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The television cameras had been stationed along the road for days now, waiting for the mysterious red-eyed robots to do anything but merely stand and stare into the middle distance. Another quiet sunrise rose over the Queen City, glossy pink reflecting off the dense metal of the robots, the red glass of their eyes glowing eerily. Yellow police tape fluttered in the summer breeze, blocking off the intersection. White city fencing had gone up on the roads, setting up detours, warning drivers and pedestrians to keep away and be aware of imminent danger.

Aside from a few daring – or drunk – citizens approaching the robots, incidents which were televised over and over, no one dared to approach. One police officer, in heavy S.W.A.T gear, had ducked under the tape the day before, evoking the first and only response from the robots. The one facing the officer began to hum softly, like a microwave warming last night’s dinner, and the eyes glowed from within. A red line grid had appeared on the man’s feet, rising quickly like it was scanning his body, and he’d slowly retreated. The robot had shut down again, giving all those TV cameras and embedded reporters something to talk about for long hours after.

As the sun stretched across the sky toward evening, most of those cameras were gone or destroyed after trying to follow the battle. Reporters in flak jackets spent the early afternoon shouting over the din of violence and chaos, flinching on national television whenever a piece of twitching metal shrapnel came too close, gasping when one of the black-clad special ops team – led by Iron Man himself – took a particularly vicious hit or fell and didn’t get back up fast enough.

The tone of most of the accounts had been gleeful, at first, reporters lucky enough to be on the scene when the Avengers – all of them – swooped in to save the day! This wasn’t New York City or Washington DC, this was fucking Charlotte, and nothing like this ever happened here. Crews who’d been sent on shit duty to watch motionless hunks of metal were suddenly in the middle of a war zone, counting their Media Excellence Awards and trying to artfully smudge their cheeks and hair for the audiences at home.

But then the battle began to turn. The blond man with the beard and the haggard eyes who wore his black armor like it still had stars and stripes on it was taking a beating like he was used to having a shield in front of him. Iron Man had been blown out of the sky, his thrusters fried, and he was left to do battle on foot just like the rest of the heroes – vigilantes? – who fought the suddenly very active and very deadly hunks of red-eyed metal.

Several reporters noted, during the course of the day, that the robots weren’t using lethal force on the team who fought them. What did that mean? Had this been a ruse to lure the fugitive Avengers out? Who would risk such exposure, such damage done to a city, for a few superheroes who hadn’t been heard from in over half a year? What did the Avengers know, that they’d deemed these robots such a high threat?

Where was the Holy Ghost, who’d previously done battle with a handful of vicious Red Eyes who shot blue energy weapons that had sent several World War 2 veterans around the country into near comatose panic when they’d seen the news footage?

And why had the robots chosen a southern city known only for its brazen football team and its numerous banking institutions? They were either after Cam Newton . . . they were protesting the Bathroom Bill for robot rights, or they were pulling off the slowest bank heist in history.

The team of heroes were flagging, obviously growing tired, getting beaten, having a harder time getting back up as more and more of the news crews fled or were forced out of their hiding places. The robots still swarmed the city, the Avengers closing ranks, looking discouraged and desperate, eyes on the skies like they hoped reinforcements would show. Audiences at home had fewer angles as the light stretched thin, less access to the battlefield, and the eyes of those previously gleeful reporters began to show fear.

“And still, no word on where these machines are coming from or who is in control,” a flushed young blonde informed her cameraman’s cell phone. The large television camera’s lens had been too tempting a target for one of the Red Eyes, who’d shot the lens out while Frank the cameraman had fortunately been ducking away from a piece of shrapnel. They should have left, then. They should have fled. But Frank had taken his StarkPhone out with a determined curse and told Annabelle to keep fucking talking, honey, we got this!

Annabelle and Frank were the only crew remaining close enough to the action to be able to show the world at home the actual Avengers, holed up in a homemade pillbox across and down the street, where their backs were to a wall, literally and figuratively, and they were slowly but surely being surrounded.

“If the Avengers can be taken by force, what hope do the police and military around the country have of stemming a tide of robotic invaders?” Annabelle asked the people at home, her voice trembling with true distress. She’d stopped trying to be purposely inflammatory hours ago, merely giving Frank and his camera a stream of consciousness of terror and dread that likely echoed every mind of those at home.

“Where is our military?” Annabelle asked breathlessly, her eyes on the sky as well. “Are they going to sit back and let the city be overtaken?”

She gasped suddenly and covered her head with both arms as a shadow passed over their hiding spot. Frank flinched back and the camera shook, jostling the feed that was still going live back to their crew.

A man landed with a dull thud just outside their foxhole, then barrel rolled backwards into it, barely making a sound for someone who’d dropped from so high and was covered in so damn much weaponry! He crouched beside them, holding his arm around Annabelle to deflect several stray bullets that would have taken her head right off on live TV. The man’s eyes were shielded by red-tinted goggles that made it impossible to see them, his face completely covered by a black mask that made a distinctly Darth Vader sound when he breathed.

The bullets should have pinged when they bounced off whatever this guy was wrapped in, but they made dull little thudding sounds instead, leaving scuffmarks on the dark stain that covered some sort of metal protective sleeve, the new blemishes gleaming in the sunlight but not dented.

After a few tense seconds, when it became clear that no more bullets were coming their way, the man relaxed his arm. He crouched next to Annabelle and Frank, nodding at each of them casually, as if he’d just boarded a bus and sat across the aisle from them.

Annabelle stared at him, just a foot away from her face and hulking and intimidating as hell with all the knives and gun barrels and holy shit fragmenting motherfucking grenades that bristled off his black tactical gear. And that shit wasn’t standard either, with bits of leather criss-crossing his chest and a goddamn Skorpion in a custom holster between his shoulderblades, and Jesus he had at least seven more guns in custom holsters on his thighs, calves, ankles, under his arms, a little pair of derringers that shared a holster that could only be good for one thing, and that was not being taken alive. Knives everywhere, a matching set in sheaths attached to his sides, and a beautiful Gerber Mark II that looked well-loved, the handle worn from use, sticking out of yet another sheath at his hip.

If Frank read more Guns & Ammo he probably could have listed the rest of the armory attached to this fucking walking nightmare, but he was too busy trying to decide if he wanted to die on live television as a hero who tried to save the cute little blonde reporter by throwing himself between her and the monster, or if he wanted to die on live television by being the dumbass who jumped out of his hiding place and got gunned down by robots with red eyes.

“Holy shit,” Annabelle blurted, blinking at the newcomer, mouth hanging open.

“Aw, I thought it was Holy Ghost,” the man said, his muffled voice sounding amused. He removed his goggles and then snapped his mask off, hanging both on a loop at his shoulder. There was a black streak painted over his eyes, but that just made their weirdly clear blue even more striking and eerie.

Annabelle squeaked at him, all her professional training down the drain. The camera wavered in Frank’s hand, but he kept it on the man. They’d get awards for this. Maybe posthumously, but what the hell, right?

The Holy Ghost handed Annabelle something, his massive, gloved hand steady as he waited for her to take it. Frank sort of wondered why he didn’t just shove it at her since he obviously had shit to do out there, but the Ghost gave her a gentle, encouraging nod as he waited, arm motionless. She held her slim hand out, looking fragile and vulnerable next to him, and the Ghost dropped a comm unit into her palm.

He pointed to his ear. “Found a couple bad guys on a roof. Very informative.”

Annabelle stared at him, her eyes darting toward Frank.

“Go ahead,” the Ghost urged, pointing to his ear again.

Annabelle put the comm to her ear hesitantly, like she suspected it might blow up or something, listening for mere seconds before her cornflower blue eyes widened dramatically. She shot the Holy Ghost a startled look, forgetting her fear. “These things are here with the US Government?” she blurted, live on camera, in front of the entire goddamn nation plus probably the internet and some trending Twitter streams.

The Ghost nodded grimly. “Laid a trap to draw me in,” he said, speaking in clipped tones that made it impossible to determine his accent. “Civilian collateral acceptable. Avengers are the secondary target.”

Annabelle handed the comm to Frank and he listened for a second before cursing and holding it up to his phone’s speaker so the world could hear the goddamn military of the fucking United States ordering a bunch of robots to make sure they take the Avengers alive, on direct orders from some senator Frank had never heard of.

The Holy Ghost shifted as he crouched with them, looking Annabelle up and down. “You got a makeup remover wipe on you, doll?”

Annabelle moved woodenly, staring at the man without blinking. She handed him a packet out of her trouser pocket, trembling so hard the plastic crinkled audibly.

The Ghost very carefully extracted one of the tissues, then sealed the thing up again and used the flat of his palm to close her fingers over the packet in an oddly comforting, placid gesture. He knew she was scared and was trying his best to be non-threatening. Frank found himself feeling defensive, kind of jealous, and mostly glad the guy seemed to be just as protective of Annabelle as everyone else was.

The Ghost muttered as he wiped the black camo paint off his eyes. “Hotter than the goddamn hinges of Hell down here, how do you people make it through a summer without fucking frying your brains like eggs? You got special makeup you wear that don’t melt?”

“I . . . I reapply a lot,” Annabelle admitted dazedly.

“Keeps getting in my damn eyes. Black’s burning my skin like tar. This is military grade tactical paint!”

“I get mine at Ulta,” Annabelle offered.

“Yeah?” The Ghost glanced at her, one eyebrow quirked like he was actually interested in what she was saying. He wiped the eye that Frank could see. “That like Sephora?”

Annabelle nodded, and Frank was feeling decidedly out of his league now.

“They got tactical paint?” the Ghost asked as he swept the wipe over his other eye, not a hint of a joke in his voice. His eyes, though, and the twitch of his lips, made it obvious to Frank and to the millions of people watching this live on television that he was gently teasing the young woman.

“I d – I don’t think so.”

“Eh. Hunting supply places. Bet they’d have something for locals that don’t bake to your skin,” the Ghost muttered. “Hundred degrees in the damn shade. Like a whole new species who don’t sweat.”

“We don’t wear tactical gear in the middle of summer, normally,” Frank offered from behind his phone.

The Ghost gestured to him with two fingers like that was a good point, nodding, still wiping the paint from his eyes. The face he revealed to the camera was far younger than anyone would have expected, and . . . exceedingly handsome. Jesus, if the Holy Ghost had been a social media obsession before, Frank could only imagine what adding a face like that was going to do to this guy’s reputation. Frank zoomed in on him, guiltily thinking about all the fucking royalties he’d get from sales of these screenshots.

Annabelle handed the Ghost something else. “Might need this too,” she practically whimpered. “It helps.”

He took her hair elastic with a nod of thanks and expertly drew his long hair back into one of those messy goddamn hipster buns that made him look even younger and somehow more handsome than he already had. His jaw was set in a grim line, though, as he looked back out at the battle. They could hear the leather of his glove creaking as he made a tight fist.

“If you knew this was a trap, why didn’t you warn the Avengers?” Annabelle asked, looking shocked that she’d regained some of her composure in the face of the nation’s biggest current obsession – who also happened to be a guy who could make a sniper shot from a mile away and jump off buildings and limp away with a broken leg after breaking the neck of a titanium robot shooting blue electricity at him. Scary, in a word.

The Holy Ghost turned, looking at her directly, the smile on his face somehow sad and beautiful. “I did.” He was still smiling when he gave her a slow, pointed blink, as if to say, ‘but who the hell would listen to me, huh?’ Then he turned to gaze out over the battlefield. “You had eyes on the Avengers all this time?” he asked them. “They’re all in that bunker there?”

Annabelle glanced at Frank, who nodded. “The guy who’s pretending he’s not Captain America called for a retreat about five minutes ago,” Frank told him. “The robots have been accumulating ever since.”

“Roof tops?” the Ghost asked.

“They’re all on the ground. They can’t fly but they sure can climb.”

The Holy Ghost nodded as if he’d known that already. Frank remembered suddenly that this guy had actually been in a skirmish with a handful of these things already. “What are they?” Frank found himself asking, sounding a little more scared than he wanted to in front of a guy who didn’t appear to know what the word scared even meant.

“Mm. They’re locusts,” the Ghost answered, voice distant and oddly serene as he dug under his tactical vest. “Made for taking over towns that fight back. Hydra tested and approved, but I don’t know who made them. Looks like Hydra left them to the government in their Will.”

He pulled out a waterproof packet before securing his tactical vest again. Frank caught a glimpse of a Led Zeppelin T-shirt underneath it. Oh no, Frank, this is not the time to develop a celebrity crush, especially not on a terrifying murder-hipster who knew what a Sephora was.

The Ghost handed the envelope to Annabelle. “That’s the trail that leads from Hydra to several senators, and three and four-star generals, with their eyes on the Presidency. They weren’t planning on going the democratic route. Make it public, do it fast before they come for you both.”

“This feed is live,” Frank told the guy, realizing the Holy Ghost had no way of knowing his cell phone had been looped into the crew’s van and was being broadcast to televisions and internet stations everywhere. Shit, he should have told him that before he took his mask off. Now that zoom shot he’d taken made Frank feel all panicky; what if he got this guy killed because people would hunt down his true identity now? Shit!

The guy glanced at him, looking at the camera uneasily. Then he merely nodded. “Good. It’ll keep you both alive.” He nodded again, ducking his head and glancing out of their foxhole. “Good.”

“I’m . . . sorry, dude,” Frank whispered. Then he panicked all over again for calling the Holy Ghost dude!

The Ghost’s eyes met his, unwavering, still so sad but also oddly determined. He nodded a third time, smiling softly. “Name’s Bucky.” He shook both their hands, oddly old-fashioned and gentle when he took Annabelle’s perfectly manicured fingers in his and bowed his head a little like he’d normally think about kissing them. “When I go out there, you should run. They’ll be distracted; it’s your best chance to get clear. Once I’m engaged, I won’t be able to do anything to help you.”

“You’re going out there?” Annabelle asked shakily.

The Holy Ghost merely nodded, reaching for his mask.

They stared at him, neither of them able to conjure up anything to say, even though they both knew this moment would probably be played on the networks over and over for weeks.

The Ghost slipped his mask back on, covering up that sad smile of his, and slid the red-tinted glasses back on as well. His eyes were actually visible now, without the black smear hiding them. He took a breath that was audible through the weird filtering sound of the mask, then he ducked his head and crossed himself. It was a quick motion, one borne of habit and repetition, something done so easily and so often he probably had no idea he was actually doing it. Then he leaned against the sandbag they’d dragged over to keep their foxhole safe, and merely rolled out of the protective layer of junk and landed on silent feet on the sidewalk.

Annabelle was gripping the edge of the sandbag, eyes wide, riveted. Frank moved beside her, still videoing, sending the scene live to their truck, and to the world. Neither of them even discussed following the Holy Ghost’s suggestion that they use his sacrifice as a distraction and run. If he was walking out there, Frank was sure as hell going to keep this camera on him so the fucking world would see what he really was.

The Ghost began strolling down the street. No, stroll was the wrong word. Stroll evoked city parks and holding hands with a sweetheart and ducks waddling beside old people on benches, quacking for bread crumbs. Strut didn’t work either, because a strut was more about showing off, putting up a front of confidence that wasn’t necessarily earned or deserved.

The Holy Ghost, he was stalking down the road. Stalking worked because watching him made the hairs on the back of Frank’s neck stand on end, and there would probably be death at the end of his journey.

As he moved, the Ghost rolled a handful of tiny balls, like marbles, into the crowd of robots. Smoke began to billow from them, obscuring the view. Then he pulled a larger ball from a pouch at his hip, rolling it toward the largest concentration of Red Eyes that had surrounded the beleaguered Avengers. The frag grenade blew the nearest dozen or so robots sky high, raining down pieces and parts of flaming metal as the Ghost waded into the ensuing melee, guns appearing in both hands as he disappeared into the smoke.


The explosion was so close that they all had to cover their ears, wincing away from bits and pieces of debris that fell against their makeshift bunker. Tony closed his faceplate and peered out of the arrow slit Clint had constructed.

“I got a heat signature out there.”

“Just one?” Natasha asked.

“Jesus, is it a civilian?” Sam asked at almost the same time.

The others all peered out of whatever eyeholes they’d been able to make. Tony had to raise his faceplate again to get a clear view. Most of his sensors had been damaged in the battle. Even the heat sensor jumped and jittered and seemed sort of incomplete, showing only half a person walking toward them. Hell, all these robots, maybe it was only half a person.

Smoke was billowing along the street, obviously from flashbangs or smoke bombs that someone had tossed into the fray. Had the military bucked orders from higher ups to come to their aid? Tony had been monitoring the airwaves, had heard the robots getting their orders. Was it the local PD, finally finding some bigger firepower? What would happen if local LEOs went up against government sanctioned robots? The whole country might be at war, depending on how this battle ended.

Another blast rocked their crappy bunker, followed by the sound of automatic gunfire. The smoke obscured everything, glowing red eyes in the billowing mists making an eerie tableau out there. Tony shivered.

Gunfire rattled, the robots retaliating with the same weird-sounding tasers and electricity that had shorted out Tony’s suit. None of them were using blue energy weapons, thank Christ. They’d been meant to take whoever came down here alive. Had they been waiting for Bucky to show, like Tony and Steve thought? Or had they been waiting for the Avengers? The Red Eyes weren’t using deadly force, which had horrifying consequences if Tony thought too long about it. Whoever had come to their aid, though? They were using deadly force all over the damn place.

Bullets mowed down the Red Eyes, placed expertly in the weak spots Bucky had tried to identify for them in the preparations. Clint had been the only one operating with even minor success, hitting weakness after weakness with his arrows, disabling the robots by shooting out their operating systems, the joints that kept their legs and arms mobile, or the circuitry behind that weak panel in the neck. Blowing up robot heads with his exploding arrows. Sam’d had pretty good luck as well, able to fly above them and take head shots, hitting that neck panel over and over.

They just hadn’t been prepared for so many. They’d run out of ammo so quickly, having made quite a dent in the ranks but still unable to finish the job and unable to call on backup. Even Wanda, who’d had zero ability to control the damn things because they weren’t human but who had at least been able to pick them up and bang their heads together quiet satisfactorily, had worn herself out and could barely stand.

Natasha had one gun left, fully loaded. Just enough bullets for a headshot each, she’d told them.

Tony thought about Bucky, laid out on that pristine jet, safe and clean and left behind. He was going to wake up alone now, because his friends . . . his friends had abandoned him. Tony saw that now. They hadn’t saved him. They’d stolen his ability to die with the rest of them like he’d chosen. They were no better than Hydra in that respect, taking his ability to choose from him. They’d forced him into the most difficult job of all; being the one who lived.

Tony’s heart twisted. If they had done that to him, if it was Tony who would wake utterly alone in the world knowing that the people he loved had left him behind because they didn’t trust him to live through something that apparently none of them could live through? Tony would never, ever forgive them.

Even if they miraculously did survive this and Bucky woke to find them all back with him, bloody and bruised but alive, Bucky would still wake to a world in which Steve and Tony, two men who claimed to adore him, to love him, to live for him, had betrayed and lied to him.

Tony bowed his head as the battle raged on out there. “Cap,” he murmured.

Steve nodded beside him. He was peering over the edge of a slit in the bunker wall. He reached and took Tony’s hand – the one that Tony’d been forced to lose the gauntlet from because the repulsor had motherfucking caught fire – squeezing it. “I know,” Steve whispered. “We were wrong.”

“Give me that, Nat,” Clint blurted, taking Natasha’s suicide gun from her and scrambling to the top of their bunker despite Natasha trying to stop him. No one seemed to understand his sudden urgency, but they could hear him firing, slowly, methodically.

What the hell could he see that they couldn’t?

Tony squinted through the slit again, watching as the smoke began to clear more. Red eyes glowed, blinking out and sliding around the street. In the middle of the road, a dark figure appeared, walking calmly through the fray, red glass glinting where its eyes should be as the setting sun reflected off them.

“Ah, shit,” Tony gasped. “You think he’s big papa robot or some shit?”

Steve was scowling, staring hard at the approaching nightmare.

“Fuck,” Scott offered from somewhere to Tony’s left, and he could hear Sam and Natasha speaking in rapid tones, trying to find an exit strategy. They would run now, if they could. But Tony didn’t think they had a way out.

Clint had one more bullet, if Tony’s count was correct. What the hell was he waiting for, why didn’t he take a fucking shot right in one of those damn new red eyes? The newcomer drew closer, the robots surrounding him, like they were preparing to worship at an altar. Tony shivered.

The head Red Eye stopped, maybe ten or fifteen yards away from their bunker. There was no way he didn’t know where they were hiding, he was looking right at them, those glinting red eyes and the black form of a large body the only things they could really see in the swirling, glowing smoke. This robot looked like it had muscles. Hell, maybe it wasn’t a robot at all, maybe it was a Life Model Decoy in control of all these Red Eyes.

Clint had fallen silent, the last bullet never used. Maybe Clint was saving it for himself after all. Maybe Clint was dead up there already.

The Red Eyes drew closer to the leader, closing ranks. They weren’t surrounding it like they were protecting the thing, though, which was odd. They were all turned in to look at it. Staring at it like they weren’t sure if it was friend or foe. It made Tony claustrophobic to watch as the air around the thing seemed to grow thin with metal.

Then the new breed of Red Eye raised his hand above the throng, and Tony strained trying to see what he held in black-clad fingers.

Wait, fingers? Flesh fingers gripping something? That wasn’t a robot out there, and it wasn’t an LMD. It was a real dude, it was a flesh and blood man. And if it was a man, one who’d waded in wearing black tactical gear and red bulletproof glasses, with smoke bombs, frag grenades, and both hands full of automatic weapons, then there was only one man it could be.

As soon as Tony thought it, all the air left him in a rush of terror and hope and pain and despair and utter joy. “Oh, God!”

“No,” Steve whimpered. “No, Buck. Oh Christ, please, no!”

Clint’s laser sight was trained on Bucky’s knuckles, zeroing in on the thing he clutched, which Tony recognized as a bomb casing. Tony’s heart dropped into his throat. “No!” he shouted into the comm, trying to tell Clint that it was Bucky out there, that if he took that shot there wouldn’t even be enough of him left to spread his ashes.

“Barton! Hold fire!” Steve cried, his voice cracking, scrambling to get up top to Clint.

But Bucky tossed the grenade into the air just as he was surrounded and taken to the ground by Red Eyes. The shot sounded above them, and Tony and Steve both howled in anguish as the thing went off.

The grenade let out a pulse as soon as the bullet hit. It wasn’t so much visible as it was felt deep in the bones, raising the hair on Tony’s arms and skittering over his skin. The Red Eyes collapsed in waves as the grenade’s pulse spread out, and then Tony felt the shockwave hit him. His suit powered down and he fell to his back, trapped in the damn thing.

“Friday?” Tony cried. His comm was silent. Not even static, just nothing there. He was immobile, unable to lift the weight of his suit, unable to even reach the emergency release. “Help!”

Hands pawed at him, and Sam’s face appeared, peered down at him worriedly. “Stark?”

“Release button!”

Sam hit the button after a few unsuccessful tries, and the suit fell off Tony in pieces. He gulped in a few deep breaths of air as he fought down the claustrophobic panic that had been creeping up on him. Without power, the Iron Man suit was just a fancy goddamn coffin.

“Thanks, Birdman,” he gasped out.

Sam nodded, not even bristling at the nickname. He shot up and ran for the path Clint had found to get on top of their makeshift pillbox, and Tony stared dumbly as Natasha clambered out on Sam’s heels. Wanda and Scott remained, helping Tony out of the suit that was just now beginning to power back on, recovering from what Tony knew could only have been an electromagnetic pulse. One hell of a mean one, too. It wasn’t permanent, though, not if the Red Eyes could be remotely rebooted like his suit could. That was the main reason Tony had ruled an EMP out initially. Not effective permanently or for long enough range to be any use in a battle against the Red Eyes.

Also because it would knock his damn suit offline!

They left the suit where it was and followed the others, Scott hesitantly offering his hand to help Wanda and Tony over the rubble. Without the suit, they all knew Tony might as well be a fucking civilian out here. He could defend himself, had been taught to fight by some of the best in the world, he had even made a pretty damn fine showing down in Florida when he’d just been the Mechanic. But still . . . he was a turtle without its shell as he stepped out on the street.

That didn’t stop him from diving in with the others. They were destroying as many of the twitching, whirring Red Eyes as they could, hacking and smashing them with every hard object they could get their hands on. They aimed for the control centers, the head, neck, and the small of the back where a normal human would be bitching about sciatica but a Red Eyed robot would be receiving its orders and reporting back.

They waded into the mechanical sea, and Tony spared a thanks to whoever was running the show that these particular models weren’t as lifelike as their Life Model Decoy cousins, or he might have needed to stop and throw up, witnessing the violent abandon with which every member of his team was wielding just then. Even Steve, the very symbol of the idea that life was precious, was wailing away with gritted teeth and oil spurting on his face looking far too much like blood.

Bucky, though . . . Tony’s eyes were drawn to him, and then he had to quickly avert them when he saw that it wasn’t actually Bucky fighting amongst them right now. It wasn’t even the man the media knew as the Holy Ghost. That was the Winter Soldier over there, stepping back into his memories and taking his revenge.

No one stopped him. No one wanted to. If anyone deserved to grab up a hunk of metal and look it in the eyes as he squeezed the life out of it, it was the Winter Soldier.

The fact that he was using his hand, crushing their skulls, their necks, driving his fist into the spinal column and ripping components out of them, was perhaps what disturbed Tony the most. It was one thing to bash the power out of a machine with a hunk of concrete. It took pain and anger – anguish – to want to feel the ‘life’ draining between your fingers.

It only took minutes before the robots began to reboot and shake off the EMP. Thankfully, it only took the Avengers minutes to destroy most of them. The remaining ones, they stood back and let Bucky dispatch.

Tony noticed a pair of journalists emerging from a hovel of debris and wreckage and he wondered how the hell they’d survived the spray of gunfire he could see evidenced along the side of that building.

The woman took a few stuttering steps toward Bucky as he stood amongst the carnage, breathing hard, his back to her. The man was still carrying a cell phone, videoing.

Steve moved to intercept them, either to protect Bucky, or to protect them if they came up behind him and surprised him, but Bucky held up a hand and Steve stopped dead in his tracks.

As Bucky began walking toward the pair, he reached behind him, long fingers brushing the grip of that wicked-looking Skorpion he kept at his shoulderblades. Tony tensed, shuddering through the most surreal moment of fear; fear that Bucky had vacated that body when they’d put him down and only the Winter Soldier remained in it. Fear that Tony and Steve, in trying to save the man they both loved, had killed him deader than anything Hydra had ever been able to do to him.

But Bucky was merely reaching for the little bun of hair at the nape of his neck. He pulled his hair loose from the tie he’d had in it, and he took a few steps over robot bodies and handed the petite blonde the hair elastic, tilting his head down as he spoke to her, taking her hand in both of his as he placed the elastic in her palm like it was something precious, like her loaning it to him had saved his life in battle. Tony could see the woman blushing furiously, gazing up at Bucky like she was getting her first glimpse of heaven.

Bucky then glanced at the man with the camera, and Tony wondered if he knew that thing was probably broadcasting live to the whole fucking world. Please don’t take off the mask, Buck, please don’t do it. Please don’t attack the camera dude for all the world to see.

Bucky shot the camera guy a cheeky little pair of finger guns, though, and he turned his well-armed back on them both, moving toward the clearing where the rest of the team was gathering.

Tony joined them just as Bucky approached. “How the hell?” Tony gasped, eyes wide, knowing he was probably streaked with blood and sweat and soot just like the rest of the team.

“Modified EMP,” Bucky answered curtly. His voice through the mask was harsh and low, with the barest hint of a Russian accent. “Something Barton and I were talking over back home, while you two were trying to figure out how to put me down.”

“I’m sorry,” Tony whispered. It was the only thing he could think to say.

Bucky looked decidedly unimpressed, which was a feat considering he still wore his mask and bullet-proof glasses. “See, when I tweaked the shut down you installed in there – had to make sure it didn’t actually knock me out if you two geniuses decided to go through with it –”

“You knew?” Tony found himself whispering, his stomach lurching.

“Oh, yeah,” Bucky answered with a sorrowful nod, meeting Tony’s eyes without flinching, even though Tony stared at nothing but his own reflection in those glasses, cast red and tainted in Bucky’s eyes. “Knew from the moment Steve told me to trust you. You said I could. You have a tell, when you lie.”

Tony closed his eyes, his gut threatening to empty at the thought of him and Steve, dancing around their little deception, being all sneaky and clever as Bucky sat between them, trusting Tony to go into his arm, all the while knowing what they were doing and hoping – praying – that they would change their minds and do the right thing. He’d let them hang themselves, never saying a word, never giving them a hint that he suspected – expected – they were about to betray him.

“When I took your work out of my arm last night, I also took the EMP out. Hydra tech, solid stuff. The extra charge from your relay and a little boost from a high-speed impact?” Bucky shrugged and glanced around at the swath of destruction. “It was worth a try. Had a little more charge in my arm left than I’d realized though, what were you trying to do, stop my goddamn heart?”

Tony turned sideways, in case he really did throw up.

When he risked another glance, Bucky had turned away from him. “Worked pretty well, huh, Hawk Guy?” he said to Clint, and Tony could hear the warmth and the smile in his voice.

Clint held his fist out to Bucky, and Bucky pressed his knuckles to Clint’s. Then they gripped each other’s forearms, sharing a silent nod.

“Bucky,” Steve said softly, stepping closer. He was bleeding from his temple, his face smeared with black over the reddish gold of his beard.

Bucky turned to face him, squaring his shoulders, raising his chin. “Hydra had a kill code,” he told him before Steve could say more. His voice had gone terrifyingly calm. “They used it when they needed to put me down without hurting me. It’s Sputnik, if you want to try that next time. Might be easier, right? Hell, it might still even work, who knows?” He stepped close, stance combative. “Want to try it out right now, Cap? Try to get me back to that compound without a fight?”

Steve flinched back, eyes wide and sparkling like he might be fighting back tears in the smoke. Tony could imagine being compared to the Winter Soldier’s handlers wasn’t sitting right with Steve, because it sure as fuck wasn’t sitting right with him. He blinked away the moisture threatening in his eyes.

“We should go, before the people who sent these things come for us,” Sam said loudly, waving his hand at the sea of now-useless machinery.

“If they do, they’ll have to do it in the light,” Bucky told them, nodding toward the reporter and her cameraman, where they stood reporting even though both looked bruised and battered and terrified.

“Bucky,” Steve whispered, taking Bucky’s elbow to make sure Bucky was looking at him. “I . . . I’m sorry. I thought –”

“You remember what you told me, about that night I found you on the couch?” Bucky asked, voice gone softer. He reached up and unhooked his mask, taking it and his glasses off and looping them over the spot on his shoulder. Steve was staring at him, looking confused and stricken. “That you were afraid you were about to catch me in a lie?”

Steve swallowed hard. He gave a regretful nod. Bucky stepped closer, reaching up to Steve’s bloody temple, cocking his head like he might have been thinking about giving Steve a kiss. He trailed three fingers down Steve’s face, his fingernails making a scratching sound in Steve’s beard in the eerily silent aftermath of battle.

Bucky nodded as Steve gazed at him. Steve’s eyes were welling, but there was still a hint of hope that Bucky might forgive him, might consider his motives and try to move past it. Bucky leaned a little closer, pressing his lips to Steve’s, uncaring of the camera on them.

When they parted, he whispered brokenly, “Mercy, Stevie.” He took a step back, shoulders slumping, hand sliding off Steve’s face, dipping his head the other way as if pleading. “I call mercy.”

Steve actually flinched, folding over and putting his hand to his stomach as Bucky backed away another step, out of Steve’s reach. Steve didn’t move, didn’t respond, just stared at Bucky with wide, terrified eyes. He couldn’t even get air as Bucky continued backing away.

Bucky looked around at them, giving them all a little salute. When he looked at Clint he said something to him in ASL, the motion hidden from Natasha’s view. Then his eyes lingered on Tony, but Tony couldn’t speak, couldn’t move. Bucky gave him a dip of his head, eyes filled with what might have been regret and loss, then he turned and walked the way he’d come, strolling through the carnage, shoulders and gait loose and easy, somehow convincing all the smoke and gas still trapped in the street to swirl and close in on him as he faded away.

Another blink, and Steve was on his knees, head bowed, breaths rasping as he tried not to sob. And Bucky . . . Bucky was just gone.


Bucky had said if they lost him during the battle that Steve would fall apart. He’d been right, and Tony lay awake that night, watching it happen before his eyes.

Steve curled up next to him, head buried in his pillow, hands tucked under his chin, knees pulled up like he was trying to remember what it was like to feel small. He wasn’t crying, no more than he had on the jet back to the compound when he’d been silent and utterly still, no tears tracking down his face, no expression whatsoever.

He didn’t make a sound now, either, but Tony knew if he reached for Steve’s face, his fingers would come away damp.


“What have we done, Tony?” Steve blurted, like he’d been waiting for Tony to press a button that would allow him to voice his anguish. “I lost him. Again. Except this time he’s running from me.”

He raised his head to look at Tony, and for perhaps the first time Tony saw – really saw it – how fucking young Steve was. This was a man his father had talked about like he was an ancient Greek god, a man Tony’d heard and read about for his entire life, a man the whole world knew as a hero, a man who’d led the Greatest Generation through a war to end all wars. But he was a scant thirty years old, and Tony lost sight of that way too often.

Tony put a careful hand on Steve’s arm. Steve did the rest, crawling into Tony’s arms and plastering himself to Tony’s chest, burying his face under Tony’s chin and clinging to him. Tony was stunned, eyes wide, not sure what to do. This, this physical comforting, this was Bucky’s job.

“It’ll be okay, Steve,” Tony tried, though he wasn’t too sure about that. He’d never thought he would see the day that Bucky Barnes would willingly leave Steve Rogers’s side, much less turn his back when Steve was on his knees, sobbing. “What did he mean?”

Steve’s, “What?” was muffled against Tony’s chest.

“When he said he called mercy. That meant more to you than it does to most people, Steve. There’s a story there.”

Steve gasped in a shaky breath and pulled back a little. When Tony got a look at his eyes, Steve seemed to be staring off into the past. His body had relaxed a little under Tony’s hand, though, and his voice was no longer quite as shaky when he spoke.

“When we were little, you know the story. I was always getting into fights. Hell, I was always getting the absolute shit kicked out of me. And Bucky was always pulling me out, standing in front of me like a shield,” Steve’s voice cracked and he pushed his face into the pillow. “All my life I’ve just been hiding behind a goddamn shield.”

“Steve,” Tony whispered, hugging Steve to him, running his fingers up Steve’s back.

Steve kept muttering like he didn’t notice going off on a tangent. “Just as young and innocent as me but always throwing himself in front of me. All because I couldn’t back down from a fight. Started battles I knew he’d have to finish and never gave a damn if it was hard for him!”

Tony ran his hand through Steve’s hair and, after a moment’s hesitation, kissed his forehead, trying to get him to focus on anything besides the pain.

“He tried to teach me to defend myself,” Steve whispered, sounding haunted. “I was ten years old. He said he might not always be around, so I needed to learn. But he was terrified of hurting me. I was so sick, frail. And he knew I was stubborn, knew I hated being weak and wouldn’t fucking admit it. So he made me promise that if he ever hurt me when we were playing, I’d say, ‘mercy’ and he’d know I meant it, know to stop.” Steve paused to swallow the tightness Tony could hear in his throat. “And then when we were older, and we started . . . sleeping together . . . I mean, you’ve seen how he is, right? You know?”

Tony nodded, the memory hitting him low in the gut, warming him uncontrollably, embarrassingly fast. He cleared his throat, trying to shake off the entirely inappropriate reaction to the memory of being fucked like Bucky had done him when he was in bed with a sobbing Steve Rogers.

“And the things I would say when he was . . .” Steve’s eyes went distant, and Tony knew exactly what Steve was remembering. Steve shifted self-consciously, squinting at Tony.

Tony found himself smiling, his hands suddenly feeling too warm on Steve’s skin. He and Steve stared at each other, the silence growing thicker, but not uncomfortable for once. “Go on,” Tony finally whispered, his fingers gripping Steve’s hip.

Steve cleared his throat, smiling weakly. “You know the kinds of things you’ll say to make him keep going. After the first time, he said he was afraid he would have a hard time knowing if I was enjoying myself or truly begging him to stop. So he went back to that childhood code word. Told me if I needed it to stop for any reason, at any time, to tell him, ‘mercy.’ Have mercy.”

Tony sighed in sudden, terrible understanding. “It was your safe word.”

Steve nodded miserably. “We didn’t call them safe words back then, but yes. Bucky gave me a safe word if he ever hurt me, if I ever needed him to stop because it was too much for me to take. I never used it. The first time either of us used it, and it was him.”

Steve bowed his head, covering his face with both hands and curling toward Tony again. Tony held tighter to him. Now he understood the pain he’d seen in both men when Bucky had said those words.

“It’ll be okay, Steve,” Tony whispered against Steve’s hair. But he didn’t even believe himself when the words came out.

It wasn’t really in Tony’s nature to be quiet, but he knew that Steve didn’t need to hear him talking right now. He needed . . . Christ on a cracker, how the hell was Tony supposed to know what he needed?

Thankfully, Steve answered that question for him. After ten to fifteen minutes of clinging to Tony and trying to get himself under control, Steve raised his head again and peered at Tony. He looked like he wanted to speak, like he . . . like he simply wanted.

Tony understood. He needed the same damn thing, God help him. He moved slowly, giving Steve time to stop him, in case he’d misread the look in Steve’s eyes. He slid his fingers through Steve’s hair, running the pads of his fingers down Steve’s jaw and under his chin to lift it.

“Tony,” Steve breathed, desperate and heated as he shifted his entire body closer. “Yeah.”

Tony pressed his lips to Steve’s. There was a moment of stasis where neither of them moved beyond their mouths pressed together, their breaths harsh as they mingled.

Then Steve pulled Tony closer, grabbing at his hair and humming deep in his throat. “Come on,” Steve whispered, biting at Tony’s lower lip and tugging at the waistband of Tony’s sleep pants. “Come on.”

It wasn’t hot and it wasn’t fast, and it certainly wasn’t as fucking filthy as they both knew sex could be. But it was exactly what they both needed in order to get to sleep on the first night of the rest of their lives.

Bright and early the next morning, the team gathered at the round table. The coffee was mediocre and the breakfast was bagels and dry toast. There were two empty chairs around the table; Bucky’s and Clint’s. No one had seen Clint since he’d stormed off the jet when they landed the night before.

They were watching a rundown of the aftermath on the huge blank wall near the dining area, put together courtesy of F.R.I.D.A.Y. Networks were covering the battle non-stop. Reporters had already exposed dozens of government employees who’d taken Hydra operations and made them their own, including several senators who had supposed they could capture the Winter Soldier and make themselves a dictatorship on his shoulders.

Catching the fugitive Avengers in that trap instead of the Winter Soldier had been something they couldn’t pass up.

General Ross happened to be one of the many names attached to the reports, the man who’d given the order to deploy the LMD and the Red Eyes, which was putting everything regarding the Sokovia Accords he’d spearheaded into a new light. People were already calling for full pardons for Steve, Sam, Clint, Scott, and Wanda, saying words like entrapment and false imprisonment.

A few networks were replaying the grainy flash of video where the Holy Ghost appeared to press his lips to the black-clad Avenger everyone was referring to as Major Pain. One network aired the story under the title, ‘Sexual Assault on the Battlefield??’ and questioned whether the Holy Ghost was a sexual predator on top of a budding national hero.

The most interesting thing to come from the day, though, was an achingly beautiful close-up still of one Holy Ghost, now being widely referred to as Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes. He was looking directly above the camera, probably making eye contact with the photographer but seeming as if he was gazing off into the distance, and he was giving a small, mischievous smile, his blue eyes glinting like the purest ice on a sunny day. His hair was pulled back, so you could see the striking resemblance to the old photos.

The video was being played over and over on every network; the Holy Ghost crouched in an improvised foxhole with a beautiful blonde reporter who was gazing at him with stars in her eyes. Him looking out at the carnage that everyone knew he would be wading into in just a few seconds, then turning to the camera and smiling when the cameraman apologized for transmitting his face, unmasked, to the world. “Name’s Bucky,” was all he’d said. Then he’d instructed the two of them on how to get out safely, offering himself up as a distraction for them to use, endearing himself to the world in just a few sentences.

He’d crossed himself, a motion that made Tony shiver every time he saw it – he could hear Bucky’s words explaining the action, that it had been brought on by the belief he was doing the right thing at first, then as a mere mockery of the idea of right and wrong, and finally as a renewal of hope . . . hope that he could be redeemed. Then the video followed the Holy Ghost rolling out into the battle and waltzing down the street with that goddamn sexy swagger of his, off to raise what the reporters were almost unanimously calling ‘Holy Hell’ in the street.

There was no doubt now; the Holy Ghost; America’s newest masked hero (and possible sexual deviant?); who already had an entire line of merchandise made in his image, including Halloween costumes even though it was only July; who had captured the imagination of everyone from the uber-religious for obvious reasons, to the casual atheist who could see the mockery and utter loss of belief in the man’s motions . . . there was no doubt now that the Holy Ghost was Bucky Barnes.

Calls for the pardon of James Buchanan Barnes were the loudest of all. No one cared that the manhunt for the Winter Soldier still raged on. All they knew was that the man, whatever people called him, had saved the Avengers, and subsequently probably saved the country from being overrun by robots controlled by men drunk on power.

The blonde reporter and her cameraman were being interviewed left and right, sharing their impressions of their close encounter with the Ghost.

“He was sweet and gentle. I was terrified, but not really of him. And he . . . he smelled really good? He had no idea that camera was live, he risked his life for us with no expectation of anything in return.”

“Dude had on a Zeppelin shirt under all these weapons, I thought superheroes wore like Under Armour or something. Saved our lives like it was nothing, like we meant something to him.”

One woman standing in the streets of Charlotte with her two children told a reporter, “The Holy Ghost came down here and saved our city even though we ain’t New York. We ain’t DC. I don’t care if the guy did get brainwashed and kill JFK, he’s not brainwashed now, and he made sure Cam Newton didn’t get abducted by a freaking robot, he’s got my damn vote!”

The smile on Steve’s face as he watched the tide of public opinion turn in Bucky’s favor was both beautiful and heartbreaking. “Buck always was the heartthrob.”

Tony soaked all of the news reports in, feeling his shoulders easing, feeling his spine bending as he slumped in literal relief. Could this be it? Could the hiding and lying and fear of being caught all be over, and the Avengers could come out of the shadows once more? Could they even save Bucky, get him pardoned and let him live the normal life that he’d deserved seventy years ago after returning home from war?

Beside him, Steve reached for him and groped for his hand, grabbing it and holding on, staring at the displays with a tight jaw. Steve could feel it too. They all could. Something had eased up. The stranglehold had loosened. They were going to be free. All of them.

The mediocre coffee had gone cold and the bagels had been left mostly untouched when Clint finally made his appearance. He had a duffel bag slung over his shoulder, his motorcycle boots and a leather coat on despite it being nearly 90 degrees already this early in the morning. He held Bucky’s backpack in one hand.

“Clint?” Steve greeted in confusion, shifting in his chair like he was going to stand, then remaining seated as Clint squared his shoulders and gritted his teeth.

“I’m going home.” It wasn’t a request, and Clint’s eyes dared anyone to challenge the statement.

The table was silent, everyone staring. No one was particularly surprised, though. Steve began to nod slowly, sadly. He pushed out of his chair, going to Clint with his head bowed. “I’m sorry to see you go.”

Clint nodded curtly. “You and I both know I can’t stay here.”

Steve nodded again, chastised even though Clint’s words weren’t exactly as harsh as they could be. Steve glanced up at him, wincing. “You’re taking hi – if you hear from him?”

When Clint answered, his voice was colder than the arctic ice Steve had slept in for seventy years. “I won’t tell you if I see him, Cap, so don’t ask me to.”

Steve bowed his head again, nodding in defeat.

“I’m taking his bike too. I need a way home and he won’t be coming back for it.”

Steve glanced up, looking alarmed, eyes widened. He looked like he wanted to argue.

“Steve,” Clint said, harder, eyes boring into Steve. “He won’t be coming back for it. Any of it.” He raised the backpack, which Tony had no doubt Clint had spent some of the morning packing up with Bucky’s most important possessions.

Steve glanced at the rest of them, eyes settling on Tony pleadingly. Tony could barely look at him, knowing the sadness he saw there wasn’t going to go away, not unless Bucky forgave them and came back to rescue Steve Rogers yet again. This was Steve now. This was what he and Steve had done to themselves. Tony shook his head, closing his eyes. They all knew Clint was right.

Steve swallowed hard and offered Clint his hand, bidding him farewell and thanking him again for his loyalty and bravery. Then Steve disappeared down the hallway, and Clint spent a few minutes telling everyone else goodbye.

Tony’s eyes were on the hallway, but he knew Steve needed time. What the hell was he supposed to say, anyway? They’d finally beaten Hydra at something, yay? Too bad that something was breaking a man who’d fought for seventy years to stay in one piece.

So Tony walked with Clint down to the garage, to the corner where Steve’s Harley Davidson Street 750 sat next to the one Bucky had appropriated at some point. It was a Harley as well, but it was the current year’s Softail Breakout, and it was stunning. Bucky had been stunning sitting astride it, too.

Tony had intended to ask Bucky where the hell he’d gotten the thing, but he’d never had a chance. Whenever Bucky had turned up with something, it had never been stolen, and it had never been bought with Tony’s money. Bucky had a stash, a sizeable one, somewhere, Tony was sure of it. Maybe they could trace it . . . Tony shook his head as soon as he thought it. God, it was going to take a long time to accept this loss.

Sadness swept over him like a physical thing and he damn near stumbled into it like a wall. He might never see Bucky again. Steve might never see Bucky again. And Tony knew that Steve Rogers without a Bucky Barnes in his life was more of a wraith than a man who laughed and loved and lived.

There was a chance that Bucky would come back, forgive Steve, let their shared history mend what was broken. Tony would trade his soul for that alone. But Bucky would never forgive Tony, would he? There was nothing there to mend it with, no shared history other than a few months of circling each other hopefully, one half hour or so of incredible, life-changing sex, and the memory of ripping the man’s arm off in a blind rage.

Tony watched morosely as Clint secured his gear to the bike and pulled leather gloves out of the saddlebag. They were Bucky’s, his spare pair of fingerless gloves like the ones he’d worn into battle yesterday. Clint’s leather jacket had armor plating at the elbows and shoulders, and he wore a thin T-shirt and jeans along with his stiff motorcycle boots. Clint had never had a motorcycle for personal use, though, so he’d either gotten this gear expressly to ride with Bucky, or this was Bucky’s stuff and Clint had taken it. Either way, Tony had to admit, Clint looked good in that getup.

Clint zipped the leather all the way to his throat and mounted the Harley, pushing it up to balance and kicking the stand back. He glanced up at Tony with a mirthless smile.

“If you see him,” Tony whispered. “Tell – just take care of him.”

Clint nodded, adjusting his gloves one last time. “I always have.”

Tony offered his hand and Clint took it, shaking it hard. He pulled on Bucky’s helmet as Tony backed away, and with a final motion of his hand that Tony suspected was actually a sign he should probably go look up the meaning of – God, why were Bucky and Natasha the only people who could speak to Clint like that, why had no one else ever tried to learn? – Clint kicked the Hog into gear and roared out of the garage.

Tony stood there for a long time, watching Clint go, the tiny little tracker still in his palm. He had intended to put it on the bike, because he knew Bucky would find Clint eventually, and he knew Clint was taking that bike to give to him. But he hadn’t been able to do it.

He’d hurt Bucky Barnes enough for one lifetime. It was time to let the man go.


Bucky lounged in the shade, his back against a tree, a Carolina Panthers baseball cap pulled over his eyes as he dozed.

He wasn’t particularly worried about his surroundings. Out here he was as safe as he was going to get. He’d already scouted this area with a diligence meant for keeping someone he loved safe, knew it was mostly deserted. Anyone who might possibly come by, this was a farming community, more liable to offer a stranger a lift than to cause him trouble.

And Bucky had been going fast and hard since he’d walked away from the Avengers down in North Carolina nearly eighteen hours ago. He’d hacked his hair off with his Mark II and bought some clothing to hide in plain sight, then made his way overland, only stopping to gather enough food to keep him moving. He deserved a little catnap.

He’d been hunched in the shade against his tree for maybe two hours before he heard a rumble in the distance. He opened one eye to listen, then forced the other open and raised his head, taking a deep breath as he rested his head against the bark. “Okay,” he whispered to himself, a little shaky, a little nervous. Woo boy, new emotions, those were fun. Not really, though.

He climbed to his feet, rolling his neck and making it pop so many times he may as well have been making kettle-corn. He hefted his new backpack onto both shoulders, snapping the band across his chest in case he had to run. Or fight. It had his tac gear in there, his armament. It was . . . kind of heavy.

He wore a thin white Henley and a pair of jeans that the sales girl had assured him made his ass look amazing, so that was a thing.

It was too damn hot to wear more without raising eyebrows, so he’d been keeping his metal hand in his pocket as much as he could. He’d found that as long as he kept the Henley unbuttoned at the chest as far as it would go, no one looked at his hand. Convenient.

He stepped out of the tree line onto the poorly paved two-lane road, ambling over to the double yellow line, his heavy motorcycle boots not making even a whisper on the pavement. He squared himself in the middle of the road, facing toward the rumbling, which was getting louder and louder as the vehicle approached. His Glock rested heavy at the small of his back, just in case.

Bucky took a deep, calming breath. And he waited.

The Softail came into view, chrome glinting in the dappled sunlight, vintage detailing highlighted by the white paint and touches of orange here and there. She was a custom job, and Bucky had to admit, she was sexy as hell.

So was the man riding her, and not just because he’d brought Bucky his bike.

Clint slowed when he came within Bucky’s sightline, then coasted to a stop just a few feet away from where Bucky had planted himself. He balanced with both feet on the ground, then plucked his helmet off, grinning from ear to ear as he looked Bucky up and down. Bucky couldn’t help but return the grin.

Clint tucked the helmet up under his arm, then used both hands to ask, ‘How the hell did you get up here so fast?’

Bucky shrugged nonchalantly, pursing his lips and glancing away as if it had been no trouble at all. Then his face softened and he met Clint’s eyes. ‘I had a date. Couldn’t risk missing it.’

Clint was still grinning, his gray eyes sparkling in the patch of sunlight that streamed through the trees.

Bucky stepped closer, speaking up over the engine noise. “You going my way?”

Clint grabbed the front of Bucky’s shirt and yanked him closer, knocking the bright teal hat off his head so he could get to him and kissing him fiercely. When their lips parted, Clint refused to release his hold, nuzzling his face against Bucky’s instead. “I was afraid you’d disappear on me.”

Bucky closed his eyes, not even trying for bravado. He’d never needed it with Clint. “I don’t have anywhere else to go,” he admitted brokenly.

Clint kissed him again. “You do now,” he practically snarled. “You want to drive home?”

“I’ll ride, if that’s okay? Need a break.”

Clint’s smile could not possibly have gotten wider. Bucky could barely take his eyes off him as he dug around for the second helmet. He got one more kiss in – two more – before slipping the helmet on.

Clint tugged his own helmet back on, then signed, ‘You realize my kids are going to call you Uncle Jimmy, right?’

Bucky laughed. He swept up his hat, which he’d become rather attached to since stealing it in Charlotte, and he gave it to Clint to have him stuff it into his bag. Then he placed a hand on Clint’s shoulder and swung his leg over the back of the Hog, mounting behind Clint and snugging up against him. He kicked the pegs down and settled his booted feet on them, slipping his hands along Clint’s sides, hugging him gratefully.

There weren’t many people in the world he’d give complete control over to, even if it was just to drive a motorcycle that Bucky was riding on. In fact, the number of people had recently been reduced to one.

If Clint had given him the bike and merely asked for a ride to his farm before Bucky went on his way, Bucky would have considered himself lucky, and he would have made that drive the longest, slowest, maybe we should stop for one last hurrah in the woods drive that he could have made it. And he would have said goodbye to Clint and been on his way, because he had no intention of making Clint’s life hard.

But Clint was offering him a home. Bucky didn’t know exactly what that would entail, but it was home. And that was more than Bucky’d had in quite some time.


Two months after the Battle of Trade Street, which had a nice ring to it but Bucky wasn’t sure how that identified it specifically as Charlotte, surely other cities had Trade Streets too, right? But then, Charlotte was the only Trade Street where they were still finding bits and pieces of robot, so . . .

More accurately; two months after Bucky’s heart had been shattered by his best friend and then some robots had happened, Bucky was stretched out in a field, eyes closed to the fading warmth of the sun, a smile on his face as Clint laughed heartily. Clint’s head was on Bucky’s belly, and Bucky was too damn content to see what exactly was happening. Laura was giggling as well, and together the Bartons had a musical kind of laughter; full of love and sweetness and hope.

Bucky loved it here. He could see why Clint had secreted this little piece of normality away from the world.

The night they’d ridden up to the farm on the Harley, Bucky had hung back as Clint had been reunited with his wife and three children for the first time in nearly eight months. It had been hard holding back a tear or two. Purely empathy and all that, nothing more from this deprogrammed killing machine.

Bucky had been damn near sick with nerves – normal society-related interpersonal nerves rather than am I gonna die nerves – when Clint had dragged him over to meet Laura.

As soon as the woman smiled and pulled him into a hug, the nerves had disappeared and never returned. She was sweet and kind and smart enough to know to thank Bucky for stacking firewood for her all those weeks back, and probably out of Clint’s league, but she didn’t mind that and they were happy and perfect. Bucky adored her immediately. He might never understand exactly why she’d welcomed him into her family, but he would step in front of a bullet for her, he knew that.

The children had eyed him warily for exactly seven minutes. He’d charmed them easily, though. Bucky had always been good with children, the younger the better, and the metal arm helped, as did his promises to teach them how to do that thing with the knife when they got older.

The baby, Nate, had stolen Bucky’s heart and never released it.

“At least we’re not outnumbered anymore,” Laura had commented wryly that first night as she and Clint had stood in the doorway to the living room, thinking Bucky was asleep. He’d kept his eyes closed, all three kids snoring softly as they snuggled up against him on the couch.

Bucky had kept the kids, bedded down on the couch cushions on the floor since the guest room wasn’t a guest room just yet, so Clint could have his first night alone with his wife in months.

If that had been his job for the rest of his life, then he would have done it diligently. But after the first week, after they’d worked to turn the spare room into a space for Bucky, Clint had surprised him one night by following him to his room at bedtime. When Bucky had blinked stupidly at him, Clint had dragged him into the bedroom and shrugged as he disrobed, saying he still had custody two nights a week and by the way Laura appreciated him fixing breakfast every morning because it gave her a chance to shower by herself without children everywhere. Laura, Clint had informed him with a twinkle in his eyes, treasured alone time like a rare gem.

Clint and Laura had invited Bucky into their bed several times after that first week of getting acclimated, but he had regretfully declined the invitations, making sure they knew it was fear on his part, and not lack of interest in the offer.

He had imagined what his enhanced strength, his metal arm with its ability to crush titanium, could do to Laura’s petite frame if Bucky miscalculated.

Clint had quickly figured out the source of Bucky’s hesitance, and he’d proposed that he could solve the problem if Bucky would give them a chance. Bucky had tentatively agreed, and so now he spent every Sunday night with both hands tied to the headboard, what Clint jokingly referred to as paying his room and board. It had been a long time since he’d needed a condom, it was strange and a little fun. A lot of fun, actually.

“There will be absolutely no perfect little super soldier babies running around on my watch!” Clint had declared, then expertly slid the condom on with his teeth.

The hardest part of living on a farm with the Bartons, of course, was trying desperately not to miss Steve. And Tony, to some degree, although Bucky had never been wrapped up in Tony. He still missed him. But Steve . . . some nights he could fucking smell him, missed him so much it felt as if he were imploding, trying to hold the pain and anguish in, twisting from the inside with the need to see him, feel him, breathe him in.

Bucky desperately wished he could forgive Steve and go back to the Compound and just bury his face in Steve’s neck, hold on to him and never let go.

All that was tempered by the pain. Steve hadn’t trusted him. Steve had lied to him. Steve had taken the very thing Bucky had fought for seventy years to regain; the right to choose, and he’d snuffed it out. The first chance for Bucky to fight at his side, and Steve had disabled him.

For the first time, Bucky had looked at Steve Rogers and his mind had popped up with ‘same as Hydra’, and the comparison had been sickeningly apt. He’d barely made it to the toilet to throw up the night that had glanced across his mind.

On the nights when Clint wasn’t with him, Bucky didn’t sleep much for fear of dreams about robots with Steve’s energy weapon-blue eyes, for fear of waking up the entire household screaming. After a few weeks, Clint casually changed it from two nights a week to three. And every Sunday, as habitual as attending church would be, Clint and Laura invited Bucky into their king-sized bed, trusting him not to break the flimsy ties, trusting him not hurt either of them, because they claimed he wasn’t a monster. Monsters didn’t sleep in the middle, protected on both sides by angels.

“Just a dude who can stand in for my tractor when it shuts down.”

Bucky hadn’t been forced to pull a plow over his shoulder just yet, because it turned out Clint’s tractor was as damn old as he was, and he remembered how to sweet-talk that machine from the War.

Right now, he was smiling softly in the grass, the sun warming his skin, Clint’s head heavy on his belly. Laura was resting her head on Clint, and her hand was folded gently in Bucky’s flesh fingers, her thumb grazing his knuckles as if she might not realize she was doing it. The older kids cavorted nearby, and the baby was on a blanket next to Laura, belly-laughing as he watched his brother and sister play.

“Days like this,” Clint mused as he wiped the sweat off his brow, “I kinda miss when you were like my own personal icepack.”

“Yeah, the whole slowly freezing to death thing,” Bucky drawled without opening his eyes. “So convenient for hot summer days.”

“I thought we agreed not to tell anymore James-being-tortured stories in front of me,” Laura scolded, and Clint and Bucky both mumbled completely insincere apologies. Bucky did give her hand a gentle squeeze, though. And he also moved his cool metal hand to set it on Clint’s brow, earning him a grateful moan that went straight to parts that could make this embarrassing in front of three children.

“Mom!” Cooper called as he came trudging over, Lila on his heels, both of them looking like they’d made a plan and were going to try to negotiate their way out of a duty. They’d been told to go run and play and tire themselves out so they would sleep in the car. “If we have to go to Grandma’s tonight and Dad can’t go, can’t we at least take Uncle Jimmy with us?”

Bucky cracked one eye open, peering up at both of them. They both knew Bucky couldn’t be seen in public any more than Clint could, so they were definitely leveraging something here. “Wow, you get to see your grandma?” Bucky asked innocently. His tone grew more wistful and reverent as he gazed at the clouds overhead. “I haven’t seen my grandma since the Great Depression.”

Cooper made a disgusted sound and began muttering, and Lila thumped over and sat on Bucky’s chest, shoving her dad’s head over to make room. “My teacher says that’s called a ‘guilt trip’,” she told Bucky, scowling the same scowl Bucky loved to see on her mother.

“Really?” Bucky asked, utterly shocked. “Because guilt trips are what we called going to see our grandmas.”

Clint was laughing and not trying to hide it. Laura somehow maintained the mom scowl, and she sat up to glare at the kids playfully. “You know we can’t take Daddy or Uncle Jimmy with us. You know they’re staying behind to put the new tile and floor in the house. And you know you’re not getting out of seeing Grandma. So go inside, shower, and we’re on the road in thirty minutes.”

“Yes, ma’am,” they both responded, dejected but obedient as Cooper helped Lila to her feet and they headed inside.

Bucky settled back with his eyes closed, smile flitting as he tried – and failed – not to hear Clint and Laura getting one last goodbye in. A few minutes later, Clint nudged his hip with his bare toes.

“Come on, Uncle Jimmy,” he teased, offering Bucky his hand.

“You know how weird it is for you to call me that, right?” Bucky asked, deadpan.

“Ugh! Don’t kinkshame me, that’s one of the rules.”

“It’s totally not one of the rules,” Laura called over her shoulder as she strolled toward the house.

Bucky looked between them, scandalized, mouth hanging open. “It’s not one of the rules?” he shouted at Clint.

Clint just laughed, holding to Bucky’s shoulder to remain upright as he practically guffawed, pointing at Bucky’s face.

“I’m kinkshaming the hell out of you tonight, Barton!”

“I look forward to it,” Clint crooned, hip-checking Bucky as they walked to the front porch. He slid his fingers into Bucky’s, squeezing gently.

Exactly twenty-seven minutes later, Laura had all three kids in the car, packed, clean, not complaining, and ready to go. Bucky knew drill sergeants who’d have loved her. Clint and Bucky stood by the driveway, saying goodbye. Laura wrapped Clint up in a hug, kissing him and whispering in his ear, something that made him smile softly.

Bucky ducked his head, peering off at the setting sun. They never asked for privacy, not from him, but he gave it all the same, whenever he could. Then to his mild surprise, Laura moved to him and hugged him as well. The farewell kiss she gave him wasn’t on his cheek, and he must have made a squeak of surprise, along with a spasm of both hands as he tried to figure out where he was allowed to rest his hands, because Clint was laughing at him when Laura let him go. Gah, new types of torture! That was why he liked being tied up, no anxiety about where he could or couldn’t touch her!

“You two take care of each other,” she ordered, pointing a finger at them both. “Don’t mess up my kitchen!”

“Yes, ma’am,” they both said diligently. They stood and waved until the car was out of sight, then Clint shot Bucky a devious sideways glance. “House to ourselves.”

“As much noise as we want,” Bucky added.

“All week.”

Bucky didn’t wait to get inside. He pulled Clint to him and kissed him, kind of dirty, kind of rough, earning an approving moan from Clint as he dragged him toward the house. He grinned as he ended the kiss at the foot of the porch steps, then grabbed Clint by his hips and picked him up, tossing him over his shoulder like a sack of flower.

Clint didn’t fight, didn’t struggle. He just laughed as he hung there, letting Bucky carry him inside as easily as a bale of straw. Bucky laughed at him. “Hey, I’m not going to complain about a room with a view, okay,” Clint said as he smacked Bucky’s ass. It was the same pair of jeans, the ones the sales girl had said made Bucky’s ass look amazing. Clint and Laura had both agreed.

Bucky carried Clint up the stairs without even breathing hard, all the way to his bedroom in the back corner of the house, with the double bed that forced them to snuggle close and hold each other all night, and the window that faced Northeast, which was the only direction it was even remotely possible to approach the house from safely. Bucky kept a sniper rifle below a floorboard at that window, making Northeast one of the least desirable directions from which to approach the Barton farm if you were there to make trouble.

Bucky tossed Clint on the bed and climbed on top of him, kissing him hungrily, letting it go messy because they both loved that and it was hard to go hard and messy with a house full of kids, even in a soundproofed room.

No such issues today. Bucky yanked at Clint’s clothing, tugging his jeans off, pawing at his shirt demandingly, grunting at Clint when he wasn’t fucking fast enough. Clint was laughing again by the time he was naked, stretched out on Bucky’s quilt.

“We got all week, Buck, be nice to my shirts, huh?”

Bucky shook his head and dove in, biting at Clint’s belly and licking, sucking until Clint was squirming and there was sure to be a mark there in a few minutes.

“Still got clothes on, Buck,” Clint gasped.

Bucky nodded. He still had his jeans on, though they were unzipped, at least. He’d lost his shirt, of course, because Clint always went for the shirt first. He had a special love for the metal arm, loved exposing it, loved feeling it against his bare skin, loved grabbing onto it as the plates shifted under his fingers.

Clint dragged his hand down Bucky’s arm, trailing his ring finger along the ridge of the oddly shaped plate right on the front of what Bucky supposed was his armpit.

Bucky started chuckling, the sound low and sort of mean against Clint’s belly. “So much kinkshaming coming your way, buddy,” he promised, licking a trail from Clint’s belly up to his chest.

“Oh, come on!”

“I bet there’s a word for metal-loving weirdos like you,” Bucky growled, digging his teeth into Clint’s collarbone.

If Clint tried to respond with a real word, he failed miserably because the only sound he made was a sort of pleased gurgle. Bucky grinned and moved to his neck, kissing ever so gently along the tender skin, making Clint hum and begin to writhe helplessly, his hips moving, his spine bowing, but trying to keep his head and neck still so Bucky wouldn’t stop what he was doing.

His hands were moving, though, almost frantically, trying to shove Bucky’s jeans down, knowing as soon as Bucky was able he’d be inside him.

Bucky pushed to his knees to help, and Clint got him out of his remaining clothing with skillful, wicked, groping hands. As his jeans hit the floor beside the bed, Bucky surged up between Clint’s legs, rutting against him, shoving at his inner thighs to force them wider apart, using his hips as a blunt instrument to get in where he wanted.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Clint kept repeated, breathing out the words like a prayer, his eyes closed, a smile curving his lips. Bucky bit at his lower lip and pulled it between his teeth, then let go and cocked his head curiously, waiting to see if it was possible to bite the smile off Clint’s face. It was not, apparently.

So Bucky tried to kiss it off.

That sort of worked, and oh boy did it have positive side-effects too. Bucky was achingly hard by the time that filthy fucking kiss ended, his lips burning, Clint’s lips bright red and bitten. Clint’s breath had gone ragged, too, and Bucky fucking loved the way he sounded when he was struggling to breathe.

Was that a kink? Did he need to be kinkshamed for it?

He bent and whispered his newest confession into Clint’s ear, rolling his hips as evidence of just how much it turned him on.

“Cheeerist,” Clint groaned, laughing with very little actual humor. “I think we can work with our mutual perversions right now,” he added, desperately grasping around for Bucky’s left hand. He stared up at Bucky, eyes glinting in a way that Bucky knew should have made him nervous, but past experience had trained his body to instantly respond to that look in ways decidedly different than fear.

He pushed his already-leaking cock against Clint’s, sliding them together, his eyes never leaving Clint’s. Clint got hold of his metal fingers and jerked his arm, forcing Bucky to reposition and shift his weight so he didn’t fall flat on his face. Clint pulled his hand and set Bucky’s palm against Clint’s throat. Bucky instinctively squeezed, gently, just enough to watch his fingers make little shadows out of Clint’s skin.

Clint let out an atrocious groan as soon as Bucky exerted pressure.

“Oh, my God,” Bucky whispered, eyes falling shut, head bowed the same way he’d once prayed at an altar.

His hand never left Clint’s neck as they retrieved the bottle of lubricant and used it liberally, which made for some interesting contortions, and Clint was exceedingly good at contorting. They both knew when extra lube was going to be required, and this evening definitely had that flavor to it.

Clint managed to convince Bucky to let him roll to his belly, even though it meant kissing was harder. Bucky’s hand was still on his neck, arm wrapped over his shoulder now, Bucky’s weight leaning on his elbow, chest pressed to Clint’s back. In fact, this was a good position. This was . . . yeah, fuck yeah, Bucky could roll with this.

He stretched as far as he could go, kissing at Clint’s spine, all the way back up to his nape. He leaned on his elbow again, pulling at the front of Clint’s neck to make him shove off the mattress a little. The head of his cock pushed at Clint, threatening to breach him.

Bucky put his lips to Clint’s ear, the one his body screamed at him was the wrong side, can’t hear in that ear but Bucky ignored that. Instead, he nuzzled behind the ear, kissing skin tenderly. Then he whispered, “You don’t want to hear me telling you I love you, it’s time to take the aids out.”

The same thing he’d told Clint every time they fucked since the night Bucky had realized he’d broken that rule. When Clint had stopped taking them out, that was when Bucky’d known they were in trouble.

Clint turned his head, shoving his cheek against Bucky’s nose and mouth, turning a bit more so he could catch a half a kiss. “Love you, Buck,” he whispered.

Bucky hummed wordlessly, his chest and belly warming and churning, his fingers tightening on Clint’s neck, and he thrust his hips forward, slowly, carefully, pushing into Clint with a quiet, plaintive moan.

Clint gasped out, and when he tried to pull air back in it was shaky and loud. Difficult for him. Bucky groaned and moved his hand so that his thumb and index finger rested right under the bone of Clint’s jaw, where he could manipulate Clint’s head, make him face where he wanted. The rest of his hand was clasped over Clint’s windpipe, in charge of how much air he got in, how much he let out.

Bucky jerked Clint’s head to the side and kissed him harder, thrusting forward to be able to reach. Clint whimpered into his mouth, breaths noisy and strained, good fucking God why was that so hot, shuddering under him, muscles clinching around Bucky.

“Mm, there we go, Clint,” Bucky cooed, nuzzling his nose against Clint’s. “Come on, sweetheart, tighten up for me.”

“Fuck,” Clint gasped as he followed orders, tightening his ass muscles around Bucky until it was almost painful.

Bucky rocked his hips, forcing his cock deeper through those tight muscles that fought back.

“Yeah, Buck!” Clint cried weakly, and Bucky squeezed his throat tighter, feeling it against his palm with Clint tried to swallow.

Clint made a sound that Bucky wasn’t quite sure he’d heard Clint make before; half whimper, half sigh. 100 percent debauched moan.

“Good God, you really are enjoying this, huh?” Bucky teased. It was the same voice he almost always used during sex, when he knew his partner liked to be a little ashamed of himself. The type that loved to get on his hands and knees, loved to get fucked by someone brutal and twisted inside, loved to hear a voice that was a combination of the playground bully who was amazed that this kid likes to eat dirt, and the doting first crush who was amazed that this kid was so fucking perfect. That type tended to find Bucky. Or maybe it was the other way around.

“Buck,” Clint begged, his voice hoarse and struggling against Bucky’s hand. He shoved his ass back against Bucky, desperate, searching, tightening around him. “Jesus. Oh, Jesus.”

“Yeah, you need Jesus alright,” Bucky drawled, slamming his hips against Clint’s ass in retaliation, forcing his way through tightened muscles that were obviously growing fatigued, failing. Bucky smacked the side of Clint’s ass, getting mostly meat but some hipbone as well. “Did I tell you to stop fucking fighting me, Barton?”

Clint’s hands twisted in the quilt. He groaned pitifully, rotating his hips like he was begging Bucky to pound into him, or maybe to spank him again, Bucky’d never actually done that to him before. He loosened the muscles inside him, and Bucky was quick to take advantage, thrusting in hard and fast, twice, three times, slapping his hips against Clint’s ass, forcing a cry that wrenched out of Clint’s throat against Bucky’s palm.

Then Clint tensed his muscles again, fighting back like he’d been ordered, and Bucky shouted in surprise and pleasure. He shoved his face against Clint’s back. “Fuck! Christ, yeah. Jesus, you’re so good at that, doll!”

Clint could only gasp for air, fingers still clutching the quilt hard enough to pull it up at its hospital corners. Bucky bent over him, using his other hand to swipe through Clint’s hair, petting him, soothing him, encouraging and praising him.

“Okay?” he asked breathlessly.

Clint nodded, offering a sultry moan as he leaned into Bucky’s other hand.

“Let me hear you, sweetheart,” Bucky murmured, loosening his hold on Clint’s neck, stretching so he could press his lips to the pulse point. The stretch shoved his dick deeper and they both moaned.

“Green,” Clint rasped. “Fuck. Fuck, yeah, green light, babe, come on.”

Bucky dragged his lips up, kissing at Clint’s jaw, nosing along his neck to his ear. “If you can’t talk with my hand there, we need something else,” he whispered.

Clint had relaxed his body during the intermission, and Bucky was rolling his hips slowly, cock moving inside Clint just enough to remind them both that Bucky was balls deep inside Clint and could stay that way pretty much as long as Clint needed him to.

“What do you suggest?” Clint asked. He sounded like he’d been eating sandpaper, his voice scratchy and heated. He made a small huffing sound every time Bucky thrust into him, and soon they were more like whimpering sighs. He had a nice sheen of sweat covering his back now, and Bucky’s goal was to get his whole body that way before he was done.

Bucky moved his kisses to the back of Clint’s shoulder, licking the sweat off and moaning softly at the taste.

“Fuck, Bucky!” Clint cried with a full-body shiver. “God, please. I just . . . I need . . . need you.”

Bucky raised his head, glancing around the room. They’d used the squeeze technique a couple times when Clint and Laura had stuffed a bandana in Bucky’s mouth, one of them squeezed his hand twice, and if Bucky squeezes back it’s all okay and keep going. But that wouldn’t work with just him and Clint, not with the way they went after each other. They needed something more noticeable, more jarring, for Clint to call Bucky off if he was in trouble.

“Hold on,” Bucky purred into Clint’s ear, then he wrapped one hand under Clint’s hips, the other under Clint’s chest, and he pushed in as deep as he could to make sure he wasn’t going to slip out, flattening against Clint and then rolling both of them to the foot of the bed. When he had Clint face down again, he rolled his hips in slow, deep thrusts that had Clint crying out and cursing and begging Bucky to slow down or he was going to come way too soon.

Bucky obeyed, shoving deep one last time and staying there, leaning over to nuzzle into the back of Clint’s neck, right under his hair line. He threaded his fingers with Clint’s and Clint squeezed them affectionately. Bucky found himself smiling, tilting until he could reach, stealing a kiss. Then another. Clint’s body began to go pliant under him, letting him in, letting him sink impossibly deeper as he rocked into him.

Clint’s fingers in Bucky’s began to curl, just two of them, until Clint was holding Bucky’s hand, making the ASL symbol for ‘I love you’ as he clung to him. Bucky couldn’t tell if Clint even knew he was doing it, or if Clint had suffered the same warmth stealing over him as their hands had come together.

“Fuck,” Bucky gasped against Clint’s lips, frantically trying to get another kiss. “Fuck, doll.”

Clint laughed softly, the vibrations traveling through both their bodies. “James Barnes, did you forget what you were doing?” he scolded.

“Yes,” Bucky hissed. He kissed Clint again, then reached down and tugged at Clint’s hip until they were both on their knees. “This okay?” he asked belatedly, still stretched taut so he could kiss Clint, over and over, fingers still twined.

Clint nodded, still highly amused but also giving Bucky those soft little gasps he sometimes did when it felt good but he knew Bucky was about to change the rhythm on him and anticipated that it was about to feel even better.

Bucky hooked his arm under Clint’s knee, then he moved his own knee so it was outside Clint’s other leg instead of between. A tug and leaning his weight back toward the center of the bed, and suddenly they were both on their sides.

Clint groaned and stretched, pushing his ass back against Bucky when Bucky almost slipped out of him.

“That’s it,” Bucky whispered into his ear, pulling at Clint’s chin so he was looking over his shoulder at Bucky. He ran his hand down Clint’s body, fingers sliding over ridges of hard-won muscles, gliding through sex-damp sweat. Bucky rolled his hips gently, making sure he was back inside. Then he gripped Clint’s hip and shoved in deeper, his hand dragging down onto Clint’s thigh, pushing between his legs to grab a handful of Clint’s inner thigh and pull it up and over his own hip.

It opened Clint up again, made thrusting into him easier. Made Clint groan appreciatively as he shoved his head back into Bucky. Bucky slowed, letting them both enjoy the slow slide of his cock into Clint’s ass, spreading him, delving deeper. Bucky kissed the back of his head, taking a sniff of his hair, grinning into it.

“You called an audible on me,” Clint complained, moaning as he rotated his ass around and slowly fucked himself on Bucky’s cock. His movements were sensual now, no more of the desperation or demand left in him. This was no longer merely fucking, and they both knew it.

“I know. Sorry,” Bucky whispered into Clint’s ear. And he really was. “I was going to have you bang on the metal footboard if you were about to die.” He threaded his fingers through Clint’s again, bringing their joined hands up to press against Clint’s chest, hugging Clint to him, burying his face in Clint’s neck, his thrusts slow and deep. “I’ll fuck you rough tonight,” he promised, voice pared down to a deep growl. “But I . . . needed . . . oh God, Barton, fuck you!”

Clint had tightened up again, shimmying his hips, shoving back at Bucky, trying to get closer to him, as if that were possible when Bucky was already buried to the hilt inside him. Clint laughed at his reaction, but then grew serious once more as they both tried to get closer, both tried to reach for kisses, both sighed and gasped softly as they moved with well-practiced ease that came not only from fucking together, but also fighting together.

“Needed this,” Bucky managed to finish his thought finally. “God, I need you, Clint.”

“Love you,” Clint gasped out. “Love you, Buck.”

Bucky pressed his face against Clint’s neck, his lips able to feel the words as Clint repeated them over and over.

Clint was doing all the work now, moving himself as Bucky held himself still, pushing against the way Bucky held his leg by the inner thigh to keep him open and vulnerable. fucking himself on Bucky’s cock. Bucky could only hold on as Clint writhed in his arms.

He dragged his nose and mouth up Clint’s cheek, kissing it and then gasping out, “I’d be lost without you.”

Clint shook his head in denial, but Bucky knew it was true.

He let go of Clint’s thigh and held his hand out, making the sign with his pinky and thumb and index finger all out, the middle and ring fingers folded to his palm, showing his palm to tell Clint he loved him in the most intimate way they knew to speak to each other.

Clint reached with his free hand, making the same sign again, pressing it against Bucky’s. They held their hands there, pressed hard together against Clint’s chest as Bucky finally began thrusting into him again.

They both groaned when Bucky worked in deep. Clint was breathing harder, desperate little gasps and whimpers, giving Bucky the same little shameful thrill he would have gotten if he’d been holding Clint down by his neck and forcing him to beg for every little breath.

This, though . . . this was so much better.

Clint pushed back at him, forcing Bucky almost to lay flat, but not quite. A lot of Clint’s weight was on him now, though, and he hugged Clint tighter with his free hand, fucking up into him, letting Clint match every thrust with a push back of his own.

“What do you need?” Bucky gasped into Clint’s ear. “I’ll give you anything you need, doll.”

“I’m gonna come, Buck,” Clint warned, and he twined his legs with Bucky’s, tucking his under Bucky’s like he was trying to use Bucky’s strength and weight to strap himself down. “God, not yet! Please. Please!”

Bucky grinned and took his cue from what Clint’s body was begging for, rolling flat on his back and pulling Clint with him, sliding his ankles over Clint’s to hold his legs in place, forcing Clint open, holding him down. He reached around from under him to hold Clint’s arms down too. Clint was helpless, flayed open on top of Bucky, able to move his hips, to set the rhythm, but allowed to do nothing else.

All he could do was fuck himself on Bucky’s cock, and try to fight against a super soldier’s hold as he tried not to come.

Bucky thrust up into him, reveling in the slide in and out and back again, getting less controlled and more wanton the closer he got to his own orgasm. Clint’s sounds were fucking intoxicating, they were goddamn filthy, and Bucky begged him for more of them.

“Christ, Clint,” Bucky whispered as Clint stretched his body out, resting his head on Bucky’s shoulder with his eyes squeezed tight. “Good God, the sounds you make! You’re a damn menace.”

“Bucky,” Clint pleaded, losing himself, panting, every breath sweet to Bucky’s ears.

Bucky stuck his face against Clint’s cheek. “I don’t know what you’re asking me for, sweetheart, but Jesus fuck I’ll do it. I’ll do anything you want, doll, just keep making that goddamn sound for me!”

Clint made the sound again, a sensual, languid moan that ended with a hitch of his breath, Bucky’s name lost in his throat.

“Oh God, yeah, C,” Bucky responded, more urgently, nipping at Clint’s ear lobe, thrusting up into him, harder, faster. “Fuck, I could come from that sound alone.”

“Buck,” Clint rasped, voice greedy and laden with lust and desire and something deeper that they rarely allowed themselves. “Come in me, Buck, please! I’ll keep it there the rest of the night, I swear I will. Please!”

Bucky pressed his lips to the base of Clint’s ear. “Mm, where else would I come for you, doll, hmm? What else would I do with this load besides getting it as deep in you as I can, huh? Save it for next time, save it for tonight when I roll you over.”

That was another of Clint’s kinks, one Bucky’d had sort of a hard time being convinced to do for him. Clint had resorted to begging him to try it. He loved being woken up pressed into the mattress, Bucky either already inside him or breaching him as Clint woke, metal hand over his mouth to cover any noises he might make. Sometimes he came before he was even fully awake. That had convinced Bucky pretty fast that it was okay to try it, as long as he warned Clint before they fell asleep.

Clint responded to the promise with a loud, desperate moan, his entire body shuddering. Bucky held to him harder, possibly leaving bruises behind, but he was too close to be completely in charge anymore.

Clint thrust his hips up and then slammed back down again, shoving Bucky’s cock deep, tearing cries out of them both. Bucky slid his hands down Clint’s arms, still pulling them back so he was restrained, but getting a grasp of both his hands now, clutching at them, holding tight. He pushed both arms out, so Clint’s arms were stretched outward, like a bird in flight, like a crucifix, laid bare and paying for the sins of his wicked lover.

“Fuck, C,” Bucky gasped urgently as he felt the pleasure begin to coil in his groin. “Fuck, doll, you fucking got me this time. You got me. Jesus Christ, those goddamn sounds you’re making, you sound so fucking good!”

“You gonna come, Buck?” Clint asked, voice gone low and pleading.

Bucky’s mouth was still pressed to his cheek, breaths harsh against the edge of Clint’s mouth, obviously fighting back the inevitable. Clint turned his head and kissed him, murmuring to him.

“Don’t you fucking do it,” Bucky snarled, clamping down tighter on Clint’s body so he could barely move. “You goddamn evil bastard, don’t you dare!”

Clint smirked, then he made another one of those goddamn life-changing, orgasm-inducing, sin-eating sounds, throwing his head back, eyed closed, hips rocking, making this particular motherfucking sound feel like it was trying to be Bucky’s name on the tip of his forked fucking tongue.

Bucky came with an enraged shout, bucking his hips up, fucking Clint upside down and messy, shoving his pulsing cock as deep he could go, crying out Clint’s name, begging for clemency, for salvation, cursing him in the same breaths, begging for Clint’s lips on his, pleading as he held them both down, nailed to the mattress as he came so hard and long he could feel it running back out of Clint’s body and all over Bucky again before it was over.

So much for keeping it inside him all night.

Clint was still making those godawful sounds, those moans that made him sound like the only thing that might shut him up was maybe a hard cock in his mouth. Bucky pulled out with a full-body shudder and another shout of near-anger, and he shoved Clint off him, rolling him until Clint was pushing up onto all fours, breathless and grinning. Bucky grabbed Clint’s hips and slid himself under him, taking Clint’s dripping cock into his mouth and sucking like Clint’s spunk was the fountain of youth, and Bucky was a man on his last legs.

Clint still made that sound, though, as he reached between his spread legs and grabbed a handful of Bucky’s hair and fucked his mouth. God, had Clint always made that painful moan, the one that told Bucky’s cock if Clint didn’t get it inside him he was going to fucking die. It only took a few of Clint’s moans, a few dozen thrusts of his thick cock into Bucky’s mouth, for Bucky to be hard and straining again.

Clint noticed, because Clint Barton didn’t miss anything, and he bent and kissed Bucky’s belly as he fucked Bucky’s mouth, then he kissed Bucky’s hip, the juncture of his groin. His fingers tightened in Bucky’s hair, shoving his cock to the back of Bucky’s throat, knowing Bucky could take the abuse, knowing Bucky’s sinful heart and soul and tongue wanted the abuse. His other fingers found their way to Bucky’s balls, massaging them, bringing his cock fully hard and aching for contact again.

“As soon as you’re done with your little snack,” Clint gasped out, trying to sound smug but merely managing to sound absolutely wrecked as Bucky laid out under him and took him all the way to the back of his throat. “I’m hopping on this for a ride,” Clint promised as he began to stroke Bucky languidly, lubing him up for a second go. “Make sure I’ve got enough supplies for tonight like your promised.”

Bucky grasped for his hips, dragging his nails down tender skin, urging him to go faster, harder, begging him to fuck his mouth and come for him, wanting desperately to taste hm. He signed as much, using one hand to beg Clint because his mouth was busy.

“God, Buck,” Clint gasped. He twisted his fingers cruelly in Bucky’s hair. “Fuck, your hands are just as dirty as your mouth. God! Mouth so full of cock you can’t even beg with it.”

He probably would have kept talking, but he flinched and folded over, holding Bucky’s hair hard to keep him immobile, and then he was coming in Bucky’s mouth. Pulse after pulse, sliding over Bucky’s tongue, swallowing it down. Clumsy fingers begging for more in sign because his tongue was too busy to do it.

When Clint had been sucked dry and managed to get away from Bucky’s mouth, he rolled again, able to avoid Bucky’s reaching hands like a clever little spy, and then he straddled Bucky, sinking Bucky’s hard cock into him again for the second time in an hour.

Bucky didn’t have the voice to scream anymore.

Clint had just found his evil, greedy rhythm when his phone began to ring.

They both groaned.

“That’s not the Ass-emble call is it?” Bucky gritted out, shoving up into Clint hard, chasing an orgasm that was being all coy and shit. This second one was going to take a while, and they both knew it. They both counted on it.

Clint nodded breathlessly and leaned over, plastering himself to Bucky’s chest. “Roll me,” he ordered, and Bucky did. They wound up in the same position, just near the end of the bed where Clint could reach the ringing phone that was in his jeans, which were hanging off the footboard where Bucky had tossed them.

When he answered the phone, he didn’t bother stilling the motion of his hips. In fact, he might have picked up his pace.

“Dirty,” Bucky whispered. “God! You’re dirty!”

Clint grinned crookedly at him, bringing his finger to his lips to shush him. “You’ve reached your last ditch call for help,” he said in a smooth voice, one that definitely did not belong to a man with a large cock currently up his ass. “How can Hawkeye help you with your current cock up?”

Fuck a duck, Clint was going to make every possible sex pun he knew during this conversation as he rode Bucky’s dick, Bucky could see it in the man’s clever eyes. Bucky jammed his fist between his teeth, biting hard so he wouldn’t laugh . . . or come, not just yet.


Steve winced when Clint spoke. Part of him had been hoping Clint wouldn’t bother answering, the other part was ashamed to have obviously caught Clint in the middle of something when it wasn’t an actual emergency.

“You sound like you’re busy, I can call back,” he offered.

“No, it’s fine,” Clint drawled. He was breathing hard, though. Steve knew he had a farm to take care of, felt bad about pulling him away from an apparently heavy job. “I was just getting started here, I got time.”

He sounded amused, but Steve wasn’t sure he was part of the joke.

“What’s up, Cap? Got a hard job?”

Steve fiddled with the papers on his desk, his fingers sliding over the name embossed on the top one. “No, actually, this is good news for once. We’ve all been issued pardons.”

“Seriously?” Clint sounded more genuine now, less like he was smirking.

“Even Bucky,” Steve answered the question Clint hadn’t asked out loud. “I’ve got yours here. I can send it certified mail, but I didn’t think you’d want it going through official channels, to your farm.”

“Yeah, no, I don’t. I do want it, though. Rather have it in my hand if anyone comes knocking.”

“I thought that might be the case. I can . . . bring it to you?” Steve offered hesitantly. He didn’t want to suggest Clint come to them; he knew Clint wouldn’t do that unless there was no other choice. He also didn’t think Clint wanted Steve showing up at his home, either. But he would leave it up to Clint to offer alternative options. “I’ve got Buck’s here, too. I thought . . . well, I thought you’d be more likely to know how to contact him than I would. Maybe I could bring his to you, you can get it to him?”

Clint hummed over the line. Steve waited, heart in his throat, for any sign that Clint might already have been in touch with Bucky, that he might know if Bucky was okay. There’d been several sightings in the last couple months, most of them utterly ridiculous, starting or ending with the Holy Ghost is my baby’s daddy. There were other, more legitimate sightings, of course. A man with a metal prosthesis – or was it just silver duct tape? – robbing a bank. A man with long, dark hair and ice-white eyes saving a woman from a mugging and then disappearing before police could show. A Superhero convention where a rumor had started that one particularly convincing cosplayer had been the real Holy Ghost, there to cause mischief and soak up the adulation.

“Yeah, bring his too,” Clint finally decided. “If he pops up, I’ll be sure to give it to him.” He made an oomph sound, like he’d just dropped something heavy, or maybe run into a wall.

Steve scowled. “Barton?”

“I’m okay. Damn tractor, always being a bitch.” Steve heard metal clank, like Clint may have just whacked said unruly tractor with something.

Steve smiled fondly. He hadn’t actively realized it, but he’d missed Clint a little bit. “When’s a good time to come by?”

“Tomorrow works. Any time this week, in fact. Laura’s gone with the kids. You can help me tile the damn kitchen backsplash and lay the goddamn new floor. Having a super soldier around who’s willing to do the heavy lifting would probably be super handy.” He made another oomph sound, and Steve smiled fondly. That tractor must have been broken for real this time if it was giving him a hard time. Maybe Tony would come with Steve and fix it for Clint.

“Tomorrow it is, then,” Steve agreed warmly. “I’ll help you do whatever it is that’s kicking your ass when I get there.”

“Somehow I think it’ll already be done by then, Cap,” Clint said, voice strained with amusement and effort. “See you tomorrow.”

“Yep,” Steve said, and Clint ended the call.

Steve set his phone down with a sigh. He had Bucky’s phone number programmed into it, and Tony had assured him that Bucky’s phone was still operational, though Bucky had somehow disabled the remote GPS on it so they weren’t able to even get a read on where he was. They could call it, though. And it would ring. And ring. And eventually Bucky’s voice would answer, asking Steve to leave a message.

It was the same voicemail that Bucky’d created when Tony had first given him the phone, his voice gentle and amused at the thought that anyone would try to reach him. ‘I’m always right here beside you, why do I need a voicemail?’

Steve had called it more often than he probably should have in the last two months, just to hear Bucky’s voice.

After sitting and staring and fighting himself for perhaps an hour, he tried it one more time. He actually had something worth saying in a message this time, he could do more than hastily end the call before the beep and then feel like a spectacular asshole and failure for the rest of the night, like all the calls before.

The phone rang its requisite number of times, each one making Steve’s belly flip flop and his skin tingle.

Then Bucky’s voice answered, soft and low and smiling. “Hey, Stevie.”

Steve went blank, shock and panic running through him like lightning. “Buck?” he finally gasped.

Bucky hummed gently, a sound he made more often when he was fucking you than when he was talking to you. He was silent after that, but Steve could tell he was still on the line, waiting. Steve could almost hear his thoughts; you called me, pal, spit it out.

“Uh . . . I was going to leave you a message,” Steve stuttered out.

“I can hang up,” Bucky drawled. “Let you call back and leave it.”

“No! I mean . . . no, it’s uh, it’s good to hear your voice. It’s good . . .” Steve swallowed hard, trying to settle his frantic heartbeat, clear his mind and speak intelligibly. I’ve missed you. I love you. I’m so sorry. Please, God, please come back. You were the first person to see me as worthy. You’re the only thing in my goddamn messed up life that’s ever made breathing easy.

“Captain Rogers?” F.R.I.D.A.Y said with clear concern. “Do you need assistance? Your heart rate is –”

“I’m fine, Friday, thank you,” Steve barked out, feeling his face heating.

Bucky had been waiting patiently. But when Steve put his phone back to his ear, he heard Bucky sigh. He’d obviously overheard F.R.I.D.A.Y. “Doing okay, pal?” he asked, voice soft like he was trying to cover the sadness. He didn’t try to cover the concern, though, and Steve could see Bucky sitting by his bed, mopping his feverish brow, smiling bravely and refusing to let Steve see the fear and sadness.

“No,” Steve gasped as he tried to force the memory back and focus on now. Why had he done this? This had been a horrible idea. He bowed his head, squeezing his eyes closed. “Are you? Are you okay? Are you safe? Do you have somewhere to stay, food, clothes? Did you ever get in touch with Barton? He took your bike, I hoped he’d get it to you. Some of the reports said you walked away from Charlotte bleeding badly, I didn’t know. Did you heal okay? I –”

“Steve, I’m fine. I’ve been fine.”

“Oh,” was all Steve could think to say.

“CB radio told me about the pardons,” Bucky said after it became clear that Steve was no longer capable of intelligent conversation. “I’d like mine in hand.”

“Of course,” Steve blurted, standing like he could take the pardon to Bucky right then. “Just tell me how to get it to you. I’ll do whatever you need. I can –”

“Just bring it with you to Clint’s tomorrow.”

Steve hadn’t realized how far his hopes had been raised until they came crashing down again. He nodded as he sank back into his cushy office chair, swallowing hard and trying to maintain his composure. Bucky deserved that much, deserved to be able to walk away without the knowledge that he’d leave Steve a blubbering mess behind him. He wasn’t Steve’s keeper, and he deserved a life free of the responsibility he’d taken on as a child. Even if that life wasn’t anything to do with Steve.

CB radio. So Clint Barton was the last man on earth that Bucky Barnes trusted and kept in touch with.

Once Steve was confident of his voice, he said, “I’ll make sure he has it waiting for you.”

“Thanks, Steve,” Bucky huffed. “I gotta go, pal. You be good.”

“Buck, wait!” Steve gasped. He was gripping the pen he’d had on his desk so hard that it was creaking, threatening to break. He held his breath, staring out the window at the practice run Bucky had summarily dismantled months ago. They still didn’t know if the new version could best him. No one around had the skill level to test it.

“Steve?” Bucky finally prodded. “Ain’t got all day, Ace, things to do.”

“I . . . Bucky, are you happy?”

Bucky sighed softly, an exasperated sound that made Steve wince expectantly. “Are you?” was all Bucky said in return.

Steve’s throat constricted, his mind glancing over the past two months like a rock skipping over water. “No,” he answered brokenly. “Not without you.”

Bucky hummed again, the sound deep and familiar and making Steve’s entire body shiver. “Then why do you think my answer’d be anything different, huh? Fuckin’ hell, Steve, what do you think?”

Steve couldn’t find his voice for long seconds, couldn’t reply to Bucky’s bitter curse. Even when Bucky offered a quiet, “Be seeing you, pal,” Steve couldn’t force himself to speak, to beg Bucky not to hang up, not yet, please God, just keep talking to me, don’t leave me again, Bucky! He couldn’t even manage to say goodbye.

He sat clutching the phone for long minutes after Bucky had ended the call. When Tony found him, he was still at his desk with his head resting on his folded arms, staring at the phone like it might magically produce a Bucky Barnes who would give him a hug and forgive him, just like all the past times Steve had fucked up and hurt his friend or taken him for granted or gotten so cocky he thought he could do something without Bucky at his side.

Steve’s memory flared bright with every time he’d ever been the cause of pain in Bucky’s eyes; every time he’d let the new strength and adulation go to his stupid fucking head and mistaken Bucky for a rival and tried to show him up, only to realize later than Bucky was always the one cheering the loudest; every time he’d allowed the rank of Captain to overcome his common sense and called Bucky, ‘Sergeant’ with sarcastic, derogatory delight, only to have Bucky salute like a real goddamn solider on the front instead of a kid playing at war in the streets of Brooklyn, reminded Steve why they were slogging through the mud in uniforms and that this wasn’t a game; every time he’d told Bucky how amazing Peggy Carter was, trying to see a spark of jealousy only to receive a wistful smile and a, ‘Your kids will be so damn beautiful.’

Steve had gone down in the history books as the hero of a generation. Bucky . . . Bucky was often merely a footnote, and it wasn’t right. He had been offered his supervillain origin story on a silver platter, his moment to turn jealous and spiteful, bitter and mean, his moment to betray the childhood weakling turned hero who kept somehow forgetting what loyalty should feel like. He’d even been given the strength to match, twisted by an evil scientist, tortured, confused by the pain of becoming an enhanced being in the midst of a Great War with only K rations to fuel a body he was slowly – silently – realizing was no longer human.

How many times had Bucky given Steve half his ration, telling him they all knew Steve’s body needed the added fuel? When had Bucky known that his own body was going through the same transformation Steve’s had, and he’d still continued to scavenge rations for Steve without saying a word or taking more than his share?

Bucky could so easily have been the next great menace on the world, turning against Captain America when Steve was an idiot and handled him carelessly. But Bucky had turned that supervillain moment down, put on a blue wool coat with Steve’s symbol sewn to his left arm, and hung the strap of a sniper rifle off his back where Steve’s shield rested.

Shield and shadow, doing every dirty little thing the big hero couldn’t, through the scope of a rifle or at the point of a knife where Sergeant Barnes slunk into the night to catch a smoke, only to return from single-handedly dispatching a six-man scouting party only he had heard in the night. All that because his love for Steve had been pure, and simple, and good.

And Steve had never even thought to ask how Bucky could hear the footsteps of soldiers on wet leaves when even Steve’s enhanced hearing had failed to pick them up. Steve had never thought to ask how Bucky could always keep pace with his enhanced steps, even when the other Commandos had faltered and fallen back. Steve had never stopped to ask, had he? He’d noticed. He knew he had. His unfaltering belief in Bucky Barnes had made him stupid, made him deaf and dumb to the obvious signs; that whatever had been done to Bucky had changed him down to his very soul.

And still . . . Bucky had never gone behind Steve’s back and knocked him out of a fight because he didn’t trust Steve to get himself out alive. He’d stood beside him, behind him with that rifle, making damn sure Steve lived. And Steve? Steve had knocked Bucky unconscious and left him behind, a message of distrust and disloyalty so loud that even Bucky hadn’t been able to hunch his shoulders and smile through it like every other time Steve had hurt him.

A gentle pair of thumbs, ones that smelled of motor oil and Lava soap, swiped across Steve’s cheeks, wiping the tears away before they could reach his beard.

Steve focused his eyes on the face peering at him, blinking miserably at Tony as Tony sat beside him. Tony’s gentle, knowing smile helped Steve finally ease up again, and he tried to push the past back where it belonged so he could live in the here and now, like everyone kept begging him to do.

“What happened?” Tony asked after a few minutes.

“I called Bucky’s line, to leave a message about his pardon. He . . . answered.”

“How’d he sound?” Tony asked hopefully.

“He . . . he sounded good. I guess.”

“Anything we could use to maybe find him?”

Steve shrugged, lowering his head. He was ashamed to admit he hadn’t been able to focus on anything other than how desperately happy and horribly sad he’d been to hear Bucky’s voice saying something different than asking him to leave a message.

“Friday?” Tony said, his eyes never leaving Steve’s bowed head. Steve could feel him staring, could sort of see him peripherally. “Can you play back Captain Rogers’s last phone call, please?”

“Yes, Boss.”

“That okay?” Tony asked Steve quietly.

Steve merely nodded. He hadn’t admitted anything to Bucky that Tony didn’t already know intimately. They sat together and listened to the call, Tony’s hand slipping onto Steve’s knee and squeezing.

Bucky didn’t say a damn thing that would give his position away. When they played it a second time to focus on background noise, there was nothing there, either. No traffic noise, no city sounds at all. There were no birds chirping, no wind, no nothing. It was as if Bucky had made the call from a soundproofed booth.

“CB radio,” Tony murmured, frowning. “Wonder if that’s just what he calls Barton, or if they’re using an honest to god real CB radio to communicate? That would explain why we never get a ping off either of their phones. They’re not calling each other at all? They’re radioing?”

Steve shrugged. It made sense, and they both were well aware of how quickly Bucky had taken to modern technology. He would know they could trace his phone through Clint’s calls.

Tony slumped in disappointment as Bucky bid farewell to Steve on the playback, when it became evident they couldn’t use the call for anything other than hearing Bucky’s voice. “He does sound good,” he finally agreed with a small, wry smile. He patted Steve’s thigh gently. “You okay?”

Steve shrugged. “Rattled me, is all. I’m supposed to be at Clint’s tomorrow. I should leave tonight, break up the drive. You want to come?”

“You want me to?” Tony asked, carefully neutral.

Steve gave him a miserable nod, laughing at himself finally.

“Then I’ll be ready in thirty,” Tony told him, not even considering whatever projects he had open right now.

Steve knew the pardons were causing a media shitstorm somewhere, almost as big a one as they’d weathered days after the Battle of Trade Street and the internet had started asking why the hell the Holy Ghost, AKA Bucky fucking Barnes, had just slipped Captain America tongue right there on the street before running away and disappearing. Neither Steve nor the Avengers had made an official statement about any of it, but they were all heavily implying that Steve Rogers was indeed bisexual and what of it, son?

“Which car you want to take?” Tony asked indulgently. “Your choice.”

That got Steve smiling, and he ran his fingers over the back of Tony’s hand. “Let’s delay that for about an hour, huh?” he suggested with a smirk. “Friday?”

“Yes, Captain?”

“Show Tony our new trick, will you?”

“My pleasure, Captain!”

A moment later, the wall of windows along Steve’s office began to blur over, and the glass wall that separated his space from the rest of the common rooms went as dark as if blackout curtains had been drawn over them. The lights overhead went dim, and Steve’s laptop and the television on one wall that displayed the latest news for him both went dark, then the TV began to stream music that Steve had hand-picked beforehand.

Tony was laughing as he watched, his hand sliding from Steve’s knee to the inside of his thigh, squeezing Steve’s muscle, digging his nails into Steve’s jeans. “You stealing my tricks?”

Steve grabbed his wrist, pulling him closer. Tony gave in almost immediately and climbed into Steve’s lap, bracing himself on Steve’s shoulders.

“Just learning from the best,” Steve murmured, straightening so he could reach Tony’s lips for a kiss. The move pushed Tony’s hand further up Steve’s inner thigh, until he was basically cupping Steve through the thick material, and Steve could feel the warmth pooling, stirring butterflies up into his belly.

Tony grunted, making a show of being displeased. “Going to have to have a talk about loyalty, Friday,” he grumbled between Steve’s smothering kisses. “First Barnes, now Rogers. If I can’t keep a couple fossils from the wireless radio days out of my AI, what hope is there?”

“Captain Rogers said ‘please’, Boss.”

Steve laughed at the disgusted sound Tony made. But he was curious too, and he gave Tony a squeeze and a last kiss on his neck before asking, “And what did Sergeant Barnes say?”

“He said that was a secret between myself and him, Captain,” F.R.I.D.A.Y answered, sounding prim and smug. “And that if you wanted to know more about back doors, he’d be happy to teach you.”

“Cheeky bastard,” Tony muttered. Steve shrugged, kissing him to distract him from the fact that Bucky, a brainwashed relic from the wireless radio era, had somehow hacked his personal AI and made it weirdly loyal to him.

Kissing to distract each other had become something Steve and Tony were well-practiced in.

They wound up getting a later start than they’d intended. Almost two hours later. Steve’s nervous energy and Tony’s restless anxiety had been quite an explosive combination once Steve had gotten Tony’s pants off and slammed his back into the desktop.

But they were pulling up to the Barton farm bright and early the next morning, right on schedule. If both Tony and Steve were a little bleary eyed and maybe even sore, who would notice, right? If they were both darting their eyes to every dark corner and every tree and rooftop, looking desperately for a man they both knew was gone, who would notice, right?? If they were both so heartsick and miserable that even having each other wasn’t enough to keep the life from draining out of them when they didn’t try hard to keep it in, who would possibly notice?

Barton. Barton noticed everything.


Tony had let Steve drive, and he’d regretted it the instant they got out of the garage. Steve Rogers drove like a man being chased through the Italian countryside by Nazis, which was probably actually how he’d learned to drive, so Tony couldn’t really say much to him about it.

It was terrifying, nonetheless.

Neither of them was in a particularly good mood, of course. Anything that even remotely touched the subject of Bucky Barnes made both of them feel heavy and sullen, and delivering a pardon with his name on it to the only man left in the world who was definitely still in touch with the guy? Yeah, Bucky was on their minds. If they hadn’t both been in such dark moods, it probably would have been a nice drive. Romantic, even.

They’d stayed in a tiny bed and breakfast just an hour away from Clint’s farm that night, and at least that had been romantic. They’d had two months to get used to the idea that any thoughts they’d been having about a relationship including a third man were probably just fantasy, after what they’d done to him. They’d finally sat down and talked, decided they had to start looking at the two of them as something they could do, something that would make them both happy, but they had to work for it. And they did.

Steve had definitely worked for it last night, and they were still giving each other sideways smiles and glances that were a little too long, a little too heated, when Steve turned into Clint’s drive that morning.

Mist still hung low and sweet over the fields, weaving in and out of the trees that protected Clint’s farm from the rest of the valley. The house was quiet and dark. One car was gone – Steve had mentioned that Clint’s wife had taken all three kids somewhere, poor, sweet, brave woman – and Tony might have been imagining it, but the place felt peaceful and still without seeming deserted.

Bucky’s motorcycle was parked under an awning against the barn.

Tony caught sight of it and found himself staring until Steve noticed his distraction and saw the bike too.

“You think he never came to get it?” Tony asked quietly. They’d both been so sure Clint would meet up with Bucky and give him his stuff. Hell, Clint had been so sure he’d meet up with Bucky that he’d taken the man’s bike and clothing, for fuck’s sake. Bucky had admitted to Steve he had CB radio, and Tony was pretty sure that he didn’t mean the kind truckers used. It had made Tony roll his eyes and fight a smile.

“I . . .” Steve stared at the motorcycle, his hands spasming into fists like he wanted to go touch it. Or punch something. His eyes slid to stare at the front porch, narrowing as he looked at the house. “Tony,” he whispered, sounding out of breath. “He’s here.”

Tony did his best not to react. Outwardly. Inside, his belly had just done a gymnastics routine normally reserved for Olympic gold, and his mouth went dry as he forced himself not to look over his shoulder at the house. “You see him?”

“No. But he’s here. I can feel it. He brought that bike here himself. He must have come to get his pardon in person.”

Tony turned carefully, glancing up at the windows that were visible. Nothing was obvious. The curtains didn’t sway like someone had been watching out of them. There was no reason to assume Steve was right. But Tony trusted Steve’s instinct. He also knew if Bucky was there and watching them, neither of them would ever actually catch sight of him.

“Well,” he said, sounding more brazen and confident than he felt, that was for goddamn sure. “Let’s go see him, then.”

He and Steve turned toward the front porch, the determination in Steve’s shoulders and the set of his jaw more appropriate for storming a Hydra base than for knocking on the farmhouse door of a retired teammate. But they’d only gotten a few yards before the front door swung up and Clint walked out onto the porch. He was smiling, like usual, and he wore a pair of jeans and a comfortable looking flannel shirt that was unbuttoned, showing his bare stomach and chest under it. He had a dishtowel slung over his shoulder, and he was wiping his hands on the end of it.

“Gentlemen,” he greeted with a grin.

“Hey, Clint,” Tony responded. He was proud of himself as he covered the rest of the distance and stopped at the steps, reaching up to offer his hand. Clint’s hand was warm, his grip strong and callused, like always.

“Hey, man. Cap?” Clint added with a nod and a slight frown at Steve, who still stood rooted to the spot several paces behind Tony. Clint’s eyes darted to Tony, and he raised an eyebrow as if to ask what the flying fuck was wrong with Captain America and why was he staring at Clint like he was a dog who’d just stolen his bone and did Clint need to be armed right now?

“He knows I’m here, C,” a familiar voice said from the dim interior of the house. The well-oiled front door pulled open a little more behind Clint, and Bucky stepped into the doorway, crossing his arms and casually leaning against the frame. He wore jeans and a white V-neck T-shirt, but nothing else. “That’s what’s wrong with him.”

Tony’s mouth was hanging open, he knew that. His eyes had widened behind his designer sunglasses too. He knew that as well. His heart was beating wildly against his sternum and he could feel a weird pulsing sensation in his fingers. Why the fuck was being in love with someone so damned detrimental to your health? That was something Tony just didn’t know.

“Tony,” Bucky said with a nod in greeting.

Tony blinked at him, and his entire body warmed like the sun emerging from behind a cloud when he realized Bucky was looking at him with a fond smile. “Hey,” Tony whispered. He wasn’t sure the word actually got out, but if anyone could hear that uttered over the obnoxious pounding of Tony’s heart, it would be a super soldier.

“You look good.”

“You . . . you cut your hair,” Tony blurted in response.

Bucky hummed, his smile morphing into wry amusement. His hair was still long enough to grab a handful of it, if you were looking to do such a thing, which Tony wasn’t, nope, not at all, not him. It was a simple, modern cut, and it seemed to have a lot of body to it, sticking up stylishly even though it looked soft and free of products. The most spectacular thing about it, though, was what it did to Bucky’s goddamn jaw line, holy Christ on a cracker, the man looked good.

“Whole country looking for a dude with long brown hair and a metal arm,” Bucky drawled with a shrug of said famous metal arm. “Seemed like the smart play to change the thing I could.”

“It looks good,” Tony offered weakly. “Really good.”

Bucky actually brightened, like he was sincerely flattered that Tony would say it. He was grinning widely. “Thanks.”

“You guys want to come inside? We were fixing breakfast before we get started on the tile,” Clint said with another wary, nonplussed glance at Steve.

Steve hadn’t moved. His feet were growing roots, and Tony briefly mused over how he looked just like he’d been hit with another one of those damn Asgardian freeze gun things that Steve had refused to allow Thor to bring back . . . after he’d shaken off the paralysis, of course.

Tony looked Steve up and down, frowning worriedly. He was staring at Bucky as a myriad of emotions swept his face, none of them masked, anguish and guilt and hope and the purest of love shining in his eyes, leaving Steve vulnerable and laid bare in front of one of the only men in the world who could do him real, lasting damage, if Bucky chose to try.

“Steve?” Tony said gently.

“Come on, Stevie,” Bucky said, voice kind but hard, like a parent telling their kid to go do his homework.

Steve took one impulsive step, still staring at Bucky in astonishment.

Tony turned and followed Clint inside, trusting Bucky to be better equipped to handle this than he was.

He and Clint hovered in the entryway, though, watching breathlessly. Tony heard Steve’s heavy footfalls coming up the steps. Bucky straightened, pushing off the doorframe. And then Steve was standing there in front of him, his eyes darting as he tried to take in every inch of Bucky’s face, as he looked him up and down, from his bare feet to his new haircut and back down again.

Steve stood rigid, his entire body tense and coiled, like he wanted to dive into Bucky’s arms and clamp down and never let go, like some rabid octopus clinging to Bucky’s leg and dragging slime behind him the rest of his life, but he didn’t move, holding himself ruthlessly in check.

Bucky was the one who moved. He had his arms at his sides, and he tensed them, turning both palms toward Steve and giving him a tiny, almost imperceptible nod, beckoning with just his fingers. Steve let out a miserable huff and threw himself into Bucky’s arms, hugging him around the neck, jamming his stupid despondent face into Bucky’s shoulder, almost knocking Bucky off his feet as he bulldozed into him.

Bucky wrapped him up in strong arms, one hand rubbing up and down Steve’s back, fingers playing over his spine like piano keys. Tony knew Steve loved that, associated it with being safe – now he knew why.

“Hey, hey,” Bucky was murmuring, smooth and warm and soothing. “It’s okay, pal. You’re okay.”

“I’ve missed you,” Steve gasped. “God, Buck!”

Bucky shushed him, squeezing him harder before releasing him. He held him by his biceps at arm’s length, looking him over critically. “You look like shit, Steve.”

Steve laughed out a near sob, nodding.

“That’s what I keep telling him,” Tony said, watching both men fondly. “He’s been thinking himself ragged.”

Bucky glanced at him, looking thoughtful himself. He pulled Steve gently into the house and shut the door behind him. “Go on,” he urged, pointing Steve toward Clint so he’d follow him to the kitchen, where Tony could detect the familiar, almost forgotten scents of a breakfast made by someone who gave a damn.

Bucky had been here long enough to change out of his motorcycle gear, wash up from whatever ride he’d taken to get here, and to start cooking breakfast. It would break Steve’s heart a little if Tony’s growing suspicion was correct; that Bucky had been here on the Barton’s farm with Clint all along.

Tony let Steve pass, giving his shoulder a squeeze of support. Before he could turn to follow, though, Bucky caught hold of his elbow from behind and pulled Tony back to face him. Tony couldn’t help the nerves, the fear, as he peered up into Bucky’s eyes. He knew harsh words would be coming, a reprimand for breaking Bucky’s trust so thoroughly. Tony was as ready as he could ever be for it, knew he deserved anything Bucky could say to him.

“You look like shit too, doll,” Bucky murmured, sounding almost fondly exasperated as his eyes darted up and down, looking Tony over. “You been sleeping on that couch in your lab, huh?”

Tony found himself blushing faintly. “Well, I . . . I mean –”

Bucky stepped closer, his hand still light on Tony’s elbow. “You mind?” he asked, voice soft and steady.

Tony was gaping up at Bucky’s beautiful eyes. He’d honestly thought he’d never see Bucky again, much less be able to hear his voice, smell him. Feel the touch of his hands. He could only nod in response to Bucky’s request, even though he wasn’t quite sure what Bucky was requesting permission to do.

Bucky closed the rest of the distance between them, pulling Tony closer by his elbow and pressing a warm kiss to Tony’s lips.

Tony whimpered gratefully, melting against him. Bucky put a hand on his hip, thumb sliding into the belt loop there, probably to help keep him where he stood, but the hopeless romantic in Tony wondered if Bucky maybe remembered what he’d done the first time they kissed and was trying to repeat it now.

Tony allowed his hands to travel up Bucky’s arms, fingers hitting the smooth ridges of the metal arm, dragging across hard, defined muscle on the other one. Tony grabbed Bucky’s shoulders, then began to close the embrace, fingers trailing over the back of Bucky’s neck, not sure if he could make himself let go when the time came to do so.

When Bucky pulled away, he looked Tony over again critically, brushing the pads of his fingers across Tony’s cheekbones, then down the sides of Tony’s face, palms coming to rest on either side of his neck. “There,” he said with a pleased smile. “Got a little color back, at least.”

“Barnes,” Tony rasped. “I . . . I’m–”

“You’re sorry? You missed me?” Bucky provided before Tony’s words could further falter. He looked defeated suddenly, like both options would be unsatisfactory to hear even if they were true. Just like Tony had felt when Bucky tried to apologize for the murder of Tony’s parents; he desperately wanted to hear words that would make it feel better, but he knew there were none, no matter how sincere.

Tony shook his head. “I love you,” he blurted, barely above a whisper. He swallowed, trying to find his equilibrium again. “Although the other things are also true. In goddamn spades.”

Bucky cocked his head, sharp eyes taking Tony in, studying him shrewdly. He ducked and caught Tony in another kiss, turning it into something that required his hand to cup the back of Tony’s head so his tongue could have free access to Tony’s, so their bodies could press, so the groans Tony found himself making would be trapped by Bucky’s mouth.

They parted again, Bucky giving him one last peck on the lips, then Bucky was moving toward the kitchen, leaving Tony to stand there, slowly coming to the realization that no matter how hard he worked at it, no matter how many distractions he threw in his own path, no matter how blissfully happy he wound up being with Steve for the rest of his life, Tony would never get over Bucky Barnes.

Damn the Ghost all to holy hell.

He was still standing there, staring at the floor near the entryway, when cool metal fingers slipped into his and tugged him back to the present. Tony looked up, blinking dumbly at Bucky’s smiling face.

“Come on, doll,” Bucky whispered, urging Tony to follow him to the kitchen table. “You need a decent breakfast in you if you two are going be staying here the next few days.”

“What? Why?”

“Tiling the backsplash, putting down flooring,” Clint answered as he laid out four place settings amidst the food. “It ain’t a two-man job, even if one of those men is as talented as yours truly. Plus, Bucky's arm is making a weird sound, he needs it looked at.”

“Is not.”

“Is too, ever since the cow kicked you.”

Tried to kick me.”

“Whatever, it creaks and shit.”

Bucky grunted, smirking as he sat beside Clint and began filling his plate like it was a normal thing to do on a normal morning on a normal day, like he couldn’t hear Steve and Tony’s hearts beating out a tattoo of hope as they settled in to eat.