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Tripwires

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“I thought we understood each other, Steve,” Bucky mumbled. He sat on one of the thin mats that covered the stainless steel tables in the sterile cryo lab. A blanket was draped over his shoulders, and he was still shivering as he stared at the floor and essentially . . . thawed.

Steve shifted from one foot to the other, his arms crossed protectively over his chest, forcing himself not to wrap his arms around Bucky to warm him. He’d moved to do it initially, of course, but Bucky had flinched away from him so violently, he didn’t dare try it again. “I understood you perfectly. You said until they could get it all out of your head. And Buck, this is going to work.”

Bucky lifted icy blue eyes to glare at Steve; the same reprimand Steve remembered from their childhood, when Steve would try to justify the fight he’d just instigated or the self-care he’d just neglected. The same eyes he remembered from the War, when the Sarge would force every man of the 107th’s Tactical Team to make damn sure their asses were covered and warm and fed and had an extra Lucky Strike or two before he saw to himself.

They hadn’t called themselves the Howling Commandos back then. Not until after both Bucky and Steve had been lost. Steve reminded himself to tell Bucky about the name later, he’d get a kick out of it.

Steve raised one eyebrow in challenge to Bucky’s lingering expression. “You know I’m immune to that look.”

It didn’t keep Bucky from giving it to him harder. And it didn’t keep Steve from wanting to fidget. Maybe immune was too strong a word?

“The doctors here say there’s a 75% chance this will work,” Steve reiterated, trying to shrug his shoulders until they seemed smaller, to hit some sort of Pavlovian protective response from Bucky’s youth and make that glare stop. It didn’t work so well.

Bucky sighed loudly and closed his eyes. “Steve. I’m . . .” Dangerous, was left unspoken, but understood all the same.

Steve stepped closer and reached gently, telegraphing his movement as noisily as possible, until Bucky allowed him to put a gentle hand on Bucky’s forearm – the one that he still possessed, resting on his knee. “We’ve gone up against worse odds, Buck. You and me.”

Bucky was still and silent. Finally he raised his head, jutting his chin out stubbornly. “I remember.”

Steve allowed himself a crooked smirk. “Read about ’em in a museum, right?” he muttered as he stepped back to give Bucky his space once more. All those months he’d spent agonizing over whether Bucky would ever remember anything, and they seemed so distant now, so pointless. Bucky remembered damn near everything, even things Steve himself had forgotten or allowed to gloss over with time.

Bucky gave a strangled, frustrated groan. “I knew they’d be coming for me, okay? I hoped shoving you out the window would save you. Metaphorically or . . . y’know, literally. Whatever.”

Steve shook his head and glanced over his shoulder to see if the team was ready yet. He got a thumb’s up in response. “How’d that work out for you, buddy?”

“You ruin everything, Stevie,” Bucky mumbled. Another shiver ran through Bucky’s solid body as he continued to glare at Steve. His eyes darted to the medical team. “You’re staying?”

“Yeah. The docs think having a familiar face will help. Is that okay?”

Bucky was silent, his expression guarded and unreadable. Steve pushed down that now familiar ache in his heart, the one that came with the realization that his best friend, his Bucky, was no longer the man from his memories. He was Bucky, but different. Older. Harder. Bigger and meaner. Full of sorrow and with new quirks and new expressions, none of which Steve knew how to read. Yet. None he knew how to read yet. He would learn, though. He had a whole lifetime to learn, and to help Bucky erase that sadness from his soul.

“Steve,” Bucky said, so quietly that his lips barely moved beneath his unshaven scruff. “If they hit a tripwire. I mean, if I go haywire . . .”

“You won’t.”

“But if I do,” Bucky said more forcefully. “You have to put me down.”

That ache was harder to push down this time. Steve pursed his lips and gazed over Bucky’s metal shoulder cuff, feigning thought. He nodded minutely. “Okay.”

“Steve,” Bucky warned.

“I said okay, Buck. Okay.”

“Say it like you mean it, then, not like a lying jackhole.”

“What’s a jackhole?” Steve asked, wanting to laugh but unable to in the face of Bucky’s solemn face. Bucky gestured helplessly at Steve as an example.

Silence began to grow heavier as Steve forced his eyes to meet Bucky’s. He could see the fear behind the ice in them, see the pure, agonizing terror. Bucky was carrying every life Hydra had made him take in those eyes. Steve couldn’t bear to let him carry more guilt, more pain. The thought of harming one more innocent person must have been enough for Bucky to ask this of Steve in earnestness, and Steve couldn’t in good conscience be flippant about it.

He swallowed convulsively, nodding in tiny starts and stops. “If you go haywire,” he whispered.

Bucky put his finger to his temple, pointing it like a gun. “You have to put one right into the brain,” he said, his words fast and oddly accented, like maybe his mind had turned Russian for a second. “Nothing else will work.”

Steve blinked at him in alarm. “Buck.”

“Right into the brain, Steve, nothing else will work. Trust me, I’ve tried.”

Steve stared, stricken, mouth gaping open. “Jesus, Bucky,” he gasped. “I’m not . . . if you go haywire, I’ll knock you out with another helicopter. That’s all I’ll promise.”

That got a surprised bark of a laugh, more of a gasp than a sound, and ghost of a smile as Bucky dropped his hand back to his thigh. He closed his eyes and shook his head. “I guess that’ll do.”

Steve nodded curtly and turned to the medical team and scientists standing by, eager to get the procedure underway before Bucky could weasel his way back into that damn cryotank again.

The procedure took nearly five hours. Steve asked them to stop explaining what they were doing thirty minutes in. All he understood was that they’d been somehow prepping Bucky’s brain for this with radio waves or something ever since he went into cryo-sleep, and this was the finishing touch. He was too tense to concentrate on trying to understand the methods, and he trusted T’Challa’s scientists implicitly. Wakanda was the most advanced country in the world – medically, technologically – for a reason. He couldn’t think of a better place for Bucky’s recovery.

The arm, of course, he could perhaps think of one person who might be top on the list in rebuilding it. But Tony Stark hadn’t called in the three months they’d been here, and Steve couldn’t bring himself to reach out any more than he already had with his letter. Tony wouldn’t help Bucky, anyway. Not for anything. Steve’s heart ached when he thought of Tony, a deep pulsing pain like someone had tried to pull his heart from his chest with a spoon.

He’d gotten Bucky back, but at great cost. It had been worth it.

He was staring, unblinking and unseeing, standing off to the side where his line of sight would allow him to see Bucky and Bucky to see him, when one of the technicians said his name softly. Steve blinked away the daze and glanced up.

“We’re ready to test the results, now, Captain.”

Steve nodded. His throat was suddenly dry, his tongue like sandpaper in his mouth and he moved forward. Bucky was lying flat on the table, staring at the ceiling. He blinked and his eyes were on Steve, a flicker of a smile on his lips.

“Ready or not, Stevie,” he said, slightly slurred.

Steve licked his lips and nodded. He waited until the room had been cleared and secured, and he took Bucky’s hand in his, squeezing.

“Got to say them in order,” Bucky reminded needlessly. “If I start to fight it . . . don’t . . . don’t comfort me or some shit, just keep going. Can’t say nothin’ in between.”

“Got it,” Steve whispered.

Bucky got one last look at him, then closed his eyes and took a long, steadying breath. Steve envied his ability to do that; he couldn’t get a breath in his lungs right now.

He waited another few beats, then reluctantly released Bucky’s hand before speaking the first Russian word he’d so diligently learned to say.

Bucky’s forehead creased in response, his jaw tightening. But he remained still and silent. Steve kept going, reciting the words from the book, the ones that should have pulled the Winter Soldier from Bucky’s mind and made him a weapon at Steve’s disposal. When he got to the last word, Bucky was breathing hard, his chest heaving against the restraints, his nose flaring and his jaw impossibly tighter.

Steve waited a moment, viciously stomping on the regret and fear that engulfed him, and pronounced the final trigger words. Freight Car, Jesus Christ, fuck Hydra so much.

Bucky was nearly hyperventilating, his breaths hard and loud and his hand balled into a fist so tight that his knuckles were bone-white. Steve’s heart was racing when Bucky’s eyes popped open and darted toward him.

“Soldat?” Steve managed.

“Go fuck yourself,” Bucky gritted out, then laughed nearly hysterically as he closed his eyes and his body relaxed damn near into a puddle. “Oh my God, I’ve wanted to say that for years!”

Steve sat down hard on a stool that he hoped was where he thought it was behind him. He almost missed it, but he managed to right himself and pull himself closer, laying his head on Bucky’s stomach in utter relief. Bucky continued to laugh softly as Steve clung to him, grinning into the white material of his shirt. They could hear muffled cheering outside from the observation room.

It had worked. Holy shit, it had worked.

Steve raised his head, grinning like a loon, and began to tug at the restraints that’d held Bucky securely to the table during the procedure. He flashed back to a flaming factory, explosions in the distance, Bucky’s innocence drained from him but the sun still in his smile when he’d laid eyes on Steve and said his name. He shook that off, looking up at Bucky’s face now as he got the last strap loose.

Bucky was grinning lopsidedly, watching him. “I could kiss you, Rogers,” he mumbled, closing his eyes once more against whatever powerful sedative they’d used during the procedure.

Joy overpowered Steve’s hands, and he leaned over Bucky and pressed his lips to Bucky’s, close-mouthed, earning a muffled curse of surprise and a laugh. Steve straightened, grinning still as he helped Bucky sit up.

“Cocktease,” Bucky grumbled, his grin widening. “Still.”

“Pervert.” Steve still had both hands on Bucky, steadying him at his shoulder and chest. They locked eyes again, beginning to grin like they once had when they were young and too carefree to realize the horrors that awaited them.

It took Steve a while to notice that the doctors had returned, all wide grins and shining eyes.

“What about his arm?” Steve asked them.

“The new appendage is ready, Captain. Sergeant,” the lead doctor said with a nod at Bucky and what Steve thought might be a fond smile. Bucky had certainly managed to endear himself to everyone here in the brief moments he’d been conscious. But then, that was who Bucky was. She continued as tears threatened. “That operation will take quite some time longer, and require complete sedation. Once Sergeant Barnes approves the design of the arm, we can proceed when and as you wish.”

Bucky looked between them, eyes widening. “You made me a new arm?”

“Yes, Sergeant. At the bidding of His Highness.”

“T’Challa insisted the new arm be better than the last,” Steve told him, pitching his voice low enough for Bucky’s enhanced hearing, but not much else. “But he also wanted it to be familiar to you, so it wouldn’t feel . . .”

Bucky nodded in understanding as Steve struggled for the right phrasing. Damn, he didn’t remember ever stumbling for words around Bucky before. He winced, hoping he kept the expression internal.

“It’s made from vibranium, in the same way the Black Panther suit is,” Steve continued.

Bucky scowled briefly, glancing up at Steve and then over at the scientists. “What exactly does a limb that absorbs vibrations do to your bone structure?”

Steve blinked at him, only realizing long seconds later that his mouth was hanging open so wide, Bucky could probably count his teeth. He snapped it closed with an audible click. “That’s . . . probably a good question.”

The lead doctor merely smiled kindly at them, though. “When you are rested and ready, I will be happy to answer every query you have. It has been a trying day for you, though. Rest and be well.”

Bucky and Steve watched them go in silence, only stirring when the door closed behind them. Bucky glanced at Steve carefully and licked his lips.

Steve could hear the question coming as if the whistle of a mortar round accompanied it. He winced away from it just like one, too.

“Stevie,” Bucky said carefully as Steve turned away from him. “Have you heard from the rest of your team yet?”

Steve stared at the cryo chamber, scowling. He’d spent so much time standing here, or sitting in front of it, that Clint and Scott had begun to simply call it the ‘crying chamber’ instead. They weren’t far off. Steve had given up half his team – his family – to keep Bucky safe, to give him this opportunity. He’d done it gladly. And one of the numerous, uncountable reasons he’d done it? Because Bucky Barnes was the type of man to come out of that frozen hell and ask him how his friends were.

“No contact since you’ve been under,” he muttered.

Bucky was silent, not even the rustle of paper behind him. But Steve could feel the very air moving around him, the silence being shoved around like a soft breeze, and suddenly Bucky stood next to him, peering into the chamber as well. He still hadn’t made a sound. Steve smiled grimly. Natasha was either going to adore Bucky, or kill him. Try to kill him.

“I’m sorry, Stevie,” Bucky whispered.

Steve snorted softly, giving that an elegant shrug. “For what?” he tried, careless and easy, adding a crooked smile.

Bucky was giving him the look again, though, the one that said I know what you sound like when you’re lying, dying, crying, or jerking off in the woods behind a tree. Steve had to look away before Bucky could see into his eyes.

“Did you love him?” Bucky asked, his voice soft. Careful and sad.

Steve’s eyes unfocused, and he finally lowered his head and sighed deeply. “For a minute,” he admitted, flashing back to the anger – the absolute and utter feral hatred – in Tony’s eyes when he’d realized what Steve had been keeping from him. He glanced at Bucky, then away before he lost his nerve. “I loved you longer.”

Bucky was watching him, looking at him sideways. Steve could feel his eyes on him even if he couldn’t quite see it peripherally. Finally, Bucky made a little cooing sound that might have been a kind of consolation, then added, “I’d give you a completely non-queer pat on the back, but I don’t have an arm on that side anymore.”

Steve coughed out a laugh before he could stop it, turning it almost into a sob that he hadn’t known he wanted to let loose. “Your humor is certainly disarming, Buck.”

Bucky turned, straight-faced and deadpan as ever. “At least I’m all right now,” he said as he strolled away, leaving Steve to laugh out loud and then instantly feel guilty about it.

He turned and jogged after Bucky, grinning once more. This wasn’t the Bucky he’d known from his youth, no. Or the Sarge he’d known in war. But he was still Bucky. And he was still Steve’s. That was all that mattered.

==

“I don’t know, Rogers, I’m having doubts,” Bucky admitted as he stood at the floor-to-ceiling window of the private quarters he and Steve had been sharing the last couple days as he readjusted to being conscious. His left arm, well, what remained of it, was still wrapped in the black bandaging material that had covered the loose wires and connections from the stub of the metal arm he’d come to think of as pretty damn handy, thank you very fucking much Tony Stark.

He felt off-balance, listing to starboard as his body tried to figure out what the hell. Indeed, body. What the hell, indeed.

Before they’d scrubbed his mind clean, the missing arm had been somewhat of a comfort, a certain backup that had made him feel better about being awake and vulnerable to triggers. He could still kill people, he wasn’t about to fool anyone by claiming not to be lethal with one-arm. But he couldn’t do nearly as much damage without the unnatural strength of the metal arm. If he had gone off again, at least he’d have been somewhat easier for Steve and his friends to neutralize.

Now that he could trust his mind again, he kind of wanted the arm back. He wanted the replacement, he really did. But . . . he had doubts.

“What kind of doubts?” Steve finally asked patiently from where he sat on the end of the couch. His eyes had been tracking Bucky all evening as Bucky had paced, but he’d maintained a soft, amused smile as he sat there.

Jesus fuck, Bucky had missed him.

He turned and met Steve’s eyes. “Have they gotten schematics of the old arm? Scans of my body?” Bucky asked.

Steve gave a short nod.

“Then you know how the other arm was attached, Steve. It went all the way to my spine. How do they plan to fuse this new metal with the old? Will it just . . . snap in? What’s going to power it if the electrical current from my body isn’t enough, or if it can’t reach the new bits through the broken connectors?”

He had more questions, but he stopped short when he saw the stricken look on Steve’s face.

“Steve?”

“Buck,” Steve whispered with a humorless smile. “I have no fuckin’ idea what you’re talking about.”

Bucky gave a short, mirthless laugh. He lowered his head and stared at the floor, frowning hard. Come to think of it, how did he know what he was talking about? Had he known that before the tripwires had been removed from his brain this morning? He was pretty sure he hadn’t. God, what else had Hydra locked inside his mind? Was he like a fucking memory card storing his user manual?

“Buck? Bucky?” Steve’s voice was suddenly urgent. And close, Jesus.

“What?” Bucky muttered as he stared into Steve’s huge blue cow-eyes, which were suddenly right in front of him. He backed away a step. “Where’d you come from? Jesus, Steve, sit down.”

“You’re white as a ghost,” Steve told him gently, reaching out for him like one would a toddler wobbling across the floor. But not touching. Never touching.

Bucky laughed at that, laughed hard. “My arm jokes are bad form, but you can make ghost jokes?”

Steve paled, his eyes going impossibly wider. “Oh my God, I’m sorry.”

Bucky rolled his eyes and moved to sit in the warm spot that Steve’s ass had just jettisoned across the room from. He threw himself into it, shivering a little. He still couldn’t get warm, not really.

“You didn’t used to be so jumpy, pal,” he drawled, searching his mind for the most authentic Brooklyn accent he could find in there. It seemed fake, though, like he was an actor playing at it. He slumped, resting his head against the back cushion and tossing his arm over his eyes.

“It’s been a long couple years,” Steve muttered, sounding defensive as he moved closer.

Bucky tracked his movements from beneath his forearm, growing tense as Steve moved around on Bucky’s left side, where the missing arm was a weakness, his mind relentlessly cataloging all the ways that he could kill Steve in the time it took for him to walk from the window and toss himself onto the couch beside Bucky.

Fifteen. Fifteen ways.

Bucky sighed. He’d sort of hoped that instinct would go with the trigger words and tripwires and whatever else they’d scrubbed him clean of.

“What’s wrong?” Steve sounded sad. Defeated. Bucky’d rarely heard that voice, not since Brooklyn and hazy memories of trying to convince Steve he didn’t need to fight in the coming war.

“I’m a weapon,” Bucky told him, voice so blunt it was almost a cruelty to both of them.

Silence echoed through the living quarters in response, to the point that he felt a little melodramatic about his pronouncement. He peaked out from under his arm to look at Steve, who he found staring at him thoughtfully.

Steve chewed on the inside of his cheek for a minute, his expression morphing through an array of emotions too fast for Bucky to try to decipher. “Well,” Steve finally said slowly. “I mean, it was an arm’s race.”

Bucky stared at him until he caught the barest twitch of Steve’s lips as the man desperately tried not to break his expression and laugh. Bucky pointed at him in warning, and they both dissolved into helpless laughter once more.

They both laughed with their whole bodies. They always had, and Bucky supposed some things just couldn’t be burned out of a person. It was only fitting that laughter turned out to be one of them. He wound up leaning against Steve, their temples pressed together, their shoulders resting in a position so familiar it made Bucky’s body and mind ache pleasantly.

Steve sighed heavily beside him and slid his fingers into Bucky’s, twining them together. “Goddamn, Buck. I missed you.”

“Missed you too, pal,” Bucky murmured. Though he wasn’t sure if that was true or not. He was sure if he’d missed anything in all his years of being the Fist of Fucking Hydra, that thing had been Steve. “You think it makes me evil if I'm okay with being a weapon? If I'm sort of . . . proud of what I can do?”

“No,” Steve said immediately. “Did you know they teach your kill-shots in the military these days? From the War? You were always a weapon, and a damn fine one at that. You should be proud of what you are. They didn't do that, you did it. You.”

Bucky nodded, thoughts careening off into the distance. They fell into companionable silence, Steve absently playing with Bucky’s fingers, turning his hand over and tracing the lines on his palms. Bucky recalled this in a hundred different memories, Steve’s fingers on his, tracing the lines of a drawing in his mind. Steve’s knuckles had almost always been covered with a shining layer of lead from his sketching pencils. They were spotless now. Bucky frowned, wondering if Steve ever sketched anymore.

Bucky was damn near asleep, Steve’s warm body pressed up to his freezing one, Steve’s breathing smooth and even and familiar, Steve’s hand clutching his like Bucky was an assassin-shaped balloon that might float away, when a phone began to trill.

Steve jerked and hopped to his feet, looking around almost frantically as Bucky collapsed onto the couch cushions in his sudden absence.

“What the hell, Steve,” Bucky mumbled as he tried to sit back up and watched Steve rummaging through his bedside table drawers.

“Hello?” Steve demanded into the phone he pulled out of the drawer, almost speaking before he even had it to his ear. “Tony?”

Bucky’s stomach dropped, and a hint of something white-hot soared through him, up into every inch of him until even his hair was angry. It faded fast, though, watching the relief that spread through Steve’s broad shoulders as he listened to the man on the shitty burner phone.

“Hold on, I’ll put you on speaker.” Steve came back to the couch and turned the speaker on so Bucky could hear what was being said, and Bucky stared at him like he was crazy. Why the fuck did he want to be on the fucking phone with Tony fucking Stark?

There was silence over the line.

“Tony?” Steve prodded worriedly.

After another few seconds of nothing, Bucky relaxed back into the couch and snorted softly. “You sure that relic even has a speaker button, bud?” he drawled with a bit of a smile.

There was a huff of air on the line that Bucky’s sharp hearing picked up. He winced. Dammit, he’d really thought Stark had hung up.

“Are you telling me the first thing the one-armed bandit and I agree on is how shitty this flip phone is?” Tony asked, voice downright acerbic.

Bucky could see Steve rolling his eyes as if he had expected Tony to launch right into being an asshole. Bucky gritted his teeth, determined not to say another word. People these days, especially people like Tony Stark, were so dependent on technology. All it took was doing something on paper, or outdated tech like a flip phone, to be invisible, untraceable. Stark had to know that was why Steve had sent him a phone from the damn 90’s.

“Anyway,” Tony continued into the tense silence. “We need you back, Cap. There’s something coming that’s too big for us all to be spread across the globe. Gotta come back.”

“What’s coming?” Steve asked, his voice sounding . . . tired.

“That’s classified to Avengers only, and until you come home you’re just some criminal who tried to mess up my face.”

Bucky gritted his teeth harder, until he could hear them protesting. The man had tried to kill Steve. Him too, but Bucky didn’t blame him for that. Going after Steve, though? Unforgivable. A few witty barbs over a burner phone and a mystery emergency weren’t going to make anyone forget.

Steve had his head bowed, his eyes closed. He held the phone between them, not responding to Tony’s enticements.

“I’ve started on a prototype for a new arm,” Tony said after a few seconds, his voice sounding less sure, less manic. “It’s uh . . . well, it’d be easier with the actual subject here.”

Bucky scowled at the phone, and he glanced at Steve in time to meet his eyes. “New arm?” he found himself asking, and if he could have contorted enough to kick his own ass, he would have, right after he got the words out.

“Yep. I break it, I bought it,” Tony said in more clipped tones than he’d used when addressing Steve. “Look, I’m smart enough to know I won’t get Captain America without his cuddly little murderbot sidekick, now, so I’m . . . this is big enough for me to compromise.”

“Compromise?” Steve repeated in irritation. “Tony, you tried to kill us both.”

“An exaggeration at best!”

“Tony! I know how angry you were, I looked into your eyes and knew you were going to kill him and anything in your way. You don’t just . . . compromise your way out of rage like that.”

Tony took a deep breath, sounding annoyed. “You do if you’re sent the Winter Soldier files and have three months to read over everything those Hydra assholes did to Barnes, okay? I . . . I didn’t know. I didn’t believe you when you said it wasn’t him, that they had control of his mind. I didn’t know what you meant.”

Bucky closed his eyes against a wave of nausea. “There’s a file?” he asked as he leaned forward, holding his head in his one hand.

“Buck,” Steve whispered, and his hand came to rest gently on Bucky’s back.

“How many people have seen it?” Bucky demanded quietly.

Steve merely shook his head, the horror and sympathy mixing in his expression and making Bucky want to hit him. Or run. Hit him and then run.

“I . . .” Tony’s voice faded, and Bucky was peripherally aware of Steve turning the speaker off again and standing up to pace away as he spoke.

“If you’re serious, I’m going to need some proof, Tony. You tried to kill him the last time you saw him, I won’t just march him into the facility and trust it’s not a trap.”

Bucky was barely listening. There was a file. He supposed he’d known that, hadn’t he? Deep down? But he hadn’t thought of anyone reading it, for some reason. Steve reading that file and seeing everything that had been done to him. Strangers knowing. Tony Stark knowing. It was one more violation in a string of them, in a lifetime of them.

He slouched on the sofa, resting his head on the back cushion again to stare up at the ceiling. The fingers of his left hand twitched, even though they weren’t fucking home right now. Ghost fingers waving to a ghost of a mind.

Steve paced back toward him, and Bucky tried to focus on what he was saying. “They’ve got the actual arm fabricated already. But Bucky is . . . he’s having some concerns that I don’t quite understand to talk through with him. Yeah.”

Bucky opened one eye to stare at Steve when the giant fucking human golden retriever handed him the phone and gave him the most earnest expression he could muster. “I hate you,” Bucky said, so low that only super soldier hearing was going to pick it up.

“Not all of me,” Steve shot back with a twitch of a smirk. He thumbed the speaker on again and raised his voice. “Tony?”

“Still here. Still waiting.”

“Tell him what you told me,” Steve instructed, meeting Bucky’s eyes. “About the bone structure reacting to the lack of vibrations, and melding the metals and connectors and stuff.”

Bucky glared at him. How fucking dare he share these worries with Tony Stark of all people. The guy had very actively tried to kill him. In fact, Bucky would still have his goddamn other arm if it hadn’t been for Tony, he had liked that arm! He and that arm’d had a very good relationship!

He looked away, jaw set, childishly refusing to speak. He regretted not having two arms so he could cross them in a huff. He felt more than saw Steve’s shoulders slump a little.

“I’ve seen the original scans of the anchoring system,” Tony began when it became obvious Bucky wasn’t going to speak. “There’s metal welded to your bones from your shoulder all the way to the lower ribs and spine.”

“I’m aware,” Bucky muttered. “Hard to forget that operation.”

“You . . . you remember it?” Tony practically stuttered.

Bucky closed his eyes. Fuck! He hadn’t meant to let that slip. Steve’s hand faltered, the phone lowering. Bucky risked a glance up at him only to see the expression on his face and regret everything for making Steve’s eyes that sad.

“You were awake when they did that?” Steve breathed, sounding and looking horrified in equal measures.

Bucky pressed his lips tightly together, then gave that a curt nod, unable to meet Steve’s eyes.

“Jesus,” Tony gasped on the phone.

“Anyway!” Bucky said, loud enough to drown out the ghosts of screams in his mind. He was glaring up at Steve for making him do this, for forcing him to choose between voicing his concerns to the man who’d blown the damn arm off to start with, or sitting stubbornly and watching them react to all the shitty things from his file that he was carefully trying to pretend had never happened. “So the anchoring system is one type of alloy, right? How are they going to meld the new vibranium-enriched alloy to it and have the connections be as strong? What if the weight of the new arm is too much and it just . . . gets ripped off again?”

“Wow,” Tony said thoughtfully. “Steve you didn’t tell me Barnes was actually intelligent, I always assumed he was just the sentient sniper rifle of the group.”

Bunky blinked and found a spot on the carpet to stare at as he shivered violently. Then he closed his eyes, because he could still see Steve in his peripheral vision, and there were still at least seven ways to kill him where he stood.

“And will they be able to reconnect the nerve endings?” Bucky continued doggedly. “Will I have feeling in it again? Or will it be more like a real prosthesis instead?”

“Wait,” Tony said, loud and urgent. “You’re saying you could feel the arm?”

Bucky didn’t open his eyes. He took a deep breath in through his nose, and let it out through his mouth. Of course he could feel the arm. The nerve bundles had gone all the way to his goddamn brain. Every bullet that arm had stopped, every hunk of concrete it had dug into, every life it had squeezed out of someone . . . Bucky had felt it all as if his own hand had merely been sheathed in thick armored leather and numbed to the pain.

He could still feel the arc reactor’s blast ringing through the arm, searing it off his body just like electricity through his mind.

He shoved off the couch and mumbled to Steve that he needed air, bolting for the door with as much dignity as possible when he was pretty sure he was going to wind up face first on the floor somewhere very soon.

He ignored Steve’s calls and the sound of Tony cursing over the phone as he aimed for open air and soft ground, just in case he was about to eat whatever he faceplanted into.

==

Steve stood helplessly in the common room, watching out the windows as Bucky stood in the grassy area that Clint and Natasha had been using for their morning yoga sessions. Clint was out there right now, a tentative hand on Bucky’s elbow, talking to him as Bucky stared off at the mist-laden jungle around the royal compound and nodded absently.

He felt Natasha’s presence, before he really heard her. He spared her a glance when she brushed against him. She stood mimicking his stance, arms crossed across her chest, scowl in place.

“Why the hell will he talk to Barton of all people, instead of me?” Steve asked. He knew he sounded like a petulant child, but so the fuck what?

“Clint’s the only person around who has even an inkling of what it’s like inside Barnes’s head, Steve,” Natasha said, her voice like whisky going down smoke-smooth.

Steve scowled deeper. He hadn’t thought of that. Why hadn’t he thought of that?

“Clint’s probably pissing himself inside, too. He’s always had the hugest baby sniper crush on Bucky Barnes,” Natasha added, almost to herself.

“Wait, what?” Steve after a few seconds, glancing at her again as she laughed quietly.

“You forget the entire world grew up with you guys in the history books, don’t you?”

Steve felt his cheeks heating. He did sometimes forget that. The men of the 107th - the Howling Commandos, as they'd been named after the fact - had been heroes to more people than just him. Bucky had been a hero to more people than just his men.

Outside, Bucky and Clint both suddenly laughed, loud and hard, with Clint’s arm on Bucky’s shoulder as he leaned over, cackling. Bucky said something more to Clint, then made a gesture with his hand that looked suspiciously like sign language, and Clint nodded. He was still grinning. He took something from his pocket and showed it to Bucky, and Bucky nodded.

It was apparently permission for something, because Clint stepped behind Bucky, and Steve took a shocked step toward the window to stare. Bucky hadn’t let anyone at his six, not even Steve, since he’d woken. But there was Clint, standing right behind him, knives clearly visible on his person, reaching up to Bucky’s neck as Bucky stood there allowing it. Steve watched, nonplussed, as Clint pull Bucky’s long hair into a little knot and tied it with the string or whatever he’d pulled out of his pocket.

Bucky had asked Clint to tie his hair back.

Steve realized he was gaping, but all he could do was shake his head.

Someone cleared their throat behind him, and he glanced over his shoulder to find that Sam and Scott had both joined Natasha. He could see Wanda coming down the hallway from the residences as well.

“You said it was urgent,” Sam explained after seeing the look of confusion that was obviously on Steve’s face.

“Right,” Steve managed to whisper. He turned and knocked his knuckles against the window, and both Clint and Bucky turned to peer through the tempered glass before they started moving toward the entrance a few yards away.

Once everyone had gathered and was seated, or in Bucky’s case loitering and looking like he wanted to bolt, Steve stood and addressed them.

“I heard from Tony,” he announced. Everyone was silent. Eerily silent. “He claims he needs our help.”

“Dude, fuck that guy,” Sam blurted.

“I kind of have to agree,” Clint added. “If it weren’t for Stark, I’d be rebuilding my barn right now instead of stuck here with you guys and only one extra hearing aid. No offense.”

“Same,” Scott mumbled. “I mean, I wouldn’t be building a barn. But I haven’t seen my daughter in three months, Cap.”

“I know,” Steve said with almost too much sympathy. Boy, did he know what it was to miss someone he loved. His eyes strayed to Bucky almost against his will, who stood staring at him unblinkingly, looking amazing with his hair pulled back like that and healthy and alive in his white Henley and loose jeans. “I’m sorry,” Steve continued, making sure to look each of them in the eye for a moment. “I wouldn’t be bringing this to you if I didn’t think it was . . . well, earth-shattering.”

Someone groaned.

“Do you trust him, Steve?” Natasha asked carefully. She had trusted Tony and the process of the Accords, right up until she’d had to run from the same ‘peace-keepers’ Tony had insisted they needed for oversight. Steve had been lucky to encounter her as she’d been trying to break Clint and the others out of the Raft herself when he and T'Challa went there. She'd come back with them, holding onto Clint and Wanda protectively, face a portrait of exhausted calm.

“I don’t know,” Steve admitted softly. “I told him as much, that I suspected it might be a trap to get to Bucky.”

“If he kills me in revenge, he’s no better than the people he’s helping put away with the Accords,” Bucky pointed out.

The others mumbled in agreement.

Steve nodded. How many times had he thought that to himself, alone at night as he’d silently raged against the man in his mind. “I like to think I still know him pretty well,” he said finally. “He sounded . . .”

“Sincere?” Sam tried, unable to hide his sarcasm.

“Scared,” Steve said instead. “He sounded scared. He claimed he was working on an arm for Bucky, and he even sent me schematics and photos to prove it. I’m not sure he’d do that just as a lure.”

“What did he say he needed us for?” Sam asked.

“He wouldn’t. Or couldn’t. He’s hoping curiosity will draw us in, I think. He just said it was too big for us to be spread as thin as we are.”

There was some grumbling, but no one spoke for a few minutes.

“What do you want us to do, Steve?” Wanda finally asked, her accented voice soft and sad.

Steve mulled it over, looking at them each again with a huge sigh. “I can’t ask any of you to trust him.”

“You damn right,” Sam muttered under his breath.

“But I do,” Steve added dejectedly. “I’ll go to New York. I’ll meet with him. And if –”

“Fuck, no,” Bucky snarled as he took a few steps closer to the cluster of couches and chairs they had gathered in. “You’re not going anywhere near that psycho, not alone, not without backup.”

“He’s not psychotic, Buck, he’s not dangerous.”

“Oh really?” Bucky said with a bark of laughter that was so much uglier and angrier than the normal sound could be. He tipped his head to the left, indicating his missing arm. “You know how much goddamn firepower it took to rip this thing apart? Damn sure enough to kill your stupid ass if it had hit you!”

Steve swallowed hard. He didn’t really have a response to that. Bucky looked at him in disgust and turned, pacing away and muttering.

There was a gentle knock from the direction of the entry foyer, and T’Challa stood there, his normal mixture of benevolent amusement on his face. “Pardon the interruption, Captain.”

Steve gave him a slight bow of his head. He’d been struggling with the correct way to interact with the King of Wakanda. At times he felt like the man was a friend, an equal, someone he could talk with and joke around with and spar with. At others, he felt like a peasant who was just grateful for the roof over his head. And there was no change in T’Challa’s behavior to indicate why or how Steve would react to him. It was disorienting.

“I came to speak with Sergeant Barnes,” T’Challa explained. “But I see I have interrupted.”

“No, it’s no problem. Please,” Steve said, gesturing for T’Challa to join them.

“I could not help but overhear,” the man murmured as he moved into the room. “Perhaps I can be of assistance?”

Steve frowned at him. He could damn near feel Bucky pacing, watching T’Challa warily.

“I could travel to New York and meet with Stark,” T’Challa offered. “I am, after all, the only one in the room who is not a fugitive from the law.”

Steve had the good grace to blush.

“Screw that guy,” Bucky grumbled. “You want to send the King of Wakanda flying across the damn earth to go see him instead of making him send a text message or whatever about the problem? Come on, Steve.”

“I . . . kind of have to side with Barnes on this one, man,” Sam admitted grudgingly. He glanced at Bucky hatefully, as if he blamed Bucky for being too reasonable to disagree with on this point.

“If it really is such a huge thing, Tony should be desperate to get us there,” Clint added. “If he still refuses to tell you what it is, it’s smelling more and more traplike the more we talk.”

Steve nodded absently. “You’re right,” he conceded. “I’ll call him back, insist on knowing what we’re walking into. Then we’ll discuss whether we break cover or not.”

They all nodded and murmured, and as he headed back to his quarters to retrieve the secure phone, they all remained behind, waiting. He glanced over his shoulder to see T’Challa approaching Bucky, speaking to him with a kind smile. Steve hoped it was something about the new arm.

He realized he was nervous when he got the phone out, and his heart was racing as he dialed the number.

Tony picked up in one ring. “When will you be here?”

“I don’t know if we’re coming, Tony,” Steve said, and he was pleased with how even his voice was. “I can’t ask my team to risk themselves without knowing what it’s about. I can’t do it.”

He heard Tony groan. “Fine. Send me your address, I’ll come there.”

“Nice try,” Steve said with a smile, almost fondly.

“What do you want from me, Steve?” Tony snapped. “You think I want to be around you? You think I want to see you and him – no,” Tony cut off suddenly.

Steve flushed and ducked his head, closing his eyes.

“I’m begging you, here,” Tony said shakily instead of whatever he’d been about to say.

“Then give me a run down, Tony,” Steve said, forcing himself to be stern. “Give me an assurance it’s not just a lure to get us all back in that floating prison General Ross likes so much.”

Tony blew out a breath slowly. “You have to know I didn’t know that’s where’d you’d all end up. You have to.”

Steve was silent. That was a conversation Tony would have to have with Sam, and Clint, and Wanda, and Scott.

“It’s something Thor called the Infinity Stones,” Tony told him in curt annoyance. “The Tesseract, the Mind Stone from Loki’s staff, which is now conveniently located in Vision’s forehead. Something he called the Aether, another he called the Power Orb. He says they’re gathering, and he says it’s . . . going to cause like universal issues. The four that have appeared, they’ve caused their own problems. The ones that remain, one has the power to warp time itself. He’s scared. I’m scared. Vision’s mopey. Please. Steve. Cap. Please bring the team home so we can prep and train and be ready when this hits.”

“So this isn’t actually an emergency,” Steve said, trying to decipher the heaviness in his chest. Was it disappointment? Anger? Sadness? Did he even care anymore?

Tony groaned angrily and something banged. “Yes! It is an emergency! You think I’d have called you if it wasn’t? You think I want –” he stopped abruptly and grumbled under his breath. “Listen. Steve. We had our thing, okay? I thought . . . I thought we had a good thing. I let Pepper leave me without putting up a fight because of how good I thought this thing was. But you burned me. You burned me, Cap, you got scent of Barnes and you were off like a goddamn cannonball, and I don’t know why it hurt me like it did, I knew you’d choose him. I knew it when I made my decisions. So I’m not blaming you, I’m not. That’s on me. I blame Barnes a little, but, y’know. Whatever.”

“Tony,” Steve said carefully, trying to push down the surprise. He closed his eyes. How the hell could he have been so fucking dumb? That hadn’t just been rage and grief he’d seen in Tony when they’d fought. There’d been jealousy there too. There’d been just as much of a giant green rage monster involved as if the Hulk had been part of the battle. “I’m sorry,” was all he could manage to whisper.

“Like I said. If you think I want you two to come back here and parade the happy couple in my face, you’re out of your goddamned mind.”

“That’s not –”

“Shut up.”

Steve couldn’t think of anything to say to that, but he was thoroughly convinced of Tony’s sincerity, at least. “Have we been pardoned?” he asked finally.

Tony exhaled angrily. “No.”

Steve clucked his tongue, trying to fall back on the anger instead of the sadness.

“You’ll be safe on the grounds. You’ll be hidden until we’re needed. I swear to God, Steve, if they catch any of you I’ll prisonbreak you myself. We’re talking about something that has Thor nervous, Steve! The God of Goddamned Thunder!”

Steve sighed and nodded to himself. “Okay. We’ll discuss it, and I’ll call you back in thirty minutes.”

“I’ll wait with baited fucking breath,” Tony snarled, and hung up.

Steve bared his own teeth and snapped the phone closed. It didn’t quite give him the same satisfaction as slamming a phone into the cradle used to.

==

Bucky had been fighting what he was pretty sure amounted to a panic attack for the last ten minutes. The private jet had landed and taxied toward the Stark Industries hangar, where they would be able to disembark away from prying eyes and security cameras with facial recognition. The jet’s door was still closed, the cabin quiet and tense as the entire team seemed to hold its breath.

Steve finally stood and inhaled deeply. “Okay,” he said, and the quiet authority in his voice soothed Bucky’s nerves somehow. He supposed it was just an ingrained response leftover from the War.

There were murmurs and shuffling as they gathered their bags and thumped down the metal stairs to the hangar floor. It wasn’t necessarily bright in the hanger, but Bucky found himself squinting nonetheless, keeping his senses on high alert, ready for an attack, but also keeping his head down and eyes averted from anyone and anything.

The last thing he wanted was Tony Stark to meet his eyes and go into another rage.

If it happened, Bucky would kill him this time. He had two arms again, and he wore knives. Everywhere.

He flexed his left hand, testing the new arm, taking comfort in the soft sigh of the mechanical whirring. So far, he’d been completely pleased with the crafting of the new limb. It was lighter, stronger, hurt less, but felt more. It was . . . well, if Bucky had been swallowing back tears when they had him test it out, who could blame him, right? It was a goddamn masterpiece.

Clint, Scott, and Wanda hung back with him as the others moved toward the waiting limo. Tony Stark stood beside the open limo door, almost at parade rest, his shoulders stiff, his chin jutting out.

Steve stopped half a dozen yards away, shoulders squared, Sam and Natasha flanking him. Tony faced him alone. Neither man said anything as they stared at each other.

Clint began to make a low groaning sound, turning almost into a hum as he watched at Bucky’s side. “This ain’t gonna end well,” he said, speaking almost into Bucky’s ear. He added a signed, “Lordy Lordy.”

“We’ll be fine as long as Steve keeps his head,” Bucky murmured to Clint and Scott.

Scott snorted before managing to cover it with a cough, and he glanced at Bucky apologetically when Bucky shot him a glare.

“Tony,” Steve said in a loud, practiced tone. It was Captain America’s stage voice, Bucky realized.

“Cap,” Tony responded. He had sunglasses on, so it was impossible to see where he was looking. Bucky could feel the man’s eyes on him, though. He didn’t need to see them. He stared back, unflinching. Tony had gotten his licks in. He’d taken his pound of flesh. Literally. Bucky was done regretting the past, regretting actions he’d had as much control over as a beaten dog.

When no one else spoke or moved, Tony pushed away from the limo and nodded his head at the door, inviting them all to pile in. No one moved, everyone suspended in a miasma of tension and anger and sadness and regret. Then Natasha turned and headed for the plane’s hold. Bucky waited a breath, then joined her to help drag the suitcases out. The others followed suit.

He made sure not to glance Tony’s way as he hefted several of the heavy cases at once and lugged them to the limo’s trunk.

“We’ve got people for that, Sergeant,” Tony called, a taunting lilt covering something sharper, angrier.

“So do we,” Bucky said curtly as he and the others piled the luggage in.

==

Chapter Text

“I want to look at the arm,” Tony said as soon as everyone was in the limo.

Silence met his words, everyone staring at him as if they didn’t speak goddamn English. Tony made a gimme gesture with his hands.

“I know you’re not talking to me,” Barnes murmured from where he sat in the furthest possible reaches of the vehicle, away from Tony.

Tony heard Steve sigh heavily, but did he give two flying fucks what Steve thought? No. “Does anyone else in the car have a metal arm?” Tony demanded. “Anyone else a living, breathing cyborg? No? Shame, ’cause I want to look at a metal arm and you’re the only one buying drinks tonight, sweetheart.”

“Didn’t you get a pretty good look at it the last time you saw it?” Sam snapped. “Or did it burst into flames too fast for you?”

Tony narrowed his eyes at the man, about to ask him if he honestly believed any human in the world would not have blasted Barnes’s arm clean off if they thought he was about to crush them with it. But something held his tongue, and he was glad for it because it allowed him to see the look of mild surprise that Barnes shot Sam’s way. Had Barnes not expected anyone to defend him? Did Barnes and Wilson not get along because they both wanted to be Captain America’s bestie? Not as much harmony amongst the rebels as Tony had lain awake believing, huh?

“Why do you want to see it?” Steve was asking him defensively, and Tony forced himself to meet Steve’s eyes.

“Because that’s what I do,” he practically snarled. He cleared his throat, taking a deep breath to try to make his tone less combative. Force was not going to get his eyes on Barnes’s arm – or fix this shattered excuse for a team – he had to finesse his way in there. “The original was a marvel of technology on its own, okay, I would have done anything to get a look at it. But how did they replicate it in just three months? Did they manage to give you feeling again? What’s the strength now? Is it powered externally? I wasn’t even close to figuring out all the logistics on my own without more than memory and grainy security footage of how it operated.”

Steve seemed shocked that he would admit to an inadequacy, especially a design inadequacy, and he let that show on his stupid, perfect, expressive face. Tony wanted to hit it. Just a little. A lot.

On the other end of the limo, Barnes gave a damn-near petulant sigh. “Everyone on the team gets a no-strings favor,” he said, his voice oddly gravelly for such a young face. “Whatever they want, you’re footing the bill. And you can look at the arm all you want.”

“James,” Natasha said softly. She was actually frowning.

“Done,” Tony agreed without needing to even think it through. These people were his teammates, his friends. He’d do anything for them they wanted, within his ability. Fucking James Buchanan Barnes didn’t have to bargain for their safety and comfort with Tony. Asshole. “Can I open it up?”

“Sure,” Barnes said, voice cheerful but delivered with a downright evil grin, his eyes flashing like a wild animal even as he maintained that schoolboy cocksure smirk. “Then I’ll open you up in return.”

Tony grunted. Was that hot? Jesus, it kind of was. No wonder Steve had sniffed this guy out across the globe. He sat back, relaxing. “That seems fair.”

When they reached the facility, everyone filtered toward their former residences on their own, dragging their meager belongings with them. It was quiet and sedate, and Tony fucking hated it. He stood practically vibrating in the common room, watching the others leave, missing the easy camaraderie and joviality from before.

It was hard not to toss blame at everyone and anyone. It was especially hard not to blame the man in the mirror, or the only man who remained in the room with him as soon as Steve disappeared down the hall.

Tony was left alone with the Winter Soldier, who stood at the great bank of windows, peering out. He looked . . . relaxed? Contemplative? Frankly, Tony was shocked to see an expression on his face at all, from the footage of the DC fiasco he’d seen, the man had been a blank slate capable of murder, mayhem, and a damn fine terrifying strut. Even when facing Tony’s rage, the only emotion Tony had recognized, in hindsight, was . . . sadness.

Tony cursed quietly and began to weave his way around the common room furniture toward Barnes.

“Don’t you want to put your stuff away?” Tony asked him, shocked at the sharpness of his own voice. He was going to be angry for a while, he knew that. Maybe he could fake it ’til he made it and pretend to be civil, though. This wasn’t a particularly good start, considering he’d been sort of hoping to surprise the man, sneak up on him a little. It was childish, but at least Tony knew and accepted that. That was the first step toward healing and all that crap.

Barnes didn’t turn to look at him. Didn’t startle. When Tony looked closer, he could see that Barnes had been watching Tony’s reflection in the glass the entire time.

“I don’t have stuff,” Barnes answered. “They kept my notebooks.”

“Three months, and you haven’t accumulated anything?” Tony found himself blurting. “Nothing, not even clothes?”

He shrugged one shoulder to show Tony the pack hanging off it, looking maybe half-full of what could be assumed was clothing. “I was in cryo,” Barnes said, his voice still careless and quiet. “My choice.”

Tony started at that news. Barnes had been in cryo containment all this time? Why in the hell would he do that? How could he do that to Steve? Tony found himself growing angrier, and he gritted his teeth to control it.

“Why?” he forced out.

“To be safe,” Barnes answered as he finally turned around and cocked his head. He stared at Tony for a long time. He looked relaxed. But Tony knew that wasn’t the case. It didn’t feel like a front or a mask, not like the one Tony wore in front of the world. He could tell the man was coiled inside, ready to strike. But his outer skin, his protective coating, it was unruffled. Tony got the feeling that maybe that was just how Barnes was and had nothing to do with him or the new surroundings. It took a moment before Tony realized that Barnes was still talking to him. “Stark? You in there? I said; Which room should I take?”

“You’re not . . . bunking with Rogers?”

“Why the hell would I do that, have you ever seen the way he sleeps? Like a motherfucking octopus. I spent too damn many nights on the ground already, thanks.”

Tony flinched, ducking his head. Yes. Yes, he had seen the way Steve sleeps in a bed. The only way to stay in the bed with him was to hold on for dear life. That was a low fucking blow, even from a deadly Hydra assassin, to remind Tony that he would never see it again. Great, so Steve had chosen this fucking . . . really attractive, okay, but goddamn murdering relic from the ’40’s over him, and Barnes wasn’t even going to take advantage and sleep in the same goddamned bed with him? Fuck this guy so hard.

“The gang’s almost all here, so, take whatever empty room you want,” Tony mumbled, half-turning and ready to bolt to go lick his wounds in private for a little while. “When you’re up to it, my lab’s across the –”

“Let’s go,” Barnes said with a deep sigh, moving toward Tony with his head down.

Tony backed away, suspicious. “What?”

“I told you I’d let you look at it,” Barnes reminded, looking at Tony like he was insane.

Tony mirrored the expression.

“What?” Barnes asked in exasperation. “Come on, Stark, let’s do this before Steve finds out and tries to hold my hand or some shit,” he added, gesturing for Tony to lead the way. “It’s embarrassing,” he mumbled under his breath.

Tony fought hard not to snort at that.

He found himself leading Barnes toward his lab, glancing over his shoulder occasionally. The man walked like he was stalking an antelope on the plains. His eyes were blue, but not really, right? They were sort of a gray blue, maybe? Like ice, and Tony didn’t know why he had expected something different. He’d seen pictures of Sergeant James Barnes before, all dashing in his uniform and that cocky grin. Black and white pictures, no way to tell what color his eyes were. Peggy Carter had once told Tony they’d been the most uncanny clear blue, but Tony hadn’t known what that meant, not really. He’d certainly not expected it. He’d also seen the pictures that weren’t in the Smithsonian, the ones from his father’s private collection, that showed Barnes and Steve together with the other Commandos, laughing raucously, or drunk and carousing, or covered in blood with fire in their eyes and baring their teeth like wild animals.

There were pieces of those pictures in the man who was currently calmly following Tony across the yard into the outermost building, but Tony could see how the extra pieces, the soft and fuzzy pieces – the bits and bobs that had made up the man Steve and Howard and Peggy and the other Commandos had all sworn across hell and earth had been one of the best men they’d known – had been burned and chiseled and filed away to create an efficient killing machine, one of the most deadly men on the planet.

As they neared the door to Tony’s workshop, one of the most deadly men on the planet began to hum a tune.

Tony glanced at him, eyebrow raised pointedly as he put his hand on the entry panel. Barnes met his eyes and stopped humming abruptly, wincing. “Sorry. Nervous habit.”

“Sure,” Tony grunted, and stepped into the cool air of his workroom.

Barnes hesitated on the threshold, peering in. He did look nervous suddenly, staring at all the machinery with the barest hint of panic in his eyes. His shoulders lost a bit of their swagger, and he bowed his head. He seemed impossibly young just then, and Tony wondered how old he was, biologically speaking. The Winter Soldier files hadn’t been very specific about how often or how long he’d spent in cryo over the last 70 years, but if he aged at the same rate as Steve did while thawed, then he couldn’t be much more than 30, maybe?

Tony blinked at him, struck suddenly by that. 30 years old. Jesus fucking Christ.

“Fuck,” Barnes whispered as his eyes darted over a few of the machines Tony used for moving heavier parts. “Yeah, we might need Stevie after all.”

“What? Why?” Tony asked.

Barnes cleared his throat. “To keep me from hurting you if I panic.”

==

Barnes was sitting in a recliner that Tony had brought in a few weeks ago, when he’d realized that he was sleeping in the lab more than he was his quarters. The couch was fine for long naps, but shorter naps in the recliner were a nice change, kept him from getting stiff and sore, or from throwing up on himself when he was dead drunk. Which had only happened once, thank you.

Barnes was sitting shirtless, having discarded the soft white Henley that had been having a moment while covering Barnes’s quite frankly stunning physique. Fucking super soldiers, Jesus fuck.

Tony’d pulled his rolling stool up beside Barnes’s left, and Steve was hovering on Barnes’s right with his arms crossed, the Biceps of Freedom flexing every time he tensed.

“God, sit down, you giant fucking loser,” Barnes grunted at Steve finally, and Steve shot him a wounded glance. Barnes waved at him, smirking. “I’m immune to that.”

“Fine,” Steve muttered, rolling his eyes before glancing around for and finding a nearby bar stool. He pulled it up and perched on the edge, watching as Tony laid out a handful of tools on a stainless steel table that he’d stolen from the medical ward.

“What exactly are you going to do?” Steve asked him finally. He sounded uneasy. More so than Barnes did, even.

“I want to look at the power, for one,” Tony answered through gritted teeth. He didn’t want to talk to Steve. He didn’t want to talk to Barnes. He didn’t want to hear them talk to each other. He damn sure didn’t want to see them looking at each other, exchanging those stupid silent glances that they seemed to be communicating with. He just wanted to play with the arm. Yet again, his curiosity was winning out over his sense of mental and emotional self-preservation.

“Let’s, uh . . .” Barnes hesitated, his eyes going from the tools to scan the room quickly. They landed on Steve, looking him up and down. “Let’s strap it down, huh? You wearing a belt, Steve?”

“Buck, I’m not tying you down,” Steve said, his tone so matter of fact it was as if he expected that to be the end of the conversation. With most people it probably would have been. Not with Tony, though, who enjoyed squabbling with Steve almost as much as they’d enjoyed fucking each other. And not with Barnes, who . . . Tony didn’t want to ponder his reasons or methods.

Barnes didn’t actually argue, he merely grabbed Steve’s belt, expertly flipping the buckle open with his thumb. Before Steve could shake himself out of the shock his eyes so obviously betrayed, Barnes had rid him of the belt, yanking it out of the belt loops to hand it to Tony.

“Bucky!” Steve snapped.

“Tie it down,” Barnes said to Tony, ignoring Steve like he would a yappy Chihuahua at dinner. “It’s safer that way, I used to strangle my technicians with pretty good regularity.”

“You . . . w-wait, what?” Tony stuttered.

Barnes just jangled the belt at him.

Tony nodded and took it, glancing around for something to tie his metal wrist to.

Steve had gone fairly pale. “Bucky, you don’t have to do this, you know that, right?”

“It’s fine,” Barnes murmured, moving his head and shifting like he was trying to get comfortable in the chair. “The more people who know how this thing works, the better.”

“But –”

“I wasn’t some mindless machine most of the time, Steve,” Barnes said sharply, and Tony actually flinched away from the sudden darkening in the tone of his voice. He kept his eyes down as he strapped the metal arm to the recliner’s hinges. “They all knew if they hurt me on purpose they were putting a barrel in their mouth. The ones who were sadists didn’t last very fucking long, not around me.”

Steve gave that a sad smile. “Give ’em hell, Buck.”

Barnes mumbled a fond, “Shut up.”

“Okay, so, that’s enough Hydra history lesson for me,” Tony announced, then he pulled his protective mask over his head and hunched to begin loosening the first plate on the arm. He could see Barnes flexing his fist in his peripheral vision, like he was testing how much power he’d have to exert to get out of the improvised strap, but it seemed to be relaxing the man to be able to move a little, so Tony didn’t say anything about it.

The arm itself was almost a carbon copy of the original, from what Tony could remember. It looked a lot like it, and the design was efficient and practical. He’d actually touched the other one a few times, briefly, during their skirmishes. This one was more refined, almost . . . Tony hesitated to say ‘dainty’ in relation to anything about James Barnes, except perhaps his lips. Which Tony quickly looked away from. He could see why Hydra had wanted to muzzle Barnes. The arm, though, that was also a thing of exquisite beauty. The plates were thin but strong, flexible in a way a real arm would almost be. They were almost squishy, in fact. Like supple leather that had a hint of give to it.

It seemed to be powered by Barnes himself, which, considering what Tony knew about super soldier metabolism and how hot Steve’s body ran, that made a sort of sense.

It made sense for a normal person’s arm, anyway, used for things like washing hair and jerking off.

“How does the power work?” Tony asked after a long silence as he fiddled.

“You’re asking for results not function, correct?” Barnes drawled.

“Correct.”

“Adequate toward sub-par,” Barnes said, his eyes fixed on the ceiling as he reclined.

Tony glanced up, scowling. The man sounded like he was giving a . . . oh. He was giving a mission report. Tony glanced over him, sitting in the chair, arm strapped down and flayed open as Tony tinkered with it, quite obviously forcing his body to relax and his eyes fixed on a point that he could focus on. His words were flat, precise, and suddenly oddly accented as if his memories had gone . . . Russian, maybe?

Jesus Christ. Poor kid.

Barnes kept talking as Tony examined him. “Extreme power output would drain it in its current iteration, though, leave my left vulnerable to attack for several seconds.” Barnes paused, frowning thoughtfully, and Tony hummed for him to continue. “It reminds me of the first generation arm, they didn’t realize I wouldn’t move enough to keep it powered on my own, I don’t know. Friction? Had to add a battery to it that wound up leaking and poisoning me.”

Steve made a sound, one that he quickly muffled, that sounded like a dog being deflated like a balloon.

“There’s space in here for a lot more goodies,” Tony said, raising his voice a little. “We could add an arc reactor to take over the load for when you’re at max capacity. Clean energy, never leaks. It would power it for the rest of your life, no matter how long that might be.”

Barnes’s eyes flickered toward him, something flashing over his face before it was gone again. He nodded. “Understood.”

“We can do that right now while I’ve got it open. Dum-E! Arc reactor!” Tony called over his shoulder. He turned back to Barnes, who hadn’t reacted to Tony’s sudden shout like a hateful part of Tony had sort of wanted him to.

“This gonna hurt?” Barnes asked, his voice maddeningly calm.

Tony winced, peering at the arm and then at Barnes, considering. “Not on purpose,” he finally promised.

“Close enough.”

Steve carefully slid his fingers beneath Barnes’s palm, squeezing. Barnes gave him a gentle smile in return, winking at him cheekily.

Tony’s two assistant bots trundled over, the miniature arc reactor glowing faintly in the prongs of the larger one.

“That’s Dum-E?” Barnes asked.

“He’s actually Dum-E 2, but he doesn’t know that,” Tony admitted. He pointed at the other bot, which had a camera attached, the recording indicator blinking. “And that’s U. U2, actually,” Tony said, then barked a forced laugh. “Anyway. You mind if I record this?”

Barnes shrugged, muttering. “Howard always said it wasn’t science unless you wrote it down.”

Tony stared at him, his mouth gone dry. Barnes took a second, then his eyes widened a little and he glanced at Tony sharply. “Jesus, I’m sorry,” he practically gasped. “I didn’t even think before that came out.”

“It’s . . .” Tony swallowed. It’s what, okay? It wasn’t okay. It wasn’t nearly okay. Barnes had killed Howard with his own goddamned hands, it would never be okay.

Barnes had his eyes closed, his head bowed as Tony stared at him. He looked so damnably young, with his hair pulled back off his face like that and a pair of loose, faded jeans on instead of his black Kevlar tactical gear.

Steve was mimicking Barnes’s pose, head down, eyes closed.

Tony tried again to speak. “He talked about you a lot. Said you were the bravest man he’d ever met, did everything the super soldier did but you were just a regular guy like him. Said you were the best shot he’d ever seen, that you could fire every single weapon he ever handed you.”

Barnes still had his eyes closed, but he took a deep breath and seemed to decide something, because he resolutely raised his head and opened his eyes to meet Tony’s. Like maybe he thought he owed it to Tony not to hide as he heard this. His eyes were damn near glistening, though, which made them look even more clear than blue. He looked so sad. So fucking sad.

“Howard was my friend,” Barnes whispered. “No words will ever be enough.”

Tony ground his teeth together, nostrils flaring. “Try some,” he almost snarled.

Barnes didn’t flinch away. He nodded almost imperceptibly and said, “I’m sorry, Tony. I’m so sorry.”

Tony stared a little longer. Barnes had been right. Words weren’t enough. And it didn’t help that Tony had slowly but surely realized that James Barnes wasn’t the one he needed to hear the apology from. Barnes was as much of a victim as anyone. He cleared his throat and looked away, pursing his lips. “Okay, let’s do this, then.”

“Tony,” Steve said softly, voice laden with pity and sorrow, the same sadness Tony remembered from that hellhole in Siberia when Steve had admitted that he’d known Barnes had killed Howard and Maria Stark on Hydra’s orders.

Tony just shook his head, fiddling with U’s camera, then taking the arc reactor from Dum-E and setting it on his tool table.

As soon as Dum-E’s prongs were empty, the bot scooted forward and nudged Barnes’s metal fingers, which were still secured to the recliner via his wrist. Barnes spread them as wide as they would go, letting Dum-E grasp his pointer finger. The bot gave it a tug and Barnes made a sound that no master assassin should ever be capable of making, a combination of alarmed squeak and amused gasp.

“No, I need that,” he told Dum-E. The bot gave it another tug, and Barnes growled at it. “Mine.”

“Dum-E, give him the finger,” Tony ordered absently as he arranged the connections within Barnes’s arm and prepared a space for the tiny arc reactor. He’d intended to use this particular model in one of his new gauntlets, but he could make a new one later. Dum-E gave a disappointed beep before rolling away. Tony had what he needed in place, so he looked up at Barnes to see if he was ready. “Okay, let’s do this real quick, so no one wants to kill the mechanic, okay? Promise?”

“I don’t make promises I can’t keep,” Barnes said as he watched the bots curiously. He laid his head back against the recliner, then took a deep breath to settle himself.

Out of the corner of his eye, Tony saw Steve grasp Barnes’s hand with both of his, squeezing gently.

“As soon as I pull this connection, you’re going to lose power in the arm momentarily,” Tony explained, wanting to keep Barnes as calm as possible through the process. “And when I plug the arc reactor in it might . . . be kind of a jolt. I don’t dare disconnect the power source that runs from your body in case you need a backup reserve, so they might . . . mmm . . . loop,” Tony explained in the plainest language he could muster. “For a second. Or ten.”

Barnes nodded, his jaw tight. Tony got the distinct feeling that Barnes knew what he was talking about intimately.

Tony didn’t linger further, pulling the temporary connections and powering the arm down. Barnes shifted a little, like the arm had just tugged at him. Then Tony inserted the arc reactor into the power source, which was, unfortunately, also connected directly into Barnes’s body. When the arc reactor powered the arm on again, Barnes arched his back up off the chair, thrashing his head and making a sound that was part hum, part groan as he tried desperately, and then ultimately failed, not to just shout wordlessly.

When he cried out, Steve stood so fast that he knocked his stool on its side. He bent over Barnes, holding his hand and putting his other hand on Barnes’s chest to keep him still. “Buck? Bucky!”

“I’m fine,” Bucky growled through gritted teeth, his body still arched and pained tension rolling off him in waves.

Tony worked hard to get all the connectors stable as fast as he could, spreading the charge throughout and lessening the amount that was transferring into Barnes’s body. He hoped.

“Is this. Is this normal?” Steve stammered. “Is this worth it?”

“Yes,” Barnes snarled. “Stop frowning or it’ll freeze that way,” he added, then laughed almost desperately at his own joke, still writhing in pain, his eyes squeezed shut.

Tony was nodding as he got the last bit hooked, and Barnes slowly, gingerly, relaxed his body back into the chair. He blew out a shaky breath and a shudder ran through him. Then another. Tony winced in sympathy, and Steve’s hand tightened on Barnes’s other shoulder.

“All done,” Tony announced. “Is it okay now?”

“Yeah,” Barnes breathed out. “Just . . . yeah.”

“Bucky,” Steve said, almost too softly for Tony to hear. He bent over Barnes and peered into his face like he was trying to transcribe the goddamn Rosetta Stone. “Are you okay?”

“Said m’fine, Steve.” He was silent, frowning as he forced his eyes open. They looked a little glazed. That must have been a bit more power going through him than Tony had expected. He felt a little guilty about that. Then Barnes added, “I feel a little light on my feet, actually. Will you go and snag me a Gatorade or something?”

Steve put his hand on Barnes’s forehead, and Barnes’s eyes drifted shut like he was fighting sleep. His body was going almost languid, and Tony wondered if it was exhaustion, or if the tension and near-panic from the first few minutes of tinkering with his arm plus the agony of installing the new power source was causing Barnes to blow through all his reserves and crash.

Tony had seen Steve crash when he didn’t get enough calories. Had they been eating enough while they’d been on the run? Barnes didn’t look quite as bulky as he had when he’d been trying to kill Tony with the shield months before, and now that Tony looked closer, both men seemed . . . not gaunt, but not totally hail and hardy either.

Tony glanced up. “Friday, my love,” he said to the Artificial Intelligence who ran the compound. “Put in a grocery order, make sure we’ve got plenty of high-protein, high vitamin super soldier snacks lurking around every cabinet, will you? And get a list from the others, anything special they want.”

“Yes, Boss,” F.R.I.D.A.Y replied.

Barnes glanced upward, scowling but not asking questions.

Steve obviously was thinking the same thing as Tony had been as he looked Barnes up and down. He smiled fondly, letting his fingers slide off Barnes’s forehead slowly. Tenderly. Tony looked away. He heard Steve right the stool he’ d knocked over, then say, “Gatorade. Need anything else?”

“Just Gatorade,” Barnes grunted.

Steve hummed, and he strolled toward the exit after giving Barnes’s shoulder a gentle pat. Barnes craned his neck, watching Steve until the outer doors snicked shut again and they were alone.

And suddenly Barnes’s body was tense once more, turning in the seat and straightening to lean toward Tony, a feeling of perpetual motion coming off the man in literal waves, looking at Tony eagerly. His eyes were nearly sparkling, no longer even close to glazed and tired and full of pain, and he had half a feral grin on his pretty goddamn lips. Where the hell had the hurt and sleepy super soldier gone, and did Tony need his Iron Man suit on for this??

“Okay, Stark,” Barnes said with that same wolf’s grin from the limo. “Let’s talk about weaponizing this thing before he gets back. What do you got that goes boom?”

Tony raised one eyebrow, staring at the mischief in the man’s eyes. The somber, loyal, noble sidekick from all those textbooks in school was . . . a sneaky, lying bastard! “Damn, Barnes, you’re going to make a bunch of stodgy historians cry one day,” Tony drawled in amusement.

==

Steve placed his hand on the entry pad, his heart stuttering with renewed nerves. Tony and Bucky seemed to be making an effort to get along, and Steve wanted to cry with relief. He’d extracted promises from both men before he’d agreed to bring the team home, but part of him had expected both of them to shrug those promises off and be at each other’s throats within minutes of meeting again.

He stepped into Tony’s lab, drinks and snacks under his arm, and was met with music blaring from the ceiling and clanging and banging from a corner he couldn’t get eyes on. What the hell??

He hustled over to break up what he instinctively knew was a fight. Of course the peace had been too good to be true, what had Steve been thinking, leaving them alone? He tossed the Gatorades and protein bars at the couch and skidded around U with its camera – recording – to find Bucky backed into a corner, one of his feet pushing against the wall to brace himself, the fingers of his flesh hand gripping at the wall for purchase, his metal arm raised defensively in front of his face. Tony was in front of him, teeth gritted, swinging a giant wrench over and over as a sheen of sweat made his bare arms glisten under the lights.

“Stop!” Steve shouted, and both men immediately froze.

Tony turned to blink at him, using his work glove and his wrist to wipe sweat out of his eyes. “That was fast,” he said. “You got water?”

“What the hell, Tony?” Steve bellowed.

Bucky had straightened and was inspecting his metal arm with a scowl. “Calm down, Cap,” he drawled. “We were testing the vibranium. This shit’s amazing,” he added, addressing Tony with the latter words. “For some reason I was thinking the silicon carbide added in would make it weaker.”

Tony turned back to Bucky, and Steve was surprised to see a grin on his face for the first time since . . . well, in a long time.

“You didn’t feel any of that?” Tony asked almost in annoyance as he took Bucky’s arm in his hand, sliding his fingers over it, pressing his fingertips into the oddly supple vibranium alloy. Steve had felt of it, before it was attached to Bucky, and it had reminded him of intensely thin memory foam.

Bucky shook his head. “Only contact in the limb, pressure. Nothing in the spine, the ribs, the chest. It was like using a staff to block or something.”

Tony waved his fingers at Bucky and turned on his heel, and Bucky went to stand at a mark against a nearby wall that had been duct taped, stretching his arms out to either side, the muscles in his shoulders moving smoothly. Steve had to swallow hard, but he allowed himself the pleasure of staring. Bucky had always been well-muscled, built lean and beautiful. He’d never been given enough nutrition to really bulk up like this. Not like this. There was a whining sound that wasn’t in Steve’s head, and then a flash. Steve realized Tony was X-raying him.

Bucky strolled over to Steve after it was done, grinning from ear to ear and looking Steve up and down appraisingly. Steve’s pulse picked up. Before the War, when Bucky had looked him over like that, it usually ended with at least one part of Bucky’s body inside of Steve’s. Sometimes more than one.

“Where’s my drink?” Bucky demanded.

Steve pointed vaguely over his shoulder, still trying to ease out of the adrenaline and the flashback of being held against a wall while Bucky buried his face in Steve’s neck and fucked him nice and slow, making the most amazing sounds against Steve’s skin as his cock moved inside him. Steve gritted his teeth and prayed that Bucky couldn’t see it in his eyes.

“Tossed ’em, I dunno,” Steve croaked.

Bucky scowled and gave him a disapproving sounding hum as he went off to search for wherever Steve had thrown the drinks. Steve moved toward Tony, feeling guilty and awkward for thinking what he’d seen was actually a fight in the first place.

“Tony,” Steve said softly as he got closer.

“It was his idea, I swear,” Tony said immediately, eyes still on the floating screen where the X-ray had popped up.

“Yeah, it had that look to it,” Steve said fondly. He struggled with the apology on his tongue, then realized that Tony wouldn’t want to hear it anyway, just like the words from Bucky had seemed useless to Tony, so he glanced at the screen as well.

It was Bucky’s skeleton standing there, arms out like he was about to take a dive into a pool, one bright white and solid, the other looking fragile and . . . real. His back was straight as he stood tall and proud. Perfect posture, just like in the Army, when he’d been the pride of the regiment and made Sergeant before even seeing combat, or when they’d been in school and Bucky had been the star athlete on every team.

All the history and biography books talked about that, his physicality, how he’d protected Steve their whole childhood, how he’d been a welterweight champ and how his sniper skills would still rival the abilities of today’s combatants with their advanced technology. None of the historians ever talked about him being one of the top students in every class, too, about how his smarts had gotten the men of the 107th through the War just as surely as Steve’s bold leadership. That was why everyone kept looking at Bucky in shock when he said something even remotely intelligent, and it made Steve’s insides burn with rage no matter how much Bucky laughed it off.

He shook off yet another reverie, eyeing the X-ray harder. The bones were riddled with bright lines, and on the left side they could see the support system that had been created for the metal arm. Bucky had been awake when they’d melded that metal to his bones.

Steve felt sick looking at it.

“Every bone in his body has been broken,” Tony whispered, so soft Steve had to lean closer to him. “Every single one. Broken and healed at least once.” He cursed under his breath, the words fading into nothing as Steve stared at the X-ray.

“Those bright lines?” Steve whispered. “They’re healed breaks?”

“Yep. He heals just like you do, but not as . . . clean? If it’s bad enough, he scars. And internally, apparently . . . I don’t know, the bones are strong and super dense, just not pretty. Jesus, I wish Bruce was here.”

Steve nodded. He knew that much from seeing Bucky’s body. It was mostly smooth, looking just as unharmed as it had been on the nights before Bucky went off to the front lines and Steve had straddled him and run his hands up and down Bucky’s skin. But where the metal met the flesh, those scars remained. Bucky insisted they looked better, that they were healing, just not as fast.

“Every bone,” Steve repeated absently.

Bucky hummed behind them, making them both jump. Jesus Christ, he was quiet when he moved. How the hell did he keep his clothing from rustling, his boots from squeaking? He’d put his shirt back on and it clung to him in a way that made Steve want to rip it to shreds and blindfold himself with the pieces. He was opening a bottle of Gatorade, and he pulled a bottle of water out of his jeans pocket and tossed it to Tony with a nod. “How do you think they knew my healing threshold?” he asked, almost carelessly. “They had to test that shit before they sent me out into the field.”

Steve stared at him in horror.

“They did this to you on purpose?” Tony asked, remarkably calm.

Bucky winced. “Well,” he said, stepping closer and squinting. He pointed out several places. “The more jagged ones? Those were from the fall, I’m pretty sure. That’s how I lost the arm. The forearm, I don’t know, man, it’s on some ledge in the Alps, got ripped off when I tried to grab for something to stop my fall. I was just going too damn fast. But the rest of the arm from the elbow down was smashed to smithereens when I landed on it, like bone dust. Too much for even the serum to help it heal. What wasn’t broken they cut off anyway to give the arm more power. From the shoulder instead of the . . .” he tapped his upper arm just above his elbow, scowling like he couldn’t find the right word. “But I broke a hip, both legs, like every goddamn rib in my body, clavicle, sternum. Broke my motherfucking assbone, man.”

He snorted and stepped back, peering at the X-ray and smirking as if he was telling a joke instead of recounting injuries received from a fall that Steve had spent the last days of his original lifetime believing had taken the love of his life from him.

Steve stared at him, wanting to both hug him and hit him.

“I laid there for a few days, the bones had time to start healing. Not as fast as they can now, mind, the serum wasn’t at full speed by then.”

“You,” Steve gasped. “You laid there for days?”

Bucky glanced at him in alarm. “Hey,” he said sternly. “You’d have never found me, pal. Never. Besides, you had shit to do. Cities to save.” He glanced back at the X-ray, stepping closer to them as if the movement might bring Steve out of his spiral of guilt and nausea. “They tested all kinds of things, tweaked the original serum they gave me, then tested again. Very thorough,” Bucky mused. His eyes had gone harder, though. Steve wondered if he should put a stop to story time, but . . . maybe it helped Bucky to talk about it?

Tony apparently had no such concerns. “What’s your healing time?”

“Ratio of one day to a normal man’s week. Almost on the dot. Broken bone takes six to eight days to heal up.”

“Wow,” Steve whispered. He wondered if his own ratio of healing was the same. He’d never thought to time it, but the next time he had occasion to observe a broken bone of his very own he certainly would remember.

“It’s fast enough that if I wait too long to set a bone or yank something out, it causes problems. I had a bit of rebar one time that made itself at home before I could extract it. It took for fucking ever to get that shit out of me after I healed around it. We named it Bob.”

Tony and Steve both gaped as Bucky took a big gulp of Gatorade. Tony seemed to shake himself out of it faster than Steve could, and he turned back to the floating X-ray and cleared his throat.

“You can see old micro-fractures in the bones that behaved as the anchoring systems,” he said, enlarging the X-ray with a flick of his forefinger and thumb, pointing at several places around the metal arm. “Hard to say if they’re from before or after they installed the extra support.”

Steve winced. Installed, like Bucky was some sort of goddamn computer program.

I’m a weapon, Bucky had said to him, and then laughed as if that shouldn’t have broken him.

Bucky hummed thoughtfully. “They always did that, even after the extra stuff was put in. The bones just couldn’t handle the torque or something, even reinforced. If I had to use full force, like punching through a blast door, or if I was falling and caught my full weight. I could always feel the cracking. They’d heal fast, though, never slowed me down.”

“I bet not,” Tony mumbled. He was glancing oddly at Bucky. Steve couldn’t quite decipher the look. He’d been able to decipher some of Tony’s expressions since meeting him, most of which had involved the preludes to kissing and groping, and taunting Steve into fucking him. He felt guilty that he’d never tried overly hard to learn any of the other expressions.

Bucky hummed again, seemingly oblivious to Tony’s scrutiny. Steve knew he wasn’t, though. Bucky’s face? Steve could read that like a book. He’d always been able to. The difference between love and a place-holder, his mind provided cruelly. He looked away from both men guiltily.

“The only way we’re going to get legitimate results is if I do something that would have created the fractures before,” Bucky told Tony, who was nodding grimly.

“You’re right. But I’m not going to be part of that,” Tony said, turning and walking away.

“What, why?” Bucky asked. “I thought you needed data.”

“We got the answer we wanted, that the vibranium is protecting you from undue stressors instead of doing any sort of harm. I don’t want data that might hurt you, Jesus, what kind of monster do you think I am?”

“Don’t answer that,” Steve blurted, putting a hand on Bucky’s chest as Bucky cocked his head at Tony thoughtfully. Tony snorted, and Bucky gave Steve a half-amused glare before taking another sip of his drink.

“I’m going to go find a room,” Bucky said after a few minutes, sounding almost contemplative.

“The one beside mine is empty,” Steve told him softly. “I put your bag in there when I got your Gatorade.”

Bucky nodded, his eyes trailing over Steve, the look on his face still sort of thoughtful. “Yeah, okay,” he finally said, voice lower. He tilted his head toward Tony, as if urging Steve to do something. Steve couldn’t tear his eyes away from Bucky’s, though, as if acknowledging the lurch in his stomach wasn’t as hard to do as long as Bucky was there. Bucky did it again, more emphatically, then gave Steve a not-so-gentle pat on his arm that practically shoved Steve, stumbling toward where Tony stood straightening the mess they’d made on the stolen surgical tool table.

Steve stood motionless as Bucky strolled toward the exit. He stopped just before getting to the door, though, snapping his fingers and turning on his heel. Steve was pitifully grateful that he wasn’t leaving after all!

“Stark, do you do paint jobs?” Bucky called.

“Depends, why?”

Bucky shrugged, looking almost self-conscious. “I kind of miss my star.”

Tony nodded thoughtfully. “I’ll set something up. Come by tomorrow, maybe, we’ll take care of it.”

“Thanks,” Bucky said with a smile that could lighten the dark side of the moon, then he turned again, calling a tired goodbye over his shoulder before the doors whooshed closed behind him.

Steve stared at Tony’s bare feet, frowning.

“He’s subtle,” Tony said finally.

“Not really,” Steve said without thinking. “He can be, if he wants. I don’t think subtle would have particularly gotten his point across this time.”

Tony sighed, his motions ceasing as he raised his head and stared off toward the screen that still displayed Bucky’s X-rays. He waved his hand at it and it swished away. Steve was never going to get used to that.

“What’s he want us to do?” Tony asked finally, sounding resigned.

Steve shrugged uncomfortably. “Make up? Apologize?”

Tony snorted. “Pretty sure you already did that, Cap. Put it in writing and everything.”

Steve realized he was working at his lower lip with his teeth, nodding.

Tony sighed loudly and turned toward him. “Yeah,” he said, almost in defeat. “I’m sorry too, Steve.”

“I know how hard you worked to make it all tenable for me,” Steve started.

“And I’ve witnessed how corrupt the oversight is, just like you were afraid of,” Tony finished.

Steve breathed out a harsh breath, watching Tony hopefully.

“We’ll find a middle ground, we will,” Tony announced, and Steve believed him. “I won’t stop looking until I fix this.”

“If it had been anyone but him,” Steve whispered.

Tony grunted, bowing his head. “Yeah, yeah. I’m unfortunately starting to . . . understand,” he said on a sigh. “He’s, um . . . he’s something.”

“He’s everything,” Steve murmured before he could stop himself. He met Tony’s eyes, almost surprised he’d said it. Tony was watching him sadly. Steve could feel himself mirroring the expression. “I don’t think he wants me, Tony.”

Tony’s expression broke, the shock fading in and out as fast as Tony could adjust his mask. “Why do you say that?”

“You saw him,” Steve said dejectedly.

“I did, and he seems perfectly nice for a murderous kitten-like cyborg.”

“He went into cryo voluntarily after we broke the others out of the Raft, did you know that?”

“Yeah, he said.” Tony seemed to hold his breath, then he let it out in a rush. “I spent three months imagining you and him together. Gotta say, I was selfishly happy to hear he’d been on ice instead of on . . . you. Ha.”

Steve nodded, fighting not to sigh heavily and sort of failing. His shoulders slumped and he bowed his head. Tony was the last person who wanted to hear this from him. They’d taken comfort in each other, physically, sometimes emotionally but that had been rare. Theirs had been almost purely a sexual thing. Stress relief. Right up until Tony had, apparently, decided he wanted more at the same time as Steve had left to go after Bucky. “I’m sorry, Tony, you don’t want to hear this.”

“Probably not,” Tony said thoughtfully. “But I will.”

Steve glanced up, almost hopeful, but mostly ashamed that he was even considering putting Tony through more pain just to unload his mind.

“Go on. What else?”

Steve swallowed hard, thinking back. “When he came out of cryo and we found out the Wakandan scientists had managed to clear his mind of all the Hydra extras, the first thing he asked me was how the team was. How you were. Then he asked if I’d been in love with you. It was the same way he used to ask after Peggy. Like it didn’t . . . like it didn’t break his heart to think it.”

If Tony reacted internally to the mention of love, he didn’t show it. His poker face was every bit as good as the other spies and spooks who populated the Avengers facility. Tony nodded almost imperceptibly. “If it didn’t break his heart to think of you loving anyone but him, then he doesn’t have a heart to be broken, Steve.”

Steve closed his eyes. “I told him . . . ah, Tony, I don’t want to hurt you with this.”

“Go ahead,” Tony said, and halted the music, making the room uncomfortably silent now. “Honesty works best for us, Steve, we both know that now.”

“I told him . . . I might have been a little in love with you, yeah.”

Tony swallowed hard at that, loud enough that Steve imagined he heard it.

“Then I told him I’d loved him longer,” Steve pushed on quickly, wanting to be honest, desperately hating himself for it all the same. They stared at each other for long, painful seconds. Then Steve added, “He, uh . . . he made a joke. That’s also what he used to do when I insisted I’d choose him over Peggy, if I could.”

Tony set aside the screwdriver he’d been gripping and moved a little closer, his face creased with a scowl. “During the war, after you rescued Barnes’s unit from the Hydra facility,” he said slowly, like he was thinking up what to say on the fly. “After that, did you and Barnes . . . ever . . . you know?”

“No,” Steve whispered. Then he shook himself and jutted his chin out. “Once, actually. Just once. And I . . . kind of didn’t give him a lot of choice in the matter.”

“You forced yourself on him?” Tony blurted, eyes widened in shock.

“No!” Steve felt a wave of horror wash through him, his face heating, his entire body recoiling from Tony as if the mere suggestion had been physically painful. “That was, no! That was bad phrasing. I didn’t . . . I s-seduced him. That’s what I meant.”

Tony visibly relaxed with that, nodding his head like it suddenly made sense again. “And before the War?

“Every damn night,” Steve blurted, laughing a little as Tony snorted. “From the time I was 17 to the day before he left for England. I got at least a kiss from him. Right up until the night before he left, all he did was . . . hug me goodbye and then go dancing all night. He never came home before he left. And that was it. That was the last time . . .”

“Why did he pull away?” Tony asked after a stretch of silence that Steve realized must have lasted minutes.

Steve shrugged. “He would never say. And now I’m terrified to ask him, because . . .”

“What if he doesn’t remember?” Tony provided.

“Or what if he does?” Steve added grimly.

“Steve,” Tony said on a sigh, moving closer, his head down, his worn jeans making swishing noises on the concrete floor, his toned arms still glistening from the sweat that was drying on them. He stopped in front of Steve, looking up and taking a deep breath like he was about to speak.

Steve waited, holding his breath, praying Tony would say something, anything, that could be a comfort.

Tony stared into his eyes for a few more torturous seconds. Then he took the last step and yanked Steve’s head down by the back of his neck, dragging him into a kiss.

Steve gave a muffled yip of surprise, but Tony didn’t let up and Steve grabbed for his hips, clamping down and pulling Tony closer. They both moaned as their bodies recognized this familiar sequence, hips pressed close for the friction, tongues teasing, hands grasping like letting go would mean certain disaster.

Steve was almost fully hard by the time they both separated to gasp for air. So was Tony. Steve’s heartbeat hammered in his ears, in his throat. Suddenly, he needed this. Wanted it desperately, to bury himself in Tony’s body and let the man’s moans and cries chase the world away for him.

“Friday,” Tony said, his voice shockingly hoarse. “Initiate Protocol 69, please, dear.”

“You got it, Boss,” the AI said with what Steve imagined might have been a leering smirk in her voice. “Have fun.”

The glass doors clouded over and the locks engaged. Steve began to laugh as the lights in the lab lowered and the music turned back on, something that was less heavy metal and more of a sensual, thrumming bass.

Steve shook his head, smiling fondly down at Tony as he gripped him harder and tugged him close. “You’re something else, you know that?”

Tony shrugged, and Steve bent to kiss the goddamn smirk back off his goddamn face.

==

Bucky was lounging on one of the amazing sofas in the common room, staring out the giant windows and not really thinking about much of anything when he heard someone come into the room. He could see and hear where the person was, but the reflection didn’t give him enough details to be able to tell who it was, and turning his head was so much work.

“Hey,” Sam greeted reluctantly as he came around the end of the sofa and frowned down at Bucky. “Where’s Cap?”

“Hopefully getting his rocks off,” Bucky drawled with a smirk.

Sam’s eyes widened briefly, but he didn’t react otherwise. He snorted and shook his head, muttering to himself and looking around the common area. “Where’s everyone else?”

“I don’t know, I was with Stark, letting him play with my arm.”

The expression that passed over Sam’s face this time was decidedly discomfort, but Bucky wasn’t sure he knew why. It made him tense, though, and he scooted up slowly so he’d be sitting to face Sam as they spoke.

“What’s going on?” Bucky asked warily.

“You didn’t –” Sam started, stopping abruptly to curse under his breath and move closer to sit on Bucky’s sofa. He perched in front of Bucky’s bare feet, careful not to touch him as he turned toward Bucky and met his eyes. “What you said in the limo before, bargaining with Stark to get us all a favor. You didn’t need to do that, Barnes.”

Bucky relaxed, chuckling quietly. “Oh. No, that was nothing. I was going to let him tinker with it anyway.”

“Why?” And Sam looked genuinely curious, not like he was trying to start an argument. This time.

Bucky shrugged negligently. “I’m used to having techs around, people who knew the mechanism and how to fix it if something went wrong. Being here, the people who manufactured the arm all the way in Wakanda, not really knowing it too well? It’s kind of a comfort knowing Stark might know his way around it.”

Sam narrowed his eyes and sighed almost imperceptibly, his shoulders slumping. Bucky read it as relief for a moment, but then realized he’d been wrong when Sam spoke again. “Steve asked you to let him look at it, didn’t he?”

Bucky was silent, his face perfectly blank. He supposed, though, that was answer enough for a smart guy like Sam.

Sam nodded like he’d gotten his answer. “You don’t have to do that either, you know.”

Bucky smiled serenely. “Yeah. I do.”

Sam nodded like he understood.

There was a crash from the residences and both Sam and Bucky were on their feet, hopping over the sofa’s back, and running toward it before Bucky could process the laughter that had followed the sound. When they skidded through the doorway of the room in question, they found Clint on the ground, spread-eagled and laughing so hard he couldn’t breathe, surrounded by books, clothing, a houseplant laying on its side in a mound of dirt and broken ceramic pot, and other assorted knick knacks.

“Are you okay?” Bucky blurted, moving forward to lean over Clint.

He noticed right away that Clint’s hearing aids weren’t in his ears, though, and when Clint saw him hovering, Bucky asked the question again in ASL. He didn’t remember ever learning ASL, or why he knew it, but Clint had jokingly told him that, like all the other languages Bucky spoke, his accent was flawless.

Clint nodded, then lazily brought his hands up to respond. ‘I was trying to get my plant down so I could fucking water it.’

Bucky glanced up to the top of the heavy oak bookshelf, which was still tottering threateningly. He hefted Clint off the floor, pulling him away and shoving him at Sam just in case the thing fell forward instead of settling back where it belonged.

“What the hell, man?” Sam said slowly from behind Bucky, like he was making sure Clint could read his lips as he spoke.

“I might have needed help doing that,” Clint answered, still laughing.

Bucky snorted, stepping toward the bookshelf and using his arm to slide it over and secure it. The mechanism whirred like a cherry engine purring to life, and the new power source kicked into gear smooth as silk as he put more effort into it, making the hefty oak piece feel like a damn feather.

Clint whistled from behind him, and Bucky turned to find Sam and Clint both watching as Clint fitted his hearing aids in, both of them looking impressed.

Bucky grinned almost shyly, shrugging. “Stark upgraded the power source. Now it’ll lift again.”

“Welcome to the gun show, baby,” Clint crooned. His eyes lit suddenly like he’d just spotted something wonderful. “Oh! Let’s go check out the range! Rhodes said they’d done some work to the common areas in the last few months.”

Sam made a small groaning sound in the back of his throat. “Rhodey’s here?”

Clint nodded, frowning suddenly. Sam’s shoulders slumped and he looked as if he’d been kicked. “I was hoping he was away. If he’s here that just means he’s avoiding me.”

“Hey,” Clint said soothingly, placing a hand on Sam’s shoulder. “That wasn’t your fault and you know it. So does Rhodey. If Cap and Tony can eventually mend things, you and Rhodes will be a piece of cake.”

Bucky glanced out of Clint’s windows, squinting at the low-slung building he knew to be Tony’s lab. Just like a munitions depot on an Army base, it had been moved far away from the barracks. Tony apparently blew shit up on the regular. Bucky smirked and bit his lip. Hopefully something was getting blown out there anyway.

“Buck?” Clint said carefully. He was frowning when Bucky met his eyes, and Bucky straightened in alarm. Sam was gone, and Bucky hadn’t even noticed him leaving.

“What?”

“Want to go to the range with me?”

“Hell, yeah!”

Clint broke into a beautiful smile, and Bucky cocked his head at him as he turned to gather his gear from the trunk in the corner. Whoof, he might have a little problem with this one.

Bucky cocked his head the other way, watching as Clint bent over the trunk and rummaged.

“Are you checking out my ass?” Clint asked him, laughter making his voice rich and warm.

“Depends,” Bucky answered in a low drawl. “Would that make you happy or angry?”

Clint straightened back up and grinned over his shoulder as he slid his wrist guard on. “I’d be fucking flattered, I can tell you that.”

“Then yes, I was absolutely checking out your ass,” Bucky admitted.

Clint snorted and looked down, flipped one of the guard’s edges over and smoothing it out.

“You’re married, right?” Bucky asked him.

Clint nodded, still smiling.

“Happily?” Bucky asked with a sly, crooked grin.

Clint laughed out loud and nodded again, gesturing for Bucky to follow him as he headed for the door.

They spent almost three hours at the range, like two little boys in a candy store after hours, going through every piece, every type of target, having competitions and laughing raucously whenever they found a bullet that did something besides just thwump into the blocks. The ones that blew up were Clint’s favorite. Possibly Bucky’s too, but he had a great deal of affection for a good ol’ solid headshot.

Bucky didn’t know a bow and arrow all that well, it was sort of a trademark thing and the Winter Soldier had gone to great lengths not to leave those. So Clint finally convinced him to submit to a lesson. He started taking off the wrist guard so Bucky could put it on, and Bucky stared at him, face blank, until Clint met his eyes and then glanced at the metal arm and started laughing until he couldn’t breathe again.

“I keep forgetting!” he insisted.

Bucky chuckled with him, shaking his head fondly. Clint had definitely been the one he’d instantly felt the most comfortable with out of all the Avengers. Perhaps it had been the fact that Clint understood, intimately, what it was like to be inside your own mind with something that wasn’t you. Perhaps it was just that Clint was fun and easy and Bucky had always been fun and easy too. Kindred spirits and all that.

It helped that Clint had confessed within five minutes of his first actual meeting with Bucky that he’d grown up reading about the Howling Commandos – cool name but that’s not what we called ourselves, bro – and Bucky Barnes and his incredible sniper kills.

Bucky had been flattered as hell, and something inside him had eased up a little, knowing that some people might still see him as a hero, instead of the world’s greatest assassin.

Bucky took up the bow, mimicking the stance he’d seen Clint display. Clint came forward and made a few minor corrections, and yeah, Bucky was going to have an issue with this one, because every touch of Clint’s hands felt like fire on his skin and his chest fluttered a little when Clint’s breath brushed across his cheek as he spoke.

Bucky hummed deeply as Clint pressed against him, and then Clint was laughing under his breath. He pressed his mouth to the back of Bucky’s shoulder, his arms still encircling Bucky’s body to make sure he had his elbows and hands positioned properly, and Bucky could feel him smiling through his thin shirt.

How happily married?” Bucky asked seriously, and Clint squeezed him around the middle, still laughing.

“I’ll make a call,” he promised, voice going coy for a moment and making Bucky’s chest twist tighter, dammit. “Loose.”

Bucky loosed the arrow as ordered, and the feel of it leaving the bow, slicing through the air and sinking into the target just a half an inch left of the bullseye, well yeah, he could see why Clint liked it.

“Oh, that’s . . . oh yeah,” Bucky growled, looking down at the bow with new appreciation.

Clint whooped like he’d just won some sort of victory. When Bucky glanced up, grinning ear to ear, Clint gave him a cheeky wink. Then he jutted his chin out, sobering a little, and Bucky glanced over his shoulder where Clint had indicated.

Steve and Tony were walking their way. Tony was hard for Bucky to read still. Sarcasm was like that, very unpredictable. And Steve’s hands were in the pockets of his jeans, his head down as they walked. He looked . . . unhappy. Dammit!

Bucky cleared his throat, glancing back at Clint. They shared a shrug.

“Getting to know the grounds, huh?” Steve called as they got closer.

“I want a bow,” Bucky returned, holding up Clint’s composite bow reverently.

“Ah, Jesus” Steve mumbled, rolling his eyes and making Clint laugh. Even Tony chuckled softly, hiding it behind his hand.

“I like the way the new targets move, Tony, y’all did a good job there,” Clint offered. He didn’t sound warm anymore, not the way his breath had sounded in Bucky’s ear. But he did sound civil, maybe even friendly. Bucky was relieved to see that the anger they’d been wallowing in while holed up in Wakanda was either fading or actively being suppressed in favor of trying to rebuild the team properly.

He was inexplicably proud of them, in that moment. They weren’t his team, though. Was he allowed to be proud of them? Or was he only allowed to be proud of Steve, because Steve was his, for being their leader?

Tony nodded, glancing over at the target range. “Rhodey has a lot of down time between rehabs, so he’s been doing a lot of designing. He’s good at it.”

“How is he?” Steve asked, frowning harder.

“Coming along,” Tony answered, and Bucky didn’t know how an answer could be any more vague than that.

There was an awkward silence then, which consisted of Steve and Tony both standing side-by-side, about a foot apart, both looking at the ground and frowning like they were deep in thought, and Bucky and Clint sharing glances and shrugs, wondering if they should make themselves scarce.

‘You do it,’ Clint signed discreetly, and Bucky shook his head hastily. Clint cleared his throat, loudly, and Steve glanced up like he’d been kicked out of a trance. He met Bucky’s eyes, wide and surprised, and he blinked stupidly.

Bucky raised an eyebrow, psychically willing him to speak.

“Uh,” Steve managed. So much for psychic loquacity. “We were thinking maybe a group dinner tonight.”

Bucky’s shoulders sagged. He wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting or hoping for, but that was not it. Definitely not it.

“Team building and all that,” Tony added.

Team building,” Bucky repeated, pursing his lips and nodding, looking down at the bow in his hand.

“Don’t even, dude,” Clint grunted, coming up to take the bow from him. He tapped him on the nose with his finger. “You’re part of the team, you’re coming with.”

Bucky gave him a fond, exasperated smile.

“God! Yeah, Buck,” Steve fumbled out. “Yeah, no, that’s what we meant. All of us. You . . . yeah.” He cleared his throat and rolled his eyes at himself, lowering his head again.

Bucky damn near laughed at him. He hadn’t seen Steve this nervous around him since . . . well . . . huh. He’d never seen Steve this nervous around him. Maybe it wasn’t him, maybe it was Tony. Steve had been this nervous around Agent Carter, Bucky remembered the pain of those encounters acutely. Bucky found himself smiling faintly at Steve as the man looked up again. Aww. His Stevie, finally in love again. Thank Christ.

Steve gave him a wry smile and jerked his head toward the barracks. Or, residences, as they were called. Whatever. “Want me to show you where your room is?” Steve asked him.

Bucky glanced at Tony, seeing the way his shoulders tightened, the way he glanced off into the distance, trying not to look like he was watching Bucky peripherally.

“I’m going to help Hawk Guy clear up,” Bucky said with a jerk of his thumb at Clint, who protested wordlessly. Steve looked a little crestfallen, so Bucky added a smirk and a sly, “You know I never shoot and run.”

Clint made an odd squawking sound, and said, “Hey Stark, I need to use your secure phone to make a call in a couple minutes.”

“Sure,” Tony agreed, nodding as he spun halfway around on his heel, like he was going to leave, but didn’t want to, but he did, but he didn’t. He was holding himself a little stiff, and Bucky belatedly recognized that stance. Steve had gotten all over that after all!

Bucky gave him and Steve both one last glance, then threw Steve a smile and a wink for a job well done, then he turned to help Clint put away the mess they’d made. He met Clint’s eyes, which he was just now beginning to realize weren’t actually any specific color, were they? And they shared a smirk. Clint knew what that discomfort and rigid stance meant too. Maybe from experience?

Bucky hoped to hell he made that call sooner rather than later so he could maybe get to finding out.

==

Dinner was awful. It was just fucking awful and tense and quiet and awful.

Tony sat near the head of the table, shifting now and then in his seat because Steve had done a real number on him that afternoon. He could barely fucking tolerate sitting, but every time he ached it made him grin with the memory of how he’d gotten in this state.

The head of the table at either end was empty. No one had wanted to sit there and assume the position of ‘leader’ or ‘in charge’. Tony had already ordered a round table to be delivered by the next morning so breakfast wouldn’t have this problem. They were circling each other, all wary, all unhappy, all waiting for someone or something, any something, to break the ice.

Oh, ice. Tony had to bite his tongue not to say that out loud and make an ice joke in front of the two supercicles.

Steve had made a point during dinner to speak to each person for a few minutes, giving them his full attention, meeting their eyes earnestly, expressing genuine interest or concern or whatever other sincere emotion was required. Everyone looked at him fondly for trying so damn hard, but no one seemed any more at ease.

Tony had remained uncharacteristically quiet, but his mind was like a humming machine trying to start up that just could not get going. As soon as his lips had met Steve’s that afternoon, his brain had shut off and demanded a 24-hour period to recuperate. Fuck it, he’d done enough talking today anyway.

He did watch Steve, though, right across the table from him. Steve would occasionally glance up and meet his eyes, smiling warmly. But more often than not, Steve’s eyes were drawn sideways, where Barnes sat between Natasha and Clint.

Tony kind of understood where the furrow between Steve’s eyebrows was coming from. Barnes had been uncharacteristically silent, and that was saying something for a man who had literally spoken three words in Tony’s presence before that morning. In fact, aside from murmured greetings at the start of dinner, Barnes hadn’t said a word.

On either side of him, Clint and Natasha weren’t being very talkative either, but that was just how they were. Occasionally they’d laugh or mumble something to someone else at the table, but for the most part the three of them were being remarkably sedate.

Every once in a while Tony would steal a look down the table at Barnes, trying to wrangle what he was feeling about a man he considered a rival for Steve’s affections but who had also literally tossed Steve at him and run earlier. Every now and then, Tony would catch Barnes playing with the fingers of his new arm. He did it often enough that Tony began to worry that perhaps the power from the arc reactor had done something to cause him discomfort, or maybe messed with the response timing or something.

He had actually opened his mouth to ask Barnes about it when he recognized something Barnes did with his hand. It was a sign. He was speaking in sign language to Clint. That’s what he had been doing the entire night, and Natasha too.

Tony stared at Barnes, befuddled. Everything he knew about James Barnes had screamed, ‘Party Animal’, and from what he’d seen of the man’s personality, Tony had concurred with all those accounts. So why was the man literally holding his tongue now, among friends? Tony gave the table a suspicious once over, seeing the glares Rhodey was tossing at the other side of the table, seeing the way Vision sat and stared at Wanda a little too openly, seeing the angry set to Wanda’s shoulders, and the hard line of Sam’s jaw. The new guy, Scott; Tony didn’t know him. But Steve had mentioned that the man had a young daughter, and Tony realized the guy was probably homesick as hell.

Every member of the team gets a favor, Bucky had demanded. Clint had called his in already, merely asking to be able to contact his family on a secure line.

Wow. Tony, what the hell, wake the hell up. He might have gotten to have his talk today, even gotten laid today, might have been able to soothe the raw edges left over from their split. But literally no one else had. Team dinner, Jesus, he and Steve had been idiots.

Tony glanced around the table again, teetering on the edge of indecisiveness. Did he speak up, address it, or did he hold his tongue for the night and then bring it up with Steve and work on some sort of plan of –

Yeah, there was his answer. Teamwork, plan. Yeah, okay.

He bent his head and went back to his perfectly prepared steak.

A moment later Clint barked a laugh, and Natasha actually let out an offended shout as Clint and Barnes tried desperately not to laugh harder. Everyone stared at them, wide-eyed, wondering what had prompted it.

Natasha move harshly in her seat, like she’d just delivered a swift kick under the table, and Barnes bent over the table, gripping the edges with a grunt. “Mother Russia!” he cried through gritted teeth, then rolled out of his chair to the floor, holding whatever body part Natasha had made contact with and rocking and whimpering.

Clint nearly turned purple as he continued wheezing and laughing, leaning sideways and using Wanda as a prop to keep himself upright. She began to giggle with him.

“Oh, James,” Natasha offered as she bent over and watched Barnes writhe. “I’m sorry, that was meant for Clint.”

Tony saw a hand reach up and grip the edge of the table, then slowly, ever-so-slowly, slide back off. A wordless groan accompanied it, and a moment of silence later, the entire table burst into helpless laughter.

==

Seriously,” Bucky hissed, slipping into Russian easily as he and Natasha walked together down the hall to the residences. “Did you have to do it so hard?”

It had to look real,” Natasha reminded him with one of those classic Russian shrugs that made Bucky want to sweep her into his arms and kiss her senseless, then bash her face into a wall.

It felt real, that’s for sure.

Natasha’s lips quirked into the equivalent of a smile. “It broke the tension, James. Just like we thought it would.

“That ain’t all it broke, dollface,” Bucky drawled in his most obnoxiously antique Brooklyn accent. He slowed at the door to his room, or at least, the room Natasha said was the one next to Steve’s.

“Clint will be crestfallen,” Natasha said over her shoulder, a full-fledged smirk accompanying her words.

Bucky watched her go, smiling and shaking his head. He placed a hand on his door, waiting until she had disappeared around the corner, then he leaned against his door and groaned, long and loud, clutching his sore parts and letting himself slide to the ground miserably.

A door snicked nearby, and suddenly Steve’s undeniable warmth was pressed against him as he sat on the floor next to Bucky, their shoulders touching. “Took one for the team tonight,” Steve observed, voice uncharacteristically even.

Bucky grunted and slid until he was resting his head on Steve’s shoulder. Steve began to laugh silently.

“I remember when you and Monty pulled that gag right after we’d cleared that POW camp,” Steve mused, and he rested his cheek against the top of Bucky’s head. Bucky closed his eyes, his entire being aching with a flood of homesickness. He missed the boys of the 107th like he would miss water, like he would miss air. He’d never been able to say goodbye to any of them.

“Mind the gap,” Monty’s voice echoed in his head. That was all the closure he’d gotten.

“Nat kicks harder than Monty did,” Bucky mumbled. “No respect for a man’s fun bits!”

Steve began to chuckle, and he moved so his arm was around Bucky’s shoulders, holding onto him for dear life.

“Geez, Buck, you’re freezing,” he said against Bucky’s hair a few minutes later.

Bucky hummed and opened his eyes. He had been close to dozing, hadn’t even realized it. He cleared his throat and sat up, gently extricating himself from Steve’s grasp.

“No, I meant – don’t. I mean, don’t move,” Steve said, his voice soft and sad. “I didn’t mean for you to move, Buck.”

Bucky did lean away, though, so he could get enough distance between them to meet Steve’s eyes. He smiled gamely, trying to find the problem now. “You run hot,” he told Steve. “I run cold. It’s like a . . . internal coolant, keeps everything in line.”

Steve looked sort of stunned by that. “I thought we’d be sort of the same.”

Bucky clucked his tongue and shrugged. “Different serums, I reckon? It might have even been intentional, considering where I did most of my work. It takes a whole lot for me to get cold.”

He gave Steve a playful grin and wink, but Steve didn’t react. He still looked sad.

“Hey,” Bucky said, switching tack and going back to being sincere. He grabbed Steve’s knee, sliding his fingers around it and pulling at it to give them contact he knew they both needed. “What’s wrong, huh? Didn’t you and Tony make up? That’s good, right?”

Steve swallowed with visible difficulty, then looked away so he was staring at the wall across from them. “Is that what you wanted?”

“Well, yeah, doll. You said you could love him. Why the hell not give it a try?”

“I also told you I loved you, Buck,” Steve said as he looked back at Bucky, a spark in his eyes that was almost . . . anger? “Did you forget that? Not hear it?”

“I heard it,” Bucky said, keeping his voice soothing as he rested his temple against the door and pulled Steve’s knee against his thigh, patting it soothingly. He lowered his voice, tilting his head forward, toward Steve. “I heard you.”

“Then what?” Steve whispered. “You don’t love me anymore?”

“Always and forever, Stevie,” Bucky reminded him seriously. “You know that.”

Steve grunted in frustration and ran his hand through his hair, and Bucky sighed long and loud, resting his cheek against the door and studying Steve’s profile. He smiled sadly, eyes tracing Steve’s face lovingly. They sat that way for long minutes, the line of Steve’s jaw getting tighter and tighter, Bucky’s heart aching as he watched, wishing he could do something that wasn’t . . . this.

Bucky wasn’t sure how much time passed, but he eventually became aware of soft footfalls on the carpeted hallway, and he raised his head to see a familiar roll of shoulders outlined in the light from the common areas. He grinned at the man, and when Clint came over to frown down at them in confusion, Bucky reached up for help. Clint hauled him to his feet, grunting something about superconducting super soldiers and magnets in his ass.

Bucky was carefully stretching to see how sore he still was from Natasha’s motherfucking boot heel, when Clint offered his hand to Steve as well. Steve either didn’t notice or didn’t want to take it, though.

“You okay, Cap?” Clint asked carefully.

Bucky cocked his head at Steve, frowning when Steve looked up at them and met Bucky’s eyes.

“I guess so, yeah,” Steve whispered, not breaking eye contact.

Bucky gave him a sad smile. He understood, he really did. But there was no way in hell that Steve could ever have what he wanted, what he needed, with Bucky. Captain motherfucking America, shacked up with the man who’d assassinated JFK? Nah.

He tried to make his smile more cheerful, and he offered his hand to Steve as well.

Steve used both of them to pull himself up, nearly pulling Clint off his feet in the process. He gave them both a sedate nod, then excused himself and retired into his room.

Clint watched in clear concern, then turned to Bucky for an explanation.

‘His heart hurts,’ Bucky signed, so Steve wouldn’t be able to overhear.

Clint made an ‘ah’ sound, and then his frown slowly morphed into something far more fun. “So, I made that call,” he told Bucky, grinning impishly.

“Did you, now?” Bucky practically growled.

Clint started down the hallway to his room, beckoning Bucky to follow. “Come on. We’ll go over the rules. Then I’ll administer some, ah,” his eyes drifted down, to where Natasha’s boot print was clearly visible on Bucky’s jeans, “first aid.”

Chapter Text

Steve sat at the breakfast table, staring into a cup of coffee that was probably not coffee anymore so much as room temperature sludge. He leaned his elbow on the table, resting his chin in his hand. His thoughts were all over the place, he couldn’t seem to stop them or slow them or even grasp at them to mull over anything. He was essentially a blank, staring into a void.

“Morning,” Bucky greeted in a low rumbling growl as he entered the common area. He stopped short and glanced around the room, looking from the table to Steve and toward the kitchen. “Jesus, was that here last night?” he asked, pointing at the round table that had been delivered an hour or so ago.

“Yeah, Buck. Why?” Steve asked, his voice as serious as it could go. “Do you not remember?”

Bucky stared at him, wide-eyed, expression drifting between suspicion and horror as Clint padded into the common area. He was barefoot, in sweatpants and a sleeveless shirt that helped highlight his impressive arms, and the bruises that covered them in the shape of Bucky’s hands. He patted Bucky on the back of the shoulder as he passed, ignoring the way Bucky was staring at the room.

He grabbed a cup of coffee and sat at the table across from Steve. “Nice table,” he said after a sip.

“You’re an asshole,” Bucky snarled at Steve as he stomped off for the kitchen, which surprised Steve into laughing.

“The coffee’s no good,” Steve called to him.

“It’s three days old with clumps of sour milk and sugar rotting in the bottom,” Clint said with another sip. He closed his eyes and smiled. “Mmm.”

Bucky made a horrified gagging sound from the kitchen and a moment later Steve’s sharp ears could hear liquid being poured into the sink. His eyes didn’t follow Bucky’s movements. But he could close his eyes and listen, and part of him truly believed he was sitting in their little apartment in Brooklyn, listening to Bucky boil water because Steve was too sick to move again. This was all just some horrible fever dream, the war had never happened, he was still just Steve Rogers, and Bucky still loved and wanted him.

Sam stumbled into the room a few seconds later, mumbling and possibly growling, and the only word Steve could decipher was ‘coffee’ as he headed for the kitchen, trailing in Bucky’s wake.

Bucky was leaning against the counter near the machine, head cocked as Sam came to stand in front of him. They stared at each other wordlessly. They stared at each other for three solid minutes, standing there way too close to each other, both silent and unmoving, until the machine indicated the pot was done and Bucky pulled it out and poured some into a mug. He handed it to Sam with a curt nod, who took it with a nod of his own as he turned away. Neither man had made a sound until Sam sniffed at his mug and groaned happily.

The new pot did smell a whole lot better than the one Steve had made earlier. Steve had come to the conclusion that he might not actually like coffee, and therefore didn’t know how to make a decent pot. It all tasted kind of gross to him so what did he care?

He pushed his mug further away so he’d stop staring at it.

Sam thumped down beside him, saying a mangled good morning that made Steve chuckle. Bucky followed with his own coffee, a mug in each hand, actually. He sat one down and shoved Clint’s aside with it, replacing the old with the new one. Clint gave it a sniff and perked up, sniffing deeper.

“Damn, son, you go all out, huh?”

Bucky gave a careless shrug, smiling against the rim of his mug as he hooked a foot around a nearby chair leg and pulled it out for himself. He sat smoothly, no sign of discomfort. Steve stared at him, unable to pull his eyes away. Watching them this morning confirmed what he’d gone to sleep agonizing over. Bucky had fucked Clint last night, right after they’d left Steve.

Sure, okay, it was hypocritical to screw Tony into the ground in an afternoon and then go to sleep alone worrying about two consenting adults fucking down the hall after one of them had rejected you. Again. So what, fuck adulthood.

Steve bowed his head so he wouldn’t have to look at either of them anymore.

One by one more team members filtered in, each of them expressing surprise over the coffee – but not always the new table – that was not only drinkable, but actually good this morning. Yeah, Steve apparently didn’t know how to make a good pot and they’d all just . . . suffered silently. He almost laughed, smiling fondly at all of them.

Natasha perched in the chair beside Clint, watching Clint and Bucky out of the corner of her eyes with a twist of a smirk.

“What?” Clint demanded when he noticed.

“I heard screams this morning,” she commented.

“That . . . was mostly my fault,” Clint admitted with a rare flush to his cheeks.

Bucky brought his hand up to his face, swiping it from mouth to forehead and back down, shaking his head.

“What happened?” Sam asked.

Steve closed his eyes. No, please no, don’t answer. He had a very vivid artist’s imagination! He did not need any more information for his brain to form pictures. He knew intimately what Bucky looked like when he was fucking someone.

Bucky rolled his eyes, taking another sip of coffee to cover a smirk.

“Well, you know that bookcase I damn near killed myself on yesterday?” Clint asked.

Sam nodded, but Steve scowled at them and sat up straighter. “Wait, what happened?”

“I spilled some stuff,” Clint said vaguely, waving off the worry. “A bundle of my armor-piercing arrows had gotten wedged up under the bookcase, apparently, and when Bucky moved it, it sort of . . .”

“I didn’t get it as stable as we thought,” Bucky offered. “It fell this morning.”

Sam burst into laughter, but Steve was still scowling. One, he didn’t know what the hell they were talking about, and two, this meant Bucky had still been there this morning. That wasn’t Bucky’s MO at all.

“Are you okay?” Sam asked Clint in amusement.

“Yeah, yeah, it fell onto the bed, but we . . . uh . . . we . . . thought we were gonna die and stuff.”

“We saw it . . . coming,” Bucky mumbled, scrunching his nose and staring into his mug like he’d tried to think of a different word but hadn’t been able to.

“If you saw it coming then why didn’t you catch it with that big gun of yours?” Sam teased.

Bucky met his eyes with a mischievous glint that should have warned Sam he wasn’t going to like the mental image he was about to receive. “The big gun was otherwise occupied.”

“Oh no,” Sam mumbled shaking his head like a dog trying to dry off.

“You were fucking against the wall and knocked into it, didn’t you?” Natasha guessed. Clint ducked his head to hide a smirk, but Bucky’s face was impassive.

“So,” Steve said quietly. “The two of you spent the night together, and then a bookcase fell on you in the morning.”

Both Bucky and Clint squirmed a little in the face of Steve’s rather dire, judgmental tone of voice.

“Hmm,” Steve offered pointedly.

“If I was still a good Irish lad I’d call it punishment,” Bucky responded with a sly grin. “But I’m not, so.” He shrugged and finished off his mug before standing. “I’m gonna go down to the lake and find that frog that screamed all night.”

“No, don’t kill it!” Clint said as he grabbed at Bucky’s hand. The metal hand, Steve realized. He didn’t flinch away from it or apologize, he just gripped Bucky’s wrist as if it was normal. Steve winced. It was normal. He had to stop treating it like it wasn’t. God, maybe Clint was better for Bucky than he was after all, Jesus.

“I’m not gonna kill it,” Bucky promised. Then his eyes darkened and he cocked an eyebrow down at Clint, grinning. “I’m gonna torture it like it did me last night.”

Clint didn’t release his wrist as he tried to turn around, though. “Frogs keep mosquitos away. Frogs are friends.”

“They do not,” Sam argued.

“They are not,” Bucky said at the same time.

“They have to! Right? I’m sure if it knew eating mosquitos would save its life, it would do it!”

Bucky rolled his eyes and sighed, but before he looked away Steve caught a small smile on his lips. It was devastating. It was the same feeling Steve remembered when he’d noticed that Bucky and Monty Falsworth were close, back in ’43. He didn’t know if they’d been a thing or not, but they’d definitely been fond of each other, and it had been the first time that Steve had been forced to watch Bucky, the man he had loved since he was a child, interact intimately with someone else knowing that Bucky wasn’t coming home to him no matter what. It had been devastating then, too.

Steve was still sitting there staring at Bucky, nearly catatonic, when Tony walked in. He came in through the entry door, though, not the residence hall. He must have been in his workshop all night. Steve felt a pang of guilt for letting him stay out there when everyone knew it wasn’t healthy for him.

“Morning, Avengers,” Tony said, voice soft and sort of distracted. “Oh, who made this heavenly nectar here, huh? Jesus this smells good.”

“What’s the plan for today, Steve?” Bucky asked before anyone could give him credit for the decent pot of coffee that morning.

Steve shrugged. “No plan, now. I need to speak with Thor, and as I understand it, he’ll be here this evening. Until then,” he pursed his lips and shrugged. “R&R.”

Bucky sighed softly, like he was disappointed that he didn’t have a job to do or a goal to accomplish. Bucky had always been like that, though.

“I was hoping to videoconference with Cassie today,” Scott said quietly. He was looking at Steve hopefully, and Steve suddenly realized that aside from dinner last night, he hadn’t seen Scott since they’d arrived at the compound. Where had the man been? Was he okay? Christ, Steve was slipping in his duties.

He gave Scott a sympathetic smile and nodded. “We can arrange that.”

Scott nodded gratefully. Perhaps out of everyone involved, Steve felt the most guilt over Scott. The man had literally answered the call of a stranger, given up his life and anonymity, essentially, just because Steve had said he was needed.

Steve lowered his head so Scott wouldn’t see the guilt written plainly over his face.

“We got any reading on these stone things?” Bucky asked. He was still standing, and Clint was still grasping his wrist like Clint knew that as soon as he released him, Bucky was going to haul off and find that frog he wanted to silence.

“What kind of readings?” Tony asked from the kitchen. “I got some read outs on Loki’s staff before it found its way into Vision’s forehead, but I lost all that data to Ultron.”

“No, I meant . . . like books. Paper. Something I could read up on.”

“Oh,” Tony grunted. “No.”

Bucky clicked his tongue and nodded, looking a little . . . uncomfortable?

Steve gazed at him for a second, then twitched as an idea came to him. “Actually, I’ve got some reading material for you. you can bulk up on the Avengers files, get to know the others better.”

Bucky turned to him, almost looking grateful. He nodded, a relieved smile flickering over his face. “Let’s do it.”

“What about breakfast?” Sam demanded.

“I’m not cooking you breakfast,” Bucky told him.

Clint set his mug down and made a series of signs with the hand he wasn’t still holding Bucky’s wrist by, and Bucky rolled his eyes in response, his shoulders slumping.

“Yeah fine, okay, I do owe you breakfast. I need my hand, though.”

“You didn’t last night,” Clint drawled, causing several people at the table to moan about sharing too much. Clint merely cackled, but he did let Bucky’s wrist go and point at him. “No murdering today.”

“Fine,” Bucky grunted, sounding put out by the prospect. He headed for the kitchen, giving Tony a sedate nod in greeting, and began going through the cabinets to acquaint himself with the contents.

In just ten minutes, the common area was filling with the delightful scents of breakfast cooking. Bucky had been able to cook the basics, but he’d never been especially eloquent with it. They’d never had enough food to manage eloquent. Now, though. Steve glanced over the array of food on the kitchen island that Bucky was slowly but surely producing for them, his eyes widening. Now, Bucky could fucking cook.

“When’d you pick this up?” Steve asked quietly as he gathered a plate for himself, trying to mentally add up the calories so he’d know he was keeping up with his stupid super soldier serum metabolism.

“Here and there,” Bucky answered vaguely. He took a bite of the omelet he’d made as he leaned against the kitchen counter, holding his plate in his metal hand, looking weirdly deadly and domestic with his hair pulled back messily and his soft jeans and at least five knives that Steve could account for and that goddamn white Henley he loved and wore just about every day.

It occurred to Steve that he might not actually have many shirts to wear. Had Steve seen him in anything but that shirt? T’Challa had given his current clothing to him, but had he given him more than a few outfits? They needed to go shopping.

Steve realized Bucky was staring at him, brow furrowed. Then he realized that he was staring at Bucky, frowning heavily. Bucky was just mirroring him.

“You okay, Steve?” Bucky asked softly.

Steve nodded. “I was just thinking, you need to get Nat or Sam to show you how to go online shopping. You’re going to need an all new wardrobe.”

Bucky nodded. “Yeah, Scott and me went over that last night a little. We both ordered some stuff. I think he’s staying for a while, even though I told him we’d get him back to his daughter, all he has to do is ask.”

Steve didn’t know what to say. Bucky had spent more time talking to Scott than Steve had. Hell, Bucky might have talked to Scott more than he’d spoken with Steve in the last few days, for all Steve knew. He had to get his shit together. He also knew he should move on, take his plate back to the table. But . . .

“You okay, Steve?” Bucky asked again, his voice changing tenor, lowering until it made Steve outright shiver.

“No, I guess I’m not,” Steve admitted, meeting Bucky’s eyes and staring pointedly.

Bucky gave him an empathetic tilt of his head, nodding. Bucky knew exactly what was wrong with Steve. And he knew exactly what would fix it. He knew he was the only thing Steve really wanted. But he wasn’t willing. He claimed he wasn’t able, but he was obviously able enough to pin Clint against a wall and fuck him so hard they knocked over one of the massive oak bookshelves that every room had. So it wasn’t that Bucky couldn’t be with Steve. It was merely that he wouldn’t be with him.

Steve ducked his head as that realization finally hit home, and he turned away from Bucky before the man could read him like a goddamn open book.

“Steve,” Bucky whispered, low enough that no one else would hear.

“Okay,” Steve said dismissively, moving away and shrugging off the metal fingers that brushed against the back of his arm, trying to stop him. He could do this again, just like he’d done during the War. He could back off, put distance between them, remain merely the best of friends instead of lovers, instead of soul mates like Bucky had once claimed they were. ‘I’ll always come back to you, Stevie,’ said in that teenage voice, jangled through his mind.

He headed back to his spot at the round table, between Tony and Sam, and the group ate breakfast amidst pleased hums and compliments over the food. Breakfast, for whatever reason, was so much less stressful than dinner had been. Maybe because they’d all merely drifted in and it had happened organically. Maybe because the Black Widow accidentally nutting the Winter Soldier at dinner had loosened everyone up. Who knew?

Steve had to actively fight against his eyes landing on Bucky. He was across the round table, seated between Clint and Scott, eyes dancing merrily as he talked and told stories and swapped bits of Russian with Natasha that perhaps should have worried everyone. He was goddamned beautiful and alive and okay, and Steve supposed that would have to be enough.

It could be enough. Steve remembered how dark and cold the world had gone the very moment Bucky had slipped from his fingers and fallen away from him, how the next few days were a haze of frozen rage and trying desperately, so desperately, to die in battle. When he’d realized that plane couldn’t be averted, he had nearly cried in relief. Finally he could die and leave a world with no Bucky behind him.

Steve grimaced. He hadn’t thought of that in a long time. He stole a careful glance across the table. The others were involved in an animated discussion of the benefits versus downsides of frogs, but Bucky was still and silent, head bowed only slightly, his eyes on Steve. Steve nearly recoiled, because Bucky looked suddenly like the Winter Soldier with his eyes on a target. Steve was caught staring at him, and Bucky didn’t flinch, didn’t even breathe, didn’t change his expression. Hell, he didn’t have an expression.

Steve’s heart began to race. Jesus, had he been triggered by something? The entire table was talking about murdering frogs, after all. Before Steve could panic further, Bucky merely winked at him, the rest of his expression staying the same, then he ducked his head and pushed the remains of his omelet around with his fork.

Steve was left a little breathless, his heart hammering, gaping across the table as Bucky rejoined the discussion animatedly, his mouth now half full of omelet. And suddenly Steve remembered what he’d allowed himself to forget. This wasn’t the Bucky he’d known, no matter how easy his smile came, no matter how his eyes could still speak the same language as Steve’s heart. This was a different man, changed by war, warped by torture, stained by the blood of dozens, maybe hundreds, of people. This wasn’t plain old Bucky Barnes anymore, this was someone . . . else. And Steve had managed to forget it somehow.

“You okay?” a voice whispered in Steve’s ear.

Steve did flinch then, turning to glance at Sam. “Huh?”

“You just turned even whiter than normal, man,” Sam observed. “You feel okay? Blood sugar staying up and all that?”

“Yeah,” Steve managed to choke out. “I’m going to get more.”

He pushed his chair back, gulping for a breath of air as he went to the kitchen and piled seconds on his plate. He nearly jumped when a hand landed on the small of his back and a body pressed gently to his.

“You’re thinking way too hard, Stevie,” Bucky hissed into his ear.

Steve shivered violently, then turned to him, eyes wide, anger boiling somewhere deep down. Bucky was scowling at him.

“What?” Steve asked, surprised when it came out harsh.

“Have you said a word to him?” Bucky asked. “Even so much as a good morning?”

Steve was lost. He was confused now, he was staring at Bucky thinking about how they’d fucking have to try to stop the Winter Soldier if Bucky lost control of it, and the room smelled like bacon and waffles, and he was remembering how he’d prayed to die in that plane and dreamed every night what it must have been like to fall that far from a train, and Bucky’s eyes were ice blue, not vivid sapphire like he’d remembered, and Steve was lost.

“Stark,” Bucky provided gently, as if he knew that Steve had gotten too lost in his memories and couldn’t come back out. “He was up all night long. Take him to bed.”

“What?”

“Steve,” Bucky said emphatically, speaking condescendingly like Steve had sometimes heard strangers talk to Clint when they found out he was deaf. “Your teammate is in need of care. Go feed Tony, then make him go sleep.”

Steve blinked in surprise and looked over at the massive round table, the one he wasn’t sure how it had gotten there but he could make a pretty damn educated guess. Tony sat in his seat, his food barely touched, staring dazedly at the center of the table.

Bucky waited a breath, apparently to see if Steve would follow his orders, but when Steve stood there staring, Bucky cursed in disgust under his breath and moved away. A moment later he threw himself into Steve’s seat between Tony and Sam, exchanging a deeply distrustful glance with Sam before they nodded at each other. Then he turned to Tony and put his metal hand on Tony’s shoulder.

Tony startled like he’d been asleep, looking at Bucky with wide eyes and blinking rapidly.

“Wanted you to know the power source is amazing,” Bucky told him, his tone conversational and friendly. He placed his fingertips on the edge of Tony’s plate, dragging it closer to them both. He kept talking, telling Tony the things he’d been able to do with the arm yesterday, and as he talked he was idly cutting the waffles on Tony’s plate into bite-size pieces, looking for all the world like he was just nervously fiddling with a handy sharp thing while he talked to a man he knew didn’t like him, instead of . . . taking care of a teammate.

After a minute or so, Tony’s mind seemed to engage, and he turned a little and began to poke at the arm, occasionally stuffing a few bites of waffle into his mouth distractedly as he rambled. Bucky sat there nodding, listening, and soon Steve noticed that Sam was watching them discreetly, obviously close enough to listen in.

Steve slid into Bucky’s seat with his plate, eyes across the table.

“Morning, Cap,” Clint said, his voice a little careful.

“Morning,” Steve said warmly, giving Clint an honest smile. He couldn’t hold it against anyone who could make Bucky laugh, even if he was jealous.

“Tony okay?” Clint asked.

“I neglected to make him go to bed last night,” Steve admitted.

“Well, you can’t wrangle all the kids,” Clint murmured. He grunted. “Speaking of, Bucky and I were talking last night, we think we can get to my farm without incident. I was wondering . . . if maybe I could take a weekend leave before the shit hits the fan.”

Steve blinked in surprise, then nodded slowly. “Yeah, we’ll figure something. Maybe not Bucky since he’s . . . noticeable. But something.”

Clint scowled at him in confusion, his eyes going from Steve to Bucky and back, and he looked almost like he was going to argue, but then he snapped his teeth together audibly and merely nodded. He gave Steve another smile before going back to his food. Then he groaned softly. “Damn, he can make a good breakfast.”

“Your baby sniper crush is on fire, isn’t it?” Natasha asked wryly.

“Like it has the clap,” Clint admitted happily through a mouthful of food.

Steve had to laugh as Scott grunted and mumbled affectionately about how disgusting Clint was. When he glanced across the table at Bucky and Tony again, Tony’s plate was half cleared, and he had Bucky’s arm in both hands, his face just an inch away from Bucky’s shoulder as Bucky lounged back in his chair with his head tossed back, obviously either staring at the ceiling in agonizing boredom, or with his eyes closed.

Steve had to laugh a bit more.

“No!” Bucky suddenly grunted, swatting at the screwdriver that was suddenly in Tony’s hand. He pointed like he was scolding a dog. “There is no taking apart body parts at breakfast!”

“I think that should be a hard and fast rule for the household,” Sam added, nodding as he ate like he was hearing music in his head. “Maybe extend it to all meals?”

“Don’t be hasty, now,” Natasha said in disappointment.

“Definitely for breakfast, though,” Clint argued.

“Why is it the crazy ones who are always so hot?” Scott wondered aloud, and the others laughed merrily along with him.

==

Tony hadn’t realized how hungry he’d been until he’d gotten a few bites of food. He’d been downright ravenous. He also hadn’t realized how exhausted he was until Steve had gently taken his elbow and steered him toward the residence hall without a word.

Steve let them into Tony’s room, which was nearly twice as large as most of the other rooms but sparsely furnished with beautiful, modern pieces. He guided Tony through the door, like he didn’t trust Tony to go to bed on his own, then closed the door gently behind him.

Tony turned to look at him suspiciously. “Personalized delivery now, Cap?”

Steve crossed his arms loosely and leaned against the wall beside the door. “If it’s needed.”

Tony hummed. “I was working.”

“I know.”

“I’ve still got work to do.”

“I know,” Steve repeated warmly. He was smiling gently, watching Tony like he was actually charmed right now instead of angry or annoyed.

“What’s wrong with you?” Tony demanded.

“I got some sense knocked into me, is all,” Steve explained, and if that wasn’t cryptic as hell.

Tony glowered, looking him over for actual bruises. “You and Barnes have it out or something?”

“What?” Steve asked, his softer edges disappearing, his body tensing a little. “No, why would you ask that?”

“You two at breakfast. It was like watching boxers circle each other in the ring.”

“No it – really?” Steve looked damn near wounded, and Tony scrunched his nose, regretting bringing it up. Usually the topic of his wayward assassin would make Steve sort of bristly and bossy and worked up.

Now, though. No, he just looked beaten. Sad. Lost.

“What happened?” Tony asked.

Steve shook his head. “Take a nap and I’ll tell you all about it.”

“A nap? Seriously?”

Steve raised one eyebrow in challenge, a smirk developing on his face that said he might be considering a ‘nap’ of his own if Tony behaved.

“Yeah, okay. Nap. Whatever. That’s what the kids call it, okay,” Tony said as he began to strip off yesterday’s clothes and tossed them in the general direction of the hamper.

Steve moved closer, passing by Tony and going to the perfectly made bed to pull the quilt and sheets back. He was still wearing the shirt and sweatpants he’d probably slept in, and it didn’t seem like he was planning on taking them off. He watched Tony expectantly, nodding his head toward the bed.

“Oh, you meant a real actual nap?” Tony gasped. “Jesus Christ, Rogers, you really are from the 40’s.”

Steve chuckled softly, but as soon as Tony had climbed into the bed – which was admittedly soft and comfortable and yeah, God, his body was bone-tired – Steve slid into the bed beside him, still fully clothed, and pulled the covers up over them both.

Tony lay there, tense for a few seconds, until Steve’s hand came to rest on his stomach. He didn’t move it, didn’t rub or caress. Didn’t make it seem like anything other than a calming presence for Tony to go to sleep by. Tony tried to think if they’d done that before, if they’d ever been horizontal beside each other when they weren’t fucking or fighting. He didn’t think they had. This was new. And it was . . . nice. He could feel his body melting into the mattress.

“Do I have Barnes to thank for this?” Tony asked dejectedly. Was he going to have to send the goddamn assassin a fruit basket for helping him get laid and stuff?

“Maybe,” Steve admitted. “This morning he made me see that I’m not being a very good team leader. And I spoke with him last night. He made it very clear that I’m . . . his last choice.”

Tony could hear how upset Steve was. He wasn’t sure he agreed, because he’d seen the way Barnes looked at Steve. That was love. That was love and lust. Barnes wanted Steve, and when he let his guard down, it was plainly written on his face. And if they’d talked, then Barnes knew Steve wanted him, too. So what the hell was Barnes doing, turning him down?

“What exactly was said?” Tony asked against his better judgment.

Steve didn’t need much prodding to recount his conversation with Barnes, had while sitting against the wall between their doors and nursing Barnes’s sore manbits. Tony had to fight not to laugh at that part.

“So he said he loved you, ‘always and forever’, which is, Jesus, that’s kind of romantic, Steve. You didn’t tell me he was smart and romantic, I’m still so offended.”

“Yeah.”

“But then he’s still pushing you toward me like it’s his mission.”

Steve tensed at the last word, like he was afraid of Barnes assigning himself any mission. Tony managed to slide his arm under Steve and rolled, resting his head against Steve’s rock-hard bicep that wasn’t actually comfortable to use as a pillow, but he sure was warm.

Tony didn’t know what to say about Steve’s problem, but he pushed his face against the warmth of Steve’s body and sighed happily. “God, you’re warm.”

Steve grunted. “That’s something else I was going to ask you about. What would be the purpose of keeping someone like Bucky at a colder internal temperature?”

Tony tilted his head back to look at Steve, lips pursed, scowling. “He’s cooler than you are?”

“By . . . a lot. He didn’t say an exact number, but I’ve felt dead men who were putting out more body heat than he does.”

Tony hummed thoughtfully, chewing on the inside of his cheek as he pondered that. “I’ll look into it, get back with you.”

“Thanks,” Steve said dejectedly.

“You think that’s why he doesn’t want anyone touching him?” Tony asked almost immediately.

“What?” Steve sounded taken aback.

“Yesterday, he fought not to flinch every time you touched him,” Tony informed him, feeling a little bad about it when he saw the distressed way Steve reacted. He hurried to include himself and make sure Steve knew it wasn’t just him. “And the one time I touched him somewhere that wasn’t his arm, he cringed away like I’d hurt him. I asked him if I had, and he said no, but . . .”

“You think it does hurt him? To be touched?” Steve asked, aghast.

“I . . . honestly, Steve, he’s so hard to read, I wouldn’t even want to make a guess like that. I think the best thing to do is just ask him. If it hurts to touch him, everyone should know it.”

Steve nodded absently, his gaze focusing on the ceiling for a few seconds, long enough for Tony to relax back into him. A moment later, Steve turned his head and kissed Tony’s forehead, nudging at him like a dog.

Tony raised his head in surprise, and Steve pressed their lips together almost tenderly as he rolled to pull Tony into his arms.

“You sore from yesterday?” Steve asked, his voice hitting a lower octave and making Tony shiver all over. Tony shook his head, unable to form words in the face of Steve’s dilated eyes.

Steve kissed him again, slow and easy, almost gentle. Tony made a muffled attempt to ask if Steve was okay, because this wasn’t like him, but soon enough the tender kisses that were so unusual became harder, more brutal, and Tony groaned blissfully and rolled to his back, tugging Steve on top of him so Steve would have his way with him.

==

Thor came and went, leaving the team with more questions than answers about the Infinity Gems. He also took Vision with him, saying he could show Vision as much as possible about the stone in his head. Vision had gone eagerly, thirsty to learn and knowing that, being attached to the goddamn stone, his life was more at risk than anyone’s if the goal was to gather the stones in one place.

That was all Thor knew, though. That the stones were gathering. And what frustrated Steve the most was that there didn’t seem to be any proactive route they could take. They just had to sit back and wait until something pinged.

It was not the way Steve was used to operating. Tony wasn’t taking it much better, but he was staying busy and hadn’t reached manic crazed scientist levels yet.

They used their time well, in fact. They trained, individually, in pairs, threes, and as a cohesive unit. They were making marked progress on teamwork, and Steve could also see where relationships were being mended, hearts and souls soothed.

It also made him happier than he would have thought that Bucky and Sam, paired together, had received the highest marks of any combination he’d tried so far. He suspected when he and Bucky ran the course, they’d score higher. But maybe not by much. Sam fucking hated it, and Bucky seemed alarmed by the fact that he might end up with Sam as his partner.

Steve thought Bucky looked like he regretted not sabotaging their run, and Sam proposed a do-over where he explicitly stated he would be sabotaging their run. Steve hadn’t smiled that much in weeks.

The only downside, of course, was the fact that Steve kept absurdly stumbling into the path of Bucky and Clint when they were being . . . cozy. No matter where they tried to go for some privacy, Steve somehow wound up at least catching sight of them. He didn’t think he was trying to do it, but God, who even knew anymore? What he did know was that Bucky looked happy with Clint, light and carefree, never that sad smile he gave Steve. Steve had a hard time with the pictures in his mind, though; Bucky’s powerful shoulders and the way Steve knew he could growl out orders while he fucked someone, combined with Clint’s lithe acrobatics and easy laugh? Jesus Christ . . .

Bucky fit in remarkably well with everyone else too, even Sam. Sometimes. Steve had known he would. The man had been able to win Tony Stark over, he could do anything he set his mind to. In fact, Steve sometimes noticed how Bucky had fallen into the role of Sergeant once more, acting as Steve’s right hand man, keeping morale up amongst the team, splitting his time between the members Steve supposed were ‘officers’ and the ones who fancied themselves the infantry. Just like Bucky had done in the 107th.

Steve had started to think of them as the ‘kids’ for some reason. Bucky, Natasha, Clint, Sam, Scott. Wanda wasn’t included in that group even though she was literally the only real kid around, because she was responsible and quiet and well-behaved, and didn’t go in for their mischief. But the ‘kids’, well . . . Steve had sniffed out Bucky’s influence there almost immediately. He’d given Sam the most disappointed, grandfatherly look he was capable of when Sam had turned his offer of a run down one day in favor of going off with the others, because Steve had actually considered Sam one of the adults up until that point.

“I love you, Steve, you know that,” Sam had told him with a huge grin. “But we all need a little fun now and then!”

“I can be fun!”

Sam had literally laughed himself hoarse before leaving Steve to go play a brutal game of laser tag that had included rubber training knives dipped in paint, arrows with suction cups on the ends, and one rock that no one would admit to throwing.

Today, the kids were piled on one of the sofas in the common room, all five of them, all on the same sofa, like a litter of misbehaving puppies, watching the television when Steve strolled into the room.

He and Tony had been working through some logistics all morning, and they’d taken a break because Tony was getting fidgety and claimed he needed some ‘me-time’ with his machines, and Steve had gone in search of . . . something. He hadn’t known what, exactly, but as soon as he saw Bucky sitting on the sofa, he knew. He was still drawn to the man like a magnet, and like a mismatched one at that, because the closer Steve got, the more gently Bucky pulled back.

Steve stood and stared at them for a long time. Bucky was lounging in the middle of the couch, his feet up on the coffee table. Natasha was leaning against one side, and Clint the other, using his solid frame like furniture. Natasha’s finger was at the back of Bucky’s neck, idly twirling his short ponytail so that pieces had escaped and fallen to frame his face. Now and then he’d push those strays behind his ear without seeming to realize why they were there.

Scott was sitting nearly on the arm of the couch, his feet under Natasha’s ass like he was keeping them warm, and Sam was spread out like a king on the opposite end, his head resting on a pillow, his body under Clint and his feet in Bucky’s lap. Steve wasn’t sure how Clint was sitting like he was, but holy Jesus the man was certainly . . . bendable.

Bucky had his arms spread across the back of the couch, the bare metal gleaming in the sunlight from the windows, fingers tapping to a tune no one else could hear. If they had wanted, they all could have huddled under the protective embrace he was offering them. It was in that moment that Steve realized Bucky had adopted all four of them like strays he’d found in the gutter.

Steve had a hard time controlling his smile after that.

They were watching a movie, maybe. Steve couldn’t take his eyes off them long enough to see what was on the TV.

If Steve had looked away to check what was playing, he might have missed the sight of Bucky turning his head a little and nudging Clint with his chin. And Steve definitely could have done without the sight of the two of them kissing languidly before returning their attention to the TV, soft smirks on both their faces.

Steve had to look away.

“Stop,” Sam practically whined. “Jesus Christ, my blood sugar!”

“Do you realize where your foot is and what it’s been doing for the last thirty minutes? You gotta give me something, Wilson,” Bucky said idly, his voice trembling with repressed laughter.

Sam made a sound that Steve just wasn’t able to quantify, and the ensuing struggle caused Clint to fuss about his comfortable seat getting all fucked up, and caused Bucky to make a pained whuff sound as someone jabbed him in the stomach, and caused Sam to start up a litany of curses that had Scott and Natasha both laughing and shushing them all at once. Scott finally got up and offered his hand to her, gallantly escorting her to the loveseat so they could continue the movie in peace.

“So handsy,” Clint chided finally as the other three rearranged themselves.

“Ha!” Bucky barked, waggling his metal fingers through the air.

“Oh, that was an accidental one!” Clint said happily. “I’m finally subverting them!”

“So proud,” Sam grumbled as he tried to get comfortable without having his feet in Bucky’s lap. He finally gave up and slid them back onto Bucky’s thigh.

Steve took a few steps into the common room, desperately wanting to join, to soak up the camaraderie. But he stopped himself, watching Bucky in profile, the smile on his lips, the relaxed bent to his shoulders. Being near him and wanting him so goddamn desperately was just torturing himself, wasn’t it?

As Steve stood there, indecisive, Bucky cleared his throat. “We got room, pal,” he called out without taking his eyes off the movie.

Steve’s lips twitched, scolding himself for thinking that any of the well-trained and dangerous Rottweilers in the living room hadn’t known he was there, and he snorted as he made his way over and sat in the space Scott and Natasha had been inhabiting. They’d been squished in there, and they were both smaller than Steve was, because he found himself jammed up against the arm of the sofa and pressed against Bucky’s side.

He sat there trying to push the tension from his body, staring at the TV, concentrating on Bucky’s cool body and wondering still if it hurt Bucky to be touched. He kind of doubted it, after the last week of watching Bucky romp and cuddle and spar. And he’d seen the state Clint was left in every morning, heard the sounds coming from all the way down the hall. Bucky didn’t have a problem with touching. He just had a problem touching Steve.

A moment later, Bucky’s arm wound around his shoulders, pulling him sideways, forcing him to scoot down in the soft cushions so he’d be low enough for Bucky’s arm to rest around him comfortably. He threw his feet on the coffee table beside Bucky’s, and he mirrored Clint’s sprawl, letting Bucky dictate the contact, only risking the chance to lay his head against Bucky’s arm.

He realized it was the metal arm that had curled around him, and he felt himself beginning to ease up.

After a few minutes, after Steve had finally relaxed enough to notice that he was actually relaxed, Bucky pressed his mouth and nose to Steve’s temple, inhaling gently before he gave him a nuzzle. Steve could feel Bucky smiling against his skin.

Steve was almost lulled into relaxing again when Bucky’s lips were at his ear, his breath warm and familiar on Steve’s neck. “Need to talk to you later,” Bucky whispered, able to keep the words to mere breaths and knowing Steve would hear. Steve absently wondered how good Bucky’s hearing was, and if he would ever let Steve help him test it out like they had done for him one night in a pup tent somewhere in France.

Steve managed to suppress the shiver that wanted desperately to skitter through him. He turned his head in time to let his cheek brush against Bucky’s lips, and Bucky nudged him with his nose affectionately before returning his attention to the movie.

Steve never managed to quite return to the level of boneless relaxation he’d found before Bucky’s words. They finished the movie, then they had to go through the complicated ritual of figuring out who was on top and needed to move first before the others could, like human Jenga. Once they’d unfolded from their puppy pile, they all wandered in different directions. Clint and Natasha headed to go spar. Sam mumbled something about starting food for dinner. And Scott excused himself to go to the room they’d set up for videoconferencing. It was equipped with a scrambler that masked the locations, and a wall that would show a different background every time, so the user looked as if they were moving around the world.

It had taken Tony about twenty minutes and a Red Bull to set it up.

Bucky gave Steve a jerk of his head, then headed for the exit. Steve followed curiously, catching up and falling into step with Bucky as they began to walk toward the nature paths that dotted the complex.

Bucky raised his face to the sun, smiling serenely. He had both hands in his pockets, his shoulders loose and easy.

Goddammit, Steve loved him. Asshole. Selfish asshole!

“You doing okay, pal?” Bucky asked as soon as they’d hit a certain landmark he’d obviously known was out of reach of any ears that might be listening from inside.

Steve shrugged. He could lie, say yeah sure Buck, I’m doing just fucking spiffy. But he didn’t have the energy, or the desire, to be anything less than honest. Not with Bucky. Not with anyone, not anymore. He shrugged instead. “Feels like my heart’s broken,” he said as evenly as his voice was capable of being.

“Yeah,” Bucky agreed sadly.

Steve stared at him, stunned and confused all over again. If Bucky felt that way too, then why was he doing this to them? And how was he fucking handling it so well? Because god knew Steve wasn’t.

“I was hoping we could get Clint to his farm,” Bucky said, continuing like he’d never heard Steve say anything, and like he hadn’t agreed and rocked Steve’s goddamned world all over again.

“Why?” Steve asked.

“Because he misses his family,” Bucky answered almost scornfully, like he thought Steve should know that.

“But, I thought – I mean, I thought you and he . . . were–”

“Steve, Clint adores his wife,” Bucky broke in. “He misses her. He has three kids who’ve only seen him on a computer screen during the last four months. Come on.”

Steve stopped walking and stared at Bucky in open confusion. “What about you?”

Bucky stopped as well when he realized Steve wasn’t still beside him. He turned and looked Steve up and down like he didn’t understand the question. “What about me?”

“You care about him, right?”

“Of course,” Bucky answered, ruffling a little. God, he was beautiful when he got all huffy and dangerous like that. “That’s why I’m talking right now. He wouldn’t be gone long, just a few weeks at a time. But if we can establish a safe route, one we know is clear, he’d be able to go back and forth and be with them. Hell, I owe Laura that much for letting me borrow him.”

Steve shook his head, squeezing his eyes closed. “Wait, Clint’s wife knows you two are fucking?”

Bucky had the audacity to look offended and hurt. “Of course she does, Steve! We asked permission first, Jesus, what do you think I am?”

“I’m confused,” Steve blurted.

Bucky still looked irritated for a few seconds, then his expression morphed into one of gentle amusement. He smiled as he came closer and put his arm around Steve’s shoulders, urging him to start walking again. It reminded Steve viscerally of the way Bucky had led him through dance halls in their youth. “It’s okay, bud. Come on.”

Bucky didn’t try to explain the particulars of his relationship with Clint. But the comment Steve had heard Clint make through his bedroom door, about a phone call and explaining the rules, were beginning to make more sense. Christ, Steve hadn’t known people did that. He supposed, though, it was a better deal than just hauling off and cheating on someone, betraying their trust. Bucky had never been one to get involved like that before, Steve wasn’t sure why he’d thought Bucky would do that now.

“Leave it to me, okay?” Bucky was saying as they finished their stroll. “I’ll scout out a route, make sure it’s clear.”

“Bucky,” Steve said hesitantly.

“Steve. This is what I do, okay? This is the kind of thing I know, and that’s been true since before Zola got his hands on me. I just need your go-ahead.”

Steve worked his jaw back and forth, hating the thought of letting Bucky leave the sanctuary of the complex, but also trusting to Bucky’s abilities and knowing a single scout would be so much safer. “You get caught, and I’ll never forgive you.”

Bucky nodded, smirking. “I know. I’m leaving in thirty.”

“Wait, what?”

“My gear’s all ready,” Bucky told him as he strolled toward the doors. “I just need your bike, okay?”

Steve scowled hard, nodding almost against his will. Forty minutes later, when Clint came through the common room and asked if anyone had seen Bucky because he’d missed their scheduled bow lesson, Steve groaned deep in his chest and banged his forehead against the round dining table.

Of fucking course Bucky hadn’t told Clint what he was doing, because it probably wasn’t what he was actually doing. He supposed he should be grateful that Bucky had told Steve he was going at all before he disappeared. But he really fucking wasn’t. Asshole, even got permission to leave. If Bucky faded into the world again like he’d done after DC, they’d never find him now.

==

Bucky came strolling back in from the garage roughly fifteen hours after he’d left the complex. He was dirty, smelled like wind and sunshine and gasoline, and he was grinning so widely that he wasn’t sure he’d be able to stop.

He headed for the common area first and the kitchen, because he was fucking starving. He was shocked to find the entire team convened there, silent as a grave, all looking at him.

His stomach tumbled with dread. “Something happen?” he asked breathlessly.

“Where’ve you been, Buck?” Steve asked instead of answering.

Bucky’s eyes darted to Clint, who was refusing to look at him. He’d been hoping to keep it a secret, surprise Clint with it. What the hell was Steve doing? His eyes landed back on Steve warily. “You know where.”

“Yeah?” Steve asked, though he sounded dubious. “Do I?”

“You could have compromised everyone here if you were seen,” Tony told him, his voice nearly venomous, gritted out through his teeth. “Did you think of that?”

“I did,” Bucky assured him. “I thought about it for a solid week. I know what I’m doing, I hid from the world for two years, you think that was luck?” He turned to Steve, inexplicably hurt by the accusatory tone of this whole meeting. “I got your okay, Steve, you told me to go.”

Steve stood and nodded curtly. “That was when I thought I knew where you were going. And why. You lied to me, Buck.”

“What?”

“Laura said she had no idea what I was talking about,” Steve told him. “When I called to ask if you’d popped up there.”

“Goddammit, Steve!” Bucky shouted as he tossed his motorcycle gloves at Steve’s face. “Well, you ruined that one, huh?”

Steve had the motherfucking audacity to look wounded when he caught the gloves. Bucky stalked away from him, going to the refrigerator for a drink. He took one more look at the assembled assholes at their stupid round table, and he grabbed one of the alcoholic ones. Then he grabbed two more.

Steve had narrowed his eyes, and he was glancing over at Tony and then at Clint. Clint looked like he wanted to fight, but Bucky wasn’t sure who Clint would aim that anger at if he really did think Bucky had just set up an elaborate charade to go on a fucking joyride for a few hours. Because Bucky wasn’t stupid, that’s exactly what they were implying he had done. That he’d used Clint’s family as an excuse to clear the compound and go do God knew whatever they suspected.

Of course Bucky hadn’t popped up out of the goddamned woods and knocked on Laura Barton’s door so she could explain to her three kids, alone in that huge house on all that land that needed working on, that this is the guy daddy’s off somewhere fucking every night and he can come see you but daddy can’t because . . . why? Fuck that.

Bucky had noticed the woodpile was low, though, and he’d taken it upon himself to make sure there was enough there to last Laura until Clint could get home. That was all he’d done, though. Cleared the path. Stacked a few days worth of wood. And then cleared a secondary path back. Fifteen hours. He’d been gone for fifteen hours, and now . . .

Bucky opened his bottle with his fingers, mumbling angrily as he took a big gulp. He unzipped his leather jacket, digging around for the device he’d used to plot the course he’d taken.

“Bucky,” Steve said sternly as Bucky rounded the island.

“No, I get it, Stevie, I get it all too damn well,” Bucky damn near snarled. He took the device and set it gently in front of Clint on the table. He made sure Clint was looking at him, then signed, ‘There’s your way home, C. There and back.’

Clint gave him a gentle smile and a nod, and Bucky knew just from looking in his eyes that Clint had never doubted that Bucky was off doing exactly what he’d said. He could imagine the discussion they’d all had, with Clint growing angrier and angrier as he tried to convince them they were wrong.

Bucky squeezed his shoulder and walked away. He passed Steve without looking at him, but when Steve tried to stop him, Bucky twisted and yanked out of his grasp hard enough that he kind of hoped it hurt Steve’s hand. Bucky stopped and stared at him, hoping all Steve could see was anger in his eyes, instead of the betrayal and hurt. He’d fucking gotten permission from his fucking Captain, and he’d still walked into a room full of mistrust and accusation. Fuck all of them.

He didn’t say a word, let his face show everything he was feeling now, let Steve confront that instead of words. Steve paled visibly as he stared at Bucky, and Bucky bared his teeth before gritting out, “I’ll be in my cell.”

He stalked off toward his room before anyone could say or do anything to stop him. He wasn’t going to try to defend his actions while being treated like some fucking delinquent or traitor.

He sat with his bare feet on the windowsill, staring out at the sunset, tipped back in the desk chair he’d dragged over. He’d gone through all three drinks, which were a powerful apple cider that he and Steve had been shocked to find actually caused a pretty nice buzz if they drank it really fast on an empty stomach.

He needed that buzz now, because he was angry. So fucking angry. It was tempting to bolt. It really was, if their trust in him was so easily shakable. If Steve’s trust was so easily shakable. But, he reminded himself. That was his own doing, wasn’t it? He’d been pushing Steve as gently and as far away as he could. He supposed after a certain point, trust would be pushed along with it.

He realized his eyes were starting to water, and then he realized he hadn’t blinked in a while, so he closed them and let them water, easing the burning. He let them water. He wasn’t ashamed to shed tears. In fact, he kind of enjoyed that he still could, after what he’d been made into. And it wasn’t like anyone was around to see even if he had been ashamed.

No one had come to speak with him yet. No one was coming.

“Sergeant Barnes?” the lilting Irish of the AI said gently.

“Yes, Friday?” he asked, surprised at how hoarse his voice was.

“One of the alerts you set up has just been tripped, Sergeant.”

Bucky’s head shot up, eyes wide. He clambered to stand and go over to the blank wall where F.R.I.D.A.Y sometimes gave him a head’s up display, and he stood and watched as she played the news clip that had tripped one of the several dozen or so warning signs he’d programmed her for once he’d discovered a way into her system that didn’t involve Tony’s help.

An old white man stood on a stage, waving to a crowd, shaking hands with other old white men as a band played and patriotic red, white, and blue bunting waved in a gentle breeze along the stage.

“When was this?” he asked F.R.I.D.A.Y.

“This is live, Sergeant.”

“Holy shit,” Bucky gasped, and he darted for the door. He sprinted down the residence hall, skidding into the common area where the Avengers still sat, shouting at each other. Actually, Clint was shouting at Steve, and the rest of them seemed to be just . . . spectating.

Clint stopped mid-rant, eyes widening when he saw Bucky. But Bucky hopped the sofa and went to the coffee table, where a tablet sat. He grabbed it up and flicked his fingers, sending the display from his room to one of the largest blank walls near the dining table.

“Bucky, what?”

“Shut up,” Bucky barked at Steve. He enlarged the screen as he got closer, and it took a moment, but he found the man in the crowd on the stage once more. He pointed to him, following the man’s movements with his finger. “Friday, can you zero in on him and hold onto him?”

“No problem, Sergeant.”

“What, whoa, when do you get friendly with my AI, Barnes?” Tony asked, sounding downright scandalized.

“Buck, what is it?” Clint demanded.

“This guy,” Bucky said, feeling a little breathless. “This guy is dead.”

“What are you talking about, James?” Natasha asked, calm as ever. He could hear the undercurrent in her voice, though. She knew what he was talking about, and why he was scared.

“That guy, the one who just announced he’s running for President of the United States of goddamn America,” Bucky said, pointing at him emphatically. “Is dead.”

“You mean, someone’s going to try to kill him?” Steve asked, confused as ever.

“No, Steve! I mean, someone already has!” Bucky thumped his own chest.

Realization hit Steve like a bucket of water, and he gasped as he looked from Bucky to the display.

“So, what, we’re looking at a ghost?” Sam asked, sounding like he was fucking done with dead people coming back to life.

Bucky shook his head, his eyes following the man, watching the way he moved, stalking him. “Not a ghost,” he said quietly. He could feel himself beginning to coil and bristle like a goddamn feral cat, like the fucking wild animal he’d been made to be. “This guy . . .” When he spoke again, his voice had gone lower, accented and growling. “This guy is something new.”

==

Tony stood instinctively when Barnes spoke his last words. In fact, it seemed to kick everyone into a silent defensive stance. They were all staring at the back of Barnes’s head, tense, waiting. Because they’d all felt the same thing Tony had just then, that James Barnes had just turned into someone . . . else.

“Bucky?” Steve whispered carefully. “What do you mean, he’s something new?”

Barnes was utterly still and silent, his eyes on the video feed, his shoulders tensed and huge and he was just . . . really fucking unnerving right now.

“Barnes?” Tony found himself prompting.

“He’s not human,” Barnes finally decided, his voice still low and hoarse, but not quite hitting the octave for eliciting primal terror like his previous words had.

Tony felt Sam relax next to him.

“His movements aren’t . . .” Barnes wiggled his shoulders back and forth like he was trying to work out a kink. “Quite right. He’s . . .” Barnes stepped closer and swung his arms out wide, forcing the picture impossibly larger. He was nearly standing inside the display, watching the face of the man he claimed he’d killed already. “He’s not sweating.”

“Oh!” Tony blurted as he watched the subject of Barnes’s new obsession. “Oh no, no oh oh, I know this one. Hold on, I’ve got this one. Hold on,” Tony mumbled as he came up beside Barnes and pulled up a new display, working furiously and trying not to glance sideways to see the singular way Barnes was staring at the man on the screen.

No matter what anyone said, no one would ever convince Tony that he was currently looking at Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes right now. He was standing beside the Winter Soldier, Tony knew that in his very marrow, and the Winter Soldier had just caught scent of his mark.

“Robot,” Barnes finally whispered, sounding very far away.

“Yep,” Tony replied curtly, willing to admit at least in his own head that he was currently scared shitless of the man.

Barnes merely nodded, his eyes still glued to the display. Then Tony pulled up a set of schematics labeled merely L.M.D., and made them large enough for everyone to be able to see. He threw them further away, so Barnes could continue to stalk the first one without being in anyone’s way.

“Life Model Decoys,” Tony announced as he flipped a few more documents up onto the screen.

“These are S.H.I.E.L.D files?” Natasha asked.

“Yes, the very ones you leaked after the Triskelion fell. I catalogued them in case . . . well, in case this bullshit ever happened.”

“What’s a Life Model Decoy,” Steve asked with a hint of dread in his voice.

“Red Eyes,” Barnes practically intoned without taking his eyes off the display.

Tony shivered. God, surely that feed was going to be cut soon, right?

“L.M.D’s are robotic copies, basically, with all the benefits of being a robot and all the privileges of being a human all rolled into one. They’re as strong and fast as Cap or Barnes here, and the only way to tell they’re not human is to get a look at their circuitry. Unless of course you’ve spent 70 years being trained as a very advanced hunting dog, in which case you can apparently spot one on TV,” Tony said with a hint of admiration as he glanced at Barnes. He discreetly swiped his hand through the air and made the display disappear.

Barnes lowered his head, his shoulders slumping, and Tony could feel the room easing around him. Barnes didn’t turn around to face them, merely stood facing the wall, head bowed.

Tony cleared his throat, continuing with the occasional careful glance at Barnes. “As far as I knew, L.M.D’s were merely a theory, the technology didn’t exist to create them. Or, if it did, no one had put it together yet.”

“Holden Radliffe,” Natasha said suddenly as she peered up at the specs. “He was close. There are a few others on the list, but he’d be my bet. And without any eyes on him now?” she shrugged elegantly.

Tony gave a thoughtful hum, drawn back to Barnes. “What are Red Eyes?”

Barnes reacted as if Tony had whipped him. He cringed, lowering his head more, before turning and putting his back to the wall to stare at them all. He didn’t look panicked or confused or lost. He just looked . . . tired.

“They’re the ones that don’t look human,” he said, voice gone flat and strange and dead. He was hoarse, gravel in his throat, his accent oddly Russian once more. “They’re the wolves they send out in packs. They’re the ones that pull whole villages off the map. They’re the ones they made in my image.”

He began to slide down the wall, slowly, inexorably, the look in his eyes keeping even Steve from going to him to help him.

“They’re the ones I taught everything I knew.”

==

Bucky was still and silent, staring at the darkened ceiling. He’d allowed Clint and Natasha to coax him into a shower and then to bed, and they’d both stayed with him, curled up together in his bed, until he’d finally taken pity on them both and feigned real sleep.

Natasha had left first, giving his temple a gentle kiss that let him know she knew he wasn’t asleep after all. Clint had waited until the door snicked shut behind her, then he’d propped up on his elbow and kissed Bucky almost sweetly. That was new. Their relationship, while affectionate as hell, was all about how hard Bucky could slam Clint into a wall before Clint begged to be fucked.

“Thank you,” Clint whispered.

“I told you I’d get you home,” Bucky murmured as he reached to run his metal fingers down Clint’s face. Clint had a bit of a kink for the metal, and they both knew it.

Clint grinned lopsidedly and nodded. “Well I’m here ’til this is over, so you’re stuck with me a while longer.”

The sentiment made Bucky’s chest tighten pleasantly. It had been such a goddamn long time since he’d had people to care about who might return the favor.

Clint bent to kiss him again, lingering over it before pushing up to lean over him. “You need some head space?” he asked gently.

“Probably,” Bucky said with a relieved nod.

Clint patted his shoulder in understanding. “You know where to find me, huh?”

“Always.”

Clint didn’t waste more time, merely gave Bucky one last kind of scorching kiss, then left him to the silence they both knew Bucky needed.

Now, Bucky stared at the ceiling. Half of him wanted to go off in search of Clint just so there’d be sound and motion near him. The other half, it desperately wanted Steve. It needed Steve, who was the only constant in his world, the only thing he’d ever had worth dying for.

The third half, of course, was just going to fucking lie here, thank you, because Steve had actually accused him of lying to him, of risking everyone here he cared about. Fuck Steve.

Bucky heard footsteps outside his door, heard the man coming from a mile away, but it was still a shock to him when his door opened and Steve’s tense shoulders were outlined in the light from the common room.

“Steve?” Bucky grunted.

Steve was silent as he closed the door behind him and moved toward the bed. “You okay?” he asked solemnly.

Bucky hummed a vaguely affirmative sounding answer. Steve knew it was bullshit. He didn’t ask permission before he was crawling into the bed, herding Bucky toward the middle so he could wrap around him from behind and pull him tight.

Bucky was too stunned to protest or question it, and by the time he recovered his wits, he was wrapped in that familiar strength and warmth, and even Bucky wasn’t strong enough to make Steve leave now, not now, not when he could feel and smell his entire life crashing back into him, reminding him of every embrace, every brush of their lips, every star in the sky they’d stared at together, every promise that love was forever.

“Steve,” Bucky whispered, looking over his shoulder at the man clinging to him.

Steve buried his face against Bucky’s neck, inhaling deeply. Bucky had always wondered if he smelled the same as he had before the serum, before the metal, before the wolf had been bred into his bones.

“God, I miss you,” Steve said shakily.

“Do I smell the same?” Bucky asked.

Steve merely nodded.

“Always wondered,” Bucky admitted.

He glanced over his shoulder again to tell Steve that he missed him too, desperately, but Steve raised his head quickly, so quickly Bucky didn’t even manage to make a sound, and kissed him.

Bucky inhaled sharply, his body going stiff and tense.

Steve whimpered against his lips, then leaned away, lowering his head and covering his mouth with the back of his wrist. “Jesus, Buck, I’m sorry,” he gasped. “I swear that’s not why I came in here.”

“It’s okay, Stevie,” Bucky managed to say, shocked at the sound of his own voice. He sounded wrecked. Was he? He’d told himself he could do this, he could keep Steve sane and happy and alive without compromising the goodness in him. But Steve was miserable. Bucky was miserable. He was failing in everything he’d promised he’d do.

He could see Steve clearly in the darkness, and he knew Steve could see him. Steve could see the expression Bucky must have been wearing, because suddenly something in Steve changed. His eyes grew harder, his brow furrowed deeper, and his jaw tightened until Bucky thought he could hear the man’s teeth grating.

“It’s not me, is it?” he snarled, pushing up on both hands to hover over Bucky. “It’s not me, it’s you!”

A thrill ran down Bucky’s spine and he flattened to his back, peering up at Steve, breathless and knowing that he’d already lost this battle.

Bucky didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to, they both knew the answer. Steve gave a wordless growl, full of anger and pain, and he smashed their lips together again, biting at Bucky’s lower lip, clacking their teeth together, seemingly forgetting that people had noses on their faces that might get in the goddamn way of something like that.

Bucky groaned and struggled to get both hands out of Steve’s grasp, reaching up to bury his fingers in Steve’s hair, tug at it, to grip the collar of his thin white T-shirt and pull so hard that it began to cut into Steve’s neck. When even that didn’t work, Bucky raised his knee, pressing it against Steve’s groin in warning.

Steve broke the kiss with a gasp and shifted, shoving his knee between Bucky’s thighs and forcing them apart, until he had Bucky’s legs wrapped around his hips and Bucky locked his ankles at the small of Steve’s back. Steve delved into another kiss, heedless of the growl of warning Bucky gave him, heedless of Bucky’s hands tugging at him, squeezing him until it would have broken a bone in a normal man.

But Bucky’s hands were the only things that fought back. He’d wrapped his legs around Steve like it was natural, even though Steve had never fucked him before. He pushed his hips up against Steve’s bulk, ripping a gasp out of them both as their hardening cocks rubbed together.

It was during one of those moans that Bucky finally managed to get his mouth free and tossed his head to the side, gasping desperately for air. Steve didn’t care. He bit down on Bucky’s collarbone, moaning so it would vibrate against Bucky’s skin. Bucky echoed the sound, ending in a desperate little whimper as Steve licked all the way up his neck to his ear.

“You’re a son of a bitch,” Steve grated out against the shell of Bucky’s ear.

“How dare you, you knew my mother,” Bucky hissed, and they both laughed darkly, trying to stay quiet out of some long-remembered fear that they would be caught.

Steve found his lips again, forcing his tongue into Bucky’s mouth, rolling his hips against Bucky and making them both writhe and groan.

“Steve,” Bucky managed to whisper, and with a last tug at Steve’s shirt he managed to get the flat of his left hand against Steve’s ribs. He didn’t know if it was the desperation in his voice, or the shock of the cold metal hand against Steve’s skin, but it succeeded in getting Steve to halt his attack.

He pushed onto both elbows, staring down at Bucky, his body heavy and so, so good as he laid all his considerable bulk on Bucky’s body, hips feeling strangely right between Bucky’s thighs.

Bucky panted for air, wondering if this was what a goddamn asthma attack had felt like when Steve had been little and sick.

“You can’t tell me you don’t want this,” Steve hissed, and Bucky shook his head vigorously.

Steve was right, Bucky couldn’t fucking tell him that. He wanted it so goddamn much he could barely breathe sometimes, so much he couldn’t sleep knowing Steve was just feet away through one tiny little wall, so much sometimes he couldn’t even walk through a room where Steve was in case he tossed himself into Steve’s lap and licked him. So much that the thought of Steve fucking Tony like Bucky’d urged him to do had been fuel for more than one session in the gym where Bucky had accidentally destroyed his punching bag. And the wall behind it.

“Tell me, Buck,” Steve urged, his breaths coming fast and heavy, making his body move and shudder against Bucky’s. “Tell me to go, if you don’t want it,” Steve murmured, his voice like honey over gravel.

Bucky shuddered beneath him, blinking hard. “I can’t,” he finally gasped, knowing he was sealing both their fates with his goddamned weakness.

Steve lurched forward and bit Bucky’s lip, groaning into the new kiss. Bucky stopped fighting him, instead grasping at him and tugging his shirt up this time, trying to get it off him. Steve sat up and pulled it over his head, letting Bucky’s fingers glide over his shoulders and down his chest before he bent over again and kissed at Bucky’s neck, at his collarbone, at his chest.

They’d done this before, once, with Steve’s body healthy and big like this. Every time before they’d had to be careful, be silent, be slow and gentle and vigilant. But Steve now, with his serum-enhanced muscles and blood flow and sex drive, good God he was beautiful and savage and cruel in how much he enjoyed what he was doing.

He slid both arms under Bucky, one hand grasping a handful of Bucky’s hair and holding on tight enough to force Bucky’s head back as Steve kissed along his jawline. His hips moved against Bucky, and Bucky arched into him, rubbing and rutting and trying to pull Steve closer by sliding his feet around Steve’s calves and tugging him in.

Steve bit and licked his way to Bucky’s ear again, whispering to him as Bucky’s lips pressed against Steve’s neck. “Fuck me,” he requested, his voice harsh in the dim light.

“I,” Bucky managed to gasp. He writhed against the pressure, realizing that at some point Steve had let go of his hair and taken up his wrists instead. “Steve, please don’t do . . . please.”

Bucky tried to lift his hands, but Steve leaned all his considerable mass into them, and managed to keep both of them down. Bucky stared up at him with wide, shocked eyes. How the hell was he keeping the left one down? Was it the angle? Was Bucky weak and vulnerable at this angle?

Steve must have seen the wave of panic that passed over his face, because he instantly let go of Bucky’s wrists, freeing him before he bent to kiss Bucky again, gently this time. He murmured something against Bucky’s lips that might have been an apology, then began to kiss his way down Bucky’s neck to his chest. He yanked the quilt and sheets away, continuing down to Bucky’s stomach and dragging both hands under the waistband of Bucky’s boxers.

“Ah, Christ,” Bucky said in a near panic as he tried to sit up. “Stevie, please don’t do this. Please! I won’t be able to stop!”

“I don’t want you to,” Steve assured him.

And then Steve was back over him suddenly, kissing him, teasing Bucky’s lips apart with his teeth, lapping at his tongue in a way that Steve hadn’t known how to do before Bucky had fucking corrupted the hell out of him when they were younger.

This must be his punishment, then, for debasing such a perfect soul.

Bucky could only groan, his fingers sliding against Steve’s perfect skin, Steve shivering with every touch of Bucky’s abnormally cold body.

“I’ve missed you,” Steve told him as he straddled Bucky’s hips and bit at his chin, uncaring of the stubble Bucky had let grow on his trip to the Barton farm.

“God, Steve,” Bucky growled, and it might as well have been a curse the way he said it. “I’ve loved you,” he admitted brokenly. “I’ve loved you.”

Steve was kissing him again, and his hands came to Bucky’s biceps, pushing him against the bed, holding him down. He got his knee on Bucky’s right wrist, trapping it against the bed, and he was using all his strength to keep the left one from being able to reach him. Bucky didn’t have time to worry about being pinned again before he realized that Steve’s free hand was around his cock, slick with the lubricant Bucky had forgotten was stuffed under his pillow.

Sneaky fucker, Bucky thought affectionately, right before Steve pressed the tip of Bucky’s slicked up cock against his ass.

Bucky couldn’t have moved to stop him even if he’d wanted to, and God, did he want this. Damn him and his selfish need, he wanted this.

Steve lowered himself slowly, forcing Bucky’s cock into him, torturously slow, moaning when Bucky breached him, no condom, no concern for Bucky trying to force his arms free. The sounds he made as the head of Bucky’s cock forced him open were like both a symphony and damnation to Bucky’s ears, and Bucky echoed them back to him, squeezing his eyes closed so he’d never be able to forget the way Steve’s face looked when he tossed his head back and sighed Bucky’s name.

As soon as Steve had seated himself, rocking on Bucky’s cock with a moan and an arch of his back, he curled over and grabbed at Bucky’s hands again, pushing them to the mattress beside Bucky’s head.

“Fuck you,” Bucky snarled, even as his body acted of its own accord and he pushed his hips up and shoved deeper into Steve.

Steve grinned and gasped out, nodding. “That’s exactly what you’re doing, Buck.”

Bucky growled, gritting his teeth and arching his back, writhing as Steve rolled his hips and then raised up to feel that slide of Bucky’s swollen cock into him again. Bucky could see enough of him that he knew he couldn’t look at him longer, his perfect goddamn body moving over Bucky, his muscles shifting and his thighs straining as he rode Bucky’s cock.

Bucky could feel that squirming warmth building in his groin at just the thought of filling Steve up.

“God, yeah, Buck,” Steve practically whined. His head was back, pure bliss gracing his lips. “God, yeah, give it to me.”

“Goddammit, Steve!” Bucky gritted out, finally finding the strength to fight back against Steve’s hold.

He put everything he had into the left side, pushing the metal arm off the bed, straining as Steve leaned his weight against it and tried to keep it down. Steve rode him harder, faster, seeming to sense that Bucky would end it if he got free. He shouted when Bucky’s cock hit his prostate, and Bucky gasped, still fighting but also pushing his hips off the bed to fuck Steve harder.

He gritted his teeth and cried out wordlessly as he finally managed to shove Steve’s hand up, and once he was free of the hold, he kicked a leg and flipped them over. Steve landed on his back with a grunt and a smile so wide he could have been trying to sell Bucky a goddamn war bond.

“Yeah, come on,” Steve taunted.

Bucky kissed the smile off his face, thrusting into him hard enough to pull a gasp from him.

And that sound, that tiny little dying mouse sound, was the last straw.

Bucky shouted in Steve’s face and grabbed his neck, squeezing hard enough that Steve wouldn’t be able to make any other sounds. Then he kissed him again, finding a rhythm of brutal thrusts that Steve met by rolling his hips into every one, their bodies remembering each other after all these years. He held Steve’s hair with the metal hand, tilting his head back, using his flesh hand to keep hold of Steve’s neck. And he fucked him as hard and fast and dirty and messy as he could.

Steve tried to find a handhold on him, but all he managed was dragging his blunt fingernails down Bucky’s back and then grasping at Bucky’s shoulders and digging in. He tried to speak, probably to coax Bucky into doing even more damage, but he couldn’t form words. If Steve had been trying to beg him to stop, Bucky’s mind never even landed on that possibility.

When Steve’s strength started failing him and he couldn’t keep his legs as tight around Bucky’s hips, when he couldn’t push up to meet each thrust, when his breaths went ragged and Bucky could feel his heart beating wildly beneath his fingertips, Bucky released him with both hands.

Steve gasped for air, then moaned Bucky’s name blissfully, dragging his hands down Bucky’s back. Bucky grabbed his hips instead, picking them up off the mattress so he could thrust into him at the perfect angle without needing Steve’s input.

“Fuck yes, Buck,” Steve groaned. “Please, God, fuck me!”

“Shut up,” Bucky growled, taking Steve’s chin in his hand, leaving the heavy lifting of Steve’s hips to his metal one.

“Harder, Buck!”

“If you don’t shut up I’m going to give it to your fucking mouth to make sure it stays quiet.”

“God, please!” Steve shouted, uncaring of Bucky’s threats – his promises. “No one can give it to me like you, Buck!”

He held Steve’s face still and kissed him. No, it wasn’t a kiss, not really. It was a brutalization of Steve’s mouth. And Steve moaned for more throughout the whole thing.

As soon as his mouth was free, Steve was back to the talking, the begging. The filthy fucking words that those lips should not have been able to form. Bucky couldn’t fucking let him run his mouth, he couldn’t stand to hear that wrecked voice begging Bucky to give it to him harder, to wreck him, to ruin him, so he slapped his hand over Steve’s mouth and pressed his face into Steve’s neck, biting hard and not letting go as his smooth thrusts turned sloppy.

Steve writhed under him – desperate, frantic, reckless – calling out against Bucky’s hand, jerking his hips, and Bucky felt Steve’s cum shooting against his own belly, felt Steve’s inner muscles pulsing and tightening almost painfully around him.

“Yeah, Buck,” Steve was gasping, over and over.

Bucky’s body raged and so did his words, shouting at Steve and telling him every horrible thing he thought about him for making him do this. He fucked him harder, so hard he would have been worried about hurting a normal man. Steve took every pounding thrust with a pleased whimper or grunt, he even had the fucking nerve to sigh as Bucky gave it to him as brutally as he could. It spurred Bucky on even more. He grasped at Steve anywhere he could reach, leaving marks, leaving bruises, leaving muscles and bones that would need time to heal, and he came deep inside him as Steve egged him on with that filthy, perfect mouth.

Chapter Text

Tony was sitting in one of the many rolling chairs he had scattered throughout his lab, staring out the full bank of windows as the sun rose. Everyone thought he was a workaholic, but really he just liked the energy of the night, the stir of a thrill when he realized that the sun was coming up and he was still awake and creating.

It made him feel . . . productive? Nah. It made him feel something, anyway. Which was uncommon lately.

The only problem he had was that nights and mornings, they were often too quiet. The music blaring from the speakers overhead fixed that, though.

Just as he thought it, the music began to fade, until it was nothing more than background slurry.

Tony craned his neck, scowling at whoever had come in and fucked with his dials.

“Stark?” Barnes called quietly, like he was afraid Tony might be asleep on the couch again.

“Here,” Tony answered immediately.

He’d stopped trying to startle or surprise Barnes, because it had been one of the most unfulfilling endeavors of his entire life, Jesus, the man had absolutely no startle reflex. But also because one day in the common room, he’d had the chance to watch Barnes without being observed, to really watch him. And what he’d seen had damn near broken his heart. The man was alert all the time. All the time. His eyes took in everything, his body stayed tense no matter what, and he seemed to know exactly where everyone and everything was at all times. His spatial recognition was nearly inhuman, but that was because he worked at it. He worked at it 24/7.

And on that day Tony had realized that Barnes wasn’t just preternatually aware. Barnes lived in a constant state of fear. His alertness wasn’t some highly trained super assassin showing off. It was more like that of a feral animal who’d been abused its entire life and had a desperate need to know where the next fist was coming from.

Tony had lain awake that night, unable to sleep, unable to stop thinking up new and inventive ways that Hydra must have made James Barnes’s life a living breathing frozen hell to have instilled that level of constant hyper-vigilance in a man who, by all accounts and appearances, was one of the most laidback dudes Tony had ever met.

After that, Tony had started letting Barnes know where he was as soon as he entered the man’s space. It was the fucking least he could do.

Barnes strolled toward Tony, all relaxed shoulders and murder-walk, like usual. He was wearing one of those Henleys he seemed to love so much, over a second shirt and jeans with heavy combat boots. Even though the summer sun was already burning the mist from the grass and it would probably reach triple digits today. “You busy?” Barnes asked him when he got closer.

“Nah,” Tony answered, gesturing toward the rising sun behind him. “I was taking a breather. Your arm okay?”

“Eh,” Barnes answered with a shrug of said arm. He made a fist and flexed, showing Tony that the panels beneath the material of his shirt would now extend and then retract like a breathing thing.

Tony’s eyes widened. “Is that new?”

“No, the old one did that all the time. This one I had to re-learn how to do it. It’s when I’m exerting more power, the panels adjust and sort of . . . I don’t know, press in? It works. I’ll let you scan it some time, if you want.”

“Hell yeah!”

Barnes was smiling, but it faded into a worried frown as he lowered his head. “Um,” he said softly. “Listen, I need to –”

“You slept with Steve last night,” Tony said as fast as his tongue would allow him, because he couldn’t stand to see Barnes try to stumble through an admission or another apology.

Barnes blinked at him. He didn’t look surprised, necessarily, but when did he ever?

Tony nodded and gave Barnes a careless shrug. “Steve told me he was going to you. It was understood.”

Barnes was shaking his head, and he swallowed hard, seeming to struggle with meeting Tony’s eyes. “He’s a real jerk, y’know?”

“But you love him,” Tony reminded with a wistful smile.

Barnes just rolled his eyes.

“That’s not why you came in here and molested my stereo system is it? And I haven’t forgotten your little tryst with Friday, okay, you and me, we got bigger problems than you banging Steve.”

“You lost me at stereo system,” Barnes muttered with a shrug. “Actually I came to ask you a favor, which I meant to ask before the admitting so you wouldn’t try to kill me again, but you know how plans go.”

“Do I ever,” Tony said, grinning. He liked this side of Barnes, playful with a hint of the macabre. Tony could get down with that. “What’s the favor, One-Armed Wonder?”

“You’re probably going to enjoy it more than I did last night,” Barnes answered. He didn’t respond to Tony’s sobriquet, which was only one of many Tony had for him, but he did glance around the workshop like he was looking for something. “You got any pliers in this joint?

==

Steve woke almost groggily. He peeled one eye open, then the other, frowning at the ceiling. It was his ceiling, over his bed. This was not where he was supposed to be.

He sat up, and then the pounding in his head reminded him how he’d gotten here.

After they’d both caught their breath and Bucky had managed to not only pull out of Steve’s body, but also found the strength to stand on both feet, he’d dragged Steve out of his bed, shouting at him, eyes flashing angrily, and then he’d swung at Steve with that goddamn metal arm. And that was the last thing Steve remembered. He didn’t remember the contact. Just . . . nothing.

He groaned in shock as he tried to get his legs out from under the covers. Good God, what had Bucky done to him? He felt almost hungover, like he’d been steamrollered. He could feel all the sore places where Bucky had grabbed him, not to mention the sticky spots that remained as evidence of what they’d been doing.

His face didn’t feel like it had met Bucky’s fist, so Steve was guessing pressure point. Bucky had goddamn hit a pressure point and knocked Steve’s brain offline.

When he sat on the edge of the bed, Steve actually winced. He had to lean to the side to keep his ass from protesting. Bucky had ridden him hard, just like he’d begged for. Steve couldn’t exactly regret that, but he did regret the way it had happened. God.

He blew out a breath. Then another.

Nope, wasn’t helping. His stomach churned with nerves and anxiety and worry, and he had to shove off the bed and stumble to the shower before he let himself think too hard about anything.

The mirror in the bathroom provided another shock. There was a handprint on his neck, clear as day. He could see the wilting edges that were fading into a sickening yellow as he healed at his accelerated rate, but it was there. And it must have been deep to still be there this morning.

Steve cursed quietly as he hunted down all the other bruises and marks. Most were almost fully faded, just whispers on his skin like the remnants of gentle kisses, instead of desperate metal fingers digging in to Steve’s body as they cussed each other out and fucked like it would be their last chance.

Steve’s heart rate picked up as he thought of it. God, Bucky had been angry, and savage, and fucking amazing. Whatever the reason Bucky had been keeping him at arm’s length, surely they could hash it out now and figure this out. Bucky still wanted him, wanted him desperately, Steve had seen that last night.

He showered, almost regretful to clean the cum from his body, and then he got dressed slowly, giving the mark at his neck time to fade more. He didn’t have a single shirt that would cover that. He didn’t bother shaving, either, letting the day or so’s worth of stubble help camouflage the bruising.

By the time he trudged out into the kitchen, Steve was confident that Bucky’s handprint on his neck could only be seen by someone who was looking for it.

Sam sat at the kitchen island, alone, eating a bowl of oatmeal.

Steve cleared his throat as he approached. “What, no breakfast spread this morning?”

“The resident chef didn’t bother,” Sam answered, sounding unhappy and chastised. “You blame him, though? I mean we did kind of call him a lying liar who lies yesterday.”

Steve shook his head, flushing with shame. If he’d just trusted Bucky, covered for him like Bucky had obviously thought he was going to, none of that would have happened and Bucky would still trust his team. As it was, Steve knew they’d lost what little rapport they’d all built with him.

“Where is he?”

Sam shrugged. “Haven’t seen him since daybreak.”

“Where was he then?”

“Gym,” Sam answered shortly, stuffing his mouth full of oatmeal like he hoped Steve wouldn’t hear his next words. “Tearing up one of your reinforced punching bags like it was a cat toy. As soon as I got there, he packed up and left. Wouldn’t even say anything mean to me.”

Steve sighed and glanced towards the stairs that led to the lower level where the gym and workout rooms were.

“What happened?” Sam asked, and when Steve looked back at him, Sam was peering at him carefully. At Steve’s confused expression, Sam waved at his neck. “I heard . . . some things. Last night.”

Steve winced. “I crossed a line,” he said with a huff. “Bucky tossed me back over it.”

“By your neck?”

Steve nodded, then headed silently for the stairs.

==

Barnes had been right, he’d been so goddamn right, when he’d told Tony that he would enjoy Barnes’s favor.

He was enjoying the hell out of it. But it wasn’t exactly easy.

Barnes was once again in the chair Tony had set up for these little sessions, a dentist’s chair he’d ordered to replace the recliner. It was higher, and it was easier to access the arm, and it was easier to secure the arm to keep Barnes from trying to hurt Tony, and it was just enough different from the normal chairs Barnes was used to that it didn’t cause him to panic and bolt . . . anymore.

Tony had his mask over his face with a magnifying headlamp slid over it, and he held the pliers he’d dug up at Barnes’s request.

“Pliers,” he repeated. “Really, you sure this is all I need?”

“You’re good with them, right?” Barnes asked.

“I’m good with everything.”

“Hmm,” was all Barnes gave that. He took a deep breath and focused on the ceiling. “Okay, it’s on the left side.”

Tony scooted closer and brought the pliers up to Barnes’s mouth.

“Other left!” Barnes barked. “Jesus, I need the rest of them, okay, I like steak.”

“Sorry, right, your left, my right, got it,” Tony muttered, and he adjusted until he was looking at Barnes’s perfect fucking teeth in his pretty goddamn mouth. Why was this Tony’s life, again?

“Top,” Barnes said, taking a deep breath.

“I’ll bet you are,” Tony muttered under his breath.

Barnes winked at him, and Tony groaned. He kept forgetting about the super hearing, fuck all these guys.

Then Barnes pushed his tongue against one of his upper molars, and Tony reached in with his ungloved fingers and pushed at the one he thought Barnes had indicated. Barnes nodded, since saying anything would have had him sucking on Tony’s fingers, and they just weren’t that close. Although Tony would have been game, maybe?

“Okay, here goes nothin’,” Tony muttered, trying not to sound flustered.

Barnes grabbed at his wrist, and Tony blinked up to meet his eyes in surprise. “Don’t squeeze it too hard,” Barnes warned.

Tony nodded jerkily.

“If it busts, I gotta get it out fast, understand?”

“Got it, yep. Got my emergency station all set up,” he assured Barnes, nodding his head toward a spray bottle he’d rigged to basically be a cyanide extinguisher, so he could spray the busted capsule with a liquid that would bond to the poison and Barnes could then expel it in any way possible without ingesting all of it. He narrowed his eyes at Barnes. “You’re going to end up spitting cyanide cocktail all over me, aren’t you?”

“We used to call it staying Hydra-ated,” Barnes told him with a perfectly straight face. The only way Tony knew the man was joking was by the way his ice-blue eyes danced merrily.

“You’re insane,” Tony grunted, but he actually found himself laughing nervously too. He stuffed his fingers back into Barnes’s mouth before the man could make anymore life-threatening jokes.

Barnes made a muffled protest, frowning masterfully as his eyes crossed so he could still see Tony’s face. Tony had to fight hard not to grin at him.

Damn the man. How was he so murderous and still so cute too?

He got the pliers around the tooth in question and gave it a gentle squeeze. Then he pulled his fingers out of Barnes’s mouth again and sat back, breathing out deeply.

“How were you supposed to be able to dislodge it yourself?” he asked uneasily. He’d expected the tooth to come out with no problem, since every Hydra agent he’d ever seen had merely dislodged them with their tongue and then gone on to flop around and foam at the mouth. Why the hell did Barnes’s tooth need pliers? “Can’t you dislodge it with your tongue and just, like, spit it into the toilet while you’re brushing your teeth?”

“You think if I could do that I’d be here letting you in my mouth with a pair of pliers after I just told you I fucked your boyfriend in the ass?” Barnes posed.

Tony made an involuntary humming sound in the back of his throat and then coughed to make sure he had control of his vocal cords again. “Point expertly made.”

“They had to make sure I wouldn’t off myself,” Barnes explained, his expression the same as if he were telling Tony about the rainstorm yesterday. “They made sure only certain measures could be taken to bust the capsule, and they had to be taken either by someone else, or by . . . extreme force,” he said, and he flexed the metal arm, letting it whir and readjust in a display of restrained power.

“Meaning, if you wanted to Hail Hydra yourself to the afterlife, you had to punch yourself in the face hard enough to break your own jaw and bust the cyanide capsule?” Tony said, hoping he sounded all scientific and normal instead of horrified.

Barnes shrugged.

“And how would someone else do it? Pliers?”

“Tire iron to the face. Shotgun butt to the face. Reinforced pipe to the face. They tested it all, with capsules full of dye that would bust if it was enough force, and if I wound up spitting out blue or green or whatever, they noted the method as one that would put me down, then waited ’til the jaw healed up and tried the next one.”

“Holy shit, “ Tony whispered. Barnes’s eyes had gone distant, like he was watching his memories play on some infinite horror loop. How did the guy sleep at night? All these amazing physical feats he could perform, all the fighting, all the languages he knew, all the thresholds he could rattle off about his pain levels and how he knew his physical limits to failure . . . Hydra had figured all that out through making Barnes do those things, over and over, until they knew every last inch of him.

Tony fought not to retch into the bucket at his feet.

“I always suspected it had an internal mechanism too,” Barnes continued. “Because handlers didn’t like getting their own hands dirty. So why would they try to brain me with a pipe when they could just push a button, right?”

Tony inhaled sharply. Jesus, he’d never thought of that possibility. “There’s no more fingers on the buttons, if that’s the case,” he surmised. “Or they’d already have killed you.”

Barnes winced, looking down at the pliers Tony hadn’t realized he was nervously playing with. “Maybe. Personally, I think they still hope to recover me. I’m seventy years of innovation and finely tuned weapons honing all in one easily reprogrammable package. Why would you burn that down if you had a chance of getting it back? Especially now, when they’re entrenched in open war.”

Tony sat staring at the man, fighting hard not to shiver. He was gaining even more insight into the life Barnes must have been living during the two years between when the Triskelion fell and the day Steve had shown up in his studio apartment like a lost labradoodle begging Barnes to come with him.

The man’s life was nothing but waiting. Waiting for the next hit, waiting for the next mission, waiting for the next fist in his face, waiting for the next shoe to fall, waiting waiting, waiting for that tooth to burst open on its own and flood his mouth with poison before he could spit it out.

“Okay,” Tony said with a new determination. “Let’s get it out then.”

==

Steve had been to every area of the compound he knew Bucky liked to haunt, and there was no sign of him. Either he was somewhere no one would stumble over him, or he was actively avoiding everyone on the team, because not even Clint had seen him. Steve was starting to fear, truly fear, that Bucky had bolted after what had happened yesterday . . . and last night.

God, he’d been so stupid. And selfish. Bucky had told him no over and over, and Steve had just egged him on until neither of them had truly been in control. Just like their last time together in London.

The last place Steve knew to try looking was the one place he didn’t really want to go. He’d told Tony he was going to Bucky last night, he’d told Tony he intended to stay with Bucky to make sure he was okay. They’d both known what that would probably end up entailing. Tony had said fine, okay, he hadn’t looked concerned or hurt. But Steve was starting to feel guilty, regardless. Tony wouldn’t ask him not to go to Bucky, or to avoid fucking him if Bucky offered. No, Tony wouldn’t want to risk pushing Steve away with requests or demands; he’d already made it clear that he’d take whatever Steve gave him. Just like Steve would from Bucky.

Ugh. Steve Rogers, you fucking asshole.

He placed his hand on the scanner and the doors to Tony’s lab whirred. But they didn’t open.

Steve cocked his head at them, frowning. A closer glance made him realize that he was seeing a false window into the lab, a sort of video projection that moved based on where Steve’s eyes were, to make it look like the lab was dark and quiet and deserted.

But Steve could hear the music.

He snorted when he realized that this was what Tony’s Protocol 69 looked like from the outside.

Steve bit his lip. Okay, so maybe his guilt was unfounded?

He turned to leave, hoping Tony enjoyed the privacy, when the doors whooshed open behind him and caused him to turn back in surprise. Tony stood there, barefoot in nothing but trousers and a white undershirt, his nicely-defined muscles covered in grease and grime, his forehead wet with a sheen of sweat. And one of his red and gold gauntlets on his hand.

Steve eyed the gauntlet warily, glancing at the Protocol 69 measures again. “Jesus, Tony, I don’t think they’re rated for that kind of thing,” he drawled.

“Hold that thought, Cap,” Tony blurted, holding up one finger before turning back to his lab and beckoning Steve to follow.

“Tony,” Steve called. “I don’t . . . want to . . .” get kinky with the Iron Man suits? “. . . interrupt.”

“I need you to hold him down!” Tony called from somewhere within the dark lab.

Steve shook his head, groaning. “That’s really not my thing,” he called.

“Bullshit!” a muffled voice called from inside the lab, like someone had a gag in his mouth.

Steve cocked his head and took a few impulsive steps. “Bucky?”

Tony urged Steve to come closer, and by the time Steve had joined him, he was back at the chair where they did Bucky’s arm maintenance, his hands full of tools and in Bucky’s mouth. Even the fingers of the gauntlet, which, God, Steve hoped it was clean considering the things he’s seen Tony punch in the past.

“I’m gon’ bite you so hard,” Bucky threatened as he glared up at Tony. Even through all the crap in his mouth, Steve got that loud and clear.

“You can try, Kujo, that’s why I stuffed those in there,” Tony taunted, poking a bit of gauze further into Bucky’s mouth with his bare finger.

“What?” Steve said dazedly, then realized he couldn’t think of any other words. His mind was repeating what what what over and over on a loop, with no answers even remotely available.

“Hold him down,” Tony instructed, pointing to Bucky’s shoulders.

Steve moved gingerly to place both hands on Bucky, holding him down . . . much like he had last night. He met Bucky’s eyes, and his entire body felt like it was simultaneously on fire and freezing. He gave Bucky a careful, hopeful smile, and Bucky rolled his eyes.

“Okay, now once I pull this, you got to let him up right away, okay Cap? I mean super soldier speed fast, I mean like he’s on fire, in case it bursts open and he has to yack it up. Got it?”

“Got it,” Steve said, still completely mystified as to what they were doing.

Tony nodded, then glanced up at an X-ray that was hovering nearby. It was a human jaw, and there was a solid object that looked like a nail or screw sticking into one of the teeth.

“God, they really meant for that shit to stay secure, huh?” Tony muttered to himself as he manipulated the pair of pliers with the Iron Man gauntlet. Steve was surprised to see the pliers appear on the X-ray. Tony was looking at a live relay of Bucky’s teeth.

The pliers surrounded the top of the nail thing, and Tony released a nervous breath. Steve was only dimly aware of Bucky’s hand coming up to push and grasp at his stomach, fingers digging in until they caught on Steve’s waistband.

“Like a Band-Aid, here we go,” Tony called out.

Steve had to look away from both the X-ray and Bucky’s eyes as Tony used the Iron Man gauntlet to power the screw out of Bucky’s jaw. Bucky didn’t make a sound, but his hand on Steve’s belly, scrabbling and grasping and digging his nails in desperately, told Steve all he needed to know about the pain this caused him.

When it was out, Steve let go like Bucky had burned him, just as he’d been instructed, and watched on in horror as Tony sprayed Bucky’s still open mouth like he really was on fire with a bottle that looked like Windex. Bucky had his eyes squeezed shut, but as soon as his mouth was full of the liquid, he folded himself over and spit it out into a bucket at Tony’s feet.

The result was a horror show of blue liquid and red blood and ruined gauze and foam.

“Dying?” Tony shouted in Bucky’s face, taking his metal shoulder and shaking Bucky to make him sit up straight.

Bucky gagged and let his tongue hang out of his mouth. He shook his head, looking a little green anyway. Tony handed him a little paper cup, and Bucky hurried it down in two gulps, then bent and spit it back out. He gagged again, and a full-body shiver ran through him.

They all remained that way for long seconds, frozen in place, Tony and Steve both watching in morbid fascination as Bucky seemed to take stock.

“Thanks, Stark,” Bucky finally mumbled, then took another sip from his cup.

“Any time, buddy,” Tony said with a grin.

Dum-E trundled up to them, the sound drawing Steve’s attention. But he was only fast enough to get himself out of the way when Dum-E hit the handle on the fire extinguisher and covered Bucky from head to toe in foam.

Bucky blinked when it was over, shaking his head as his shoulders slumped, the white foam dripping off him. “Thanks, pal,” he said to the bot, dejected but smirking.

“I said like he’s on fire, idiot, not he is on fire!” Tony roared at the bot. It beeped back at him, sounding sad as it turned and moved away.

Steve watched it go, then turned back to Tony and Bucky as Tony tried to help Bucky wipe the foam off. “What the hell?” Steve asked helplessly.

“I was really hoping we could do that without you,” Bucky admitted, speaking around his fingers as he stuffed gauze into the back of his mouth. Steve realized he was packing it into the massive hole Tony had just created in his jaw, and it made Steve’s stomach roil when he keyed into what they’d just done.

“You had a cyanide tooth?” Steve asked, not sure why his voice came out so pained and desperate.

“Hail, yeah,” Bucky answered with a crooked smile. The joke didn’t reach his eyes, though. He lowered them when he made eye contact with Steve, unable to maintain it at all.

Tony handed him an ice pack, and Bucky muttered a quiet thank you before putting it against his face.

Steve was at a loss. Jesus, what if something had busted that tooth? What if he had busted it when he’d been fighting Bucky, or even sparring?

He suddenly had to sit down, and he was just lucky that Tony’s rolling stool was close enough for him to do it.

“That’s why I didn’t want you here,” Bucky mumbled without looking up.

“What else is there?” Steve demanded. He was angry. He was so goddamned angry, how could anyone put Bucky through the things he’d been through? How could there be so much evil in the world to take a man like Bucky Barnes, the most loyal and kind and amazing human Steve had ever known, the man Steve himself had been praised for trying desperately to emulate ever since he’d become Captain America, to take that man and do this to him?

“Don’t be like that,” Bucky warned. He sounded tired. “Take a breath.”

Steve looked from him to Tony, who was watching Bucky with an odd glint in his eyes. Like Tony was angry too, but also merely admired the man he was finally beginning to see.

Steve snarled wordlessly and had to bend over, hanging his head between his knees. “What else is there?”

Bucky was silent for a long time. Then he sighed. When he spoke again, his voice wasn’t garbled like it had been. He’d pulled the bloody gauze out and thrown it into the bucket. “I think I figured out why I’m cold all the time.”

Steve glanced up, frowning.

“My arm. The internal mechanism of the original one, it overheated all the time. So they must have lowered my body temp to help keep the arm cool and running smoothly.”

Tony hummed. “Makes a kind of sense. Like a coolant in an engine, the fan on a computer. You acted as the regulatory system.”

Bucky hummed like he had any clue what the hell Tony was talking about. Steve was sort of lost.

“But the new arm, and the arc reactor you gave me? It doesn’t put off heat,” Bucky pointed out. He didn’t clarify, just stared at Stark wryly like he was waiting for Tony to finish the problem himself.

“Jesus,” Tony finally breathed.

Bucky nodded, still giving that wry, crooked smile.

“You’re freezing,” Tony said in a rush of horrified breath. “Oh my God, you’re literally freezing to death.”

Bucky clucked his tongue.

“That’s why you keep losing words,” Tony continued, his eyes lighting up, standing straighter and staring somewhere off Bucky’s shoulder. “Why you’re forever wearing those goddamn Henleys that make your shoulders look amazing. Why your sparring times have been declining. Christ. You’re literally freezing to death in the middle of July.”

“Can you stop it?” Bucky asked calmly.

Steve lurched to his feet. “Why are you so calm about this?” he shouted. He turned to Tony desperately. “Is he dying?”

Tony grimaced. “I mean, technically, aren’t we all?”

“Is he dying faster than you are?” Steve grated out.

Tony sucked air through his teeth, his eyes sliding from Steve to look at Bucky. Steve felt Bucky make a motion, but when he glanced over his shoulder Bucky was still and smiling gently at Steve.

“No,” Tony answered.

Steve could hear the lie without having to see Tony’s face. Bucky had obviously instructed him to pacify Steve, and Steve wasn’t going to fucking have it.

“He’s freezing to death,” Steve repeated, pointing at Bucky. “Right here, standing with us, he’s freezing.”

“I think that’s why I’m so tired. My body’s fighting to regenerate the things the lowered body temp is injuring. Organs.” Bucky’s eyes lost focus and he sighed. “I’m not going to die. But I’m not okay.”

Tony was nodding as Bucky talked. Steve was getting more and more nauseous.

“Is that why you’re constantly trying to get the others to sit and nap with you?” Steve asked, sounding and feeling like a wounded animal. “To keep warm?”

Bucky nodded curtly, not meeting his eyes.

Steve swallowed hard. Then he couldn’t help but snarl, “You know who puts off the most goddamn heat on this fucking planet, Buck?”

Bucky pressed his lips together tightly, refusing to look up to meet Steve’s eyes.

Steve groaned, utterly disgusted with how stubborn Bucky was being, and he turned away to rub his hand over his face and through his hair. He could hear Tony speaking in low tones, hear Bucky responding, but Steve’s brain was just . . . shutting down. He couldn’t handle this. How long had Bucky been cold? How long had he been suffering and still he avoided Steve’s touch, avoided the warmest person in literally any room? Steve knew the kind of heat he put off. So did Bucky, because the 107th’s tactical team had quite often slept in one tent, curled around Steve’s body for warmth when they couldn’t risk a fire to stay alive at night.

Bucky was literally freezing to death, and even that hadn’t driven him into Steve’s arms. “Jesus Christ,” Steve hissed, almost to himself.

“Steve?” Bucky said carefully.

Steve couldn’t look at him. He shook his head and started making his way to the door. He needed air. He needed sunlight. He needed other people around him making noise and being alive. He needed to leave right now, immediately.

“Stevie, wait!” Bucky called.

But Steve couldn’t. He stalked out of the lab, relieved when the doors closed behind him and Protocol 69 was still in effect, locking him out even if he had changed his mind.

==

Bucky lingered in Tony’s lab for as long as he could after he’d cleaned the fire retardant foam off. To the point that even Tony appeared to feel sorry for him.

“He’s always worn his heart out on his sleeve when it came to you,” Tony said as they sat side-by-side on the worn sofa, watching and waiting for the blood analyzer to quit whirring.

Bucky hummed an affirmative.

“He’s told me a little bit,” Tony continued, undeterred by the faraway, kind of exhausted pain glaze in Bucky’s eyes. “About your past, I mean. With him.”

Bucky hummed again.

“I know you love him, man,” Tony pressed. “He’s head over goddamned heels for you. What’s the problem, exactly?”

Bucky was silent, taking in a slow, deep breath. He blew it out noisily and shook his head, pressing his lips together.

“God, no wonder he’s going nuts,” Tony mumbled. “Look, I know you think you’ve explained it to him, but you haven’t. He doesn’t understand. He doesn’t understand why you won’t be with him. He thinks you don’t want him.”

“He’s an idiot,” Bucky found himself grunting.

Tony shrugged, looking like he might agree.

“Sex doesn’t mean anything, you know that, right?” Bucky said, not looking at Tony. “It’s just another action you can perform, hone. Just another weapon in a world full of them.”

He could see Tony in his peripheral vision, see him gaping at Bucky, brown eyes wide and horrified.

Bucky bit his lower lip so he’d stop talking.

“Did you believe that before or after Hydra got hold of you?” Tony finally asked, voice hoarse.

“I can’t recall,” Bucky answered honestly, voice going far away again.

“Oh my God,” Tony whispered, probably under the impression that Bucky couldn’t hear it. “That’s why, isn’t it? Or at least part of it? Sex is a weapon?”

“I’ve hurt him enough,” Bucky finished, nodding.

“That’s . . . no, I refuse to allow that,” Tony grunted, pushing himself off the couch. The movement knocked Bucky out of the reverie he’d been at risk of being lost to, memories of the faceless men and women he’d run through on missions or during training. He shook himself further out of it, tracking Tony as the man paced in front of him.

“Look, sex can be a weapon, okay, I acknowledge that. I acknowledge that so hard. But it can also be anything else you need it to be,” Tony said, stopping in front of Bucky and scowling down at him. “Comfort, camaraderie, reprieve. I know you and Clint have been doing all sorts of kinky shit, okay, do you see that as a weapon? Do you think you’re aiming the barrel at Clint whenever you touch him?”

Bucky was scowling up at him, half irritated, half in interest of where he was going with this argument. “No,” he answered after giving it real thought. “No, I know he’s not in love with me. And won’t ever be. So I have no power over him, I can’t weaponize it.”

Tony narrowed his eyes. “Okay, shit. That made a little more sense than I was expecting from you, I’ll be honest. All the same! You’re looking back at the past, seeing all the times you’ve been used as weapon, all the times you’ve been forced to hurt or be hurt. But that’s not you. That wasn’t –” Tony stuttered to a stop and cleared his throat, closing his eyes. “Same thing as Hydra killing my parents. You were the trigger, that’s all. A victim just as much as them. It took me months to realize that. I can’t imagine how long it’s going to take you, but you can start here. With Steve.”

Bucky tilted his head to the side, narrowing one eye at Tony and wondering if he realized how rambly that had sounded.

“Are we . . . talking about me or you, Stark?” Bucky asked gently.

Tony threw himself onto the sofa beside Bucky, shoulders slumping. “I don’t know, I ran out of energy. Jesus, I’m exhausted.”

“Same,” Bucky sighed, shivering against his will, and they both watched the blood analyzer do its thing for a few minutes.

“You cold?” Tony asked after a while.

“Always,” Bucky whispered. “They don’t call me the fucking Summer Soldier, right?”

Tony made a snuffling sound, like he was trying not to laugh, as he reached behind Bucky and yanked a quilt off the back of the sofa. He wrapped it haphazardly around Bucky’s shoulders, squeezing him gently like he was trying to offer comfort.

“Thanks,” Bucky grunted, leaning into the warmth of not only the blanket, but also Tony. Jesus, any warmth he could get right now was like heaven. It had been taking all his considerable willpower not to bury himself under Steve’s ass and just hibernate there for the last few weeks.

Tony must have sensed it, because he didn’t remove his arm. He kept it around Bucky’s shoulders and pulled him closer, letting Bucky lean into him, rubbing his hand up and down Bucky’s arm to warm him.

Tony took a deep breath after they’d settled into a semi-comfortable position, then he said, “So Steve bottoms for you, huh?”

“Ugh.” Bucky closed his eyes. He did not want to talk about fucking Steve with a man who was also fucking Steve!

“Come on,” Tony said, his tone wheedling at best, taunting at worst. “You’re into that open relationship stuff with Clint, right, we can be friends and stuff.”

“I don’t want to be friends with you, Stark, I just want you to cuddle me and keep your trap shut, okay?”

Tony actually laughed at that, the sound coming through his chest against Bucky’s ear. It made Bucky smile.

“I’ve never heard you laugh,” he observed absently.

“Wow,” Tony grunted. “God, you’re just a barrel of fucking monkeys kind of fun, aren’t you? All sunshine and roses and –”

“That’s Steve,” Bucky broke in quietly. “I was piss and whisky and bruised knuckles.”

Tony hummed, sounding serious again. It vibrated Bucky’s cheek as he lay with his head on Tony’s chest. He raised his head to look around, scowling. How had he leaned this far over? Tony pressed his hand against the side of Bucky’s head and forced him to rest his head back down, petting him like he was a cat or something.

“Body heat will help your body recover some strength, you might need it before I’m done with you,” Tony told him, voice low.

“Is that a proposition, Mr. Stark?” Bucky drawled, closing his eyes.

“It wasn’t meant to be, but Jesus, if you’re game, I saw what you did to Steve and I am here for that.”

Bucky laughed, surprising himself with how easily it came out. His eyes were closed, and his jaw was throbbing but he could feel it literally stitching itself back up as he rested there. Would his healing speed up if his body wasn’t always working so hard to keep him warm? Would his skillset be altered by extra speed and durability? Jesus . . .

He voiced those questions out loud, and Tony was silent a long time, humming quietly as he considered it. “I don’t know, maybe,” he finally hedged. “If what I’ve seen of you in action is you at like 75% then I’m going to tell you right now, I am terrified of your ceiling.”

Bucky hummed, staring at the blood as it vibrated in the little machine. “Me too.”

“Would you fuck me?” Tony asked casually, his tone more curious than seductive.

Bucky raised his head, scowling sideways at him.

“Would you? Even knowing about me and Steve? You don’t seem too hindered by social constructs, I was just curious.”

Bucky clicked his tongue, scowling at Tony thoughtfully and letting himself look the man up and down. Then he shrugged his metal shoulder and nodded. “Yeah, I would. But he’d have to know.”

He rested his head back where it had been, and Tony’s hand slid back around him, rubbing up and down his arm to warm him. “You are one hell of a puzzle, Sergeant Barnes,” he said after a few more moments of oddly comfortable silence.

“Huh uh,” Bucky muttered. “Puzzles have pieces that fit into them.”

Tony’s hand squeezed his arm reflexively, like Bucky had noticed him doing when Bucky recounted a story that made Tony angry or protective.

“My pieces don’t fit each other anymore,” Bucky murmured as his eyes slid closed almost against his will.

==

Steve found Bucky in the kitchen, where he was sitting on the counter and watching the blender go, his head cocked like a dog who didn’t understand what was making that noise.

“Bucky?” Steve said softly, and Bucky glanced over his shoulder to meet Steve’s eyes.

“You okay?” he asked Steve neutrally.

Steve swallowed reflexively, shaking his head. “I didn’t . . . I haven’t handled things well.”

Bucky merely whistled like he was shocked, a hint of a smile on his face. He patted the counter next to him, his metal fingers clicking against the marble. Steve slumped his shoulders and trudged over to join him. He was so relieved that Bucky hadn’t just told him to go away, he could have cried.

He slid onto the counter, arm pressed to Bucky’s, proud of himself for not flinching away from the cool metal. They both stared at the blender.

“What are you making?”

“Strawberry protein shake,” Bucky answered. “They’re good for the calories, you should try some.”

“I really like food, though,” Steve said thoughtfully, and Bucky laughed.

“Okay.”

“How’s your mouth?” Steve ventured carefully.

“Already healing up. The mouth is always fast. Tongue, gums, they heal like that.”

Steve sat and stared at Bucky’s profile, wondering about all the ways Bucky would know that. God, the things Hydra and all those sick bastards must have done to him.

“Stop thinking, Steve,” Bucky muttered.

“I think that’s been my problem, right?” Steve asked with an attempt at a smile.

Bucky huffed, nodding. He kicked his feet a little, cocking his head. The blender stopped, but Bucky remained where he was, leaning a little into Steve.

“Are you gonna be . . . are you okay?” Steve asked brokenly.

Bucky gave a short nod.

“I should have noticed something was up, Buck. And I should have stayed earlier. I didn’t handle that well at all.”

“It’s okay, Steve. Really.”

Steve winced. God, Bucky had always been so quick to forgive him, even when he didn’t deserve it. “Can Tony fix it?”

“He already did,” Bucky answered, glancing at Steve with a grin.

“What?”

“Injected me with these nanobites that will help regulate my temperature. He thinks that’s what Hydra did to begin with, so these will act like white blood cells too, attack anything they may have put in there.”

“They’re already in you? They’re already working?”

“By the time he was done and I was leaving, my temperature had raised by two degrees,” Bucky informed him absently, like he wasn’t talking about something that was literally going to save his life. “Stark thinks it’ll take a day or so, but then I’ll be right.”

“Oh, God,” Steve breathed out in relief. He leaned his forehead against Bucky’s shoulder, letting a tremble run through him. “Thank God.”

“Hey pal, no. Thank Tony,” Bucky said disapprovingly. “He’s the one who saved me.”

Steve nodded wordlessly, still resting his forehead on Bucky.

“He’s a genius, Stevie,” Bucky pressed on. Steve raised his head, looking at Bucky in confusion. Bucky was smiling sadly. “He’d be real good for you.”

“Buck,” Steve whispered. He couldn’t decide if he was angry, hurt, or just hollow at this point. “I love you. Doesn’t that matter at all to you?”

Bucky’s smile grew sadder, his head tilting almost like he was offering Steve his sympathy. “It means the fucking world to me, Steve.”

“Then why –”

Bucky leaned closer and kissed Steve, ever so gently. Just a brush of his lips against Steve, really. But he pressed his forehead to Steve’s, pushing their noses together. “I’m an oil slick, Steve,” he whispered harshly. “I can’t do that to you.”

Steve gasped on a breath that got stuck in his throat.

“And you’re this pristine . . .”

Steve grunted. “If you call me an icecap I will break your face.”

Bucky laughed and kissed him again, still snickering as their mouths met. When he ended the kiss, the laugh continued, like an echo from the past, the old and carefree little rogue that Steve had loved so fucking much. It made Steve’s heart clinch to hear it.

“How’d you know I was going to say that?” Bucky asked, his breath against Steve’s cheek.

“Because I know you, and it was on the tip of your tongue, I know it.”

Bucky nodded, admitting it. Steve kissed him again, risking a touch to his face with his fingertips and then cursing himself when the gentle brush made Bucky pull away from him.

Bucky had his head bowed, his long hair loose and acting like a curtain for whatever emotion he didn’t want Steve to witness. But you know what, fuck this! Steve reached up and pushed his hair back, stuffing it behind his ear and then taking Bucky’s chin between his fingers and forcing Bucky to look at him. Bucky’s eyes weren’t quite dry, and he gave Steve a wistful smile.

Steve kissed him again, and Bucky leaned into it this time, humming softly. When he pulled back, he didn’t allow Steve a second chance, sliding off the counter to his feet. He went to the blender and poured some into his glass, then he got another glass down and poured a second one, emptying the blender into two equal shares. He handed Steve one of them, then hopped back onto the counter beside him.

Steve watched him as he drank a gulp of the protein shake.

Steve glanced down at his own glass, figuring what the hell, and tried a sip himself. “Huh,” he said as he glanced at the side of it and saw little bit of strawberry floating in it. “That’s not half bad.”

Bucky nodded, and they sat side by side, drinking and staring at the white subway tile backsplash.

They sat that way until both of the drinks were gone, and Steve could feel that Bucky was getting restless and was probably about to leave. He laid his hand over Bucky’s between them, sliding his pinky over the metal one. They both looked down at their joined fingers, silent.

“I’m sorry for last night,” Steve whispered.

Bucky nodded, and when Steve glanced up, Bucky was looking at him. They locked eyes, and Steve swallowed hard on the nerves and fear that were swirling in his gut.

“It never happens again,” Bucky declared. And Steve knew he meant it. That wasn’t a suggestion, or a prediction, or a hope. It was a goddamn order.

Steve could only nod in agreement before bowing his head. Bucky slid off the counter, patting Steve on the knee as he left him.

Steve bit his lip, unsure if he could move just then.

“Oh, by the way,” Bucky said before he reached the exit. He turned and raised a hand, pointing at Steve. “Tony obviously isn’t getting enough from you. Talk to him before I steal him from you.”

“What?” Steve blurted.

“I’m gonna wreck his ass, Steve, if you don’t treat him better!” Bucky called over his shoulder, and then Bucky was gone, slipping out of the room literally in front of Steve’s eyes.

Steve blinked and shook his head, scowling at Sam as he came through the door.

“What the hell is wrong with your face?” Sam asked him, looking stunned.

“What?” Steve repeated.

“You look like someone just smacked you with a ferret,” Sam said, snickering as he went to the refrigerator for a drink.

Steve rubbed at his chin, which he had to admit was probably fuzzier than it had been since . . . ever? Sam had never seen him with stubble before, much less a full two days worth of growth. His hair might be blond, bleached from the sun, but his beard always grew in darker, sort of reddish almost. Too much Irish blood in him not to.

“No, it looks good, man,” Sam said when he turned and saw the look on Steve’s face. “In fact, it’s probably a good thing, you know? Helps you look less like . . . you.”

Steve nodded, humming.

“You okay, Cap?”

“I’m not sure,” Steve admitted, wincing. “I seem to be in a constant state of confusion right now.”

“Well,” Sam said thoughtfully, leaning against the refrigerator. “Need to talk it out?”

Steve groaned and glanced away. “No.”

Sam shrugged. “Offer’s open. Not like I ain’t already head shrinking every damn body else on base.”

Steve barked a laugh, trying hard to suppress it. “How’d that happen to you?”

Sam grumbled into his bottle of Gatorade, refusing to answer. He walked past Steve, patting Steve on the knee just like Bucky had done when he’d exited.

Steve stared at his knee like he could still see the outline of Sam’s handprint. The exact same spot, the exact same gesture, the exact same meaning behind it. So then why the hell was it okay when Sam did it, but when Bucky had done it, it had felt like goodbye?

==

Tony had injected Barnes with what he hoped would be the end of the Winter Soldier is literally freezing to death issue, and then Barnes had promptly escorted him out of the lab and into his bed, going so far as to cover him with a quilt and threaten his life if he was seen awake in the next six hours. Tony had believed him.

He’d woken as the sun was setting, groggy and sore, and he’d made damn sure his six hours were up before he dared to leave his room again.

The common area was quiet when he shuffled out there. He could hear someone downstairs, the soft whuffs and grunts of a hard workout easy enough for Tony to decipher. He could also see, out the windows in the common area, three figures perched out on the edge of the deck overhang. Occasionally there was a glowing blue light that intrigued him, and it would illuminate a face that he couldn’t make out.

Tony headed out there, drawn to the light like an engineering moth to a mechanical flame.

The first thing that struck him, once he stepped out into the warm summer night, was the laughter. The three people who were sitting out there on the ledge were laughing merrily, and it was like music. Tony hadn’t realized how long it had been since he’d seen real laughter, real joy. Jesus fuck, that was sad.

He sat on a nearby lounge chair, trying to hear what was being said, not wanting to disturb them.

“I can’t believe you’re smoking, I didn’t think super people did that.” That was Clint speaking.

“Are you fucking kidding, I’ve traded my damn body for a cigarette before.” Ugh, okay, that was Barnes and his terrifying history of not seeming bothered by heinous treatment, fine.

“Before or after?” Natasha. Of course, the evil assassin trio would be out here drinking and smoking like delinquent teenagers.

The blue light glowed once more, and Tony could see Barnes’s face lit in it. He was smoking one of those e-cigarettes, the ones that glowed at the end. He blew a stream of smoke into the night and it wafted away on the breeze, fragrant and comforting for some reason. Then Barnes brought a glass bottle to his lips and took a sip.

“Brooklyn in the early 30’s. Go down to the docks, the Navy Yard. You could get fucked up or just plain fucked,” Barnes related with relish.

“Especially with a mouth like yours,” Natasha offered, which instead of offending him, kicked Barnes off into another peal of laughter.

“Oh, God.” Barnes shook his head, his metal fingers clinking against the glass bottle. “That was one thing they offered me all the damn time. Smokes. Like, why the hell would I want to smell like smoke before a mission? Fucking morons.”

“They gave you stuff?” Clint asked, and Tony flinched on reflex. They weren’t supposed to bring up Barnes’s time with Hydra; Steve’s orders. But Barnes was still loose and happy, laughing, joking. Tony was starting to see things a little clearer now. Barnes needed to talk about this. He wanted to talk about it like it was normal, but Steve couldn’t help but see the abuse, the horrible abuse, just like Tony. No wonder Barnes flinched and lowered his head when he saw pity in them, it must have been hard to tell himself he was okay in the face of Steve’s basset hound eyes.

“Oh yeah, for a long time. It was all, keep the Asset happy or he’ll fucking murder you,” Barnes said, laughing harder. “They’d ask what I wanted, what I needed. Smokes, drink, girls. I turned that down enough they started offering boys. I turned those down too, so they stuck with smokes.” Barnes shrugged. “Then the fucking 70’s hit and it was heroin, LSD. The 80’s it was cocaine.”

“Jesus,” Clint muttered.

“Cocaine was good. Heroin was okay,” Barnes rattled off, like none of this was absolutely horrible to listen to, much less live through. “LSD was very much not okay, Jesus Christ, I tore apart three technicians that week.”

That set Clint and Natasha both off again, laughing like Barnes was a standup comedian instead of an abused POW with horror stories for miles and a kill list almost as long.

“Steve’s memory of you is all wrong,” Natasha mused.

“Eh, he remembers what he needs to to get by. I never smoked around him. He was always so damn sick. His lungs, you know,” Barnes said, patting his chest. “Even smelling like smoke on my clothes could kick him into an asthma attack when it was really bad. Sometimes perfume would do it too. We found that out the hard way.”

“But weren’t you around him literally all the time?” Clint asked. He took a sip of his own drink. “That’s what the history books say.”

“Never believe the history books, they’re all written with an agenda,” Barnes muttered. “No, we weren’t always together. I smoked like a goddamn freight train when I wasn’t with him, if I wasn’t full of super serum I’d be in an iron lung I bet. And during the War, everyone smoked, whether they wanted to or not.”

“Why?” Natasha asked with a hint of amusement.

“Keep the smell at bay. So much death. Decaying bodies and waste for miles.”

Both Clint and Natasha groaned softly. “That’s not in the history books either, man.”

Barnes shrugged carelessly. He literally gave zero fucks about all the childhoods his stories were going to ruin. It made Tony like him more. He blew another puff of smoke into the air, staring up at the moon afterward.

Clint shifted around and pulled something from his pocket. “Fuck it, if you can, so can I.”

“Ooh, you’re going to be in trouble,” Natasha crooned.

“Only if someone tattles!” Clint’s face was suddenly alight as he touched a disposable lighter to the tip of his cigarette.

“What is that, menthol?” Barnes grunted. Clint nodded and hummed. “Fucking pussy, Jesus Christ.”

“Hey!” Clint cried. “Just for that, I’m not going to let you fuck me in the ass tonight!”

That set them all off again, and Barnes actually tossed his head back as he laughed, long and loud and rich. He held his bottle of what was probably cider out and clinked it against Clint’s. “Touché,” he offered with what sounded like pride. “Ma petite pépite douce.

“I don’t want to know what that means, do I?” Clint asked, sounding beleaguered.

“No.” Natasha actually laughed as she answered. Had Tony ever heard her laugh?

Tony snorted quietly, shaking his head. He’d never seen this. He’d never had this. This team worked well together, they had good chemistry and were loyal to each other, but Tony had never seen this side of it. He’d never seen them as . . . friends.

He sighed and winced. Maybe that had been the problem, huh?

The three of them sat there, drinking, smoking, telling stories and laughing. And Tony reclined on his lounger, watching the stars come out and listening like the revelry would soothe his soul.

“So what’s the deal, huh?” Clint finally asked Barnes. “With you and Cap.”

Barnes gave an elegant shrug of his shoulder, staring off into the distance.

“Come on,” Clint insisted. “We all know it’s something. You and him were a thing, right? Before he became a Supercicle?”

Barnes snorted, but it was less amusement and more angry bull.

“He did something, right?” Natasha asked quietly.

Barnes shook his head and sighed, smoke billowing out in front of him. “We started up when he was seventeen. I had just turned nineteen and got drunk off my stupid ass after his mom died. Made a move on him. And then we were off like a fucking firecracker. Went on like that for years. Happy. He had this art course he wanted to take, so I said I’d go with him, try to learn a little about why he loved it so much. We were sitting there one day and this kid comes running in, babbling something about Pearl Harbor.”

Barnes took a drag off the e-cig, the blue lighting all three of their suddenly solemn faces. Barnes’s voice had gone lower, almost hoarse as he told his story. He exhaled slowly, the smoke curling around his head like a halo in the moonlight. Tony sat up to stare.

“Steve was fucking gagging to enlist,” Barnes continued, voice more bitter, more . . . young. He sounded so young! “And I was part of this YMCA boxing league for spare money, that’s how we paid for that art class. I was . . . welterweight champ three years running. So I told him, if you’re going to enlist I need to train you up.”

“Did you really think he’d enlist?” Natasha asked. She sounded almost sympathetic.

“Yeah, I did. I knew he’d go do it. I also knew they wouldn’t take him. But,” Barnes added, his voice full of false cheer. “I knew they would take me. So what the hell, teach Steve to fucking defend himself before I go off to war while he thinks I’m helping him, sure, why not? So I trained him for a few weeks, taught him everything I could, all the time he’s talking about serving his country and helping the little guy and bullies and I just wanted to knock his fucking perfect teeth out of his head.”

Tony almost made a sound then. Good lord, he could relate to that, couldn’t he?

“And then one day we both went down to the Induction Center. They rejected him, citing his lungs as the issue. I didn’t try to enlist that day, I knew it would break his fucking heart if they took me and not him. But I knew they were coming for me, and oh . . . oh they took me in the goddamn first draft. Young, single, poor, Irish. Oh, you bet I was the first wave,” Barnes continued, his voice going to gravel again, bitter and cold. “Steve was pissed. He was angry at them, angry at me. He was still fucking angry at me when I left for the fucking middle of Wisconsin to train. Camp McCoy. And it turns out, there’s one thing that this pissant little back alley Paddy is good at.”

Natasha and Clint were both silent as stones as Barnes took a long drag off the e-cig, both watching him with expressions that Tony was glad he couldn’t see. As he stared at them, someone sat beside him on his lounger. Tony glanced at the man askance, relieved to see that it was Sam and not Steve. If it had been Steve he would have made all kinds of sounds so Barnes’s story couldn’t continue and let this reach Steve’s ears. As it was, though . . . maybe it was good if Sam was hearing this too.

“I was so fucking good at killing haystacks that by the time I left Camp McCoy I was a Sergeant. We were sent back through New York. Back then, all the troops headed for England through New York. I don’t know, maybe some from Boston, Charleston. But all I knew was we were going to have a week in New York before we were sent to the front lines, and all I could think was make every goddamn minute count, because this is the last time you’ll ever see Steve.”

Tony felt Sam shift, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees. Tony squeezed his eyes closed so he didn’t have to witness that blue flash and another halo of smoke around the man’s hair. Glass and metal clinked as Barnes set his drink back on the ground.

“He tried to enlist twice while I was there, in that one week,” Barnes continued, and his voice had shifted, picking up an accent that sounded both fake and somehow right.

Tony realized it was an antique sort of movie-like Brooklyn accent that Steve occasionally fell back into when he was . . . well, when his guards were down.

“My last night there, I arranged a double date. It was the only way me and him could go out anywhere, you know? Without bringing down the law or worse on us. We were going to go dancing and drinking and just live a fucking life all in one night.” Barnes shook his head. “Ten minutes into the night, at the Stark Expo and this flying car,” Barnes laughed softly. “Howard up there with this smirk. I turn around, and Steve’s just . . . gone.”

Tony’s stomach dropped. He knew this story. This was the story in the history books, the one about how Steve had become Captain America. He knew this story, except he’d never heard it from the other side.

“Our last night before I go off to die. And there he is in this recruitment center, trying one more time. It felt like . . . felt like he chose a fight over me.” Barnes was staring straight ahead now, off into the inky black wilderness, cigarette seemingly forgotten between his fingers. After a while, he brought the thing back to his lips, and the blue light was unsteady when he inhaled. “That was the last time I saw him. And I never fucking forgave him.”

He exhaled shakily, clearing his throat. “We spent a month as POWs, assembling Hydra weapons. I came down with pneumonia, and I wasn’t any use to them, so they dragged me back to the . . . isolation clinic. When I saw Steve’s face I thought I was hallucinating. He saved us, sure. But at what fucking cost? Look at me? What the hell did he save me for?”

“James,” Natasha murmured. She put a hand on his shoulder that he surprisingly didn’t shrug off. He merely took another sip of his drink and then a drag from the e-cig, glowing blue like sudden hellfire in front of his face.

“What the hell did he give up his life for, stuck in the future with everyone he knows dead, the government calling him a criminal after they begged him to help save the fucking world from Hitler? And for what? All so he could prove he could fight in a fucking war. Fighting was always what he did best. Loving . . . not so much. And if I let him love me again, all it would do is cover his soul in red. I can’t do that to him.”

Barnes clucked his tongue loudly, taking a long drag off the e-cig, watching it as it glowed blue. He held it out in front of him, blowing the smoke upward as he sat completely motionless. “You know, this thing is the same color as those Hydra weapons were?”

Clint made a strangled sound and snatched the thing out of Barnes’s hand, switching with him and handing him a newly lit cigarette to replace it. He tossed the e-cig into the night.

“No! I’d rather have PTSD than a menthol, Barton!” Barnes cried, and Clint and Natasha dissolved into hysterical laughter again as Barnes hopped off the edge of the deck to go after the thing.

==

“God, you really are a son of a bitch, Rogers.”

“What?” Steve blurted when he found Tony sitting on the end of his bed.

He’d been in the gym, trying to work out everything with the punching bag. And failing. All he’d wanted was a shower and a good night’s sleep, but Tony apparently had different plans. Also, a key to his room maybe?

“Do you know where I just was?” Tony asked, standing and squaring his shoulders as he faced Steve.

“No?” Steve tried, trying not to feel attacked. And failing.

“I was on the deck, listening to Barnes tell horror stories around a campfire.”

Steve frowned harder, trying to decipher if that was an analogy or if Bucky really had been telling scary stories around a campfire. To be honest, Steve didn’t even know which way was up anymore, much less what was probable, not when it came to Bucky.

“Will he talk to you yet?” Tony demanded.

No,” Steve practically shouted, frustration bubbling over. “I don’t know what I’ve done! I don’t – I don’t know!”

Tony nodded, his expression softening, his eyes full of sorrow. “Okay. Well. I came here to tell you that I’ll be spending the night with him; I’m going to talk his fucking ear off, and possibly let him fuck me, I’m not sure, but in the morning you two are going to talk.”

“What?” Steve asked again helplessly. Had he even said a different word today other than that?

“You heard me,” Tony grunted as he passed Steve and left the room. Steve followed, sticking his head out the door to watch as Tony stalked down the hall and banged on Bucky’s door.

There was no answer that Steve could hear, but Tony banged again. “Let me in, Barnes!”

The doorknob turned, and Bucky’s confused face appeared in the doorway. His hair was wet and slicked back, and he was either wearing only boxers, or maybe just a towel. Steve couldn’t tell. He blinked once, the only real way to tell that Bucky was surprised anymore, and then tilted his head like a bird as he met Tony's eyes.

“What?” Bucky asked, voice deadpan.

Tony shoved him into his room, earning himself an actual gasp of surprise and a shocked expression from Bucky before the door was slammed, leaving Steve standing in the hall, just as confused now as he had been when he woke that morning.

Steve retreated to his room, showering almost mindlessly and then falling into his bed to sleep a fitful, miserable sleep that was accompanied by the sounds from the next room, whether they were real or imagined.

When he was awoken in the morning by banging on his door, Steve almost didn’t go to answer it. Almost.

He trudged to the door, wondering which team member was going to request to fuck Bucky next. But Tony stood there, looking grim.

“What’s wrong?”

“Barnes is gone.”

“How long?” Steve gasped.

“He left a note in the kitchen. He left as soon as I fell asleep. He’s gone, Steve.”

Chapter Text

Steve was a wreck. He was an absolute dumpster fire, and there was nothing any of them could do to help him. Tony sat perched on the kitchen counter, his feet on one of the stools, knee bouncing rapidly as he stared into the middle distance, trying to think.

“We could try to track him,” Clint proposed. “I mean, I might be able to . . .” Natasha raised an eyebrow at him and he gave half a shrug. “Yeah, nah, never mind.”

“It’s no use,” Steve groaned. He was on the couch, his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. He was gripping his hair like it might be trying to escape. “Even before Hydra . . . even before he fell, he was one of the most effective scout snipers I’ve ever seen. You can’t track him, not through the wilderness, not through the city. He’s a ghost.”

The room fell back into a heavy silence once more. Tony cursed himself for not thinking to put a goddamn GPS tracker in that arm when he’d had a chance.

The note Barnes had left still sat on the counter beside him, and he glanced at it guiltily.

Have to do this. Not sorry. Don’t wait up. B.

There was no telling for sure how long he’d been gone, because he’d disabled the security protocols that would have followed his movements through the compound, and Tony had been so fast asleep that he hadn’t even felt Barnes extricate himself from the bed, much less get dressed and fucking leave the room.

They hadn’t fucked. Barnes wouldn’t allow Tony to even suggest it. He had let Tony stay with him, though, listening to Tony talk until they’d both fallen asleep curled together in bed. Or at least, Tony had thought the lying sneaky motherfucking had been asleep.

“Boss, the security tapes have been recovered,” F.R.I.D.A.Y announced, and Tony jerked his head up.

“Play them,” he ordered, jerking his fingers toward the huge, blank wall near the dining table.

The footage came up, almost life-size, following Barnes as he carefully closed the door to his room and walked down the residence hall toward the exit that would lead to the outdoor training ground. The video switched to a new camera view, following Barnes as he went down the steps and strolled out onto the grass. In the moonlight, they could see that he was wearing dark tactical gear, and his metal arm gleamed. He headed for the training grounds, stopping near the shrubbery and pulling out a box that shouldn’t have been there.

“Ah, shit,” Clint hissed.

They watched in stunned silence as Barnes armed himself, gun after gun, knife after knife, and god knew what else going everywhere and anywhere he could put it. Tony could see evidence in places that the tac gear wasn’t standard. It had been modified, with loops and holsters, and all kinds of places to store extra ammunition. Whatever Barnes was doing, he’d been planning it for a while.

Once he was loaded down like a homicidal porcupine, he headed to the start of the obstacle course they’d created for training. It was the urban warfare one, where you had to navigate through twists and turns that mimicked streets and the insides of buildings, where unfriendlies would pop up out of every corner, over the edge of building tops, even the occasional airborne threat would swoop down as if someone were fighting with Sam’s EXO wings.

They always ran the course in pairs or more, because the difficulty of the run was set so that it was impossible for any of them to make it through alone, unscathed.

Barnes stood at the starting point, feet planted, shoulders squared, body loose, face raised to the light of the moon.

He didn’t move. Nothing moved. But suddenly, he was different. Tony peered closer, scowling, his body covered with goosebumps for no apparent reason at all. Barnes was different and Tony couldn’t say why.

Barnes waited another moment, so still you could have lost him in the darkness if you didn’t keep your eyes from blinking away, and then his hand shot out and he hit the button that would start the run.

He threw himself into the course, the cameras following him, changing angles as he did, losing him occasionally when he would roll or duck and come up somewhere it should have been impossible for him to make it to that quickly. He used his knives first, taking out target after target, brutal, efficient, fucking beautiful and horrible all at the same time. Pinging through the course like a fucking pinball in a machine. When he ran out of what appeared to have been a full chef’s kitchen’s worth of cutlery, he switched not to the guns he’d loaded himself down with, but to a thick chain he pulled from somewhere, using it as a whip, a garrote, a club, and pushing through the targets like they were little paper dolls there to have Sunday brunch instead of Tony’s most advanced training dummies firing live rubber bullets that would mark Barnes with luminescent paint if they scored a hit.

He was halfway through the course and so far, his black tac gear was untouched. He was obliterating F.R.I.D.A.Y’s highest skill setting, and he was doing it without using his guns yet.

“Oh my god,” someone whispered. Tony glanced at the others, finding them all standing and watching, eyes wide, mouths gaping. Even Natasha looked . . . pale.

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” Steve breathed, his eyes on the screen and his face losing every hint of whatever color he’d retained. “He’s been . . . faking. He’s been fucking playing possum this whole time.”

Tony’s eyes were back on the screen, his breathing coming harder. Barnes was nearing the final gauntlet, the run that was made solely for encouraging teamwork, to take down anyone trying to bull through the course without working with his or her partner. Tony had designed it so that you couldn’t physically do it without help.

Barnes didn’t slow down. He still used the chain as he hurtled from target to target, from building top to street level, parkouring up the sides of the false buildings, spinning and curling and using just his feet to take the heads of Tony’s dummies clean off when he connected too well. He got to the last task, his motions expertly drawing the final targets out toward him instead of holding their positions, surrounded by ten of the target dummies, all firing automatic rubber bullets just like enemy combatants would be when you neared their most protected lairs.

Barnes leapt into the center of the hellfire, landing low, drawing the weapons fire toward him as he crouched, his feet touching the ground light as a feather before he kicked back up, spinning high, sideways like a goddamn ballerina on the stage as the dummies all fired their rubber bullets in a crossfire that would have decimated anyone standing in its way. But Barnes wasn’t in the crossfire. He jumped and spun, once, twice, three times, his metal arm flashing, sparks flying off it, the chain whipping with him as if it had become part of him.

The dummies shot the hell out of each other as he moved through the gauntlet, each deactivating like they were supposed to with the contact, and then Barnes landed again in a crouch, his head cocked like he was listening.

The light at the end of the course turned green. He had made it through.

A few breathless moments later, he stood, stretching his shoulders out. He rolled his neck like it was sore, then looked down at his side, his hands coming to his ribs to poke at the tactical gear.

They all very clearly heard Barnes curse in Russian. Tony knew it was a curse without having to understand the language, and they could see two narrow luminescent streaks where some of the coated rubber bullets had knicked him. One on his ribs, one on his thigh. Neither would have killed a normal person, especially not with the body armor Barnes wore, but they were basically just paper cuts on someone with Barnes’s healing factor.

Barnes wiped at the bigger one, then shrugged his shoulders. Acceptable loss, a voice whispered in Tony’s head, and he realized he was imagining the way Barnes’s voice could go flat and scary when he talked to Tony about his arm, like he was giving a mission report.

Barnes looked directly at the camera, his face obscured by a mask that covered his nose and mouth, and dark paint around his eyes. His hair was tied back at his nape. He gave them a cheeky salute. He held something up so the camera could see, giving the lens a taunting little come hither gesture with three fingers. As the picture began to zoom for a closer look, he tossed the object into the air, and the motion kicked the detectors on in the camera, forcing it to follow the path of the little stress ball Barnes sometimes carried with him.

When the ball landed with a thump and went still, the camera swiveled again, trying to find Barnes. But the arena was empty.

There were several small moans and curses from the rest of the team, but Tony leaned forward, nearly shaking with sympathetic adrenaline after watching his most difficult obstacle course shit itself in the face of the most deadly assassin the world had ever seen.

“Friday, how about designing me a new course that won’t hold Barnes’s hand next time, huh?”

“Working on it, Boss,” F.R.I.D.A.Y said.

“Where’d he go next?” Tony demanded, waiting for the next camera view that didn’t come.

“That’s the last view of Sergeant Barnes on the compound, Boss,” the AI said, sounding like she was embarrassed over having lost the man.

“Christ, almighty,” Sam finally managed to get out. “Holy shit.”

“What . . .” Steve said in a daze, but he never finished the thought, and he never said more.

“Friday, has he run that course in the middle of the night like this before?” Natasha asked.

“Several times, Ms. Romanov,” F.R.I.D.A.Y answered, bringing up footage from six different nights, all showing Barnes doing the same thing as they had just witnessed. The course changed every time, so it wasn’t like he was practicing just to be able to get through that particular run. No, he was testing himself, judging his limits. Every time before last night, he wound up dying in the course, shot through by four or more bullets and laying there staring up at the sky like he was actually playing dead.

Tony wondered what the hell Barnes had been thinking each time, before he gathered himself up and headed back inside.

“I thought he spent almost every night with you, Clint,” Scott blurted.

“I did too!” Clint cried. “Jesus!”

“Okay, okay,” Natasha murmured. She was heading for the offices in the back of the common areas. “I need a minute.”

Tony watched her go, struck suddenly by how disturbed the normally unflappable woman actually was.

Anyone would be disturbed after seeing what they just had. Jesus Christ, what Barnes was capable of, had been capable of all this time, it was . . . it was pants-shittingly terrifying.

But Tony realized suddenly, last night wasn’t just about him getting better at the course. He had been noticeably stronger, faster, more alert. Tony nodded hastily as it all clicked.

“He hasn’t been faking, Steve,” Tony said suddenly. “That’s why he came to me yesterday, it has to be. He knew he wasn’t at peak performance; this is how. This is how he figured out the cooling issue. This is why he wanted me to fix him. He wasn’t scared of dying. He was just too fucking slow for his own liking!”

Steve didn’t seem to take that news any better than he’d taken the rest of the morning’s news.

“What’s he doing?” Wanda asked. It was the first thing Tony had heard her say in . . . shit, had he even talked to Wanda since they’d returned from Wakanda? Christ.

“He’s going after something,” Clint guessed. “You don’t load up like that without a target. Maybe he’s finally hitting the bargaining stage of grief and he’s going after the rest of Hydra to . . . bargain them to death?”

“Fuck fuck fuck,” Steve growled as he stood and began to pace.

Tony thought briefly about teasing him for his language, but there was nothing in him that wanted to tease Steve right now.

Natasha came hurrying back into the common area, a tablet in her hands. “I found him,” she announced, but she didn’t sound overly proud about it, like maybe she hadn’t found Barnes first.

Steve rushed to her, but she stopped him with a hand up, then slid her fingers across the tablet and the security footage they’d been watching switched over to four different live broadcasts.

“ – assassination attempt –”

“ – authorities telling residents to stay in their homes –”

“ – high-powered rifle –”

“ – mass panic –”

“ – shot from over a mile away –”

Steve looked like he was going to be sick. He sat down on the coffee table hard enough that the wood protested like it was demanding a raise plus back pay.

“Who’d he kill?” Tony asked.

Natasha zeroed in on one of the less flamboyant networks without saying a word.

It showed a political rally, one similar to the one that had kicked Barnes off a few nights ago, where he’d insisted he’d already killed the candidate announcing he was running for president. It was the same politician, the one they’d already established should have been long-dead, and the ticker identified it as the last stop of his tour.

Tony had sent vital information to both Nick Fury and to the World Security Council of his suspicions that LMD’s had been brought to fruition by someone, or more than one someones. But he hadn’t been able to tell them all he knew, because how was he supposed to explain that he knew that one particular man was dead because he was harboring the dude who put a bullet through his eye a few years ago?

Tony was positive no one had taken his warnings very seriously.

Barnes, though, Barnes had taken it seriously as a fucking heart attack. He’d stalked the Life Model Decoy of the politician to his next rally, the last remaining possible moment that he could expose the LMD on a public stage and prevent someone from just replacing it with another one, and put another bullet right through its visual circuitry outlet. All on live, national television.

“Nice shot,” Clint murmured as the gruesome moment played out on repeat.

The man fell away from the podium, sparks flying instead of blood and gore. Only when he hit the ground did the echo of the bullet firing reach the microphones and the ears of those near the stage. It had to have been a hell of a long shot for that sort of audible delay. The crowd panicked, understandably, and the security teams hurtled into action, some chasing down the shooter, others convening over the downed politician only to recoil in confusion and horror when they saw it wasn’t a human at all, but a twitching, sparking machine. The camera cut away from the fiasco, back to two stunned newscasters who could only stare at their monitors in shock for long seconds.

Natasha flipped it back to a live view so they could get caught up.

“The shooter’s rifle was found on a rooftop, just over a mile away from the rally, making this an almost impossible shot. It’s thought that the equipment may have been planted to throw investigators off, but preliminary analysis from several experts show the trajectory and speed of the bullet are consistent with a Lapua round fired from that great a distance. Experts claim there are only a handful of individuals in the world capable of such a feat.”

“So really, what we’re saying here, Harold, is that whoever made this shot is one of the most skilled marksmen of this – or any – generation, is that correct?”

“. . . that is correct, yes.”

“Terrifying.”

“You have no idea,” Scott muttered to the screen, standing with his arms crossed over his chest, looking more impressed than anything.

Another broadcast came up as Natasha flipped through them.

“ – we’re now getting reports that a note from the shooter was left as well. No one is talking about what it might have said, but everyone is asking the question; where is the real Senator Henry Sorensen, and what exactly was the thing that was on that stage today?”

“ – are we talking a new hero in the works, here, Dan?”

“ – someone with this knowledge and ability is a menace –”

“ – could have been looking at a remotely controlled robot as President of the United States if this hadn’t happened –”

“ – need to find this guy and give him a medal –”

“ – need to find this guy and make sure he’s thrown into a dark hole where he can’t hurt anyone else –”

Natasha flipped the mute on, looking at all of them with an unreadable expression. “This is actually not a bad thing.”

“How is this not bad?” Steve blurted.

“Cap, breathe,” Sam ordered.

“One, he revealed the LMD to the world on a very public scale,” Natasha pointed out. “Whoever was pulling those strings, they can no longer do so in the shadows. Two, reports are saying that the note he left explained what the LMD was. Investigators are already turning away from trying to figure out who he is and toward ferreting out who was behind the LMD in the first place. He signed the note with an apology for causing any panic and a . . . a little squiggly star, that’s it.”

Steve made a groaning, whimpering sound and covered his eyes.

“Steve,” Natasha barked. “Listen to my words, here, Rogers. The media almost to a man is calling him a hero, right now. He revealed and demolished a Hydra plot to put a robot in charge of the country. They’re calling him Robin Hood, they’re calling him a champion of the underdog, all kinds of things. What they aren’t calling him? Is a criminal. Yet. He didn’t kill anyone. He shot a machine. And none of the reports I can get my hands on say anything about anyone even catching his scent, much less engaging him. the most they could do to him is maybe get him for public endangerment.”

Steve was watching her warily, his eyes darting to the rest of them uncertainly.

“I mean, if they ever found him, which they won’t. He’s too good.”

“He just single-handedly exposed the LMD issue to the world,” Tony surmised. “And the Avengers didn’t have to come up for air and expose any of you. Steve. Cap. He just bought us time and turned the tide of public opinion back toward neutral, if not a little further toward our favor, it seems.”

Steve’s jaw flexed as he gritted his teeth, and he nodded as if Natasha’s and Tony’s words were finally settling in. But then he let out a breath, and his shoulders slumped. “But he’s still gone,” he whispered brokenly.

==

Tony had spent the next hour setting up F.R.I.D.A.Y to track Bucky down. Steve had felt helpless, hopeless, unable to do anything but sit aside and watch as his team handled it. He’d spent two years trying to hunt Bucky when he didn’t want to be found, and that had been when Steve hadn’t been hindered by his own face being on the World’s Most Wanted lists. His hands were tied, and he hated it.

F.R.I.D.A.Y was monitoring every peacekeeping agency involved, and some that weren’t, for word of the mysterious shooter. They were tracking every facial recognition program they could get their electronic hands on, so they’d be the first to know if Bucky surfaced for air. And Tony had set the security protocols for the compound to their highest levels, for two reasons. One, so they would see anyone coming if someone suspected the Avengers had been involved in time to hide the criminal elements of the team, namely most of them. And two, so they’d see Bucky coming from miles away and be able to deploy and help bring him back in, in case he was being pursued or had been injured and couldn’t get all the way home.

Steve kept thinking back to that glowing streak on Bucky’s ribs, shivering all over. He wondered if Bucky had been involved in any of the skirmishes that had been reported in the last few hours, or if those were sensational reports, or merely authorities shooting at ghosts.

Of course, if they shot at enough ghosts they might hit one.

The team was restless, wanting to move and do something, anything, but unable to accomplish anything. They had to be on high alert in case the compound was breached, or in case they had to go out to retrieve Bucky.

So they all sat together, watching the news, both covertly and overtly trying to keep Steve from losing his shit again.

Steve appreciated their efforts, anyway.

“Why the hell would he do this on his own? Without talking to us?” Steve asked no one in particular.

“Would you have listened to him, Steve?” Tony asked gently. He stood in front of the wall that had been covered with security feeds and other things Steve didn’t ask about, a tablet in his hand, his back ramrod straight and his sleeves rolled to his elbows.

Steve gazed at him, frowning. “I guess not, huh?”

Tony shook his head gently, then went back to the screens.

“Cap. Steve,” Sam said pointedly, cocking his head when Steve met his eyes. “We should all rest. Being exhausted if the shit hits the fan ain’t gonna do anybody any good, especially not Barnes if he needs us. Go on to bed.”

“I can’t,” Steve whispered.

Tony cleared his throat and set the tablet aside. “Yeah, you can. Come on. We’ll do this in shifts. It’ll be okay.”

He offered Steve his hand, and Steve hesitated, glancing from Tony’s callused fingers up to his worried face. He finally clasped Tony’s wrist, allowing himself to be hefted off the couch.

“Come on, big guy,” Tony grunted with the exertion, ushering Steve down the hall toward his bedroom.

He was kind of surprised when Tony came into the room with him, even more surprised when Tony forced him to go brush his teeth and take a piss, then helped him into the bed and climbed in with him. Steve had never even changed out of his sleep pants that morning; he was still wearing his goddamned pajamas, what the hell had he expected to do if Bucky had needed rescuing?

Steve sighed loudly and stared at the ceiling, shaking his head as Tony shifted around beside him, trying to get comfortable. He seemed uneasy, like he was sore. Steve’s belly did a little ugly somersault as he remembered Bucky answering Tony’s knock, fresh from the shower. What the hell has Bucky done to him that he couldn’t even lay still in a bed?

“He’s good, right?” Steve asked, closing his eyes.

“He sure as fuck took it to my obstacle course,” Tony grunted. “Jesus Christ, how embarrassing.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“I know,” Tony sighed. “I didn’t fuck him, Steve, calm down.”

Steve cast a stray look through the dark to see if he could make out Tony’s face. “Why not?”

Tony shrugged. “He apparently suspected my motives, which were admittedly not altruistic. He knew I was there for you, not for me or him.”

“What do you mean?”

Tony clucked his tongue, shaking his head as he rolled up onto one elbow. He patted Steve’s chest gently. “I’ll explain when you’re older. Go to sleep.”

Steve grunted in annoyance, closing his eyes but thinking about protesting that he most assuredly would not be sleeping tonight. Not while Bucky was out there on the run, alone, the center of a manhunt. Again.

When he opened his eyes again, morning sun was just beginning to creep its way through the windows. He blinked in confusion. How the hell?

He shot up when he realized he’d slept almost through the night. Tony flailed beside him, rolling away from him and curling protectively, shielding his head with both forearms. It was a reflex that Steve didn’t see in Tony often, and it made his gut curl with nausea.

“Tony,” he whispered gently, reaching to place his hand on Tony’s shoulder. He got a jerk in response and lifted the hand again, hovering it over Tony’s arm. “Tony, it’s okay, it’s just me. It’s Steve.”

Tony groaned, and rolled a little, almost to his back again, blinking and staring blearily at Steve.

“I’m sorry,” Steve continued to whisper, scooting closer and holding his hand out to see if Tony would allow him to touch.

Tony’s body relaxed a hint more, and he closed his eyes again, sighing heavily. Steve spread his fingers against Tony’s abs, petting him soothingly. “I’m sorry,” he said again.

“Oh my god, you’re the worst,” Tony groaned. He put his hand over Steve’s face, like he was trying to keep his eyes from having to see it. “So sincere. You’re the worst thing ever.”

Steve frowned, then it hit him hard that he and Tony had never actually woken up together. They’d always fucked and then excused themselves out of the snuggly parts of what came after. Steve fucking loved to wrap around someone and hold them, but Tony had always made it very clear that he absolutely did not want to be coddled or stroked or held or cared for in any way. Was this why? How often did Tony wake in a panic like this? Jesus.

Tony lifted his hand to peer at Steve’s face, and he caught him in the middle of a horrified, guilty frown as Steve pondered it. Tony groaned and flopped his hand back over Steve’s face. “Jesus, I thought Barnes was the only one you gave that face to.”

Steve laid himself back out, pulling Tony’s hand off his face, tugging him closer and wrapping himself around him. No one had come in sounding the alarm yet, no one had come to him with news about Bucky. That meant there was no news about Bucky. So Steve told himself to calm the hell down and take care of the teammate who was here, who did need Steve’s help.

Tony groaned against him, shoving weakly against Steve’s chest, but as he got closer and apparently got a hint of the warmth coming off Steve’s body, he curled into Steve’s embrace easily, his body going languid once more.

Steve ran his hand up Tony’s back, shushing him and murmuring wordlessly to him. “Hey,” he finally tried, his fingers in Tony’s hair. “How long have you been doing that, huh?”

Tony’s answer was sleepy and muffled, but Steve caught it all the same. Since New fucking York?!

Steve tightened his hold instinctively, like he could protect Tony’s body and mind if he just held him hard enough. Tony grunted when Steve’s hug became more of a stranglehold, and when Steve apologized and released him, Tony was laughing softly.

“It’s okay,” Tony said, and his voice wasn’t laden with sarcasm like usual. He seemed . . . grateful. “Felt pretty good.”

He let Steve pull him back in, nuzzling under Steve’s chin and sighing contentedly. Steve squeezed his eyes closed, his heart pounding in his throat. Had he ever even really seen Tony before? Honestly looked hard at him and tried to see past the façade that was just as thick and impenetrable as the Iron Man armor?

No. No, he hadn’t.

All he’d ever seen was a willing body and a sharp mind and a wicked smile, capable of keeping him occupied until he could find Bucky again and time travel back to 1941.

But that was never going to happen. Steve was never going to be the same man. Bucky was never going to be the same man. And in searching for those two lost soldiers who’d both been felled on the battlefields of World War 2, Steve had set everything else aside, pushed everything he knew and everything he was to the backburner, set fire to his soul in a way that only Hell should have been able to do.

I’m an oil slick, Bucky had whispered against Steve’s lips.

Bucky wasn’t an oil slick, but his ghost certainly was. His memory was as black as tar, a mirage in a desert of blood, and Steve had slipped in it and never gotten back up. Bucky thought Steve was pristine, but God, how wrong he was. Steve had dirtied himself from the moment he’d emerged from the machine that had made him, and he’d stopped caring about the smudges when he’d seen Bucky’s face on that street and prayed he could get him back. The way he’d gone about it, he’d been praying to the wrong place.

“I’m sorry,” Steve whispered against Tony’s hair. “God, I’m so sorry.”

Tony stirred once more, blinking up at Steve in confusion.

Steve winced, sliding his palm against Tony’s cheek. “He said he’d blacken me like an oil slick on an icecap,” he gasped. “He didn’t do it, but trying to find him certainly did.”

Tony nodded, as if he’d been privy to the conversation Steve knew no one else had heard. “The words I heard were ‘cover your soul in red,’ but yeah, same premise.”

Steve made a whimpering sound in the back of his throat, gritting his teeth to stop it. How could Bucky think of himself in that way? He’d been the brightest star in Steve’s sky, he’d had a laugh that could cure an aching soul, and he’d been loved by so many. He’d been so goddamned loved. “That’s what he’s been trying to tell me, isn’t it? That he thinks he’s evil.”

“He thinks he’s a weapon,” Tony corrected. “He thinks he can only be used as a weapon. And he believes that Captain America was never a weapon, only a shield. He thinks he’ll corrupt the goodness in you if you keep chasing after a him that’s been dead for a long time.”

“I’ve been so fucking blind,” Steve murmured distantly. “To all of you. I’m so sorry, Tony.”

Tony made a clicking sound with his tongue and tapped Steve’s chin. “We’ll make it right.”

He kissed Steve gently, like he wasn’t sure if Steve would want him to. Steve relaxed into the kiss, though, letting Tony’s solid weight against him soothe the heartache a little.

They stayed in bed, holding to each other, not really talking, occasionally nuzzling at each other for the comfort of contact. Steve knew soon enough one or both of them was going to have to get up to go to the bathroom at least, but they both seemed to want to delay that as long as possible. And any second, F.R.I.D.A.Y could come on line and announce that Bucky had been captured, killed, or was knocking on the front gate.

To keep his mind off that, Steve burrowed under Tony and found his mouth, kissing him and humming against his lips when Tony grinned. Their bodies pressed together, interest and arousal sparking as their tongues and lips met over and over. Steve tore away from the kiss and shoved Tony to his back, kissing at his neck and humming as they moved against each other languidly.

A scream from the common room down the hall yanked them from their happy cocoon of blankets and rising need, and they both scrambled out of bed amidst distant curses and more shouting, darting for the door.

“Fuck you, man!” Sam was shouting at the sofa when Steve got closer. “Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you so hard somewhere not fun! Right in the ass, Barnes! Right in the goddamn ass! You scared the shit out of me!”

“You scream like a guy I knew who pissed on an electrified fence once,” a hoarse voice responded, sounding wrecked and broken and muffled.

Sam gave an undignified little squeak and a growl.

But Steve gasped at the sound of that voice and rounded the sofa, looking down at the man and fighting every possible emotion he knew the name of as they all washed through him at once.

Bucky was laid out on his left side, like he’d been napping on the couch all this time and none of them had noticed him there. He still wore his heavy tac gear, though, almost the exact same outfit Steve had seen him wearing when they’d battle in DC years ago, except his metal arm was completely covered in some sort of black smudge that dampened the shine. It looked like the stain they’d always used on Steve’s shield when he went stealth. He even wore the mask that Steve had always thought of more as a muzzle, a punishment, a way to keep people from seeing the face of an angel when death came from them. Bucky obviously liked the mask, though, because he still had it strapped on, his eyes dark smudges of night camouflage that couldn’t hide those stunningly clear blue eyes.

He had a pillow between his knees, the right leg resting on it and bandaged with strips of cloth and a length of rebar tied to it on either side. Steve’s eyes skittered over the rest of him, trying to find more wounds but unable to see anything against the black leather.

“I’ll go get the first aid kit,” Sam mumbled, glaring at Bucky as he left.

Bucky reached up with extreme care and plucked the mask from his face, letting it fall from his metal fingertips to the floor. He smiled sweetly as his eyes tracked Sam’s movements, then he looked back at Steve and gave a soft sigh before he closed his eyes.

“You son of a bitch,” Steve ground out.

“Later, Stevie, okay?” Bucky said softly, his words slurring a little, his eyes remaining closed. “Not feeling so great right now.”

“You stupid selfish fucker!” Steve shouted, lurching forward and grabbing Bucky up by his arm and the front of his tactical vest to shake some sense into him.

Bucky didn’t fight back. He didn’t laugh, like he sometimes used to when Steve got irritated with him and tried to bully him around. No, he didn’t do either of those things like Steve had expected and wanted. He screamed. He cried out in agony, the same sound that had haunted Steve’s dreams for days, weeks, hell, months after he’d been forced to break Bucky’s arm and pull it out of the socket when they’d fought aboard the Insight helicarrier.

Steve let him go with a gasp and a dangerous lurch of his stomach, and Bucky landed on his back, curling in on himself but kicking his bandaged leg up, gasping for air that wouldn’t come, his breaths shaky and loud and rattling through him. He held to his side with both hands, almost the exact place that the rubber bullet had winged him during the training session they’d watched on tape.

“Oh God, Buck, oh shit,” Steve stammered as he dropped to his knees beside Bucky and took his face gently between both hands. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Sam!” he cried, looking down the hallway to see if Sam was on his way back.

“It’s okay,” Bucky gasped. His breaths were short and sharp, and his eyes were squeezed tight before he forced them open and looked up into Steve’s. His eyes were watering, and he was smiling weakly.

His metal hand scrabbled for the mask on the floor by Steve’s knees, and he slammed it over his face again, trying to take deep breaths after he had it attached.

It dawned on Steve way too slow; the damn thing had an oxygen reserve built into it.

“I’m sorry, Steve.” Bucky’s voice was barely there behind the mask.

“Oh, Buck,” Steve whimpered. “Oh, doll, no. It’s okay. It’s all okay. Stay with me, okay?”

Bucky pulled the mask away after a few more deep breaths, then licked his lips and nodded, giving Steve another ghost of a smile. “It’s healing real slow.”

Steve dared to look down Bucky’s body, where his hands were. He could see now where something had ripped through the tac gear, but there was no sticky blood, nothing but a seared tear through the fabric.

“Let’s take a look at it, huh?” Steve suggested, his voice wavering even though he fought to keep it soothing.

“Steve,” Tony said from the other side of the sofa. He was bending over the back of it, looking down at Bucky with a scowl. Steve had sort of forgotten he was there. There were others in the room, too, all drawn the same way Steve and Tony had been. Tony was pointing toward Bucky’s leg, which he’d pulled up when he’d curled into a ball.

The leg was broken, Steve could see that clearly now. It was broken a lot.

Steve fought not to make a sound in response to it. “What happened, Bucky?”

“Jumped. From way too high. Tried to slow myself by dragging down the wall of the next building over, but I didn’t want to leave metal finger marks behind and let them know it was me. Landed on a goddamn sidewalk crack,” Bucky told them, beginning a mirthless laugh that, once he started, he couldn’t seem to stop. He held tighter to his side like it hurt, but he couldn’t stop laughing. He finally gasped for breath and continued talking, still laughing, smiling as he told a story that sent chills up Steve’s spine. “I had to keep breaking it so it wouldn’t heal wrong. That’s what took me so long to get back. Every couple hours, I stopped and broke it again.”

The leg definitely looked like someone had taken a bat to it a few times.

“How?” Steve found himself asking weakly.

Bucky held up his metal hand, curling his fingers into a fist that made the plates shift and whir. Sometimes that sound was pleasant and soothing, comforting in a way Steve wasn’t sure he understood. Other times, like now, there was nothing about that sound that didn’t feel like death.

“I couldn’t set it myself,” Bucky said, voice weak. He held his side with both hands again, panting quietly. “This was . . . too much. I couldn’t afford to pass out.”

Sam returned with his medical bag, forcing Steve to move so he could bend over Bucky and check him over. Steve didn’t go far, still hovering over the arm of the sofa near Bucky’s head.

Sam got past the tactical gear by using one of Bucky’s own knives, complete with bickering over whether he was allowed to cut it and finally winning because, “What the hell good is it to you now, Barnes, it’s got a bullet hole in it!”

When he pulled Bucky’s soft Under Armour shirt away from the skin, everyone within view of it gasped.

“That bad, huh?” Bucky whispered. He was staring at the ceiling, taking short, pained breaths, his eyes watering and glazed. Steve ghosted a palm over his forehead, running his thumb down the bridge of Bucky’s nose just like Bucky used to do to him when he was small and sick and Bucky had quietly pleaded with him not to leave me, Stevie.

“Jesus,” Steve breathed as he peered at the wound. It wasn’t a bullet hole at all, it was a burn. Whatever projectile he’d been hit with, it had scorched its way through his side, cutting through the tac gear like butter, and left behind a crater like a meteor side-swiping the moon. “How?”

“Rogers, go get me some water, huh?” Bucky muttered, closing his eyes.

Steve put both hands on either side of his face, leaning over the side of the sofa’s arm, peering at him upside down. His thumbs massaged at Bucky’s jaw, trying to relax it. “I’m not going anywhere, Sergeant Barnes,” he gritted out.

“What happened?” Tony demanded.

“Energy weapon,” Bucky answered immediately, like he was a soldier responding to an actual order. The pain must have been forcing him to retreat back into his Winter Soldier headspace, and it made bile rise in Steve’s throat. “They surprised me. Clipped me as I was vacating the rooftop. That’s why I had to jump.”

“Jesus, that must have been a long way down, the elevation a shot that long would need,” Clint muttered.

Steve hadn’t taken much notice of the others, not really. They were all crowded around the sofa, though, all of them tense with worry. Tony ducked out, his face grim, and he returned in minutes with a syringe of something. He didn’t ask permission before he bent and pushed Bucky’s pants down at his hip and jabbed the needle into the meat of Bucky’s muscle. Bucky flinched, but didn’t react otherwise, didn’t complain about possibly being drugged against his wishes.

They were all silent as whatever it was began to visibly bring relief to the strained lines of Bucky’s face, to the tension in his body. Sam worked quickly on the furrow of a burn, cleaning it and putting a healing salve over the whole area. There wasn’t much more he could do that Bucky’s own healing factor wouldn’t take care of first. The leg, though . . .

Steve stroked his cheek gently. “Was it Hydra?” he asked sadly.

Bucky shook his head, his jaw tightening. “Something . . . else. Red . . . eyes.”

Sam cut the leg off Bucky’s pants so he could see the break, and Steve didn’t have to look for himself to know that it must be bad.

“How many times did you break this, friend?” Sam asked, tone almost conversational, his hand gentle as it rested on Bucky’s thigh.

“Eight,” Bucky answered without opening his eyes.

“See, this is why we can’t have nice things, man,” Clint teased gently. Bucky gave him the barest of pained smirks.

Sam scrambled around and brought out a piece of tightly rolled gauze that he covered with medical tape, then stuffed it into Bucky’s mouth, sliding it between his teeth, his eyes still on the leg. “This is gonna hurt, buddy.”

“You better not enjoy this,” Bucky warned around the improvised bit in his mouth.

When Sam started putting the bones of Bucky’s shattered leg back into place with quick, efficient hands, Bucky managed to grit his way through it for almost a solid minute. Steve’s hands were clutching at his shoulders, his eyes on Bucky’s face at first, feeling like the pain he saw there was his own. He pressed his forehead to Bucky’s finally, unable to watch any longer.

After the first minute, Bucky gave up on being stoic and started screaming.

==

Bucky forced his eyes open when he felt the warm brush of sunlight on his face. He blinked a few times, trying to locate himself. Several times on his way back to the compound he’d been in very real danger of passing out. He hadn’t, though, he didn’t think. He was pretty sure he remembered making it back to Steve. The only reason he’d been able to make it back at all was because Steve’s Harley ran like a goddamn dream and didn’t have as much vibration as others he’d ridden.

Just the memory of the pain pulsing through his side and leg made him nauseous, though, and the memory echoed as real pain when he flinched. He moaned and closed his eyes again.

“Buck?” Steve whispered somewhere close.

“Steve,” Bucky groaned out, forcing his eyes open again and trying to push himself up. Fire blazed through his side, his leg throbbing angrily.

“No, hey. No,” Steve was saying, shushing him, hands on Bucky’s shoulder and back to keep him down. Bucky realized he was in a bed, sleeping mostly on his belly with his left hand tucked up under him and his right hand fisted in lush sheets. He was surrounded with warm blankets and his face was half buried in a soft pillow. It wasn’t his bed, though, it didn’t smell like his bed. He tilted his head so he could look around. Steve’s room; that’s why it smelled like home.

“I’m sorry,” Steve offered, his face flushing as he read Bucky’s grim expression wrong. “I tried to get you to your room, but you’re fucking heavy, Buck.”

Bucky snorted. “No, I’m not,” he argued. “You haven’t eaten anything in over twenty-four hours. Have you?” It wasn’t actually a question. He knew the haggard lines of Steve’s face, he knew what a super soldier looked like when he didn’t fuel his super-charged body and the serum started eating through his energy reserves like a parasite.

Steve ducked his head, sitting in a hard wooden chair at the edge of the bed. That was answer enough.

Bucky grunted at him, unimpressed.

“Well, have you?” Steve challenged.

“Don’t change the subject.”

Steve looked mutinous for a moment, and Bucky gave him a quick smile. That had almost felt like old times.

“I’m sorry, Stevie,” Bucky whispered, his voice going rougher. He’d known when he left that Steve would tear himself apart, but Bucky had honestly not thought he would be gone as long as he’d been. Even his recon hadn’t dug up the roaming unit with red eyes and blue energy weapons that had seemed to be on him in mere moments even a full mile away from his target.

That was a problem.

“I had to do it, though, I –”

“Don’t,” Steve murmured. He looked up, gazing into Bucky’s face with those giant blue eyes of his. “Don’t apologize. What you did, it was a good thing. Tactically, it was . . . it was the right move. I would have gone with you, y’know.”

“That’s why I didn’t invite you, pal,” Bucky drawled, closing his eyes. “That’s not who you are. You can’t be what I am.”

Steve made a strangled, frustrated noise and looked away. “Do you . . . do you remember what I did during the war?” he grated out.

“Yes,” Bucky sighed. “You inspired a nation.”

“Bucky!”

“Do you remember what I did?”

“You watched my back,” Steve answered stubbornly.

“Steve,” Bucky whispered, gazing upon Steve with a sort of pity that he was pretty sure he should have felt for himself instead, considering what a trash pile his life was and how much his goddamn ribs hurt right then. “You bet your ass I did. And I’d do it all over again. But I ain’t a hero, pal.”

“You are. Ask anyone, Bucky, they’ll tell you, you are.”

“You know what my kill count was, as the Winter Soldier?” Bucky asked casually.

Steve huffed. “Officially? Twenty-seven.”

“Forty-two,” Bucky corrected. “And that ain’t counting all the poor fucking assholes who tried to get in my way, Steve, like those Shield Agents at the Triskelion. I figure it’s hovering somewhere right around a hundred, maybe.”

Steve was chewing on his lip, head down, letting Bucky talk for once in his goddamn life without running his trap, thank Christ.

“You know what my kill count was as Sergeant James Barnes?” Bucky asked softly.

Steve’s jaw worked side to side. “You were the best sniper I’ve ever seen. I’d be dead without you. Our whole unit would have been dead three times over without you.”

“Yeah, you would,” Bucky agreed.

“New York City would be gone without you,” Steven growled as he glared at the sheets in front of his face. “The world wouldn’t be –”

“You know what my kill count was?” Bucky asked, ignoring Steve’s leaps in logic. “Sergeant James Barnes, Captain America’s best friend, national fucking hero, hanging in the Smithsonian as the picture of loyalty and sacrifice, wept over by thousands of dames who still talk about how pretty his mouth was on the internet?”

Steve raised his head, watching Bucky warily.

“A hundred and eighty-three,” Bucky whispered. “A hundred and eighty-three lives I took through the scope of a rifle or at the barrel of a handgun or the blade of a knife or with my own goddamn two human hands if I couldn’t find a brick or a rock to bash their skulls in. And that ain’t counting the explosives I flipped the switch on cause I can’t tally things that turned to ash on my soul like a cigarette being put out on someone’s skin.”

Steve’s eyes would have been unreadable to anyone else, anyone in the world. But not to Bucky, who had known him since they were both children who had believed in truth and justice and loyalty and doing the right thing. Bucky knew him too well to see the look in Steve’s eyes as anything but pain and shock.

“I killed more people for you than I did for Hydra, Stevie,” Bucky whispered almost dazedly. “A hundred and eighty-three.”

The moisture in Steve’s eyes slipped over, a single tear tracing down either side of his face before he ducked his head again and let out a small, hoarse sob. “I’m sorry.”

Bucky moved his arm, testing it as he stayed curled mostly on his left side in Steve’s massive bed. It moved fine, but the wound in his side pulled and set his insides on fire. He almost gasped against the pain. His long hair fell in his face to help hide how pale he knew he’d just gone. He must have been out for a long time judging on the light, this shit should be a distant memory and a scar with a good story by now. He snaked his hand across the mattress and the tangled covers, reaching as far as he could in Steve’s direction.

Steve didn’t raise his head, but he reached both hands out and grasped Bucky’s, grabbed at Bucky’s hand like they were on that train in the Alps and Steve could still save Bucky if he just reached harder and held on tighter. He gripped Bucky’s hand so tight that Bucky heard his own knuckles cracking.

Bucky held to him just as tightly.

“You can’t save me, Steve,” Bucky told him in the kindest voice he could muster. Steve let out another broken sob. “I was lost a hell of a lot longer than when I slipped through your fingers. But I sure as hell ain’t letting you fall, too.”

“Do you hate me?” Steve gasped out, voice wavering with more tears. “Because I didn’t jump after you?”

Bucky cursed under his breath and used his elbow to lever himself up, despite the agony blazing in his side. He gave Steve’s hands a tug, trying to sit up, because he was going to kick Steve’s self-hating ass across the bed as soon as he figured out how to stand on his own.

Steve responded to the tug with another sob, and Bucky pulled harder, pushing up so his weight was on his hip and his metal elbow. Steve lurched forward obediently, crawling into the bed and wrapping his arms around Bucky, jamming his face up under Bucky’s chin. Bucky lost his precarious balance and fell back to the mattress with a rush of air and a pained whimper.

“I’m sorry,” Steve said against the exposed skin of Bucky’s neck.

“Hey, knock it off, would ya? You’re gonna rust my arm,” Bucky crooned as he wrapped his arms around Steve’s shoulders and enveloped him. He stretched out flat, clutching Steve to him as if he could ring the tears out of him like he was a dishcloth.

Steve snorted, giving Bucky a watery laugh. “You can’t rust.”

“You don’t know my life,” Bucky taunted, forcing the smile into his voice, grinning genuinely when Steve sniffed another laugh.

Steve’s arms curled around him, his hands clutching at Bucky’s skin, his breaths hot against Bucky’s neck and chest.

“I could never hate you, Steve,” Bucky murmured into Steve’s hair. “Do you hate me? For leaving you behind? For what I became?”

Steve yanked his head back, eyes wide as he blinked at Bucky in horror. The whites of his eyes had gone red, and his normally pale face was even more so, with red rising at his cheeks. He was so goddamned beautiful, even in the midst of such misery.

“Why would I hate you, Buck? You know that’s not true, I could never.”

“Then fuck you for asking me the same thing.” Bucky grazed his cheekbone with his fingertips, smiling crookedly as he looked into his reddened eyes. “You’ve gone red white and blue, you patriotic snotbag.”

Steve let out a little huff – half sob, half laugh – then ducked his head and pressed his face against Bucky’s chest again. Bucky clung to him, holding him so he might never have to let him go again.

“You’re not just a weapon,” Steve said, voice muffled and miserable. “And I’m not just a shield. I know what you did for me. I know what it cost your soul.”

Bucky swallowed, biting his lip against the urge to interrupt Steve, to make him stop talking. Steve deserved to be able to say this, after what Bucky had done to him.

Steve raised his head, looking into Bucky’s eyes hopefully when he apparently realized that Bucky was actually listening and not planning to stop him. “I know what it cost your soul, because it cost mine the same. Buck, I didn’t stay clean out there. I’m just as covered in blood as you are. More so, because every decision I’ve made, I made it on my own, for myself.”

Steve’s fingers were suddenly on Bucky’s cheek, his thumb resting on Bucky’s chin. Bucky couldn’t tear his eyes away from Steve’s, though.

“You’ve been pushing me and pushing me, trying to keep me pristine, right?” Steve asked, his eyes going so much sadder than Bucky had known they were capable of. God, he’d been an asshole, hadn’t he? Steve’s eyes darted over his face as he kept talking. “Trying to be the weapon so I could be safe behind the shield?”

Bucky nodded wordlessly, his stomach cramping, his heart lurching and hurting.

“Please don’t,” Steve begged, whispered and broken. “We’re a team, one can’t work without the other. Please don’t leave me, Bucky. I can’t lose you again. The last time I lost you I crashed a plane full of warheads into the Arctic. I can’t . . . I can’t watch you fall again. I won’t. I’ll jump after you this time.”

Bucky shook his head jerkily.

“I’m jumping anyway,” Steve threatened.

Bucky squeezed his eyes closed, realizing with a physical start that he forced tears out. When was the last time he’d cried over something that wasn’t agonizing pain? He gasped and opened them again, staring up at the ceiling as he tried to find a breath.

“Do you love me?” Steve asked, soft and gentle, his thumb swiping away one of the tears before it could track into Bucky’s hair.

“Yes,” Bucky gasped, and it felt like confession, like the one he’d made to Monty when he’d been broken and beaten, sick and dying, laid out on a concrete floor with his head in Dugan’s lap, begging them to tell his mother he’d died well even if it wasn’t the truth.

Steve shifted, and his lips against Bucky’s were gentle. They weren’t demanding or searching or any of the brutal, savage things Bucky knew lurked under Steve’s exterior when he wanted, when he needed. It was merely a press of Steve’s lips to his, comfort offered and received with a gentle gasp.

“I love you, too, Bucky,” Steve told him, soft and heartfelt and just absolutely wrecked. “I would love you in any age. In any war. In any form. I would love you even if you really were the monster you think you are.”

Bucky couldn’t open his eyes. He couldn’t see Steve’s face, he couldn’t handle knowing this was real, couldn’t handle being grounded by the sight memory. He needed to be able to forget this had ever happened, and it was so much easier to let it fade into darkness and sound with all his other nightmares, with all the sweetest dreams that had taunted him in the cold, drifting just out of reach, a whisper of a life – of a world – that didn’t exist for leviathans of war like him.

Steve’s hand was big and warm against his cheek, and Bucky swallowed hard on the knot in his throat and pushed his face against it. Steve kissed him again, still so gentle, still so loving. But this time Bucky slid his hand into Steve’s hair and returned the kiss, whimpering into it.

Steve didn’t deepen it, though. He didn’t move other than to gently pull back and then press his forehead and nose against Bucky’s. Bucky finally opened his eyes and took a deep breath that only hurt a little bit.

“Do you remember what the first words I said to you were?” Steve asked, his lips moving at the corner of Bucky’s mouth. “You saved me from a pack of bullies in Hell’s Kitchen who were trying to steal my errand money. Do you remember it?”

“Yes,” Bucky answered, the memory just as clear as all the others.

He’d seen the tiny, fragile little towheaded scarecrow getting the shit kicked out of him by three older boys, and even though every inch of Bucky’s young body had told him to turn around like he’d always done in the past, that it wasn’t his problem, Bucky had never been the kind to allow an unfair fight. He’d waded into that back alley with big talk and even bigger swings, discovering on that day that James Buchanan Barnes had a talent for inflicting maximum damage with minimal effort, and discovering that Steve Rogers was going to be the only thing in life he would ever love.

“You said to me, ‘Jesus kid, you sure don’t know how to pick your battles,’” Steve murmured.

Bucky licked his lower lip, inadvertently licking Steve at the same time. He felt Steve’s mouth curl into a smile, and he couldn’t help but begin to grin. “And you told me, ‘Hey I don’t pick the battles, they pick me.’” Bucky laughed, grasping at Steve closer. “You were so stupid.“

“I still am,” Steve admitted.

“God, I should have left you in that alley.”

Steve nudged his nose against Bucky’s cheek and kissed him. When he spoke again, his voice had gone lower, softer, full of both regret and hope. “This is a battle I am picking, Buck. You’re the only thing in the world that’s ever been worth fighting for. Will you give me a chance?”

Bucky brought his hand up to push it against his temple, squeezing his eyes closed, and gritting his teeth.

“Bucky?”

“I’m so wrong, Steve,” he gasped out, the words bursting forth as if he’d been holding them in for all too long. “I’m all wrong inside. I’m so dark inside I can barely see sometimes! And everything about you is light.”

“Bucky, no,” Steve barked.

It shocked Bucky into opening his eyes, and he found himself staring into Steve’s enraged blue eyes.

“You’ve known me your whole goddamned life!” Steve shouted. “When did you set me on the same pedestal as the rest of the world? When did you start believing the newsreels you made fun of me for filming? You’ve seen me at the absolute lowest and meanest and cruelest I’ve ever been, how can you say I’m any better than you?”

Bucky realized the feeling in his chest was lack of air. The feeling in his nerve endings was panic. The feeling in his head was not enough oxygen and too much blood lost and a body in too much pain to be able to handle it. He tried desperately to breath as he met Steve’s eyes, tried not to flinch away from such righteous fury.

“Because,” he gasped out desperately, the edges of his vision going alarmingly dark. “Because every memory I have is all shadows and darkness. Except for you. Every memory I have of you is light. Blinding light.”

Steve’s face crumpled into a mask of anguish and fear. “Buck,” he whispered. Bucky could feel his fingers on his face, but he couldn’t keep his eyes open any longer. “Bucky?”

Steve’s voice was further away, falling and falling away as Bucky gave in to the lure of darkness and peace, with no pain from his throbbing wounds to wake him. Steve’s voice fell away and away, his name called from the rushing edge of a train speeding into the light.

==

“Sergeant Barnes’s heartbeat has slowed drastically, boss,” F.R.I.D.A.Y announced as Tony pored over the security feeds. He almost jumped at the sound of her voice, glancing up with a frown.

“Dangerously?” he asked.

“It’s within acceptable parameters for his normal baseline, but worrying with his current injuries.”

Tony set his tablet aside and pushed out of his chair, heading for Steve’s room, trying not to break into a jog. If Barnes were in any sort of distress, Steve would be shouting bloody murder in the hallway by now, right? There was no need to rush. He’d just go and knock quietly, poke his head in, double check things.

Tony grimaced and wondered to himself why the hell he cared. Less than six months ago he’d been trying to brain Barnes with a piece of a Russian cryo tube, and now he was getting all expectant father about the guy when he was injured. It wasn’t even a particularly life-threatening injury, it was just a fucking broken leg!

He tapped on Steve’s door, quiet enough that he hoped even their super hearing wouldn’t pick it up if they were resting. God knew Steve needed to rest, he was as wound up as Tony had ever seen him.

He heard Steve’s quiet call in response, beckoning him in, and Tony pushed the door open enough to peek in and check on them.

Barnes was laid out on his back, looking unnaturally pale even for someone who rocked the homeless psycho vibe sometimes. And Steve was sitting cross-legged beside him in the bed, his head bowed, his hands cradling Barnes’s metal fingers. It didn’t take a genius of Tony’s intellect to see that Steve had been crying.

“Is he okay?” Tony asked for lack of anything better to say. “Friday said his vitals were dropping.”

Steve nodded. “He passed out,” he answered, voice deeper and rougher than normal. “We were talking. I think he was in more pain than he let on, because he went white as a sheet and then he was out before I could even get him to say what was wrong.”

Tony scowled, moving closer without Steve asking him to. He had to stretch to lean over Barnes, brushing past Steve to do it, and check his pulse, his temperature, and his breathing. “Should I call Sam?”

Steve shook his head. “No, this is something I know. He’ll be back as soon as his body heals some more. It’s just . . . exhausting and painful, the healing. It’s easier if you’re asleep.”

Tony nodded, watching Steve in sympathy. He looked positively miserable.

“Well. Now that his body temp is being regulated, I’d bet his healing times are even faster than he told us they were.”

“He said the energy burn wasn’t healing, before.”

Tony nodded. He’d heard that, pondered it, worried about it. The burn had to have been bad, deadly to a normal human, if Barnes had been truthful about his healing ratio and it had still looked like it did when he got to them nearly a day later. Or . . . the other possibility, the one Tony hadn’t wanted to contemplate. Steve was thinking it too.

“I’ve seen those energy weapons dissolve men into less than ash,” he whispered. “What if even we can’t heal that?” Steve asked, nodding his head at Barnes and holding his hand in his lap like a precious heirloom.

Tony licked his lips, grimacing as he stood and looked down at the sleeping man. He didn’t look great, Tony would admit. “Okay. Okay, I’ve got an idea or two, I’m on it.”

He turned on his heel and headed for the door.

“Tony?” Steve called, not bothering to try to whisper. Barnes wasn’t waking up.

Tony turned, forcing himself to meet Steve’s eyes.

“Thank you.”

It actually made Tony smile. “Hey, I admit it, even though it has been completely against my will and I’d rather it not be true, I’m kind of growing attached to the jackass. I’d rather him not die on us.”

Steve managed a hint of a smile. Tony left before he had to see more of that grisly tableau; two soldiers still stuck on a battlefield, not even their ghosts at rest.

Chapter Text

Steve knew, on some level, that he was dreaming. He’d had enough of these nightmares, forged in the heat of battle and honed in the silence of ice, to understand intrinsically when he was dreaming.

That didn’t make it any better, though, or any less horrifying.

He swung the shield down on metal once, twice, three times; the edge of the shield ripping and tearing its way through to the man being protected beneath. Metal sheered away, sparking, hitting the floor with a horrible thud. And then Steve swung the shield down once more on the unprotected face the raised arm had been covering, blue eyes wide with terror and pain looked up at him.

Bucky’s eyes.

“Steve,” Bucky gasped, fingers at his neck, scrabbling. “Please stop. Steve!”

The shield came down with brutal power, Steve’s own hand wielding it against his will, unable to slow it, to stop it. It smashed through the face he loved more than life itself, and Steve was the one screaming now. He thrashed through the clinging cloying dim that followed, crying out wordlessly, fighting the hand that still held his neck in an iron grip.

“Help!” Bucky’s voice shouted. When he spoke again, it emitted from the darkness of Steve’s nightmare, where Bucky’s broken and bloody body had been left at Steve’s feet. “Stevie, be calm. Please! God, you got to . . . you got to be calm. Help!”

The pressure at his neck increased, and Steve gasped for air. His eyes popped open, some part of his brain realizing that while the horror show he’d just witnessed had been a nightmare, the lack of air was very much real. His hands came to the cold vice at his neck, trying to pry the metal fingers off his windpipe.

“You awake?” Bucky gasped out, sounding like he was the one being choked to death instead of Steve. “God, please be awake.”

Steve managed to gurgle an answer, his fingers prying at Bucky’s, trying to make any other sort of sound as his heels pushed at the mattress, writhing, struggling, desperate for a breath.

Bucky released him immediately, and Steve gasped for air, over and over. He was still struggling to rasp in a single breath when the door to his room was kicked open at the hinges and Sam came barreling in. Steve stared at him, wide-eyed and rolling his eyes sideways like a dog or a horse would to an unruly master, unable to get a word out through the burning of his throat and the screaming in his lungs that were convinced they were going to quit and take the rest of him with them.

Sam didn’t come to his side of the mattress, though. He went to Bucky, leaning into the bed and speaking words that Steve’s throbbing eardrums couldn’t comprehend.

“Check him,” Bucky was shouting. “I hurt him. I know I hurt him. I had to hurt him.”

Steve was finally getting air, lungs calming, heart slowing. He was able to look over and see from the light slanting through the open door that Bucky was curled up on his side, body nearly convulsing, turned away from Steve, rocking and whimpering and shaking like Steve hadn’t seen him shake since he’d pulled him out of Kreischberg. Sam was trying and failing to get a look at his injuries.

“Check him!” Bucky was repeating, over and over, shoving Sam’s hands away from himself and toward Steve.

“Oh, God,” Steve gasped, scrabbling off his back to drag himself closer. “Oh God, is he okay?”

Sam answered with a shrug and a wildly unhelpful nod followed by an equally unhelpful shake of his head. Steve pushed up onto his elbow, reaching for Bucky’s shoulder to force him to his back. Bucky cried out weakly, but he didn’t fight back. He was shaking too hard to fight back, his teeth chattering, every inch of his body trembling save for the ever-steady metal arm, which was clutching at the sheets so hard they complained with a ripping sound. His body was giving up after he’d used up all his fight subduing whatever Steve had been doing to him in his sleep.

“I’m sorry,” Steve whispered as he took Bucky’s face in both hands to look into his eyes, to wipe away the memory of them bloody and ruined. The pain he saw in them, though, didn’t wipe the memory at all. Sam was checking the wound in his side, and Bucky blinked up at Steve, glazing over. Steve murmured to him. “I’m sorry, sweetheart. I’m so sorry.”

“This how . . . you treat all your . . . guys?” Bucky managed to get out.

Steve practically sobbed as he laughed, wiping his thumb over Bucky’s eyebrow. “Just you. Jerk.”

Bucky gritted his teeth, flashing them startlingly white against the backdrop of the camo paint he still wore on his face that had smeared down from his eyes to his cheeks. “You’re a . . . you . . . ugh. Hate your face, Steve.”

“I know,” Steve said, giving him a gentle kiss on the cheek.

“He’s okay, it’s okay, no damage done,” Sam finally announced after he’d checked both the burn and the break. He pushed himself off the bed, jogging to the door. “I’ll get another shot for the pain, I’ll be right back.”

Steve was careful not to jostle Bucky as he scooted over him, maintaining their eye contact so Bucky would focus on him and not the pain.

“I hope it was a sex dream,” Bucky gritted out.

“What?”

“I hope it was the most amazing sex dream you’ve ever had,” Bucky continued. “And I hope I ruined it by choking you out of it! I hope you never have another one without dreaming about getting choked to death!”

Steve laughed again, still a little watery but feeling much better seeing that Bucky could be ornery and vindictive. That meant he was going to be fine. “You know that wouldn’t exactly ruin a sex dream for me, buddy.”

Bucky huffed, deep furrows appearing between his eyebrows. Steve could practically see the pain washing over him in a physical wave.

“In fact, I have a feeling the next sex dream is going to be exactly that,” Steve went on, desperate to pull Bucky’s mind out of whatever spiral he was in. “Metal fingers and all. Soon I won’t be able to get off at all if it’s not metal.”

And then, instead of a deeper frown or a groan like Steve had half expected, Bucky gave Steve a megawatt smile, one Steve hadn’t seen since they’d been pulled out of a strategy meeting in a camp in Northern France one day and told to pose for pictures so the people at home could see the real faces of their heroes.

The fact they’d chosen Steve’s team, with some of the most photogenic and diverse soldiers in the entire goddamn Allied Armies, hadn’t escaped anyone’s notice. Bucky in particular had been a hit with the people at home, though. He’d been charming and boyish and sly in a way that Steve’s earnest expression just could not convey in a photograph, his smile just coy enough to be whatever the viewer wanted it to mean, and his movie star good looks made people see their sons, their brothers, their husbands and beaus. Bucky, being the man he was, gave the people at home a canvas to paint their own heroes of the war, seeing him all smudged with dirt and gun powder, knives and spare ammo hanging off his signature tailored blue coat, rifle over his shoulder at the ready even while posing for a photo.

He’d refused to clean up for the cameras, and the people had loved him all the more for the honesty they saw in the cant of his too-forward stare. The connection his clear, soulful eyes had been able to make with not just the camera, but with the lives of those staring back, had drawn people in rather than intimidating them like Steve’s size and piercing gaze often did.

Gabe Jones had once joked that the people back home could get a photo of Bucky with the blood of his enemies smeared on his face like war paint, a grenade pin between his teeth and gleeful murder in his eyes, and they’d still sigh and talk about what a nice Christian, all-American boy that Bucky Barnes was. It had made everyone laugh around the fire, especially Bucky, who had just that very morning been absently chewing on the pin of a grenade he’d previously lobbed into enemy territory right after sloppily crossing himself for forgiveness. The picture Gabe painted, though, of Bucky as some sort of avenging angel who really fucking enjoyed his job, had been fuel for quite a few of Steve’s more . . . private moments, after that.

Steve had a type, what could he say? And that type was Bucky, in any form. He wasn’t alone, either. Biographers, decades later, would blow up Bucky’s photo and place it lovingly on its own page of their oversized hardback books when they wrote about Captain America and his Commandos. Bucky’s eyes in full color, staring out at the reader like he’d known on some level that he’d be coming back as the angel of death, sooner or later.

The team hadn’t quite known the extent of the public’s admiration for any of them at the time, of course. And Steve wouldn’t know it until after he’d woken up in New York City in the year 2011, but of all the men he’d served with in the group they’d later christened the Howling Commandos, Bucky had been the public’s everlasting heartthrob. He’d been the people’s darling, and he’s been mourned when he’d fallen almost to the same extent as Captain America himself had. News of their deaths had been released together, because until Steve had gone into the ice, their missions were too secret for anyone, especially the enemy, to know that Cap had lost his right-hand man . . . and his reason to live.

Even before Bucky’s death, though, they’d started making little teddy bears who wore blue coats – calling them Bucky Bears – so America’s children could have their own loyal sidekick just like Cap.

If Bucky knew that now, he’d never let on. Steve hadn’t handled any of it well when he’d encountered it, but he hadn’t known that Bucky was still alive, at the time. He’d still been just weeks, days, from watching Bucky fall away. Steve wasn’t sure he wanted Bucky’s ego to know much more about the heartthrob stuff than he already did.

That smile, though. That Brooklyn cocksure toothy smile that made Bucky look so much younger than either he or Steve had a right to look. Steve had longed to see that smile again. He impulsively lurched forward and kissed Bucky, who groaned softly but returned the kiss almost desperately. His fingers came up to grasp at Steve’s hair, holding on almost to pain.

“Steve,” Bucky whispered into his mouth. Steve merely hummed and continued kissing him. “Are you okay?”

Steve nodded, licking at Bucky’s lips. “Always.”

“Fuckin’ hate you so much,” Bucky declared, then began to murmur in Russian as they kissed harder. Steve had never expected a day when he thought soft Russian whispers would sound like threats and also like home all at the same time.

“Alright, alright,” Sam muttered when he came back into the room. “Christ, figures you’re one of those who gets off on pain, Barnes.”

Steve pulled back, smiling as he pushed his hand through Bucky’s hair. Bucky took a deep, shaky breath, and he jerked a little when Sam jabbed him in the hip with the needle. It didn’t take long for his body to start relaxing even more beneath Steve’s; whatever powerful concoction Tony had come up with for that syringe worked even on the super soldier metabolism. Steve idly wondered if Tony’d created that stuff for Steve, originally, or if it was something he’d designed especially for Bucky after they’d had their bonding and bloodletting session in his lab.

Bucky hummed tunelessly as he relaxed, then he was babbling to himself again, falling back on that flawless, breathless Russian.

“That’s it, sweetheart,” Steve whispered, sliding his thumb down the bridge of Bucky’s nose, then swiping it across each cheekbone, repeating the soothing actions Bucky had used on him once upon a time when he’d been burning up from the inside out with fever.

Bucky’s mumbling switched over to a Brooklyn accent that tasted like home.

Steve realized he was getting a little too handsy, especially with as much pain as was still etched over Bucky’s face. He winced, pushing back further and glancing down Bucky’s body guiltily. He could only imagine what his struggling and thrashing in the midst of his nightmare had done, for Bucky to resort to grabbing him around the neck and holding him at bay, for Bucky to resort to calling out for help at the top of his lungs like he had. Sam wasn’t the only one who’d come to Steve’s door, harried and in their pajamas and armed, the rest of the team peering in and then leaving silently when they saw that Sam had it taken care of.

Steve met Sam’s eyes with a frown. “I shouldn’t stay here with him, should I?” he asked dejectedly. “He’d still be resting if I hadn’t woken him.”

Sam shrugged, wincing like he agreed with Steve but didn’t want to say it out loud.

Steve looked back down at Bucky. His eyes were closed. His brow was furrowed, his mouth a thin line and his whole face white with pain. That decided it, didn’t it? Steve didn’t dare risk doing this to him again. He bent and kissed Bucky’s temple, whispering into his ear. “I’ll be a call away, okay?”

“Please don’t leave me alone,” Bucky mumbled.

Steve’s heart twisted, his stomach lurching with nausea. “I . . .”

“I’ll stay,” Sam offered quietly, standing at the side of the bed and watching them with a sympathetic frown.

Steve gave him a grateful look, then kissed Bucky again. “Is that okay?” he asked. “Can Sam stay with you, so I don’t hurt you again with a nightmare?”

Bucky merely nodded. And if that didn’t say everything they needed to know about his condition, Steve didn’t know what would. Steve had hurt him badly enough that even Bucky agreed he didn’t need to be in the same bed with him. And he was feeling vulnerable enough – or perhaps even scared enough – that he would rather be weak and hurt in front of Sam of all people than lick his wounds in solitude.

Steve shared another glance with Sam, and he could tell Sam had come to the same conclusions, because the expression on his face when he looked down at Bucky again was nothing but concern and sympathy instead of annoyance or outright dislike, like usual.

“Okay,” Steve said softly. He kissed the edge of Bucky’s mouth, then his forehead, then his nose, which finally earned him a little amused huff and a ghost of a smile. “I’ll be in your bed, okay? Just knock on the headboard if you need me.”

“Yeah, okay,” Bucky muttered. “C’mere, Wilson, let’s knock on the headboard a little.”

“Thought you’d never ask,” Sam drawled, entirely too deadpan for the amusement Steve could see flickering in his warm eyes.

Steve carefully got out of bed, giving Sam’s shoulder a gentle, heartfelt squeeze. “Thank you, Sam.”

“Don’t mention it, Cap,” Sam grunted.

“Give me some sugar, Wilson, come on,” Bucky said, voice hoarse and strained even as he tried to make fun.

Steve headed for the door with a smirk, and Sam added, “I’m serious! Tell no one!”

“Yeah, yeah,” Steve called over his shoulder, pulling the door closed after watching Sam reluctantly crawl into bed next to Bucky and huff at him.

He went to the bathroom in Bucky’s room, splashing his face with cool water and staring into his reflection in the mirror. “Jesus, Rogers,” he said to the stranger in the mirror, eyeing the beard and the longer, messy hair and the gaunt hollows at his cheekbones and the haunted blue of his eyes. No wonder Bucky had been watching him with concern in his eyes for weeks. No wonder he couldn’t sleep next to Bucky without the labored breaths of his injuries causing Steve’s mind to revert to lurid, putrid concoctions of his worst memories and nightmares.

He trudged to the bed – Bucky’s bed – and buried his face in the pillows, inhaling the scent. Steve quickly drifted off into a deep, dreamless sleep that lasted until the sun rose, at peace amidst the smell of home.

==

It took nine days. It was nine long, impossible days before Bucky’s leg was better. It was nine agonizingly long days before he stopped fucking whining about being bored and having to use crutches – “Crutches, Steve! Shouldn’t these things be able to do more than just . . . crutch by now! Can we modify this to fire a projectile, Stark?” – and essentially trying to goad every other team member into putting him out of their misery.

Nine days, and Steve loved every goddamn second of them since he was allowed to watch Bucky openly like he hadn’t felt he could since they’d limped onto that quinjet in Siberia.

Nine days, and Steve was once more smitten, helplessly in love with a man who’d essentially become a human Grumpy Cat in his recovery.

He spent most of the recovery stretched out on Steve’s bed, because when he’d insisted the first morning that Steve help him to his own bed, Bucky had learned exactly why Steve had stopped at the first possible door along the hallway. Just a few steps from the bed, and Bucky had gone white, all his weight hanging off Steve’s shoulder, and Steve had barely gotten him to the toilet before Bucky had vomited out everything they’d managed to get into his body through the IV Sam had put it.

After that, Bucky had stopped teasing Steve about his failure to get him from the couch to his own room, and Steve had sat in awe of Bucky when he’d leaned against the headboard and explained in excruciating detail to Tony and Natasha how he’d not only gotten home, but also through the security system and finally passed out on the common room sofa.

“I just told Friday to let me the fuck in,” Bucky had tried to insist, but Tony had gone almost as red as his Iron Man suit, and Bucky had sheepishly explained how he’d really done it.

Steve wasn’t the only one who came by to keep him company, either. The entire team dropped by at one time or another, even Rhodey had wheeled into the room and sat speaking with Bucky for an hour or two. Steve had honestly not been sure that Rhodey was even still on the compound at one point, he’d seen so little of him.

After five days, Steve had self-consciously asked if he could try to spend the night with Bucky again, instead of one of the others taking a turn. Sam had emerged the first morning, bitching good-naturedly about how Bucky smelled like gun powder and how it was weird to wipe eye shadow off another dude, so don’t make me do it again, Steve.

The next night, Clint had taken over, and Steve had laid in Bucky’s bed, just a measly wall between them, straining to hear words that never came. He realized with an almost painful blush, a few hours into trying to eavesdrop, that Clint and Bucky were probably conversing up a storm in ASL. They hadn’t been fucking, though, so Steve took a bit of selfish comfort in that.

Natasha had taken the next night, to literally everyone’s surprise. When Steve had poked his head in on them to check on Bucky, she’d been sitting cross-legged beside him in bed, wearing nothing but a pair of lacy panties that looked kind of like they were cut like men’s boxers, and a small white shirt that hung off one of her shoulders and rose to mid-torso quite enticingly. Bucky had been sitting with his back against the headboard, a pillow under his splinted leg, his chest bare, his hair wet and combed back. She had helped him shower. Steve probably would have been going into a jealous fit over it all if Bucky hadn’t been casually braiding her long red hair as they talked in Russian when he’d checked in on them.

Steve had bid them an amused goodnight, leaving them to it with a wry shake of his head. Bucky had so loved his baby sisters, when they’d been young. Steve wondered if he hadn’t slotted Natasha into that younger sibling role, whether on purpose or not.

Last night Tony had bulled his way into what he’d called “Bucky-sitting”, and when Steve had gone to check on Bucky at his usual time, the hinges of his door had been fixed and the door had been locked. He’d pressed his ear to the wood to try to hear anything, but the murmur of Tony’s voice was all there was. “ – thought it’d be fun and all, but if I never hear you say the word ‘help’ again my life will be a perfectly happy one, okay Barnes, hey don’t you fucking fall asleep on me, I’m the most interesting thing you’ve got going right now, Tinman. Anyway, calling for help in that kind of voice? Never a-fucking-gain, not in any of the like fourteen languages you know, understood?”

“Understood,” Bucky had replied in a voice hoarse with disuse and possibly embarrassment.

The fifth night, Steve had asked Bucky if he minded Steve trying once more. Bucky had looked a little relieved to say yes. Steve had built up pillows for himself to lean against and then pulled Bucky gently to him so he could loop his arm around him and run his fingers through Bucky’s hair as he slept.

Don’t leave me. Don’t leave me again. I love you.

It was a mantra that danced through his head as he lay awake all night, letting Bucky sleep against his chest.

And Bucky’s voice, echoing in his ears, wrecked and broken, saying, I’ve loved you. I’ve loved you.

After that night, Bucky had been able to hobble back to his own room, and it was no longer up to Steve who got to stay with him at night. One night he definitely heard both Clint and Natasha in Bucky’s room, though, their words a comforting undercurrent of warmth and laughter.

Steve went to sleep with a smile that night, but he still woke fighting, Bucky’s name on his lips as he reached and reached into the darkness but never caught him.

==

Bucky woke on the ninth day of his convalescence, body positively thrumming with the need to get up and move and maim something.

He was careful and slow as he got out of bed, but his ribcage didn’t protest not even a tiny bit, and when he put weight on his leg and gave it a good hop and a tiny twist to test it, no pain shot up his body like the last time he’d tried. His muscles were a little sore from disuse, but it seemed Bucky’s body had finally beaten back the sickness the energy weapon had forced upon him.

He showered first, long and hot and groaning as he let the water batter his skin and muscles like it was punishment for being lazy. He washed his hair twice, because he fucking could thank you, and because he’d never truly gotten the shoe polish out of it that he’d used as camo that night. He then combed it back with his fingers, narrowing his eyes at himself in the mirror. Despite how fond he was of the length, and the ability to pull it back into one of those little hipster buns he was secretly really happy with, he needed to cut it.

Authorities were looking for a man with long jet-black hair that fell lank and dirty in his masked face. Bucky’s natural dark brown with a nice modern cut would go a long way to helping keep his face off the radar.

He searched through the drawers in his bathroom, but found no scissors. He could use a knife, but he wasn’t a goddamn savage so that was a last resort.

He got dressed instead, opting for a pair of loose sweatpants and a soft T-shirt that didn’t touch him anywhere that might get sore later. He headed for the common area in search of shears, but he nearly stumbled outside Steve’s door when he heard a soft cry.

He cocked his head, his heart rate picking up exponentially. Was it a bad dream, or was it sex? Steve kind of made the same noises for both.

He winced and risked a gentle knock, listening intently. Another soft gasp and a whimper, which told him absolutely jack shit. Bucky groaned and tried the doorknob, hoping he didn’t get an eyeful this early in the morning.

But Steve was alone. He was all twisted up in his sheets, the heavy quilt hanging on for dear life over the edge of the bed, the pillows fighting back as Steve swung at them, shoving them, gasping, thrashing.

“Stevie,” Bucky said, closing the door behind him. He didn’t go closer to the bed. He knew what Steve could do before he was in his right mind, and Bucky really didn’t feel like defending himself right now. “Steve!”

Steve gasped and bolted upright, blue eyes wide and blinking away sleep as he looked around frantically. They landed on Bucky, who hovered near the door, feet planted and shoulders turned sideways to make himself a smaller target for a projectile.

“You’re okay, pal,” Bucky cooed after a few seconds of nothing but Steve’s harsh breaths. He moved closer, showing Steve that his hands were empty, head cocked, smiling gently.

“Buck,” Steve finally said, sounding confused. “Are you walking?”

“That’s me, walking on my own,” Bucky said gently. During the War it had always been Bucky who woke fighting, screaming, scrabbling, dying over and over in the darkness. Before he’d received his orders, though, before he’d been drafted as cannon fodder for a crazy man’s war, Bucky had slept like a goddamn baby. Steve, on the other hand, had never gotten through a fitful night without waking at least once, winded and wide-eyed and scared. During the War, he’d slept like a statue. Or not at all. Maybe that was why he’d never dreamed. You can’t dream if you refuse to sleep.

Bucky could take a few guesses what Steve dreamed of now.

“You shaken up?” Bucky asked, standing at the edge of the bed.

Steve gulped in a breath, nodding jerkily. It wasn’t a stupid question. It was a very good question, one they’d asked each other every morning during the year they’d stalked Hydra like they were the hunters and not the prey.

“Want company?”

Steve nodded again, either too rattled or too grateful to try words yet.

Bucky crawled into the bed, moving gingerly but pleased when nothing hurt. He fixed the pillows behind Steve, then the sheets and quilt over him. He coaxed Steve to recline again, and he stretched out next to him. He didn’t even have to offer before Steve had wrapped around him and pressed his face to Bucky’s chest.

Bucky stroked his hair, murmuring to him, cooing softly, his fingers gentle as he scraped them over Steve’s scalp and lined Steve’s ears and tickled the back of his neck. “Want to talk it out?”

Steve shook his head, sighing.

“Don’t tell me it’s better since I’m here now, I ain’t forgot you trying to bash my beautiful face in the other night.”

Steve gasped out a laugh, then pushed his head back, sighing as he looked up into Bucky’s eyes. “I dream about you,” he admitted.

“Well, who wouldn’t?” Bucky asked with a crooked smirk.

Steve rolled his eyes, a smile playing over his gorgeous goddamn mouth. Bucky pressed the bottom of his tongue to his lower lip, cursing internally. He stroked his fingers down Steve’s face, jutting his chin out to urge Steve to keep talking.

“I dream about . . . hurting you. That it’s me hurting you.”

Bucky felt guilt curling hot and heavy in the pit of his stomach. “I’m sorry,” he offered somewhat lamely. “I never should’ve told you the things I did.”

“I knew them,” Steve whispered. “I should’ve already known them.”

He pressed two of his fingers to Bucky’s lips, scowling as his eyes followed their progress across Bucky’s mouth and up his cheekbone. It took literally every ounce of self-control in Bucky’s body not to try to bite them. He twitched with the effort.

Steve’s eyes returned to his as if Bucky’s movement had broken a spell, and Steve’s hand on his cheek grasped a little more possessively. He leaned in and kissed Bucky, slow and sweet.

“I’m sorry for the things you did in my name,” Steve finally murmured, almost too quiet for Bucky to hear.

“Hey,” Bucky grunted, pushing Steve a little to try to get a look at him. He couldn’t, though. Steve clung to him as if he sensed weakness in his target and had dug in some sort of hooks already. So Bucky pulled him closer, held him tighter, kissed his forehead and wished it was his lips. “I’m good at killing, Steve,” he said lightly. “And if I’m doing it for you, I even enjoy it a little bit.”

Steve jerked again, inhaling sharply.

“That change the way you think of me?” Bucky asked, not to be cruel, but because he was genuinely curious. “You remember what Dugan used to say to me, about my hands not shaking?”

Steve was still and silent. Bucky could almost imagine he was the runt version of Steve that Bucky’d had so much trouble remembering, because it hadn’t made sense at first. He remembered everything now, of course. The hows and whys. Still, he pulled Steve closer, like he still had to protect him.

“He told me once, ‘Jimmy, every military man has a limit, you know. Even the toughest sons of bitches in the world hit their limit in time, and then they can’t help but live with that shake. They keep going, they keep killing, they keep spilling blood over their limit. But they shake ’cause they’re trying to catch an innocence that left a dozen headshots back. But you, Jimmy,’ he told me, ‘your hands ain’t never gonna shake.’ And they never have.”

“Christ, he said that to you?” Steve gasped, finally raising his head in outrage. “When?”

“Before Azzano. Before we were captured. Before you. Before . . . Zola made me into this.”

Steve stared at him, eyes so blue, so earnest and not at all innocent for all they’d seen.

Bucky sighed. He’d been dreading this conversation, but he thought Steve needed to hear it before he continued tying himself into knots. “You told me one time, Erskine told you the serum took what was already inside the man and amplified it.”

Steve nodded, looking wary now.

But Bucky shrugged. “I was already a stone-cold killer, Steve. I was already a reprobate queer who only loved the things that loved me first. None of what I am is your fault.”

Steve was shaking his head, and Bucky could see the stubborn set to his jaw, could hear the fight coming.

“You ever wonder how I got the money to buy your medicine when your mom couldn’t afford it?” Bucky broke in, cutting Steve’s argument off at the knees just like a mortar round finding its way into a foxhole.

Steve swallowed hard, shaking his head.

Bucky raised one eyebrow pointedly, giving Steve a look of pure disappointment and disbelief.

Steve cleared his throat. “You took on extra jobs down at the docks,” he provided. Which was, technically, oh so very goddamn true.

Bucky pursed his lips and nodded, eyebrow still raised, amused by how blind Steve chose to be of some things. “First time I got on my knees and sucked you off, did you ever stop to wonder how the hell I knew how to do that like a goddamn professional, Steve?”

Steve groaned and closed his eyes. It wasn’t the usual sound he made when Bucky brought up Steve’s cock in his mouth, though. It was pained, like an animal taking its last breath of sweet, sweet air before giving in and sighing into death. Bucky pulled him closer, and he pressed his face so hard to Bucky’s chest that his giant fucking nose on his giant fucking face hurt Bucky’s sternum when it hit.

There were connective tissues there, right on the center of the sternum, that attached the pectoral muscles to the bone. And if you poked a finger or two – or a giant bald eagle freedom nose – into that spot on the sternum hard enough, it could stop a 200-pound man in his tracks. The bigger the muscles, the more it hurt. Bucky remembered teaching that to a couple of little girls who he was afraid would be eaten alive by the world, but he didn’t know who those little girls were. His memory had yet to provide an answer.

“Stevie,” Bucky whispered, running his palm down the back of Steve’s head. “Hey. No more of this shit, huh? If I don’t feel sorry for me, you sure as hell ain’t got the right.”

Steve made another sound, something like a growl. It vibrated through Bucky’s chest. Oh hey, whoa, that was kind of nice. Shit.

Steve lifted his head. “Tell me you’re lying,” he demanded.

Bucky narrowed his eyes. “Why?”

“Because!” Steve shouted. He sat up and grabbed his head in his hands, beginning to rock.

“Because the Bucky Barnes in your head isn’t exactly the same model year as the one that existed?” Bucky asked, again not trying to be cruel, but curious and kind of tired of Steve’s histrionics at this point. He gave a wry bark. “So much for I’d love any version of you.”

Steve growled again, and yeah, hi, help, that was a nice sound emitting from his chest and throat. Bucky shivered in delight, grinning crookedly at Steve’s back as he remained stretched out.

“No! Because I should fucking hate hearing it!” Steve said, head still down, knuckles turning white as he grasped at his hair.

Bucky pushed up to his elbow, crossing his ankles as he watched Steve with a small, sympathetic smile.

Steve turned to look at him, angry and desperate and possibly a hint of fear in the lines of his mouth and eyes. “I should hate it,” Steve growled, staring into Bucky’s eyes, the blue turning to flame the same color of those Hydra weapons that had haunted all their dreams in the War. “I should hate you for telling me. You down at the docks on your knees for strangers, taking their money as they zipped up! You looking down the scope of a rifle and putting a bullet in some 19-year old Italian’s head and then fucking giving me that grin you used to give me, that fucking sideways cocksucking grin when you made a shot they said was impossible, like you hadn’t just murdered some woman’s son! The way you would cross yourself all lazy like you were mocking it before you squeezed the trigger! I should hate everything about it!”

Bucky watched him passively, warmth growing in his chest as he listened to Steve’s anger bank. He clucked his tongue and gave a lazy shrug. “But you don’t,” he guessed.

“I don’t,” Steve admitted brokenly. “God! What does that make me, Buck? If you’re the fiend, then what does it make me for loving every goddamn little thing about you?”

Bucky sighed heavily. “Now you see where I been coming from all this time?” he asked quietly, smile suddenly gone. He’d tried so hard to save Steve from himself.

Steve blinked at him, stunned. “Is that . . . is that why you wouldn’t give me the time of day after we got out of Kreischberg? Is that why?”

Bucky gave a curt nod.

“You . . . asshole,” Steve whispered.

Bucky almost wanted to laugh at him. Almost. “Stevie, you remember those cages they had us in? The ones you found the others in when you stormed Kreischberg?”

Steve merely nodded, still too stunned to do anything. He wasn’t even swallowing. Bucky refused to mop up drool, though, so Steve was on his own there. He sat up and pushed himself until he was lounging against Steve’s headboard, feet crossed at the ankles once more, armed crossed, pose as insolent and seductive as he could make it with sweatpants on. He knew he’d succeeded when Steve’s eyes darted down the length of him.

Bucky’s lips twitched. “Well, you remember we told you why they put us in the cages they did, right?”

“They were mixing up nationalities,” Steve recited dully. “They wanted the prisoners too busy hating and fighting each other to fight them.”

Bucky nodded. He held up his hand and started counting off the members of the team they formed after the escape. “You got your Yank Mick. Your Limey. Your Frog. Your negro. Your Jap,” he said, making sure the ugly words were as harsh as they could possibly be coming from his tongue, making sure they hit Steve hard, holding up all five fingers. Then he made a fist and jerked his thumb at himself. “You ever ask yourself how me and Dugan got in that cage together? Two guys from the Irish Brigade? Makes no sense, Steve.”

Steve shook his head, at a loss. His eyes silently begging Bucky to stop, like he knew he didn’t want to know the answer.

“I was the queer, Steve. I was the fairy they threw into the mix. Before you ever got there, the boys already knew what I was, who I was. Dugan figured me out when I was in foxholes full of blood and gore, saying your name in my sleep. But I’d had a year to prove myself to Dugan regardless, and I had a month in that place to prove myself to the rest of them. Prove to them that even a limp-wristed little fairy can get blood in his hands just as easy as they could. They saved my life in that place, instead of letting that sadistic motherfucker of a guard beat me to death like he was going to. Because they didn’t see me as a fairy no more than I saw them as any of the things the German’s labeled ’em with. You understand?”

Steve closed his eyes. Bucky had never told him the particulars of his time as a prisoner in the weapons factory. But the details were out there now, right in the Smithsonian, for all the world to gaze upon and see how Bucky had been so sick with walking pneumonia he hadn’t even been able to get his hands up to keep that guard from beating him bloody. The other boys, though, they’d pulled together and used their combined skills to kill that man deader than dead the very next day.

It had been to save Bucky’s life that the eventual Howling Commandos had come together and realized they made one hell of an elite team. And sure, it was a great story to hang in the Smithsonian, the tale of how the Howling Commandos had fought back even as poor abused Sergeant James Barnes, with his big blue eyes and his pretty lips that women still cooed over as they looked at his memorial, was dragged away between two Hydra guards toward the isolation clinic where men screamed and screamed for mercy but never came back.

It was a great story because Captain America had saved him before it could end in tragedy, right?

No one had chiseled the rest of the story into that big glass wall, though, the story of burning from the inside out, the story of little raging fire demons settling in Bucky’s bones, eating up the marrow so they’d grow big and strong and him along with them, taking every little shameful part of him that he’d tried so hard to balance out by being a good man, taking those things and honing those horrible, debauched things he’d never thought to be proud of.

Honing the insides of him into steel, until he could pick a stranger and taken them into an alley and fuck them without wanting to cry because it’s not Steve, honing them until he could hold his hands steady and pop open a Kraut skull at sixteen hundred yards and then go back to playing cards without the Ace up his sleeve ever wavering on his fingertips. Of all the things for a pretty queer from Brooklyn to have a talent for, and killing was the thing he did better than anyone else he’d ever met.

Bucky was staring at Steve, waiting for him to say something. Steve couldn’t even look at him, though, sat staring at the sheets that had pooled in his lap. He finally raised his head and took a deep breath, staring across the room instead of turning to meet Bucky’s expectant gaze.

“So, you pushed me away because they knew you were queer. Is that it?” he finally asked, sounding tired.

“You were safe,” Bucky responded, the words coming out a little bit more wistful than he’d intended. He cleared his throat.

“They loved you, Buck,” Steve whispered. “They loved you so goddamn much, they didn’t care what you were.”

“That’s why I loved them back,” Bucky admitted, his voice finally breaking.

Steve hunched his shoulders, staying that way for a second before turning around and getting to his knees so he was facing Bucky.

“Why’d you stay with me?” he demanded. “Why didn’t you take the free trip home when you could have? After what you went through in Kreischberg you had every right.”

Bucky made a face and huffed, almost laughing. “And leave you behind?” he made a strawberry sound that tickled his lips. “Fuck you, Rogers.”

“You loved me enough to die for me, but not enough to let me decide whether people knew I loved you?” Steve practically ground the words out of his teeth.

Bucky smiled serenely. “I also knew, by that point.”

“Knew what?” Steve snapped, his nostrils flaring and his eyes still ablaze with righteous anger.

“What I was.” Bucky gazed at him fondly. Steve had every right to be angry, and he was fucking glorious when he was. He looked confused over Bucky’s answer, though, so Bucky took a deep breath and kept talking. “After that thirty mile march back to the Allied lines and I wasn’t even fucking winded or hungry or thirsty or nothin’, I knew, Stevie. I knew they’d done something to me. I knew what I was meant to be in their plans. I was meant to be a weapon, a wolf that stalked the woods for little girls in red capes. Only they meant me to be on their side. They fucked up. And I couldn’t let that kind of miscalculation go unpunished, Steve.”

For the briefest of moments, Bucky thought his words had finally hit home. For the briefest of moments, the expression on Steve’s face morphed from confusion into horror and realization, turned into someone who was looking across their bed at a stranger. But then the expression was gone, fading into something else, something familiar, something Bucky knew all too well.

Goddammit. Steve had heard his every little dirty secret. Steve had heard him confess his sins in the harshest words Bucky could muster from the darkness of his soul. Steve had sat there and watched Bucky flay himself open and let every ounce of dark, guilty sickness ooze out over everything pure between them. And Steve was motherfucking turned on.

“Absolutely not,” Bucky blurted in alarm, holding a hand up to block Steve’s face from his sight.

Steve slapped his arm aside and crawled into his lap, kissing him with both hands on each side of Bucky’s face.

“You’re an awful person!” Bucky said with a laugh when Steve came up for air.

“Takes one to love one,” Steve grunted before kissing him again, rolling his hips until Bucky was moaning in frustration and grabbing him to keep him still.

“Seriously!” Bucky cried as Steve began to kiss his way down Bucky’s jawline to his neck. “I sit here telling you all this shit and all you got for me is, ‘hey, that’s hot’ like some –”

“Bucky, shut up.” Steve whispered against his lips, and Bucky snapped his mouth closed obediently.

Steve pressed his forehead to Bucky’s, their noses brushing, his hands framing Bucky’s face a little too ardently, and Bucky was wondering if Steve planned on snapping Bucky’s neck. He was breathing hard, gearing himself up for something. At this point, Bucky wasn’t sure anything was going to surprise him.

Then Steve sat back and grabbed Bucky’s chin with one hand, squeezing to make sure Bucky could only move his eyes. He pushed until the back of Bucky’s head hit the headboard, and he held Bucky there, straddling him, eyes on fire, jaw tight.

“You took a year from me,” he said, voice low and dangerous and positively ringing with anger and pain. It made Bucky’s spine sing and his shoulder throb, not entirely unpleasantly. “A year that you and I could have been together, could have been happy. A year that I could have spent rolling in the goddamn mud with you instead of trying to make you fucking proud of me like some sort of fucking dancing chimp.”

“I was always proud of you, Steve,” Bucky hissed.

“Shut up!” Steve’s fingers dug into his jaw, outlining the bone, jamming into the hollow of his cheek. Bucky parted his lips to relieve the pressure. He’d seen this grip before, usually when someone wanted to hold a mouth conveniently open. He gasped in through his nose, breathing out through his mouth, knowing Steve wouldn’t do that.

“A year,” Steve whispered. He used his other hand to drag his finger longingly down the line of Bucky’s cheekbone. “A year of thinking you’d gone off to war and grown into a man who didn’t need to love someone like me anymore. A year of watching you, with blood all over your face, of loving you so goddamned much because you were the most beautiful, dangerous, heinously perfect thing I had ever seen. A year, I had to watch you, all whipcord fast and feral. And then you were gone. All because some Hydra piece of shit called you a fairy and you thought I couldn’t handle it?”

Bucky blinked, staring into Steve’s eyes, at an utter loss for perhaps the first time in his entire series of lives as to what he should say.

Steve gripped a fistful of Bucky’s shirt, pulling him, using his chin as a second handle, which, rude, and hauled him off the bed to his feet. He shoved Bucky away from him and Bucky stumbled a few paces before righting himself, turning to look at Steve amidst some weird confusion of arousal and fear and pity and Bucky just really wanted to give him a hug, a drink, and maybe a really sloppy blowjob? He couldn’t figure out exactly what he was feeling in response to Steve’s current mood, but he kind of liked it. A lot.

“Steve?” Bucky tried carefully as Steve squared his shoulders and glared at him.

“A year!” Steve shouted, advancing on him.

“Ah, Christ,” Bucky muttered under his breath, and he bowed his shoulders and allowed Steve to plow into him.

They hit the wall with an audible loss of air from both their lungs, and the wall complained but didn’t collapse like Bucky had half expected it to. The rooms were soundproofed as hell, maybe they were also reinforced for super people?

Bucky wasn’t trying to fight back, he just didn’t want to be put back on nine more days of bed rest, so he was going to let Steve work out his frustrations . . . to a point.

Steve didn’t seem to care that Bucky wasn’t fighting back. He grabbed Bucky’s wrist and twisted it, jerking Bucky’s shoulders sideways, forcing him to turn in order to avoid the pain. Then Steve shoved Bucky from behind, slamming him chest first against the wall, holding his metal arm twisted behind him.

“Wow,” Bucky gasped as Steve shoved his face against the wall with a forearm at his neck. “Good thing those ribs healed up all nice already, Stevie, ’cause that was way too much fun to miss out on.”

“A year,” Steve hissed into his ear, and Bucky shivered with the puff of breath gusting over his skin.

“Wasn’t exactly a picnic for me either, pal,” Bucky tried.

Steve growled and jabbed the wall beside Bucky’s head with his elbow, a move that would definitely break someone’s face in a fight. Nice form! It dented the wall, but didn’t rip it a new one like it should have. Definitely reinforced. Nice everything!

“Steve,” Bucky tried, his voice calm and quiet. “Stevie.”

“Shut up!”

Bucky tried to shake his head, but couldn’t. He laughed instead, the sound hoarse and desperate and almost taunting. He felt Steve push closer, his body overheating and all over Bucky’s, like he was getting ready to whisper another threat or accusation in Bucky’s ear.

Bucky pre-empted him with a wide grin. “I am so fucking turned on right now, Stevie, you have no idea.”

That stopped Steve cold. He was still gripping Bucky’s wrist, twisting the arm almost to pain. He was still using his bulkier body to keep Bucky pinned to the wall. And he had his forearm pressed to the back of Bucky’s neck once more, forcing his cheek into the wall. Bucky’s free hand pressed against the plaster – or whatever the hell the material was, Bucky hoped it was enhanced strength-level angry-fucking against a wall proof! – and he dragged his fingers against it slowly to show Steve that he wasn’t trying to fight or get away, that he wasn’t panicking or scrabbling, that he was calm.

Steve’s breath gusted out against his cheek, and Bucky could feel that he was hard and growing harder against the side of Bucky’s hip. Steve rested his chin against Bucky’s shoulder, face pressed to Bucky’s cheek.

His voice sent pleased chills down Bucky’s spine when he finally managed to speak again, low and barely in control. “How many times?”

“Can you be more specific?” Bucky asked with an expectant smirk.

“How many times did you go down to the dock yards and suck cock for money?”

Bucky hummed. How many times were you sick while we were dirt poor, there, pal? He decided on, “I couldn’t say.”

“How many of them did you let fuck you?” Steve’s grip tightened almost like he didn’t realize he was doing it. “Huh? Hold you up against some alley wall just like this?”

Bucky hummed a negative. “That wasn’t my specialty, champ, you know that.”

“How many times after . . .” Bucky heard him swallow on the words, like he was trying to be rid of the mere thought of the aborted question.

“After you?” Bucky asked gently, smiling soft and fond. “Never.”

Steve jerked his chin to the side, humming like he didn’t believe it.

“When it was you, it was only ever you,” Bucky promised. And for all his sins, lying had never been one of them. “God, I loved you more than life itself.”

“And before Azzano? Before I got there and you broke my goddamn heart?” Steve continued, the anger in his voice letting up a little, turning into a waver.

“I wasn’t yours anymore, Steve. Not after the night of the Stark Expo.”

Steve’s breath left him like Bucky had thrown a punch right to his gut. “Why?” he asked, desperate and small.

Bucky gritted his teeth, closing his eyes. “Rather enlist than say goodbye to a dying man,” he managed to hiss through the cage of a jaw that wouldn’t unlock. “And after I was there to tell you I loved you every time you were at death's door, no matter how much it hurt. You chose the War over me. I wasn’t yours anymore, after that.”

Steve began to make a sound, then, like the distant hum of a pristine engine making its way down a lonely, silent highway. It started in his chest, then grew louder and more threatening, growling into his throat as his grip on Bucky’s wrist tightened. The sound turned into an anguished cry and he pulled Bucky away from the wall and slammed him back against it with all his strength, pushing at him as Bucky tried to get enough room between the wall and his face that someone would still be able tell him he was pretty after this, goddammit, Steve you’re not the fucking Hulk, here, okay.

He still had his one hand free, and it was all he needed to push away from the wall and twist violently, ducking and sidestepping and using his elbow to smack against Steve’s temple. Then he kicked at him sideways, landing a rather gentle blow right in his ass that had him stumbling toward the wall himself.

Bucky took up his new position, grabbing both Steve’s arms, twisting them back until Steve grimaced, kicking his legs so wide apart that Steve wouldn’t be able to mimic the move Bucky had just performed. He used the right hand to hold him in place by his hip as his left held both Steve’s arms motionless against his struggles. He leaned in close, whispering into Steve’s ear, the one that Bucky had always whispered into, because he’d known that Steve was half-deaf in the other one and it had become ingrained in his bones with all his other demons that if he wanted his lover to hear him when he came, he had to moan into that ear as he did it.

“I thought you broke my heart,” he admitted. “But I just didn’t know what broken was. Not yet. Hydra taught me that lesson.”

Steve closed his eyes, and Bucky gave his cheek a gentle peck of a kiss before he stepped back, releasing him carefully.

Steve remained where he was, splatted like a bug on a windshield, eyes closed, body trembling, temple resting against the wall. Hands splayed, feet spread wide apart. Bucky’s eyes raked him up and down, and he sighed shakily. “Jesus, Stevie, the things I could do to you,” he mused.

“So do them,” Steve responded, voice still deep and flat, hiding the emotion by trying to drain everything from his words.

Bucky hummed, nodding. It was certainly tempting. His body was definitely on board, still singing with adrenaline and need, and his dick had been aching ever since Steve had grabbed his face in that eagle talon suck my dick grip of his.

He almost regretted slipping Steve’s hold, taking the fight out of him like he’d done. Steve had been something truly magnificent there for a few seconds, something with so much rage and fire that it could have rivaled Bucky’s own inner swirling. But . . .

“I don’t want you mad at me, Steve,” Bucky admitted, sounding small and almost innocent even to his own ears.

Steve lowered his head, then turned to look carefully over his shoulder. A moment of staring later, and he turned and rested his back against the wall, slumping his shoulders, the anger leaving him like a weight being dropped by a scuba diver.

Bucky scowled as his eyes skittered over Steve and down to his feet. Had he ever been scuba diving? He wasn’t sure . . . that was a weird analogy . . .

“Buck?” Steve’s voice was soft, regretful. Bucky’s eyes shot back up, meeting Steve’s. “Did I hurt you?”

“Pft.” Bucky waved a hand through the air, cocking his head at Steve and taking a measured step toward him. “Did I hurt you?”

Steve shook his head, patting his chest as if to say the wall was no match for it.

Bucky rolled his eyes. “Not what I meant.”

Steve chewed on the inside of his cheek for a minute, and Bucky had a weird, nauseated flashback to countless faces doing the same thing, dislodging their cyanide capsules so they could die before Bucky got his terrifying, legendary hands on them.

He shivered violently, hoping Steve was too distracted to notice.

“The year hurts,” Steve admitted, voice subdued now. “But I never realized . . . I never realized you saw it as a choice I made.”

“What’s that, Ace?”

“Between enlisting and saying a proper goodbye to you,” Steve murmured, eyes devotedly on the floor right in front of Bucky’s bare feet.

“Oh.” Bucky didn’t know what else to say to that. He’d gone off to war, set sail for England and the instant death of the fronts, aboard a ship full of young men waving their loved ones goodbye, and Steve had been nowhere to be seen. It had been a very long trip across the ocean, but Bucky supposed he was lucky. The next time he got to cross it had been in a goddamn fighter jet with a stealth chute and positively no memory of that heartbreak, instead of a chugging war ship with weeks to wonder what the hell he’d done to not deserve a farewell kiss.

When he glanced up Steve was watching him, eyes sad again. Maybe it hadn’t been completely altruistic on his part, Bucky mused. When the fuck had he ever been altruistic, after all? Maybe, just maybe, when he’d come to his goddamn senses after that goddamn table in that goddamn lab, and he’d seen Steve there, this bright and shiny new version of Steve that the country thought belonged to it instead of to Bucky alone, maybe something in him had merely snapped. Maybe it had been in response to the way Steve and Peggy Carter had looked at each other, a bond formed while Bucky had been strapped to a table and screaming, praying, begging to die. Maybe it had been revenge for the fucking broken heart Steve had sent him off to war with that had made him too jagged and angry to just give up and die like a sensible human fucking being. He'd needed to stay alive so he could get back to Brooklyn and tell that stubborn little obnoxious piece of love of his shit life to go fuck himself, if Bucky didn't even deserve a kiss for luck going off to war.

Or maybe, just maybe, he’d already been too dead to realize Steve still loved him desperately. Everyone else on those tables had died. Why hadn’t he?

Steve shuffled forward, eyes on Bucky, shoulders still slumped. “Buck,” he gasped.

Bucky spread his arms wide, shrugging one shoulder and smirking in invitation. Steve tossed his massive stupid self into Bucky’s arms and they both stumbled backward. Bucky was snickering quietly as he folded Steve up into a tight hug. The backs of his thighs had hit the mattress to warn him of where they were, but Steve seemed to merely need a hug. So Bucky stood there, squeezing him tight, leaving the bed out of it.

“I spent most of my first life and all of my second one so full of anger I could barely breathe,” Steve whispered.

Bucky gave him a gentle squeeze.

“You were the only thing I ever saw that was gentle. And good.” Steve’s words were barely audible.

Bucky had to fight hard not to snort. Gentle and good? Him? God, they’d placed each other on such heights. How had they ever thought to climb them without each other’s help? Bucky pressed his lips to Steve’s cheek, bringing a hand up to pat at Steve’s head.

“Do you see the real me, now?” Bucky asked, once more merely curious.

Steve nodded. “You’re still gentle,” Steve whispered against Bucky’s neck. “And you’re still so, so good.”

Bucky began to frown. Wait, what?

“Your methods are hard and your exterior is terrifying,” Steve continued. “But you risked yourself over and over, more times than I could ever count, to save one of us, during the War. To save one of your men, men you claim called you a fairy to your face and didn’t care what you were. When you remembered who you were and went back to that bank where that chair was, you didn’t even kill the men there who’d done this to you, Buck. You left them alive.”

Steve straightened, meeting Bucky’s eyes with frown. Bucky stared back, not really anything except curious yet again, waiting for Steve to work through his scowling. Good God he looked amazing with that beard.

“How? Why?” Steve asked.

Bucky blinked at him a couple times. He’d had exactly two options after the Battle of the Triskelion. He could go on a killing spree of every Hydra base he knew and slowly regain his memories amidst the blood and brain matter that would have accompanied such an endeavor. A fair plan, he’d been totally on board. Or, he could go under, so far under, that no one would ever be hurt by him again. He’d chosen the latter so he might be worthy to call Steve friend again, when he surfaced. But how did he answer Steve? I had enough blood on me? They were crying so I knocked them unconscious to shut them up? I was tired and broken because some dillhole dislocated my arm and then fell into a goddamn river?

Bucky shook his head, then merely said, “For you.”

Steve kissed him. He brought his hand up to cup Bucky’s face, so gently Bucky could almost forget that cheek had just been trying to absorb the knowledge of the wall through osmosis a few minutes ago. Bucky was holding him close, and he wasn’t able to pull Steve much closer as they both moaned and deepened the kiss as if on the cue of some long-lost play they’d both once been stars of.

Steve struggled to get his other hand free from Bucky’s tight embrace, but when he did he tangled his fingers in Bucky’s hair, twirling the still damp strands and holding on. They kissed slowly, not needing to come up for air, not needing to break and give themselves a moment because their tongues or lips or jaws were sore, just brushing their lips and tongues together gently, languidly. This was something they’d once known how to do rather well, considering Bucky’s highest speed at the time would have literally killed Steve with an asthma attack or something.

But it was nice, now, meeting like this as equals. None of the animosity or desperation of the last two times they’d fucked; one here, the other in a bombed out inn in France. This was more of a reunion, a reminder of how good they had once been together.

Steve’s hand tightened in Bucky’s hair, and Bucky finally tilted his head back, staring up at the ceiling as Steve pressed gentle, tickling kisses down his neck.

“I’m going to cut it today,” Bucky said absently, his eyes drifting closed.

Steve made a disappointed sound, his hand clutching at Bucky’s hair possessively.

“You know it’s the smart move.”

Steve grunted, then finally raised his head again and kissed the tip of Bucky’s unshaven chin. He was grinning when Bucky looked back at him, “Then let me enjoy it while it’s here, huh?”

Bucky held his breath for several seconds, then gave a curt nod. Steve kissed him enthusiastically, then broke away from Bucky and went to the door to lock it. Someone had hung a new door, with new hinges, since Sam had come pounding into the room the night Bucky had cried out for help. Bucky needed to remember to tell Sam not only thank you for being the first one there, but also hot damn, son, because that had been smoking hot in retrospect.

Steve had already pulled his T-shirt off and tossed it to the floor, and he was starting to push his pants down as he shuffled back toward the edge of the bed and Bucky.

Bucky raised one sardonic eyebrow and watched him openly. “You giving it or taking it this morning?” Bucky asked wryly.

Steve seemed to stutter to a stop, like he was a computer program with a glitch. He stared at Bucky, blue eyes wide and unblinking. Welp. System operating error. Reboot.

“Steve?”

“You . . . you’re offering to get fucked?”

Bucky gave an elegant shrug and a nod, still smiling at the look on Steve’s face.

“You . . . I didn’t know you . . . oh God,” Steve sat on the edge of the bed with a huff, taking a deep breath, then letting it out. “Jesus, Buck.”

“What, a guy can’t change things up?” Bucky teased, shocked at Steve’s reaction but enjoying it immensely. He moved over to where Steve sat, taking his time pulling his shirt off, letting it slowly reveal the hard-won muscles of his torso and the metal arm he knew Steve kind of had a thing for before he tossed the shirt aside.

Steve sat looking up at him, still in glitch mode, his sweatpants pushed to his knees but forgotten.

Bucky hooked his thumbs under the waistband of his own pants, standing in front of Steve, cocking his head to the side in the very picture of confused concern.

“A guy can’t like getting on his knees and getting absolutely pounded?” Bucky asked with an almost coquettish brush of his toes over Steve’s.

“I never . . . you just always . . . were . . . have you ever been fucked by someone?”

Bucky nodded curtly. Steve definitely didn’t need to hear those stories, the good or the bad. He pushed his pants down and kicked out of them, then stepped into Steve’s space and took the edge of Steve’s sweats to yank them down his legs. In order to get them off completely, and for other reasons, Bucky met Steve’s eyes pointedly and slowly sank to his knees at Steve’s feet.

Steve’s breaths were coming hard and fast, his chest rising and falling at an alarming rate. Once he had the pants pulled off, Bucky bent his head and kissed Steve’s knee, grinning as he pushed Steve’s knees apart and shoved in between them. He was pleased to see that Steve was hard again. Or hard still. Whatever.

He licked his way up Steve’s cock, then kissed his belly and then his chest as he crawled up Steve’s body and shoved him so he’d lay out flat.

Steve’s eyes were still wide and impossibly blue as he stared up at Bucky. Bucky grinned and bopped him on the nose with his finger. “Give or take?” he asked.

The question must have finally cleared the glitch, because Steve tensed and blinked so rapidly that Bucky thought he might have gotten a breeze if he’d been closer to Steve’s face. “You’d let me give it to you?” he asked, voice low again, but tempered with awe now instead of anger.

Bucky’s grin went crooked and teasing, his teeth flashing like the wild thing he was. “God, yeah, Steve.”

Steve nodded hastily, his hands coming to rest on Bucky’s hips as Bucky straddled him and settled with Steve’s erect cock nestled against his ass. He bent over and kissed Steve gently, settling on his elbows. “What do you say we call this a fresh start, huh?” he proposed as they gazed into each other's eyes, neither moving, not even to rub against each other seeking the friction Bucky knew they both wanted.

Steve breathed out in a rush, looking relieved. “I’d like that,” he whispered. “God, Buck, I’d fucking love that.”

Bucky hummed and kissed him again, then scrambled off him and went to the table beside the bed, the one on the right side. That’s where Steve had always kept his slick stuff, no matter what century it was. Steve crawled into the middle of the bed, pulling the covers back, shoving the pillows awry like a goddamn wild animal, like Bucky hadn’t just fucking made the bed look all nice and shit!

Bucky climbed onto the mattress, tossing the bottle of lubricant to Steve as he rolled to his back into the middle of the bed. Steve was on him in seconds, his body heavy over Bucky’s, his kisses somehow both sincere and scorching. His hands were all over Bucky at first, but then one came to tangle in Bucky’s hair, which had dried a little curly but whatever, and Steve didn’t let it go.

Bucky let his knees knock against Steve’s hips, inviting him to settle there, then he spread them wide enough to let Steve do it. Steve was big; definitely the biggest guy by sheer muscle mass that Bucky had ever fucked or let fuck him. Bucky was a little concerned he might have to keep alert to his own fight or flight response if Steve got rough. Looking up into Steve's shining eyes and grinning, Bucky didn’t give it a second thought.

Steve’s mouth stayed on his, teasing, sucking, licking, biting, moaning, latching on whenever Bucky whimpered so he could suck on that spot until Bucky whimpered harder, asshole, before moving on to new explorations. All the while, Bucky was letting himself get used to the feel of Steve’s hips against his inner thighs, allowing his body to recognize friend not food as Steve rolled his hips and rutted against him.

Bucky finally shifted the angle of his spine a little and tossed one of his legs over Steve’s shoulder, breathing shallow and fast, his hands grasping at Steve’s ass to tug him in close.

“Holy shit,” Steve whispered as he pushed his hard cock against Bucky and ran his fingers ever so gently from Bucky’s knee down to his hip. “How the hell are you so flexible?”

Bucky laughed, his head thrown back, his back arched, the crook of his knee squeezing at Steve’s shoulder. “Christ, Rogers, will you fucking do me, already?”

Steve nearly whimpered, his cock sliding along the crease of Bucky’s thigh as they rocked their hips together.

Bucky watched the way Steve’s eyes glazed over at the mere thought, the way his body tensed and his cock jumped. Bucky grinned evilly. “Or do you want me to beg?”

Steve did whimper then, burying his face in Bucky’s neck. He used his free hand to feel around for the lubricant Bucky had tossed him and had been set aside in favor of groping each other. His other hand was still holding onto Bucky’s long hair, like Steve really was upset by the thought of losing it.

Bucky turned his face and nuzzled against Steve’s ear. “You need me to beg you?” he whispered, sincere and barely audible even to Steve’s ears. A full-body shudder tore through Steve, and goosebumps rose on Bucky’s arms in sympathy. “Please, Steve. I've wanted you inside me for so long.”

Steve groaned. “You’re fucking evil.”

Bucky reached out, stretching his body like a cat beneath Steve’s bulk, and laid his hand on the lube that Steve had forgotten he was trying to find. He popped the cap with his thumbnail, nudged Steve with his chin. “You want to slick us down, or me?”

“Oh my God,” Steve muttered, like everything Bucky said at this point was just too much. System overload there, pal? Bucky laughed softly. He pressed a kiss to Steve’s jaw, and Steve returned it by beginning to slowly gnaw on Bucky’s neck, working his way to his shoulder.

Bucky groaned, his eyes fluttering shut. He used his right hand and managed to squeeze an overly generous amount out into his palm by turning it upside down and squeezing it with the tips of his fingers. “Hope you appreciate the years I spent with one goddamn arm, here, punk.”

Steve bit him hard, and Bucky hissed as Steve rolled his hips, rubbing his cockhead against Bucky’s ass.

Bucky reached between them, gripping Steve with his slicked hand and pumping him slowly, deliberately, going for both form and function, thank you very much.

Steve gasped against Bucky’s neck, his mouth open, his breath hot against Bucky’s skin.

Bucky’s cock throbbed in time with Steve’s heartbeat. He twisted a little, fighting against Steve’s weight, and managed to use the same slick fingers to get inside himself. He surprised himself with a little hum, closing his eyes as he covered them both with enough and then some. He gripped Steve in a hand so slick he probably could have oiled down his arm with this stuff, and shifted his hips until he was able to guide the tip of Steve’s cock right up to rest against his asshole.

Steve was still biting his neck, licking and sucking and apparently going for laying down a logo there maybe?

Bucky turned his head to nudge at Steve’s head again, his hand loose on Steve’s cock so it was merely a guide. “Come on, sweetheart,” he whispered, part coaxing, part teasing, mostly begging because he needed to be fucked right this minute.

“Bucky,” Steve managed against the shell of Bucky’s ear.

“Please,” Bucky moaned. “Steve. Fuck me, come on.”

“Oh my God,” Steve protested, rolling his hips experimentally.

“That’s it,” Bucky said hurriedly, his breaths going fast and shallow. “Just shove in, Stevie, come on! Fuck me!”

Steve shook his head stubbornly, and Bucky grinned like this had been his plan all along. Steve went obstinately slow, adamantly slow, as Bucky pleaded and egged him on. So slow that Bucky could feel every single bit of him as he breached those slick muscles and pushed into Bucky like he’d belonged there all his damn life.

“Oh fuck,” Steve whispered. “Oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck.”

“You should watch your fucking language,” Bucky teased, too breathless to really put much weight behind it.

Steve clamped down on the leg Bucky had over his shoulder, then he moved his arm to heft Bucky’s hips off the bed, thrusting all the way in slowly. Like he was experimenting.

Bucky tossed his head back, shoving it against the hand that still clutched at his hair. He moaned long and loud and bucked his hips up.

“Feels like I just trapped a tiger in a cage,” Steve observed as he hovered over Bucky, looking down at him with a dazed smile and eyes that sparked.

“Well why don’t you fucking sketch it it’ll last longer!” Bucky shouted in utter frustration as Steve took his goddamn sweet-assed American icon time with this shit.

Steve pushed in deep again, the slow slide rending a moan out of them both. Bucky twisted and turned, unable to really go far since he’d trapped himself with that leg over Steve’s shoulder. That had been the point, though. He didn’t want to throw Steve off. He didn’t want to struggle and thrash and wind up in charge or on top. He didn’t want to go dominant and hit that switch in Steve that made him roll over and beg like Bucky had seen so many times. He just wanted Steve to goddamn fuck him, was that so much to ask? No, it really fucking wasn’t!

“Come on, Steve,” Bucky whispered. He used his leg to urge Steve’s hips forward.

“I won’t hurt you?” Steve asked as he rocked gently, the swollen head of his cock pushing and pulsing at the stubborn muscles at Bucky’s entrance.

“Fuck!” Bucky cried, trying to shimmy his hips and urge Steve deeper. “Goddamn, Rogers, please!”

Steve’s chest was heaving again, sweat dotting his brow. “Jesus, you’re fucking something, Buck,” he whispered, then he pushed deeper, still going slow but more sure of the length of his stroke. The way he was looking at Bucky, the way he was treating him, you’d think he’d never done this before. Bucky knew better. He refused to let Steve savor him like spun sugar right now. They could do that the next time.

Bucky resorted to grabbing Steve’s ass cheek with his metal arm and squeezing hard enough to make a point. Then he urged Steve to pull out, almost entirely out, so close to out that Steve gasped in complaint. When he was almost free, Bucky tugged at him with all the strength his arm could exert from this angle, driving Steve’s hips forward, plunging him deep into Bucky’s body, and pulling another shout from them both.

“Okay,” Steve cried. “Oh God, okay. Just . . . okay.” He kept babbling as he picked up the pace, pulling almost completely out again, rocking right there at the stubborn muscles that felt so goddamned good, and then thrusting back in to hit Bucky’s prostate, finding a rhythm that had Bucky gasping and panting along with him.

Steve finally let go of Bucky’s hair when they’d been fucking long enough for Steve’s breathing to be going ragged, for his body to be shaking, for Bucky to be able to feel the release building between them. The hand found its way from Bucky’s hair to Bucky’s cock, squeezing and jerking him off as Steve’s thrusts went erratic.

Bucky grabbed at him and held him close, whispering his name, whispering about love and mercy, begging for Steve to finish it.

“Buck!” Steve called, obviously uncaring of who heard him as he slammed into Bucky, over and over, shouting wordlessly as his entire body arched and he buried his face into Bucky’s neck.

Bucky almost held out under such an onslaught, he really did. He knew if he held out Steve would get on his hands and knees and suck him off and swallow it down as soon as Steve shot his load, and Bucky had been determined to hold out for that because his fondest memories of Steve's lips were when his mouth was too full for him to run it.

But when Steve whispered Bucky’s name and begged him to come for him, his breath against Bucky’s neck, his dick still moving inside Bucky’s cum slick body, Steve’s hand tangled in Bucky’s long hair once more . . . Bucky really didn’t have much choice but to motherfucking comply.

==

“Good to see you up and running,” Tony said as soon as Barnes strolled into the common area. There wasn’t even much sign of a limp. Much.

Barnes gave him a small smile. “Should have been days ago,” he said with a helpless shrug. “Those energy weapons are a problem.”

“Way ahead of you, Man Bun,” Tony said as he beckoned for Barnes to follow him. Barnes gave a glance down the hall, like he expected someone else or was worried someone else – gee golly, Tony wondered who that could be – would see him going with Tony.

Tony kept walking, though, and Barnes followed without complaint. He did snag a croissant or . . . four from the counter as he passed, and it made Tony hesitate briefly. “You want breakfast before world-saving?”

Barnes merely shrugged, holding the croissants up. “Eh.”

“Yeah, okay.” Tony led them out to his lab, snorting in amusement when he remembered the first time he’d put his hand on this scanner with one of the most dangerous men in the world standing behind him.

Barnes had been humming a tune then, too.

“Nervous habit?” Tony teased.

“Apparently nervous is the wrong word for it,” Barnes answered around a mouthful of croissant. He swallowed hard. “I don’t realize I’m doing it ’til someone points it out. What’s the word for that?”

“Annoying.”

Barnes gave an elegant Slavic shrug that rivaled Natasha’s. “That’s fair.”

“Made you something I think you’re going to find kind of fun,” Tony said as he led Barnes through the rabbit warren of his lab. He pulled out an IV full of . . . well, it was sludge. Clear sludge. He handed it to Barnes, knowing the man preferred to start his own IV lines. Barnes didn’t even ask what it was for, just found a vein and slid it in expertly.

Tony started the sludge drip, tapping it to make sure the machine was working properly. “This should help with the calorie count issue you and Steve have. Think of it as a super protein shake without the blender or chalky aftertaste.”

“What’s in it?” Barnes asked as he peered at the sludge. Honestly, it looked like one of those chiropractor ice packs.

“Stuff.”

“Mmkay.”

“Let me know how it goes, anything you notice.”

Barnes merely nodded, looking around at the other projects Tony had going with mild interest. Tony had been pleasantly surprised at Barnes’s intellect and interest and desire to learn new things. He was one of the only other team members Tony could tolerate being in the lab for extended periods with.

“Oh, by the way, Steve promised me I could tell you this one,” Tony added with a grin. He pulled up a newsreel, muted, that showed grainy satellite footage of a city rooftop. Nothing moved for several seconds, then there was a flash from the corner of the building - obviously a high-powered rifle firing - and the shadow that had been in the lee of the building’s rooftop barrier got up and began to move. It was startling to the eye, to be tricked into believing that it was mere shadow you were seeing - even with the distance of the camera's source.

Barnes stepped forward, wide-eyed. “I was caught on camera,” he said, sounding both disgusted and defeated.

“Dude. Satellite. It’s . . . I mean you can’t expect not to . . .” Tony trailed off. The look on Barnes’s face told him that he very well could indeed expect not to.

“Yeah, anyway. This very grainy satellite footage surfaced of the shooter on a rooftop a mile away from where a dangerous robot was ‘put out of commission’. It shows both the complexity and skill of the shot, and the subsequent battle with more terrifying robots in which the big damn hero gets away after dismantling one of the things with a pretty impressive . . . skill set. It’s all over the news and the internet. The public has deemed this new guy ‘the Holy Ghost.’”

Barnes was listening with a bemused, almost tolerant expression on his face as he watched the battle between his shadow and the shiny robot figures from the footage. His eyes slid sideways when Tony was done, as if checking to make sure Tony wasn’t joking or fucking with him. “The Holy Ghost,” he repeated, voice so dry Tony wanted to offer him water.

“Yep. It’s catchy. I like it.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know, it’s evocative or some shit.”

“I mean, why are they calling me that?”

“Oh. One, because of the way you move in the footage.” Tony pointed, then rewound it and pointed again. First he was there, then he wasn’t. “Very . . . eerie, I gotta say. Two, because you crossed yourself before you took the shot, even knowing it wasn’t a human life you were taking. The internet got hold of that, starting waxing poetic about how it must be so ingrained in this gentleman sniper’s psyche that he does it without thinking first now, and a hero was literally born.”

Barnes made a face and began to laugh. “That’s ridiculous.”

“Did you know you crossed yourself? Father, son, holy spirit?” Tony mimicked the motion, feeling a little like he might get struck by lightning.

Barnes was silent and still, staring over Tony’s shoulder out the windows. He finally bit off a piece of a croissant and shrugged. “I didn’t realize I still did that. Started as a joke, then it became . . . I don't know, hope? Then it was a joke again after I realized there was no such thing.”

Tony risked telegraphing a pat on his shoulder, squeezing gently, before turning and gesturing for him to follow again. He headed for a piece of tech he’d managed to ‘procure’ the day before.

Barnes stopped short and stared at it, the last half of croissant forgotten in his grasp as he squeezed it tight enough to make it back into dough. He stared at the mass of parts and circuitry on the table, tense, painfully motionless.

“Okay?” Tony asked warily.

Barnes made a sound that wasn’t quite a clearing of his throat, wasn’t quite a hum. Tony could only call it a growl. Barnes nodded wordlessly, though.

“They found it in an alley beside the Holy Ghost’s sniper nest,” Tony explained, trying to keep his eyes on Barnes while still pretending he wasn’t freaked out by the way Barnes wasn’t outwardly freaking out but was most definitely freaking out all the same. “I assume you did this to it? That’s what we’re seeing on that satellite footage?”

Barnes gave another short, single nod. His eyes were glued to the eyes of the robot, the inner lights long dead but the dark bloody color easy enough to distinguish.

A whoosh signified someone coming into the lab, and Tony pushed up to his tip-toes and arched his back to see. Steve was peering around, and Tony gave him a discreet wave and gestured for him to quietly come closer.

Barnes didn’t move. Tony had never seen the man in an environment where he wasn’t aware of every nuance, every movement. Much less unresponsive when a new person entered.

“What can you tell me?” Tony asked Barnes, flapping his hand at Steve, not sure if he was asking him to approach slower, quieter, or faster, Jesus, please come stand in front of me so Barnes doesn’t go nuts and rip my eyeballs out cause I’m wearing red-tinted sunglasses inside like a douche!

Tony quickly yanked the sunglasses off his face and tossed them, not caring where they hit.

“They’re all connected,” Barnes answered, reverting to that odd quasi-Russian accent that meant his mind was trying desperately to find the safety and emptiness of the Winter Soldier and he was giving a mission report to handlers and technicians who would punish him if he didn’t obey. Tony had slowly but surely realized, the flat voice and weird accent he'd originally thought was meant to intimidate, was actually Barnes being terrified literally out of his own mind. “That’s how they’re so fast. One learns a lesson, another learns it too.”

Tony shivered. Jesus, Barnes’s voice seemed to dip deeper, hitting new layers of primal fear, when he spoke in that accent.

Steve was next to Tony now, tense, obviously seeing the possibility of Barnes’s mind slipping. He opened his mouth to say something, then closed it without making a sound.

“They put one in a room with me, told me to survive,” Barnes reported, unblinking, unmoving. “Each day, after I healed, it was a new one. Every one with red eyes. Every one the same, but different. Each day smarter. They learned from me. Learned how to survive, how to kill. After thirty-two days, I finally lost.”

Tony heard Steve catch a noisy breath, could feel the tension pouring off Steve’s body in waves. He understood. In the last few weeks of having Barnes here, Tony had become quite protective of the man himself. Every time a new tidbit of his time in Hydra’s captivity came to light, Tony wound up having to find time alone later so he could throw up. He was always left shaking and angry and feeling impotent as hell over Barnes’s past trauma. He couldn’t imagine how Steve felt.

“What happened?” Tony finally asked quietly.

Barnes gave another of those careless, beautiful shrugs. “I ran out of tricks. It had learned everything I knew and could match me move for move. But it didn't get tired. It was going to kill me, and my handler stepped in to spare me. He claimed there was more use in me than in the Red Eyes and had the tac team spirit me away before they could destroy me.”

Steve made a sound - a very small, very careful sound - in the back of his throat.

Barnes glanced over, blinking as if surprised to see Steve there. He didn’t startle or anything, merely looked from Steve to Tony to the croissant in his hand. He tore a piece off the end and popped it in his mouth. “He was a good handler, with a good tactical team,” he mused with a shrug.

Before Steve could lose his all-American mind, Tony cleared his throat loudly and moved closer to the thing. He tapped its head with the pencil he had in his hand. “But you did this.”

“I learned new tricks,” Barnes responded with a smirk that was more himself, thank Christ. His eyes were pulled toward the thing’s face again. “I got the feeling that Hydra wasn’t behind these things. It wasn’t just my handler. It was the techs, the tac team who went out on missions with me. They were all . . .” Barnes was fully scowling now, seeking his memories. He finally nodded, deciding that his impression must be correct. “Yeah. They all seemed protective. Of me. That’s what scared me most, I think. That they could hate something so much to want to save me from it. After every battle in the room, they’d pull me out. They’d fix me up. The same tech who referred to me as ‘the Asset’ would pat my head like a dog and say, ‘he was made for better than this’. The tac team leader, who was almost a . . . a friend, sometimes, he tried to break me out and let me escape to a safe house. No one punished him when we were caught. No one even punished me. I just went into the room the next day and fought to stay alive again. After the thirty-second day, they finally saved me.”

Barnes’s eyes cleared after a few more seconds, and he glanced up at them, looking shocked to have faded back into a memory that hard. He cleared his throat self-consciously.

“So,” Tony drew out, his body heating uncomfortably, his throat and mouth dry. “Are you saying that Hydra was operating under orders from someone else? Someone they were scared of and trying to subvert?”

Barnes winced, ducking his head again as if the mere memory of being ‘the Asset’ was making it hard for him to speak his own mind, give his own opinion. “Maybe,” he mumbled.

Tony exhaled slowly, his nerves tumbling end over end. He’d seen the way Hydra had treated Barnes. He’d seen how little they cared for him as anything other than valuable property. But here was Barnes, claiming that a tactical team of Hydra’s biggest hardasses, the people so heartless they were entrusted with surrounding the Asset as their normal duty, had been so concerned, so angry, so chafed over who or what they were working with, that they had conspired to essentially go rogue and save Barnes from dying at the hands of these people.

Tony met Steve’s eyes, and saw the same horror and fear reflecting there as was roiling through his own mind. What the hell were they up against now?

“The Holy Ghost, huh?” Barnes asked Steve, and Steve gave him his best effort at a proud smile.

“What do you think?”

“That’s fucking dumb,” Barnes muttered before dragging the IV behind him and tossing himself to the couch to kick his feet up while the sludge dripped.

Chapter Text

By the time evening was ascending on the Avengers complex, Tony had exhausted every tinkering project he could, hiding out in his lab after Steve and Barnes had left him. Barnes had been practically vibrating after finishing that IV full of Tony’s experimental sludge, and Tony was . . . curious. Not concerned, no. Just curious, that was all; curiosity explained where his mind was. He was looking forward to the morning when Barnes would come and report the results, but only because he was curious!

Until then, he was bored shitless. He was standing in the common area kitchen, staring in consternation, wondering how in the flying fuck Barnes made them breakfast every morning – a really fucking good breakfast full of variety and tasty things and healthy and not so healthy options that everyone loved and brought the team together like nothing else quite had been able to yet – with a kitchen that was so fucking confusing and badly organized. Tony was a goddamn genius, but the refrigerator kept trying to tell him it didn’t have enough milk and he was staring at it like it was asking him to feed me, Seymour!

He heard shuffling steps behind him and glanced idly over his shoulder. He was shocked to see that it was Barnes. Not because Barnes was there, though, but because you weren’t supposed to know Barnes was in a room until he was close enough to breathe on you and make you scream like that goat in that internet meme.

You weren’t supposed to hear Barnes when he moved, much less hear him coming before he reached a room. No one heard Barnes when he moved, not even Steve if Barnes really put effort into it. Tony had been positive the man wasn’t even capable of making sound, because he’d once gotten up on game night and gone around the room stomping his feet at everyone’s insistence, and none of them had heard a goddamn thing as he’d done it.

But his feet were dragging tonight, and the frayed edges of his designer jeans – and goddamn did they look good on him with that fucking beautiful soft gray V-neck T-shirt haphazardly both tucked in and untucked – the edges of those jeans were dragging against the polished concrete floor.

He stopped in the middle of the room as Tony, wide-eyed, watched him. He wasn’t quite in the TV area, not quite in the lounge area where they played games sometimes, not quite close enough to Tony or the kitchen to be considered in the dining area or the kitchen itself. He was literally adrift in the middle of the room, looking around like he was almighty confused as to how he may have arrived there.

He didn’t actually look like he was fully aware that he was even there. Did Barnes sleep-walk, had that been in the briefing Steve had given months ago that told everyone how to not get themselves killed around Barnes?

Tony turned fully so he was facing the man, watching him warily. He didn’t think he’d made a sound, but something about his movement; maybe a sound only a goddamn starving carnivore could hear, maybe a movement caught in the corner of the eye of a wild fucking animal accustomed to hunting down its food in the night. Whatever it was, Barnes’s eyes were on Tony before he even really noticed that Barnes had turned his head or anything at all. He just . . . moved without moving. Gah!

“Sergeant Barnes,” Tony greeted carefully, not sure why he was uneasy on top of the usual freaking out over the way Barnes navigated air.

Maybe it was the slight glaze to Barnes’s eyes, like the lights were on but no one was fucking home. Tony had seen Barnes go into Winter Soldier mode, and that was scary enough, but the overall impression in that case was control. Now, Barnes was quite obviously, painfully, not in control.

Maybe it was the hair, which Barnes usually wore in one of two ways; either down and neatly combed and tucked demurely behind his ears when it dared to fall over his piercing eyes, or pulled back in the goddamn cute little lumberjack bun that inexplicably displayed little curly wisps of hair at the base of his neck that Tony’s fingers just fucking itched to play with sometimes. Right now, though? Barnes’s hair seemed to be doing a little of both, like whatever the fuck it felt like. It was pulled back, but . . . well, haphazard seemed entirely inadequate as a descriptor, and Tony feared for the hair that was doing something Barnes hadn’t explicitly given it permission to do.

He was also unshaven, a five o-clock shadow trying its best to mar his sharp jawline that Tony was convinced would probably be able to cut diamonds and to hide those goddamn beautiful fucking lips. It still looked good on him. Asshole.

Barnes stared at him after he spoke. And stared. And . . . stared . . .

Tony released a relieved puff of air when Barnes fucking finally blinked.

“Stark,” Barnes said, his voice, Jesus Christ, it sounded like he’d been eating glass. Barnes’s attention wavered down toward the floor for a second, then back up to Tony like he was surprised, again, to see him standing there. He looked . . . wrecked. He looked . . . actually, he looked hungover. He looked like he’d gone to some horror show of a club and been roofied and then dragged into some back alley behind a team of horses.

“What happened to you?” Tony blurted.

You did,” Barnes grunted, and he barked a laugh that came out sounding anything but amused. “The next batch you make for that IV, put less of the ‘stuff’ in it, okay?”

Tony found himself blinking rapidly in shock, then he broke into a relieved grin and began to laugh. There was nothing wrong with Barnes, he was just hungover!

“Yeah, fine,” Barnes muttered with a disgruntled glance up and down as Tony tried to stop snickering. “If you wanted to kill me, Stark, all you had to do was literally anything else,” he moaned as he stumbled toward the sofas.

Tony took pity on him and hurried over to make sure he made it to a seat safely. He took Barnes’s elbow with both hands, knowing if Barnes did tumble over, they’d be going on that trip together.

Barnes tossed himself into the middle of the sofa, and Tony went down with him, flailing against his side, unable to pull his hands out from between Barnes’s arm and his torso in time to keep his feet. Before he could push himself back to stand, Barnes was leaning on him. Hard. Holy shit, he was heavy. And loose. And . . . his muscles felt . . . yeah . . . and his body languid and boneless like this. . . fuck fuck fuck how was this Tony’s goddamn life?!

Before he could protest or struggle away or do anything but think ‘yes, good, keep with the touching’ or even a more sensible where is your boyfriend, Barnes had his head in Tony’s lap, curled up on himself, holding onto Tony’s thigh like some massive fucking cat who’d just fallen asleep trying to maim a teddy bear.

Tony sat staring, with his hands in the air, unsure of where to put them or if Barnes still didn’t like to be touched, and if Tony really had done this to him by being a little overzealous with the happy parts of the stuff in the sludge, then had Tony technically roofied the man for personal gain if he touched him now?? He needed . . . a second opinion. He needed help.

Barnes moved his head, nuzzling in closer, pressing his nose and mouth into the denim at Tony’s thigh, the inside of his goddamn thigh like a goddamn uncouth . . . oh Christ, Tony needed to get him to move. Barnes inhaled deeply, then hummed a little on the exhale, his body losing whatever was left of its tension. He was loose and boneless and Tony had literally driven cars that weighed less than the pressure of Barnes’s head on his leg. He could move, he knew that. It would take some effort and probably not be very graceful, and he risked waking Barnes up, and Tony knew from stories both Clint and Steve told that Barnes sometimes woke up swinging a knife that, despite repeated attempts to find its origin, no one had figured out where he kept it, yet.

Tony didn’t want to die just because he feared an awkwardly timed boner, okay.

Barnes sighed, as if the weight of the world had been lifted off his chest, and he nuzzled his face more into Tony’s thigh.

Tony cursed. Out loud. Creatively!

Tony had long ago accepted that he was marginally attracted to James Barnes. But fuck, who wouldn’t be, right? He was . . . well, he was genuine in so many ways that others weren’t. He spoke his mind even if his face was hard to read, and he was smart. He was so smart that Tony rarely lost him in conversation unless Tony was feeling particularly mean and started into truly technical speak, and then Barnes would just get up and walk away.

His behavior was completely at odds with every Alpha male urge in existence; he was willing to lose, he was willing to be the butt of a joke, he was willing to admit he didn’t know something, he was willing to say he wasn’t capable. But then on the flip side, he absolutely was capable. Tony had watched the security feed of Barnes destroying his obstacle course more than once . . . for research purposes, of course.

Barnes was humble in a way Tony just didn’t understand, and he was cocky and fearless and competent in ways that Tony totally did. Most of all, though, he was . . . he was just really fucking sweet. Tony appreciated that quality just as much as he appreciated the thought of the man’s mouth wrapped around –

No. Yeah. Fuck, no, Tony, we are not going to think about Barnes sucking cock when his head is literally in your lap. Christ. Tony didn’t want to fucking shoot a goddamn load all over the valiant last strands of the knot of hair hanging on at the base of Barnes’s skull, and if he let his imagination loose right now, that was an entirely possible scenario.

He realized he was still sitting with his hands held high in the air, blinking down at Barnes in consternation.

“Stark?” Natasha’s voice came from behind him, and she sounded her typical mixture of confused and concerned and amused. From her vantage, Tony supposed all she could see was Tony’s hands in the air as he sat alone.

“I need . . . uh . . . how do you handle it when a really cranky deadly thing falls asleep in your lap, and every time you move its claws come out to keep you still, but you have to fucking get up before you get too turned on and wind up risking your life to grope the deadly thing?”

Natasha cleared her throat, coming closer as she drawled, “I’m not sure I have a frame of reference for that particular situation.”

Tony hummed, scowling.

Natasha leaned over the back of the sofa at his shoulder, and he heard her huff. She seemed amused. “What did you do to my James?”

“He tried my sludge. He said less fun stuff next time.”

“By sludge, you mean . . .”

“Not that!” Tony practically shouted, wincing at the volume when Barnes twitched in response. “I made up an IV gel solution that I hoped would supplement their nutrition, so they could use it on days where food is scarce, or . . .” Actually, he wasn’t sure what had prompted him to start tinkering with the sludge. He’d known Steve for three years and had never thought of a supplement. He’d packed the compound with food when he’d seen how gaunt both Steve an Barnes were, but he’d lingered over it, feeling awful about it and not sure why. Barnes, though, had made one passing mention of an IV from a Hydra tech that speeded up his healing, and Tony had been off.

“Ah.” If Natasha had said more than that, Tony hadn’t heard. She reached over Tony’s shoulder and gently pulled a strand of Barnes’s hair aside, tucking it behind his ear so they could see his face. He looked so young as he slept.

God, he was so fucking young! This was a goddamn national hero who’d fought in his own war over 70 years ago, who’d marched into the teeth of those Hydra weapons when he was the same age Tony’d been when he’d been in the gossip rags for banging Miss America, who’d been a prisoner of war and a science experiment and given his life for not just his country, but for the world, and he was so fucking young!

Natasha patted Tony’s shoulder. “Do you need to be somewhere?”

Tony opened his mouth to answer, then realized the answer was, ‘you can’t drag me away from him and I’ll claw your eyes out if you try’. He had nowhere to be, though. That was why he’d been lurking in the kitchen, arguing over milk with the fridge; he’d been bored and restless.

“So why not sit here with him? He sleeps so much better with someone holding him,” Natasha said gently, and though her tone of voice sounded sincere, Tony couldn’t help the feeling that she was watching him very closely for his reaction.

Tony swallowed hard. “Where do I put my hands? I mean, am I . . . what if he doesn’t want me to . . . I mean . . . I did sort of drug him. Inadvertently, I mean! Don’t tell Steve.”

Natasha took pity on him, taking his hands in hers and setting them down, one draped over Barnes’s torso – she tucked it up under Barnes’s arm so it was like Barnes was holding onto him and his arm was so warm and it felt nice like Barnes might be a really good cuddler in bed – and the other she placed at the crown of Barnes’s head. His fingers sank into that soft, unruly hair, and Tony realized that he could feel his heart pounding in his throat and thumping in his ears; he was holding his breath.

“There. Now, if he gets fussy, tell him I did it,” Natasha offered. She gave Tony’s shoulder a gentle squeeze, as if she understood his newfound dilemma and had known it was coming before Tony had.

“Nat?” Tony said quietly, hoping he caught her before she left the room on silent cat’s feet.

She hummed from the same place she’d been standing, though.

“What – what is Barnes to you?” he asked, throat tightening, cursing himself for not asking the real question he’d wanted to ask . . . what do I do, please tell me what to do if I’m starting to fall in love with both a hero and his villain??

“At one time in my life, he was like a father,” Natasha mused. “Or maybe a big brother would be more accurate.”

Tony jerked a little, finally daring to move and glance up at her, his own internal musings completely forgotten. She was smiling softly, sadly, as she looked down at Barnes.

“When we were nine, all the ballerinas, a man came to us to teach us. We were told if we upset him, he would take the offending girl as his plaything, and she would never be seen again until he had taken his fill of her. I’d never been so scared. When he first showed himself, he walked out of a shadow in a corner we’d all filed right past without suspecting, and I remember the feeling that went down my spine. The feeling, you know? When you realize there’s something more dangerous in the world than you?”

Tony stared at her, trying to imagine a baby Natasha. Trying to imagine a scared Natasha. He realized neither scenario was popping up; in Tony’s mind, Natasha had sprung forth from the earth, fully formed and edged with sharp things.

She paid Tony’s expression no mind; her eyes were on Barnes’s sleeping face, her mind still far away. “He had cold eyes but a warm smile. He was kind where the other instructors were cruel. He would show us, and then watch us, and then simply say, ‘again’ until we got it right. Never a punishment. ‘Again. Again.’ Always a simple smile for our reward when we finally succeeded. He always wore a glove, and we had theories that he’d been burned horribly in some secret war where he was a hero to little girls like us. Burned, we thought, because he flinched when any of our hands touched him no matter how tiny we were.”

She looked down at her own two hands, fingers splayed wide, like she wasn’t sure how they’d gotten so big all of a sudden.

“He’s the first person in my life I can remember giving me a hug,” she continued, voice distant now. “When the instructors discovered we were all more loyal to him than to the Red Room, they made him kneel in front of us and they put a gun to his head, forced us all to take a turn; look into his eyes as we each pulled the trigger, waiting for one of us to land on the chamber with the bullet. The look in his eyes when I took my turn . . . it took me years to realize that look meant forgiveness.”

Tony couldn’t help but curse, his hand tightening involuntarily in Barnes’s hair and on his stomach where Tony’s other hand hung. He wanted to reach out to Natasha, to comfort her somehow, but he knew without a doubt that their boundaries didn’t allow for that.

“They used him as a lesson,” she said with a sigh and another swipe of her finger at the rebellious lock of hair that kept trying to cover Barnes’s eyes. “Everything you love will be taken, so don’t love anything and this pain will never come again. Oh, but I loved him so. There was no bullet in the gun they gave us. But we’d all taken our turns, so when they dragged him outside and we heard a real bullet fire, it felt like we’d pulled the trigger, all the same. The two girls who were caught crying were taken out as well and disposed of for being weak. We didn’t know that he was too valuable to actually kill. I never knew that until I finally looked into James’s eyes and knew him.”

Tony was still gaping at her, unblinking. He snapped his trap shut when she looked at him with a wry smile. “Jesus,” was all Tony could say.

“He gives good hugs,” she told him, all the teasing notes gone from her voice.

Tony’s eyes were drawn back to Barnes. “He remembers you?”

Natasha hummed. “He told me he didn’t recognize me at first, not until a few weeks in when we were sparring, I poked him in the sternum.” She laughed, and the sound was warm. Tony smiled even though he didn’t understand the significance. “He reeled back from me and looked like I’d hit him with a full-strength stinger. I was so confused, I thought I’d hurt him or triggered him somehow.”

“Oh, that was the false alarm Friday sent out the week after you came back?” Tony asked.

Natasha nodded. She was smiling again, looking back on a fond memory now, instead of the first one. “He stared at me until even Steve started looking nervous, and then he called me a name that’s for sweet little girls and . . . and I forced myself to look closer and remember those eyes of his.” She frowned then, leaning over further so she could look Tony in the eye without him being forced to swivel his head like a goddamn owl. “Don’t tell Steve,” she requested quietly. “He knows there’s something, but James isn’t sure he can handle that conversation yet, and frankly, neither am I. All in good time.”

“Secret’s safe with me, “ Tony promised, unable to find a sarcastic word for this conversation. And now his own dilemma didn’t seem worth worrying about.

She patted his shoulder gently, her fingers strong and warm, and it felt almost like an apology. “Likewise,” she whispered, before heading to the stairs and the gymnasium level of the complex where most of the others were already in the midst of their workouts.

Tony watched the stairs until he was sure Natasha was gone and wasn’t coming back to rescue him . . . or torture him more? He could hear the occasional grunt or oof from below; the others getting their licks in the workout rooms. He made a mental note to evaluate the soundproofing down there. Barnes was still restricted to light activity to give his mending leg bone time, which was good, Tony supposed, since Tony had accidentally drugged him to kingdom goddamn come.

Tony looked back down at him regretfully, his fingers twitching with the need to soothe out the frown lines on the man’s face, to twist through the silky strands of his hair. He had nice hair, thick and soft, and it was well over long enough that it probably made a really good handle.

Nah. Nope. Not going there, Stark. He’d offered the night before Barnes had gone rogue, and Barnes had, quite kindly, turned him down. Tony wasn’t going to make a fool of himself again, because he had felt a little foolish, even if they’d both known the offer had been half in jest.

He did allow himself to watch as he ran his fingers through Barnes’s hair.

And he damn near jumped and screamed like that goddamn screaming goat meme when Barnes said, “Gonna have to cut it.”

Tony’s heart was racing, making him lightheaded, and Barnes hadn’t moved a single perfect muscle other than the ones it took for him to smile gently. As Tony tried to get his breathing back under control, Barnes turned his head just a tiny bit, rubbing his cheek against Tony’s jeans.

“Sorry, didn’t catch that,” Tony stammered. “I was too goddamn busy shitting on my nice white couch.”

“Gross.”

Tony gave that a frustrated huff and inadvertently grasped at Barnes’s belly with his other hand, itching to move and fidget and unable to do anything but curl his fingers into Barnes’s shirt. He could feel the solid muscles under his fingertips. His mind took the opportunity to provide him with a visual – cobbled together from the several times when Barnes had removed his shirt for arm maintenance – of what it would look and feel like to place his hand on Barnes’s stomach as they moved together.

Tony may or may not have whimpered quietly, no one could prove he did, it was his word against Barnes’s.

“My hair,” Barnes repeated, heedless of Tony’s thoughts, thank fuck for small fucking favors. “Need to cut it.”

Tony made a negative sound in the back of his throat. Jesus, he’d called it; Barnes was going to punish the hairs that weren’t complying. But Tony had only just now realized how much he loved Barnes’s hair, he couldn’t hack it to bits now. “That . . .”

“This Holy Ghost prick has long hair,” Barnes murmured, as if he knew Tony was trying to come up with a reason not to cut it. He rolled his shoulders and arched his back, stretching without actually changing his position. He was moving but not, how did he do that? And was it scary, or was it hot? Come on, Tony, it couldn’t be both . . . could it? Yes it could, shut up.

Tony watched him avidly, aware of his heart fluttering. Traitorous bi-valves, he couldn’t even count on his own organs to have his back.

He felt like it was safe to play with Barnes’s hair, though, because everyone in the compound knew that Barnes loved to have his hair played with and everyone had done it at least once while comforting him during his semi-feverish recovery, even Tony. And if he got anywhere near Scott or Wanda or, oddly, Sam, he’d walk away with his hair braided. He never seemed to mind, and Tony sometimes forgot how starved for touch Barnes had to have been all these years.

Tony always had to remind himself what he knew of Barnes, and take every little brush of a hand or shoulder, every half-armed hug, every time Barnes had leaned his forehead against Tony’s chest or his temple or his chin when he’d been in pain, take it all with a grain of salt. None of that meant what Tony’s pieces and parts were trying to insist it all meant.

Everyone knew how tactile Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes had been. The history books talked about it as a humanizing anecdote; Peggy Carter and even Howard had related to Tony – and the occasional biographer – just how demonstrative Barnes had been with the entire unit. It wasn’t just with Steve, which would have made sense in hindsight, considering what Tony knew of them now.

But no, it was everyone. The entire 107th, especially the tactical team that had been known as the Howling Commandos, most of the agents in the SSR, even Howard. They’d all gotten contact of some sort from Barnes. He’d never gone beyond what was appropriate for his rank, because Barnes had also been the consummate soldier, but he’d always been ready to offer a hand, a shoulder, or his own body warmth. It had, according to one private interviewed for the Smithsonian, become something of a badge of honor amongst the men to receive a James Barnes cuddle in a foxhole or a freezing tent where fires were too dangerous. And if the Sarge deemed you too cold for your health when you bedded down, it had been rumored that he put off almost as much heat as Captain Rogers did.

Tony gritted his teeth. How had no one known, for over a year, that Barnes was going through the same physical changes Steve had, all without the benefit of the Vita-Ray machine to speed the process? How had no one known?!

Tony set that aside to be angry about later, when he didn’t have Barnes all soft and snuggly in his lap. Ah, dammit . . . most of those historians would probably shit their pants if they met the real James Barnes. Half of the books read like the researchers themselves were in love with Barnes, and damn if Tony didn’t get it now. The one constant amongst all those stories from the 107th and the SSR, the one thing everyone agreed on, was how empty the 107th had felt after Barnes had fallen, how the entire unit had seemed . . . bereft of touch.

Even without Steve and the other Commandos mourning – and according to Howard those men had mourned by first scouring the Alps for a body, and then going on a bloody rampage for revenge that had taken no prisoners from Hydra or any Nazi soldiers they encountered – the entire regiment had felt Barnes’s absence. And then just days later, Captain Rogers had been gone too.

And you could not tell Tony, after seeing what he’d seen and knowing what he knew, that Steve had gotten on that Valkyrie with any intention of ever landing it safely. Steve had lost Barnes, and with him he’d lost any reason to go on living. Revenge had carried him a short week or so, but then he’d turned the nose of that plane into the Arctic and . . . anyone who’d seen the photos or video of the Shield scientists thawing Steve out, stretched out on his back with his arms to his sides all peaceful and shit, had to know that was not ‘dying in a plane crash’ pose.

Tony’s throat threatened to tighten at the thought of his father and the fondness with which he’d spoken of Steve and Barnes, of his mother and her tolerant smiles, of Steve and Barnes and their undying devotion to each other, of all the people who’d suffered under Hydra’s villainy. And for what?

James Barnes had fucking loved to be touched. And now he was one of the most feared people in the world, and the man was constantly vigilant and terrified that someone was going to touch him without him seeing it coming. Barnes wouldn’t ask for it, because he seemed acutely aware that he still scared most of them, or at least made them wary. But whenever someone gave him a casual touch, usually Clint or Steve or sometimes Natasha, Barnes would melt toward it, his eyelashes fluttering closed, the tension leaking from him, a small smile gracing his lips.

James Barnes still fucking loved to be touched. Tony had seen Barnes react to the barest brush against him like it had relieved him of a hundred pound weight. Like fingertips pressed against his skin could absolve him of all his sins.

With that thought in mind, it was sort of cruel not to pet the world-class assassin in his lap like a giant purring kitten, wasn’t it? And if Tony got a little too much pleasure from it, so fucking what. He was sort of a nice guy, he sort of deserved nice things.

Tony ran his palm over Barnes’s head, then followed that experimental swipe with a slower one, letting his fingers card through Barnes’s hair, short nails gentle against his scalp.

To Tony’s eternal and damning chagrin, Barnes moaned softly at his skillful touch.

Tony froze, answering the sound with one that sounded like a chipmunk in distress. “Oh lord, Barnes, you got to keep your mouth closed if we’re going to sit here, okay.

“Hmm?” Barnes was humming, a combination of a tune that Tony almost recognized, and soft murmured words that Tony briefly imagined being spoken into his ear in the dark.

Tony ran his fingers through Barnes’s hair again, brushing his thumb over Barnes’s ear. Barnes moaned again and turned his head, pressing his face into Tony’s thigh and inhaling deeply, like he was taking in Tony’s scent.

“Ah, shit,” Tony hissed. “Shit shit shit. Okay, limit hit, I can’t deal, let me up.”

But Barnes’s eyes were closed again. Or still, Tony realized; he’d never actually opened them as he talked and nuzzled. His grip on Tony’s thigh was still just as secure, and his head rested snugly in the crease of Tony’s thigh and hip. Tony imagined he could feel warm breath on his thigh through his soft, expensive as fuck jeans. If Tony’s dick started reacting to this, he was going to wind up with the tip of his hard-on sticking in Barnes’s ear hole, and Tony wasn’t sure anyone was into that kind of thing. Yeah, unacceptable.

“Awkward,” Tony mumbled. “Awkward, awkward, awkward,” he went on, getting louder and more drawn out with each repetition as he cast around the room for a plausible escape. He wasn’t moving, though, because no matter how uncomfortable he was with his impending physical embarrassment, he still didn’t want to stop touching Barnes, and didn’t want to make Barnes move.

Barnes frowned at the noise he was making. Tony knew this because his eyes were once again locked on the man’s face, and damn him, he was sort of fucking adorable when he scowled. How had Tony ever thought him scary? How had Tony ever thought this man could do what he’d done on that video without being coerced by 70 years of torture and electroshock? What if Tony had succeeded in killing him when he’d tried? Tony never would have known the man, never would have seen any other side of him, and then when that Winter Soldier file came across his desk and he was forced to read it without a friend in the world beside him, discovering Barnes’s innocent blood was on his own hands . . .

Tony could feel panic encroaching, the speeding heartbeat, the shallow breaths that weren’t quite adequate, the narrowing vision . . .

Barnes stretched again, sighing and groaning as he rolled to his back, shifting and settling until he was comfortable again. His head was even closer to Tony’s groin, but Tony wasn’t paying attention now, he had zeroed in on Barnes’s eyes. Eyes of the clearest, coldest blue peered back up at Tony. And Tony realized for the first time that when Barnes’s eyes were this pale through whatever trick of the light, you could see a ring of darker blue around them. And suddenly it was easier to breathe, his heartbeat was back to a respectable level that wouldn’t have F.R.I.D.A.Y sounding the medic alarm on him, and his mind felt . . . at peace.

Tony stared, his fingers still in Barnes’s hair, twirling idly. Then Tony’s shoulders sagged as Barnes blinked up at him lazily. “Shit,” he hissed. “Shit fuck, goddammit. Well, this might get messy.”

Barnes blinked at him again, nonplussed. His eyebrows quirked like he was about to smile, but he maintained his neutral expression. “Am I making you uncomfortable?” he asked, deadpan, after a few seconds of tense silence where Tony thought he might just fucking die from lack of air or escape routes.

“Yes, very.”

“Sorry,” Barnes whispered, and he sounded sincere. He closed his eyes like he was about to do something that might hurt, and he reached for the back of the couch, his normally nimble fingers groping clumsily and gripping to lever himself up to sit. He moved like an old man, or like a college kid who’d just woken to find an empty keg and a Sharpie dick drawn on his face. He sat up and bowed his head, rubbing the back of his neck and rolling his head from side to side.

Tony heard a series of loud pops and he shivered in sympathy.

It was the same motion Tony had seen on the security feed after Barnes had run the gauntlet course by himself. The security feed he only watched over and over for research, of course.

“Fuck it,” Tony grunted, and he reached a tentative hand out to brush his fingertips against the skin just over that designer V-neck T-shirt that was too soft and hung off Barnes’s muscles like the marble goddamn folds of a Caravaggio.

Barnes tensed before Tony made contact, showing Tony that the brief nap had at least made him more aware. He didn’t flinch away from Tony’s touch, though, just tipped his head to the side and waited. Tony brushed his fingers over warm skin, then placed his palm over Barnes’s shoulder and squeezed.

“May I?” he remembered to ask.

Barnes went boneless under his touch, his shoulders relaxing and his head tilting forward as if Tony had found a hidden ‘off’ button. Tony turned toward him for better access, using both hands on either side, and dug his thumbs into the tense, lean muscles of Barnes’s shoulders and neck. His pinky finger kept brushing the thick scar tissue around the metal cuff that even Barnes’s body couldn’t heal, and Tony wondered if anyone had ever treated that as a wound that needed care rather than . . . an outlet for a new accessory. Tony stayed away from it for now, not sure if Barnes would want him touching it, concentrating on the tension in Barnes’s back and neck muscles instead.

“Jesus, kid,” Tony grunted as he tried to work those muscles into something less murdery.

Barnes snorted, and the chuckle that followed was a dark, almost sensual sound. “Kid?”

Tony felt his cheeks flush. “I mean –”

“It’s okay, Stark,” Barnes said with a contented sigh as Tony’s fingers kept going. “You can call me whatever you want, just don’t stop what you’re doing.”

“Call me Tony.”

Barnes turned his head, looking as if he was staring into the back cushions of the sofa but really he was observing Tony with his peripheral vision. He looked like he might actually be smiling. “Only if you’ll try to start calling me Bucky.”

Tony made a clicking sound with his tongue, biting his lip to keep from smiling.

“Or at least James?” He sounded hopeful, like any concession from Tony might make him happier than the very professional ‘Barnes’ Tony had been sticking to

Tony grinned wider. Bucky. He could do that, right? Sure. “It’s a deal.”

Bucky made a pleased sound in the back of his throat, going even more boneless under Tony’s ministrations.

Tony scooted closer and folded his leg up under him, not sure why he was enjoying poking and prodding at Bucky’s muscles so viscerally, when in the past he’d been able to hold onto the very same muscles on Steve’s body as Steve fucked him. Bucky’s were different, though. Less bulk, but more . . . something? Less bulk but more . . . danger. More sinew and slither. He wasn’t as big as Steve, but he was stealthier. Steve Rogers was straightforward, all jutting chin and unfurling squared shoulders to stand tall in front of you, while Bucky Barnes was shadow, all crooked smirk and muscles that coiled but never actually moved until he was just no longer there.

Tony had to shake all that off before he started trying to imagine what they must be like together in bed, because that would lead to what it would be like between them in bed, and no, absolutely not, focus on the objective here, Tony, why exactly did we drug Bucky in the first place?

“So, thoughts on the sludge?” he asked as he dragged his fingers over Bucky’s thin T-shirt, wishing he could get under the material to the skin because it was so much easier that way. He was pleased to see that the massage course he’d taken in college for wildly varying purposes was actually coming in handy, though. He’d never realized how damn tense Bucky held himself, even still half-drugged with sludge he’d been holding his body with rigid control. Tony dragged his thumb up Bucky’s spine, pulling the shirt along with it, and Bucky gave a filthy moan of encouragement.

“Stop that, Jesus Christ, this sofa is communal property, it can’t be defiled.” Although Tony, do you listen to you own advice or are you desperately fighting not to get hard right now?

“Too late,” Bucky mumbled, and Tony barked a surprised laugh.

“So?” he asked again as he continued possibly the most ill-advised massage in his entire life. “The sludge?”

“It’s got way too much happy juice in it,” Barnes reported, his voice still sounding raw with relaxation and pleasure and maybe the barest hint of that cut-glass hangover. He cleared his throat. “I have a headache now and feel vaguely like I want to go puke up a . . . hamster, maybe?”

Tony snorted. He pushed his thumbs along the muscles of Barnes’s neck, up into his hair to follow the muscles that were working hard to keep Bucky’s skull all attached and upright and shit, trying to address that headache. Tony didn’t know anatomy overly well, but he knew how to follow bone and muscle and sinew. He could see over Bucky’s shoulder, and Bucky had a metal thumb and forefinger digging into the webbing of his other hand, between his thumb and pointer.

“What’s that do?” Tony asked with a waggle of his fingers, hoping he sounded casual enough to allow Bucky to shrug off the question if it was some sort of quirk stemming from the massive, massive amounts of PTSD everyone knew Bucky had to be hiding somewhere.

“Pressure point,” Bucky murmured distractedly. “Supposed to get rid of a headache. Usually works pretty well.”

“Huh.” Tony dragged his thumbs up Bucky’s neck again, realizing that Bucky’s hair not only felt good, but it smelled good too. Shit. Oh shit, fuck, goddammit. Tony was leaning closer to get a better whiff of the smell, and knowing Bucky’s typical spatial awareness he had to have noticed Tony doing it. He had to.

“So, too much happy in it, not enough . . . what?” Tony prompted brusquely as he tried to shake off the embarrassment of getting caught . . . sniffing a dude, no big deal.

“I didn’t need near as much to eat at lunch as I usually do,” Bucky reported diligently. “The croissants I had for breakfast held out all through the morning, and then I fixed one sandwich for lunch and I was solid. I ate like a normal human, I guess.”

“Wow, okay,” Tony muttered as he turned most of his mind over to the formula and the math. “So the nutritional aspect was spot on, sounds like.”

“Mhmm. Maybe if you stick to just that and not try the other stuff it’d be useful,” Bucky suggested carefully.

“Other stuff?” Tony asked in confusion.

“Mood alteration,” Bucky mumbled. He had his eyes closed and his head back, like what Tony was doing with his hands felt incredible and he was basking in it. It warmed Tony from his belly outward, and that was a dangerous warmth. A moment later another tiny moan slipped from between Bucky’s lips, and Tony shivered. Fuck fuck fuck!

“Jesus, keep your damn mouth shut,” Tony hissed. “That’s obscene, you kiss Steve with that mouth? Don’t answer that. Okay, mood-altering apparatus. When I started tinkering with the formula, both you and Steve were . . .”

“Sad assholes?” Bucky provided, his smile nearly audible.

Tony grunted. “Guess I went overboard.”

“Take out the fucking herbal stimulants, ’cause all it did was go straight to my dick and no one wants that kicking in on a mission, okay, especially me. And take out the uppers because there’s nothing in there to combat the crash that comes after, and that’s what you just saw happen to me. My God, I couldn’t sit still for four hours this afternoon, and then the world dropped out from under me. If I’d been out there alone, a come-down like that could have gotten me killed so, so dead. Stick with the nutrients and the filler, and you’ve got yourself a super soldier smoothie worth its time.”

Tony blinked at him stupidly. “How the hell did you know all that was in there?”

Bucky had his head bowed, his shoulders more relaxed than Tony had ever seen them as he dug his fingers into Bucky’s muscles. “Equipment report,” he murmured.

Tony’s movements stopped dead. He took in a sharp, painful breath, feeling every single nerve ending where his fingers touched Bucky’s skin. “I . . . Barnes, I didn’t ask for a fucking equipment report from you.”

“Didn’t you, though?” Bucky drawled, sounding like he was smiling, like it was a joke or something.

Tony shook his head, his body flooding with ice and then fire. God, what did Bucky think he was, exactly? He’d tried to capture him, kill him, imprison him, and then once the dust had settled, Tony had started banging on that arm like the high-tech piece of equipment it was instead of the man’s goddamn arm, and now whenever Bucky stepped into Tony’s lab, Tony was so fucking excited that he started showing off all his new projects and toys, and Bucky trailed after him, attentive – paying attention like no one else did, in fact – eyes taking it all in, storing that information . . . just like the goddamn Asset probably had to when he was being briefed on new tech every time they unthawed him.

Tony’s heart began to beat harder, feeling sporadic as it thumped against his chest, making his throat close up, his vision dim. He wasn’t a fucking Hydra technician. He wasn’t. That wasn’t his legacy!

“Jesus,” he gasped, grateful when anger began to burn away the panic. “No. That’s not why I asked you to try that IV, okay. T hat’s not why I gave you your own code to get into the lab, either! I’m not experimenting on you! Jesus Christ, I’m not Hydra, all right!”

Bucky raised his head, sighing almost imperceptibly as his shoulders began to tense once more. “I tried it willingly for you, Stark,” he said in a low, calm, Arctic-cold voice. Tony already missed the way he’d said his first name. “I like coming to your lab. Already makes you not Hydra.”

Tony was still frozen, his hands on Bucky’s shoulders as the man grew more and more tense under his fingers, Tony’s thumbs pressing into his muscles so he could feel the strength coiling in them, feel it intimately. He couldn’t let go, either, rather like he’d grabbed a live wire and it was electrocuting his muscles into holding on until he burned up and broke apart.

If he didn’t let go, would Bucky hurt him? Did Bucky think Tony was his goddamn handler, and every time Tony had touched him like this, Bucky was just waiting for the other shoe to drop? God, now every dirty thought and playful admonition Tony had tossed at Bucky for those tiny moans seemed . . . twisted.

Bucky raised his head, pushing his shoulders back to stretch. It was a gentle motion, though, not meant to shake Tony’s hands off. In fact, he seemed determined to sit there, still and quiet and sort of still pliant, until Tony released him of his own accord.

Realizing that – his imagination supplying all the things Bucky had probably been taught to expect when his sadistic fucking handlers had touched him like this from behind – Tony let go like Bucky was a man on fire. The heat from their contact had already transferred into Tony, though, and he felt even more anger flooding him, his body flushing white-hot with it.

“I’m not your goddamn technician or something, you know that, right?” Tony practically shouted. He didn’t care if anyone heard him. He kind of hoped someone would hear him, in fact; that Steve would come barreling up the stairs and rescue Bucky from him. No one came, though, and Bucky didn’t move to get away from Tony’s raised voice. “I’m not your handler! You don’t have to do what I tell you, you don’t have to try the shit I invent just because I hand it to you! You don’t have to show up at my goddamn workshop and pretend you’re interested in this bullshit just because you think I’m going to strap it to you one day! You don’t have to sit there and listen to me yell, either, Jesus Christ, Barnes! Fuck! And it would be a lot easier to shout at you if you’d fucking turn and look at me, you know!”

Bucky didn’t turn to face him. He merely peered over his shoulder, turning his head in an impossibly slow, measured motion until he could flick those ice-blue eyes toward Tony and see him.

The anger died in Tony’s throat, the cold calm in Bucky’s eyes dampening the heat rising in Tony’s cheeks. There was literally nothing in Bucky’s blank expression that should have gotten that reaction out of Tony, that should have made him calm so fast.

But here he sat, behind the Winter Soldier on a sofa, those eyes watching Tony peripherally like he might be a lost bunny in the snow, and it hit Tony that he’d only ever seen Bucky allow someone at his back twice. Once with Clint when they’d been firing arrows at the range, and once with Steve when Bucky’d been cooking and Steve had stepped up behind him to hand him the salt. He’d followed that with a playful kiss on Bucky’s shoulder. Clint had followed the arrow with a squeeze of Bucky’s middle, his lips pressed to Bucky’s back.

Bucky didn’t put anyone at his back unless he trusted that person with his life.

Tony’s breath left him. “I’m s – I’m sorry,” he stuttered out, forcing himself to maintain eye contact instead of running away from the man like he so desperately wanted to. “I didn’t mean to . . . to –”

“It’s okay,” Bucky offered in a quiet, soothing voice, like he was speaking to a skittish dog, like Tony was the one with decades of abuse and horrors behind him, trying to find himself in a new world full of anger and fear. Like he was trying to calm Tony down, instead of the other way around. “You think about yourself in terms of bad guys a lot, don’t you?”

“What?” Tony gasped.

“You compare yourself to the evil you know. Ask yourself if you’re that bad yet, or will the truly good people in the world allow you to fight on their side for a while longer?”

Tony’s mouth had gone dry, and he couldn’t even blink at Bucky as they sat there.

Bucky just nodded, like he’d gotten the answer he had expected. He bowed his head again, his shoulder muscles bunching like he was moving his hands in his lap. Then he stilled once more. “Me too.”

Tony didn’t know what to do. At this stage of the conversation, his first instinct was to get up and run away. Just bolt the hell away from an ugly pathway that his mind didn’t need to start prancing down – again.

But he was tethered there, unable to move away from Sergeant James Barnes, who was not the Winter Soldier, who was maybe 30 years old, who had a smile that nearly always reached his eyes despite what those eyes had seen, who was in possession of the most wicked sense of humor Tony had ever encountered, who visited him at his lab almost every day when he was able and asked questions no one else thought to ask because he liked to. He was sitting on a couch with Hydra’s most deadly weapon, the most effective killing machine in the history of warfare, the thing so lethal he had scared other assassins . . . and the man had put his back to Tony and asked him to call him by his childhood nickname.

Tony gasped for air when he realized his lungs were screaming. “You’re not a bad guy,” he whispered, sounding stubborn to his own ears.

“Nor are you, my friend,” Bucky murmured without missing a beat.

Tony grunted, almost more of a whimper.

“I’m sorry I upset you. It’s just that I know my body the same way a mechanic knows a car, the same way you know your machines,” Bucky told him. “I’ve had a century to familiarize myself with it, with the way it works and reacts to different things, I’ve had the advantage of pushing it to failure time and time again to categorize these things. I don’t know what else to call it but an equipment report. If you ask about my mental condition I’d call it a status report. If you asked about the weather, I’d tell you to look the fuck outside your own goddamn self, because I’m not the Asset anymore.”

Tony’s mouth was slowly but surely opening wider and wider. He shifted to lean his arm against the back of the couch, trying to see Bucky’s face better, but Bucky didn’t tense with his movement. Tony took advantage and reached past his hip to put a hand lightly on Bucky’s forearm, right below his elbow. “Will you turn around so I’m not looking at your sad little ponytail?”

“Will you yell at me again?” Bucky asked, blunt as ever. He raised his head, staring off toward the stairwell.

Tony sighed, guilt flooding him. Jesus. His jaw tightened determinedly. God, how many abusers had this kid met up with that even Tony scared him when he was yelling?

“I can’t look you in the eye when you’re angry,” Bucky added, like he thought Tony might be confused by the question. “Especially not –”

“I’m sorry.”

Bucky snorted, and when Tony tilted his head to get a better look, he realized that Bucky was . . . smiling? No, not quite. Smirking, more like. That damn crooked grin that Tony had kind of fallen for in the last few weeks.

“Especially not with the remnants of that damn herbal stimulant in me,” Bucky continued, undeterred by Tony’s interruptions and attempts to soothe him. “You’re really quite stunning when you’re shouting.”

Yeah, he was definitely smirking.

Tony made an involuntary humming sound as he tried and failed to clear his throat. “Say what?”

“You heard me.”

“Are . . . Christ, Barnes, are you flirting with me?” Tony blurted out.

“Well not if you’re going to keep calling me Barnes like you’re my CO,” Bucky drawled, still diligently studying the ultra modern wire and glass stair rail.

“I can sure as shit break that habit in under an hour,” Tony promised, and then they were both laughing softly. Tony gave his arm a little tug, and Bucky finally obliged, turning to sit backwards on the sofa, his legs folded up under him, back straight but shoulders loose, still sort of eyeing Tony sideways.

“What happened with you and Steve?” Tony couldn’t help asking. “I thought you two were . . . working.”

Bucky nodded, gazing off down the hallway that led to the residential rooms. “There’s a lot there.”

“Understatement.”

Bucky merely pursed his lips. “We never could handle being everything to each other,” he admitted, sounding sad and sort of far away. “No, scratch that; I never could handle being everything to him. He always seemed to be able to do it just fine. He was everything I ever needed or wanted, and that never bothered him. We burned at both ends, like a candle. He always burned longer, though, brighter. So much brighter than me, that kid. Always burned right through me.” He darted his eyes toward Tony, like he was hesitant to admit his next words. “I love him. I need him. But I’m not sure if I’ll survive being burned through just yet.”

Tony nodded slowly. “That’s why you kept tossing him at me like a Frisbee?”

“Not entirely, but some of it,” Bucky admitted with a tired nod. Then he frowned at Tony. “What’s a Frisbee?”

Tony narrowed his eyes, trying to judge if Bucky was poking fun at him again, or if he was serious. Bucky had gotten all of the Avengers at least once by innocently asking what several extremely embarrassing modern-day things were, only to offer an evil grin halfway through an explanation that had his victim blushing furiously and stuttering through a careful, sensitive wording that wouldn’t trigger the poor little assassin’s mental trauma. It was particularly funny to watch from across a room, less so at this distance.

There were very few things Bucky had asked about in the last few months that he honestly had never encountered before.

This kind of felt like an honest question, though, especially since they were having an all too goddamned honest discussion right now. Tony supposed, as far as assassinations and plots to overthrow governments and important stealth military operations went, it made sense that Bucky had never encountered a plastic flying disc.

Tony clicked his tongue. “Think Cap’s shield, but small and plastic and stoners playing with it in a park. You’d fit right in, with a flannel shirt maybe.”

Bucky’s brow furrowed deeply, very briefly, but then it smoothed over and he just nodded as if he understood. “I’ll Google it,” he said with a sigh.

Tony gnawed on his bottom lip, trying to think, trying to run through all the scenarios, trying to process all this new information, but God help him, God help his damned soul, all he could think about was how nice Bucky smelled this close up and how the unruly half a ponytail was somehow incredibly sexy as he sat there in his rumpled T-shirt and designer jeans.

“Ah, shit,” Tony breathed.

Bucky tore his eyes away from the hallway behind the sofa and looked at Tony, open and guileless. Tony held his breath. He would not encourage this, not again, not when he’d halfway suspected Bucky had just been poking fun at him and not actually serious about fucking and it had felt like a safety net for their mild flirtations. Now, he knew Bucky didn’t play games, not that kind.

Tony opened his mouth to say something, Christ, anything, please, think of something, but Bucky beat him to it, bless his cold, murderous heart.

“I made notes for you,” he said quietly. “Data, for the IV.”

Tony stared at him. All the times he’d asked his team to keep notes when they tried out new gear, and Bucky was the first to ever do it for him? Without being prompted? Shit. Shit shit motherfucking fucker.

“If you want them,” Bucky added, giving Tony the barest shrug of his shoulder.

“I do,” Tony said, fast as lightning. “Thank you. Usually, I have to beat data out of the team.”

Bucky nodded, looking serous. “Yeah, that’s how I learned.”

Tony’s belly flip-flopped again. God, how did he keep running into that same pothole? He must have groaned out loud, because when he looked back at Bucky, the fucking asshole was smiling softly at him. He looked sort of smug.

“What?” Tony moaned.

“That’s still fun,” Bucky admitted. “You always look like I just smacked you in the face with a fish.”

The teasing relieved him, for some reason, and he felt himself relaxing. “You’re a cruel man, Sergeant Barnes.”

“So it’s been said. I’ll grab those notes, if you want them.”

Tony nodded, disappointment rising. Christ, was he actually enjoying sitting here and this weird combination of flirting and fighting and failing?

“Later?” Bucky added carefully, tilting his head at Tony and watching him with eyes that were most definitely not merely 30 years old. They were far, far older. Tony felt like he was looking into the eyes of a dragon, rising from his slumber, impossibly ancient and wise. But then something flashed in them, and suddenly this was just some cocky young soldier from Brooklyn who knew how to do horribly amoral things with his mouth.

“I like puzzles,” Tony blurted as he stared into Bucky’s eyes. “I do. I really do. I love mysteries and problems and trying to find the answers. But you . . . you might be the one that does me in.”

“Told you before, I’m not a puzzle,” Bucky murmured, smiling.

“What if I like playing with puzzles and sticking the pieces into things?”

Bucky’s grin widened, and Tony would have sworn he felt the warmth of the goddamn sun on his face as he stared. “I can be a puzzle piece if that’s what you’re into,” Bucky drawled. Then he tossed Tony a wink. “Not to stray too far from the metaphor, but I also really enjoy getting fucked on occasion.”

Tony did groan then, long and loud; the same totally inappropriate sound Bucky had been making when Tony’d been massaging his shoulders. He looked away, staring at their vague reflection in the darkening windows, the setting sun behind, watching them. Judging them.

“Too forward?” Bucky teased.

“Give me a minute, okay, Jesus Christ.” Tony ran a hand through his hair, not caring if it messed it up. “Do you know how long I had to dance around Steve just to get him to say the word fuck, much less perform the action? I thought it was an old man from the ’40’s thing!”

Bucky hummed thoughtfully. “I think that’s just a Steve thing. But I mean . . . I’m sure I can manage a blush or something, if that’s the kind of thing that gets you going.”

Tony glared at him, unable to maintain his stern expression in the face of Bucky’s smirk and the playful light in his eyes.

Tony felt himself grinning, and he bit his lip to stop. “Why’d you turn me down, the other week? That was a real offer.”

Bucky frowned then, shaking his head. “No, it wasn’t. That was anger and frustration and confusion and maybe the tiniest bit of lust that I would have felt horrible taking advantage of, especially since I was planning on bolting in the middle of the night. There’s a huge amount of mess that comes after those things that has nothing to do with washing lube off the sheets.”

Tony narrowed his eyes. “And now?”

Bucky shrugged that one shoulder again. Tony wondered, since Bucky did that so often, if he’d developed the habit by being strapped into a chair with his metal arm tied down so often that he’d perfected the insolent shrug without needing that side of his body.

Tony had to push those musings aside, as far as they would go. “Jesus,” he hissed. “What did I do to deserve you as my punishment, huh?”

Bucky moved next to him, pushing up to his knees, and he took Tony’s face between both hands. The metal fingers against the side of Tony’s face were so incredibly gentle, moving against Tony’s skin with a delicate brush, that Tony had to shiver as his mind started going through computations about how Bucky must be controlling the damn thing and exerting pressure and Christ he smelled good maybe F.R.I.D.A.Y could find out what shower stuff he used so Tony could fucking roll around in it and jerk off so he wouldn’t want to dive into Bucky whenever he got close to him.

Because after this, that was exactly what was going to happen. Tony wouldn’t be able to leave this goddamn sofa as the same man, a man who had been able to watch Bucky Barnes from a distance rather than wanting to be enveloped into his orbit. Dammit.

Then Bucky kissed his forehead. Such a simple, chaste gesture, what the goddamn hell was this? It left Tony frozen as Bucky got gracefully to his feet. When he stood he wavered, though, just noticeable enough for Tony to grab for him and hold both his hips to steady him.

Bucky grunted, a hand coming to Tony’s, pressing it against his hip like he feared Tony might let go before he’d found his balance. “Less upper,” he told Tony, sounding a little hoarse. “More protein.”

“Noted,” Tony murmured. “Let’s get you to bed, okay?”

“No, I’m fine. I’ve been in bed for hours watching the ceiling turn colors. I came stumbling out here because I was lonely and talking to myself.” He sounded amused, but Tony doubted he was joking completely. Suddenly he did want to see those notes. When Bucky spoke again, his voice was light and teasing. “How’s work on the terrifying robot army?”

“Work’s good,” Tony answered, and he planted his feet on the ground, trying to figure out how to stand up without the inevitable result of winding up grinding against Bucky’s ass the entire way to his feet and winding up all up in Bucky’s space with his rapidly growing dick pressing to Bucky’s ass and his hand still on the man’s hips. Ah, geez . . .

Bucky seemed to sense his dilemma and took a step forward, sliding out of Tony’s hands and turning to grasp at Tony’s wrist and heft him to his feet.

Well, this wasn’t better. This wasn’t better at all. The strength in that one human arm, Christ. And at least if he’d stood and been grinding against Bucky’s ass for a second, Bucky wouldn’t have been able to see his eyes. Now, they stood facing each other, mere inches apart, and Bucky’s eyes were unfaltering, unabashedly staring into Tony’s, warm and sincere and . . . and Tony couldn’t tear his own eyes away no matter what Bucky was discovering in them.

He inhaled slightly, trying to find a word, any word, just blurt out a word, Tony, words are good, words are annoying, words keep things from going silent and awkward and –

Bucky leaned in the last half inch and kissed him. It was a careful kiss, with Tony’s lips only slightly parted on that goddamn word that hadn’t come, with Bucky slowly closing his mouth over Tony’s top lip as he stepped into him. There was no tongue. There was no more of that obscene, untimely moaning Bucky apparently did when someone played with his hair. There was no groping, other than Bucky’s fingers sliding carefully into two of Tony’s belt loops to keep him where he was.

And God, if that wasn’t worse. Jesus, how was that worse?! That careful touch, like a polite request to stay right there, please, while I seduce you with two fingers. Tony would have been better off with two whole hands full of fingers grabbing his ass, at least that would have been something he knew how to handle. But this, careful knuckles barely brushing against his hipbones, the slightest of pressure on his waist where the belt loops pulled. The way Bucky’s smell was just subtle enough that it made Tony want to bury his face in Bucky’s neck to inhale deeper and get more of it. Ugh.

Tony’s hands moved before he could relay the information to fucking cease and goddamn desist, and he grabbed at Bucky’s upper arms. One hand finding nothing but metal didn’t even cause him pause. He bunched his fingers into material and muscle and metal. Bucky tilted his head when Tony touched him, and he pressed into the kiss deeper, parting his lips, tongue swiping across Tony’s top lip as Bucky closed over it again. The barest beginning of a kiss, something careful and sweet and like nothing Tony had ever known. As he pulled away, all Tony could hear was his own heartbeat clanging away in his ears, and the oh so soft, satisfying sound of Bucky’s lips parting from his.

They stood that way for a few more seconds as Bucky dragged his nose across Tony’s and then pulled back; with Bucky’s fingers hooked through Tony’s belt loops, Tony’s hands dragging down Bucky’s arms, faces close enough for their breaths to mingle, but no longer kissing.

“Uh,” Tony finally offered.

“Mhmm,” Bucky responded, sounding pleased but not actually smug now. He pulled further away and let Tony go slowly. Regretfully. When he spoke, his voice was still a low, gentle whisper, warm in the same way that Tony’s belly was. “I’ll go grab my notes for you.”

“’Kay.” Tony cleared his throat, blinking around at the common room, looking anywhere but at the way Bucky’s body moved when he walked away, long and lean and loose. “You do that. I’ll be . . . I’ll be in my . . .”

“You’ll be in your bunk?” Bucky provided wryly over his shoulder as he sauntered away.

Tony goddamn near whimpered. “Hate you!” he shouted, then headed for his lab at all speed before he had to lie more.

==

Bucky grabbed the composition book he’d taken from the stash of them in Tony’s lab, flipping through it to make sure the notes he’d taken throughout the day were actually legible and not too embarrassing. He knew for a while there he’d been sort of floaty.

When he was satisfied that nothing in the notebook would completely ruin him, he grabbed one of the soft, thin overshirts he’d purchased online and tossed it over his shoulder, heading out toward Tony’s lab. Tony kept the lab really cold, and Bucky found that when he stayed there too long, his body had a hard time regulating and he got cold and miserable. Tony was still tweaking the nano thingies he’d injected to help flush Bucky of the cold, another reason Bucky kept the composition book around for keeping notes and observations.

Heading down the hall, he realized his belly was doing little nervous tumbles, and he had to stop and take stock. Was this another side effect of the damn IV sludge – which, never the hell again Barnes, Christ what had he been thinking? – or was this . . . nerves? Ooh, yeah. This was nerves! Oh, that was sort of fun.

Bucky wasn’t sure he remembered the last time he’d been the good kind of nervous. There’d been the briefest flutter of it before Clint had pulled him closer by his metal arm and kissed him the first time. There’d been a flood of nerves when Steve had bulled his way past all of Bucky’s defenses, but those had been accompanied by a sickly sweet terror that always came with loving someone too goddamn hard.

Tony, though, he was safe in a way that Steve would never be for Bucky. And he was exciting in a way that Clint never would be because Clint was just too easy, too much like Bucky, to be unpredictable. Tony? Bucky couldn’t possibly anticipate what the man was going to do from one minute to the next because even Tony didn’t know.

He made it to the common area, able to get the nervous jumbles under control, but then the sound of sparring – hits, thumps, laughs, grunts, taunts – reached his ears and gave him pause.

That kiss . . . Bucky had put every trick he knew about first kisses into that kiss. And he’d read Tony’s eyes just as plainly as if he’d been browsing through a book. If Bucky went out to that lab now . . . yeah, he needed to talk to Steve first.

Bucky laid the composition book on a side table and headed for the stairs. He took them carefully, still not quite trusting an IV concoction that had seen him pointing at his bedroom ceiling and explaining the constellations to his pillow.

When he got to the lower level, he found Natasha and Sam circling each other, smirking, calling out insults, covered in sweat. Ugh, Bucky missed sparring and working out and running and the camaraderie that came with all of it.

His fault, though, for breaking his own goddamn leg. Now that he was almost fully healed, Bucky had been fighting the niggling worry, the dread, that they might not let him join back up in the sparring games. That by leaving without consulting the team, he wouldn’t be welcome anymore.

If that was the call they made, Bucky wouldn’t blame them. It was one of the things he had weighed against his plan. He wouldn’t blame them, but it would still break his damn heart.

He stood watching the match for a minute or so, and finally he felt Steve’s eyes on him, felt Steve moving toward him. He cut his gaze sideways, smiling when Steve got closer.

“Doing okay, Buck?” Steve asked, careful as a zookeeper in the tiger’s cage.

Bucky nodded, smiling and fighting as hard as he could not to fucking blush. “Stuff’s worn off, mostly,” he told Steve, ducking his head. “I’m sorry I –”

“No, hey, whoa. No apologizing for mind-blowing sex, okay,” Steve said, laughing and lowering his voice.

They both moved further away from the others, leaning against the wall together. Bucky in his civilian clothes and no shoes, Steve in his workout gear and covered in a nice sheen of sweat. He smelled good, too, like it was a pure workout instead of one tainted by blood or gunpowder.

Steve winced as they bowed their heads closer to talk. “I wish I’d known it was the stuff Tony put in that IV, though, I feel a little . . .”

“Dirty?” Bucky provided with an easy smile.

Steve nodded, a blush spreading high on his cheekbones.

“Me too,” Bucky admitted. “I’ll make it up to you.”

“Buck,” Steve said with a sigh. He shook his head. He seemed to ponder what he’d been about to say, then thought better of it and simply sighed as he watched Natasha throw Sam to the ground. “Are you okay? What are you doing down here?”

“Came to talk to you about something,” Bucky said, trying not to get worked up, trying to keep calm and cool like he always was every time they’d ever had this conversation. Steve fed off Bucky’s mood, and if Bucky stayed cool, so would Steve. Usually.

“Uh oh.”

“Eh,” Bucky agreed with a wince. “How gone are you on Stark?”

“What?” Steve asked after the longest three seconds of Bucky’s fucking life.

“You love him? Like, the real kind of love, the Agent Carter kind of love?”

Steve swallowed convulsively and looked away. Bucky could see his jaw tensing, see his eyes narrowing. He was trying to figure out Bucky’s angle. There were only three possibilities, really, in Steve’s mind. Bucky knew him well enough to be able to list them out.

Steve’s Mind Number One: Bucky was trying to break up with Steve and shove him toward Tony again.

Steve’s Mind Number Two: Bucky had decided he was ready to be monogamous again, and he was trying to figure out how much it would hurt Steve to dump Tony.

And Steve’s Mind Number Three: Bucky had his eye on Tony and was about to ask permission to move forward.

When Steve turned narrowed, intelligent blue eyes back on Bucky, Bucky gave him a gentle smirk and a wink.

“You son of a . . . wow,” Steve whispered. “Seriously?”

Bucky shrugged. “Color me fucking intrigued, Steven.”

“Huh. And you’re here, what, asking me permission?”

“You know I am,” Bucky answered somberly, dropping the smirky charm. “From you, and for you. Just like always.”

“Always and forever?” Steve echoed, sounding the barest hint bitter.

Bucky watched him sadly. He would give anything if he could make Steve understand him. He would give everything, he would give another 70 years, he would give his right goddamn arm because he’d already tried giving his left, he would give up every memory he’d scrabbled back, just to buy Steve’s understanding. Bucky loved him like no other thing. Bucky loved him so much that his name had sometimes been the only thing left floating in the miasma of pain and blank electrical impulse he’d so often woken to. Bucky loved him so goddamn much that when the Russians had told him Steve was dead, he’d stopped fighting them altogether and let them wipe his memories clean, just so the pain of Steve’s loss would end.

Bucky loved him, always and forever, so much that he’d clawed his way out of the grave to get back to him.

But Bucky also knew that someone like him, something like him, couldn’t wrap itself up in something pure. It burned like salt on a wound, it ate into the outer layer of calluses and scars and exposed every raw and trembling thing inside. Something as pure as Steve . . . if Bucky made Steve his whole world again, like he’d done when he’d been young and so naïve that he’d actually believed he himself was something pure as well, then it would kill him when Steve chose the right thing over him again.

It would kill him. Or worse, it would kill everything good he had left in him, and all that would remain would be the wolf who lurked in the woods, waiting for a shock of blond hair in a red cape.

Bucky would always choose Steve. But Steve . . . Steve would always choose the right thing.

So Bucky had to have a buffer. He had to have things that were just his, to keep himself safe from the pain when Steve made his next choice. In 1943 Bucky had thrown himself into their team, made himself the best goddamn Sergeant in Uncle Sam’s Army, and it had helped give him a purpose that wasn’t merely Steve, it had helped define him as not a pure thing, but still a good thing, doing bad things for a good cause. Bucky had been shockingly okay with that. In fact, he rather liked it. He’d become a thing in the night that bad things feared, and God help him, he’d liked that even more.

After the fall, Bucky had stopped having an opinion of himself one way or another. But waking up in DC to Steve’s desperate pleas, telling him his name, sparking a chain of memories that had lasted nearly eight goddamn months, Bucky had started forming some opinions of himself again.

And he liked being the thing the bad things feared again. With Steve beside him, he would gladly slip back into that roll.

But he needed even more buffering now, because Steve had an edge of panic to him in this modern world, caused by his loss. Steve was desperate to pull Bucky back into that salt-burn embrace, and he wouldn’t stop, couldn’t understand why Bucky dug in his heels to resist. Bucky didn’t want him to stop. But he needed a buffer, something to soothe the burn. Something to remind him he was more of a good thing than a bad thing, so he’d have a chance at redemption even after Steve chose the right thing over him.

It was going to happen. Bucky didn’t know when or how, but he knew one day he would diverge from the right thing, and Steve would be forced to choose again.

Serve in a war where men are laying down their lives, Buck, or come dancing and drinking and go home to fuck until the sun comes up and it’s time to ship out?

Yeah . . .

“Bucky?” Steve whispered.

Bucky blinked at him, praying Steve hadn’t been talking to him. Christ, maybe there was more of that IV solution still in him than he thought.

“You know I love you, Stevie,” Bucky whispered. “You know I won’t care either way. I just need your say.”

Steve stared into his eyes, searching for something Bucky couldn’t hope to guess. Then Steve began to nod, sighing softly. “Be good to him?”

“Steve,” Bucky grunted, insulted down to his very toes.

Steve laughed, the sound sincere and just a little bitter. “Make sure he’s good to you.”

Bucky reached and patted Steve’s flank, not caring that his shirt was soaked with sweat. “Got to entertain myself somehow until I can get back in the saddle,” he drawled, jerking his head toward the weight room and the exercise machines beyond.

Steve’s eyes flickered over to the punching bags, then settled on Bucky again. “Once you get the final sign off on your leg, I’ll pencil you back into the rotation.”

Bucky’s heart stuttered, and he found himself staring at Steve, naked hope shining in his eyes. Steve read him so easily that it should have been embarrassing. Steve frowned and moved closer, his hand coming up to Bucky’s cheek. “What? You really thought I wouldn’t let you come back?”

“You’d have every right not to, Steve,” Bucky whispered shakily. He pushed into Steve’s hand, forcing himself to keep his eyes open and on Steve’s. “They’ll never trust me again, after what I did. They don’t have to.”

“They will,” Steve whispered, smiling as his eyes darted down to Bucky’s lips. He grinned when he met Bucky’s eyes and knew he’d been caught ogling. “Besides, after that shit we pulled on you with Clint’s farm, I think we’re probably more like even now.”

Bucky stared for a few more seconds, wondering if Steve could move any closer without both of them going cross-eyed. Would Steve kiss him down here, in team space, while they were doing team stuff? He’d been careful to keep the team separate from everything else.

Bucky didn’t have to wonder long. Steve darted forward and pressed their mouths together hungrily, holding onto Bucky’s neck to keep him there, biting his lower lip to make him gasp and part his lips. Bucky’s hand came up to his hip again, squeezing hard, keeping their bodies at least a little apart – James Barnes is there room for a bible in there?! What would the Holy Spirit say? – and he whimpered softly into the kiss.

Someone wolf-whistled.

“What lesson is that from, Cap?” Sam called.

“Wow, what would Hydra do if you came at them with that?” Clint added.

Bucky felt Steve smiling against his lips, and then they were both snickering as they made sure to get their fill of the kiss before pulling apart.

“He’s on convalescent leave,” Steve told them, talking to them but still looking at Bucky and smiling softly. “Has to have his daily physical.”

Bucky ran his teeth over his lower lip. “Pretty sure that’s what you gave me when I jumped you in your room earlier.”

“That was a prostate exam,” Steve whispered, voice pitched for Bucky’s ears alone, thank God, because even Bucky was feeling his face heat a little as they both laughed, both of them shocked that Steve had said it

“Shut up,” Bucky hissed as he turned away. “Punk.”

“Jerk!”

“Yeah, that’s what you’re going to have to do tonight, you keep talking shit,” Bucky shot over his shoulder as he made his way up the stairs, accompanied by rounds of laughter that made him warm all over.

That knot of tension in his belly was gone now. Steve had given him a concrete answer, and he was going to be offered a chance to earn the team’s trust back. That was all he could ask for.

He grabbed the composition book and headed for the exit, the same nerves assaulting him as before. Steve had also given him his okay for whatever would come next, even if it had been obvious that Steve hadn’t liked it so much. Steve might change his mind, of course, if all three of them were fucking and just decided to streamline things a little by doing it all at the same time . . .

Steve didn’t think of these things ahead of time. That’s why he had Bucky.

“Sergeant Barnes?” the now-familiar Irish lilt greeted him when he neared the exit.

“Yes, Friday?”

“Boss was asking for your whereabouts.”

“He’s getting antsy, huh?”

“He is on the near verge of sending Dum-E to your room to retrieve your notes, Sergeant.”

“Wow, let’s not,” Bucky mumbled as he started walking again. “Let him know where I am.”

“Thank you, Sergeant.”

Bucky made it across the grassy yard that led to Tony’s lab, his feet bare, enjoying the moonlight but not so much the dry, spiky grass. It looked soft and green but it was not.

He set his hand against the panel, smiling when his name came up in green light. He hadn’t known, when Tony scanned his information in, that not everyone had unlimited access to this building. In fact, Tony, Steve, Rhodey, and Bucky were the only ones who could come and go as they pleased. Bucky was honored and a little thrilled every time he put his hand on the pad.

As a kid he’d loved technology, had been pretty good with mechanics, and had been a massive fan of Howard Stark. To the point that when Steve had introduced him to Howard, Bucky had been momentarily struck speechless. Thankfully, Howard talked enough that he hadn’t noticed, and once he’d put a gun in Bucky’s hand, all else faded except the target. Those were good memories, tainted with regret and sadness by the fist he could still feel crushing the bones in Howard’s face. He’d been careful not to tell Tony any of that.

But he was still a fan of the Stark men. Whether he could tell Tony the whole of it or not.

“God!” Tony cried from across the lab. “What the hell took you so long, I was about to send out a search party!”

Dum-E beeped at him happily, as if to tell Tony, ‘look, I found him!’

“Well, it would have gone about as well as the last search party they sent for me,” Bucky called back wryly, and Dum-E beeped again, still sounding inordinately pleased with itself.

Bucky rounded several work stations piled high with pieces and parts, and when he reached Tony he held up the composition book with a smile. He wanted to grab Tony’s wrist and reel him in closer, try for another kiss that might tip Tony over into not wanting to bolt as soon as he got turned on. Because Bucky had sat through Tony’s weeble wobble routine in the common room trying his damnedest not to laugh or just tackle him and kiss him; watching the inner struggle was kind of adorable.

But Bucky wasn’t going to go that route, not with Tony.

He set the book down on the stainless steel countertop near Tony’s elbow, and Tony looked at it with wide eyes, then narrowed them as he turned to Bucky. “How did you know I don’t like to be handed things?”

Bucky cocked his head, frowning. “You told me.”

“Most people think I’m kidding when I tell them that.”

“Oh. Were you?”

“No,” Tony answered immediately, not a hint of a joke or sarcasm in his voice.

Bucky nodded, shrugging as he glanced at the composition book. He wasn’t sure what he’d done wrong, in that case.

Tony glared at him for a few more seconds, then picked up the composition book and flipped it open. He read through it faster than a normal human could have, but then Bucky supposed that was why Tony Stark was a goddamn genius.

“Colors, really,” Tony muttered at one point. “Is this a joke, or legit?”

“No room for jokes in a report,” Bucky answered, and he turned his attention to the nearest workbench, wandering to it, hands in his pockets so he wouldn’t be tempted to touch anything. “They swirled. It was nauseating.”

“Did you ever actually throw up?” Tony asked, still all business.

“No, but not for lack of trying,” Bucky said wryly. He could laugh about it now. Three hours ago, not so much.

“I’m sorry,” Tony offered, and when Bucky turned he caught the wince on Tony’s face. “I had no idea –”

“Stop apologizing, Tony,” Bucky said, relishing the way the name sounded on his tongue. He kind of hoped Tony liked hearing it, too. He didn’t look back again, telling himself that this wasn’t a race, and Tony deserved better than to have Bucky just pounce on him – like he wanted to.

Bucky circled the workbench, cocking his head this way and that as he looked at the components, listening with a fond smile to Tony muttering to himself. He had no idea what this project was going to be, and he glanced around the room, trying to spot something that looked more fully formed that he might be able to puzzle out. He wandered over to the next table, and he froze in his tracks at the sight of those dark red glass eyes, like taillights in the night that had just been pumped and were taking too long to fade from your vision.

Bucky was rooted to the spot, staring at them, unable to hear Tony any longer, unable to see anything but red eyes, slowly turning on, glowing from somewhere deep inside, laser focus on him as he backed into a corner of a tiny room with nowhere to go, breaths heaving, bloody and broken, knife held to his own carotid artery because he’d be damned if he’d go out torn apart by some machine that would take its sweet time with it.

“Barnes!” The name came from far away but also so close, and then hands were on each of his shoulders and he was being steadied against a warm, strong embrace. “Jesus Christ, are you okay? You in there? Come on, sit down or we’re both going overboard. Fuck, so fucking stupid, I should have incinerated that piece of fucking shit! Barnes? Bucky?”

Bucky took a deep breath, realizing he was staring at the underside of a workbench and looking through its legs at several other sets of table legs. Wires and parts floated from the tops. It was bright and cool, and he was leaning against Tony with Tony’s arms around him, holding him tightly like he was protecting him instead of restraining.

Usually when Bucky blacked out like that, Steve and Clint were the only ones willing to physically comfort him before his eyes cleared. Steve merely held him until Bucky stopped struggling. Clint tried talking him down, and kept trying, and he’d only been tossed across the room once.

But Tony hadn’t hesitated, grabbing him up, talking him down as he held to him like he could fend off whatever memory had come for Bucky this time.

“Tony,” Bucky rasped out, trying to warn him that it had been fucking stupid to do that, that Bucky could have seriously hurt him, Jesus Christ what had he been thinking?

“Whatever you’re about to say, you just shut your fucking mouth, okay, I don’t care who you are, someone looks at me with the face you were just giving me, they get a goddamn hug.”

Tony settled all the way on the floor, his knees bent on either side of Bucky so that Bucky was lounging back into him, arms propped on Tony’s knees, hands digging into his calves, Tony’s arms around his chest and torso, holding him, fingers spread wide against his belly and his heart, rocking him side to side.

Bucky closed his eyes and let Tony’s warmth and solidity bring him fully back to the present.

“Sorry,” he finally offered. “Its eyes are off, right? They’re not glowing, right? They’re off?”

“Yeah, Buck,” Tony whispered. He swiped his palm over Bucky’s hair, his fingers gentle against Bucky’s temple, then the back of his neck. “They’re off. They’re dead. They’re never coming back on again, you hear me? I’m tossing them in the incinerator as soon as we get up.”

Bucky shook his head. “What about –”

“Nothing,” Tony snarled, and his arm tightened around Bucky’s stomach, his hand somehow spreading warmth all through Bucky’s body. How did he do that? “I can’t learn anything from that thing that’s worth you having to see it again.”

Bucky tried a few test breaths, pleased when they came out only a little shaky. He stared at the components that hung from the stainless steel top, one set just like the rest, all the same, all part of one giant menace. He frowned. “Wait, say that again,” he whispered.

“I said I’m fucking burning the thing,” Tony snapped. Bucky knew the anger wasn’t directed at him, and the vehemence made him smile.

“I mean . . . you can’t learn anything from it,” Bucky repeated slowly, like he was testing the words.

“Right, I poked and prodded it all over, but there’s nothing to write home about.”

“What about the component that it learns from?” Bucky asked as an idea began to form.

Tony tensed behind him, and Bucky allowed himself that moment to really appreciate how good Tony’s body felt when he was engaging all those taut muscles Bucky knew he hid under band T-shirts and Iron Man armor. He closed his eyes and rested his head on Tony’s shoulder. Even if Tony didn’t go for him, in the end, at least today had been full of some good goddamn cuddles.

“The components that allowed the Red Eyes to communicate,” Tony finally murmured. “Yeah, they’re all intact, just without a power source, why, what’ve you got?”

Bucky began to grin, and he opened his eyes to peer up at Tony. Tony was looking down at him, frowning, brown eyes sparkling with excitement that Bucky couldn’t quite read. That was another reason Bucky was drawn to the man like a goddamn moth to a flame. He was so, so hard to read. It was almost like being a real person again, instead of a thing programmed to notice and categorize a target’s every tic.

“You have an idea, don’t you?” Tony whispered.

“We can power it back up,” Bucky answered. “And we can teach them, every single one of them, the one thing I didn’t.”

Tony cocked his head, trying to get a better look at Bucky. Bucky shifted until he was resting his head on the crook of Tony’s elbow, and Tony was essentially holding him up like he was swooning in Gone With the Wind.

“What’s that?” Tony asked, his eyes darting over Bucky’s face, shining.

“How to fucking give up,” Bucky told him, grinning lopsidedly.

Tony stared at him, the idea taking root, a smile growing wider and wider as Bucky literally watched the logistics of his idea form behind Tony’s eyes. “Christ,” Tony finally breathed. “That’d give us a fighting goddamn chance when it comes down to going up against them.”

Bucky nodded, watching him raptly.

“Excellent thinking, Sergeant Barnes,” Tony whispered.

Bucky practically beamed, but he didn’t have much time to bask in the compliment, because Tony tightened his arms around him, bringing Bucky’s head up more, and Tony curled over him to kiss him. Bucky grasped at him, his fingers threading through hair too short to hold onto and landing instead on the back of Tony’s neck. He didn’t want to grab too hard, though, because while Clint may have liked the bruises Bucky accidentally left on him, Bucky doubted Tony would be as appreciative. He moved his grip to the back of Tony’s shirt instead, because that was safe, and who didn’t get fucking turned on by someone grabbing desperately at their clothing when they were kissed?

Tony moaned into the kiss, his tongue swiping at Bucky’s lips like he was asking permission. Bucky couldn’t help the grin, which made it harder to part his lips, but by the time Tony’s tongue swept across his own, Bucky’s smirk was gone.

They were on the cold concrete floor, Bucky stretched out in Tony’s embrace like some Harlequin heroine thanking the hero for rescuing her from the princess-hoarding dragon, their limbs all tangled because Tony’d been trying to both support him and restrain him while also comforting him and trying not to get hit, and suddenly it was hilarious.

Bucky snickered into the kiss, and Tony’s hand on his shoulder tightened reflexively. Tony bit at his lip and Bucky groaned to let him know oh fuck yeah, please do that again. Tony did, and Bucky was reaching for him harder, his right hand scrabbling at Tony’s ribcage, the metal hand twisted in Tony’s shirt so Bucky wouldn’t leave bruising handprints all over his damn body.

Tony finally broke the kiss with a gasp, and he tossed his head back and away, chest heaving, eyes closed, hands holding so tightly to Bucky that it almost hurt. “Fuck!”

Bucky shrugged, because yeah, exactly.

Tony let his arms and legs relax, and Bucky went with them, sinking to the ground. He didn’t fight it or try to stay with Tony, because he knew Tony was going to have to work through this before Bucky was going to get another kiss. So Bucky lay with his head on Tony’s knee, Tony’s other leg draped across his waist – how? – and Tony’s hand still twisted in Bucky’s hair like he didn’t realize he was doing it.

“Oh shit, Steve’s going to kill me,” Tony whispered. He opened his eyes and looked around, like Steve might be lurking. “Friday, Protocol 69 right now.”

“Yes, boss,” she said, sounding like she was smirking. How could an AI smirk? “Captain Rogers is still sparring with the rest of the team, in case you needed to know his whereabouts.”

“Thank fuck,” Tony grated out. He ran his hand through his hair. “Christ. Shit.”

“Tony,” Bucky tried carefully.

“Oh my God, you’re like a succubus or something,” Tony mumbled as he tried to get his leg out from under Bucky without first removing the one that was on top of Bucky. Bucky remained still, letting Tony struggle because moving was just going to make it worse.

“Ow. Tony, breathe,” Bucky tried, but Tony was scrambling, pushing back away from him. He put his foot on Bucky’s hip and shoved, sliding them both in different directions on the slick floor. “Wow! Rude!” Bucky said as he was moved.

“Oh, my God!” Tony shouted in his face. “Do you . . . do you have any idea what the history books would write about me if I was the one who fucked up the great epic romance of Captain Rogers and Sergeant Barnes?”

“Pretty sure that section’s already filed under Hydra,” Bucky muttered, not expecting Tony to hear him over his own shouting.

“It’s like . . . it’s like King Arthur and Lancelot and that skank Guinevere who brought down Camelot.”

Bucky grunted, scowling. “Takes two to tango,” he admonished. “She wasn’t a skank alone.”

“Oh my God,” Tony was muttering, over and over, holding his head in his hands, eyes downcast now.

“Tony?” Bucky ventured, rolling so he could push up to his hands and knees. He reached out and touched his fingers to Tony’s bare toes.

Tony looked up at him, eyes sharp, like a fox caught in a trap.

“Hey,” Bucky whispered soothingly. “It’s okay.”

Tony narrowed his eyes. “What?”

“Steve is okay with it, if you . . . I mean, if you wanted to . . . if you wanted me. It’s okay.”

Tony blinked at him, and Bucky could feel his face flushing slowly. Goddamn, sometimes he missed the days of being cold-blooded like a freaking lizard.

Tony’s chest was still heaving, but his breaths were coming regularly now, and his eyes were as sharp as ever. “What do you mean, if I wanted you?”

Bucky pressed his lips together, unsure how else to say that without blushing further. He’d always been pretty smooth, been exceptionally good at this kind of thing, actually. Unless he was talking to someone who made his heart beat a little faster like this, made his mind useless and his charming grin disappear because he was chewing on his lip to combat the nerves.

He crawled forward a little closer, relieved when Tony merely straightened warily rather than beating a hasty retreat like before. Bucky raised a hand, his metal one, trying to calm Tony into staying where he was. Tony was stiff and tense, eyes following Bucky’s every move, but Bucky finally managed to ease himself into a sitting position beside him, facing the opposite direction so his shoulder could have leaned against Tony’s knees and vice versa.

He gave Tony a small, shy smile to thank him for not bolting. Then he took Tony’s hand in his. “May I?”

Tony glanced down to their joined hands, then back to Bucky’s eyes. He was still wary, still a little suspicious, but Bucky could see heat there too. Tony wanted him just like he wanted Tony, Bucky was sure of it.

Tony allowed Bucky the use of his hand, so he pulled it up and settled Tony’s elbow on his knee, smiling wryly when even that small amount of familiarity made his entire body pulse with warmth and anticipation. Then he brought Tony’s palm to his own chest, placing it flat against his heart.

Tony would be able to feel how wildly it was beating right now. And Tony of all people would know, through the many tests they’d run right here in this lab, how slow his heartbeat usually was. Tony stared at his hand, then flicked his gaze up to examine Bucky’s face. Bucky let him look, let him think.

Bucky brought his hand back up and pressed it against Tony’s after it seemed like Tony had calmed enough for it, holding Tony’s palm against his heart, which was still going frantically, sending all those nerves and all that warmth zinging through Bucky’s body.

“This is what you do to me,” Bucky finally said, a little breathless but that was okay. He could see Tony’s breaths coming faster, see his eyes going a little wild, a little hotter. But Bucky was nothing if not patient. He smiled gently and squeezed Tony’s hand. “I wanted you to know.”

“Why?” Tony gasped.

“Why did I want you to know? Or why do I feel like I just ran a damn marathon every time I look at you?”

Tony shook his head, his tongue working against his teeth, his eyes still searching Bucky’s for something. “You talked to Steve?” he finally asked, whispering like Steve still might pop out from a corner and catch them at something horrible.

Bucky nodded, smiling gently. “He told me not to hurt you. And not to let you hurt me. That was it.”

“I don’t . . . I don’t understand,” Tony gasped. “How’s that work?”

“Sometimes better than others,” Bucky admitted. “You can say no, Tony, it won’t change anything. Our friendship. At least . . . I hope that’s what it is?”

Tony nodded curtly, his cheeks flushing.

Bucky smiled at that, inexplicably relieved to have received that confirmation. If he walked out of here with nothing but that, then he’d be happy. He cleared his throat, trying to remember the important bits he’d wanted to tell Tony. “I meant to talk to you before . . . well, before kissing you.”

Tony gasped in a ragged breath but said nothing.

“You know better than anyone that what Steve and I have is . . .”

“Weird,” Tony supplied.

“Sure. And you knew Clint and I were –”

“Weird together?” Tony offered.

Bucky laughed softly. He was grinning widely, watching Tony as if the man had personally climbed out a window and hung the moon that night. “Do you want to be weird, too?”

Tony breathed out, harsh enough that Bucky felt it ghost across his face. They stared at each other, Bucky watching him fondly, shoulders relaxed, smiling, and Tony tense, fighting for every damn noisy breath, mouth hanging open.

Bucky knew what his answer was going to be before Tony gave it. He began to nod, the smile turning a little sad.

“I can’t,” Tony hissed. “I can’t be batted around like a cat toy, Barnes.”

Bucky nodded, acknowledging the sentiment, even if it wasn’t nearly what Bucky had wanted to do with him. “Okay,” he said easily, making himself continue to smile so Tony wouldn’t be even more uncomfortable than he was already.

Tony stared into his eyes, blinking in shock like he’d expected Bucky to argue or try to talk him out of his decision. Then he yanked his gaze away and stared at the mangled Red Eye on the table for a second before dropping his head, sitting like a man who’d just gone ten rounds with a welterweight and couldn’t get out of his corner for the eleventh.

Bucky winced. He supposed that analogy was a little too on the nose, considering who Tony had just gone ten rounds with. Bucky glanced over his shoulder at the pile of parts on the workbench, carefully avoiding the red-tinted glass of the eyes. “Don’t toss it, okay?” he requested in a whisper.

Tony damn near flinched, and Bucky watched him sadly. Well. So much for their friendship staying intact. Sometimes it was a gamble that didn’t nearly pay off.

Bucky put a hand gently on Tony’s shoulder, patting it. “I’ll leave you alone. Let me know when you want to start on that. I’ll help,” he offered, poking his thumb at the Red Eye.

Tony didn’t acknowledge him, just sat there with his head down and his eyes closed. Bucky moved to get to his feet, only then realizing that Tony’s hand was still pressed to his chest, feeling his heart beating. When he shifted, Tony seemed to realize it too, and he yanked his hand away like Bucky was as cold as he’d once been and hurt to touch.

Bucky fought to keep the gentle smile on his lips as he got to his feet, and he patted Tony on the head, feeling sort of like it was a goodbye, of sorts. It was. Tony wasn’t the type to stay open and friendly and cuddly with someone who made him feel like a mouse being batted around as a plaything. Bucky had lost him, and he knew that without having to look back down at him.

“See you around, Tony,” he whispered, kicking himself because he sounded sad. God, fucking loser.

Bucky made his way toward the exit, sighing as he pressed his hand to the ID pad to open the door.

“Do you wish to end Protocol 69, Sergeant Barnes?” F.R.I.D.A.Y asked.

“Yes, please,” Bucky answered, shaking his head. The glass windows that had been fogged over all went clear again, letting in the moonlight of a beautiful, clear night. The doors shifted, the locks disengaging. Bucky rolled his shoulders to loosen them, then glanced up. “See you later, Alligator.”

“After while, Crocodile,” F.R.I.D.A.Y chirped happily, pleased to have remembered the new programming Bucky had been playing around with on the sly.

Bucky forced himself not to look back as he walked through the doors into the moonlight.

Chapter Text

“I could do this all night, Buck,” Steve gasped playfully, earning a hoarse laugh from Bucky that warmed his heart along with the rest of him.

Bucky was on his side, twisted around, face pressed into the mattress that had started out as a pillow, what the hell had he done with the pillow and when? His hips were angled against the mattress, one leg drawn up, with Steve’s arm crooked under Bucky’s knee. Bucky was writhing and grasping at the sheets, pulling them away from the hospital corners.

Steve was buried to the hilt inside him, laughing and groaning as Bucky shimmied around, desperate for a handhold.

“Ugh!” Bucky finally offered, splaying his metal hand against the mattress in front of his face. Steve took his cue and threaded his own fingers through Bucky’s, pressing him into the mattress with all his weight, rolling his hips in long, smooth thrusts, keeping his upper body still and pressed down against the side of Bucky’s shoulder.

Bucky gasped as Steve hit deep, then he rolled until his shoulders were flat against the mattress, his hips still twisted to allow Steve entry. His body was twisting even more now, arching up into Steve. He only had the one free hand remaining. Steve had shored up the rest of him. Steve only had one hand free too, though, and he used it to run his knuckles down Bucky’s jaw. Such a gentle motion, amidst all the bruising, pounding, scratching, roughness of their encounter, was almost a taunt.

Bucky’s eyes were squeezed tight, his head pushed back, his lips parted as he panted and moaned. He grinned at the light touch of Steve’s fingers, then gasped as Steve shoved deep inside him again.

This was only the second time Steve had ever fucked him. He hadn’t even known that’d been an option until Bucky had wrapped around him that first time and begged him, fucking begged him in that goddamn hoarse voice of his from a past where nothing had hurt, and Steve had been gone.

After that, it was almost as if they’d mutually agreed to save it as a rare treat. Or for times like tonight, when Steve sensed something wrong and wanted Bucky’s mind focused on other things. The fact that Bucky hadn’t argued or fought him on it, had simply let Steve toss him on the mattress and fold him over, the fact that it had been only 4 minutes from first kiss to sliding his lubed cock all the way to the hilt, told Steve enough about Bucky’s current level of mental distraction.

Steve jerked his hips, slamming into Bucky and grinning when it wrenched a real, honest-to-God cry from Bucky’s throat. “Fuck, Steve,” Bucky added breathlessly. “Oh God, please. Come on.”

“Come on? Where we going, Buck?” Steve taunted, using his most innocent, I definitely don’t have my giant cock buried so far into your ass that I might need a permit to dig, voice.

“Fuck you,” Bucky hissed, but he was grinning as he said it three more times, going softer and needier with each repetition. Finally it was no longer, “Fuck you,” but rather, “Fuck me, Steve, come on.”

“Yeah, Bucky,” Steve whispered urgently, picking up his pace, gritting his teeth against the demands of his own body. God, Bucky felt fucking incredible. Tight and warm and responsive and familiar even though this position decidedly wasn’t. Bucky’s words rumbled through Steve’s body, like a tune from his memory that meant he was safe and happy. He slowed his thrusts again, appreciating the slide of his hips against Bucky’s skin, the thrumming, throbbing pleasure of sinking deep into his lover’s body and rolling his hips until Bucky screamed.

Steve was surprised when a drop of sweat began to roll down his nose. How long had they been at this that they were both beginning to sweat? He ducked his head and pressed his face to Bucky’s chest, using Bucky’s skin to wipe the sweat from his brow. Bucky groaned long and loud, his body coiled and struggling for purchase under Steve’s. Steve gnawed at his collarbone, pacing his thrusts fast and hard in response before slowing them once more. Bucky’s breath left him and he struggled to get it back, the leg Steve held between their chests tightening and straining against him.

Steve sort of wondered what it said about him that he was turned on when Bucky matched him strength for strength, when he put up a little bit of a fight even as he moaned for Steve to give it to him harder.

Maybe all it said about him was that he liked rough sex, and it’d been a long time since he’d fucked someone just as big and strong as he was. Steve honestly didn’t care what else it said about him.

Bucky scrabbled with his one free hand, dragging his fingers down Steve’s back first, and then pressing his palm flat against the headboard. His entire body went rigid as he exerted all his strength to push with that arm and hold his body still for Steve’s brutal finale of thrusts. Steve shouted almost angrily when Bucky tightened around him, folding over him, bearing down, cursing him up and down as the newly invested tension in Bucky’s body surprised Steve’s orgasm right out of him. He shouted wordlessly against Bucky’s neck as he came, going at him as hard as he needed to in order to make sure every last drop was left inside Bucky’s traitorous body before he was done.

Bucky was whispering to him encouragingly, his teeth gritted as he rode out Steve’s little temper tantrum. When Steve collapsed in a heap above him, dragging in air as hard as his lungs could manage, sweat sliding down his temples, Bucky’s body trembled against his. On closer inspection, Steve found that his lover was laughing silently.

“I’ll get you back,” Steve promised breathlessly.

“Oh, I do look forward to it,” Bucky drawled, still snickering gently. He sounded strained still, all of the tension still invested in his very marrow.

Steve murmured to him, kissing at his jaw and his neck as he carefully pulled out of him. Bucky barely had time to gasp in complaint before Steve was working his way down Bucky’s body, kissing, scraping his teeth on the more tender parts, humming against his skin. He pulled Bucky’s hip, trying to get him to roll over onto his side like he’d been when Steve had first pushed into him.

“Stevie,” Bucky whispered, sounding spent and exhausted and needy and phenomenal.

Steve kissed his hip and gave another tug. “Roll over,” he insisted, grinning when Bucky finally obeyed. He settled on his side, shimmying further down. He spoke with his lips against Bucky’s hipbone. “You can bitch at me after you’ve fucked my mouth.”

Bucky moaned plaintively. Steve was humming again as he took Bucky’s straining cock into his mouth and settled down onto his shoulder, tugging at Bucky’s hip to urge him to push forward. Bucky’s hand came to rest in his hair, gentle fingers swiping across his skull before Bucky cupped the back of Steve’s head like he was supporting him. When he finally gave in to Steve’s demands and thrust into Steve’s mouth, it was shallow and slow and goddamn so amazing.

Steve tilted his head back, making sure he wouldn’t gag if Bucky’s thrusts went deeper. Then a thought skittered across his mind that had him moaning; so what if he fucking gagged on Bucky’s cock, good lord, serve that right up please! He hadn’t done this a lot, when he and Bucky had been together. At the time, Steve had never given it much thought, why Bucky never asked him for this when he himself seemed so willing to give it.

Maybe Bucky thought the act itself was demeaning, considering what Steve knew now. If that was the case, Steve would do it as often and as fucking well as he was able, gagging and swallowing and licking it off his lips if that’s what Bucky wanted, because Steve wanted nothing more than to demean himself at Bucky’s feet.

He loved every little thing about doing this, from the tentative, reverent touch of fingers at the back of his head to the way Bucky’s cock felt sliding against his tongue and lips. He moaned loudly, knowing from the way Bucky had taken care of him in the past that the vibration would feel amazing.

Bucky kept his movements almost gentle, definitely not as frantic as Steve knew he would be at this stage of a hard-on that hadn’t been addressed. Steve dug his fingers into the muscle of Bucky’s ass, feeling the way it tensed and flexed when Bucky fucked his mouth. He could feel his own arousal stirring again in the pit of his stomach, and he grinned around the cock in his mouth.

His best friend, his lover, his fucking soul mate, was one of the only people in the world who could match his stamina blow for blow. Literally, ha.

“God, are you fucking laughing?” Bucky growled. His hand tightened in Steve’s short hair. “You just made a sex pun in your head, didn’t you?”

Steve had to force his head back against the hand holding him there, pulling off Bucky’s cock so he could laugh without being choked. Bucky smiled fondly down at him, looking only the tiniest bit exasperated. His fingers twirled at Steve’s hair, not trying to force him back down, letting Steve enjoy a moment he probably knew Steve didn’t plan on sharing with him.

“God, I love you,” Steve answered, licking his lips as he peered up at Bucky, who looked like he wanted to haul Steve up and kiss him instead of letting him finish. But Steve never left a mission hanging, so he ducked his head and went back to the other national pastime, grinning as Bucky’s curses and gasps became louder and even less fit for public consumption.

When Bucky came, his hand was on Steve’s shoulder and digging into the muscle instead of on the back of his head. Steve was mildly disappointed, because part of him wanted Bucky to shove his face as far onto his dick as it would go and force him to swallow every last drop down. The other part was reasonably grateful for being able to breath afterward and look Bucky in the eye without blushing and stuff.

Bucky was still breathing hard and erratic when Steve climbed back up to him and kissed him messily.

“Dirty,” Bucky breathed out.

“You love it,” Steve grunted back.

Bucky hummed and Steve kissed him again.

“I’d love it even more if you went dirtier,” Steve admitted, voice softer, hopeful, blushing but meeting Bucky’s eyes anyway.

Bucky’s teeth sank into his lower lip as he narrowed his eyes at Steve. He was fighting a smile, but he also looked a little wary. Steve kissed him again, licking at his teeth, his lip, his tongue. He shoved his half-hard cock against Bucky’s groin and Bucky groaned, shivering all over.

“Look, I don’t know what kind of brand name serum you got, buddy boy, but the generic Nazi version doesn’t allow for instant replays, okay. I need a goddamn minute or three.”

Steve grunted and leaned into another kiss, a slower, more languid one that had Bucky moaning and Steve’s cock fully invested in the proceedings once more.

“Absolutely not,” Bucky groaned, and he began to roll away, shoving at Steve as he made to escape. He grabbed for the edge of the mattress with his metal arm like he was trying to scrabble his way onto a rowboat ahead of the teeth of a Great White Shark.

Steve flopped on top of him, letting himself go boneless and grinning wickedly as Bucky made a sound that probably started as an annoyed huff but ended on a squeak like the air coming out of a beach ball. Steve knew he was as heavy as a damn elephant when he wanted to be, and Bucky was the only person he’d ever fucked who could take his full weight and strength without dying, much less not complaining about it. He hugged Bucky to him, resting his cheek against the back of Bucky’s shoulder as they both laughed like boys playing in the rain.

“Come back,” Steve coaxed, kissing the smooth skin over Bucky’s spine. He’d gotten used to the metal arm and the criss-crossed scar tissue surrounding it faster than he’d expected himself too. Bucky’s entire body was different, no longer lithe and hard like he’d been before he’d left for the Army, and no longer brutal and rangy like he’d been with the 107th. He was still hard and still lithe and still brutal, but he was carved like marble and his muscles were well-fed and well-fueled. He was different yet again, and Steve was just fine with that. He brushed his fingers over the cuff of the metal arm, light as a feather.

Bucky shivered and sighed softly. Then Steve felt his back muscles bunching under him, and he pushed himself up to allow Bucky to move. He grinned down at him as Bucky turned over and met his eyes, matching his smile. Bucky got comfortable, his head finding the pillow he’d apparently shoved aside earlier so he didn’t suffocate while Steve fucked him. Steve settled down against him, resting his head on Bucky’s shoulder, tossing his leg over his thighs.

And yes, he was also pressing his still-interested dick against Bucky’s hip, so sue him. It was the American way these days; rubbing your dick on things and frivolous lawsuits.

Bucky’s arm was solid and warm as it wrapped around him and hugged him close. Bucky nudged Steve’s forehead with his chin and kissed it, stuffing his nose against Steve’s sweat-damp hair and inhaling so deeply that Steve felt it in Bucky’s chest under his fingertips.

“God, I’ve missed you,” Steve admitted serenely.

“Missed you too, pal,” Bucky answered against Steve’s hair, a smile still in his voice.

Steve let that linger in the room, warm and heavy and comfortable. He kissed Bucky’s collarbone, nuzzling closer, trying to work up the nerve to broach the subject he desperately wanted and needed to, the sooner the better. Bucky seemed relaxed now, worn out and sated. There was also a hint of tension in his muscles, of anticipation in the air, that said Bucky was just taking a breather before he joined Steve for a far sultrier and longer Round Two. Steve didn’t think Bucky would walk out on that just because he didn’t like a question Steve asked. But was it important enough for Steve to risk it?

“What happened with Tony?” Steve blurted out before he could second-guess himself. “I was sure you’d be with him tonight after what you said downstairs. Did you ask him?”

Bucky was silent, but not uncomfortably so. His body didn’t tense under Steve’s, and after a few seconds he made a humming sound in the back of his throat that told Steve he wasn’t ignoring the query, just trying to think of a way to answer it well.

“I’m not sure,” he finally said, his voice quiet and even, but also with a hint of confusion and frustration. His finger was idly tracing an infinity pattern into Steve’s shoulder, and Steve shivered, frowning. Bucky sounded just as young and lost as he had the day he’d told Steve he’d been drafted, and the comparison hit Steve too fast and hard to shy away from it. He held Bucky tighter . . . for no outward reason. Bucky squeezed him back. “I mean, yes, I asked him. But I read him all wrong, Stevie. I didn’t even know I could be that wrong anymore.”

Steve raised his head to get a look at Bucky’s expression, and Bucky flashed him a small, almost shy smile. His fingers meandered their way through Steve’s hair, coming to tug on his ear affectionately. Steve asked it again. “What happened?”

Bucky gave him a one-sided shrug. His eyes went a little sad, a little embarrassed. “I made the offer we talked about. I really thought Stark was aiming that way – I’d have swore he spent the whole day aiming that way. But I was all kinds of off-base. I’d prepared myself for a no, because that’s usually the worst of it, you know? I didn’t ready myself for anger.”

Anger? Steve scowled, propping himself on his elbow, staring into Bucky’s eyes harder, like if he searched enough he’d be able to see the memory himself and understand. “What?”

Bucky smiled again, but it was infinitely sadder now. “I think he thought I was messing with him. Not joking, you know? But actually trying to fuck him up a little.” He didn’t sound certain of his guess at all, though. He didn’t sound certain of anything. He was staring up at the ceiling, past Steve’s shoulder, twirling his finger through Steve’s hair idly. Then he met Steve’s eyes again, and yeah, the emotion hidden behind the icy top layer was a wounded look Steve’d rarely seen Bucky give. “He compared me to a cat playing with its food.”

Steve pursed his lips, chewing on the inside of his cheek so he wouldn’t say anything before thinking it well through. That sounded like Tony’s defense mechanism. But why the hell had Tony thought he needed to use that on Bucky? Steve knew how sincere and sweet Bucky could be when he was making an offer of himself to someone, he’d seen and heard it with own eyes and ears, even if he had been color blind and partially deaf in one ear at the time. Bucky made it easy to say no so you didn’t feel pressured to give in, but he also made it almost impossible to want to refuse.

Now Steve was desperate to find out exactly what had happened.

“Huh,” was all Steve could come up with out loud.

Bucky gave his ear another tug, and Steve followed it, laying his head back on Bucky’s shoulder.

“Did you know there are over twenty types of animals who surplus kill?”

Steve scowled. What the fuck was a surplus kill? He wasn’t about to ask Bucky, not after the note he’d just heard in Bucky’s voice. He’d look it up later.

“But humans and cats are the only ones who appear to kill for pleasure,” Bucky continued, offering that up offhand like he wasn’t comparing these factoids to Tony’s words and thinking of himself as a murderous housecat through the eyes of someone he’d obviously been quite fond of.

Steve gritted his teeth, anger and protectiveness washing over him. He shook his head, kissing Bucky’s jaw, then his cheek, then his temple. “You’re not a cat playing with its food,” he whispered, kissing right in front of Bucky’s ear.

Bucky turned his head, shoving his face against Steve’s, nuzzling at him and butting his forehead against Steve’s until Steve was laughing in exasperation.

He wrapped his arm under Bucky, using the other to pull him onto his side so they were facing each other. Then they were kissing again, Steve’s leg draped over Bucky’s hips, his heel digging into Bucky’s ass to force him to roll his hips forward into Steve. Steve gave up and threw his head back, moaning wantonly. Bucky kissed at his neck, his big hands splayed across Steve’s back.

It made Steve feel small again. Made him feel safe and loved. It made him feel like he’d finally made it home from the War after all this time. It made him want . . .

Even if they never made love again, just having Bucky here with him, wrapped up with him in bed, holding him, loving him . . . it was enough. Not that he expected Bucky to put a stop to the fucking, of course, not if that swiftly hardening cock at Steve’s hip was any indication. But Steve would have been okay with it because anything Bucky offered him was worth it.

How the hell had Tony managed to turn an offer of something that simple and pure into a dagger aimed right back into Bucky’s heart?

“No, Stevie,” Bucky whispered as he pressed his lips to Steve’s pulse point and held their bodies tightly together.

“What?” Steve rasped out, lost in his own thoughts and confused by Bucky’s sudden left turn.

“Don’t you start drifting on me,” Bucky murmured, kissing his way up the tendon in Steve’s neck toward the underside of his chin. “Don’t you start getting angry on me, not when I finally caught up to you.” He pushed his hips forward to accompany his meaning.

Steve huffed and lowered his head in time to catch Bucky’s lips for a kiss. “It’s been so long,” Steve mused with a contented sigh. “I’d forgotten what it was like to have someone who knew me. Who really knew me. God, I love this.”

Bucky squeezed him, looking into his eyes, so close they were probably both seeing double. “Me too, sweetheart,” Bucky murmured, and unlike his normal usage of the pet name, it wasn’t teasing or tossed out during one of those sexual encounters when he knew Steve wanted to feel filthy and used.

Steve found himself charmed by it. Bucky’s fingers were drifting down Steve’s side, causing goosebumps, stoking the fire that had banked in the pit of his stomach.

“Buck?”

“Hmm?” Bucky was busy nuzzling his way under Steve’s chin again, lips outlining Steve’s clavicle.

Steve winced, hoping this didn’t ruin the stellar mood they’d cultivated under the covers. “Why did you need him?”

Bucky hummed again, not ceasing his motions.

“I mean you’ve got me whenever you want me, you’ve got Clint with a few rules and the threat of being called Uncle Jimmy when you meet his family, and you’ve got whatever weird sad Russian thing you have with Nat, I mean –”

“Steve.” Bucky’s voice was calm and quiet, but there was a serious note in it that stopped Steve dead. He stared at Bucky as Bucky traced a pattern over Steve’s chest with his finger, following the motion for a moment with his eyes before he looked up to meet Steve’s. “Give me a couple days and a chance to talk to Natalia, okay? And then I promise we’ll fill you in on the details. On one condition.”

Steve nodded, mouth suddenly gone dry but not sure why.

“Don’t . . . don’t make sex jokes. Not about her and me. Okay?” Bucky requested with a wince, meeting Steve’s eyes earnestly.

Steve nodded instantly, struck hard by the look in Bucky’s eyes and the sound of his voice. Steve had never seen Bucky react like this to talk of sex, not even when the topic had been someone he’d really been gone over, not even when the topic had been someone teasing him about being a fairy with moon-eyes for Captain America.

“I’m sorry,” Steve said almost urgently. “Never again, I promise. No one else will either.”

Bucky nodded, offering Steve a small smile that felt like an apology for being so serious suddenly. He ducked his head again to kiss at Steve’s ribs, scraping his teeth over Steve’s skin.

“Buck?” Steve asked carefully. Bucky knew he was stubborn, a dog with a bone, so this wouldn’t shock him in the least. “Why did you need him?”

Bucky hummed, and the sound vibrated through Steve’s ribcage, causing him to shiver deliciously. “Because I’m scared to death of you, Steve,” Bucky admitted, nosing his way along Steve’s collarbone out to his shoulder. He gave the point of Steve’s shoulder a kiss, then raised his head to face the music as Steve stared at him.

And Steve was indeed staring at him. In horror, no less. “What?” Steve managed.

His heart was sinking. Steve had known when he’d gotten Bucky back that Bucky had been literally living in a state of fear day in and day out. Even before he’d seen Bucky spook at the most innocent of things, Steve had recognized the look in his eyes when he thought no one was paying attention, had seen some of his over-the-top reactions in security footage. Bucky had been terrified every waking hour, and then doubly so at night when he tried to power his way through the darkness full of memories and nightmares without someone he knew to watch his back.

But Steve had thought the fear had faded as Bucky adjusted and began to trust the rest of his team and his surroundings, began to allow Clint to occasionally watch his back while he slept. He’d thought it had faded when Bucky had let Steve back in. He’d thought Bucky was doing well now. But . . . afraid of Steve? Scared to death of Steve?

Bucky smiled kindly, shaking his head as his hand brushed through Steve’s hair, pushing it off his forehead. “Not physically,” he whispered, and something inside Steve popped like an overfull balloon of relief, allowing him to breathe again.

“You still think you’re evil and you’ll corrupt me?”

“That was part of it. We talked that out, though,” Bucky answered, his cheeks flushing a little. “That was my concern for you. This is . . . this is more about protecting myself.”

“I want to understand, Buck,” Steve practically pleaded.

“I can try to explain.”

Steve nodded, giving his permission to possibly ruin the mood in order to get an answer.

Bucky took a deep breath, then let it out unsteadily. “You remember, ‘wait ’til next year’? And 1934?”

Steve scowled, nodding. The Brooklyn Dodgers had been perennial losers. “Wait ’til next year!” had been their unofficial slogan, just like they’d been affectionately – or not so – called Dem Bums by everyone who paid attention to how bad they were. In 1934 their biggest triumph had been two end-of-season wins against the rival Giants that knocked the Giants out of the running for the pennant. Their biggest accomplishment had been screwing over the team they hated.

“And in ’41?” Bucky mused, his smile melancholy.

Hell yeah, Steve remembered 1941! The Dodgers had actually won the damn pennant and gone on to the World Series. It had been one of the last happy things to happen as War had loomed over Brooklyn. They’d lost the Series, of course. Because they were bums.

Steve knew what Bucky was talking about, but he was still confused because he had no idea how it connected to being afraid of him.

“Your fondest memory was when they clinched that pennant in ’41. The good guys finally prevailed. Am I right?”

Steve knitted his brows together, watching Bucky sadly as he started to understand.

“Well mine . . . mine was beating the giants in ’34.” Bucky laughed at that. “I enjoyed seeing the bad guys lose more than I did seeing my guys win. And that’s where we’re different, Stevie, right down to the bone. And I don’t want – I mean, I can’t let myself wrap up in you like I did once and then one day down the line be left without you.”

“Oh, Buck,” Steve whispered.

Bucky’s brow was furrowed, his eyes downcast. “Or worse, with you looking at me the way Tony did tonight.”

Steve was already shaking his head, though, his hand coming up to Bucky’s face. “No,” he said sternly, as much command and authority as he could put into it. Bucky’s eyes came up, wide and surprised. “You know why ’41 was my favorite year?”

Bucky blinked at him, confusion and wariness entering those gorgeous blue eyes that Steve had started dreaming of with love and lust again, rather than loss and misery.

“Because you scrimped and saved and bought tickets to a game that May,” Steve told him quietly, his voice warm and full of as much love as he could possibly put into it. “You remember? May 25th? The Phillies were in town. Pistol Pete Reiser hit a home run that landed two rows in front of us, and –“

“– we won that game eight to four.” Bucky was nodding, brow creased, eyes wide.

Steve smiled fondly. “That’s right. But I remember it because you were so goddamned beautiful watching the game, with the green of that grass reflecting in your eyes, with the breeze full of popcorn and hot dogs and leather and fresh-cut grass, and with your face going all tan and freckles on your nose. Bucky.” Steve scooted as close as he could, holding Bucky’s face so Bucky was forced to stare into Steve’s eyes, to see the truth in them. “Buck. Bucky, that was the best goddamn day of my life, because I kept looking at you and thinking, ‘God, I love him. I love him, I love him, and this is the best day of my life because he loves me too.’”

Bucky was staring, eyes gone wider, lips parted, face adorably scrunched where Steve’s hands were holding onto him too tight.

“I didn’t give a shit about winning the pennant,” Steve hissed. “Sure it was great and all, but nothing could compare to that day. Because that day, it was you and it was me and I could see the rest of our lives stretching out in front of us. And Buck, I get the analogy, okay. I understand now. You been trying to tell me this whole time and I just . . .”

“Steve,” Bucky breathed.

Steve shook his head, halting Bucky without saying a word. He needed to finish this so they could put it behind them. Finally! Goddamn, Bucky had gotten it across to Steve with baseball of all things. Okay, fine, this was their language and always had been, so why not?

Steve brushed a thumb over Bucky’s cheekbone, thinking idly that Bucky had lost some weight recently, his muscle mass evening out as they’d gotten all the modifications to his system back under control, and the prominent cheekbones and the jawline as sharp as a knife’s edge looked good on him now, not gaunt and full of terror like before.

Steve kissed him impulsively, then took a deep breath to continue. “I’m sorry for not getting to say goodbye when you left. I stood on the dock and watched until your ship was gone. Buck, I fucking sobbed right there on the dock because I’d missed you by minutes, and I never forgave myself either. I was so afraid I’d never see you again, never get to tell you I was sorry for not getting that last night together. Why do you think I barreled into that Hydra factory on the barest chance you were still alive, huh?”

Bucky blinked and swallowed hard at that. It was obviously new information to him.

“And I should have grabbed you up after Azzano and made you take that medical discharge. Hell, I should have grabbed you up and fucked you right on that goddamn USO stage in front of God and country and Colonel Phillips and gotten us both blue ticketed right back to Brooklyn, and we could have spent the rest of our lives together and happy and beating up anyone who dared call us fairy and slowly figuring out how to do this together. That’s what I should have done, Bucky, because you deserved all that and so much more.”

Steve had to stop talking when his voice cracked. Bucky had deserved a good life. He’d deserved to come home from the War a hero, to settle down and live the rest of his years out in peace and happiness. It shouldn’t be like this. He tried to compose himself, tried to keep going so Bucky would know.

Bucky didn’t let him continue, though, moving in to kiss him and nudge at his nose, whispering that it was okay, that he didn’t have to keep going.

Steve shook his head, gritting his teeth determinedly. “But you can take this to the goddamn bank, okay Buck? I had these past few years to mourn you and I learned my lesson, I lived with that regret that I’d made a horribly, tragically wrong choice. I will never choose over you again,” he promised vehemently. They were so close that Steve couldn’t open his eyes. He pressed hard against Bucky’s forehead, holding to him by the side of his neck, digging his fingers in. “I know you said I’ll pick ‘the right thing’ every time, Buck. But in my mind, you’ll always be the right way. So you never gotta worry about being without me again. Forever and always, Bucky, you’re the only choice I make. I promise it.”

Bucky was silent, even his breaths not making a sound. Steve knew he was breathing, though, he could feel them coming fast and hard on his lips. Bucky finally moved, the sheets swishing gently against their naked bodies, Bucky’s warmth closer to Steve. Steve could feel his heart hammering between their chests.

“So,” Bucky tried slowly, and the teasing note in his voice was like a balm to Steve’s fraying nerves before he even finished speaking. “If I wanted to go on a killing spree, eradicate all the puppies, and take over the world?”

Steve grinned, eyes still closed. “God, Buck, that sounds like so much damn work, though, don’t it?”

Bucky snorted and Steve huffed a laugh, stroking his hand down the side of Bucky’s face as hope burgeoned deep within him. God, could they have just solved their problem? Laying here in bed covered in sweat and the taste of Bucky still on Steve’s tongue?

He pushed his face closer, lowering his voice so it wouldn’t shake. “Will you stay with me?”

Bucky kissed him chastely, and Steve loved the way it sounded when their lips parted. “Clint’s got custody two nights a week for a while,” he informed Steve, voice entirely neutral. “Until he can get back to his family. Keeps the blues away.”

Steve nodded. Bucky had gotten intertwined with a few people in their shared past who had rubbed Steve the wrong way, who Steve had been both insanely jealous and suspicious of, who Steve had hated just as passionately as Bucky had probably fucked them. Clint Barton? Was not one of those people. Steve found that he sort of enjoyed watching Bucky and Clint interact; they were sweet and innocent like teenagers with crushes, and their shared smiles were pure and mischievous.

Hell, Steve wasn’t even entirely convinced that the two of them were even fucking anymore. There wasn’t a lot of heat still sizzling over the bond they obviously shared. There was something, though, and Steve didn’t mind it. They were good for each other in so many ways.

He nodded, smiling gently to let Bucky know everything he’d just been thinking. Bucky’s return grin seemed to be relieved.

“But you’ll come here?” Steve asked, feeling more vulnerable than he had in a long time. “When you’re not –”

Bucky kissed him to stop him. He continued kissing him as he spoke, mangling his own words. Steve didn’t care, though, kissing back as warmth and happiness spread through him.

“Always and forever, Steve,” Bucky kept saying, twice before Steve could work his tongue back into Bucky’s mouth and forcefully change the subject.

==

It had been three days since Bucky – no, fuck that – since Barnes had left Tony’s lab, and Tony had barely shown his face since then. He couldn’t do it. He didn’t want to risk seeing Barnes in a situation where he couldn’t just duck out and avoid speaking to him or looking into his eyes or whatever the fuck else you were supposed to do to pretend you were normal around other humans.

Tony had made the mistake of attending breakfast the morning after, and it had been hell on earth.

Everyone had been cheerful and talkative. Steve had been . . . weird, tense and uncertain and sort of confused and shooting Tony glances like he was trying to read a newspaper upside down, and Tony had known instantly that he and Steve were done no matter what his intention might have been when he’d turned Barnes’s offer down. Steve knew, Barnes had to have run right to him and told him like a goddamn puppy dog yapping at its master’s heels, and Steve would choose Barnes over Tony without a second thought.

The thought had made Tony irrationally, irredeemably angry. He’s started glaring at Barnes’s back whenever the man was turned away, resenting him all over again for waltzing in out of the cold and fucking their team all to shreds.

Tony didn’t allow himself to take a good hard look at the team, laughing and conversing, eating breakfast together like a family.

Barnes had fixed a veritable buffet of amazing options that morning, just like always, and he’d offered Tony a small, shy, almost sad smile when they’d accidentally made eye contact across the round table. Tony’s only defense against the constricting of his heart and the lurch of his belly and the deep-seated anger had been to narrow his eyes, to return the smile with a shake of his head that might pass as disgust and to look away.

When he’d risked another glance long minutes later, Barnes’s shoulders and head had been bowed, his attention on his food and nothing else.

Good. Good! The more subdued Barnes was, the less Tony had to see or hear of him, and the less his goddamn broken heart could ache over the loss of something he hadn’t realized he wanted.

Barnes had put Tony’s hand right over his racing heart. If a picture was worth a thousand words, then how many sweet nothings was a single heartbeat worth?

Tony’s appetite had left him and never come back. When he’d excused himself, Steve had followed. The conversation they’d had then had been . . . fraught. Steve had been trying to find out what happened from a more reliable source than his little Army buddy who apparently had told the story in single words and grunts with as many questions as Steve asked Tony. But Tony didn’t want to tell him that he’d grabbed Barnes out of a pure panic and then kissed him all the way down to the floor and then tried his best to make Barnes feel like a goddamn whore on the docks when Barnes had offered to be partially his.

Tony didn’t want to tell Steve that he fucking loved both of them, these goddamn fossils from the ’40’s, that Tony’s life would never be the same after the thought of sharing it with not one, but two men he adored and respected and damn near idolized. Tony hadn’t wanted to talk, so he’d tossed a wrench at Steve’s head and told him to get out, that he was going to have extra time to spend with his lapdog because Tony had shit to do.

Steve had left the lab with the same hurt, confused, resigned expression Barnes had. Jesus, did they practice that in a mirror or something?

Tony had avoided breakfast the day after that. But as the day had stretched on and no one had come out to the lab to see him or talk to him or just say hello, as F.R.I.D.A.Y had reminded him of Avengers Movie Night – Clint and Scott’s brainchild – because no one had deemed it necessary to come remind Tony when it was time to join them, as he’d woken on his workshop sofa for the second night in a row, bleary and sore and miserable, Tony had realized that it was damn lonely out here.

So he’d gathered up his balls and stuffed them back on and trudged across the bristly grass toward the main compound when morning had arrived, hoping he was late enough that he wouldn’t be sitting at the breakfast table as Barnes cooked this morning. He’d gotten to where he could time that pretty well, and it had been nice to sit there alone with Steve on those mornings, talking and laughing, sharing the occasional brush of their fingers and even stealing a kiss they both pretended Barnes hadn’t noticed, watching Barnes move expertly around the kitchen with his occasional over-the-shoulder quips and interjections and commentary about their methods.

Barnes had never made Tony feel like a freak when he’d stood in the room cooking pancakes and watching Tony kiss the love of his goddamn life. Why hadn’t Tony been able to just . . . swallow his terror and say yes, he’d try it? Maybe there was still time to go back to Barnes and make this right. At least apologize and try to salvage the friendship Barnes had seemed so hopeful was real.

Tony could feel his shoulders tightening. What was so damn scary about being weird? Why had Tony said no, again?

When he came through the door, he was both relieved and oddly disappointed to see that most of the team was there already, with plates and glasses full of juice and coffee. The smell of coffee, in fact, was wafting through the air and stirred Tony’s feet into carrying him forward.

“Morning,” Rhodey greeted, eyeing Tony up and down carefully. “Working hard?”

Tony shrugged. “You know how it is.”

Rhodey took a dainty sip of coffee so he wouldn’t have to answer. Tony felt like everyone knew. He felt eyes on him, boring into him, seeing into his brain and witnessing the replay, over and over, behind his eyes. Barnes in his arms after damn near panicking about the Red Eye, then Tony kissing him all hungry and dirty and holding onto him like Barnes was a cliff he need to climb. And then his hand on Barnes’s heart, the rhythm faster than normal, pounding away in time with Tony’s. And then Tony turning away and refusing to look back. Refusing to even acknowledge that Barnes was even still his friend. His hand sliding off Barnes’s heartbeat and letting the man walk away thinking Tony wanted nothing to do with him.

Tony felt his cheeks heating as he stood in the kitchen, staring into the past.

He startled and glanced around. No one was paying him any attention, too wrapped up in the breakfast laid out on the massive island.

One thing he finally noticed missing this morning was Barnes. With another sweep of his eyes, he saw that Steve was gone too.

Probably off fucking. Tony winced. That tiny part of his brain, the one who’d been in the driver’s seat when he’d told Barnes he was no better than a murderous carnivore terrorizing his dinner for fun, was still bitter and cruel. Tony wished he knew a reliable assassin he could hire to kill that tiny voice.

“Morning, Stark,” Sam greeted, handing Tony a plate.

“Morning. I don’t like being handed things.” Sam shrugged and set the plate on the counter, where Tony picked it up. He stared at the empty plate, scowling. No one ever took him seriously, no one ever remembered. Except of course the hardened Russian assassin who had looked like a goddamn kitten being tossed into the rain, who always remembered to make a serving of plain oatmeal with no gluten for the days when Tony had slept horribly and his stomach wasn’t up to handling anything else. “Where’s the cook?”

“Actually, I was about to ask you that,” Sam admitted. “No one’s seen him or Steve. I woke up, and this was all here. I was expecting them to be out in your workshop.”

“Oh?” Tony asked coldly, his back stiffening. “Why’s that?”

“Because those red-eyed robots are the only damn thing Barnes can talk about lately,” Sam answered with an easy shrug. He turned away and began scooping scrambled eggs into his plate. “Guess I assumed he’d been working on something with the one you salvaged.”

“Nope,” Tony said, trying to keep his voice even. He started picking through the offerings, filling his plate.

But he and Barnes had been working on something, hadn’t they? Barnes’d had an idea, and it had been an intriguing one. Tony could carry on without his input. It wasn’t like Barnes needed to give Tony input to begin with after that initial spark of an idea, Tony was pretty damn capable on his own, thank you very fucking much.

Tony filled his plate almost to the edges, not having realized he was so terribly hungry and warmed by the idea that his favorite breakfast foods had all still been set out for him this morning. He settled in his seat around the table, and the two empty chairs were conspicuous. Tony winced guiltily, realizing that yesterday had been the first time a team member had missed this tradition they’d created, and that team member had been his dumb ass.

“Hey, Barton,” Sam said a few minutes later as he thumped into his own seat on the other side of where Steve typically ate.

Clint didn’t respond, so Natasha tapped his forearm to get his attention. She made a gesture, no doubt one of the same signs Tony had seen both her and Bucky direct toward Clint, and Clint glanced across the table, fingers going to his ear as he offered a smile.

“What’s up?” Clint asked.

“Where’s your boy? And by extension, mine?” Sam asked, jerking his head to the empty seat between him and Tony.

“I don’t know,” Clint answered with an easy shrug.

He went back to eating, just like that. Tony found himself pondering Clint’s relationship with Barnes. That had been sort of what Barnes had been offering him. Easy and comfortable and not a damn string attached. There are no strings on me . . . No, Barnes had nothing to do with that fiasco, none at all. Barnes wasn’t something dangerous and untrustworthy, some botched experiment that might blow up in their faces. He was nothing nefarious, and what he’d offered Tony had been pure. Merely all the benefits of love with none of the heartache. And it was just as out of reach now for Tony as real love was.

Regret burned hard and fast in Tony’s chest before he could douse it.

During a lull in conversation where everyone was stuffing delicious food into their faces, Tony’s ears picked up on conversation and commotion coming from across the common area. He twisted and glanced back at the stairwell that led down to the gym area.

A moment later Steve’s head popped up over the wire and glass railing. His hair was sticking up every which way, looking decidedly like it always had after Tony had gripped it with both hands and used it to hold on as Steve had been fucking him or sucking him.

Tony damn near groaned around a mouthful of food. Please Christ, please don’t let them both have been down there, couldn’t they fuck in the privacy of their own rooms? Why did these two monsters torture him so?

Steve stopped on the stairs and turned around, looking behind him and talking. His hands were on his hips and he seemed to be in full Captain America mode. His voice eventually carried to them as they all quieted, trying to hear.

“If you already knew how to do it, then why didn’t you tell me before I tried to teach it to you?” Steve was asking, obviously annoyed, hands still on his hips, sounding like he was on television telling kids to listen to their parents and eat their vegetables and abstinence is swell, but so is taking it up the ass before marriage.

“How the hell was I supposed to know what you were going to do?” Barnes’s voice floated up from the stairwell. “I can’t read your goddamned mind, Steve!”

“Could have fooled me! How’d you know I was coming at you with –”

“You telegraph that shit harder than the Army, okay Steve, you lead with your left like you still wear the shield and you drag ass on the return because you’re not used to someone as quick as you being able to dodge it. And you don’t fucking listen!”

Steve growled. “Telegraph!”

“Will you get off my ass about it already?” Barnes snapped. “I’m goddamned bleeding here.”

“Well, whose fault is that?” Steve asked as he turned and started up the steps again, his face creased with worry lines.

“Yours!” Barnes grunted. His head appeared as he followed Steve up, and Tony had to blink twice to make sure he wasn’t seeing things.

Barnes’s whole right side of his face was covered in blood. It had dripped to his shoulder, spots and little splash marks on his bare skin, trailing down all the way to his elbow. His white tank top looking like one of those joke T-shirts that proclaim a deadly zombie or shark bite to be ‘just a scratch’.

Steve hovered at the top of the steps, offering Barnes a hand, and Barnes swatted it away with a grunt as he reached the top. “I’m not gonna pass out, Steve!”

“You mean, again?”

“I was resting.”

“You were unconscious. And you’re bleeding like a stuck pig,” Steve argued.

“I am bleeding like any reasonable human who just got tossed into a wall, okay, control your urges, Steven,” Barnes muttered as he stalked toward the wet bar nearby. He had a water bottle in his hand, and he took a gulp from it, smearing blood all over it without seeming to notice.

Steve followed, looking guilty and a little angry. “We need to change our tactics, this isn’t going to work.”

“What are you all of a sudden, Captain American’t?” Barnes taunted as he glanced over his shoulder at Steve and sneered. Neither of them appeared to have noticed the team, sitting at the table and watching them with wide eyes. Barnes stuck his head in the sink at the wet bar and turned the water on. When he spoke again, his voice was garbled. “This is what practice is for, Steve!”

“What good is practice if there’s not a damn trick I know that you haven’t either already been shown or you can still disable on the fly?” Steve shouted. “I came at you with everything I had and you still managed to upend me!”

“And landed in a wall for my trouble, Steve! Look at me, does this look like success?”

“Robots don’t bleed, tossing one through a wall isn’t going to do anyone any good!” Steve shouted. “If those things know everything you do, then they’re not only going to kill you when we go up against them, they’re going to kill me too, ’cause I can’t beat you!”

“Yet,” Barnes added calmly from beneath the running water.

Steve took a deep breath, trying to settle himself. Then he blinked and seemed to notice the rest of them there, some of them still with food in their mouths, watching like it was a soap opera. Steve cleared his throat in annoyance, flushing a little, his eyes darting from Tony and the rest of the team back to Barnes, who was still hanging out of the sink, mumbling to himself under the flow of water.

Steve went to the refrigerator and rummaged around in the freezer to pull out an ice pack.

When Barnes finally stood and turned the water off, he let his head hang, his long hair dripping into the sink basin. Then he squeezed the water out of it, running his fingers through it and pushing it back off his face as he straightened.

Tony had to look away. With his hair wet and slicked back like that, he looked like a different person. Tony loved the long hair, even when Barnes allowed it to go wild and cover his beautiful face. But he was beginning to be on board with the idea of cutting it, if shorter hair would allow them to see Barnes’s startling blue eyes and that ridiculous fucking facial structure, Jesus.

Tony realized he was staring again, and he wasn’t even sure how his eyes had found their way back to Barnes if he’d been trying so hard to concentrate on his fruit bowl. He transferred them to Steve, who was somehow incredibly handsome when he was flushed with annoyance and covered with sweat and possibly some drops of transferred blood. Ugh, what’s wrong, Tony, why do you always go for the murdery types?

Thankfully, Barnes didn’t seem to have noticed Tony’s eyes on him, or even that he and Steve were having this argument in front of literally the entire team. Most of the people at the table probably didn’t even know Barnes could speak, much less that he had a biting sense of humor and that damn give ’em hell attitude of his that had made Tony fall in fucking love with the guy.

Yeah. Shit. Shit! Tony needed to leave right now. But he couldn’t, because Barnes and Steve were squaring off against each other, and it was fanfuckingtastic.

Barnes’s hair was still darkened with blood and now water, and his shirt and shoulder still looked like he’d been swimming with barracudas. It was a little disturbing how lackadaisical he was about being covered in so much blood that belonged to him. His jaw was tight and he had his narrowed eyes on Steve like lasers.

Steve drew closer to him with the ice pack, eyeing Barnes’s hairline, hand raised in a gesture of peace. “Let me see it.”

“It’s already closing up, you go poking at it it’ll just bleed more.” Barnes had to swat Steve’s hand away and duck to the side to avoid being mothered. “Stop it!”

“Buck! You were unconscious for nearly a minute!”

“And now I’m awake again,” Barnes pointed out, hands spread to the sides, speaking in slow, calm words like Steve might be an idiot who didn’t understand them. Steve reached for him again, but Barnes backed away a step. “Quit touching me, Steve! Give me a minute!”

“What happened?” Sam finally asked, standing and pushing his chair back like he might be thinking about stepping into that crap pile of testosterone and machismo with a Band-aid.

Steve and Barnes both looked over at him, Steve rolling his eyes and Barnes blinking at them like he was just noticing them there. Some master assassin he was, letting his surroundings take him by surprise. Tony found himself staring into Barnes’s eyes, smiling affectionately at him, worry growing because if he really hadn’t noticed them there, he might be concussed.

Barnes’s expression remained stolid as he met Tony’s eyes, unreadable and still as stone. Tony felt the moment like there was electricity involved, unable to look away from Barnes’s eyes, unable even to blink. A lazy trickle of blood began to make its way down Barnes’s forehead, sliding toward the corner of his eyes where it would eventually fill in his smile lines like some macabre watercolor. Tony wanted to go to him, wipe that blood off and kiss him senseless. He understood the urge that kept Steve trying even after Barnes had asked him not to touch him.

Steve reached up and swiped the blood away with his thumb, smearing it across Barnes’s skin in the process. Barnes turned sparking eyes toward him, baring his teeth, coiling dangerously.

“Let Sam look you over, huh?” Steve asked quietly. And suddenly it was an intimate moment that Tony felt none of them should be seeing.

Barnes narrowed his eyes, his teeth still gritted and startlingly white against his tanned face. Then he seemed to relax, cocking his head at Steve, nodding slowly. “Sure, okay,” he finally agreed. A little too easily, if Tony was to judge his tone. “As long as you let him look at your broken rib, too.”

Steve cocked his head, suddenly holding his body a bit more carefully. “What?”

Barnes put a gentle hand on Steve’s torso, his eyes never leaving Steve’s. Then he tweaked his metal fingers against Steve’s ribs and Steve nearly went to his knees, crying out in pain, gripping Barnes’s shoulder and the wet bar counter to stay on his feet.

That broken rib,” Barnes answered, calm as ever, before taking another sip of his water.

Sam was up and moving over to them before the echo of Steve’s cry had faded.

“When’d you do this?” Sam demanded as he got to Steve and began pawing at him like a mama cat trying to give a kitten his bath. Steve tried to wave him off, but Sam was relentless, and he soon had Steve sitting on the floor, his shirt off, nimble pararescue fingers prodding a mottled bruise on Steve’s side.

Barnes leaned against the counter, sipping his water, blood idly congealing at his temple. Tony realized he was smirking as he watched Sam put Steve through the same treatment Steve had been trying to put him through.

What a sneaky fucking asshole. Tony barked a laugh before he could stop himself. Goddamn, Tony loved him. Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck. He loved them both. What the hell was he supposed to do about that? Especially now that he’d been given his chance and not only turned it down, but also burned the olive branch Barnes had been trying to keep extended and then told Steve to go fuck right off along with him?

The only thing to do was to swallow his pride and tell Barnes . . . tell Bucky, that he’d been wrong, that he’d made the wrong choice. He should go over there right now while Bucky was still smirking and tell him that. It would also give Tony a reason to get close enough to make sure his head really was okay, and then after they’d made up and Tony had gotten a real goddamn kiss from the man that wasn’t laden with guilt and fear of being caught at something, then Tony could ask Bucky and Steve what the fuck they’d been talking about, and why they were training each other in how to be killed by robots at breakfast.

Tony pushed his chair back, standing a little too suddenly. He made eye contact with Bucky again, and Bucky’s smirk faltered. He lowered his head and the smile was gone before Tony could do anything to save it. Before Tony could take more than three steps toward him, before he could say a word or reach out for him, Bucky had set his water bottle down, patted Steve’s head – like an apology for bailing on him – and disappeared from the room right in front of Tony’s eyes.

Tony knew, logically, that all it had taken was a sidestep toward the hallway and then merely rolling his shoulders along the corner of the wall to be out of sight. But it was still impressive how Bucky did it without drawing attention to himself. He’d made sure Tony’s eyes were either on that bloody water bottle or on Steve first.

Tony stood there, nonplussed. Then he cleared his throat and headed to Steve and Sam instead.

“What happened?” Tony asked softly.

“Busted the rib sparring yesterday,” Steve grumbled. He was eyeing the hallway, his blue eyes murderous. “I didn’t think he noticed.”

Tony had to restrain a snort at that. Of course Bucky had noticed. Bucky noticed everything, didn’t he?

“And just now? What was that all about?” Tony asked.

Steve set his jaw stubbornly. “We were working on the Red Eye problem.”

“Mmhmm,” Tony said as he knelt next to Steve. “You know I’m working on that one too, right? Clint and Natasha and Sam, they’re working on it. Rhodey and Wanda and Scott, they’re working on it. You don’t have to do this shit alone, Steve.”

Steve stared into his eyes for so long that Tony felt the need to fidget.

“Bucky wakes up screaming in the middle of the night,” Steve told them, blunt and edged with anger. “He sees red eyes, and he sees blood, and he says they’re all the same color as the star that was on his arm, even though the star’s not there anymore, he says he can feel it burning him when he wakes. And he says they’re all on his hands; all that blood, all that red light. So yeah, forgive me if we go downstairs and we try to work through this the only way we know how. We’re soldiers, Tony. It’s what we do.”

Tony pressed his lips into a thin line, nodding. Steve was mad as hell, and Tony knew instinctively that it was directed at him, but not because of Red Eyes or injuries. Tony must have hurt Bucky more than he’d realized, for Steve to be this protective of him. Hell, Tony had hurt Steve too, telling him to spend his spare time with Bucky and leave Tony to his projects for a while. It hadn’t been a break up, but . . . yeah it kind of had been.

“What’s the plan?” Tony asked quietly. He didn’t want to fight. He wanted to fix this, and the only way to start that was to show both Steve and Bucky that Tony was on their side, that he did care about both of them.

“Bucky pointed out that the Red Eyes are basically an army of him. He knows all their moves, so we can train against him and prepare to face them. But also, anything any of us can show him that he can’t defend, well . . . it’s going to be our only leg up.”

“So you’ve been looking for moves he’s unable to defend against?” Sam asked, sounding concerned but also looking as if he was trying to be outwardly neutral.

Tony wasn’t sure he could be, because this meant Steve and Bucky had been down there each morning, and who knows how many nights, basically trying to beat the shit out of Bucky in new and interesting ways.

Tony’s apprehension must have shown on his face, because Steve ground his teeth together and his blue eyes flashed as he glared at Tony. “It was his idea, Tony, I tried to talk him out of it. But some of us find him a bit more persuasive than others, I guess.”

Tony was proud of himself for not flinching away from those words. “Steve,” he said softly.

“It’s a solid plan, Steve. How about you let the rest of us help, huh?” Sam said gently. He got to his feet, offering Steve his hand. “That needs an X-ray, but it feels like a clean break. My guess is, it’s already healing. If someone else had been working with Barnes this morning, it would probably already be better.”

Steve nodded, ducking his head in the face of Sam’s gentle admonishments.

“Let us help, Cap,” Sam urged. “The more the merrier when you’re trying for something new.”

Steve nodded curtly. “We’ll start this afternoon, out on the range. Everyone out there. We need to find some moves that Bucky’s never seen. And anyone who can’t hold their own against him, won’t be able to go up against these things safely.”

“You got it,” Sam said with a determined nod.

Steve just grunted, clapping Sam on the shoulder and silently taking his discarded shirt from Tony without meeting Tony’s eyes. He left them, heading down the hall to either make up or have it out with Bucky.

Tony was left standing there, staring at the bloody hand print that gripped the water bottle on the edge of the wet bar. Bucky’s hand, the right one. He’d been gripping the plastic so hard that he’d crushed the bottle.

Tony nodded, his stomach swirling. Steve was livid, and though Tony knew some of that was pain and frustration, a lot of it was probably him. And if he made Bucky so tense just by meeting his eyes and moving toward him, then maybe waiting a few more days before he talked to either of them would be for the best.

It was also probably time to face the possibility that any hope he’d had for reconciling with either man was just a few days and a few angry stares too late.

God, he was an idiot. The realization, coupled with the emotion he’d seen in the eyes of both men he was hopelessly in love with, stirred those coals of anger and resentment once more. He gritted his teeth, heading back to his workshop to see if those coals would bank or spark into another full flame.

==

“Steve?”

Steve’s head shot up from examining the security photos of robots with glowing red eyes he’d been poring over, shocked to have been caught off guard. Natasha stood in the doorway to his office, which made him feel a little better about the surprise. Her or Bucky, those were the only people who were allowed to get the drop on him these days.

“What’s up?” Steve asked as Natasha smirked at him. He rolled his eyes. “Yeah, yeah.”

“Who are you daydreaming about in here?” she teased.

Steve ran his finger over the bridge of his nose. Everyone knew exactly who he was daydreaming about these days. Bucky had spent almost every night with him this past week, only going to Clint for those two nights when he’d told Steve that Clint had been moping about missing his family and needed company. Steve and Bucky had started looking at the logistics involved with bringing Clint’s family here. If they could assure they’d be safe, Steve would do it in a heartbeat. So far, Bucky wasn’t convinced enough to bring it up to Clint.

Steve had gone to end things with Tony after what had happened between him and Bucky, unable to look at Tony without seeing the wounded look in Bucky’s eyes every time Tony was in the room with them. But he didn’t mind Bucky and Clint still having each other. It was a weird feeling.

Natasha sat across from him, and when he glanced at her she looked regretful.

“Bad news?” he asked, feeling his good mood deflate.

Natasha narrowed one eye, shrugging a shoulder sort of the way Bucky did sometimes. Maybe it was a Russian thing?

“I managed to track down some video,” Natasha said slowly. “It’s . . . well, I wouldn’t bring it to you if I didn’t think it would help us.”

“What is it?” Steve couldn’t hide the dread in his voice and he didn’t try to.

Natasha stared at him, peering into him, looking for something, like she was trying to gauge if he was prepared for what she was about to show him. Finally, she set her tablet on the desk between them. “It’s the training videos Hydra took from James’s sessions with the Red Eyes.”

Steve’s eyes darted toward the tablet as he recoiled from it, pushing back in his seat. There was no way he was going to watch that, no way in hell. He shook his head. “We don’t need it.”

“We do,” Natasha insisted gently. “Unless of course you intend to ask James to train each of us to failure like he did those robots? Because that’s his plan, is it not? You want to take him down to the gym every day and have him fight one of us until his body gives out just so we’ll know every trick those robots have up their sleeves? Nurse him back from the brink each night and tell him what a good person he is for saving the world, and then send back down there the next morning?”

Steve was shaking his head, closing his eyes. “Point made, Nat, Jesus.”

Natasha sighed. “The first ones are no use to us; according to James he beat the shit out of those. The later ones, the ones he had difficulty with, those are the ones we’re facing now. I’m going to take it to Tony, have him start Friday on analysis of the last dozen or so sessions.”

“To Tony?” Steve asked, wincing.

Natasha raised an expressive eyebrow. “Is that a problem?”

Steve pursed his lips. Bucky had told him the barest details, only that Tony hadn’t been interested and that he had been angry and suspicious and Bucky had obviously tried not to show how hurt he was by it. Tony had been a little more . . . demonstrative in his telling. In fact, he’d thrown a wrench at Steve when Steve had asked one little innocent question the next day. Then Tony had rambled about how Bucky had no right to just walk around all breathing and stuff with his eyes open the color they were, and Steve hadn’t known whether to laugh or be worried. It had become obvious to Steve that Bucky’s reading of Tony hadn’t been as off as Bucky seemed to think.

Why Tony was scared, Steve couldn’t say and Tony didn’t seem to want help with it. Steve had sensed that a choice needed to be made, though, because a wall was suddenly up between Tony and Bucky once more. And Steve had picked his side without a second thought. The fact that Tony had told him they were done before Steve could say the same thing anywhere outside of his own mind? Well, that didn’t mean Steve had chosen it any less. Right?

What he did know, though, was that Bucky was trying hard to go about his daily routine – a daily routine that no longer included his visits to Tony’s lab – and Tony had grown kind of distant and mean lately. Well. Meaner. Especially toward Bucky. He was snippy enough that Steve had begun to wonder if Bucky’s version hadn’t perhaps left something out.

“I don’t know if Buck would want Tony seeing that,” Steve finally admitted to Natasha.

Now both her eyebrows were raised high. “Why not? What happened?”

“I’m . . . honestly, I’m still not sure,” Steve said with a helpless shrug. “Whenever I ask Buck he just shrugs and says everything’s fine. Tony . . . hell, I think he’s angry at Bucky and me, but I think he’s hurt too, and I can’t get any further than that because when I try I realize I’m angry too.”

“Huh. Well. I’ll just do some team bonding and find out,” Natasha decided, taking her tablet and standing. She held it up. “Tony needs to see this, though.”

Steve winced, knowing she was right. “Okay. But I’m coming. If anyone else is going to watch it, I guess it needs to be me.”

“Do you want to tell James?”

Steve held his breath as he tried to work through the variations of how that might turn out. Finally, the look in Natasha’s eyes decided it for him. He nodded.

“I’ll call Clint in, too,” she added.

Steve had to smile as she left his office. Nothing about the next few hours was going to be fun, but at least they had a team, a support system around them, that Bucky was probably going to need.

He leaned back in his seat, closing his eyes. “Friday?”

“Yes, Captain?”

“Will you let Buck know I need him in the common room ASAP?”

“Certainly, Captain.”

“Thank you, Friday.”

“Captain Rogers? If Sergeant Barnes happens to be in the middle of an activity which has raised his heart rate considerably, shall I still interrupt him?” Friday asked, and Steve knew that it was his own humanity that made him hear the hesitance and humor in her voice, but it still made him smirk.

“Is he with Clint, by any chance?” Steve asked, trying not to laugh.

“No, Captain. Sergeant Barnes is alone.”

Steve scowled. “Is he okay?”

F.R.I.D.A.Y waited a moment before answering, her voice slow like she was processing the correct set of words. “Sergeant Barnes does not appear to be in distress. But my observations of his past interactions do not give me proper parameters to say that he is, in fact, okay.”

“Where is he?” Steve demanded.

“In the gym, Captain.”

Steve pushed out of his seat and jogged toward the common area, heading for the stairs down to the basement level. Natasha was there, getting the television set up with her tablet. Tony was there, too, looking irritated about being called away from whatever project had him holed up in the lab. When they saw the look on Steve’s face, whatever expression he was giving them as he jogged toward the stairs, both of them straightened up and scowled.

Tony took a step toward the stairs, then stopped, uncertain. “What’s wrong?”

“Not sure,” Steve answered curtly, waving them both off as he thumped down the steps.

He heard Bucky before he saw him. Dull thuds; coming far too fast to be anything but Bucky’s fists against Steve’s reinforced punching bags. He was working his feet, bobbing and weaving as if the punching bag were fighting back, arms moving fast and hard, power and anger behind every punch, emotion that Steve had yet to see from Bucky when he sparred.

He was also dripping in sweat. One positive thing about the super serum, something they’d found they had in common, was that sweating was a minimal experience. They both did it, but the joke amongst the team this past week as Bucky had handed each of them their asses was that he and Steve merely glistened, rather than sweating. It took real work – real, hard, extended work – for either of them to drum up a real sweat.

And right now, Bucky was dripping. He was wet as if he’d just stepped out of the shower. He had his hair pulled back under a black bandana, but Steve could see the line even on the dark material where sweat had soaked through it. If he’d started this session with a shirt on, he’d lost it at some point, and his muscles moved under bare, dripping skin. It was a sight stunning enough to stop Steve in his tracks.

He could hear Bucky’s rasping breaths, his lungs clawing up his throat for air, sounding just as bad or worse than Steve used to when his asthma had hit. His motions were jerky and almost desperate, none of the smooth, wicked agility Steve was accustomed to seeing.

He was . . . Steve’s stomach tumbled with the realization. He was pushing his body to failure. His lungs, his muscles, his mind . . .

God, how long had he been down here?

Steve realized belatedly that Natasha and Tony had followed him despite him telling them to stay put. They stood at his shoulders, staring. Natasha looked grim, like she’d seen something like this before and wasn’t surprised to see it again. But Tony . . . Tony looked horrified. He stared, eyes wide, stricken, his lips parted as if he’d tried to speak and utterly failed to find his voice. They’d both come to the same conclusion Steve had.

Steve couldn’t stand it. He couldn’t stand the look on Tony’s face, and he couldn’t stand the sound of Bucky’s struggling breaths and he couldn’t stand the thought of Bucky down here with so little hope in their chances that he was doing this to himself as Steve had been upstairs combing through civilian accounts of Red Eyes all over the country. He waved at Natasha and Tony, telling them to get the hell out of there. Natasha nodded, turning on her heel. Hopefully she’d go find Clint, because Steve suspected he was going to need backup.

“Bucky!” he called, loud and clear, hoping Bucky wasn’t lost somewhere in his memory.

Bucky crow-hopped to the side, still going at the punching back but now at an angle where he could see Steve. He gave him a sideways glance and offered him a lazy salute, then got in a few more rapid-fire punches before hopping back, keeping his wrapped fists up near his face as if the bag might retaliate. It was good form, and it brought Steve back to Goldie’s gym, an almost visceral memory of Bucky, strapping and young and eyes alight and none of the horrors of his life yet welded to his body, trying to teach a scrawny version of Steve how to box before they went to enlist.

Steve stepped forward, raising his hands before Bucky could throw himself back into it. “Buck,” he said gently. “It’s time to rest.”

Bucky stared at him, chest and shoulders heaving with those rasping breaths, and as Steve got closer he realized that Bucky was trembling. All-over body shakes rattled through him, and Steve was reminded of horses who arrived at their destination, ridden too hard and too long, who collapsed dead as soon as their saddles were removed.

Steve moved faster, but he wasn’t close enough to catch Bucky when he fell to his knees. He didn’t collapse; merely knelt there, head hanging, bruised and bloody knuckles propping him up on the mat.

Steve went to his knees at his side, wrapping one arm under Bucky’s belly to support him if he did pass out, placing his other hand on Bucky’s lower back, shocked by how wet and overheated Bucky’s skin was.

“Friday?” Steve called.

“Sergeant Barnes’s blood pressure has reached an alarming number, Captain,” the AI told them. “But his vitals are already dropping.”

Steve ran his hand through Bucky’s hair, pulling the bandana off and tossing it aside. He pulled Bucky’s head to his chest, yanking him until he was on his ass on the sparring mat and Bucky was sprawled against him, his head and shoulders held against Steve’s chest and belly, Steve’s arms around him much like he’d once seen Sergeant James Barnes comfort young soldiers in foxholes who were bleeding and begging for their mothers.

“How long have you been down here?” Steve asked, voice cracking on his concern.

“What time is it?” Bucky asked. His eyes were closed and his face was alarmingly flushed. “Naw. What day is it?”

Steve heard Tony curse. He’d hoped Tony had left. Bucky would hate for Tony to see him like this.

“What are you doing, Buck?” Steve whispered, choosing to ignore Tony’s presence for now.

“I can’t,” Bucky tried to answer, but he had to take a deep, grating breath in order to try again. “I can’t sleep without . . . red eyes in the dark, Steve.”

Steve ran his hand through Bucky’s hair, his chest squeezing. Bucky had so much horror behind him, it was really astonishing that this was the first thing they’d encountered that had really driven him over an edge. Steve curled and kissed the side of Bucky’s face, unable to reach anything else in their position. “I know, pal, I know. Why didn’t you come to me, huh?”

Bucky shook his head. Another shudder ran through him.

“Okay, let’s get you up. We’ll shower and go to bed, all right?” Steve murmured into Bucky’s ear. “Take the rest of the day off. Maybe you’ll be able to sleep with me and Barton on lookout, huh?”

Bucky responded with a sound that was sort of a hum and sort of an ‘oomph’ sound, and Steve had to smile as he extricated himself from Bucky’s weight. He got his hands under Bucky’s arms and hefted him to his feet. He was damn near a dead weight, so Steve stood there, indecisive, pondering a fireman’s carry.

“You throw me over your shoulder and I will bite you,” Bucky threatened, his voice low and rasping in the strongest Russian accent Steve had heard from him yet.

“Bite me? But how is that punishment?” Steve teased, tossing Bucky’s arm over his shoulders instead.

“Dragging me back to your room like a goddamn caveman,” Bucky was muttering. “Won’t let me cut my hair cause it’s a convenient handle.” He kept going, his voice deepening, his words gradually switching over to Russian.

Steve took on a lot of his weight, guiding him to the stairs, with Bucky grumping at him in Russian the whole time. They passed Tony, who Steve had sort of forgotten was there again. The man was frozen in place, staring at Bucky like he’d just seen the Mona Lisa being threatened with a flamethrower, like it was his first glimpse at the Sistine Chapel in an earthquake, like Bucky’s listing body was the Leaning Tower of Pisa and Tony was standing aside and watching someone with a bulldozer approach.

“Tony,” Steve said softly, jarring Tony into meeting his eyes. “You okay?”

“How long has he been like this?” Tony asked, practically gasping for air like he’d been holding his breath since he caught sight of Bucky at the punching bag.

Steve pressed his lips into a thin line. The answer he wanted to give was the real one; ever since you stopped fucking talking to him, asshole. But Steve respected Bucky’s desire to keep the team as normal as possible, so he refrained. Barely. “He has his days,” he answered vaguely, hefting Bucky into a more secure position as he whispered into Bucky’s ear. “Come on, you jerk.”

Bucky shook his head, trying to stay upright and help Steve take his weight. “They know all my tricks, Steve,” he mumbled.

“I know, Buck,” Steve whispered, his jaw setting determinedly. “But they don’t know all mine.”

Instead of offering any kind of comfort to him, like Steve had hoped, Steve’s words made Bucky start laughing. He laughed hard, almost hysterically as they trudged up the steps. “That still leaves me dead again, Stevie!” He practically cackled as he said it, despite running shivers up Steve’s spine. “Christ, I really don’t fucking want to die again this soon.”

Steve glanced over his shoulder, where Tony was following, pale and frowning.

“We’ll just teach you some new tricks, then,” Steve tried, voice still soothing no matter how rattled he was by Bucky’s words, and by that half-insane laughter. Bucky squeezed Steve’s shoulder, pressing his face against Steve’s chin as they made it to the top of the stairs. “Come on,” Steve whispered. “You’re a fucking mess, Sergeant, it’s disgraceful.”

“Like my hair is regulation, Captain Dancing Queen,” Bucky grunted.

Steve huffed a laugh, unable to even feign being upset when the sniping meant Bucky was recovering already. He kissed the very edge of Bucky’s mouth, then whispered, “But your hair is so goddamn sexy, Sarge.”

They both laughed, albeit weakly, and trudged together toward Bucky’s room. Steve didn’t have to look over his shoulder to know that Tony was stalled at the end of the hallway, watching them with the same confused mix of shock and concern on his face.

Steve didn’t understand the man. If he was so goddamned worried about Bucky, then why had he been treating him like he was invisible – or worse – for the last week? Why hadn’t he come to talk to them? Why had he treated Steve like a threat and Bucky like a goddamn leper all week?

Then Steve remembered; Tony wasn’t there because of Bucky, he’d been there to watch those videos.

“Give us an hour,” he called back to Tony and Natasha. Clint was coming down the hall from the other way, and he stopped and stared, obviously concerned when he saw Bucky’s state. Steve nodded at him. “Got a sec?”

“Got a bunch of ’em,” Clint said, hopping to take up Bucky’s other side. “All aboard the strugglebus, huh Buck?”

That got a deep chuckle from Bucky before he stuffed his face in Clint’s hair, and Steve huffed against a smile. He hadn’t understood at first, not really, when Bucky had tried to explain to him how good Clint was for him. Steve had begun to understand the more he watched them, though, because they made it impossible not to smile fondly at them when they were together.

With Clint’s help, Steve dragged Bucky into his room so he could shower and pull himself back together. They both got in the shower with him, more for the comfort of physically being there for him than because he actually needed two Avengers to keep him on his feet in the shower.

Clint stood in front of him, talking to him in both English and ASL, holding to his waist gingerly, occasionally giving him a chaste kiss and a smile as he pushed Bucky’s hair off his face with nimble fingers that somehow never got in Steve’s way. Steve stood behind him, washing his hair, soaping down muscles that still trembled and spasmed.

They wound up holding him under the shower spray when he buried his face in Clint’s neck and broke down. Steve hadn’t heard Bucky sound so hopeless, so goddamn lost and broken, since the night they’d reached the SSR’s headquarters in London after Bucky and his fellow prisoners had been liberated from Kreischberg. Steve stared at the tiled shower wall, holding them both as Bucky leaned back into him, as Clint kept him upright, Steve’s mind racing to figure out how to help.

Bucky couldn’t go on like this. None of them could.

What it came down to, in the end, was that Bucky needed to see every last one of those Red Eyes blown to itty bitty pieces. Then his mind would be at peace and he’d stop pushing his body to exhaustion like this.

Once they got him dried off and dressed in the softest, most comfortable clothing Steve could find in his closet, Bucky had nearly fully recovered from the abuse he’d done to himself. He sat on the end of his bed, head hanging like he was expecting a lecture, and Clint sat behind him, legs splayed around him, letting him lean against his chest.

Steve stood in front of them, foundering, trying to figure out how to tell Bucky what he was going to go do now without sending him back down into a spiral. Because they needed to get eyes on those videos, and Steve needed Bucky to know they were about to watch them, whether Bucky was ready to hear it or not. He absolutely would not give him that information after the fact; he’d seen the way Bucky had reacted to finding out people had seen the Winter Soldier file. It had violated him, inside and out. Steve would never allow that to happen again.

Maybe he and Clint could stay in bed while Steve and the others watched the videos. That would be ideal. After seeing this, Steve wasn’t sure he could make it through watching one of those videos with Bucky sitting there right beside him.

“Buck?” Steve finally said gently, and he knelt in front of Bucky, hands on Bucky’s knees. Clint peered at him over Bucky’s shoulder, scowling, hands circling Bucky’s waist protectively. Steve realized that Clint probably had no idea what was going on either. “Listen, Nat got hold of some . . . surveillance videos,” Steve started haltingly.

Bucky nodded, swallowing hard. “Me training the Red Eyes,” he guessed, voice harsh.

Steve blinked up at him, shocked into silence.

“Oh, shit,” Clint blurted. “Cap!”

“I know,” Steve whispered. “I know. But we have to watch the last ones, Buck. Me and Nat. And Tony. We have to use the resource, especially since it’ll save you some of the work you’ve been doing. You understand?”

Bucky merely nodded, closing his eyes. Steve was surprised that there wasn’t more of a reaction. He didn’t expect Bucky to argue good strategy, but he had expected some dismay or . . . something. And how the fuck had Bucky known those videos had been tracked down? Was that what had sent him down to the gym to wear himself out?

“Let’s do it, then,” Bucky mumbled, taking in a breath to steady himself like he was preparing to leave the protective cocoon of Clint’s embrace.

Clint held tighter and began to make a humming noise that sounded decidedly like, let’s absolutely not do that, and Steve had to agree. He shook his head, squeezing Bucky’s knees. “Buck, there’s no reason for you to have to watch them. Stay here with Clint, okay?”

Bucky met his eyes, brow furrowing angrily.

“Don’t make me make it an order,” Steve requested, voice low and calm despite how shaky he felt inside.

“Come on, Buck,” Clint pleaded softly. He kissed the back of Bucky’s neck, just above the T-shirt’s collar. Bucky turned his head a little, his shoulders losing some tension at the mere sound of Clint’s voice, and even more at the touch of Clint’s lips. Clint slid his arm under Bucky’s, patting his chest affectionately and leaving his hand resting against Bucky’s heart. “It’s been days since I got a cuddle, right?”

Bucky rolled his eyes, glaring at Steve.

“And hey! We’ve never fucked in your bed!” Clint added, tossing Steve a wink before hiding his grin against Bucky’s shoulder. Steve fought hard not to smirk in return. Clint knew exactly how to handle Bucky.

Bucky huffed a laugh, shaking his head. “When you’re right, you’re right, Hawk Guy,” he said, sounding a little more like himself already. He’d lost the Russian accent, anyway. He put his hand over Clint’s, patting it. “We’ve never actually made it to your bed, either, y’know. Just your wall.”

“And my floor that one time.”

Bucky shrugged, pursing his lips in acquiescence.

Steve nodded, relief swelling through him. He owed Clint a thousand beers and pizzas for this. He pushed to his feet, peering down at them both. They stared up at him, curled together, both of them with wide blue-gray eyes that blinked up at him innocently.

“God,” Steve whispered, turning away. “Now I know how mama dogs feels when they leave their litters.”

Bucky gave him a sharp laugh, and Clint’s chuckle was low and warm. “Hey, Cap,” Clint called as Steve made it to the door. “Laura said to let you know you’ve always been on the list, if you’re interested in joining us later. The rules don’t take long to go over.”

Steve stared at him, his brain chugging to catch up to what the hell that was supposed to mean.

Bucky was chuckling, his head down, his smile visible even past the curtain of his long hair. He was holding Clint’s hand tighter, and when he looked up again he threw Steve a wink. “Clint’s type is: ‘can hold him up against a wall while busy with the other hand.’ You qualify, I imagine.”

Steve blushed furiously as soon as he caught up to them. “Oh, my God,” he muttered, turning to the door and escaping in all haste, smiling at the sound of their laughter even as he turned impossibly redder.

==

Bucky lay on his side, Clint’s strong arms around him, both of them worn down from their first time actually making it onto a mattress. He was staring at the blank wall beside the door to the room, mind churning now that he was no longer distracted with a lapful of arrow-wielding Avenger.

He could easily sweet-talk F.R.I.D.A.Y into tossing the footage from the living room up on the wall, but then he’d have to . . . watch it. He replayed those moments in his own mind enough already, thanks. He did seriously consider trying to get the surveillance video of the common room itself, so he could at least see the reactions of those watching.

“Bad idea,” Clint murmured behind him. He spoke against the skin of Bucky’s back, his arm and leg slung over Bucky, his body warm against Bucky’s bare skin. He hugged him a little tighter.

“What is?” Bucky asked, trying for innocent.

“Whatever your body just tensed up about,” Clint murmured. He gave Bucky a harder squeeze.

Bucky grinned. Clint’s voice was rumbly against him, nice and low and familiar. He fucking loved how observant Clint could be. In another life, in other circumstances, he would have stolen Clint away and married him on a beach somewhere, Bucky had no doubt about that.

As it was, this arrangement was as good as he could ask for. He was grateful to the rules they’d laid out because they created boundaries and laid out expectations, but Bucky feared he’d broken those rules weeks – maybe months – ago.

He turned in Clint’s arms, kissing him on the forehead and then scooting down so he could catch him on the mouth too. Clint’s arm and leg stayed draped over him as they kissed, Bucky’s fingers sliding up Clint’s ribs slowly.

“Oh, no,” Clint groaned, his mouth open as Bucky nipped and licked at his lower lip playfully. “Have I ever told you how I did a 6th Grade paper on you and the Howling Commandos?”

Bucky hummed an affirmative, scraping his teeth against Clint’s chin.

“I got an A,” Clint added.

Bucky hummed again, dragging his mouth and nose down Clint’s neck and latching on to his pulse point to suck gently. He’d heard this before. Clint always busted out the ‘you’d been dead for twenty-seven years by the time I was born’ thing for when he wanted to slow Bucky down or distract him.

“Fuck,” Clint hissed. His arms tightened around Bucky.

Bucky smirked against his skin. “Hmm? No, no. Tell me about your paper, Francis,” Bucky crooned, licking and nipping at Clint’s collarbone.

“Oh my God, I hate you so much,” Clint protested. “Historians never talked about what a bag of dicks you were.”

Bucky hummed, still grinning when he came back up for another kiss. This one was decidedly more fraught, with Clint’s tongue and teeth fighting back, a moan in the back of his throat as he tried to pull Bucky closer. Bucky shoved him and rolled them, sliding between Clint’s splayed legs to continue the kiss.

It was easy, with all the prep they’d done in the last few hours, for Bucky to slide right back into him. When Clint locked his ankles at the small of Bucky’s back, Bucky kissed his cheek sloppily, then had to push a little deeper into him – forcing a gasp from them both – in order to reach his ear. “Time to turn off that hearing aid if you don’t want to hear me telling you I love you,” he whispered, less sly and more sincere than any other time he’d told Clint the same damn thing.

Clint groaned, his fingers digging into Bucky’s back. His hand came halfway to his ear, just like every other time Bucky had warned him, but he hesitated briefly, then changed his mind and grabbed a handful of Bucky’s hair instead. When he spoke, he growled out the words through clenched teeth. “Fuck it, Barnes, it’s too goddamn late for that now.”

“I’m sorry. Never was good at following rules,” Bucky admitted, kissing Clint in apology.

“Me either,” Clint whispered, and he rolled his hips to get Bucky moving again.

Bucky was still hovering over Clint and slowly making him fall to pieces with his lips and tongue and teeth when there was a quiet knock on the door.

“If you walk through that door you’re either part of the problem or you’re a silent observer until it’s solved!” Clint shouted.

Bucky laughed against his belly, holding onto his hips with both hands, nibbling at his abdominal muscles. Clint was so close to coming, Bucky thought it would be cruel and unusual punishment to stop now, so he didn’t stop even when Clint’s hand clutched at his hair and tugged.

“I’m just . . . not sure how to answer that,” Steve called uncertainly.

Bucky glanced up at Clint, who was writhing under him, his teeth gritted into an approximation of a smile. “Don’t let that white bread vanilla flavored national icon bullshit fool you,” Bucky stage-whispered, certain Steve could hear him through the door. He grabbed the sheets and pulled them over his head, ducking under them as he added, “He’s done things to me the internet hasn’t named yet.”

Clint groaned quietly, covering his eyes. “No,” he whined. Safely under the covers now, Bucky took him between his lips again, sucking and moaning so it would vibrate through him. “Ah, Christ! No more destroying my childhood heroes by making them sexy, okay!”

Bucky pulled off and bit him on the inside of his thigh, hard.

When Clint cried out in outrage, Steve popped the door open, probably poking his head in but looking devotedly at the ground, if Bucky was to guess. Bucky was a little busy, though. Poor Clint.

“I hate to do this,” Steve announced, and when Bucky gave an exasperated sigh and peered out from under the sheet, he had to agree that Steve kind of looked like he was telling the truth, all scowly and hang-dog, like a labrador who’d shit himself all over his owner’s new white couch.

Bucky and Clint gave him tandem groans, and Bucky rested his forehead against Clint’s belly, breathing him in like it would bolster him for whatever nonsense Steve was about to bring down on them.

“He’s ten seconds away from coming, Steve, have a heart,” Bucky groused.

“Ten seconds?” Clint shouted in outrage.

“Watch him, Cap,” Bucky ordered, shooting Clint a wicked grin and shoving the sheets down so he’d have unimpeded access. Bucky didn’t know if Steve played along or not, but it was indeed just seconds before Clint was cussing him out creatively and writhing, coming for him just like he’d predicted.

“Jesus, Buck,” Steve whispered from the doorway.

“Fuck you, Barnes, oh my God!” Clint was crying, his fingers scrabbling at Bucky’s head and shoulders.

Bucky pulled off him, laughing and wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. He crawled up and hugged Clint to him, resting his head on Clint’s belly.

“Jesus Christ, I can’t believe that just happened,” Clint was crying, but he was laughing, jostling Bucky’s newfound pillow.

Bucky glanced over at Steve, who was smiling softly. Bucky could see the apprehension and sadness in his eyes and the hard lines of his mouth, though. He sighed softly, making a gesture of his hand toward Steve that had Clint calming and quieting. Bucky turned his face into Clint’s belly, deflating, feeling all that tension from before investing itself into him again.

“You need me to watch the last one,” Bucky guessed solemnly. Clint shivered as Bucky’s lips moved against him.

“Yeah,” Steve sighed. “I’m sorry.”

Bucky raised his head, and Clint was looking at him now, frowning, completely serious. He stroked his knuckles down the side of Bucky’s face, then nodded. Bucky returned the nod with one of his own, and they both parted and rolled out of bed so they could get dressed again.

Steve stood in the doorway, watching Bucky surreptitiously. He seemed both worried and . . . kind of not, which was odd. Bucky kept tossing him questioning glances, but Steve gave him nothing.

When they were ready, Clint led the way, but Steve caught Bucky’s arm as he reached the door. “Something’s . . . weird,” Steve whispered.

Bucky raised both eyebrows as far as they would go, eyes darting between Steve’s eyes, searching for a hint. “Care to elaborate?”

“You need to tell me exactly what happened between you and Tony last week,” Steve answered. The tone of his voice raised Bucky’s hackles, and he straightened his spine.

“Why, what’s wrong with him?” Bucky demanded.

Steve cocked his head curiously. “I know you didn’t do anything to him,” he said, voice pitched lower, almost growling. It sent a shiver of delight and dread up Bucky’s spine.

“Did he say I did?” Bucky asked, almost whimpering at the mere thought. God, if Tony’d been afraid of him when he’d made that stupid offer . . .

Steve gave a sharp shake of his head.

“Then what?”

Steve winced again. “I tried to talk to him, when we took a break from the videos. He was handling them almost worse than I did, and I gotta tell you, Buck, I wasn’t handling them all too well okay. I tried to ask him what was going on. He got . . . only word I can use is skittish,” he explained, looking like he was desperate to understand but just didn’t have all the pieces. “It’s like he’s afraid he’s going to get broken and he thinks one of us is going to do it.”

Bucky was confused again. He’d been giving Tony as wide a berth as he’d been physically able. He’d left the lab alone no matter how many times he’d accidentally or unconsciously found himself headed toward it. He’d even fought not to make eye contact at breakfast, for Christ’s sake, after that first morning and the look of pure disgust Tony had tossed him! What more did Stark fucking want from him? What more did he want from Steve?

“I told you,” Bucky whispered, flopping his hands. “I put the offer on the table, told him if he said no it was okay, we’d still be friends if he wanted. And he said no. When I told him to let me know when he needed my help for the next project we were going to start, he didn’t even fucking look up, Steve, he didn’t say anything. He didn’t say goodbye. I’m kind of good at reading people, I know when my presence is making someone want to crawl out of their skin.”

Steve nodded slowly, like he understood exactly what Bucky was saying. “Okay. So you kissed him. You offered. He said no. You said okay. And you left. That’s it?”

Bucky shrugged, nodding. He searched his memory for a step he’d left out, anything that might help Steve with the puzzle he was working on. There was nothing. “I mean, I obviously misread his cues enough to make the offer in the first place,” he hedged. “I freaked out very briefly about the Red Eye on his workbench and he pulled me out of it. He kissed me, then he just went off like he’d hit some sort of bullshit limit for the day, freaking out about you being angry and how arrangements like ours, like me and Clint, were too weird for him.”

“Wait,” Steve said with a sigh. “He kissed you?”

Bucky nodded, scowling. He had, right? He gave himself a moment to recall, still nodding. “Yeah. Why, is that important?”

Steve nodded, glancing down the hall. Clint had stopped a ways down, and Bucky could tell by the way he was standing with his head cocked that he had turned his hearing aid off so he wouldn’t be able to overhear even if he was tempted to try. Bucky gave him a small smile, waving to catch his eye and then signing to him that they were coming. Clint nodded, winking at him.

“Is Stark okay?” Bucky asked Steve.

Steve started moving and Bucky fell into step beside him.

Steve practically growled under his breath. “He kissed you. And then ignored you for a week while you spiraled.”

Bucky glanced at Steve, frowning slowly. “Steve,” he said, all the authority he could muster going into that one disapproving word. Steve stopped short, turning to him with wide, surprised eyes. “Don’t go there, pal. Just don’t. He got overwhelmed, and that’s end of story. We’ll find an even keel once he can start to trust me again.”

Steve grunted at him, sneering as he started walking again. He finally gave Bucky the jerky little pissed off nod Bucky had been waiting for, and it eased the anxiety Bucky had felt building.

No one was to blame for what had happened between him and Tony. Bucky refused to allow a fuss to be made over it. This first week had been awkward and hellish and had come at kind of a bad time to coincide with Bucky’s nightmares of red-eyed robots crawling all over 1930’s Brooklyn, but that would all ease off with time. This wasn’t the first near-miss Bucky had lived through in close quarters, although he did kind of hope it would be the last.

Clint slid his arm around Bucky’s waist when they came abreast of him, and he didn’t let Bucky go.

When they joined the others in the common room, Bucky winced and damn near faltered in his steps. If Clint’s arm hadn’t been around him, Bucky might have bolted. It wasn’t just Tony and Natasha there, now. Sam and Wanda had joined them, which was bad enough, but so had Rhodey. And Bucky barely even knew the man.

Bucky groaned as Clint tugged gently at him. He led him over to the sofa in front of the TV, where Natasha already sat. Bucky sat gingerly, and the two of them closed ranks protectively. Their warmth meant more than Bucky could ever have said, and he reached for them both without thinking.

He slid a hand under each of their thighs, pulling them both as close to him as they could physically get. Steve sat on the table at the end of the sofa, peering at Bucky over Natasha’s shoulder. Tony was huddled into the corner of the loveseat beside Rhodes, his head down, his shoulders hunched, like Bucky had fucking threatened him or something with his mere presence.

Bucky couldn’t stop the confused, wounded glance he sent Tony’s way, and goddammit if Tony didn’t look up at that exact moment and meet his eyes. Tony froze, staring at him as if Bucky had tossed a knife instead of a look.

Bucky ducked his head, sighing heavily. He never should have taken that extra step. He never should have kissed Tony at all. He never should have tried to see the man as anything but the son of Howard Stark who was someone to be respected and avoided because he was too fucking good to be mired in Bucky’s mess like this.

Bucky steeled himself, gritting his teeth as he looked up at the TV, where the video was paused and waiting to play. He could make out the straight line edges of the walls of the little room he remembered all too well.

Both hands gripped harder at Clint and Natasha, and Clint scooted until he was damn near on top of Bucky, his arm draped over Bucky’s shoulders, his fingers brushing the side of Bucky’s neck.

“Okay,” Bucky said with a sigh. “Let’s do this. What do you need me to explain?”

Steve cleared his throat regretfully as he pointed a remote at the TV. “Watch.”

Bucky flinched as the video began to play. The sound was one he would never forget, the whirring, crunching, clanking of a body that was made entirely of gears and gadgets and circuitry. It clicked through some static, then grinded out a little pattern before falling silent.

Then a ghost shifted into the video. Bucky stared, his mouth gone dry. The Winter Soldier had longer hair, brushing his shoulders almost, and one side of it was matted with blood. Bucky remembered the hit, a side swipe from a powerful arm that had sent him sailing into the wall like he’d been a goddamn leaf on the goddamn wind. He’d hit the wall temple first, and then had scrambled to his feet and smeared blood anywhere he could, trying to make the robot register that he was more hurt than he actually was. Then he’d damn near tripped over air and realized he was exactly as hurt as the goddamn fucking fucker probably thought he was. It had been in that moment that Bucky had realized he wasn’t going to live through the day.

He wore no tac gear, no shoes, no weaponry, nothing but a pair of black BDU pants. His teeth were bared, so white against the dirt and blood and oil on his face that it was startling to see. He and the machine circled each other, the robot mimicking his movements as if they were mirror images. Bucky could see that his own steps were sluggish, off-balance, sloppy.

Bucky murmured a few instructions to the man on the TV in Russian, like it wasn’t him he was watching, like he could change what he knew was going to happen. If he’d just fucking given up and died at robot number 5, then none of the goddamn things would be unstoppable. But no, Bucky had selfishly fought for his life, used up every trick and tool and ounce of luck he’d possessed, unknowingly teaching these monsters how to kill everyone he loved.

The thought sent a shiver through Bucky’s body, and Clint shifted beside him, pulling him closer, pressing his lips to Bucky’s cheek and murmuring to him to settle him. On his other side, Natasha leaned into him.

The robot’s eyes flashed, so bright that the red light reflected off the damp walls. But the Winter Soldier had tossed his metal arm up to shield his eyes before the flash went off, protecting him from being blinded.

Steve paused the video, and the silence hung heavy around the room. Bucky glanced over furtively, nerves assaulting him like this wasn’t Steve about to ask a question, like this was an interrogation or a . . . or a fucking mission report.

“Steve,” Tony said quietly. He sounded concerned, apprehensive maybe. “I don’t . . .”

Steve’s eyes went from Tony to Bucky, looking at Bucky with an unspoken question. Bucky nodded. He could do this.

“How’d you know the flash was coming?” Steve asked, sounding almost regretful.

Bucky swallowed hard. He could do this. “It made a . . . a sound. Like a . . . what are they called? A . . . a halogen bulb! That sizzling sound. Made it right before the flash. The first time blinded me for ten seconds at least, I nearly got torn in half before I could blink it away. They kept trying even after I proved I could see it coming.”

Steve nodded, his brow furrowed, his eyes sad and worried as he examined Bucky. Bucky gave him a nod, squaring his shoulders again. He could do this.

Steve gave him another second, then started the video again.

The robot lunged, and the Winter Soldier launched himself at the thing, attacking with violent precision, silent and deadly with merely a grunt or huff here and there as he parried and thrust for each vulnerable spot he knew. His only weapon was his metal arm and the rest of his far less durable body, and the robot didn’t exactly have many weak spots. Bucky could see how slow he was, though. Hurt and tired. Bleeding out. Dying before their very eyes.

The robot spun against one of the Soldier’s punches and pulled him over its shoulder, slamming the Winter Soldier into the concrete floor so hard that his body bounced and skidded toward the door. Metal fingers grated against concrete, blood smearing amidst the sparks.

On the sofa amidst the safety of his friends and teammates, Bucky bared his teeth at the thing, feeling like it was behind him, prowling closer for the kill. Clint and Natasha kept him seated.

The soldier kicked against the door, using the leverage to get to his feet. He slipped a little in the blood on the floor, then righted himself, facing the robot before it could pounce. As the robot circled opposite him, it clicked and whirred, vibrating briefly and making a high-pitched whine.

“You talk too fucking much,” the Winter Soldier said to it in Russian, feinting left and then going back to his crouch. Bucky recognized that he'd been winded, trying to buy time to rid himself of his double vision.

The robot whirred again, jittering mechanically.

The Winter Soldier began to laugh, a hollow, hateful, terrifying sound as it echoed through the speakers of the common room. “Yeah? Why don’t you show me, then, freak.”

Steve paused the video before the robot launched its next attack.

Bucky swallowed hard, staring. The next series of blows had been the attack which had disabled him. In two or so more minutes of watching, they would see the Winter Soldier beaten to a pulp. In less than five minutes, they would see the Winter Soldier – they’d see Bucky – backing himself into a corner, bloody, bruised, broken, a shiv made of robot parts held to his own neck, shouting that the only thing getting the pleasure of spilling the rest of his blood was him.

“Buck,” Steve said gently. “You were talking to it.”

Bucky stared at the screen, frowning now. He could feel Clint’s fingers curling in his back, beginning to rub a tight circle over his spine. Natasha had grabbed his leg and was holding onto his thigh in much the same way he was holding onto both of theirs. He could do this.

“Bucky?” Steve tried again. “Could you understand it?”

“Steve,” Tony said again, sounding more urgent. “Maybe we should let him . . . Jesus.”

Bucky closed his eyes, chewing on his lip. There was no point in lying or trying to get away now. He nodded minutely, lowering his head. He could do this.

The others seemed to hum with the answer, gasping and muttering to themselves and each other, but no one really spoke.

“How?” Tony finally demanded.

Bucky didn’t fucking feel like looking at Tony right now. He’d been treating Bucky like a goddamn freak show all week, and Bucky still wasn’t sure what he’d done to deserve that. Finding out he could understand the motherfucking robot killing machines they might be going up against probably didn’t help the way any of these people saw him.

“I don’t know,” Bucky answered, still staring at the screen. “After around sixteen or so, I started noticing the sounds they made were . . . not just mechanical noise, like my arm would make. They were talking. Or trying to. And they didn’t learn that from me, ’cause I was silent when I fought. So I just fucking started talking back. What else was I supposed to do? I was going to die there anyway.”

There was utter silence in response to that. Bucky didn’t know what that meant, but he welcomed it. He was probably hurting both Clint and Natasha where he was holding to them, and he forcefully loosened his grip on them both. Natasha just held him tighter, and Clint leaned against him, hugging him.

“Have you watched it to the end?” Bucky asked softly, his head bowed, praying they hadn’t and wouldn’t.

“No,” Steve answered. “When we realized you were . . . understanding it, right about here is where we stopped it.” He raised the remote to push play again.

Bucky lurched to his feet, feeling way too hot suddenly, knowing without a doubt that if he had to watch the end of this video, his mind would not stick around and he’d wake up being carried over Steve’s shoulder back to his bed, and no fucking thank you, okay, once per day was enough for that shit.

“Please,” he blurted. “Please, don’t make me watch this.” He didn’t wait for permission or for them to dismiss him, and he was at the hallway before he realized that Clint was with him, pulling him along, dragging him back to his room and to bed.

They climbed under the covers, fully clothed, and Bucky tried to bury himself in Clint’s chest, pressing his face against him, holding him so tight that he should have been worried about crushing Clint’s internal organs.

Clint didn’t make a peep of complaint, though, he just cradled Bucky’s head in his arms, kissing the top of his head, murmuring to him, holding him as if he could protect him from anything that came after him. In fact, that’s exactly what he claimed he was going to do.

Knowing how stubborn Clint Barton was, Bucky didn’t doubt that he could do everything he promised.

==

Tony had known they should have listened to Bucky when he’d bolted; if the only man in a room who knows what’s coming literally leaps over a piece of furniture to avoid seeing it? Probably best to heed the warning.

Tony sprawled on one of the loungers outside, the stars twinkling above him, the bottle in his hand half gone. He hadn’t drunk the whole thing alone, though. No. Sam and Rhodey were both out there with him, just as drunk and miserable as he was.

There wasn’t enough booze in the world to unsee what they’d seen, though.

Tony could not get the sight of Bucky huddled in a corner, bloody and beaten and beyond the abilities of his own body, holding the sharp edge of a broken piece of metal to his neck and snarling at the thing that had been coming at him. God, even in the dregs of his strength, the man was strong and brave and resilient and amazing.

No wonder Bucky hadn’t been sleeping lately, no wonder he’d been in the gym trying to drive his body into exhaustion just so he could get those memories out of his head.

Tony squeezed his eyes shut, as if that would rid his own mind of the memory. All it did was morph into a picture of Bucky sitting next to him, gently holding Tony’s hand against his chest, smiling softly at him.

Fuck!

Tony thought back on the few moments he’d had a chance to say something to Bucky in the last week, something kind or something friendly or just something. Anything. Bucky had given him enough space to grow a goddamn tree, and Tony should have seen that he was doing it out of kindness and his own pain and not because he was angry over being turned down. He flashed back to the moment their eyes had met at breakfast the very next morning, the small, hopeful smile Bucky had given him, and the look of loss in his clear blue eyes as he’d read Tony’s expression and ducked his head away.

God. Tony’s stomach roiled. But this Scotch was too expensive to throw it back up.

“What the hell are we gonna do, man?” Rhodey asked quietly.

“We’re gonna kill ’em,” Sam snarled. Tony had to do a double-take, staring at Sam like he’d never seen him. The vehemence in his voice, the need for revenge; that had been Steve Rogers through and through. Sam was picking up some habits from his best friend. “We’re gonna kill each and every one of them. And then he’ll be safe.”

Rhodey nodded, sipping from his glass.

Tony sat up, blinking at them both. He and Bucky had been onto something, before Tony had kissed him and then fucking shunned him like a goddamn Puritan painting him with a scarlet A.

Tony groaned quietly. God, what an asshole! Who does that? Who kisses someone, then turns them down, especially when the offer was so goddamn heartfelt and charming and fucking adorable, Jesus Christ! Who fucking does that and then ignores the poor guy for days on end? Tony had spent that entire goddamn day mooning over the man, thinking about how fucking much he looked forward to the daily visits Bucky paid him, how they sat and talked, sometimes for hours, and how Tony had acknowledged that he’d been slowly, steadily, falling in love with him.

And then he’d kissed him, like really kissed him, shoving his tongue down his throat as he dipped him toward the floor like a goddamn maniac. And then when Bucky had quietly asked Tony if he wanted him? Had offered him sanctuary in his companionship? Tony had freaked the fuck out!

God!

“I have to go,” Tony blurted, hopping to his feet and stuffing the bottle into Rhodey’s arms as he hurried past.

“Tony!” Rhodey called after him. “You okay?

“Yep. Gotta see a man about a robot!”

He didn’t linger for Rhodey or Sam to ask more questions. He hurried toward Bucky’s room, hoping he was there. He didn’t bother hoping he was alone, because between Steve, Clint, and Natasha, Bucky’s fucking dance card was probably full for the next year.

He knocked on the door anyway, telling himself not to worry about who to anticipate, he’d just talk his fucking way past them no matter who it was because this couldn’t wait a second longer.

When the door opened, though, it was the one person Tony hadn’t prepared himself to face.

Bucky stared at him for a few seconds, then frowned slightly and leaned a little toward him, his shoulder pressed against the edge of the door. “Tony?” he said carefully. “Are you okay?”

Tony sucked in a breath, opening his mouth to speak. What did he say? Are you okay? Sorry for being a dick? Sorry for kissing you? Sorry for saying no? Can I change my mind? Can I come in? I miss you? I need you rather urgently? I have an idea that might save you from your nightmares but I need your help and I need you to trust me? I love you? I fucking love you . . .

“I need your arm,” Tony finally blurted, wincing internally because what the fuck, Tony, that wasn’t even one of the motherfrakking options!

Bucky continued to stare at him, nonplussed and somber. A week ago, he would have cocked that smirk at Tony and made a joke that bordered on flirtatious but could remain innocent when accompanied by the steel blue of his heartbreaker’s eyes. Now, though, he was nearly expressionless, his mouth and eyes both turned down with exhaustion and sadness and probably leftover panic from the evening’s festivities.

He glanced over his shoulder at whoever was in the bed, then nodded to Tony silently. He turned away, sliding his feet into a pair of scuffed brown boots that he wore just about everywhere and grabbing for a light jacket off a hook near the door.

He stepped out into the hall, carefully closing the door behind him. “They’re going to be so weird about waking up next to each other, I almost want to set up a camera,” he muttered, quietly enough that he might have been talking to himself instead of Tony. “Where are we going?”

“Lab,” Tony answered, his tongue all twisty tied and his stomach in knots.

Bucky nodded sedately and gestured for Tony to lead the way. Tony turned, feeling Bucky’s presence behind him like a burning thing, hot and wild and ready to consume him if he’d just fucking give himself over to it. He glanced back, frowning at Bucky as he walked with his head bowed, his hands stuffed in his pockets. He was wearing jeans and a T-shirt. His hair had been pulled back at the nape of his neck, something that struck Tony as a little odd, considering he had supposedly gotten out of a bed he was sharing with at least two people to answer the door. Why was his hair tied back? Why was he dressed?

Tony scowled. “If you’ve got more than one someone in your bed right now, why are you dressed and looking like you were about to leave your room?” he asked.

Bucky didn’t answer for a few steps, and Tony began to wonder if Bucky was just going to give him the silent treatment like Tony had been doing to him all week. Childish, but Tony couldn’t blame him, could he? When he stole a glance over his shoulder, Bucky was frowning heavily.

“I needed air,” he answered finally, voice far too soft and sedate.

Tony stopped walking, turning to face Bucky and making him stop short before he could run Tony over. It forced Bucky’s eyes up to meet Tony’s, and all Tony could see in them was fear.

Just like his first days here; the fear of a wild thing caught in a trap, the fear of an abused beast waiting for the next lash. Tony had hoped he’d seen the last of that fear in this man’s beautiful soul. What was there to fear here and now but . . . them?

“Were you leaving us?” Tony demanded.

Bucky didn’t react at all. He didn’t blink or cock his head or raise an eyebrow or breathe.

“Holy shit, were you walking out on us, Barnes?”

“I was walking outside, Tony,” Bucky answered. And he sounded defeated. No amusement, no playfulness, no anger. Even the way he said Tony’s name lacked the usual relish he’d once had while saying it, the enjoyment that had made Tony’s mind and body sing. Everything that made Bucky Barnes the man Tony had come to know was missing. Bucky sighed. “There’s a fight coming, and we all know it. It’s one I never finished. I’d be a coward to leave before I get a chance to try.”

“And after that?” Tony asked, dread curling in his belly. Please don’t leave us. Please don’t leave Steve. Please don’t leave me.

“Tony,” Bucky whispered, almost kindly. “We all know if anyone’s dying at the hands of those monsters, it’s going to be me. It should be me.”

Tony shook his head jerkily, struggling for a stuttered breath. “Absolutely not,” he declared. “That’s not going to fucking happen, not on my watch. Fuck you!”

Bucky’s brow knitted together in confusion, but he didn’t argue.

“Fuck you, Barnes,” Tony muttered again, gritting his teeth. How could he be so full of life and love and passion one day, and then a week later be ready to sacrifice himself on an altar none of them worshiped at?

Bucky was watching him with that now-familiar sad smile. “What do you need my arm for?” he asked gently.

Tony bared his teeth, reminding himself that this was at least partially his doing, that Bucky should have spent the last week working on a solution in Tony’s lab and keeping his mind busy and possibly fucking Tony through a goddamn cement wall. Instead, he’d been left to struggle against his own guilt and wavering self-worth, left to follow news reports of robots being spotted in random incidents across the country that almost always included the satellite footage of the Holy Ghost valiantly fighting off robots with glowing red eyes and a concerned newscaster asking, will the mysterious hero return if the Red Eyed robots make trouble?

“Follow me,” Tony said through gritted teeth. He turned and started off toward his lab again, making certain Bucky was behind him. He placed his hand on the entry pad, gritting his teeth. Bucky was humming softly behind him. Nervous habit. “You know, your name is still programmed into this thing, right?”

“What?” Bucky asked.

“I put your information in the system because I liked having you come by,” Tony forced himself to say. He was growing angrier, because it wasn’t fucking fair! He and Bucky and Steve had been so goddamn close to something that felt special, and it had blown up in their faces. Now they were all adrift.

“I didn’t . . .” Bucky pursed his lips, glancing toward the ground. “I didn’t want to make you uncomfortable.”

“Well, bravo,” Tony muttered as the doors slid open. Tony stomped inside.

Bucky followed, slower and wary. “If I told you I was sorry, would that –”

“I don’t want to hear you say you’re sorry!” Tony whirled and glared at him. God, in the light of the lab he looked so fucking young. His eyes were startlingly blue right now, and they were wide and confused and a little uneasy. His cheekbones and jawline were more prominent now, and if a picture of him had shown up on the cover of GQ tomorrow morning, Tony would have bought a dozen copies without blinking.

He looked so goddamn sweet and innocent, how the hell was he the same man from those videos, the one who’d torn machinery apart with his bare hands, who’d swiped oil and blood over his face and chest and screamed into the camera in triumph when he’d been the last one standing, who’d launched himself into danger heedless of his own mortality, who’d run sideways along a wall in order to get his thighs around the swiveling head of a robot combatant and then ripped that head clean off with a jerk of his lithe, powerful body.

How the hell was that all the same man who had kissed Tony so carefully while holding on to just two of his belt loops?

“What do you want to hear, then, Tony?” Bucky asked quietly. His expression was almost pleading as he took a small step forward. “You know I’d . . . you know I’d do whatever you wanted, I just want to make it right. I . . . I’m sorry if this is the wrong thing to say, but I . . . I miss you.” He waved a hand at the lab, as if to indicate that he meant he missed all the parts of Tony, not just his physical ones. “I’m sorry for what I did. What I said. I shouldn’t have. I should never have –”

“Stop,” Tony barked.

Bucky snapped his teeth together, staring at Tony with a hint of dread. Tony took pity on him and fought to regain his temper. He closed his eyes and took a long, deep breath.

“You didn’t do anything wrong,” Tony told him after a few seconds of gathering his wits.

Bucky seemed skeptical, his eyes darting around the lab then back to Tony with an expression that seemed to say, well if I didn’t do anything wrong then why the fuck are you yelling at me?

“Bucky,” Tony said with a sigh. “I pretty much wrote you instructions on what to do that day. I basically begged you to come in here and make a move, and even then I’m the one who wrestled you to the goddamn floor and kissed you. After you’d just had a fucking panic attack, at that. Then when you did exactly what I wanted you to, and Jesus Christ, kid, you’re the sweetest fucking thing I’ve ever seen, you know that? Hand on your heart to tell me you liked me, and I have a heart of goddamn stone for being able to ever look you in the eyes again. After all that, I freaked the fuck out and said no when I meant yes with every goddamn part of my soul.”

Bucky was frowning deeper and deeper the more Tony talked. He seemed uneasy again, like he suspected a trap. Tony moved a little closer, noticing the tension investing in Bucky’s shoulders the closer they got.

The kid’d had a massively shittastic day, Tony needed to remember that.

He stopped a few feet away, holding up his hands. “You have every right to be a little miffed at me right now, I get it. But . . . when the smoke blows over, I wanted you to know . . . I changed my mind the second you walked away.”

“About?”

“Wanting to be weird too,” Tony managed to say without choking on his nerves.

Bucky cocked his head, eyes darting over Tony, still skeptical. “Steve said you two stopped your . . . thing.”

Tony nodded. “I pre-empted him. I think he knew I’d hurt you.”

“You didn’t.”

“Of course I did,” Tony whispered. “Wasn’t intentional. But I still did, and we both know it. Steve just sensed it before either of us did. He picked a side.”

“I’m sorry,” Bucky hissed, gritting his teeth. His gaze dropped to the floor. “I told him not to. I begged him not to.”

“Well, we both know you tell Steve Rogers something, and he’ll go to do the other something. So.”

Bucky snorted, but it wasn’t amusement.

“I love him, I think,” Tony admitted. “I miss him. But I like seeing him happy, even if it’s from afar. I like seeing him with you.”

Bucky had his hands stuffed in his pockets again, shoulders hunched. He was watching Tony from under lowered brows, frowning deeply. “He misses you, as well.”

Tony swallowed hard. He was relieved to hear that. Some part of him had feared that Steve had left and never needed to look back. He took a breath to settle himself, then made sure he was looking into Bucky’s eyes when he spoke again. “I miss you too, you know.”

Bucky shook his head sadly.

“I think . . . I think I might have been a little in love with you, Barnes. I think if you’d let me I could be a lot in love with you. You and Steve both. I like to think I’m right in that you both still at least feel a little something for me too. Am I?”

Bucky was staring devotedly at his feet. “I showed you how I feel,” he finally murmured. “Something like that doesn’t fade in a week, I guess.”

“So?” Tony asked carefully, trying not to let his flip-flopping stomach and racing heart make his voice uneven.

Bucky swallowed hard, glancing up at Tony. “I’m sorry, Tony,” he whispered.

“Is that a sorry, but I changed my mind, too?” Tony asked, proud of himself for still keeping his voice even. Bucky didn’t have a chance to respond, because a part of Tony just didn’t want to hear Bucky reject him. God, he was a coward, and an ass, to tell Bucky a flat out hateful no as the man had been holding Tony’s hand to his heart, but he wasn’t going to give Bucky his own opportunity to return the favor. Coward. Fucking heartless coward. “Well,” he said a little too loudly. “It was a worth a try, right?”

Bucky didn’t answer. He was still standing with his hands stuffed in his pockets, sad eyes following Tony. Tony stopped and stared at him, waiting, silently begging him to say something – to correct him, whispered that hateful inner voice that still hadn’t taken a long walk off a short pier yet.

Bucky paled visibly as he stared into Tony’s eyes and seemed to realize that Tony was waiting for him. “I can only break so many ways, Tony,” he finally gasped out. “You’ve already found . . . all of them.”

Tony fought down a wave of nausea. God, how had he been so goddamn stupid? How did he keep finding these perfect souls who wanted to love him and twisting them until they saw him for what he really was?

“Come on,” he forced out, turning so Bucky couldn’t see his face as he fought back real, literal, actual, goddamn tears that dared to fall out of his own eyes. “I’ve made some headway on your idea, I’ll show you.”

“My idea?” Bucky asked as he followed obediently.

“We’ll teach the Red Eyes to give up,” Tony repeated. He got to a table of components, one carefully absent of the red glass that made up the creepy ass eyes of the damn things. He swiped at his eyes, then picked up a piece. “This is the communications chip. This is what logs the movements of opponents and the responses of the Red Eye units and relays them to a central system somewhere. This is what we’re going to use to bring the whole motherfucking thing to its knees.”

Bucky nodded, his sharp eyes darting over the components. Fucking hell, Tony loved to watch him absorb information like a beautiful little sponge. Bucky moved closer, glancing at the component in Tony’s hand. “You install that in something with a power source, then not only can we teach the central system some bad habits, but maybe you could also trace the relay signal to find it, right?”

Tony grinned widely, staring into Bucky’s eyes as warmth spread through his entire stupid asshole of a body. “I knew I liked you for a reason,” he said before he could think better of it. He cleared his throat when Bucky gave him another of those sad smiles that Tony now recognized as the same brand Bucky’d been giving Steve those first few weeks when he’d been trying to gently turn Steve down. Motherfucker, no wonder Steve had been a sad asshole for so long. Ugh.

“I was going to try to recreate enough of the original schematics to make the robot think it was still itself, but . . .” Tony shivered. “After those videos tonight, I can’t do that to you. I can’t . . . I can’t make one of those walk around.”

Bucky nodded. “I appreciate that,” he whispered. “But we already have one of those things walking around. All you have to do is insert the chip into the sensory nodes and we’re in business.”

Tony scowled at him. “You lost me.”

Bucky clucked his tongue and tapped his metal arm. “Walks like a Red Eye, talks like a Red Eye, fights like a Red Eye. Must be a Red Eye.”

==

Steve sat on the sofa in the dark, staring at the television screen, scowling but not really meaning to. Waking up spooning Clint had surely been Bucky’s idea of a joke, but when Bucky hadn’t returned in an hour or so, both Steve and Clint had gotten concerned enough to go in search of him.

F.R.I.D.A.Y had been no help, only telling Steve that Bucky’s heartbeat was slightly elevated but that he was not in danger at this time.

That could mean a lot of things.

It wasn’t until Steve had glanced out to Tony’s lab and noticed the weird, almost glitchy but not quite stillness of the windows that he’d realized Tony’s lab wasn’t deserted like it seemed; it was under Protocol 69. Which meant, unless Bucky was out in the middle of the woods chasing rabbits or something, Bucky was probably in Tony’s lab too.

So Clint had offered him a salute and gone to his own bed to sleep, and Steve had tried to go back to bed as well, first to Bucky’s bed where it smelled like home, and then to his own bed because his pride just wouldn’t let him stay in Bucky’s room if Bucky had crawled out from between two men in the middle of the night to go be with a third.

What the hell, Buck?

Steve hadn’t been able to sleep in his room either, though, because it was lonely as hell. So he’d trudged out here intending to try to find something on Netflix to watch off his ever-growing list.

The TV had never even turned on.

Maybe if he turned it on he’d be able to wipe the image that was burned onto the dark screen, the one of Bucky, bleeding, dragging his dislocated leg and his broken arm, grabbing up a metal shard that had sliced through his palm and fingers as he gripped it. Steve had watched in utter horror. He’d known that Bucky didn’t die there. He’d known that. Bucky had been down the hall, in bed with Clint, he was there and alive and safe and didn’t even have a scar on his hand or anything.

But knowing that, and knowing that, were two entirely different things. Steve had nearly thrown up right there on the rug when that metal had dug into Bucky’s neck, his hand steady and true as he’d bared his teeth to his tormenters behind the camera and shouted in the face of the robot who meant to get to him before he could kill himself.

A door had swung open, and the robot had collapsed like someone had switched an off button. Bucky had remained where he was, the metal shard alternately at his own throat and pointed at the men who tried to coax him out of the room.

Finally, one guy had come in, dismissing all the rest. He’d knelt in front of Bucky, putting them at eye level, unlike the others who’d loomed over him and been more threatening than anything. This man, though, had reached a hand out to Bucky, had spoken to him in Russian so soft the video didn’t pick it up. Bucky’s eyes had slowly filled with recognition and then, heartbreakingly, hope. The man had taken the metal shiv and tossed it a safe distance away, then to Steve’s shock, he’d pulled Bucky into a hug. Bucky had clung to him, his broken and bloodied fingers grasping at the man’s tactical vest, his eyes squeezed shut and his lips moving as he whispered near the man’s ear.

And all the while Steve had been expecting a trick. Had been expecting the gentleness and soft promises to turn on Bucky and become a slap or a punch or kick, to become a stun baton or a pair of reinforced handcuffs. But none of that had happened. The man had pulled Bucky to his feet, supporting him when it became apparent that Bucky wouldn’t be able to walk on his own, and he’d helped carry Bucky out of the room, his eyes going to the camera defiantly before they left.

Bucky had said the tactical team had rescued him, had finally spirited him away from dying in that room after at least one previous failed attempt.

Remembering that, Steve had realized as he’d watched that video, that the man he was seeing, the man who’d pulled Bucky out of that room, had loved him. He’d chosen Bucky – he’d chosen the Winter Soldier – over Hydra’s orders. He and his entire team had tossed their orders out the window to save Bucky’s life.

Steve sat musing over that, and he realized he was shivering. He was shaking, actually, so violently that the couch pillows next to him were quivering in the soft moonlight.

He closed his eyes, letting himself shiver, hoping it cleansed him of everything eating away at his mind and heart and soul.

Warmth stole over him suddenly, hands sliding over his shoulders, a fleece blanket enveloping him before someone hugged him from behind, chin on top of his head.

Steve closed his eyes, almost wishing he didn’t so automatically turn his face up into the warmth of the man.

“What are you doing out here?” Bucky asked softly, his lips moving near Steve’s ear. He pressed a soft kiss to Steve’s cheek. “Christ, don’t you ever learn? Out here shivering in the cold just like when you were twelve.”

Steve snorted. He wanted to be hurt. Or angry. He wanted to be anything but desperately happy that Bucky was here with him right in this moment. He turned his face into Bucky and inhaled deeply, sort of surprised to not smell any of the usual scents that came with a midnight dalliance.

“And where were you?” Steve asked, hoping he sounded sly instead of jealous.

Bucky kissed his cheek again, then climbed over the back of the couch and snuggled up next to him, pulling the blanket around them both, his warmth and his scent enveloping Steve. “I was heading out for a walk, see if the moon had any advice,” he said, smiling toward the bank of windows out at the moonless night like it was a joke.

Steve winced. Was he about to catch Bucky in the first lie the man had ever told him? He didn’t want to, please God, don’t let him lie.

“But when I opened the door, Tony was standing there,” Bucky continued, sounding both amused and confused. “He said he needed my arm, so . . . got to admit, I was a little curious. And I think he was drunk, I never did find out for sure on that. He was definitely . . . agitated. We went to his lab, and Stevie, I think we figured out how to fight the Red Eye thing.”

Steve stared at him. He sounded almost surprised by what he was saying. “What?” Steve asked stupidly.

Bucky told him about the communications component from the Red Eye in Tony’s lab, and about their theory that if it was hooked up to a new Red Eye, they could use it to instruct the whole lot of them to surrender to specific motions they would teach it, just like they’d been taught by Bucky how to fight against certain moves. Steve loved the idea of being able to track the signal from the chip and get to the motherboard, because killing one robot sounded a hell of a lot easier than trying to kill hundreds, or thousands. Then Bucky told him where they’d put the chip, and Steve saw red.

“You what?” he shouted. Bucky slapped a hand over his mouth, holding the back of his head with the other hand so their eyes were just inches apart as Bucky laughed at him in shock.

“Keep your goddamn voice down, Rogers, Jesus!” Bucky hissed.

Steve cussed him up and down and made aspersions on his mother, but Bucky didn’t let his mouth go, and he didn’t stop laughing at him as Steve kept going.

“Oh my God, Steve, you’re freaking out!” Bucky eventually said, sounding shocked and delighted. “Oh, this is amazing! Now you’ll finally know what’s it’s like to be me and have an exhausting best friend who makes stupid decisions all the time!”

Steve reached for him, jabbing at his ribs, poking at his sternum, smacking at his head, shoving him over. But Bucky never let his mouth or head go, and when Steve shoved him, Bucky yanked and took Steve over with him. They rolled off the sofa and hit the ground hard, both of them landing on a shoulder and rolling. Bucky wound up on top of Steve, still holding his mouth shut, leaning over him with a wicked grin.

“Little worked up, Stevie?” Bucky whispered.

Steve groaned, rolling his eyes. He relaxed his body, sighing. Bucky waited, knowing Steve well enough to see if it was real or a trap, and he finally let Steve go warily, prepared to smack his hand over Steve’s mouth again if he started yelling.

“Why the hell didn’t you talk to anyone about this first?” Steve asked dejectedly. He ran a finger down Bucky’s face.

Bucky shrugged, pursing his lips. “It’s just an experiment. It didn’t cross my mind that we needed permission. I’m sorry,” he offered, and he sounded sincere.

“I went looking for you,” Steve admitted, as long as they were being honest. He winced. “I saw Tony’s lab had gone into Protocol 69 and I . . . just assumed . . .”

Bucky cocked his head, confused. “Assumed what?”

“That you two had gotten over your fight and were in there fucking.”

Bucky edged back, twisting his head as if he was trying to look at Steve peripherally instead of straight on. He might have been, since darkness was horrible for forward vision, but ideal for peripheral. Bucky would be the type of person who’d know that.

“I’d never do that without talking to you first,” Bucky reminded him finally.

Steve was relieved that Bucky didn’t seem upset at the thought that Steve might have been upset. “But you did.”

“And he turned me down, flat. End of story.”

“And tonight?” Steve asked carefully.

Bucky nodded, as if Steve’s suspicions had been correct. “He said he’d changed his mind, that he thought he might love you and me, and he was willing to see what that meant. But . . .” Bucky winced as he searched for the words.

“He hurt you,” Steve whispered for him.

Bucky merely sighed. It was as if he hated to admit that Tony’s behavior had hurt him because he felt like he was betraying Tony by doing so, but Steve knew him better than that. Bucky liked Tony, he respected and admired him, and being treated like that by someone he admired was enough to crush Bucky’s heart. And once his heart had been cracked, Bucky rarely gave anyone the chance to finish the job.

Steve patted his cheek, nodding. “I’m sorry, Buck.”

Bucky lowered himself a fraction and gave Steve quick kiss. “Were you out here brooding for a different reason than thinking I was off catting around on you?”

Steve thought of the man on the video, the Hydra tac team leader who had loved Bucky enough – loved the Winter Soldier enough – to save him from certain death. It felt like the world had been trying to look after Bucky for Steve while he’d been on ice. Out of all the cruel, miserable horror that had befallen the man in his arms, that one act of mercy, that one saving grace brought on not by strategy or logic or a coup, that one man and his team who’d loved enough to do the right thing, it gave Steve something he hadn’t had in a long time. Steve slid his fingers down Bucky’s cheek again, narrowing his eyes up at the man. Leave it to a damn Hydra agent to give Captain America back some hope.

“Stevie?” Bucky whispered carefully.

Steve beamed up at him, closing his eyes and basking in the weight on top of him, the smell that was all Bucky and none of someone else, the way his hair fell and grazed Steve’s nose when Bucky got closer, how he was alive and here against all odds.

“I love you,” he whispered, and it came out sounding like relief.

“I love you too, doll,” Bucky murmured. He was smiling, but also quite clearly confused. He pushed up to all fours, then to his feet. He bent and crossed his forearms, offering his hands to Steve. Steve crossed his as well, and allowed Bucky to heft him off the floor.

He’d forgotten how nice it was when someone was strong enough to pick his densely-muscled ass off the ground in a dead lift.

“My bed or yours?” he asked gallantly.

Bucky laughed, trying to keep it down so they wouldn’t wake anyone. “You’re so sure of your target?”

Steve slid his hand into Bucky’s pocket, tugging him closer. “You’re the sniper, Sergeant Barnes,” he growled against Bucky’s lips. “You tell me.”

Bucky waited a breath, a mere heartbeat in real time but a lifetime of anticipation in Steve’s mind. Then he leaned forward and kissed Steve, biting his lip, then biting his goddamn tongue like Steve had tried to lick a lobster, and then Bucky was damn near giggling as he held onto Steve’s neck and Steve tried to cuss him out but couldn’t escape Bucky’s grasp.

They wound up laughing together as they hugged, burying their faces in each others necks, inhaling deeply like the only way for each of them to feel at home was to make sure it smelled like the other.

“My bed,” Bucky finally growled. “Then after we fuck up the sheets, we’ll move to yours.”

The idea went straight to Steve’s groin, and he yanked Bucky to him so he could rub against his hip as he nibbled on his collarbone. Bucky gasped at the first bite, then sighed softly, the tail end of it more of a moan than anything. His hand came to the small of Steve’s back, pressing him closer, rolling his hips against him.

“Unless you want Friday to record this, I suggest we move to my bed. Now,” Bucky ordered, whispering into Steve’s ear.

Steve pressed his lips to Bucky’s ear in return. “I desperately need to be fucked to within an inch of my life tonight.”

Bucky shivered all over, then nodded, jaw set. Steve had seen his Sergeant give that response time and time again. Message motherfucking received, Captain.

Steve wasn’t in the goddamn mood for foreplay, so when Bucky pulled him through the door of his room and tried to kiss him, Steve shoved him instead, sending Bucky toppling to the bed behind him.

Bucky’s eyes were wide, surprised and hurt at first, but then warming with understanding and a wicked little smirk. He relaxed into the bed, shoulders rolling, legs splayed. “Come on, then, Rogers,” he cooed.

Steve was busy stripping off every inch of clothing he had, tossing it away as his eyes trailed up and down Bucky’s body. Bucky took the silent order to heart; his boots hit the floor, then he was shoving his pants down as far as he could, sitting up to pull his shirt off and push the pants the rest of the way.

Steve climbed into his lap when neither he nor Bucky wore more than a goddamn smile, and he straddled him as he kissed him senseless. Both hands cupping Bucky’s face, biting and sucking and licking his way between Bucky’s lips, holding him there and mauling his mouth mercilessly as he ground down against Bucky’s rapidly hardening cock.

When he finally tore away from Bucky’s mouth, he bent his head and put his lips to Bucky’s ear, enjoying the way Bucky’s eyes tried to follow the movement, the way his breaths caught and rasped as his fingers dragged down Steve’s ribs.

“Wreck me,” Steve hissed into Bucky’s ear.

It earned him a full-body shiver, Bucky’s hands tightening on Steve’s ribs, goosebumps rising on every inch of flesh that was in contact with Steve, his cock jumping as if eager to follow orders.

Steve licked at Bucky’s neck, breathing hard and heavy so it was warm against Bucky’s skin. Then he bit down hard, moaning loudly as he did so. “Fucking wreck me, Barnes. I know you can.”

Bucky gave a curt nod, grabbing Steve in both arms and surging upward. Steve wasn’t sure how he did it with so little leverage or available torque, but Steve supposed that was part of the reason they couldn’t figure out how to motherfucking kill one of these Red Eyes, wasn’t it? Because Bucky’s mind and body both moved in mysterious goddamn ways!

Bucky turned and slammed Steve into the mattress, pushing him down and kissing him hungrily, sliding his body over Steve’s, both of them rutting and groping and letting out the most heinous moans that neither of them had learned in Catholic school, that was for damn sure.

“You want it?” Bucky asked breathlessly, and the dangerous glint to his eyes told Steve he wasn’t just asking about getting fucked. “You want all of it?”

Steve nodded, suddenly choked with nerves, his body flooding with them, tingling, swirling, nauseating nerves that danced across every synapse. He kept nodding, though, because he wanted every little bit of Bucky he could get his filthy hands on.

As soon as Bucky’s hands were on him again, Steve went limp and let Bucky do with him as he pleased. He found himself being rolled again and then pressed face-first into the pillows at the head of the bed. Bucky was over him again, this time heavy and looming and swirling those nerves again because Steve couldn’t see him this time.

Bucky pressed a tube of lubricant into Steve’s hand, then he was kissing his way down Steve’s spine, stopping to bite at Steve’s flank, teeth sinking in hard enough to make Steve jerk and cry out. As soon as the sound had left him, Bucky surged back up, his body hard and heavy against Steve’s back, his cock demanding against Steve’s ass, his face in the crook of Steve’s neck, kissing his chin and then his cheek.

Steve turned his head for a kiss and was rewarded with not one, but two, both full of wicked whispers and just enough tongue to make him moan. Bucky took the lube from him, slicking Steve up as he kissed him, fingers deft and skillful, bringing Steve right to the edge of being a trembling, begging mess already.

“You always said being on your knees made you feel like a punk, Stevie,” Bucky whispered into his ear.

Steve’s ass had just been thoroughly fingered, and the head of Bucky’s cock was pressed against it, one good thrust away from breaching him. They were way past feeling like a punk right now. Steve just gasped into Bucky’s mouth. “It did,” he admitted. “It still does.”

Bucky hummed, low and deep in his chest, nudging Steve’s lips with lower one. He was perfectly still otherwise, the heat from his body either a promise or a tease, depending on this next question. Steve knew if he gave the wrong answer, Bucky wouldn’t go on with any of it.

“That how you want to feel tonight, Steve?” Bucky asked, lips moving against the corner of Steve’s mouth, voice warm and affectionate, doing an excellent job of hiding how turned on the rest of his body was telling Steve he was.

Steve stared at Bucky in the harsh light of the lamp beside the bed. They’d never done it with the lights at full force; always by a lantern or the moonlight through a window or the light from the city or the gentle morning sunshine streaming around them through heavy muffling curtains. Never able to face this in bright, revealing light.

Steve’s belly flip-flopped, and he began to grin. “Yeah,” he whispered. “Yeah, Buck. Yeah, that’s how I want to feel. I want you to make me feel like that.”

Bucky didn’t waste time responding; no trying to act surprised or sympathetic or worried or any of the other reactions he could have – or maybe should have – had in regards to Steve basically wanting to be shamed tonight.

The only thing Bucky did in the second of time it took for Steve’s answer to go out into the world was jerk his hips forward, slamming home with his slicked up cock, forcing himself into Steve with one, two, three more shallow thrusts until he was buried deep.

Steve pushed his hips back against it, the sound he made more of a keening than a moan.

Bucky’s hand swiped over the back of Steve’s head, like he was soothing a dog. He kissed Steve’s cheek messily, rolling his hips, trying to find a nice rhythm that would feel amazing while he loosened Steve’s ass up enough to be able to pound into him later.

“Yeah, Buck,” Steve whispered.

Bucky pressed his face against the back of Steve’s shoulder, and he began to arrange Steve’s pliant body in a way that made Steve feel even more vulnerable, but Goddamn, how was it possible to feel vulnerable and sexy as all hell at the same time?

Bucky’s metal fingers threaded through Steve’s and pressed his hand into the mattress. Then he pushed up on them, sliding both their hands under the pillow Steve’s face was currently shoved into. The result was Steve’s left side wide open, and it felt like the soft underbelly of a turtle being exposed. But Bucky’s arm was wrapped around his, securing him, holding him, forcing Steve to trust him.

“You like that?” Bucky asked. His voice was hoarse, teasing and intimate, like a joke told between just the two of them.

Steve fucking loved it. He nodded hastily, breathing out hard through his nose, trying to concentrate on too many things at once. “Bucky,” he settled on saying, but the word was more of a plea than anything.

“Mmm, eager for it, huh, Stevie?” Bucky teased, nudging Steve’s cheek with his nose, smiling against Steve’s skin.

“Please,” Steve found himself whispering, wondering why the hell he was even talking since Bucky was still rocking into him; slow, shallow thrusts that had been steady and sure since Bucky had first shoved into him. Steve didn’t have to beg to get Bucky to fuck him, but oh God, how he wanted to beg. Oh, he did. “Please, Buck. Please, I want it.”

Bucky chuckled near Steve’s ear, sending a shiver down Steve’s spine. “God you’re fucking begging for it and we ain’t even started yet. What are you gonna do when you’re all laid out and covered in cum, Steve? You ain’t gonna have any begging left in you.”

Steve shook his head, breathing harder as Bucky’s sinful voice shot through him like whiskey, smoke, and lightning.

Bucky hummed, the sound deep and rumbling. “Only thing you’ll have left in you when I’m done with you is what I leave inside you, sweetheart.”

As Steve moaned pitifully, Bucky used one foot to kick at the insides of Steve’s ankles, all the while never missing a shallow thrust. Steve wound up even more open than he had been, ass in the air to meet Bucky’s thrusts, knees and feet too wide apart to be good for anything but getting fucked, feeling like he was putting on a goddamn show in that bright light.

Bucky pulled one of his own knees up, setting it outside of Steve’s, and it gave him a bit more leverage, a bit more power behind the strokes of his hips. He grunted with the effort of a few of them, adding that to the sound of skin slapping. Hips against Steve’s ass, and then with the last hard thrust, Bucky’s open palm smacking against Steve’s hip.

Steve gasped, inhaling so fast he almost got a mouthful of pillowcase. Bucky’s palm burned on his skin, the fingers digging into tender flesh, pulling as his strokes slowed like he might have been admiring his work for a second or two.

“Talk to me, Stevie, you good?” Bucky asked as he bent forward again. He was still using that playful, intimate voice, whispered into Steve’s ear, sounding amused and amazed.

Steve nodded against the pillow that smelled like Bucky. “Feels so good,” he admitted, blushing to the very tips of his ears.

“God, yeah,” Bucky agreed. He brushed his hand across Steve’s forehead to move his hair out of the way, then used two fingers to tip Steve’s chin toward him so he could kiss him. Then he took Steve’s other hand, mimicking the motion from the left side, pulling Steve’s arm up and under the pillow. He tucked it down close, like Steve was going to rest his head on their forearms if the pillow hadn’t been in the way. It pulled Steve’s body in, folded it over, brought his ass higher into the air while stealing the strength from his limbs.

It was a simple thing. Everything Bucky had done had been simple. But Steve felt as if he’d been flayed open, put on display where the whole world could see his most intimate, tender pieces. He felt exposed and helpless.

And with Bucky on top of him, inside him, fucking him, he also felt . . . safe.

Bucky’s cock moved deeper as he found a newer, slower rhythm, and Bucky moaned Steve’s name plaintively. “God, you’re so fucking good at this,” Bucky told him, speaking into his ear again. He nipped at Steve’s earlobe, then licked and kissed under it and along his jaw.

Steve tried to lean into the contact. He could feel the full length of Bucky’s cock entering him, sliding all the way home until his ass was seated right up against Bucky’s hips. “God, Buck. Oh my God,” he said, over and over as Bucky drove into him, slow and sure, his slick cock moving in and out with almost no resistance, feeling huge as Steve pushed his ass into the air to beg for more. He groaned, long and loud, when Bucky hit his prostate.

“Bleedin’ hell, Steve, you’re fucking gagging for it, aren’t you?” Bucky taunted, breaths in Steve’s ear.

“Yes,” Steve moaned, pressing his face against the pillow, inhaling Bucky’s scent off it. “Yes, please, give it to me!”

Bucky chuckled breathily. “Taking that dick like you were made to live on your knees.”

Steve cried out pitifully when Bucky brushed close enough to his prostate to give him a taste of what was to come. He gasped out, “Show me what I was made for, Bucky.”

Under the pillow, Metal fingers groped for Steve’s right hand, and soon Bucky had both Steve’s wrists trapped under the pillow, wrapped in the tightest embrace Steve thought he’d ever felt. All the while, Bucky’s hips were rolling, cock sliding into him, opening him up, tearing every bit of him down, piecing him back together, all under the bright spotlight of that light bulb overhead.

Bucky was still murmuring to him, talking right into his ear – the same ear Bucky had always moaned out his pleasure into – confessing his sins as if no one else was meant to hear it except for Steve. Steve groaned, turning it into the most desperate, sultry sound he thought he’d ever made.

Bucky mimicked it, jerking his hips hard so he hit Steve’s prostate again. Steve shouted his name, nearly sobbing it.

“Jesus Christ, Steve, you sound like a fucking slut, you know that?” Bucky murmured, his thrusts getting faster, harder, his voice heavier and somehow even more affectionate than when he’d started.

“Yeah, Buck,” Steve gasped. “Yes!”

“You sound so fucking good,” Bucky growled, biting his ear and then his neck, sinking his teeth into the back of Steve’s shoulder and not letting go through a series of hard, deep, almost frantic thrusts.

Steve cried out then, shouting encouragement as loud as he could and not caring if anyone heard.

“God, yeah, Steve,” Bucky gasped against the hot bite mark Steve could feel rising. “Jesus, there’s only one way you get bit on the back like that, you know that?”

“Yes,” Steve practically sobbed.

“Tell me,” Bucky ordered, and he scraped his teeth across Steve’s back. Steve’s cock twitched, untouched under him. Bucky slowed his thrusts, waiting for Steve to obey.

“You . . . you got to get on your knees,” Steve rasped out. “Got to want to take it with your face shoved into a pillow, like a goddamn punk. With . . . ah fuck! Please!”

“On your knees,” Bucky murmured, as sweet as a summer’s day against the shell of Steve’s ear. “With someone’s hard dick as deep into your ass as you’ll let it go.”

Steve whimpered, shoving back against Bucky, pleading with him to resume those harder thrusts.

Bucky hummed again. “What do you want, Stevie?”

“Harder, Buck,” Steve ground out.

“Mm. What do you say if you want it harder?”

Steve gritted his teeth, like being forced to beg was somehow humiliating instead of making his own cock harder and harder. He was probably fucking leaking right now because Bucky was right, he was goddamn gagging for Bucky to do this, to screw him and shame him, to call him a slut and slap his ass and fuck him like he deserved it. “Fuck me,” he growled.

“Ooh. That sounded more like an order than a request,” Bucky practically cooed. He pushed his hips forward, laying out over Steve so he could whisper again. “How do you ask to get fucked, Steve?” he said gently. “Rhymes with, ‘get on your goddamned knees,’ huh?”

Steve panted, his body thrumming everywhere Bucky touched him. “Please,” he gasped pitifully.

“That’s it, Stevie,” Bucky told him, starting those wicked thrusts once more, the rhythm picking up.

“Oh God, yes!” Steve cried. He pressed his face into the pillow, but it didn’t muffle the sounds coming out of his mouth. The moans, goddamn them, and the whimpers that sometimes accompanied them. Jesus, Steve didn’t think he’d ever made a sound like that; breathy whimpers and long, drawn-out groans, forced out of him with every wicked thrust.

“God, Steve, you sound goddamn amazing,” Bucky told him, sounding pretty wrecked himself. His breaths were on Steve’s back now, gusting sometimes up to Steve’s neck. “That’s it, sweetheart. God, you look so fucking good like this, Stevie. Jesus fuck!”

Steve still had his face buried in the pillow, shoving back with his hips in time with every one of Bucky’s thrusts like some needy, rutting, wild thing. Moaning shakily as Bucky’s cock filled him up, pushing at those muscles that felt so good even when it was a tongue or a finger pressing at them, much less Bucky’s thick cock sliding into him, over and over, his stamina proving a match and more to Steve’s. Almost every thrust now was hitting Steve’s prostate, and his dick was hard and throbbing under him, leaking pre-cum like he thought anyone was going to touch him and give him that tiny bit of relief.

“Yeah, sweetheart, tell me what you fucking want,” Bucky murmured. He hadn’t changed his tone at all, not from the moment he’d shoved his cock in. It was intimate and amused, almost coaxing, almost condescending. Like he’d use to calm a high-strung dog. Good God, Steve fucking loved it.

“I want you to come in me, Buck,” Steve gasped out, knowing Bucky’s words weren’t just idly said. That had been another order, and Steve obeyed. “God help me, Bucky. I want you in me and on me, I want you to come all over me. I want all of it.”

“You want to be full,” Bucky teased knowingly. “Jesus, Steve. I’ll fill you up, but you better hold onto it ’til morning, pal, ’cause I’m going to need that slick in the middle of the night when I feel like seeing you on your knees again, you understand me?”

Steve couldn’t form words. He could only moan out a wobbly, pitiful sound that filtered out of the pillow. “Bucky,” he finally managed to plead.

Bucky’s hand came to Steve’s hip, tugging it up higher, and he raised his knee to plant it on the inside of Steve’s leg. He used it to shove Steve’s knee even further out, opening him up impossibly more.

“God, Steve! Christ Almighty, you look amazing like this. Fuck, do you know how much I love you?” Bucky’s voice had taken on a raspy quality, like it was more of a struggle for him to keep going now. The undercurrent of desire hit Steve deep in the pit of his belly.

“I love you,” Steve blurted out, desperate to tell Bucky that even if he did have his ass in the air and his face pressed into a mattress. Even if his hands were trapped under a pillow with nothing holding them there any longer, except he couldn’t remember when Bucky had set them free. He grasped at the sheets, determined to be good, determined to stay exactly where Bucky had put him for as long as Bucky wanted him there.

“You’re so good, Steve,” Bucky kept whispering. “You’re so fucking good.”

His thrusts came harder and faster now, each one forcing a wanton, heinous, sinful moan out of Steve and a vicious gasp or the most corrupted little grunts of effort out of Bucky. He was working hard, Steve could tell that from the sweat making both their bodies slick, from the shaking in his muscles as he laid out over Steve’s body, from the rasping quality to his voice as he continued to murmur filthy sweet nothings against Steve’s ear when Steve made any kind of a sound.

Steve moaned long and loud as Bucky hit his prostate again and again, strong fingers bruising Steve’s narrow hips, shoving thrusts riding Steve’s body up the mattress, closer and closer to the edge of the bed. He rotated his hips to try to get some friction on his aching cock, and Bucky threw himself down on top of Steve, covering his upper body with his own.

“God, Steve, you’re fucking filthy, you know that?” Bucky gasped. “You’d fucking do anything I wanted if it meant getting your dick sucked tonight, wouldn’t you?”

Steve nodded jerkily, and Bucky shifted over him, moving so his face was pressed to the other side of Steve’s neck. It changed his angle some, and the rolling thrusts of his hips hit deeper. He brought his hand up, taking a handful of Steve’s hair to jerk his face up off the pillow.

“Kiss me,” Bucky ordered, hissing it out almost angrily.

Steve turned his face obediently, moaning even before his lips met Bucky’s. When they did, he gave the kiss everything he had, lapping and sucking at Bucky’s tongue, nibbling on his lips, moaning and gasping and talking into Bucky’s mouth because he knew that when Bucky did that to him it made Steve want to fucking die from being goddamn hot for more of it.

Bucky never missed a beat, though, his hips maintaining the punishing rhythm they’d finally reached, cock pulling almost all the way out each time so Bucky could line back up and shove past Steve’s tight muscles with every few thrusts. Each time he did it, Steve gasped his name desperately, shoving his hips up and back like he could get more than Bucky was already giving him.

One of Steve’s arms hung off the edge of the bed now. Bucky’s chin dug into the top of Steve’s shoulder. Steve was flat against the mattress, his cock finally sliding against the sheets, but it wasn’t enough, nothing was enough. Bucky’s knees and thighs worked against the mattress and Steve could feel them on the insides of his legs, spread so wide, spread wickedly open to let Bucky into him.

He’d lost his pillow to the floor. Bucky kissed his cheek, then got him on the lips again, biting at them, shoving his tongue between them. He tangled his feet with Steve’s, rolling his hips, still stroking expertly into Steve even with this new position.

The kiss deepened again as Bucky ran his tongue along the backs of Steve’s fucking teeth like he was trying to taste and fuck every last inch of Steve’s body. He kissed him a last time, then pulled his head back but holding to the handful of hair, forcing Steve to remain there, to look into Bucky’s eyes as he thrust in deep once, twice, a third time and their eyes were still locked.

Steve couldn’t look away, couldn’t hide his face in the pillow because it had abandoned him, couldn’t moan in the cover of dim or darkness like he’d done the first couple times Bucky had fucked him and made him feel like Hell was a real place and was worth it.

He stared into Bucky’s eyes as he felt Bucky’s cock breach him again, a little grunt coming from Bucky’s throat as he worked to go deeper against the tightening of Steve’s muscles.

Bucky took a deep breath, then grinned and winked at Steve. “What’s it sound like when a fucking punk like you gets fucked by some Black Irish troublemaker like me, huh?” he asked, his voice dark and full of every sin either of them had ever let touch their souls.

Steve was coming before he even realized he was close to orgasm. He gasped, eyes widening, body tightening.

And Bucky grinned wider, tongue darting out between his teeth before he bit down on his own lip. “Oh god, yeah, that’s right, Steve,” he urged as he pressed his face against Steve’s dampened temple, picking up the pace of his thrusts so he was hitting Steve’s prostate – over and over – as Steve shot his load against the sheets.

It seemed to never end, and Steve’s cries got louder and more desperate as Bucky fucked him.

“God, just like you to be so damn easy,” Bucky was hissing directly into his ear as Steve writhed and struggled against the hold he had on his arms, struggled to pull his knees back in, to close his spread legs, to roll over onto his back where it was safer.

But Bucky had laid him out and restrained him expertly. Steve couldn’t go anywhere to escape the pleasure, couldn’t go anywhere to escape Bucky’s blue eyes as he watched Steve fall to pieces with a smirk.

“Bucky!” Steve cried, at the top of his lungs, shouting, screaming, coming, body falling apart at its very seams.

Bucky’s thrusts were faster now, rocking Steve’s body and the bed beneath them, Steve’s arm off the side of the bed all the way to his shoulder. Bucky pressed his face into the back of Steve’s neck again. “Knew you had it in you, pal,” he was saying, voice a bare whisper, shaky, rasping, gravel against glass. “God, you sound good, Stevie! Fuck, you’re so fucking amazing like this!”

“Bucky,” Steve whimpered, hips jittering as he tried to get more of Bucky inside him but also stay away from the sodden sheets under him so his sensitive cock wouldn’t make him cry out any more than Bucky had already made him.

Bucky’s breaths were uneven and his sensual moans were coming more and more frequently. His body was tensing, slowly but surely, and just the thought of him coming inside Steve had Steve’s cock threatening to go hard once more.

“Come inside me, Buck,” Steve begged into the mattress. “Oh God, I want to be full of you, Bucky, come on!”

Bucky’s moan vibrated against Steve’s cheek. He turned his head and was met with an open-mouthed, sloppy kiss. “Steve,” Bucky gasped, sounding like he was losing control for the first time since Steve had shoved him onto the bed.

“Come all over me, Buck! Please! God, please, I want to be covered in you!”

Bucky pressed his face against Steve’s cheek, crying out his name in the most desperate, heartbreaking voice Steve had ever heard. His own cock twitched in sympathy, and Bucky’s thrusts were hard, fast, erratic as hell, his hands forgetting to hold Steve down in favor of holding Steve’s hips so he could fuck him more and better and harder. When Bucky finally shouted out his climax, hips slamming against Steve’s ass so hard the slaps echoed in the room, sweat covering the both of them, Steve was hard again from just listening to Bucky come.

Bucky collapsed against him, pressing him hard into the bed, leaving Steve stuck and trapped in that vulnerable, shameful spread on his belly. With Bucky’s forehead on the back of his shoulder, his breaths hard and terrible against Steve’s spine . . . Steve didn’t care what position he was in. He felt dirty, defiled, like the slut Bucky had told him he looked and sounded like. And God, he fucking loved it.

Bucky finally stirred as they both tried to catch their breath. He kissed Steve on the cheek, then pushed up to his hands and knees. He rocked a little, making them both whimper, and he was careful as he pulled out, his metal hand resting on the curve of Steve’s ass, like he was soothing him. Once he was free, he didn’t flop to the side like Bucky typically did when he climbed off Steve after finishing. He crawled over Steve again, kissing from the small of his back all the way up his spine, taking care with each tender touch of his lips, making Steve shiver, making his breaths speed up as Bucky kissed to the back of his shoulder and around until he reached the corner of Steve’s mouth.

“You’re fucking amazing, Steve,” he whispered earnestly. He kept kissing Steve tenderly until Steve turned his head in exhaustion and Bucky could reach his mouth. “So goddamned amazing. So good.”

Steve’s face was heating up, his cheeks flushing with a giddy sort of pride as Bucky kept praising and kissing him. Bucky wouldn’t let him roll over or even to his side. He kept Steve like that, on his belly where he knew Steve had always felt dirty and debased, where Bucky knew Steve had always thought it was demeaning whenever Bucky had tried to fuck him like this.

Bucky kissed him again, his weight keeping Steve down, then he kissed Steve’s forehead before pushing back so he could meet Steve’s eyes. “You okay?”

Steve had to take in a lungful of air as he took stock. He finally began to grin, nodding.

“I need to hear you say it, doll,” Bucky ordered, firm but sounding sort of smitten too.

“I’m okay,” Steve answered obediently. He grinned wider. “God, I’m fucking great. Jesus, Bucky, where’d you learn to talk like that, huh?”

“My dreams, pal,” Bucky whispered, smirking as he ran his thumb across Steve’s forehead, pushing stray hairs aside.

Bucky bent to kiss him a last time, keeping his weight up this time so Steve could turn under him. Steve managed to get to his back, then he reached for Bucky to pull him down again so he could grind up into him. Bucky gasped in surprise, then began to chuckle and nuzzle under Steve’s chin.

“Need another go?”

“God yeah, Bucky,” Steve hissed. “Whatever you just did to me, I need it about ten more times tonight.”

“Mmm.”

“You told me to save your slick for the next time you wanted to roll me over,” Steve reminded, cheeks flushing as he repeated Bucky’s filthy damn words back to him.

Bucky was still laughing as he began to kiss his way down Steve’s chest. “How about I just suck you off and then maybe we can finally get some goddamn sleep, huh?”

Steve rolled his eyes, grinning up at the daylight bright ceiling. “Only if I can watch,” he said slyly.

Bucky halted his downward progress, then raised his head to frown at Steve. “What the fuck do you usually do when I’m down here?” he blurted.

Steve started laughing, and he couldn’t seem to stop.

A frantic knock on the door interrupted Bucky before he could finish the job.

“Bucky!” Tony called through the door. Steve and Bucky both stared at the door as Tony knocked again, then looked at each other in confusion. “Fine, don’t let me in, but turn on the news!”

Bucky backed off Steve’s lap and scrounged around for the remote, somewhere on the floor by the bed. He finally just raised his head and said, “Friday, will you show us whatever Tony’s freaking out about?”

“You’re going to have to narrow the parameters, Sergeant,” F.R.I.D.A.Y said, sounding wry.

“Tony, the door’s open!” Steve finally called out.

Tony barged into the room as if he’d known it was unlocked and had simply been waiting for the excuse. He didn’t give either of their naked, sweaty, sex-scented bodies a second glance, instead waving his hands at the empty wall space next to the door.

A display popped up, showing a deserted city street somewhere. The road signs were American, but that was all Steve could gauge. Bucky clambered off the bed, going to stand beside Tony, bare-ass naked and covered in lube and cum, not giving a damn as they stood side-by-side and stared at the footage.

The camera panned to an intersection, where four Red Eyes stood, motionless, staring, eyes glowing. Bucky took a step back and Tony caught him by the elbow, not allowing him to run away.

“Jesus, they made their move?” Steve asked in horror. “We’re not near ready.”

“Right now, this is all they’re doing,” Tony told them, waving at the display. “The world is trying to decide who they belong to. The theory now is they’re a peace-keeping force from one of the few countries capable of this tech. Namely? Us.”

“Peace-keeping force?” Bucky echoed, sounding lost and forlorn.

“I’m afraid the Iron Army may have paved the way for that,” Tony said softly. “We used unmanned drones to clear streets sometimes. Right now, people think these bots are United States peacekeeping drones, sent to the city to lock it down in response to a threat.”

“Where is this?” Steve asked with dread.

“Charlotte,” Tony responded with a sigh.

Tony nodded, then glanced between Steve and Bucky. “Some people are pointing out the fight the Holy Ghost had with similar Red Eye models and are uneasily proposing that this might be a hostile force. Which . . . is sort of a good thing, it means people consider him – I mean you – a definite good guy.”

Bucky nodded distractedly.

Steve got out of the bed to stand beside Bucky, peering up at the four lone robots as they stared off into the night. He realized belatedly that Bucky was trembling beside him, and he tossed an arm around his shoulders.

Bucky cleared his throat uncomfortably, shifting his shoulders like he was trying to shake off Steve’s arm without touching him. “I really hate to say this after what we just did, pal, but don’t touch me right now, Stevie, okay?” he said softly. “Please.”

Steve picked his hand up, peering at Bucky in sudden understanding. Bucky wasn’t being ornery or contrary or mean whenever he told Steve not to touch him. He was fighting off impending panic attacks. “Sorry,” he said, and it was sincere. All those times Bucky had said, ‘don’t touch me,’ and Steve had smirked and done it one more time just to be annoying. Jesus. “God, I’m sorry, Buck.”

Bucky nodded, glancing to meet his eyes and giving him a weak attempt at a smile. Bucky forgave him even if Steve didn’t deserve it.

“We have time,” Tony told them with a wince. “We have time to teach these things to be scared. We know how, and we’re ready. We can start right now, we can do this.”

Bucky was chewing on his lip, staring into the glowing red eyes. He nodded in response to Tony’s words, but neither Tony nor Steve seemed convinced that Bucky had actually heard them.

Chapter Text

They had one day. That was all the time they could spare.

Steve and Bucky had tried to convince Tony to stay and help them make a plan of action, but Tony not only had shit to do, he didn’t think he could stay in that room with both of those men looking like they’d just spent the last hour fucking each other senseless. Steve’s back had been peppered with bite marks and his wrists were bruising. Jesus, Bucky Barnes had to be a fucking animal.

Tony spared a wish that he could find out in person as he left them.

Mere hours later, as Tony was combing through every last inch of the corpse of the Red Eye Bucky had killed, F.R.I.D.A.Y alerted him that the team was assembling in the yard between the compound and his lab. Tony had joined them to find Steve standing in front of the rest of them, addressing them like a general to his troops. Bucky stood behind and to his side, the Sergeant to his Captain. Tony had stared at them both fondly for possibly too long.

The rest of the day was spent in training. There wasn’t time for anything else. The four Red Eyes in Charlotte, North Carolina hadn’t moved from the intersection they’d planted themselves on in the middle of the night. There’d been no other action, no other cities invaded. The team couldn’t help but feel the press of urgency at their backs, but they had to keep reminding themselves they would surely die if they went into this without a perfect plan.

Their plan right now? Find something – anything – that Bucky hadn’t seen so they’d stand a fighting chance when they went in. And then stage two was to teach the Red Eye component Tony had implanted in Bucky’s arm how to give up. Between disabling them and making them surrender, the team might be able to go through enough of the robots for F.R.I.D.A.Y to find the relay and shut it down for good. If they could trace the relay to whoever was behind it, great. But that was a collateral goal at best.

They spent hours out on the grounds, fighting, learning how Bucky moved and thought, learning how to defend against his attacks. Tony was going to be excused from portions of the combat preparedness in order to work on the Red Eye relay, but he lined up with the rest of them that morning as the sun rose, in front of Bucky like he was a drill sergeant.

Tony knew he didn’t have the right, but he was proud of the kid, regardless. Bucky stood in front of them, tall and impressive, voice strong and unwavering. Not a hint of the trembling, wide-eyed man Tony had seen last night. Tony knew it was a mask; a protective coating like epoxy sprayed over Bucky’s mind to protect him from the guilt and fear those damn red-eyed assholes caused in him. But Tony’s heart still swelled with pride as Bucky addressed the team in a voice that demanded they fucking listen.

“If you know how to fight me, you’ll know how to fight one of these things,” Bucky was saying, his voice carrying without needing to shout. “And if you think you’ve got a move to show me that might put me on my ass, I want to see it, and I want to see it right goddamn now!”

Tony knew he had been going non-stop with Steve for the last week; training, teaching, demonstrating. Steve could almost stand in for Bucky now as a Red Eye training dummy. Almost.

They both spent the morning working with each of the team one-on-one, letting them familiarize themselves with how the Red Eyes were going to move and fight, the others all observing when it wasn’t their turn. Bucky didn’t hold back, because holding back would have meant getting his teammates killed. Steve, though, he couldn’t bring himself to come at any of them with full force. And when Tony had squared off against him, neither of them had been able to move a muscle.

Tony finally took a shuddering breath and shook his head. “I can’t attack you, Steve,” he admitted, wishing the heat on his cheeks was the blazing sun, but knowing it wasn’t.

“Me either,” Steve whispered. He moved closer, head bowed. Tony stared at him longingly, his heart pounding away unhappily, hands itching to reach out. He wondered, somewhat desperately, what would have happened if he had let Steve make the choice instead of making it for him and ending things?

Steve was staring at him, sad and regretful, and Tony thought he recognized his own longing staring back at him out of blue, earnest eyes. Tony’s heart stuttered and he raised his chin, staring hopefully, mentally willing Steve to make the first step toward reconciliation. Steve took a breath to speak, but there was a brief commotion from a few yards over, followed by a series of hoots and hollers that stole Steve’s words and ruined the moment.

Tony and Steve glanced over to see Bucky and Clint wailing away at each other. Clint had Bucky on the defensive, using his bow like a quarterstaff. Bucky was blocking with his metal arm, but he was losing ground and running out of places to go as Clint viciously went after him.

He swiped at Bucky’s feet and Bucky flipped backward away from the hit, landing on his hands and then shoving himself back to his feet. He used his momentum to rebound, cartwheeling toward Clint and wrapping one leg around Clint’s neck, then twisting so he could toss Clint off-balance. Clint got the staff up, though, jamming it into the ground and using it like a pole vault, and as Bucky threw all his weight into taking Clint off his feet, the bow allowed Clint to use the force, sending them both into an uncontrolled spin instead of straight to the ground.

When they landed, Clint kept going, twisting like they were working together instead of against each other, and Clint used both his momentum and Bucky’s to slam Bucky into the ground.

He hit so hard that dust rose from the ground, and little chunks of dried grass cuttings went flying. Tony was reminded suddenly, so inappropriately, of that scene in the Lion King when the lion was sulking and tossed himself down and the grass went flying to go tell the weird monkey he was alive.

Why did he know that, had Tony even seen that movie before? Avengers Movie Night was cancelled, dammit.

A few stunned seconds of silence passed, no one even cheering Clint’s triumph as Bucky lay motionless in the grass.

“Buck?” Clint gasped as he stumbled closer after landing a few feet away, still trying to catch his breath.

“Shit,” Tony breathed, moving toward them as Steve broke into a jog.

Clint and Steve got to Bucky first, checking him over without moving him. Tony’s heart was in his throat. He’d never seen something hit Bucky hard enough to stop him in his tracks. Well, not since Tony had ripped his arm off and then kicked him in the teeth with a titanium alloy boot . . .

When Bucky groaned, Tony could damn near feel the entire group sagging in relief. “Jesus Christ Allfuckingmighty, Hawk Guy,” Bucky grumbled as he tossed his head and flattened onto his back. “That was awesome!”

Clint gave that a relieved laugh, falling to his ass beside Bucky and petting Bucky’s belly. “You okay?” he asked with a pleased grin that made Tony think of a kid being praised by a teacher they secretly had a crush on.

“Am I okay? Fuck, I hope you remember how you did that for later tonight,” Bucky murmured as he carefully sat up. He put a hand on Clint’s thigh, patting him and then squeezing his knee. He left his hand there, beaming up at Steve as if he wasn’t covered in grass cuttings and dirt.

“Let’s call that a break,” Steve said, laughing in exasperation. The others groaned in thanks and began filtering off toward the compound. “Back in an hour!” Steve called after them, receiving a series of very unprofessional acknowledgements, so he’d know they’d all heard him, of course. Steve watched his team fondly, the expression on his face one of peace, for once. When Tony moved, unsure of where – or if – he should go, Steve looked up and met Tony’s eyes.

He looked like Tony felt; uncertain and wanting something.

On the ground, Bucky cleared his throat, ripping Steve’s attention away from Tony. Steve glanced down, eyes wide, like he’d been caught at something. Tony saw Bucky make a motion out of the corner of his eyes before he looked at Bucky too. He and Steve were communicating in that silent way they had, speaking with only their eyes and the jumps of their jaws and tilts of their heads.

Clint had his head down, covering an obvious smile with his hand, shoulders shaking as he laughed at Bucky’s side.

After a few seconds of the loudest silence Tony had ever experienced, he began to lean toward his lab, growing more uncomfortable.

“Buck!” Steve finally cried, sounding outraged and embarrassed, his face slowly turning red as he blushed.

“Steve,” Bucky mimicked, curling his lip. He got to his feet, offering his hand to Clint without actually looking so he could pull the man up. His eyes stayed on Steve’s. “Barton and I are going to go inside and use every one of the fifty-eight minutes we have remaining to fuck until I’m no longer turned on by the fact that he just kicked my ass.”

Steve blinked in shock, eyes going from Bucky to Clint, and then sliding self-consciously to Tony. “Okay?”

“You should probably use this time to get your head out of your ass,” Bucky continued, his voice hard like he was actually giving orders. “I hear Stark’s good with logistics like that. Right, Stark?”

Tony was staring, suddenly sympathizing with Steve because he was turning red himself now. He blinked rapidly, mouth falling open, looking between Bucky, who was staring at him expectantly, and Steve, who was looking at Bucky like he simultaneously wanted to kill him and kiss him. Bucky raised his eyebrows pointedly, urging Tony to respond.

“Yeah,” Tony blurted. He cleared his throat, realizing he should probably have tried for a smoother response. He met Steve’s eyes sideways, blushing even harder under the hot sun. “Yeah, I could . . . I could use some help with the same kind of problem.”

He thought he heard Steve inhale sharply. Bucky and Clint moved away, passing close enough to Tony for Tony to smell Bucky’s glorious mixture of clean shampoo, dirt, sweat, and whatever goddamn pheromones he put out that made Tony – and apparently Steve and Clint too – want to drop to their fucking knees and beg to be mounted like they were goddamned dogs in heat.

Tony cleared his throat shakily, mortified when it came out as more of a squeak that apparently drew Bucky’s attention. Bucky stopped beside him and leaned closer, speaking into his ear from the side, where Tony couldn’t see him but he could sure feel the shivers going up and down his spine.

“You deserve to be happy, Tony,” Bucky murmured. He jerked his head toward Steve, meeting Tony’s eyes when Tony flinched and glanced at him. He wasn’t teasing now, and he wasn’t angry either. His eyes had gone soft, edging toward sad. “Life’s too fucking short to punish yourself, huh?”

“Do you listen to your own advice?” Tony found himself asking, voice pitched low enough that he hoped Steve couldn’t overhear.

Bucky’s lips twitched, like he wanted to smile but couldn’t recall how. His eyes darted like he was looking Tony’s face over, trying to memorize it. “Why would I pick up new habits now?” he asked, his voice teasing but his expression decidedly not. He clapped Tony on the back, and then followed Clint toward the residence hall entrance. Tony turned to watch them, curious and disturbed and undeniably sad, feeling like he’d just lost something precious.

When they reached the door, Clint stopped and turned to say something to Bucky with his hands, and in response, Bucky kissed him on the cheek. They stood there staring at each other for a moment, possibly talking, possibly not, then Clint nodded and turned into the building, his hand bunched in the front of Bucky’s shirt, pulling him in after him.

Tony stared at the door for a second, then turned to Steve, scowling. He pointed a finger over his shoulder. “They confuse me,” he admitted.

Steve just nodded. He wiped his palms down the sides of his hips, looking like he was trying to shove his hands in his pockets like he did when he was nervous. But he had no pockets.

“Do they confuse you too?” Tony asked.

Steve nodded again, jerkily this time. “I think they confuse each other,” he finally said wryly, and his voice was choked. He cleared his throat, grimacing. “I understand them better now than I did at first. They laid out rules. Got permission from Clint’s wife. Set up boundaries. They’re not just . . . y’know.”

Tony realized he’d taken a step closer as Steve talked, and he forced himself to stop. “To what end?”

“To be happy?” Steve answered, and it sounded like a guess. “The rules aren’t just for them. I think the point was, they’re allowed to fuck around, but there’s a line they can’t cross or Laura would . . . consider it . . .”

“Cheating?” Tony provided.

Steve hummed, looking a little uncomfortable.

“Bucky loves you,” Tony said shakily. He looked at the ground between Steve’s feet devotedly, moving closer. “So why’s he off banging Barton and strongly implying that we should spend our free hour getting naked?”

“If I told Bucky I needed monogamy, he’d make it happen,” Steve said, and the certainty in his voice was something Tony wished he could feel about anything, or anyone, in his life. “But that’s the thing about me and him. We’ve always needed each other. We’ve always trusted each other enough to know that no matter what, no one would ever take over that top spot. Bucky . . . for a while he was afraid that I’d bought into the whole American hero thing and put truth and justice and morality in that top spot above him,” Steve was wistful as he said it, his eyes unfocused on a spot somewhere behind Tony, probably on the window of the room where Bucky was currently fucking Clint Barton through a floor or wall or, hell, ceiling maybe. But then Steve’s eyes focused back on Tony, and a mischievous smirk graced his handsome face. “He was mistaken, of course. I set him straight.”

“I bet you did,” Tony mumbled, not able to stop his own smile. He kicked at a divot of grass that someone had created while sparring, then glanced up at Steve carefully. “So you’re saying you and I could reconcile, and Barnes wouldn’t care? Even though he turned me down like I was a goddamn bed at the Ritz?”

Steve snorted, then bit his lip like he was sorry he’d laughed. “He might still change his mind, Tony,” he said as he began to pace, idly circling Tony, matching Tony’s own nervous steps that Tony hadn’t realized he was taking. “He closes in when he gets hurt. But if he could see you the way I have . . .”

Tony glanced up quickly, blinking at Steve in shock, surprised to see that Steve was closer, peering at Tony hopefully. Tony stopped moving and Steve closed the distance between them. He reached his hand out, sliding his fingers ever-so-gently down the side of Tony’s arm, gliding over his hand until he had wrapped his index finger around Tony’s pinky. That was the only place he was touching, holding Tony’s finger with his own, staring into Tony’s eyes with the most earnest blue fucking eyes Tony had ever seen in his miserable life full of flashy red and gold. The brilliant summer sky seemed to be reflected in them, and Tony stared, mouth gone dry, heart hammering in his throat.

“Has anyone ever seen you the way I see you?” Steve whispered.

Tony swallowed convulsively, unable to breathe, unable to answer.

Steve took a step closer, fingers sliding carefully into Tony’s until he was gingerly holding Tony’s hand, mere inches between them. Steve brought his other hand up, but halted as he stared into Tony’s eyes, holding his hand just below Tony’s line of sight. Steve cocked his head, brow furrowing. “May I?”

Tony’s breaths came in short gusts, and he wasn’t sure any of it was getting back in. He felt light-headed, staring into Steve’s eyes, his familiar scent encircling Tony’s entire being. “I don’t – I can’t – I . . . Steve, I’m so goddamned tired,” Tony blurted, and he desperately wanted to wrap his arms around Steve’s neck and let him take all the weight Tony felt on his shoulders. “I just want . . . I mean I – I see what happiness looks like on other people and I wonder, am I even built for that? Every time I get close I manage to damage it somehow.”

“Tony,” Steve whispered, sounding like his goddamn heart was breaking.

“I love you, Steve, and when I thought you were going to tell me it was over, I knew I couldn’t handle hearing it so I went and said it to you first! Who does that? I chose my own heart over yours if something was going to break. Who does that? Barnes would never do that to you. I don’t even fucking know what love is.”

“I can show you,” Steve said, calm and warm and smiling fondly at Tony like Tony fucking deserved it after all he’d done to Steve. “Can I kiss you, Tony?”

Tony blinked stupidly at him. “What?”

Steve finally allowed himself to press his fingertips to Tony’s cheek, sliding them down to his jaw and then his neck. He removed them, his eyes following the motion and then darting back up to meet Tony’s eyes. “Tony,” he murmured gently.

Tony nodded, swallowing hard and breathing out like he’d been gut-punched.

Steve moved impossibly closer, tilting his head, eyes still open and on Tony’s, his breath on Tony’s lips making Tony’s heart flutter. “I need to hear you say it,” Steve whispered, his voice gone silky and seductive. “Can I kiss you?”

“Yes,” Tony gasped out, and then Steve’s lips were on him, warm and welcome, tongue darting out to coax Tony’s lips apart. He squeezed Tony’s hand, his other one sliding over the side of Tony’s face to rest on the back of Tony’s head and hold him there as he deepened the kiss.

When they parted, they were both breathless, staring into each other’s eyes like they could read the next step there.

“We still have forty-nine minutes,” Steve breathed.

“And fifteen seconds, yeah.” Tony nodded his head toward the doors of the lab. He was marching that way before he’d even run through all the consequences, still grasping Steve’s hand and dragging him with him. “Come on, Rogers, double-time it.”

Steve laughed, and the sound made Tony grin. He realized with a bit of a shock that he’d rarely heard Steve Rogers laugh before Bucky Barnes had resurfaced. Sure, Steve had been pleasant, and he’d been smirky, and he’d told jokes with that dry stealthy humor of his. But Tony had never once seen him toss his head back and laugh. Now, the same jokes made Steve share his merriment with the sky. The same jokes that would have earned a smile or a chuckle saw Steve laughing with his whole body.

Tony knew they owed that to Bucky. No one had really understood how dead inside Steve had been, how lost and lonely and forlorn this goddamned national icon had been, how he’d been slowly but surely wasting into nothing, a husk of a man who tasted nothing but dust. Even the way he kissed had changed, had become warmer and kinder, had been something Steve had previously done because his body wanted or needed it, but had now become something he engaged in because he saw its worth, because he took actual pleasure in it.

He’d been a handsome man before. He’d been kind and charming and funny and amazing. And Tony had loved him. But now . . . now he goddamn glowed. Now, everything that made him great was luminescent inside him, and Tony loved him so much it fucking hurt.

Tony didn’t even bother throwing Protocol 69 up once they made it to the lab. Most of their clothing had been discarded on the pathway to the ratty old sofa by the back wall, and by the time Steve picked Tony up and pulled them both onto the cushions, the only thing left on either of their bodies was one sock Tony hadn’t been able to shake off.

Tony wrapped his legs around Steve’s hips, dragging both hands up Steve’s back as Steve kissed his way down Tony’s neck. Tony kicked his foot, wiggling his toes, trying to dislodge the sock.

“For Christ’s sake,” Steve hissed, tossing his head and groping behind him to find Tony’s foot. He grabbed the sock and yanked it off, tossing it over his shoulder before dragging his hand down Tony’s foot, gripping his ankle briefly to position Tony’s leg right where he wanted it. Then his fingers dug into Tony’s calf muscle, dragging up behind his knee, squeezing at his hamstring. Tony practically whined as Steve’s hand made its way up his leg possessively.

He squirmed and groaned, shoving his already hard cock up into Steve’s body, eyes fluttering in a fight between wanting to see Steve’s eyes as they darkened, and wanting to get lost in the pleasure of his touch.

Steve kissed him, humming into it, biting and licking and delving his tongue deeper. Tony groaned pitifully, hand going to Steve’s hair to grip him hard, like he was afraid Steve would drown inside him if Tony didn’t have hold of him.

“I missed the way you smell,” Steve growled. Tony shivered, and Steve dove into Tony’s neck, pressing his stupid fucking perfect face against Tony’s skin and inhaling like he was a goddamn hunting dog being given the scent of his prey.

And God help him, but Tony could probably come just like this, wrapped around Steve’s perfect excuse for a medical miracle of a body, Steve’s breath on his skin, his words tasting like honey on Tony’s tongue.

“God, you smell so fucking good,” Steve murmured, then he licked at Tony’s neck and nipped him, right at his pulse point. “I need to taste every fucking inch of you to see where that smell comes from, Tony.”

“Fuck, Steve,” Tony groaned. “Jesus fucking fuck! What the fuck has Barnes been doing to you?”

Steve twitched in Tony’s arms, and for a moment he feared he’d said the wrong thing, hit a nerve or something. But then he caught sight of the giant stupid smirk on Steve’s giant stupid lips, and Steve was kissing his again, messy and wicked and knowing Tony was cursing him in his mind.

“I hope you get a chance, Tony,” Steve whispered as he kissed his way down Tony’s cheek and then nibbled on his ear. He lowered his tone to one that made Tony full-body shiver. “I hope you get a chance to get fucked by him. It’s . . . life-changing.”

“Ugh. Ugh!”

Steve licked the tender spot beneath Tony’s ear, then reached between them, nimble fingers on Tony’s dick, coaxing him into a heartfelt moan.

“You still keep lube out here?”

“Obviously,” Tony groaned. He began fumbling blindly at the table nearby, hoping it was close. “Still needed it for Barnes’s arm maintenance.”

“Mm, if I’d know it was that kinky I would have come to watch more often,” Steve mumbled as he began kissing his way down Tony’s body. He nipped at Tony’s hip as Tony gave him a huff.

The lube wasn’t where Tony had hoped it was. “Dum-E! Lube!”

Steve laughed against Tony’s belly, then licked the head of his straining cock and made Tony whine and writhe. Before Tony could say anything, express his shock over Steve’s tongue on his cock for the first time in a very long time, Steve ducked his head and took him all the way in, flicking his tongue over the head, humming contentedly as his fingers came to massage Tony’s balls.

“Oh Christ, Steve. Oh, Jesus Christ!” Both hands flew to Steve’s hair, Tony’s fingers curling, his body arching off the lumpy cushions of the poor sofa that had seen too much in its young life.

Steve pulled off, his lips sliding torturously slow, his tongue swirling around the head before he took Tony’s cock into his hand instead, looking up at Tony as he lazily ran his fingers up and down, like he thought Tony might fucking lose interest or something if he didn’t maintain some sexy fucking contact.

Tony was breathing harder, staring at Steve like he’d never seen him before. Had he? Had he ever actually seen the real Steve Rogers before? The real Steve was someone Tony was positive now, certain beyond a shadow of a doubt, that only James Barnes had ever truly known. Was Steve giving Tony a glimpse of the real him now?

Steve licked his lips, and something deep inside Tony’s brain fucking short-circuited like Steve had just thrown water on a damn exposed wire.

Tony gasped as the image ran through his mind, his eyes darting toward the table where the Red Eye he’d been torturing was scattered across the stainless steel surface. “The casing,” he blurted. “The casing’s water tight because they never figured out how to shield the circuitry!”

When he looked back at Steve, the bastard was smiling fondly at him. When Tony met his eyes, Steve huffed a gentle laugh, slowly pulling his bottom lip in until he was biting it, still smiling up at Tony, looking at Tony like he hung the moon. The only other person who’d ever looked at Tony like that, open and honest and unashamed, was James Barnes. What a fucking pair these two were.

“What?” Tony gasped.

“You figure something out?” Steve asked, voice low and smooth as the suspension of Tony’s Maybach.

Tony’s breath left him. “Maybe?”

“If we wait thirty-eight minutes and fifty-four seconds to test your theory, will the world end?”

Tony shook his head jerkily, and Steve’s smile twitched into something a little more evil. He ducked his head and licked Tony from his balls to the tip of his cock, and Tony cried out in outrage, fingers tightening in Steve’s hair.

Then Steve was surging up his body, kissing, biting, licking, sucking on spots that he’d found in the past and knew would get Tony’s attention. He was hard when he laid himself over Tony and kissed him, hips rolling gently, rubbing them against each other, sending waves of warmth and need through Tony’s body.

“Tony,” Steve whispered, perfect teeth closed over Tony’s bottom lip, modern miracle of a body plastered to Tony’s and moving like he was already fucking Tony somewhere in the depths of his evil, twisted, National Monument of a mind. “Will you ride me?”

Tony responded with the most articulate squeak he could manufacture. Somewhere to their left, Dum-E beeped happily in mimicry.

Steve was laughing softly against Tony’s neck, and Dum-E beeped again, poking Tony in the arm. He had the lube between his pinchers.

“Don’t squeeze that!” Tony cried, pointing a warning finger. “Drop it!”

Dum-E dropped it into Tony’s waiting hand, and the beep he gave Tony sounded sad as he trundled away.

“Thank you, Dum-E!” Steve called after him. He received a happy little beep-boop in response, and it made Tony laugh. Jesus, even his bots liked the guy.

Steve kissed his neck, giving it a little lick and humming. “Tony?”

“Yes,” Tony hissed. “Fuck, okay, I said yes already, okay, I answered you before, can’t you speak all kinds of languages? Don’t you understand ‘too turned on to articulate’ or something?”

“Mm, I might need more practice to become conversational in that one.”

Tony huffed, rolling his eyes as he used a thumbnail to pop the top on the lubricant. He was glad it had been opened and used already because just imagining them trying to get that little foil circle of a new tube off the tip of this thing made Tony want to cry. Steve’s long fingers were gentle when they found his wrist, but they wrapped around it all the same and pressed Tony’s hand into the cushion above his head.

“I’ll do that,” Steve murmured with a smile, taking the lube from him. Then he kissed Tony languidly, distracting Tony from what his hands were doing, stealing the lubricant and then several seconds later, sliding slicked up fingers between Tony’s legs.

Steve’s tongue and the marginally illegal things it was doing to Tony damn near distracted him from the blunt fingertip that pressed into him. Almost. Tony groaned and grabbed to Steve tighter, trying to adjust the way he was laying, trying to spread his legs wider.

“Okay?” Steve asked, and he sounded sincerely worried that Tony might be struggling because he was uncomfortable and not because he wanted all ten of those goddamn fingers inside him, right now, fuck the lube, fuck everything, fuck me.

“Sit up,” Tony ordered, and Steve pushed off him immediately, not even asking why, not hesitating to put distance between them when he thought Tony might have hit some sort of limit, even though they’d done this dozens of times.

Tony shoved his shoulder and Steve fell back until he was sitting at Tony’s feet. Tony climbed on top of him before Steve could look more concerned. He kissed him messily, groaning when his lips met Steve’s, hands on either side of his face, biting at his lip, his chin, his neck. He rested on his knees, not letting himself rest his weight in Steve’s lap. Yet.

“Come on,” Tony gasped. He used a hand to urge Steve’s slicked up fingers back to the goddamn job, and Steve was smiling when Tony kissed him the next time.

Steve’s free hand came to grip Tony’s hip, and he groaned when he slid the third finger inside. “God, Tony, you’re tighter like this,” he whispered, nudging his face up under Tony’s chin. “Think you can stay on your knees while I fuck you?”

Tony’s breath left him in a rush. He rested his chin on Steve’s head, squeezing his eyes closed. “How many minutes do we have left?” he rasped out, trying to do the math, how long he might possibly be asked to stay in that position and whether his fucking thighs were cut out to be banging super soldiers.

“I don’t know,” Steve admitted in a broken whisper. He kissed Tony’s collarbone, and Tony shivered from head to toe.

God, how often did Steve admit he’d lost track of something even remotely related to his duty? His hands on Tony were shaking almost imperceptibly and Tony knew there was going to be a bruise on his hip, because Steve had also lost track of the strength he was exerting.

Tony reached down and shoved at Steve’s forearm, forcing his fingers out. Then Steve gripped his cock, stroking himself with those slick fingers, gazing up at Tony in a way Tony’d never seen. Tony braced his hands on the back of the sofa, hovering over Steve, searching his eyes for answers.

He finally placed his thumb on the bridge of Steve’s nose and brushed it up between his eyes. “What’s that for?”

“What?” Steve asked, and he was breathless. Tony wasn’t sure why, but that warmed him almost as much as the more obvious evidence that Steve wanted him.

“That look. What’s that look?” Tony asked, suddenly needing to know the answer almost more than he needed Steve inside him.

Steve’s brow furrowed, and he cocked his head, looking up at Tony almost sadly. “Don’t you know?”

Tony shook his head.

Steve’s hand came to his waist, gripping him hard, able to guide Tony’s entire body with that grip. His other hand was still on his cock, and he forced Tony down, the head of his cock pushing at Tony’s ass. Tony gasped out and then sucked a deep breath in, tossing his head back and arching, fingers digging into the couch cushions as Steve breached him.

He called out, so hoarse it was almost silent. Steve pulled him down more, gently, working his way deeper as Tony sank lower and lower, until finally he was low enough for Steve to kiss him without either of them straining to reach. And Steve did, licking his way into Tony’s mouth, taking his sweet time, teeth scraping against lips, tongues sliding against teeth, moans swallowed and then echoed back. When Tony finally raised his head for air, Steve nuzzled up under his chin, kissing and humming as he tested out a roll of his hips.

Tony rotated his hips, seating himself. Then he looked down at Steve, the question still clear on his face. Steve was smiling up at him. Grinning, almost.

“What’s it mean?” Tony demanded.

Steve straightened his back, kissing Tony again. “It means I love you, Tony,” he murmured. “I love you.”

Tony kissed him again even before the words had truly sunk in. He’d thought them before, even said them out loud, with considerations, of course. But for some reason the meaning had never truly sunk all the way in.

Now it was sinking deeper than Steve was, pushing his way up into Tony’s body.

“Jesus, Rogers, I think you’re supposed to say that before you fuck a guy,” Tony mumbled.

“What if the guy is too hot to not fuck the first time you get a chance, though?” Steve asked, his eyes and smile both all innocence and light and no they didn’t have fornication back in my time, ma’am, what is this ‘rimming’ I keep hearing about?

Tony cussed at him, and Steve used both hands on Tony’s hips to raise him up. Tony was, as always, stunned by Steve’s strength. He wasn’t sure why it never fucking registered, he had seen this guy literally pick up a car. Of fucking course he could pick Tony up and hold him up as he fucked him, why not?

But Steve didn’t support his weight once he had Tony kneeling again, just enough off his lap to make thrusting up into him an endeavor, but not far enough for them to be at risk of Steve’s cock slipping out of Tony entirely. Steve held him there, making Tony’s thighs do the hard work, making Tony’s body impossibly tighter as he strained every muscle he could, and Steve lifted his hips off the cushions and shoved up into Tony slowly.

Tony groaned, loud and dirty, his hands coming to grab at Steve’s shoulders.

“Fuck, Tony, you’re so fucking tight like this,” Steve gritted out. He was watching Tony closely, either because he wanted to be sure Tony wasn’t in pain, or because he was getting off on whatever face Tony was making. Knowing Steve, it was both. Steve slid his hand down Tony’s face, cupping his cheek. “Still okay?”

“Feels good,” Tony answered brokenly.

Steve found a rhythm after that, slow and steady, his eyes on Tony’s as he fucked him. Tony couldn’t look away. There was something erotic about meeting Steve’s eyes, about not blinking as you stared at the man who was slowly pushing his hard cock up inside you. Tony realized, without Protocol 69 in effect, that it was brighter than they’d ever had it when they fucked. He’d never been able to truly see Steve’s eyes when he was inside him. They were so goddamn blue . . .

Steve’s hands were on Tony’s hip and shoulder, not pulling him, not tugging, just there to be touching him, to have his fingerprints on Tony’s skin.

Tony’s thighs were burning. His knees were on fucking fire. Every thrust of Steve’s cock into him seemed to light a fire inside him that was spreading out, fanning the pulsing aches in his legs. But god, it was good. It was so good, to feel that cock pushing and pressing, to feel Steve boring into him as his muscles fought back, trying to stay tight, trying to stay tense and keep him crouching at that odd in-between height.

“Fuck, Steve,” he finally had to cry out.

His legs were on fire and so was his ass. Not the same kind, obviously, no, very very different types of fire. One was every kind of hellish pain he remembered from goddamn grade school phys ed, and the other was a very different kind of pain he remembered from boarding school where getting fucked in the ass was experimental until it made you come all over yourself and then it was called being bisexual.

“Please,” he breathed, folding over, hands dragging over Steve’s naked chest, leaving red marks behind that faded as Tony watched them.

Steve gripped him with both hands, just above his hips, and took the weight off Tony’s thighs. His biceps flexed with the effort, and Tony found himself sliding his hands over them in appreciation. Steve shoved off the couch again, hitting Tony deep, pulling a gasp out of them both.

“Fuck, Tony,” Steve growled. His teeth were gritted, and his fingers were hurting where they dug into Tony’s sides. “You’re so goddamned amazing!”

Tony stared at him, breathless, speechless, losing himself to so much stimulation.

They had once fucked with Steve standing in the middle of a wooded clearing, holding Tony up as Tony wrapped around him. No wall, no chair, no bed. No trees. Nothing but Steve holding Tony up and moving him on his cock until he’d come inside Tony, and Tony had come all over him, both of them so angry at each other they’d barely been able to get Steve’s cock out of Tony’s ass before they were sniping at each other again.

That was when they’d first started fucking, before they were telling anyone . . . even Pepper, which Tony had felt guilty over for months before he’d confessed. It had been hot and fast and dirty, and Tony had fucking loved that he’d felt sort of like a sex toy at the time. Sometimes, that was exactly what both he and Steve were after.

Tony started trying to figure out how to recapture that feeling, but Steve beat him to the next move.

He pulled Tony down, holding him in his lap as he pushed his hips up, seating Tony as close as he could get, Steve’s cock as deep as it could possibly go. He rolled his hips, cock pressing at Tony’s muscles, hitting Tony’s prostate so very briefly. Then he slid his hands up Tony’s back, so gently Tony wasn’t sure Steve knew he was doing it.

But he did . . . oh, Christ yeah, Steve knew exactly what he was doing, because he wrapped his arms around Tony, squeezing him gently, and he raised his face toward Tony for a kiss.

Tony didn’t have to bend to kiss him now, and he found his hands sliding into Steve’s hair as they lost themselves in the kiss. When Tony allowed himself to focus on something besides Steve’s lips and tongue, something that wasn’t the way kissing Steve made him feel like fireworks were going off inside his mind, he realized that Steve was still moving, still fucking him through the kiss.

His motions weren’t hard and frantic, though. He was rolling his hips still, shoving himself into Tony slowly, moving so that Tony could writhe around in his lap and find the best angles, find the one that would have Steve hitting his prostate every time.

“Tony,” Steve whispered reverently.

Tony stared down at him, running his thumb over Steve’s cheekbone. He began to move, slow and sensual, meeting Steve’s movements with his own. They shared a moan that faded into another kiss.

“Boss?” F.R.I.D.A.Y said, and she sounded like she was going to enjoy what followed.

“Better be end of the world, Friday!” Tony shouted, shocked by how wrecked he sounded.

“Sorry, Boss. But Sergeant Barnes has requested that I remind you; you have ten minutes of free time remaining.”

“Fuck,” Steve gasped out, his hands dragging down Tony’s back like he might be trying to find more time somewhere back there.

“Sergeant Barnes has also requested I relay a message to Captain Rogers,” F.R.I.D.A.Y added.

Tony pressed his face in Steve’s neck, groaning as he sped up his motions, whispering Steve’s name. God, this slow fucking was even more amazing than the brutal pounding he and Steve usually went for.

“What is it, Friday?” Steve demanded, and Tony almost laughed at how annoyed he sounded.

“Sergeant Barnes suggests you, quote, ‘angle him back instead of sucking his tongue, pal, you’ll hit the sweet spot every time.’ His words, not mine, Boss.”

“Oh my God!” Tony shouted, straightening and glancing around the lab frantically.

Steve was laughing, though, and he put a hand on Tony’s chest, the other on his upper back to support Tony when he shoved him. Tony wound up leaning back over Steve’s knees, and when Steve thrust up into him, Tony saw goddamn stars behind his eyes.

“Oh God, Steve!” Tony cried, scrabbling for something, anything, to hold onto because he was going to come right now.

“Good?” Steve growled out, picking up his pace, holding Tony in hands so gentle he might as well have been made of porcelain, but fucking up into him hard enough to combat that belief.

“Fuck!” Tony cried in answer. He finally grabbed Steve’s arm, digging his fingers into the muscles of Steve’s forearm. “Oh, God, Steve. Oh, fuck!”

Steve was breathing harder, working harder, watching Tony with eyes that shone with hunger. “God, Tony. You feel so fucking good!”

“Gonna come, Steve,” Tony whispered.

Steve thrust up again, then again, and once more, hitting that spot every goddamn time, and then Tony was coming, crying out. Steve’s hand left his back and gripped his cock instead, pumping him through the orgasm, talking to him, telling him how fucking amazing he looked and felt, telling him he wanted to fucking taste him too to see if he tasted as good as his skin smelled, and Tony was fucking gone to any of it.

Steve’s hands gripped him harder, his teeth gritted, hungry eyes still on Tony. And Tony grabbed at his shoulder, yanking Steve to encourage him. “Fuck me, Steve!” he shouted. “Come in me, come on!”

That was all Steve needed, and he picked Tony up, slamming him against the couch cushions and pounding into him, hard and fast, breaths in Tony’s ear, words still sweet as honey. Tony put both hands above his head on the side of the sofa’s arm, keeping his body from being moved by Steve’s thrusts, and Steve clamped down on him, kissing him, moaning and shouting his name against Tony’s skin. When he came, he picked Tony’s hips up off the couch so he could be as deep inside Tony’s body as possible, and Tony basked in it all, body still singing with his own release.

It was too quiet when Steve’s breathing evened out again. He raised his head, kissing Tony’s chin and then his lips. When he carefully pulled out, he took it slowly, watching Tony’s face for cues. Then they both collapsed in a heap, Tony breathing hard and sweating, Steve taking deep breaths and grinning like he was pleased with himself.

“Friday?” Steve finally murmured.

“Yes, Captain Rogers?”

“Tell Sergeant Barnes, ‘thank you,’ for me, will you?”

“The hell she will!” Tony cried.

Steve grinned at him and raised an eyebrow in challenge, waving a hand at his chest and belly, at the mess Tony had made all over him, daring Tony to argue that it had been good advice.

Tony grunted, shrugging in acknowledgement. He glanced toward the wide bank of windows, narrowing his eyes and trying to decide how Bucky had seen them well enough to know what fucking angle Tony had been riding Steve’s dick in.

“You’ll never find him, Tony, he’s the world’s best sniper.”

Tony grunted, grinning when he looked at the door. Someone had dirtied the glass, probably with breath or sweat or dirt or any combination thereof, and then drawn a little dick with a frowny face on the tip, like the artist had not approved of their technique.

“I don’t think he was really hiding.” Tony pointed. “We forgot to black out the windows.”

“Oops.”

“Ha.” Tony crawled over Steve, giving him a chaste peck on the cheek. “Friday?” he said as he sat back and started casting around for his clothing. “Actually, tell Sergeant Barnes thank you plus we need him ASAP.”

“Yes, Boss.”

Steve was frowning in confusion. Tony opened his mouth to explain that it wasn’t a sex thing, but Steve beat him to it. “You need Bucky for the idea you had?”

Tony smiled fondly. Why the hell did he, of all people, keep forgetting how goddamn smart Steve was? “I don’t need him, no. But he knows these things better than anyone. I need to ask him a few questions. Get dressed,” he said as he stood and picked up his sock. He glanced back at Steve, looking him up and down and recalling the state he and Bucky had been in last night when Tony had barged in. “Or . . . not, you know, whatever.”

Steve lounged there, uncaring of impending visitors. “Can I run something by you, Tony?” he asked, sounding suddenly vulnerable.

Tony stopped, still naked with one sock in his hand, and he nodded in answer, going to sit on the couch next to Steve to give him his full attention.

“I’ve been thinking,” Steve started, wincing as he glanced into Tony’s eyes, like he was waiting for Tony to make a joke about it. Tony remained somber and silent, nodding for Steve to go on. “Bucky set up all these alerts with Friday, right? Are they all people he’d killed?”

Tony nodded regretfully. “I think he was trying to get a heads up if an investigation was started on any of his targets.”

Steve sighed, obviously having come to the same conclusion. “When he was sort of delirious, he told us that the Red Eyes with the energy weapons had been waiting for him. A mile away from the LMD he shot. Why would they have been stationed that far out?”

Tony stared into Steve’s eyes, working it through, trying to see it through Steve’s tactical mind. He inhaled sharply when he hit on it. “It was a trap.”

Steve looked pained as he met Tony’s eyes. “I did some looking into that politician. He’d been quiet ever since the year Bucky claims he killed him. That LMD, it wasn’t making waves, it was just . . . existing. Keeping the status quo, like its masters weren’t really around to tell it what to do. I think someone out there has all the pieces to this puzzle, except the most important one.”

“Which is?”

“The current location of the former Fist of Hydra.”

Tony winced at the name, bristling over all the things he’d read in the Winter Soldier files. “They had a convenient LMD all placed and ready and expendable that would trip an alert, if Bucky was paying attention. An old target out walking around making noise would have caught the Winter Soldier’s attention as a job left unfinished, and Bucky Barnes’s attention as something wonky and dangerous. Fuck, Steve.”

“Yeah,” Steve agreed quietly. He glanced at the door to make sure Bucky wasn’t on his way there. “They set up a perimeter a mile out of the target, using that LMD as bait because it was disposable. Bucky’s one of a handful of people in the world who could have been that far out and made the shot, he has to be who they were setting the trap for.”

“He’s a weapon, Steve. Just like someone trying to steal the Jericho missile from Stark Industries. Recovering the Winter Soldier? That would be a coup. We’re just lucky he was too good to fall into anyone’s hands but ours. You know that, right?”

“I do,” Steve whispered with a heavy sigh. “And I’ve been looking at those Red Eyes in Charlotte, just standing there. Waiting. Did you see earlier, some frat kid walked up to them and smacked one in the face on a dare? They didn’t budge. They’re just standing there. Waiting.”

Tony glanced at the TVs across the massive space. He’d been watching. Watching and wondering what the damn things were waiting for. “They’re waiting for Barnes.”

“And the media replaying those Holy Ghost clips,” Steve continued. “They’re playing into it, prodding Bucky to go confront these things. Tony.”

Tony met his eyes, already knowing what he was going to say.

“We can’t let Bucky walk into a trap. We can’t. He can’t become the Winter Soldier again. And I can’t fucking lose him.”

Tony was nodding as he spoke, licking his lips, mind churning. Bucky already considered Tony untrustworthy. If it meant saving his life . . . Tony nodded determinedly. “You’re right, Cap. I’ll take care of it, okay? You trust me?”

“I do,” Steve whispered. “Thank you, Tony.”

Tony gave him a tight smile.

“Boss?”

“Where’s my Sergeant Barnes, Friday?” Tony demanded as he lurched off the couch, shaken and trying to shed it.

“Sergeant Barnes says, again in his own words, to ‘get your lazy, naked, piece of shit asses on the parade grounds before he goes all Winter Soldier on your faces.’ Charming, isn’t he?”

Steve was hiding a smile behind his hand, watching Tony with blue eyes that sparkled with both sadness and merriment.

“Army guys, Jesus,” Tony muttered, and they dressed quickly to join the rest of the team. Tony barely had time to clean himself off. He didn’t actually see if Steve had wiped himself down or not. That would make sparring . . . gross.

By the end of the day, they’d found three distinct attacks that Bucky had deemed suitable for a Red Eye offensive, and they were each learning how to perform the moves.

During the last sparring session of the day, Steve finally dredged up something from his past training, and when he brought it out Bucky wound up sprawled in the grass, blinking up at the fluffy white clouds and mumbling in Russian about aiming his gun at a grayhen.

Natasha had been forced to explain that it was a bit from a Russian fable about Ivan and the Flying Ship. “He might need the evening off,” she decided after she’d told the story, stroking Bucky’s hair affectionately.

After Natasha pulled rank and told everyone to hit the showers, Bucky was still flat on his back in the grass, with Steve sitting beside him as they talked and laughed, looking carefree and so, so damned young.

Tony itched to go closer, to approach them and sit with them in the over-dry grass and just soak up their voices, their laughter. He took a step toward them, then halted, coming to his senses. He and Steve might have reconciled just fine, but Bucky still wasn’t willing to take a risk on Tony, not anymore. It was what he deserved. But Tony knew better than to insert himself into what they had together. He could do what Clint did, have a few days with one of them and be happy for them the rest of the week.

Tony could do that.

Steve climbed to his feet as Tony watched them, strolling toward Tony and leaving Bucky in the grass. Tony gave him a tentative smile when it became clear Steve was aiming for him. God, was he nervous? He still had Steve’s cum up his ass, why was he nervous about a conversation?

“What’s up, Cap?” Tony asked, trying to be casual. Welp. Turns out he could not, in fact, do that. He couldn’t just have two nights and casually watch them be happy the rest of the week. How the hell did Clint do that? Was Clint in love with Bucky? Or was it just sex, did that make it easier? Maybe if Tony weren’t gone over both Steve and Bucky it would be easy.

Nothing about this was easy. And if Tony went through with the plan he and Steve had hastily concocted? It would never be easy again. Dammit.

“Buck thinks I . . .” Steve winced, searching for words. Finally he shrugged. “He used the word ‘recalibrated’. He thinks I recalibrated his arm.”

Tony barked a laugh before he could stop himself. He sobered quickly, giving Steve an apologetic glance. Steve jerked his head toward Bucky, nodding when Tony shot an apprehensive glance between the two of them. “It’s okay, Tony,” Steve said gently. “He won’t bite.”

“Right.”

“Unless you’re on your knees. Then it’s like . . . Pavlovian, he has to bite.”

“Captain America,” Tony gasped. “You’re a dirty motherfucker!”

Steve shrugged negligently. “Watch your fucking mouth. I’ll be in the shower if I’m needed,” he announced, heading for the compound’s doors.

The other team members had filtered away, taking advantage of Bucky’s ‘evening off’ to go take care of things that had been allowed to slip over the course of the day since the Red Eyes had accumulated in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Clint was still bent over Bucky, peering at him upside down. Bucky was talking with one hand, giving Clint ASL instead of spoken words. After a minute Clint laughed heartily, then knelt at Bucky’s head and bent all the way over to the ground to kiss him, upside down. He wasn’t quite gentle, and sweet was never a word Tony associated with Clint Barton.

But dammit, they were sweet, Clint and Bucky. They were fucking adorable, like a pair of puppies romping in the grass and falling over each other and nuzzling when they got sleepy.

Was that how Steve did it? He saw them as adorable? Would Tony be able to watch the man he loved be that fucking cute with another human being and not feel jealousy rippling through him? No. Because he felt a little bit of jealousy right now, and Bucky wasn’t even his to be jealous of. But then, Bucky had let – no. Bucky had encouraged Steve to go off to fuck Tony, even giving him critique on positioning, which, thank you sir, that had been very effective critique, but that wasn’t the fucking point.

And Steve had to have known that Bucky and Clint were going inside to fuck when they’d left the field earlier. No one was that blind.

So . . . what was Tony missing?

When he approached, Clint looked up at him, grinning widely. He got to his feet again, stretching his back. “You need help?” he asked them both.

Tony didn’t know. He shrugged, finally forcing himself to look down at Bucky. He was still sprawled where he’d landed. He hadn’t moved the arm at all, Tony could tell because of the press of the grass around it. “Your arm dead?”

“Eh,” Bucky answered, giving that infuriatingly familiar one-sided shrug. “We’ll manage.” He reached up to Clint, offering him a closed fist.

Clint laughed and touched his fist to Bucky’s. “Two kinds of pound-town in one day, that’s like a record for me,” he drawled.

Bucky laughed raucously as Clint turned away, strolling toward the side-doors that led to the residences.

“You know where to find me if you need a hand!” Clint called over his shoulder.

“You’re not as funny as I think you are!” Bucky called, watching him walk away, upside down in the grass. He huffed and relaxed his shoulders, peering up at Tony. He offered him a small smile. “Hey.”

“Hi,” Tony said, so uncomfortable that he couldn’t even find other words, much less something smart and quippy to say. Goddamn, when he was being out-smartassed by Barton it was time to recalibrate more than just Bucky’s arm. “So . . . Cap knocked you all out of whack, huh? Must have been a hell of a hit.”

“Nah,” Bucky said softly. He waggled his fingers, then rotated his arm at the elbow. The soft whirring was like music to Tony’s ears.

He frowned at Bucky, nerves beginning to foam up in his gut. “I don’t . . .”

“Sit down, Tony,” Bucky requested, voice pitched low like he was afraid they’d be overheard. Tony sat as if he had to, rather than it being a request. Bucky watched him with a hint of sadness, his brow furrowed, his mouth and eyes turned down at the corners. “Steve’s right; I don’t bite.”

Tony snorted. “Unless I’m on my knees?”

“Unless you ask me to,” Bucky corrected. “Steve always asks for it.”

Tony cleared his throat uncomfortably. “Doesn’t sound like the Steve I know.”

Bucky hummed, but didn’t comment. He hadn’t moved either, staring up at the sky, body still loose and relaxed.

“What am I doing here, Barnes?” Tony finally asked. “Are you actually hurt?”

“No. Sort of. But no.”

Tony shook his head, fighting exasperation.

Bucky held his hand out, meeting Tony’s eyes. Tony stared for a second before taking the risk and sliding his fingers over Bucky’s. Bucky pulled him, and Tony found himself in the grass, on his back with his shoulder pressed to Bucky’s, staring up at the sky.

“Your grass is crunchy,” Bucky told him after a few seconds of tense, expectant silence.

“Yeah.”

“You should have it mowed less. Dries it out in the heat.”

Tony pressed his lips together tight, risking a sideways glance at Bucky. In profile, with his eyes on the sky, he seemed so innocent. So fucking guileless and beautiful, untouched by the worries of the world. Tony knew it was a lie. Bucky Barnes was one of the most cunning men he’d ever met. His mind was always at least three steps ahead, and knowing that was almost as beautiful as staring at him.

“I’m not going to make it through this fight,” Bucky said after another minute or so of silence.

Tony tried to swallow and couldn’t. His stomach roiled, to the point that he thought he might throw up on the crunchy grass between them. This wasn’t just battlefield fatalism, Tony had heard that and could handle it. This was a man who’d read the terrain, who’d seen all the evidence, who knew the background and skill level of both sides of a fight, and knew that he would not come out of it alive. The truth behind his words was what made Tony’s body react so viscerally.

Before he knew what he was doing, he’d grabbed for Bucky’s hand again and was clutching it like it would change what Bucky was predicting. Bucky turned his head finally, meeting Tony’s eyes. He looked mildly surprised that Tony had initiated contact.

“You know I’m right.”

“Shut up,” Tony gasped.

Bucky nodded, as if that confirmed it. He looked back up at the sky. “Steve’s going to fall apart.”

Tony stared at him, hating him in that moment for how right he was. If Tony and Steve couldn’t keep him out of the trap . . .

“He’s going to blame himself, even though we all know it won’t be on him.”

“Why are you telling me this?” Tony grated out.

“Because you love him,” Bucky answered, sounding a little annoyed, like he’d expected Tony to know that. “Because it’s going to be you who has to save him.”

Tony shook his head, closing his eyes. “Why don’t you just fucking man the fuck up and not die, Barnes, okay, how about you try doing that for a change? You’re the only one who makes him alive. You know that? He’s been up and moving all these years I’ve known him, but he was never alive and I didn’t even know it! Then you come in here, and you light him up like a goddamn candle, and he’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen because he loves you!”

Tony tore his eyes away from the cloud he’d been ranting to, taking in a breath to keep going. But when he looked at Bucky’s profile, his words caught in his throat. Bucky hadn’t moved. But he had closed his eyes, and a tear tracked down his face, into his hairline right at his temple.

Tony swallowed the rest of the angry words he’d been about to spew. He wasn’t telling Bucky anything the man didn’t already know.

“You can’t give up,” Tony whispered instead. He pushed to his elbow and put his hand on Bucky’s chest, ready to implore, ready to fucking beg the guy, just don’t fucking die on us! “You haven’t so far.”

“I won’t,” Bucky promised. He didn’t open his eyes. He didn’t wipe the tears away, either, so Tony did it for him.

He used his thumb on one side, leaning over Bucky to reach, and he used the base of his palm on the one closer to him. He wound up cupping Bucky’s face in his hands, leaning over him, peering at him as Bucky lay there, eyes closed, jaw tight.

Tony felt his throat tightening. He didn’t move away, because if this was all he ever got, then he’d fucking cherish it. “Barnes?” he whispered.

Bucky hummed, the sound tentative and shaky.

“He’s not . . . he’s not the only one who’d miss you, you know?”

Bucky waited a few seconds, then he forced his eyes open, staring first at the sky beyond Tony’s shoulder, then sliding his eyes over to meet Tony’s. He sighed heavily, and for the first time Tony got a glimpse at the god’s honest exhaustion inside the man. His eyes were steely blue, and they seemed to cover a multitude of sins behind those icy layers; so much sadness and pain, bottled up behind an exterior that smiled and laughed easily, that told jokes and offered a shoulder to anyone who needed to cry.

But Jesus, had anyone else seen through the cracks in this armor yet?

Tony brushed his hand over Bucky’s face, fingers gentle as he swiped them from hairline to chin, running over his eyelids and forcing them closed, over his lips and forcing them to part. He ran two fingers down the front of Bucky’s throat, trying to work up the nerve to ask if he could press his lips to Bucky’s, just one more time.

“Tony,” Bucky whispered, barely a sound under the rustle of dry grass and leaves on the wind.

Tony didn’t know if that was a request or a plea or what was behind the plethora of emotions behind that word, so he interpreted it to his advantage, like fucking always.

He bent and pressed his lips to Bucky’s, gentle at first, mimicking that first kiss they’d shared that had caused Tony to go a week dreaming about fingers in his motherfucking belt loops and waking up so hard he would have humped the sheets if they’d stayed the fuck still.

Bucky didn’t object to that first press of lips, so Tony edged closer, licking at Bucky’s lower lip, pressing it between his and tugging gently to see if Bucky really was a willing participant. Bucky parted his lips and licked at Tony, earning him a moan from Tony as he scooted closer.

Tony’s fingers tightened where he held Bucky, and he realized belatedly that he still had one hand on Bucky’s neck, squeezing it as he gripped a handful of hair in the other. Bucky hadn’t complained, and when Tony did try to loosen the fingers that had been digging into his neck, Bucky grabbed his wrist with the metal hand that for fucking sure absolutely did not need recalibrating, Jesus fuck!

Tony realized, as the kiss deepened and Bucky’s grip on his wrist didn’t loosen and his grip on Bucky’s neck didn’t loosen, that he was swiftly hitting the point of no return for a hard-on, here. If this went on a few more minutes, there’d be no turning back whether it was Bucky helping him out or just Tony alone in the grass. Which would be sad, let’s be real here.

He tried to take in a shaky breath, his entire arm trembling as he maintained his grip on Bucky’s neck. Why was that making him nervous? Was it because he had the world’s most dangerous assassin by the neck and said assassin was obviously turned on by it instead of feeling threatened? Lord, the man was five-hundred pounds of crazy in a two-hundred pound bag. Tony kind of loved that about him.

And what did that make Tony, rubbing his boner against the crazy guy’s hip??

“Tony,” Bucky murmured, his free hand coming to rest on Tony’s flank.

Tony jumped, gasping into the kiss and tightening his hold on Bucky’s neck. “Sorry,” he whispered, watching his thumb as he relaxed it and rubbed it down Bucky’s neck slowly.

“Mm, you ever want to make me come fast, you just squeeze ’til I can’t get air,” Bucky informed him with a hint of amusement. Not enough to make Tony think he was joking, though, because the look in his eyes was dead goddamn serious.

Tony licked his lips, trying not to move, because he did not want to rut against Bucky looking for friction right now, nope. Totally inappropriate.

“Steve told me I should give you a second chance,” Bucky admitted, his voice low and rambling through Tony languidly. “You think I can do that?”

“You’re asking my opinion?” Tony asked, struggling to keep his voice calm.

“You’re the only other realist in this scenario,” Bucky answered, shrugging that one goddamn gorgeous shoulder again. “Steve thinks we’re talking about forever. You and me? We know we’re just talking about the next eighteen hours, thereabouts.”

Tony ground his teeth together, wanting to argue, to deny it. But he couldn’t. If they flew into a battle against the Red Eyes, without a reliable mode of mass destruction, a way to take out multiple Red Eyes at a time, then they were done. Tony had some ideas that he wanted Bucky to talk him through. He realized he was nodding as he thought about it.

“I think . . . yeah. I think you can give me a second chance,” Tony finally answered, hating himself since he knew what he’d promised Steve would rip whatever trust he built with Bucky to shreds.

Bucky was watching him, observing him through narrowed eyes that didn’t quite look at him, merely caught him peripherally. He suspected something, Tony found himself thinking, panic hitting him hard and fast. Bucky nodded, though, a slow smile forming. Then he released his hold on Tony’s wrist. “Let’s go talk about your new idea, then.”

“How did –”

“You go to bang Steve in your lab then ask me to come join at the tail end of it, it’s ’cause you had a breakthrough during sex, not because you wanted me to officiate the ceremony.”

Tony couldn’t help but laugh as he helped Bucky to his feet.

==

“You want to drown them?” Bucky asked incredulously.

“Well . . . no,” Tony answered. He circled the worktable, bringing up a set of schematics near Bucky’s shoulder. “I mean, in the very most basic of layman’s terms, sure, I guess. But I expected more from you, Barnes.”

Bucky shrugged. “Filling their insides up with water so the system shuts down. Sounds like drowning to me.”

Tony glared at him, then shrugged as if Bucky had a point. “Anyway. You’ve seen these things in action up close and personal. Can it be done?”

“Mm,” was all Bucky managed to say as he reached for the schematics and enlarged them. He pointed to a small access panel on the neck, just above the right shoulder. Then he enlarged one of the stills from the news footage in Charlotte, pointing to the same panel on one of the active Red Eyes. “That’s the only weakness in the outer shell. It’s for maintenance and programming, and they obviously haven’t fixed it.”

“Looks like the panel on your arm,” Tony observed absently.

“Doesn’t it, though?” Bucky drawled dangerously, watching Tony with sharp eyes as Tony turned to him and paled visibly when he saw the look in Bucky’s eyes.

“I didn’t – I mean I –”

Bucky took pity on him, interrupting him without further comment. “It’s not particularly hard to rip the panel off, if you can get that close without being torn apart. The inner circuitry is surprisingly frail if you can get to it. And even after I exposed that weakness, no one ever addressed it, not to my knowledge.”

“Why?”

“I couldn’t say. My guess is they decided my method of attack wasn’t a practical field application for any opponent the bot would encounter and didn’t deem the weakness worth the time and effort to fix it.”

“What was your method of attack?” Tony asked, either unable to curtail his mechanical curiosity, or not realizing he was skating on such very thin ice with Bucky’s mind right now. Bucky kind of enjoyed that about Tony, that he couldn’t see the danger signs of an impending Winter Soldier appearance, or he didn’t care when one was coming. Even Steve was wary of Bucky when he started sinking into that kill or be killed mindset. Tony was the only one who wasn’t afraid. Outwardly, anyway.

“I sliced my femoral artery,” Bucky told him, face blank, shoulders tense. “Then held the thing down with my thighs as I bled into the open panel. Shorted it fast, they were able to drag me out, stop the bleeding. I barely lived. Only something an enhanced could pull off and live to tell about.”

Tony nodded, slowly, his eyes shining, his mouth hanging open. Bucky couldn’t tell if he was horrified or impressed. “Jesus,” he finally breathed.

Bucky narrowed his eyes. Still couldn’t tell if he was horrified or impressed . . .

Bucky’s eyes darted up to the displays around them. “So, yeah,” he said slowly. “You can short-circuit them if you can get enough liquid past the panel. But practical application is . . .” He winced, shrugging.

“Not practical,” Tony supplied, deflating as he swiped the displays away.

“Sorry.”

“Eh, sex ideas are usually 50/50 on the viability scale.”

“Jesus, Tony, what was Stevie doing to you to spark that idea?” Bucky drawled, his voice pitched low and bordering on suggestive.

Tony began to blush in the stark white lights of the lab. “I run an inner monologue when I get fucked, okay, sometimes it goes a little poetic.”

Bucky hummed, smiling at Tony fondly. Tony’s idea of ‘poetic’ was circuitry and sparks, and Bucky was so utterly charmed by that, it left him momentarily speechless. Fuck, Bucky was falling too fast for this bullshit.

Tony coughed self-consciously, swiping through display after display as he tried to look like he wasn’t watching Bucky peripherally.

“Any luck on the relay?” Bucky finally asked gently.

Tony brightened considerably. “Actually, that was the other thing I wanted to see you for.”

“I told Steve what we did.”

Tony groaned, wiping a hand down his face. “Yeah, fine, okay. Should have seen that coming. He didn’t yell at me today, so I guess it’s fine.”

“He got it out of his system,” Bucky said with a smirk, mind glancing over the memory of Steve shouting obscenities against Bucky’s hand, then pressing his face into a pillow and desperately begging Bucky to make him regret it. Bucky shivered, pushing that aside for a more . . . appropriate time.

“Shall we give it a go?” Tony asked warily.

“It’s now or never,” Bucky said, shrugging. He pushed away from the table, and Tony led him to a little clearing amidst all the machinery.

“Have you chosen a motion that’ll set the off?” Tony asked.

Bucky nodded. He used one hand to make the standard gesture the whole world recognized as a handjob. Then he put his left hand straight out, like he was about to shake on it, made a hook with his right index finger, then scraped his left palm with it. Then he put both hands almost flat and made a weighing the scales gesture.

Tony had his lips pursed, eyes narrowed. “That’s something dirty, isn’t it?”

Bucky shrugged negligently. “It’s something no one’s going to accidentally toss out during polite conversation or a fight.”

“Right. Okay, show me again so I can do it.”

Bucky did, and Tony mimicked him until he had it right. Then Tony took a remote from a nearby table and came closer to Bucky, inhaling shakily as he looked at the buttons on the thing.

“Hey,” Bucky said softly. He reached for Tony, overwhelmed by the urge to comfort him, but all he did was run his fingers down Tony’s arm carefully, remembering at the last minute not to press or push. “It’ll be okay.”

Tony clucked his tongue, nodding jerkily. “Yeah. Yeah, of course. Hooked up a cyborg with memory issues to sentient killer robots, not a problem ever in the history of science fiction could crop up.”

Bucky reached toward him again, brushing his fingertips against Tony’s hip this time. The renewed contact seemed to startle Tony out of his worries, and he looked at Bucky with wide, terrified eyes.

“Come here,” Bucky coaxed, pitching his voice lower so the gravelly quality he knew it sometimes had worked in his favor. Tony shivered and obeyed almost immediately, taking that last step that allowed Bucky to slide his fingers into Tony’s pocket. He tugged gently, and brought Tony within range.

Tony gasped out a breath, a shiver going through his body as Bucky leaned closer, taking a deep breath like Steve had told him to. Steve was right, Tony smelled fucking incredible. Something about the underlying machine oil and Lava soap and expensive aftershave. Tony hummed in the back of his throat, turning his head so his nose brushed Bucky’s cheek. If he knew that Bucky was taking his time breathing him in, he didn’t seem to mind.

“Can I kiss you?” Bucky asked, whispering into his ear.

Tony huffed. “Why does everyone keep asking that?” he muttered, turning his face up to Bucky’s, lips parting, eyes fluttering as Bucky’s soft breaths caressed his face.

“I have a few guesses,” Bucky murmured. His lips moved against Tony’s cheekbones. “But I’m going to need an answer.”

“Yes, Jesus fucking Christ, yes,” Tony blurted. “Just . . . goddamn!” He shoved his face against Bucky’s cheek, and Bucky laughed softly as he turned and met Tony’s lips with his own. Tony kissed like a man desperate for air, like he thought this was his one and only chance to memorize the way Bucky tasted.

Bucky held him tightly, letting Tony map him out, letting him do as he pleased. Because Tony was right; this was probably Bucky’s last night on earth. And he’d had three people he needed to memorize, ending with the one in his arms.

Bucky usually tried for a little more decorum if it was his first time with someone, but Tony didn’t actually allow it. He yanked at Bucky’s shirt, shoved at his sweat pants, actually tried to toe off Bucky’s shoes for him instead of taking care of his own goddamn state of dress. Bucky had to pick him up by his ass, taking a few steps to the nearest hard surface and setting him down on it so he could crowd between Tony’s thighs and force him to stop pawing at Bucky’s clothing that didn’t technically need to be removed to do this.

“Jesus, Tony,” was all he managed to get out around smothering kisses and groping hands.

His shirt was off, but Tony’s never made it further than one arm. They both got their pants down, Tony’s jeans pulled all the way to his ankles but halted by his boots, and Bucky’s sweats pushed down but clinging to his thighs and refusing to be shoved down further without a court order. It made it a chore to get between Tony’s legs, but Bucky had managed entry into more closely guarded places before.

Tony used Bucky’s body to keep himself from falling off the edge of the table, finally propping his foot on something behind Bucky that Bucky didn’t think was important enough to look over his shoulder to see. Tony perched on the edge of the table, knees squeezing Bucky’s waist, hands holding to Bucky’s shoulders, his arms, fingers dragging across skin and metal, clinging to handfuls of hair.

Bucky kissed him from his face to his chest, biting at his neck, hands all over his bare hips and thighs, pulling, tugging, gripping, bruising.

“Fuck me, Barnes, come on,” Tony whispered into Bucky’s ear. His cock was hard and pressing against Bucky’s stomach. Bucky couldn’t see his pulse point because his shirt partially covered his neck and one shoulder, but something about being so goddamn hot for it that he didn’t care if he got completely undressed made Bucky damn near lightheaded.

Bucky glanced around the lab, knowing Tony and Steve had been in here earlier. “Where’s –”

“Don’t need any,” Tony gasped out, his voice gone scratchy and tense, laden with passion and need. “I never had time to clean up earlier.”

Bucky groaned at that, heat pulsing through at the thought. He grabbed Tony’s hips with both hands, moving him roughly, lining the head of his cock up, and kissing Tony possessively as he shoved in without further warning.

Tony cried out in surprise, writhing in Bucky’s arms, grasping his shoulders for support, fingers digging hard enough to cause pain. “Fuck, yes! Ah . . . God, Barnes! Dammit! Fuck fuck fuck, yes, please!”

Bucky groaned again under the litany of Tony’s curses, kissing at Tony’s jaw as he worked himself deeper. Tony had been right; he was still open and wet, an impossibly easy entry and even easier to thrust into him until Bucky hips hit his thighs. He shoved them further apart, pulling Tony’s legs around him so he could work in deeper. Bucky could feel Steve’s heavy load still inside him, slicking Bucky down with each thrust he took, making it hotter and wetter with every roll of his hips, Jesus fucking Christ!

He pushed home with a grunt, gritting his teeth, rolling his hips to make Tony cry out. He could feel Steve’s spunk all around his dick, leaking out around the base now that Bucky was inside Tony and forcing those muscles to release what they’d worked so hard to keep all day.

“Oh, fuck, Tony,” Bucky gasped urgently. “God, he might as well’ve planted a flag in you.”

Tony moaned pitifully, grasping at Bucky, head falling back, hips moving as he tried to convince Bucky to go at him harder.

Bucky grinned, enjoying the slightly submissive hint in the way Tony writhed, the way mentioning Steve fucking him earlier that day made him flush wickedly. He leaned closer, pressing a brush of his lips to Tony’s. “What did you do to him, Tony?” Bucky asked, almost taunting him, voice smooth and promising every little filthy thing Tony’s mind could conjure. “To make him shoot a load that big in you, huh? What’d you do?”

“Oh, Christ,” Tony gasped. “Oh, Christ, you are way out of my league, oh god please, don’t fucking kill me, Barnes, my obituary can’t have the word ‘cum’ in it, okay!”

Bucky hummed as if he was agreeing to those terms, biting Tony’s lip as he hit a nice smooth rhythm that was going to make this a lot faster than he would have liked, ideally.

Tony whimpered and curled around him, holding on. Bucky held him almost tenderly, his metal fingers splayed at Tony’s back to keep him in place. Bucky touched a finger to the ugly scar at Tony’s chest, tracing the outer rim of it. Tony grabbed his finger, squeezing it, holding onto it but not trying to push it away from the scar Bucky knew laid right over his heart.

A wave of stubborn protectiveness washed over Bucky, heating him beyond the limits of mere passion, stoking the anger that always seemed to boil just beneath his carefully constructed exterior.

“This scar,” Bucky snarled, close to Tony’s face, yanking Tony’s hips down so he was buried as deep as physically possible inside him. “Are they dead?”

Tony gasped, panting for breath, holding to Bucky’s shoulder like a drowning man and Bucky could float. “Yes,” Tony hissed. “All of them. I killed them all.”

Bucky leaned closer, trailing his nose along the ridge of Tony’s jawline. He kissed just under his ear, the next thrust slow and deep, then growled an intense, sultry, “Good boy.”

Tony’s entire body spasmed, his cock jumping against Bucky’s abs. “Ah, Christ. Oh fuck. Barnes. Fuck. Fuck! I’m learning things about myself right now no one needs to know, okay.”

Bucky delved into another kiss, as much to shut Tony up as to enjoy the slide of his teeth and tongue, his hand coming up to stroke Tony’s dick. He gave him a few gentle pulls, then reached under them where Bucky’s cock slid into Tony’s ass. He swiped some of the lube and cum that was leaking out of Tony with every one of his thrusts, covering his palm, using that to make his strokes smoother as he jerked Tony off.

The mere action had Tony’s body trembling again, had him groaning wantonly, head tossed back. When Bucky actually touched his dick with a hand covered in already used lube and Steve’s spunk, Tony lifted his hips into the contact, cursing Bucky again, writhing.

“I’ll have to remember to thank Steve for the assist,” Bucky mumbled against Tony’s collarbone, grinning as Tony moaned and flinched in his arms.

Bucky kissed his neck and shoved deep inside him, rolling his hips to fill Tony full, stoking the heat pooling in them both. He could feel it banking in the way Tony’s thighs shook against his hips, feel himself reaching the edge. He could push it back, keep going like this for hours if Tony needed it. But he wanted to be on that edge with him, he wanted to give himself over to the passion and desire and pleasure.

“Tony,” he whispered, not even realizing he was speaking as he shoved his nose and mouth in Tony’s hair.

“Christ, I usually last longer than this, I fucking swear!” Tony cried desperately, leaving marks that burned like fire across Bucky’s shoulders.

“I’ve got you,” Bucky promised, words gusting against Tony’s ear and his neck. The way Tony held to him, eager and needy, made every nerve ending in Bucky’s body sing.

Tony turned his head, gasping, breaths rasping harsh and ugly against Bucky’s cheek. They curled together, clinging, Tony riding Bucky’s powerful thrusts, fighting to stay still so Bucky could fuck him nice and hard.

Bucky held him tighter, picking up his pace with both his hips and his hand, fucking Tony quick and dirty, evidenced by their shared gasps and grunts, filthy little moans that followed the even filthier wet slapping sounds of skin on skin sliding with the aid of another man’s spunk on them both. They fucked like they were doing it just to get the need out of the way, to clear the tension so they could work and then fuck again later, nice and slow and real. And God, what Bucky would do to the pliant mess of beggar in his arms when he had the leisure of taking his time.

Bucky confessed as much against the shell of Tony’s ear, that this was just the warm-up – “Just planting my own flag in there, sweetheart,” in his most sinful whisper – and Tony cried out, bucking his hips, whimpering as he writhed, leaking over Bucky’s wicked fingers.

He had nowhere to go, though, between Bucky’s hands holding him still and Bucky’s cock buried deep inside him on the edge of the table and Bucky’s teeth sinking into his straining neck tendons. He couldn’t escape Bucky’s hands, or Bucky’s voice in his ear, confessing his every sin, his every impure thought like Tony could grant him absolution, murmuring every heinous thing he intended to do to Tony – only if Tony would allow it.

Tony jerked when he came, crying out every one of Bucky’s names that Tony had been trying out, cursing and gasping over and over. Spasms wracked his entire body, from the muscles under Bucky’s metal fingers, to the muscles inside him. Bucky could feel the orgasm pushing Steve’s cum out around his cock as he thrust in long and deep, over and over.

Just the thought had him closer – and God, Steve would come like a damn firehose when Bucky told him what it felt like – but it was Tony’s desperate, rasping moans that pushed Bucky overboard.

“Come in me,” he was saying, over and over, begging, eager, bursting, pleading, hands grasping and dragging over Bucky’s skin, fingernails digging in. “Come in me, Barnes, please! Load me down, come on! Oh, God, oh fuck, Jesus fucking gah!”

Bucky picked his hips up off the table, supporting most of Tony’s weight in one arm as he fucked him, harder and faster and dirtier than Tony deserved to remember him by. The kisses he offered up as an apology were slower, sweeter, more languid, never stopping even when he started coming.

He moaned plaintively in Tony’s mouth, whispering to tell Tony he was filling him full, but it wasn’t enough to interrupt the open-mouthed kiss they were both gasping through.

As they both came down from the rushing sound that followed that kind of fast and dirty getting off, Bucky set Tony back on the edge of the table, still breathing hard, chest heaving. Tony gripped him hard, though, preventing him from trying to pull out. Bucky shushed him gently, running a hand through his hair, kissing him tenderly over and over, on his lips, his cheeks, his chin, his nose. He murmured to him, telling him he understood, that he’d be slow and careful and as much as he’d like to remain there until he was hard again, they couldn’t stay that way.

And he did understand. It wasn’t that Tony hadn’t had time to clean up after Steve had fucked him, not completely. Tony hadn’t wanted to clean up after Steve was done with him, and he most definitely didn’t want to lose any of Steve’s or Bucky’s cum now, as Bucky left him empty and bereft.

Bucky pulled out slowly, still kissing Tony and whispering to him, and he was rather pleased with himself for not making too much of a mess. He was covered in lube and traces of spunk, and of course Tony had shot his load all over Bucky’s stomach, which had smeared between them both. But Tony was still coated inside, full of both Bucky and Steve, just like he’d fucking wanted himself to be.

Bucky kissed Tony a last time, then reached down to grab his sweatpants so they wouldn’t fall as he was trying to disentangle himself from Tony’s legs and jeans.

“Dum-E!” Tony said sharply, making Bucky jump. “Bad!”

Bucky glanced over his shoulder to find that the object Tony had propped his foot against had been the trundling bot that kept trying to take Bucky’s arm and store it in a cabinet. He was reaching for Bucky now, after having the good manners to allow his master to get himself fucked first, of course, now trying to store Bucky like a high-tech dildo.

Bucky showed Dum-E his hand, shaking his head sorrowfully. “Sorry, pal, still attached.” The bot beeped sadly. “You can have the next one gets blown off me, okay?”

Dum-E beeped a little more enthusiastically, and Tony actually laughed. Bucky turned and grabbed him, kissing him for all he was worth before Tony could even get his T-shirt fixed from around his neck. When they parted, they were both struggling to breathe, and Tony was wide-eyed and gaping.

“What was that for?”

“Positive reinforcement,” Bucky gasped. “I’ve never heard you really laugh before.”

Tony’s eyes stayed wide for a moment, then his expression softened and he ran his hand through Bucky’s hair, pulling him close to kiss him more gently.

Bucky stepped away to give him room to slide off the table, and he ducked his head as he pulled his pants back up, tying them securely. Then he glanced around for his shirt, grabbing it up as he felt his face begin to flush. He gave Tony a careful sideways peek. “I’m usually more gallant than this,” he insisted.

“Don’t,” Tony grunted, speaking from beneath a layer of cotton, holding up one hand as he struggled to get his shirt back on correctly. “Don’t you dare try to tell me our first time could have been more perfect, ’cause I’ll call you a damn liar and I know you don’t like that.”

Bucky hummed softly and stepped closer to him, stilling his jerky movements and helping undo whatever the fuck he had done to this poor piece of clothing when he’d been trying to unwrap Tony like he was the goddamn prize in a box of crackerjacks. When he got Tony’s shirt back over his head and onto his arms, he kissed Tony again, unable to help himself. Tony grinned, shivering along with his touch.

Then Tony began to laugh as he shifted his hips on the table. “Super soldier spunk. Collect them all, like goddamn Pokémon.”

Bucky cocked his head, frowning. “The hell is a Pokémon?”

Tony chuckled, shaking his head. “I don’t fucking know.” He slid off the table and buttoned his jeans, zipping them up. He glanced at Bucky sideways, apprehension suddenly investing in his entire body again.

“Okay?” Bucky asked gently.

Tony nodded curtly. “Just . . . what we’re about to try . . . I kind of wish I still hated you for this, Barnes.”

Bucky smiled serenely, running his knuckles gently down the side of Tony’s face. Tony stepped closer and kissed him hungrily, grabbing to his flanks and holding on like he could keep time from marching forward if he just held tight enough. Bucky knew how he felt. He’d tried to hold on to so many things to keep them from marching on without him. One stubborn thing in particular, always marching into danger . . .

Bucky allowed them the next thirty seconds, indulging Tony and himself, wishing he had more time. Then he carefully ended the kiss, forehead pressed to Tony’s, swallowing hard on the tightness forming in his throat. “Come on, Stark,” he rasped. “Now or never.”

Tony nodded, then turned and began looking for the little remote he’d had in his hands. Bucky went to stand in the center of the cleared space, trying to unfurl a little, loosening his shoulders, steeling his mind, preparing himself for . . . anything. Everything.

Tony cursed behind him, and Bucky turned to find him holding the remote in his hand, little green light blinking.

“What?” Bucky blurted in alarm.

“Must have hit the switch when you picked me up,” Tony snarled. “Shit! It’s been active this whole time!”

Bucky blinked stupidly at him, shaking his head. Well . . . he hadn’t prepared himself for that.

==

“What do you mean, the robots might try to fuck us?!” Sam cried as he strapped into his spot on the Stark Industries stealth jet.

Bucky had his lips pressed into a line so thin Steve couldn’t actually see them beneath the scruff, trying desperately not to laugh. Which was good, because Steve was going to fucking kill him if he made even the barest sound that resembled a laugh.

If Bucky laughed, then Steve would laugh. And this was not the time.

Tony, to his credit, was as straight-faced and dry as ever. “It’s just a glitch in the programming, no biggie,” he insisted.

“No . . . biggie?” Sam echoed.

Tony ignored him. “We’ve managed to program a surrender code embedded in the relay system. Any of the Red Eyes who are still able to download new programming will automatically surrender to this motion. If you’re able, try it first. Might save your life.”

He showed them the hand motions that he and Bucky had worked through the night to program into the Red Eyes. Clint automatically burst out laughing. He laughed so hard the others couldn’t get him to breathe long enough to tell them what the motion meant, and Clint wound up falling into Bucky’s side, hugging him sideways, proclaiming his undying love.

Natasha had to fill the rest of them in, and when she did even Steve blushed a little, glaring at Bucky fondly. The Avengers – the fugitive Avengers – were going to fly in to the rescue, asking a bunch of robots, ‘how much for a handjob?’ in ASL to save the day.

Bucky was an asshole, but at least he had a sense of humor to go with his work ethic. Steve had grown worried around 2 am and gone in search of both Bucky and Tony, finding them in the lab, working tirelessly, faces lined with exhaustion and determination. Steve didn’t think he could love either of them any harder than he had in that moment.

He’d watched as they’d done it over and over, Tony giving the hand signals, and then Bucky immediately freezing his every motion, dropping to his knees, and lacing his fingers behind his head. A few times Tony had gone so far as to restrain him with a zip tie, letting Bucky test the strength gently and then remain there, tied up even though he and the robots could snap the zip tie easily.

For five hours, Tony and Bucky had trained the chip embedded in Bucky’s arm how and when to surrender. Steve had joined them, practicing the hand gestures and then giving them to Bucky as well so they wouldn’t accidentally program the Red Eyes to react only to Tony’s particular quirks. A few times Bucky and Steve had grappled, waiting until Bucky was about to deliver a killing blow before being utterly halted by the surrender commands.

Finally, Tony had opened up Bucky’s arm to tweak the relay and remove the Red Eye component. They didn’t want to risk having it in Bucky’s arm if something went wrong on the battlefield tomorrow . . . at least, that was what Tony had told Bucky. Steve knew what he was really doing; installing a sleeper relay into Bucky’s nervous system. One click from the remote, and Bucky would drop like a stone, left behind in the safety of the jet while the team took care of the Red Eyes who were there solely for Bucky.

When they’d finished, the sun had been rising, Bucky had been emotionally exhausted even though he’d been surrendering to men he trusted and loved – and hadn’t that thought made both Tony and Steve feel like the worst human beings to ever slink around at Bucky’s feet – and Tony had been as confident in the system they’d created as he could be.

Only then had Tony and Bucky sheepishly told Steve about the initial mistake with the remote. Steve had laughed at first, pleased that Tony and Bucky had ironed out their differences, at least. He was also undeniably turned on by the thought, but that would have to wait.

Tony had gone off to sleep the last few hours he was able, and Steve and Bucky had returned to Steve’s room, enjoying the calm before the storm as they wrapped up in each other’s arms. Bucky had slept the sleep of a man who’d come to terms with his fate, silent and still in Steve’s arms. Steve had buried his face in Bucky’s soft hair, holding to him, seriously contemplating just taking Bucky and bolting, running to somewhere that they’d be safe, together, for the rest of their incredibly long natural lives.

But Bucky would never run, not when he blamed himself for the threat, no matter how wrong he was in that belief. And Steve would never be without Bucky again.

He knew Bucky was treating this as a suicide mission. He knew Bucky’d had conversations with the team about how to handle Steve and his suicidal tendencies that they both knew would crop up if Steve lost Bucky again. What Bucky hadn’t told any of them, what Bucky possibly didn’t actually know, was that if he fell on the battlefield, if he died out there tomorrow, then Steve was going to jump after him. Steve would jump after him any way he could. He’d told Bucky that, and he fucking meant it.

He knew Bucky didn’t believe him. But Steve intended to make sure he knew, before they landed. If Bucky died, he took Steve with him.

Maybe that would keep Bucky’s stubborn ass fighting right up to the end of the goddamn line, like he always promised.

Maybe that was the motivation behind sabotaging him. Steve didn’t want to look too deeply into his own psyche, but maybe he was trying to save himself as much as he was trying to save Bucky. If he lost Bucky, he’d die yet another miserable, self-inflicted death, just like when he’d taken a nose-dive into the Arctic.

He hadn’t considered what would happen if he died tomorrow and Bucky woke, safe and sound on the jet, forced to learn of Steve’s death after the fact yet again.

Sitting in the jet the next morning, listening to Tony’s run-down, Steve caught Bucky’s eyes and gave him a nod. Bucky unstrapped himself, moving to follow Steve to the back of the jet, where they could talk without disturbing the others.

“What’s up, Cap?” Bucky asked, a small smile twisting across his lips.

Steve sighed heavily, then gave in and pulled Bucky closer by the side of his neck to kiss him. He felt Bucky relaxing against him, leaning into the kiss, humming quietly. When they parted, Bucky was smiling softly, struggling to force his eyes back open. Steve pressed his forehead to Bucky’s, holding on to his neck.

“Buck,” Steve whispered, loud enough only for Bucky to hear him over the gentle hum of the jet engines. “If you fall again –”

“Don’t,” Bucky snarled suddenly, trying to turn away.

Steve grabbed him with both hands, forcing him against the bulkhead, staring into his eyes. Bucky blinked rapidly, obviously surprised that Steve was vehement enough to manhandle him at all, much less in front of the team. Steve paid them no mind, not knowing or caring if they were still having their briefing or if they were all watching. Steve did not care.

“Bucky,” Steve hissed. “If you fall. If you fucking die on me today like you’ve been telling everyone you will? I will jump after you.”

Bucky swallowed hard, his breath harsh against Steve’s lips. He looked like Steve had just punched him in the gut, his lips parted and his chest heaving, his eyes gone sad and hopeless. “Stevie,” he whispered.

Steve growled and gripped Bucky’s arms tighter, slamming him against the bulkhead again. “Do you understand?” he shouted. It was a voice Steve couldn’t remember ever coming out of his own mouth. It was anger and pain and demand and an order he intended everyone in the goddamn world to follow. He gritted his teeth, then lowered his voice to a gentler pitch, moving closer to Bucky, eyes tracing Bucky’s features lovingly, almost obsessively. “Buck. Do you understand?”

Bucky nodded slowly. His eyes were still heavy with sadness and pain, his normally expressive face impassive. “I understand, Steve,” he assured Steve in a whisper. He waited a bit, then nodded curtly, lip curling viciously. “Likewise, pal.”

Steve kissed him hard enough to knock Bucky’s head against the bulkhead. Bucky didn’t seem to care, wrapping his arms around Steve’s neck and kissing him back for all he was worth.

When they separated and glanced over at the team, no one was paying them any attention . . . outwardly, at least. They shared a last look, eyes searching each other, words caught in throats too tight to exchange more than a simple, loaded nod.

“Approaching target, Boss,” F.R.I.D.A.Y announced, and the team began gearing up.

Steve cleared his throat, taking a deep breath to steel himself against backing out. “Tony?” he called.

Tony was in the Iron Man armor, his faceplate raised so they could still see his face. When he turned to look at Steve, his eyes were impossibly sad. His expression warred between ‘please don’t make me do this’ and ‘let’s get it the fuck over with and save his stupid life!’ Steve knew exactly how he felt.

Steve gave him a somber nod. “Do it.”

The rest of the team had taken note of the interaction, watching them warily, knowing whatever was coming was bad.

Bucky, most of all, knew Steve’s expression was nothing but bad news. He looked between Steve and Tony, body tensing. “Steve, what –”

Tony gave Steve a brief, sarcastic salute, then held his fist up and hit a button attached to a small wand the size of a battery.

Bucky’s arm buzzed with something like static electricity and his body arched, spasming as the jolt ran through him. The jet landed down with a muffled thump just as Bucky collapsed into Steve’s arms. Tony held the rest of the team back as Steve laid Bucky out in the center aisle of the jet. Bucky’s body still jerked, his teeth gritted even in unconsciousness.

“I’m sorry,” Steve whispered, pushing Bucky’s hair off his forehead. “I can’t let them have you again.”

“Jesus, Cap, what have you done?” Clint cried, trying to push past Tony but unable to budge the Iron Man armor.

Steve’s expression was grim and determined when he looked up, Bucky’s face still held in his hands. “We saved his life.”

Clint shook his head, breathing hard, probably trying to fight adrenaline down, just like Steve. “Naw, Cap,” he murmured sadly. “No. You just fucking killed him.”

“Clint.”

“You just killed everything that makes him him!” Clint snarled. He pointed at Steve, then Tony. Then his face hardened even more and he curled his lip at Steve in disgust, turning toward the exits. “When this is over, I’m done with you. If I live through today? I’m going home and I’m taking him with me.”

“Clint,” Steve repeated in warning, standing and stepping over Bucky’s motionless body.

“Fuck you, Cap!” Clint shouted. “He’ll go with me, I won't even have to drug him or knock him out or nothin', and you want to know why? ’Cause after today I’ll be the only one in this goddamn world he’ll trust not to hurt him!”

Steve stared after his grumbling team, left alone on the plane with Tony and Bucky and the swirling nausea in his gut. He shared a glance with Tony, who returned his look with a sad nod. “They’re probably right, Steve.”

Steve peered over his shoulder at Bucky, who sprawled where Steve had left him, his metal arm shining dully under the plane’s lights, his tac gear immaculate and loaded down with as many or more weapons than he’d strapped on the night he’d taken on Tony’s obstacle course. His long hair was loose, and he’d painted black camo in a streak across his beautiful blue eyes. With the mask and the bullet-proof, red tinted goggles he had hanging off a strap near his shoulder, he made quite the impression.

The Holy Ghost; the media’s current darling, the goddamn love of Steve Rogers’s life, his soul mate from the moment they’d breathed the same air.

If Steve had to break his heart to save him, then so be it.

Steve nodded, still secure in his and Tony’s decision. “Let’s go,” he said, pushing his com into his ear and heading for the door and the rest of his seething team.

Chapter Text

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.

“Steve?”

“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.

==

Chapter Text

Steve sat at the breakfast table, eating, trying to savor how fucking delicious everything was, but also trying to savor the way Bucky looked in the morning light streaming from the windows, and he was sure that he wound up just sitting there and staring while he chewed with an open mouth like a goddamn moron.

Bucky occasionally glanced up to meet his eyes, giving him a gentle smile before looking away. Each one was more painful than the last.

“Steve said you might need help fixing your tractor,” Tony said to Clint at one point, and though Clint gave a nod and a serious frown, Bucky nearly choked on a bite of pancake and had to excuse himself, coughing and cursing his way out the back door to spit his food into the flowers.

Steve and Tony both watched him go in utter confusion, but Clint ignored him, smiling serenely as he chewed. “Tractor’s running okay today,” he assured Tony.

When Bucky came back he’d regained his composure, and when he passed behind Clint, he set three metal fingers on Clint’s upper arm, letting them drag from shoulder to shoulder as he walked behind him. Clint shivered. But neither man appeared to have consciously noticed the action. It was habit, one that had been formed through weeks and maybe even months of practice. Something Steve had never seen them do at the Compound.

And suddenly it hit Steve, his suspicions confirmed, the dread he’d been feeling since he’d seen the layer of dust on the motorcycle outside creeping back up on him. “You’ve been here, haven’t you?” he asked Bucky, feeling dazed and empty and numb.

Bucky glanced up, one eyebrow raised, as he sat down at his plate and took up his fork. He glanced between Clint and Tony, then back to Steve. “Yeah,” he answered finally, matter-of-fact, like Steve maybe should have known that already.

Asshole. Asshole!

Steve realized his jaw was tight, and he pushed his shoulders back, inclining his head to try to loosen up some. “Wow,” he murmured. He stared at the beadboard ceiling for a few moments before placing his fork in his plate and standing. He might have said something more as he left the table, he wasn’t entirely sure. He muttered to himself as he headed for the front door, not actually saying anything coherent, just repeating the words ‘wow’ and ‘okay’ as he went.

He wasn’t even sure what he was going outside for. Open spaces? Fresh air? To crush the front fender of that dusty motorcycle with his bare hands?

He headed toward the woodpile almost automatically. Of course he did, this was where he’d headed the last time someone he loved broke his fucking heart, wasn’t it?

He heard the door snap shut behind him, light steps on the wooden porch. That wasn’t Bucky following him, then, because Bucky didn’t make sound. No sir, not Bucky Barnes, he didn’t leave a fucking trace behind him when he made his way through the goddamn world.

“Steve?” Tony called carefully.

Steve shook his head, sitting heavily on the large stump that was used for cutting wood. The ax was nowhere in sight. He supposed they didn’t need a lot of firewood in the middle of September, not yet.

“He missed my birthday, you know?” Steve called to Tony.

“I know.”

“He and Clint planned this.”

“I know,” Tony called again. He waited a beat, long enough for Steve to sink just a little lower. Then he added, “Kind of like you and I planned what we did to him, Steve.”

Steve sighed heavily, bowing his head.

“They’re starting work soon. I’m going to look at his arm first,” Tony said, still at the porch railing. When Steve glanced over, he saw that Tony had both hands on the railing, gripping until his knuckles were white. He was watching Steve with something like hope in his dark eyes, but Steve’s heart hurt too much to decipher it entirely.

Tony headed back inside, and Steve sat there, trying to breathe, trying to make his heart stop aching. Why was he this upset? Wasn’t it better that Bucky had been here with people who cared for him, rather than out there in the world, alone and on the run? Was Steve really so selfish, was he truly so possessive and blind, that he would have been happier to see Bucky looking ragged and hunted, slinking onto the farm like a stray cat after two months of living hard and alone, than to find him happy and healthy with a damn hipster haircut and treating Clint Barton like an equal at the breakfast table?

Steve shook his head. He was being stupid. He was just hurt that Bucky hadn’t tried contacting him. He’d be this hurt no matter where Bucky had been holed up. He’d been this hurt for months, and seeing Bucky across from him, with a look almost like forgiveness in his eyes, it was breaking down the walls Steve had carefully built up to keep himself sane.

When he got back inside, he found Bucky sitting at the kitchen table, his metal arm propped on the table beside him, his head cocked as he stared at the door – and at Steve – with a small smile. He looked like he was waiting for something, and Tony and Clint were nowhere to be found.

Shit, was this ‘the talk’ already? Steve had made an ass of himself and now Bucky was going to dress him down, remind him that he had absolutely no right to be upset about anything Bucky did ever again.

Bucky’s metal fingers tapped at the table, a tune that Steve couldn’t quite place. But he remained silent, a small smile quirking his lips.

“Where’d everyone go?” Steve asked carefully after eyeing the empty rooms.

“Tony got the access panel open, but didn’t have the right tool to tweak the inner component that’s out of whack,” Bucky explained with a wave of his flesh hand at the arm. “Now I can’t move, and the keystone cops are in the barn, looking for the toolbox that’s in the attic.”

Steve snorted, fighting a smile almost against his will. He moved closer hesitantly, eyeing Bucky sideways, his heart speeding up as he got closer. Bucky’s gaze followed him, a gentle smile on his lips, his eyes sad and kind, his entire expression telegraphing that he knew Steve was in pain and wanted to ease it, but Steve would have to ask first, give Bucky permission to help him. Just like always.

Steve sat in the seat Bucky had one bare foot resting in, but Bucky didn’t move his foot, forcing Steve to sit with his hip against Bucky’s toes. Little tendrils of electricity shot through Steve everywhere their bodies touched. Steve tried to suppress the flush he could feel rising and watched him sideways for a few seconds, tense, holding his breath.

“You look good,” he finally settled on saying. It came out a whisper.

“You don’t,” Bucky murmured, dipping his head in concern.

Steve’s shoulders slumped slightly and his gaze fell, landing on Bucky’s hand where it rested in his lap.

“How are you handling the Captain America is bi stuff?” Bucky asked with a wince. Steve glanced up sharply, narrowing his eyes at Bucky. “We saw it on the news, first week out. I wanted to call you, but . . .” He shook his head and shrugged.

“You could have.”

Bucky shook his head again.

Steve swallowed uneasily, fighting to maintain eye contact.

“So?” Bucky asked, taking a deep breath and tapping his fingers against the table again. Steve didn’t know if he was doing it to distract himself, or doing it to keep Steve off-balance. There was a very different connotation to those purposes, and Steve desperately wanted to know if they were both nervous, or if Bucky was playing with his food.

Steve winced guiltily when he realized what he’d just thought. The same accusation Tony had leveled at Bucky, the same one that had upset him so much . . . God, Steve needed to get his shit together or he was going to keep hurting his best friend over and over.

“Steve?”

“We haven’t made an official statement,” Steve blurted, thankful for something else to talk about. “But we’ve let several reliable sources leak that I’m bi and don’t have any comment because it’s not an actual story to remark on.”

Bucky winced, ducking his head and sighing. He didn’t say anything, though.

“What?” Steve snapped.

Bucky shook his head placidly, but Steve was battling back that same anger, gritting his teeth, body tensing.

“If you have some fucking advice on how to handle the aftermath of your actions, then maybe you should have been around to give it!”

“I didn’t say anything,” Bucky insisted quietly, head still bowed. He looked to the side, out the window where Steve’s enhanced hearing had also picked up the sounds of Tony and Clint murmuring and the barn door swinging closed.

Steve snorted, angrily this time, gritting his teeth as he looked away from Bucky. “Since when have you held your tongue when you disapprove of my decisions, huh? Jesus, you never minded saying a word against me before. Never could pass up an opportunity to point out where I was wrong in front of men who barely considered me a real soldier anyway.”

“When your decisions can get me killed I’ll talk all I fucking want to, Steve,” Bucky answered calmly. Way too calmly. “That was my job and you know it. Coming out, though, that’s all yours. You do it however you need to.”

Steve turned his head to stare at him, narrowing his eyes and looking him up and down.

Bucky ducked his head primly, as if offering Steve a concession. His eyes had gone harder, his jaw set. When he spoke, Steve recognized his tone of voice from the War, when he’d called Bucky ‘Sergeant’ with venom on his tongue during an argument, making sure Bucky knew his place. “I’ll be sure to temper my facial expressions from now on so they don’t upset you, Captain.”

The back door squeaked horribly as Clint and Tony came back through it. “Wow, WD40, huh?” Tony teased.

“Buck likes for all the doors to squeak so the kiddos can’t sneak up on him,” Clint answered. “You know how hard it is to make a door squeaky? Harder than I expected.”

Tony laughed softly, strolling toward the table with a bundle of tools in his hand. “Scoot,” he said to Steve, who gave Bucky one last angry glance before vacating the seat and pacing away.

Tony took his seat, setting the tools on the table and leaning toward Bucky, who was watching him in bemusement. He hadn’t moved his foot from the seat of the chair, and when Tony pulled the chair closer, it put Tony’s hip right up against Bucky’s calf, leaning over his lap to peer into the open panel on Bucky’s arm.

“A cow kicked you?”

“No,” Bucky insisted.

“Not for lack of trying, though,” Clint added.

“What were you doing to the cow?”

“I was looking at it. Last cow I saw was that one in France that wandered out into no man’s land and we had to fight off a battalion of hungry Germans for her.”

Tony was staring in horror, but Steve’s eyes had widened, the memory flooding him so suddenly that he barked a laugh before covering his smirk with his hand and glancing at Tony apologetically.

Tony looked between them. “You’re telling me you ate the cow?”

“Oh, we ate the cow,” Steve assured him. “We ate so much of that cow.”

“Sucked the marrow from the bones for days after,” Bucky added.

Tony made a gagging sound and turned his head.

“That’s not what you were thinking when you were looking at my cow, is it?” Clint asked, deadpan.

“Merely reminiscing,” Bucky said, with a wink up at Steve that had Steve grinning almost against his will.

“You’re going to need to be quiet now,” Tony told him with a grunt as he bent his head to begin tinkering with Bucky’s arm.

Bucky sighed and cocked his head, watching Tony sideways for a few seconds, his expression fond. It made Steve’s chest clutch around his heart. If Bucky could still watch Tony work with that look on his face, maybe he could still forgive them? Maybe the reason he was here, the reason he’d answered his phone after all this time, was because he was ready to take a step back toward them.

The hope contrasted wildly with the pain and anger Steve was still trying to shove down. After a few seconds of watching Tony, Bucky turned his head and glanced up at Steve, staring blatantly, considering him. He finally tilted his head, beckoning Steve closer, and he raised his hand toward him.

Steve scowled in confusion, but he stepped closer, holding his bod stiff, rigid against the hope.

Bucky took his fingers, squeezing them and using them to pull Steve another step. He brought Steve’s hand up and pressed his lips to Steve’s fingers, his eyes on Steve’s the entire time.

Steve’s breath caught in his throat, his tongue twisted up and sparks skittering up his arm from where Bucky had touched him.

“I’m sorry,” Bucky offered softly.

Steve stared at him. He stared at him long enough that he could tell he’d taken too long and the others in the room were getting uncomfortable. Bucky wasn’t, because Bucky knew him; Bucky knew Steve was awkward and slow and goddamn stubborn and stupid, and Bucky would sit there silent and patient with that goddamn sad smile on his lips for as long as it took, holding onto Steve’s fingers and meeting his eyes, right up until Steve either remembered what he was supposed to do or did something else stupid.

Steve dropped to his knees, holding Bucky’s hand in his hard enough to break the bones of a normal man, and he laid his head against Bucky’s thigh.

“Hey!” Tony cried. “Jostle the Mechanic and electrocute the Ghost, okay, geez.”

“Sorry,” Steve mumbled against the denim of Bucky’s jeans, but he wasn’t sorry at all, not at fucking all.

Bucky slowly removed his hand from Steve’s grasp, but he only did it so he could run his fingers through Steve’s hair. He rested his palm on Steve’s head, his thumb brushing back and forth over Steve’s temple. “You’re okay, pal,” he whispered. “We’re okay.”

Tony worked in silence for a few more seconds before Clint snorted. “Can’t believe you two reconciled over a dead cow.”

==

Tony had half expected the tiling and flooring thing to be innuendo when coming from Bucky and Clint, but it wasn’t. They really were spending the week putting down new flooring and tiling the backsplash in the kitchen of the farmhouse, and Tony wasn’t sure what to do with that.

Bucky and Clint moved together easily, they laughed together easily, and when they took breaks, they lounged together on the front porch and passed a cigarette between them like it wasn’t anything new. Tony was man enough to admit he was jealous. Steve . . . Steve might not have even realized he was jealous, but he absolutely was, Tony could see it in the way his eyes followed Bucky’s every move. He’d smashed more tile than he’d laid down, distracted by his roaming attention.

For Bucky’s part, he either remained oblivious to the tension, or he ignored it so studiously that he had even himself fooled into thinking everything was fine.

Tony decided, after hours and hours of adhesive and spacers and leveling tile, that he wasn’t going to say a damn thing. This was between Bucky and Steve.

After ten long hours of work, they had the backsplash tile all in place. It looked damned good, if Tony did say so himself.

Clint clapped his hands together, grinning, covered in tile dust and white streaks of adhesive and maybe a little bit of blood? How?

“Should we start on the floor while the adhesive dries?” he asked cheekily. His exhaustion was clear in his voice.

Tony groaned.

“How long’s it have to dry?” Bucky asked in all seriousness as he grabbed up the tub of adhesive they’d been using. “This says twenty-four to forty-eight hours. We should be able to lay all the floor before the grout goes in.”

Clint cocked his head at him, his shoulders slumping.

“You’re serious?” Tony asked. He was exhausted. All he wanted was a shower and a twelve-hour nap.

Bucky looked up from reading the tub and blinked in surprise. He glanced at Clint, who was smiling at him in fond exasperation. “That a super soldier stamina thing?” Bucky asked sheepishly.

“Yeah, bud,” Clint answered, clapping him on the back as he trudged out of the kitchen, heading for the stairs. “First one there gets the hot water!”

“Dammit, no!” Tony yelled back at him. But Clint was already gone, leaving the three of them alone for the first time since Tony and Steve had arrived. Tony glanced between Steve and Bucky, holding his breath.

Bucky was eyeing the boxes of flooring speculatively, and Steve was watching Bucky.

“You want to start on it?” Steve asked finally.

Bucky gave him a crooked grin. “Kinda.”

Tony growled. “No, fuck you both. The normal people need rest, okay. We’re done.” He pointed at Steve and then Bucky. “You’re done.”

“Fair enough,” Bucky grumbled. He set the adhesive back on the counter and reached for the lid to it, his fingers brushing over Steve’s when they both grabbed for it at the same time. Steve ducked his head and pulled his hand back, mumbling an apology. But Bucky was gazing at him almost serenely, a small smile curling on his lips. His pretty, pretty goddamn lips.

Tony looked away before he could whimper.

Bucky sighed softly. Almost too softly. But when Tony glanced over at him, Bucky was watching Steve still while he covered the adhesive. When Tony moved, Bucky’s eyes flicked over to meet his. He looked between them again, his ice gray eyes calculating, his mouth set in a narrow line. Then he reached for Steve and took him by the upper arm, shaking him.

“Come on, both of you,” he ordered, pulling at Steve to follow him as he headed for the back door.

Tony followed hesitantly, meeting Steve’s eyes when the man glanced over his shoulder in near terror at him. Tony shrugged. It couldn’t be any more painful than what they’d been through already, right?

Bucky led them around the back of the house, then pointed to a ladder that was leaning against the siding. Steve looked at him like he was crazy.

“What? It’s safe, I swear,” Bucky said in response to the expression they were apparently both giving him. He either didn’t realize or was ignoring the fact that they were both confused as hell as to why they were climbing a random ladder on the side of Clint Barton’s farmhouse, rather than fearing for their safety.

Steve narrowed his eyes and started up the ladder, glancing at Bucky again after he got a few rungs up.

“Besides, your ass looks amazing from this angle,” Bucky drawled as he smirked up at Steve. “Nice jeans.”

Steve looked down again, huffing at him, color rising to his cheeks, but not able to conceal the lopsided grin Bucky’s words elicited. Tony hadn’t seen that grin in oh so very fucking long.

Once Steve was up far enough, Bucky jerked his head at Tony, telling him he was next. “Bet your ass looks pretty damn good from that angle too, huh, doll?”

Tony snorted, forced to bite his cheek to keep from smiling too much and giving him the goddamn satisfaction. “You shouldn’t call me that.”

“Why is that? You don’t like it?” Bucky asked in earnest.

“No, I do. That’s the problem,” Tony grunted, and he started up the ladder before he could see whatever expression Bucky responded with. He joined Steve on an overhang, the roof that probably covered the sun porch, and they carefully sat on the rough shingles as they peered out over the farm – and over the edge – as Bucky climbed up.

He was sure-footed when he joined them, squeezing in between them and sitting, his shoulders pressing against them both, sighing as he settled. He reached behind himself and grabbed something, pulling back with one of those black e-cigarettes Tony knew he liked, the kind that glowed blue on the tip. He apparently came out here a lot. Tony idly wondered if this was where Bucky and Clint sat when they needed time alone, both up high on a perch, with a view of their world, together.

Jealousy and pain flared bright and hot in Tony’s chest at the thought, and he viciously shoved it down. Yes, Steve had every right to be jealous about Bucky’s relationship with Clint, but Tony sure as shit didn’t, Jesus Christ.

“You mind?” Bucky asked them both, waving the black e-cig between them.

Tony shook his head and Steve muttered something about lung cancer that Bucky studiously ignored. The smoke was fragrant, anyway, and Tony quite enjoyed watching the way Bucky held the infernal thing. He also enjoyed the smoke rings Bucky was able to blow onto the breeze, and the way his lips formed them.

“What are we doing up here, Buck?” Steve finally asked.

“Figured it’d be easier to talk if the only quick exit is over the side of a roof,” Bucky admitted. “Although height has never stopped your dumb ass from anything, so I’m not sure why I bothered.”

Tony rolled his eyes and bent forward so he could look at Steve. He still looked terrified, staring at Bucky, white as a sheet. Tony was certain that the only thing in the world Steve was actually scared of was sitting right between them.

But nothing Bucky could say would be worse than the last two months. Nothing.

“I left so I wouldn’t speak my mind,” Bucky told them, his voice gentle but just bulling right into it like a goddamn Barnes in a china shop, fucking asshole, can’t even make small talk for a few more minutes, just rips the fucking Band-Aid right off. “I was afraid of the things I would say to you if I was given the chance. Things I couldn’t take back once they were said, things that neither of you would ever be able to forget.”

“You could have,” Steve started, but Bucky waved him off. “You could have talked to –”

“Trust me, pal, the things I wanted to say to you two, it’s best I let that simmer off the griddle.”

Tony’s stomach churned. He could imagine the kinds of things Bucky had wanted to say to them both.

“I’m sorry I’ve been silent so long,” Bucky continued, lowering his head. “I had to work it off. Had to make sure when I saw you again, I wouldn’t be so angry. That I wouldn’t want to try to hurt you like I did n Charlotte by walking away.”

“Did it work?” Tony asked.

Bucky blew a stream of smoke into the air, nodding with a serene smile. “Only thing I want to do is kiss you both senseless, so yeah. It worked.”

“Good.”

They sat in silence, listening to the world around them. Tony could feel something like relief washing through him, his shoulders relaxing. He hadn’t quite realized just how much he’d been carrying of Bucky’s very distant anger on his own back, hunched under the weight of knowing it was out there.

“That’s it?” Steve finally blurted after sitting in stunned silence.

Bucky and Tony both looked at him, Tony in horror – what the hell was he doing, trying to talk Bucky out of forgiveness?? – and Bucky in bemusement.

“I mean, you just fall off the face of the goddamned planet for two months, and suddenly everything’s fine now ’cause you’re not mad anymore?”

“Yeah, Steve,” Bucky said slowly, taking another deep drag. “Do you want it more complicated than that? Want it to hurt more? Want it all to mean something?”

As he spoke, smoke puffed out from between his lips.

Steve looked momentarily stricken. “I . . .”

Bucky reached carefully for him, sliding his fingers over Steve’s thigh, then squeezing it as he wrapped his big hand around the inside of it. He didn’t let Steve go. “You really think you being a dumb shit can drive me away permanent?”

Steve huffed, gritting his teeth and looking away. Bucky handed him the e-cig, and to Tony’s shock, Steve accepted it and took a deep drag on it. He didn’t even cough or anything as he held the smoke in his lungs.

“Do you want me to stay away?” Bucky asked. His tone was even and sweet, but Tony could hear the undercurrent in it, the fear, the hesitancy.

Tony began to shake his head, willing himself to keep his trap shut because this was really about Steve and Bucky, not him too.

When Steve didn’t answer, Bucky turned to Tony, eyebrows raised in question. He reached a tentative hand and placed his palm on Tony’s knee. Tony stared at it, feeling like he’d just been electrocuted. “Is that what I need to do? Stay away for good? I will, if you two have figured things out.”

“No!” Tony blurted, unable to hold his tongue because he couldn’t sit by and watch Steve be a stubborn asshole and ruin this. He grabbed Bucky’s hand before the man could break contact. “No, please. Please come back with us.”

Bucky’s eyes darted over Tony’s face, narrowing before his expression softened and he smiled fondly. He squeezed Tony’s knee, then glanced toward Steve, who had his head lowered, smoke streaming through his lips. Tony could see Bucky’s fingers tightening on Steve’s thigh and he shook him gently, like he was trying to rattle words out of him.

“That what you want, Stevie?” His voice was so gentle, it made Tony imagine the two of them, smaller and younger, innocent and yet not, talking to each other in childish whispers on a fire escape as they stared out at a city that would soon leave them both behind. “You want me to come back?”

Steve hunched his shoulders, but he raised his head and took a deep breath. “I don’t want you coming back out of . . . pity. Or . . . or habit. I only want you coming back if you’re back for good, if you’re back for us. I’ve seen you and Clint, Buck, the way you look at him. You’re in love with him.” He said it almost accusingly, but Tony could hear the anguish in Steve’s voice. He hoped Bucky could too.

“Maybe so,” Bucky murmured, taking a deep draw from the e-cig after Steve handed it back to him, then placing his hand right back on Steve’s thigh as he looked out over the farmland. “I love him. I love every one of them. But they’re a family here, Steve, and as nice as it’s been, I can’t stay here forever. I won’t. Clint and I have already talked about it. After the week is up, I’m leaving here either way. I just . . .”

Steve turned sharp eyes on Bucky then, and Tony winced away from the expression. Steve looked . . . angry. Tony wanted to muzzle the man and make sure he couldn’t say anything dumb ever again.

“I just want to know if I can come home,” Bucky finished softly, meeting Steve’s eyes fearlessly.

“And where is home, huh?” Steve asked, acid in his vowels.

Bucky shrugged, blatantly – gleefully even – ignoring Steve’s evil mood as he placed his e-cig back between his lips. “Wherever you are, pal.”

==

Bucky lay in bed alone, staring at the window and the moonlight on the hills beyond. He’d known when Steve and Tony found him here there would be some . . . discord? Yeah. Nothing would go smoothly, and that was okay.

For the first time in Bucky’s life, he had time to deal with Steve without that edge of desperation that he’d always had to face before. Steve before the serum; sick and vulnerable and never knowing if this cough would be his last. Steve during the war; brash and determined, listening to the sound of mortar fire as they tried to sleep, every minute possibly the last they’d ever have together.

No. Now, Bucky had time.

Steve was everything the weirdly invasive history books and biographies said he was. He was every inch and ounce the great man the world thought him to be. Bucky had known that all along, and he was pleased that even seventy years later, the whole world was finally beginning to get to know his Steve. And Steve’s mind was something special too. He was one of the greatest tacticians the world had ever seen. Any situation, any enemy, any impossible scenario you could throw at him, Steve would bull right through it. Put him up against any great leader of the past, and Bucky would place his bets on Steve every time.

He had, in fact. Bucky’d bet his life on Steve, every time they’d waltzed into battle.

The thing was, Steve’s tactical mind was a thing of beauty, a rare gem in a world of mediocrity, something that barely came along once every few generations.

But when it came to matters of the heart and soul? Steve Rogers was kind of a dumbass.

That was a thing the books never talked about, but Bucky knew it. He knew it intimately. He also knew the other thing about Steve that the books rarely touched on, and that was his temper.

Did people really think that normal guys born in the goddamn 1910’s wound up fighting behind buildings on the regular? Did people really think that getting into an average of one fistfight per week was what respectable, even-keeled mid-twenty-year-old citizens did during the 30’s and 40s?

How the hell did all those fucking historians think Steve had wound up face down in his own blood in back alley fights so often? It sure as shit wasn’t his magnanimous decision-making and patience for negotiations. He had the temperament of a lactose intolerant wolverine, okay, and he and Bucky had both paid for it.

But for the first time, Bucky had time to deal with Steve’s temper his way.

Bucky wasn’t going to lay in that bed and try to convince the moon that he himself didn’t have a temper as well, because there was newsreel from World War Two that had been put on YouTube and would prove him a liar. Bucky had a temper – something the current generation apparently found incredibly hot, according to the comments section? – he had a temper and he knew how to use it, he knew how to lose it, right, he knew how to lose it spectacularly, the kind of losing his temper that made grown men stare in wide-eyed terror, that made Nazi soldiers scream and run in the middle of a shady clearing, the kind of temper that left men broken and bloody in a bar fight because what the hell did you just say?

Yeah, Bucky knew he had a temper. But it wasn’t his go-to way of solving things, not things that mattered. Back-alley brawls or gun fights, sure. But not things like this. Not Steve. Not love.

So he had time to wait out Steve’s anger, to do this his goddamn way for once. Steve was a rolling tide, battering a shore over and over, frothing and sputtering and messy. Bucky? He was the shore. And he could take it.

There was a light tapping at his door to save him from dropping any further into maudlin literary musings, and he rolled over to peer at it. “Come,” he whispered.

The door opened gently, squeaking with a godawful noise that made Bucky smirk. He didn’t know exactly how Clint had managed to make every hinge in the house noisy, but he’d been grateful for it. He’d gone a little overboard with Bucky’s door, but it needed it most of all. Those kids were too damn light on their feet, and they took after their daddy, barely made a sound.

Tony winced and shook his head like a shiver had run through him. “Jesus, Barton wasn’t kidding about the hinges, huh?”

“Nope,” Bucky answered, pushing himself up onto his elbows to cock his head. “Everything okay?”

“Can I come in?” Tony asked, noticeably refusing to answer Bucky’s query.

Bucky merely nodded, since most of his body was bathed in light from the hallway and Tony would be able to see him. Tony took a step out of the doorway and reached down the hall to click the light off, then he stepped into Bucky’s bedroom and closed the door, not even bothering to try to be quiet about it. Bucky tracked his movements in the dim room, listening to his bare feet padding on the hardwood floor, the swish of his pajama pants, the sharp cracking of his ankle bones that took so much abuse for a man whose only protection from the world was a suit of armor that landed hard every time it came home.

Tony hovered by the edge of the bed, and Bucky could feel his hesitation like he was giving it off in waves.

“Come here,” Bucky coaxed gently, pushing his covers back and scooting to make room in the double bed.

Tony didn’t make him ask twice. He pulled the quilt up over them both as he settled at Bucky’s side, and Bucky slid his arm under Tony’s neck, curling it around him carefully and smiling when Tony turned into him and relaxed against his shoulder.

“You okay?” Bucky asked this time, his lips moving against Tony’s forehead.

Tony sighed softly. “Steve’s having a rough night, asked me to give him some time. I asked him if he minded that I needed the exact goddamn opposite of alone time, and I figured maybe you’d keep me company. He knows I’m here, since I know that’s your next question.”

Bucky nodded and rolled a little more on his side so he was facing Tony, able to make out his features in the moonlight. He raised his hand, his flesh hand, reaching for Tony’s face. He stopped before he made contact, though, forcing himself to remember that he’d kind of given up the right to touch either man when he’d abandoned them on a battlefield.

“Please,” Tony said, his voice so soft it could have been another mere swish of cotton on a wood floor. “Please do whatever you just stopped yourself from doing.”

Bucky’s chest and shoulder ached as the words sank into him, warmth and tingling tendrils of nerves sweeping through him. A smile quirked his lips as he placed three fingers on Tony’s cheekbone, then slid them down until he had his knuckles under Tony’s jaw, looking into his eyes. Tony was holding his breath, and in the utter silence of the house, Bucky could hear his heart pounding wildly at his chest. He dragged his thumb across Tony’s bottom lip. He wanted to kiss him so badly. He stared at him instead, letting himself want.

Tony scooted closer to him, a hand coming to rest on Bucky’s hip and fingers under him, wedging between his ribs and the mattress.

Bucky cocked his head, breathing out carefully, knowing Tony felt the gust of air on his face because of the way he shivered in response. They were so close, now. Too close. Not close enough. “You really don’t want me to call you doll anymore?” Bucky asked softly. He wasn’t sure why it was the only thing coming to mind right now, but it had stuck with him, and it hurt, to think Tony really wanted that.

Tony made a sound in the back of his throat, like a frustrated whimper that didn’t quite form before he managed to silence it. “I like the way you say it,” he admitted breathlessly, like he was just now remembering that he could breathe at all. “I love the way you say it. I love the way you look at me when you say it, the way your eyes go soft, like I actually deserve it. But I . . . you can’t . . . I don’t . . . I can’t tell if you mean it,” he admitted in a rush.

Bucky felt his wounded expression wash over him before he could hide it, his eyes searching Tony’s. A predator playing with its food.

Tony gasped and edged closer, the hand on Bucky’s hip coming up to his face to wipe at the space between his eyes and over his forehead like he was trying to physically erase the frown lines from Bucky’s face. “That came out wrong,” Tony insisted, sounding a little panicked now. “I meant, I don’t deserve it. I don’t deserve that look in your eyes, or the way your voice goes all soft and sweet when you say it, and I don’t deserve my heart on your hand, or any part of what you and Steve could have, we don’t have all those years between us, right? You and me? We don’t have all those years for you to forgive me like you do him, and I don’t deserve your trust or your touch or your time of goddamn day, Barnes, I don’t –”

Bucky tapped Tony’s lips with his thumb. “I mean it,” he said almost viciously before Tony could bull through him and continue saying things about himself that Bucky would punch someone in a bar fight over if it were anyone else saying them. “I’ve meant every word I’ve said to you, and every word I ever will say, Tony.”

Tony blinked at him, not trying to speak past Bucky’s silencing fingers over his mouth. His lips did part, though, whether in surprise or with ulterior motives, Bucky wasn’t sure, because when he did it Bucky’s thumb slid between his lips, causing Tony to moan softly. His eyes fluttered shut as he opened wider to allow Bucky access.

Bucky’s breath left him in a rush. He stared at his thumb as it slid across Tony’s lip, dipping further so he could pull a little when he brought it back out, tugging Tony’s lip and displaying how goddamn fucking kissable he was.

“Stark,” he hissed as his metal arm tightened under and around Tony, the mechanism whirring gently.

“Yeah,” Tony gasped, eyes still closed. “Yes, god, yeah. Jesus, you even come with mechanical sound effects, I know it’s weird, but that does it for me, okay Barnes, you better take that to the grave, I’ll deny it and it’s your word against mine I am a respected member of society okay, and you’re too goddamn pretty for your own goddamn good, fuck!”

Bucky kissed him before he could keep talking. It wasn’t rough and needy like he fucking wanted it to be, no. He went slowly, pulling Tony in by doing the one thing he’d always known he was good at, before they’d discovered his hidden talent for ending lives. He had a chance tonight to seduce Tony, to do it the way he wanted, the way he’d promised Tony he would after their first time when neither of them had even managed to come fully unclothed.

He kissed Tony like the world was watching, slow and sensuous, fucking filthy as he used his tongue to taste every single inch, holding Tony close in a grip he wouldn’t be able to escape, pressing his finger lightly to the joint of Tony’s jaw so he could feel Tony’s mouth opening and closing as they kissed over and over, lapping at each other. His pinky sat on Tony’s fluttering pulse, and his thumb was still at Tony’s lips, sometimes joining his tongue when he ventured inside Tony’s mouth, sometimes tugging at Tony’s lip so Bucky could bite at it and make Tony moan obscenely in the moonlight.

Tony melted against him. He tugged at the back of Tony’s shirt, his metal fingers touching skin and making Tony shiver violently in his arms.

Bucky smirked against the kiss they were sharing. “Cold?” he asked as he pulled back.

“It’ll warm if you keep it on me,” Tony advised, reaching for Bucky’s hair and grabbing a fistful of it to tug. He was groaning as he continued. “Keep it on me, please, Bucky.”

Bucky groaned and pulled their bodies flush. “This okay?” he asked roughly, knowing if he didn’t ask now he would forget to ask at all.

Tony was nodding jerkily, kissing Bucky’s chin and lips and cheek and even his nose. He tossed a leg over Bucky’s hip, wrapping around Bucky’s legs and opening himself up more. He shoved his hips forward, making it clear what he wanted, what he needed. “Will you?”

“Anything you want, doll,” Bucky promised, breathless, body coiling in response to the need and desire coming off Tony in waves. He was almost painfully hard against Tony’s body, and he wasn’t even sure when that had happened.

“I know it’s fucking stupid, but I missed you.”

“S’not stupid,” Bucky insisted between kisses.

“It is, ’cause I should fucking hate you!”

Bucky licked at his teeth, following as he shoved into Tony’s mouth and sucked on Tony’s tongue for a few seconds, groans mingling between them. “I should hate you, too,” he reminded, voice gone gruff. “But I don’t. I can’t. All I did was miss you both.”

“I missed you. And I need to feel you inside me,” Tony admitted brokenly, speaking into Bucky’s mouth as he clutched at Bucky, suddenly desperate, broken, shivering. “Even if it’s the last time, I need . . .” He trailed off and shook his head, kissing Bucky and nipping at his lips.

Bucky managed to gain a few inches of space between them, and it was no mean feat considering the desperation suddenly flooding Tony’s actions. Bucky was able to find his eyes, his beautiful dark eyes, in the moonlight. He searched them silently, his hand on Tony’s face again, holding him there, making sure he got enough time to find what he was looking for.

“Tony,” Bucky finally said, voice low and rough, hoping he sounded sincere instead of just turned the fuck on. “It’ll always be your call. You and me? It’ll always be your call. You understand?”

Tony breathed hard for a few pulls, his chest working enough that Bucky recalled hazy summer days of holding a heaving body upright and trying to get air through closed airways into weakened lungs. Bucky shoved his hand under the quilt, almost frantic in his motions as he forced his fingers up under Tony’s thin shirt and dragged his palm up until he had placed it over the rough patch of scar tissue on Tony’s chest.

“As soon as I saw this,” Bucky whispered. “As soon as I felt this, when I was fucking you, as soon as I saw it and you told me they were all dead, I knew I could love you fierce enough to scare me. I love you, Tony, every goddamn bit of you. It’s not something that hinges on Steve’s moods, or his decisions, or my feelings for him. Because God knows I love him, I do. I always will, and that’s something we’re going into this knowing up front. If it works out for the three of us, we both know how fun that’ll be. But you and me? We got nothing to do with Steve. You and me, doll.”

“Barnes,” Tony gasped shakily. He was speaking even as he crashed their mouths together, kissing Bucky violently. “Jesus Christ you’re the biggest asshole I’ve ever wanted to hate, you know that? Fuck you and your goddamn perfect hair, fuck you so, so much, don’t ever fucking change, okay?”

Bucky shook his head, unable to speak under the onslaught, grinning like a fucking idiot as Tony mauled him and lectured him at the same time.

“You’re the fucking worst, you know that?” Tony finished, and Bucky growled, bringing his arms around Tony’s body and fisting his shirt with both hands, pulling until he heard seams rip, fabric tearing. He shredded the shirt right off Tony’s body as Tony’s eyes rolled back in his head and he groaned like it was the best thing in the whole world. Bucky’s mind flashed back to those incoherent YouTube comments of lust after he’d lost his temper on camera and accidentally ripped a crate of ammo apart with his hands as he ranted. This generation was weird.

Bucky pressed him into the mattress, biting Tony’s neck so Tony would moan louder for him. And Tony did. He bared his neck to Bucky and let his knees fall to the sides, urging Bucky to get in nice and tight, to close in and rut against him. And Bucky did.

“I’m the worst, huh?” Bucky asked playfully, his teeth still latched onto Tony’s skin, his hips squeezed between Tony’s thighs. The head of his cock pushed at Tony demandingly, and he mentally cursed himself for not thinking ahead on this one.

“What – what do you –”

I’m the worst?” Bucky cooed against Tony’s cheek.

“Do you want me to say yes? Is that it? If I say yes will you f