders and hauls him into a hug. Bucky lets him but doesn't relax.
"I'll fix this," Steve says, his mouth against Bucky's temple.
"You can't." It's as if all the anger drains out of him--Bucky sounds broken, defeated, in a way Steve hasn't heard since the day he told Steve he was being poisoned. He melts against Steve and lets himself be held.
"We can try." It's all he can do, all he's ever done, and he knows it won't be enough this time, but he can make Bucky better, even if he can't ever make him whole.
The elevator doors are closing when a familiar voice calls out, "Hold it, please." Steve lunges for the "door open" button and Pepper joins him in the car. She pushes the button for the lobby and smiles. "Thanks."
"You're one of the only people I know who actually pushes open instead of close when that happens."
He shrugs. "Maybe I only did that because I knew it was you."
She studies him for a moment and then shakes her head. "No, you'd do it for anyone."
He ducks his head and smiles. "Almost anyone."
The doors slide open on the lobby and she says, "Do you want to get coffee?"
He hesitates for a split-second, because he'd been planning on heading down to the gym, but coffee with Pepper is a much more appealing prospect. "I'd love to." He offers his arm and she takes it with a smile.
Times Square is always full of tourists, which makes it more difficult to hide, but they make it around the corner without being recognized and slip into a dark corner of Starbucks with two large coffees; they switch cups, because Pepper likes it black and Steve's is covered in caramel and whipped cream.
"You and Bucky will have to come by the Tower for dinner soon," she says.
"I would've come last night if I'd known he was there." He takes a sip of his coffee, then, "That sounded a lot more passive-aggressive than I meant it to." He wraps his hands around the cup, letting the warmth of it seep into his fingers.
Pepper reaches out and curls her fingers around his wrist for a moment. Her touch is cool and dry, but comforting all the same. "It's okay, Steve. I know what you meant." She leans back in her seat. "Darcy said he didn't sleep the whole time you were gone. We were hoping that he would if we could get some food into him, once we knew you were on the way home."
"I didn't know that." He pops the lid off his coffee cup so he has something to do with his hands. "He sleeps with his back to the wall, when he sleeps at all."
Pepper nods. "After he got back from Afghanistan, Tony was like that. He'd work until he couldn't stay awake anymore. I used to find him hunched over his workbench, mumbling in his sleep."
"I thought he was getting better. I thought--" Steve brushes his hair off his forehead. "I don't know what I thought. I was feeling sorry for myself because he wasn't there when I got home."
Pepper opens her mouth to say something and then closes it, as if thinking better of it. "Did you talk about it?"
Steve shrugs. "If you can call it that."
"Fighting is better than him shutting you out. It's a step in the right direction, at least."
He looks up at that, meets her gaze and tries not to let hope flare through him. "You really think so?"
"I really do." She touches his hand again, and gives him an encouraging smile. "And you don't have to do this alone. You know that, right?"
"Yeah," he says. "I do."
It's with those words in mind that he seeks out Bruce a few days later, makes a special trip up to Bruce's lab, which always makes him feel big and ungainly, a bull in a china shop of delicate instruments whose names he can't pronounce and whose functions are esoteric even to people with graduate degrees.
"Tony's not here," Bruce says. He doesn't look up from the computer he's hunched over.
"I'm actually here to see you."
"Oh. Steve. Hi." Bruce takes his glasses off and sits back on his stool. "What can I do for you?"
"You said that the secret to keeping control is that you're always angry."
"Wow, okay, we're cutting right to the chase here, huh?"
Steve huffs softly. "I'm not really good with small talk, and I need your help."
Bruce gives him a thin smile. "Okay."
"You know they're monitoring Bucky at all times. We even found a camera in the light fixture in my bathroom." Steve picks up a tiny Phillips head screwdriver and turns it over in his hands, then glances up at Bruce, who doesn't look surprised at this revelation. "It's getting to him."
"The fact that he's on the watch list, and they're always going to be waiting for the other shoe to drop?"
Bruce nods. "You don't get used to that. Resigned, maybe, because it's necessary, but it's never--it's never okay." He pushes a hand through his hair and looks at Steve. "It is necessary, isn't it?"
"That's not my call to make," Steve says. "I believe you believe it's necessary. But I trust you."
Bruce's smile is real this time, one that lights up his whole face. "There's your answer."
He squeezes Bruce's shoulder gently. "Thanks." Now he just has to make Bucky believe it.
Steve comes out of his latest session with Natasha mumbling Russian poetry under his breath and wondering if he's fluent enough to order off the menu at this restaurant in Brighton Beach he's been thinking of taking Bucky to. Bucky hadn't said anything when he found out Steve was learning Russian, just leveled a long, unfathomable look at him that Steve returned squarely, even though he could feel his ears burning.
His phone beeps and the text from Darcy says, Come down to the shooting range.
He doesn't know what to expect, but Clint and Bucky having a shooting contest isn't it.
"Of course," Natasha says with a sniff. "Boys and their toys." But there's real affection in her voice, and Steve doesn't think it's just for Clint.
When they're done, Bucky grins and claps Clint on the shoulder. "You're kind of a showoff."
Clint shrugs. "Someone's gotta be the best. It just happens to be me." He turns and smiles at Steve and Natasha, and the crowd of agents who've gathered to watch. "Hey, Cap. Your man's a good shot. Not as good as me, but I wouldn't mind having him watching my back."
"He's not my--" Steve starts, and then stops at Bucky's raised eyebrow and half-grin. "Yes," he says instead, because if Bucky's not going to complain, Steve's not going to correct Clint. "He's good at that."
Clint slings an arm over Darcy's shoulders and then says, "Well, it's been fun. Remember what we talked about, Barnes."
"How could I forget," Bucky asks, "when you punctuated it with bullets?"
Clint's laughter lingers after he and Darcy leave.
"What was that all about?" Steve says. "Are you okay?"
"Don't fuss, Steve." Bucky waves a hand dismissively. "I'm fine. He just wanted to make sure I lived up to the hype if I'm going to be out in the field with Natasha."
"Are you? Is that what's going to happen?" He turns to Natasha. "Did you know about this?"
"There's nothing to know about yet," she says. "Discussions are ongoing."
He turns back to Bucky, who gives him an almost imperceptible shake of his head. "I've worked up an appetite," he says. "Why don't you take me to lunch?"
Steve waits until the waitress puts down their food--a reuben for him, a burger for Bucky, and Steve is never going to get used to the huge portions restaurants serve nowadays--and takes a sip of his iced tea before he says, "They've cleared you for field duty?"
"Not yet, but soon, I think." Bucky eyes a virulently green lettuce leaf with skepticism before pulling it and the watery tomato it's stuck to off the bun. "The tests are becoming more targeted, the questions more specific."
"You don't have to do it, you know." Steve cuts his sandwich into precise bites, eating with a knife and fork so he doesn't get anything on his shirt. "You died fighting the good fight. They can't ask any more of you than that."
Bucky shakes his head, mouth too full of cheeseburger to answer at first. After he swallows, he says, "What else am I good for?"
"Bucky," Steve chides.
"No, seriously." He uses his fork to stab viciously at the little paper cup of coleslaw on his plate, which collapses under the onslaught. "I am what they made me and I can't be anything else now." He sounds so matter-of-fact that Steve wants to lean over the table and give him a hug. He would, too, if he thought Bucky would let him.
"You can be whatever you want," he insists, but Bucky shakes his head again.
"That's you, Steve. That's not me." Bucky looks away, jaw clenching. "But even if I could, I have so much to make up for that I couldn't walk away now."
"It wasn't your fault."
Bucky lets out a pained noise somewhere between a snort and a groan. "Even if that's true, it doesn't matter. I've got to do what I can with what I've got, and this is what I've got," he raises his left hand, "so SHIELD it is. If they'll have me."
Steve remembers Natasha talking about red in her ledger, debts that need to be paid. It shouldn't surprise him that Bucky feels the same way.
"Okay, but don't let them push you into anything you're not ready for. I'm meeting with Fury at two. I'll put a word in his ear."
Bucky huffs and shakes his head. "Please don't."
"Someone's gotta look out for you, since you're too stupid to do it yourself."
"I seem to recall that's my line."
"Times change," Steve says.
"But you haven't." Bucky's mouth curves in a familiar, rueful smile, his lips shiny with grease. "You're still--"
"Fighting for the little guy. And let's be clear," Steve says, returning the smile and pointing at Bucky with a French fry, "you're the little guy in this scenario."
That makes Bucky laugh outright and Steve grins to hear it. "Only you think so."
"It'll be great to have you on the team."
Bucky pauses, two of Steve's fries halfway to his mouth. "You think they're going to let me be an Avenger?" He starts laughing again, but this time there's a mocking edge to it. "Really? Remember your first reaction to my going out on a mission with you?"
"That was different. That was about your health, not your loyalties."
Bucky ignores him. "Can you just imagine how the press would respond to that? Not to mention Fury's higher-ups in the government?" He bares his teeth and bites down hard on the French fries. When he's done chewing he says, "I can see the headlines now: 'Infamous Russian murderer on superhero team.'"
"You're not a murderer." Steve's voice is loud enough that the couple in the next booth over looks up. He gives them a tight smile that feels more like a grimace and their eyes dart back to their table. "That wasn't you."
"How many times are we going to have this conversation?" Bucky asks, exasperated.
"As many times as we need to until you understand what it is that I'm telling you. Those things are not your fault."
"You can dress it up any way you like, Steve--operative, specialist, assassin, whatever. It all comes down to the same thing."
Steve shakes his head and plays his counterargument like the pair of aces it is. "Clint and Natasha are Avengers."
"And they did their killing on SHIELD's dime," Bucky answers, his voice low and furious. He holds up a hand. "I'm not saying that they wouldn't burn Natasha in a heartbeat if it benefited them in some way to scapegoat her, or if something from her past made her too hot to support anymore, but they've both been SHIELD agents for a long time. They've proved their loyalty."
"I want you on the team."
"I don't want to be there because I'm Captain America's special friend."
Steve overrides him. "And so do the others." Which is not exactly the truth--Steve hasn't actually brought it up with the team, but he thinks Clint and Natasha would be for it, and there's no real reason for Tony, Bruce, and Thor to be against it. So it's not really a lie either. From a certain point of view.
Bucky shakes his head and Steve decides not to argue any more. He saves that for his two o'clock meeting with Fury, who gives him a skeptical look and after several minutes of heated back-and-forth arguing, agrees to take his concerns under advisement. Steve's an optimist, but he knows when he's being humored, and after that, even he's not sure Bucky's chances are good.
When a hostage situation at a pharmaceutical factory in New Jersey turns out to involve HYDRA, the Avengers get the call. There's no time to waste--Tony picks Steve up on the roof of his apartment building and deposits him in the Quinjet before flying off ahead to do recon.
The fight is ugly and familiar in a way that reminds Steve of the war and his nightmares, where he searches endless factories for prisoners strapped to gurneys and never arrives in time to save any of them and they always have Bucky's face. Compounding the issue are way too many civilians who turn out to be working for HYDRA.
Steve and Natasha are pinned down by enemy fire and waiting for Thor and Tony to give them the all-clear when she says, "The others have already had this conversation with James, so I figured I would have it with you on his behalf." She eases out from behind their cover and ducks back as a shot rings off the cabinet shielding them. "Since I don't think anyone else will."
"Okay," Steve says, only half paying attention. He hauls her back behind the shield as another volley of bullets comes at them. A canister clunks off the shield and falls at their feet; Steve lobs it back towards the militant chemists before it starts smoking, and wishes vaguely for a gasmask.
"I know you love him very much," she says as she reloads, "and I know he loves you, so if you hurt him, I will have to hurt you. And you know I can."
Steve looks at her in surprise, his mind jerked away from the fight for a moment. "Wait, what? Why would you--When you say everyone has already had this conversation with him, what do you mean?"
"I believe Thor even made a special trip back from Asgard just for that purpose."
Steve's at a loss. "I--Well, thank you for speaking up on his behalf, then, I guess. Though I would never intentionally hurt him. And we're not--he's not--it's not like that."
Natasha hums and starts firing at the closing HYDRA agents. "I believe that you wouldn't intentionally hurt him. Unless he asked nicely, of course."
"But I don't believe you're not 'like that.'"
"I didn't say I wasn't," Steve says, scrupulously honest. "But he's not."
Natasha actually stops shooting and turns to look at him. "What do you think we're talking about here, Cap?"
Steve grimaces and has to spend a few moments tossing the shield at some advancing HYDRA chemists before he can answer. In fact, he'd rather just fight HYDRA than continue the conversation, but he can't leave Natasha hanging. "Feelings."
"Well, you're not completely hopeless," she replies dryly, and then Iron Man bursts in and there's no more time for chatting.
They split up after that. Bruce, Thor and Tony chase after the escaping leaders of the cell, while Steve, Natasha, and Clint help with evacuating the nearest town (they don't know what's in the smoke rising from the ruins of the factory and they don't want to find out) and it takes another eleven hours to wrap the whole thing up.
The debriefing after the mission is almost enough to put Steve to sleep, especially once Tony and Bruce start talking about the various chemical compounds being cooked up in the factory and their street names and street worth and what they can do to the human brain, singly and in combination. He's tired enough to lean his chin on his hand while they babble, and it's a battle to keep his eyes open. Looking at Clint and Thor, he's not the only one fighting it.
Right up until Natasha, who appears to be paying more attention to her cell phone than their conversation, suddenly looks up and says, "That's very similar to the drug protocols used by the Red Room."
Steve straightens up.
Bruce nods, his mouth twisting into a small moue of disgust. "Why does it not surprise me that they took medications meant to help people deal with serious mental illnesses and turned them into brainwashing drugs?"
"That's not all," Tony says. "According to their records, they were supplying the drugs to Kronas Corporation. I didn't know Kronas was even into pharmaceuticals. I thought they were all weapons and energy."
"Why do I know that name?" Steve asks, more alert than he's been for the past hour. "I've heard it before."
"They attempted a hostile takeover of Stark Industries a while back," Tony says. "They failed, of course."
At the same time, Natasha says, "Alexander Lukin is the President and CEO of Kronas Corporation."
Steve stands. "Let's go."
Natasha stands with him. Coulson and Hill frown and exchange glances; the others just look confused.
"Settle down, Captain," says Fury. "We can't just go charging off like cowboys. We need to build a case, establish a chain of evidence. Going in hot will cause an international incident, and Lukin will walk away clean."
"Bullshit," Steve barks, ignoring the shocked looks on everyone's faces. "You've never needed probable cause before, and we have an eyewitness account."
"From a known assassin and terrorist."
"From an American hero Lukin brainwashed and poisoned."
They glare at each other across the conference table, but Steve's never been cowed by powerful people who want to tell him what to do, and that includes Nick Fury.
After a few long seconds, Fury backs down, pinching the bridge of his nose and sighing. "Lukin will be dealt with when we have a plan that consists of more than kicking in his door and shooting him in the head."
Natasha smiles, all sharp edges and menace. "I was thinking of using a knife, actually."
Steve's glad she's on their side.
"Go home, get some rest," Coulson says, standing and giving all of them what Steve's come to think of as his let's all be reasonable here face (it usually precedes someone getting threatened with a taser). "We'll call you when we're ready to move on Lukin." He must see the hesitation in Steve's shoulders, the mulish frown on his face, because he says, "You have my word, Captain."
"Okay," Steve says after the silence stretches long enough to be awkward. "But if I don't hear something soon, I might just take matters into my own hands." He keeps his gaze on Coulson. "And you know I will."
"I know," Coulson says. "Now go home."
Steve lets Tony's driver take him back to Brooklyn. He dozes while they're on the FDR and doesn't wake up until they hit the Gowanus. His eyes feel gritty and sore, and while he's not that tired physically--it takes more than a day's fighting to wear him out--he feels hollowed out after his stare-down with Fury. The need to go after Lukin is like an itch under his skin, and only Coulson's reassurance that SHIELD is working on a way to do it is keeping him from doing it on his own (well, that, and the fact that he doesn't know where Lukin is, but he's pretty sure Natasha would help him out with that one).
It's not--it doesn't make up for not saving Bucky on the train in the first place, or for the years he was tortured and used by the Red Room--nothing can--but it's something Steve can do now. In some vague way, he feels like he should be thanking Lukin for giving Bucky back to him when even he had started to believe he was truly gone.
He slips up the stairs to his apartment to find Bucky sitting in front of the television, crossword half-finished and discarded on the coffee table, along with an empty mug and a paper plate containing the uneaten crusts of three slices of pizza.
"Everything okay?" Steve asks, already stripping off his uniform on his way to the bathroom.
"It is now," Bucky answers, and Steve smiles.
He makes the shower as hot as he can handle. He can feel the tension leaching out of his shoulders as the water washes away the blood and sweat and grime of the mission. He blinks soap out of his eyes and looks at the puzzle Bucky's left for him: two words, seven letters followed by four. He doesn't even have to guess. He fills in WELCOME HOME in blue crayon, and thinks maybe he is, finally, home, or as close as he's going to get in this new century, this new world. If his choked off laugh feels more like a sob, well, Bucky never needs to know.
The hot water lasts a long time, and Steve's skin is pink and warm when he finally steps out of the shower. He wraps a towel around his waist and goes to the bedroom. Bucky's curled up on the bed, the covers hanging half off, his metal arm dull and gray on the white sheets. Steve pulls on a pair of shorts and a t-shirt and crawls in next to him. He falls asleep before his head hits the pillow.
He wakes up to a mouthful of dirty hair and the heat of Bucky's back pressed against his chest. He breathes in the scent of Bucky's skin and tries to ease his body away before Bucky wakes up.
"Hey," Bucky says, eyes still closed. He nestles back against Steve, closing the space Steve tried to put between them, his rear end snug up against Steve's erection, and then his eyes fly open. "Steve?"
Steve flops over onto his back and covers his eyes with his free arm. He can feel his face heating up. He wants to say, "It's a perfectly normal physiological reaction," but he only gets out the first two words before Bucky slings a leg over his hips and kisses him.
Steve ignores the sour taste of sleep in favor of the slick heat of Bucky's tongue sliding over his to curl against the roof of his mouth, sending a deep shiver through him.
"Hey," Bucky says again, this time from about half an inch from Steve's mouth. "You okay?"
Bucky answers him with another kiss, and from there things start moving so quickly Steve wonders if he's still asleep and dreaming.
Bucky's mouth is hot and hard over his, and his hands are everywhere--the left is slightly cooler and smoother than the right, but it warms up quickly enough when Bucky strokes down over Steve's collarbone and thumbs his nipple through his t-shirt. Steve gasps and bites Bucky's lower lip in response. Bucky growls into his mouth when he returns the favor, sliding his hands up underneath the old SHIELD t-shirt Bucky sleeps in.
"Off," he says, pushing at it. "Now."
"Sir, yes, sir," Bucky answers, sitting up and tossing a lazy salute at him before tossing the shirt off over his head.
"Let me, let me look," Steve says, his hands settling on Bucky's hips, thumbs rubbing the warm skin beneath the waistband of his boxer shorts. "Oh my gosh," he says when he finally gets a look at the replica of his shield painted on Bucky's shoulder. He rolls them so he's on top, and Bucky lets him. "Why did you hide this?"
"Well, gee, Steve, I don't know. Maybe I didn't want you to know how far gone I was over you."
Steve's heart stutters. "Was?"
Bucky huffs. "Am."
That calls for another long kiss before Steve goes back to petting the metal arm, finally allowed to touch and explore as much as he wants. "Can you feel that?"
"It's like a light pressure, not really anything else." Bucky looks away. "I'm sorry."
"No, no, it's fine. It's great. It's amazing." Steve leans in to kiss the scarred, gnarled skin where it gives way to the metal, which is oddly smooth against his tongue. Bucky squirms beneath him. "Am I hurting you?"
"No, it's good." Bucky sounds strangled, but he rolls his hips, making Steve gasp in response.
"I can't believe you've had this the whole time. I can't believe you told Tony, but didn't tell me."
"I've been trying to tell you since 1942. You're a little slow on the uptake." Bucky curls metal fingers in Steve's t-shirt and pulls him in for another kiss. "I didn't think you'd ever catch on."
Steve leans back, skeptical. "But that was before--What about all those dames you were making time with?"
"You were more interested in picking fights and joining the army." Bucky shrugs. "And those dames were looking for a good time." He cocks his head and his mouth quirks in a half-grin. "You know Natasha will gut us if we ever say that in public."
"If Pepper doesn't do it first," Steve says, laughing against the stubble-rough skin of Bucky's jaw. He licks a stripe up to Bucky's ear and Bucky moans again, an open invitation; Steve bites his earlobe gently, and then kisses his cheek, his nose, the corner of his mouth. Bucky's hands move over Steve's skin, trailing sparks in their wake, and Steve pulls back long enough to shuck his own t-shirt. Bucky whistles appreciatively and Steve feels another wave of heat flood his veins, pooling low in his belly. He grinds down and Bucky pushes up against him, hot and hard even through two pairs of boxers.
"You need to take these off," he says, plucking at the waistband of Bucky's shorts.
Bucky wraps a warm hand around Steve's wrist and Steve is sure Bucky can feel the quick heavy beat of his pulse, the way his body gives away everything he's feeling even as he tries to keep his words light. "You sure this isn't moving a little too fast?"
Steve blows out an exasperated breath. "You don't think I've been wanting this as long as you have? Longer even?"
"Okay," Bucky says. "Okay." And then he uses his legs to roll them over and starts kissing his way down Steve's body.
Steve shivers and gasps, fingers digging into the firm flesh of Bucky's shoulder as Bucky pushes his boxers down and wraps a hand around his cock. Steve has to close his eyes for a moment, because for all the times he's imagined this, it's still better--hotter, more overwhelming--than he ever expected. He thrusts up into Bucky's grip, breathless and aching for friction, but Bucky just strokes him lazily once or twice. He rubs his thumb in the precome beading at the tip and spreads it around the head and then down the shaft. Steve bites back a moan and covers his mouth with his forearm.
Bucky raises his head, his eyes dark and intent. "Don't hold back, Steve. I want to hear you."
Steve lowers his arm and lets out a moan that turns into a gasping laugh as Bucky sucks kisses down the inside of his thigh. Who knew he was ticklish there? He can't catch his breath, can't find the words to tell Bucky how good it feels and how much it means. He can't stop moving, pressing up against Bucky for more, and then Bucky licks the head of his cock and Steve practically levitates off the bed.
"Jesus, Mary, and Joseph." It's been a long time since Steve actually prayed that fervently.
Bucky laughs, the vibration of it against the shaft of his dick setting off more shockwaves down Steve's spine. "Taking the Lord's name in vain, Captain Rogers? Gonna make you say a whole rosary for your sins by the time I'm done."
"Yes," Steve answers. "Please."
Bucky grins at him, and then he wraps his slick, red lips around Steve's cock. Steve pushes up into the wet heat of Bucky's mouth, his hands curling into fists so he doesn't grab Bucky and hurt him. Bucky seems to understand, because he takes one of Steve's hands and puts it on his head. Steve twines his fingers through the silky curls of Bucky's hair and holds on for dear life as Bucky licks and sucks until Steve thinks he's died and gone to heaven.
He wants to keep his eyes open, watch as Bucky's lips slide up and down, cheeks hollowing out as he sucks, the flat of his tongue pressed to the shaft as his mouth meets the fist he's got curled around the base. Bucky uses his left hand to hold Steve's hip in place, warm metal stroking over his hipbone, and Steve thinks fleetingly of Bucky pressing that arm against his chest, pinning him in place while he does whatever he wants to Steve's body. Desire claws its way through him, hot and needy at the images it conjures up.
He can't catch his breath and his vision starts to go fuzzy around the edges and it should be frightening, a sense-memory as old as he is, but it feels incredibly good. Bucky chooses that moment to scrape his teeth gently up the shaft, and that's it for Steve--he's gone. His climax rolls over him like the ocean, overwhelming but hot and welcoming, his whole body flooded with pleasure.
Bucky pulls off and smacks his lips, and Steve tugs on his hair. "C'mere." His voice is rusty as an unoiled hinge, weird and foreign to his ears, but Bucky smiles and shifts up his body willingly, pressing kisses to his belly, his chest, and finally, his lips.
They kiss sloppily, salt and bitter and sweet and hot mingling on their tongues. Steve reaches down into Bucky's shorts and curls a hand around his dick, strokes it slowly, learning the weight and shape of it, hot and hard and covered in soft skin against his palm. Bucky makes a choking noise and bites down hard on Steve's lower lip. Steve laughs, delighted.
"You're a real laugh riot," Bucky mutters against his cheek, thrusting up into Steve's hand, his body a beautiful curving line that Steve wants to draw and paint and devote whole wings of museums to. But not until he knows every inch of it by touch alone, can trace it in the air with his fingertips before he ever sets ink to paper. Bucky's whole body strains, and his chest heaves, and the fact that Steve is the one doing this to him is lighting Steve up like a rocket.
Bucky comes with Steve's name on his lips and Steve licks the words off his tongue, holds him while he shudders and shakes.
They slump together in a sweaty, sticky heap and Steve wants to stay there forever, the tenderness in his chest even better than the heat and pleasure of sex.
Bucky pushes his way out of the circle of Steve's arms with a muttered, "Gotta clean up."
Steve lets him go and misses his warmth for the whole three minutes he's gone. Steve folds his arms behind his head and watches Bucky pick his way across the room in the dim morning light, lean and lithe and graceful, before he flops onto the bed and starts tickling Steve. They roll around like puppies in a pile for a few minutes before they both roll over onto their backs, laughing and gasping. It's the best morning Steve remembers since--maybe forever.
He rolls his head to look at Bucky on the pillow next to him. "So Natasha's little chat with me the other day makes a little more sense now," Steve says. "It was kind of surreal. Mostly because Natasha was talking about feelings. In the middle of a fire fight."
"That sounds like her," Bucky says, laughing briefly. "That's probably the only time she talks about them." His face falls into serious lines though, and he says, "Your whole team thinks I'm going to break your heart."
"She seemed more concerned that I would break yours."
"It's nice to know someone's sticking up for me," he says, "but I think we both know which is the more likely scenario here."
"You would never hurt me intentionally," Steve replies. "Unless I asked nicely."
Bucky blinks. "Is that a possibility?"
"I--don't think so? It's just something Natasha said."
"You did go out of your way to get beat up an awful lot," Bucky muses.
Steve shoves him lightly. "I don't think that's the same thing."
"Well, let's table it for now. We can come back to it later if you want." Bucky grins and nudges him back with his shoulder--the shoulder with his shield painted on it, and Steve doesn't think he's ever going to get over that. He remembers wondering if Bucky could hold him down, so maybe there are some things he wants to try, some things that very few people could actually give him, but he doesn't really want to talk about it right now.
"Okay," he says, rolling onto his side so he can press kisses to Bucky's neck and shoulder, enjoying the way Bucky trembles at the touch. He runs his fingers over the fine cross-hatching of silvery scars over Bucky's ribs, and then follows his fingers with his tongue. Bucky twines his fingers in Steve's hair and pushes up into each touch like he's starved for it. They both are.
Bucky is cursing a blue streak, alternately begging Steve not to stop and threatening him outlandishly if he does, when Steve's phone rings.
"Mission's a go," Fury says tersely. "Is Barnes there with you?"
Steve blushes, his whole face going hot, but he thinks he sounds normal when he says, "Yes, sir."
"Then put it on speaker." Steve touches the button and sets the phone down on the pillow. Bucky raises an inquisitive eyebrow and Steve answers with a one-shoulder shrug. "Sergeant Barnes, SHIELD has evaluated your performance over the past few months and has decided you are fit for active duty."
"Thank you, sir."
"Don't thank me yet. We'll have a long conversation very soon about your role at SHIELD, but at the moment, you're being assigned to the Avengers. Report to HQ with Captain Rogers at twenty-two hundred hours tonight."
Bucky's eyes are comically wide and impossibly blue. "Yes, sir."
"You'll be briefed on your mission at that time, though I'm sure Captain Rogers can fill you in on the background ahead of time."
"Yes, sir," Steve says, and he's pretty sure Fury can hear the smile in his voice before he hangs up.
Steve tosses the phone back onto the night table and grins at Bucky, who's watching him with a shocked look on his face. "We're going after Lukin tonight," he says. He feels invincible, like for the first time in a long time, things are going to go his way. Steve doesn't know if taking Lukin down will help Bucky sleep better at night, but he wants to find out. "I thought you might want in on that."
"Hell, yeah," Bucky answers, his own smile sharper and scarier than Steve's ever seen it; the resemblance to Natasha is uncanny. "We have some unfinished business."
Steve pushes him back against the pillows and presses a kiss to the old, jagged scar low on Bucky's belly, enjoying the way Bucky's muscles jump at the touch. "I think you and I have some unfinished business of our own." And now, he thinks, they might finally get the time to take care of it.