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One Cloud Feels Lonely

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Bucky wanted to watch.

 

Fuck, he wanted the image of Steve broken and bruised and shutting down with a flash of pain in his eyes. He wanted to see it imprinted behind his eyelids for the rest of his life. He wanted to wrap the sight around his heart so that he would never, ever be able to forget the damage that flowed in his wake, of his own free will this time.

 

“You want to go back under?” Steve asked tonelessly. A stranger could mistake it for pleasant question, asked with a sort of detached politeness. But Bucky wasn’t a stranger. He saw Steve’s eyes go cold and dark.

 

“Yes,” Bucky whispered, forcing himself not to look away. He had to do this. This was the only way to fucking save Steve from his path of self-destruction. Steve was a satellite in Bucky’s too-strong orbit, always swaying ever closer, waiting and watching and praying to burn in Bucky’s atmosphere. But Bucky wasn’t going to let that happen. Not again. Not this time.

 

If this was his second chance to write fate, he was going to fucking take it. Spare Steve the pain of burning up from the inside with Bucky’s proximity. Bucky was never a hero, but that didn’t stop him from trying to pursue some path of salvation, and Steve deserved it more than anyone.

 

“Oh,” Steve said, same tone.

 

“And I think,” Bucky said, pausing to make sure his voice wouldn’t waver, “I think you shouldn’t be here when I wake up.”

 

Ah, there it was. This image burned brighter than the first, and now Steve’s eyes weren’t simply cold and distant. Bucky watched as Steve’s fingers seemed to spasm of their own accord, twisting in the air to clench around something that didn’t exist. Steve swallowed roughly. He closed his eyes. He took a deep, shuddering breath. When he opened his eyes, he looked more like a ghost than anything. More withdrawn inside himself than Bucky had ever seen. “Okay,” Steve whispered, his voice a breath of resignation as he just instantly fucking accepted it all.

 

Bucky would have been furious if he wasn’t so relieved. But he knew he hadn’t gone far enough. He knew that, in order to ensure Steve’s salvation, he’d have to bask in absolute ruin first. “I have a second chance,” he said, and Steve would’ve noticed the tremor in Bucky’s voice if he hadn’t been too busy shutting down. “You’re—it’s too much. I can’t start over if you’re with me.”

 

“Forever?” Steve asked, and Bucky almost didn’t hear him.

 

Bucky clenched his jaw to keep from fucking bursting into tears. Because, fuck, the way Steve just instantly accepted Bucky’s rejection like he’d been preparing for it for years? That was so wrong. That wasn’t okay. Briefly, Bucky wished he could tell Steve that everything was for him. That, even if Steve liked to think he orbited around Bucky, Bucky had orbited Steve first. Steve was everything. And this was just one of the sacrifices that Bucky was going to make to ensure that Steve would be okay. This was all for a reason. Steve had to be okay.

 

“Yeah,” Bucky said, and, despite his best efforts, his lips trembled around the word, and his voice was thick.

 

Steve couldn’t notice. Bucky’s Stevie, usually so perceptive and fucking smart, could not afford to focus on anything besides keeping his entire body neutral. He gave Bucky an abrupt, curt nod, not meeting his eyes, and turned to leave the room.

 

As soon as the door shut, Bucky let the sobs overtake him, and he didn’t stop until he was dehydrated and exhausted and forced to pass out.

 


 

 

The last time Steve would see Bucky was terrible.

 

Bucky was too familial with him. Bucky was offering Steve these gentle, tragic smiles like he knew exactly what Steve was feeling, and Steve actually didn’t have any capabilities to deal with that, so he stayed fucking neutral, kept his expression even, asked one more time if Bucky was sure, because Steve was selfish and he couldn’t fucking help it when it came to Bucky and—

 

Yes, Bucky was sure. And still too knowing and gentle about it.

 

So, Steve just watched behind a panel, numb and aching, as frost coated Bucky in the cryochamber. And he looked like a goddamn angel. A goddamn fucking angel.

 

Steve was sure that nobody in this world could be as beautiful as Bucky. God, he was fucking ethereal. People should fucking paint stained glass in his honor. A fucking martyr hidden behind a devil’s smile and kind, cold eyes.

 

Steve stiffly turned away. Bucky’d never been Steve’s to keep. Bucky didn’t want Steve in his new life. Steve didn’t get to fucking look at him anymore.

 

He spoke with T’Challa, who continued to prove himself more and more of a good man. And Steve just fucking couldn’t.

 

“I’m going to take a break for a while,” Steve said quietly, not looking at T’Challa, not knowing that this was what he was gonna do until the words were out of his mouth. “I can’t be on a team right now.”

 

T’Challa nodded as if he understood. “Alright.”

 

“I’m not going to be reachable,” Steve added, his mind starting to stretch in a million directions.

 

T’Challa smiled at him, but it didn’t touch his eyes. “I wouldn’t assume so.” He sighed. “Take my personal phone number. If you call, I will update you.”

 

Steve clenched his jaw. “I don’t have the right to any updates.”

 

T’Challa watched him carefully. “If you change your mind,” he whispered, presenting a card. Steve stared at it blankly for a moment, and T’Challa rolled his eyes, stepping forward and grabbing Steve’s wrist. Steve automatically uncurled the fist he hadn’t even known he’d been making, and T’Challa put the card in his open palm. “Just in case.”

 

“Thank you,” Steve said. “For everything.”

 

T’Challa just nodded, turning back to the view. “I wouldn’t leave with no warning, if I were you,” he said as Steve started to walk from the room, resolutely not glancing in Bucky’s direction.

 

Steve didn’t respond, even though he knew T’Challa was right.

 


 

 

The goodbyes were tough, but the profound urge to run, go, get outta here, if you start running you’ll never stop, go go go, was so strong that Steve wanted to get them out of the way immediately.

 

But here was the thing.

 

Despite being effortlessly close to Natasha, Steve had never really bonded with Clint, so that wasn’t heartwrenching.

 

He didn’t know Scott at all, so that wasn’t heartwrenching.

 

T’Challa had seemed just as ready to run, so that wasn’t heartwrenching.

 

It was really Wanda and Sam that had Steve’s heart in his throat.

 

After Wanda was finished sniffling and clinging to his shirt, she pulled back, her expression stormy. “You can’t let the world collapse just because he’s gone.”

 

Steve’s breath froze. He couldn’t believe he’d forgotten Pietro for even a second. “Wanda, I’m so—“

 

“Save it,” Wanda sighed, and she looked so much older than she was. “You can’t let the world collapse because he’s gone,” she said again, firmer.

 

Steve smiled sadly. “You were always stronger than me. You know that.”

 

Wanda looked away, but she didn’t open her mouth to argue. “What about together?” she asked. “You always insisted on doing things together. Working through it all together. What happened to that?” Her voice was small.

 

Steve’s mouth tasted bitter. He didn’t want to explain, but he owed her an explanation nonetheless. “Am I okay?” he asked Wanda, willing her to understand.

 

“No,” Wanda whispered.

 

“Have I been okay since you’ve met me?”

 

“No.”

 

“Has ‘together’ worked for me?”

 

Wanda closed her eyes. “No.”

 

“I’m going to see if alone works,” Steve said softly. “If it doesn’t, I’ll come right back, okay?”

 

“Okay.” She sniffled again.

 

Steve was being selfish. God, he was being so fucking selfish. His team needed him more than ever, and now he was deciding to take a fucking vacation?

 

But then he remembered the destruction and devastation that seemed to follow him wherever he went, tainting everything he touched. Leaving was going to save them all, in the end. “I love you, kid,” he whispered, voice choked, pulling Wanda into another hug.

 

Wanda clung to him again.

 

Somehow, Sam was even worse.

 

“Is this because of Barnes?” he demanded, his eyes cold.

 

“No,” Steve said.

 

“Liar.”

 

“He just gave me a nudge,” Steve insisted. Bucky always gave him that final nudge—to war, to suicide, to fall in love, to leave. It was always him. He cleared his throat. “This is something I’ve gotta do.”

 

“For what?” Sam asked, and now he just looked sad. “What d’you gotta prove anymore?”

 

“Nothing,” Steve whispered, and that was it, wasn’t it? “I’m not... Sam, I just gave up Captain America,” he said and noted with shock that some desperation was edging into his tone.

 

Sam’s eyes widened. “Oh,” he breathed.

 

“I’m not a person, and now I’m not an icon,” Steve explained, tugging hard at some strands of his hair. “I’m not anything anymore. I can’t do it. I need to... go. I need to fucking get out of here before—before—“

 

“Hey,” Sam said lowly, grabbing Steve’s shoulders in a tight grip. “Listen, this isn’t gonna be running away. This is gonna be running back into the fight. You know that, don’t you?”

 

“The original fight, though,” Steve said, on the verge of begging now. “I have to go back. I have to learn how to be alive, or else everything’s gonna fucking fall apart because of me. Look at this fucking mess—it’s already started.”

 

Sam didn’t look like he fully understood, but he nodded anyway, his eyes shining. “You gotta learn how to be a person again,” he said slowly. “I—I get it, dude. Will you just... do me one favor?”

 

“Anything,” Steve sighed.

 

“Check in with me.”

 

Steve’s heart sank, but he nodded anyway. He owed this to Sam fucking Wilson, a better friend than he ever deserved. “Of course.”

 

“Of course,” Sam echoed numbly.

 

“You gonna be okay?” Steve asked, concerned. “You got plans?”

 

Sam shook his head a little bit, blinking back to himself. “Actually, yeah. I—T’Challa said I could stay here. Help out.”

 

“Wow,” Steve said.

 

“I know.” Sam ducked his head. “It’s crazy.”

 

“What about your ma?” Steve pressed.

 

Sam’s face fell. “Can’t go back. Can’t really communicate.”

 

“Want me to give her a message?” Steve asked.

 

Sam sagged in relief. “Would you?”

 

“Anything,” Steve said again, crushing Sam into a hug. “Anything.”

 

Sam shuddered. “You ever coming back?” he asked, voice thick.

 

“I don’t know,” Steve said honestly, resolutely not thinking about Bucky.

 

Sam pressed his face into Steve’s neck. “Okay. Okay, okay, okay.”

 

Steve closed his eyes and wished that he were stronger.

 

 


 

 

The first thing Steve did was burn his fucking cursed Captain America uniform and spit on the ashes.

 

He had ruined enough.

 


 

 

The second thing Steve did was steal a bunch of guns from a Shield safehouse that still hadn’t been gutted by former agents.

 

He stuffed his new armory into a duffle and then shaved his hair to a barely-there buzz cut, hating himself for how Military Poster Boy it made him look, but it didn’t matter. What mattered was that he was starting to have trouble recognizing himself.

 

Steve stayed in the safehouse for three days to let the stubble start to grow before he ventured outside.

 

He walked into a sketchy tattoo parlor and slowly approached the bored receptionist. “Do you do walk-ins?” he asked.

 

“Depends on how much money you got.”

 

“Enough,” Steve said.

 

The receptionist nodded. “Someone will be with you in a minute.”

 

Steve handed the tattoo artist two sheets of paper. He’d spent the last few days meticulously drawing out the design. “This will take more than one session,” she said.

 

“No it won’t.”

 

The tattoo artist arched an eyebrow in disbelief.

 

“Can you do it or not?” Steve asked, drawing his shoulders up.

 

The woman scoffed and steered him into a chair.

 

She was clearly shocked by how well his skin was holding up, but she didn’t say anything. She just kept going, swiping away blood, dragging the needle over his arms, until several hours had passed and it was done.

 

Steve was numbly surprised that it didn’t look awful. The woman caught his look and shrugged like she was used to it.

 

Steve looked at the tattoo sleeves, only going from his wrist to his elbow so far. He wanted to have room for something new.

 

His forearms were decorated with mementos to his past, although no one would guess it from how they looked.

 

Satisfied, Steve paid in cash, stole a truck, and threw his duffle in the passenger’s seat.

 

There was a Hydra base thirty-six miles away.

 


 

 

Steve walked into his motel with steady hands and sat down hard on the bathroom floor, finally letting the tremors overtake his body.

 

He scrubbed his hands until the blood washed off, and then scrubbed them until the skin started to crack and peel and bleed.

 

This was what he was made for, wasn’t it? He was made to escort Hydra to the gates of hell. (They’d never told him that they’d take Steve with them, though.)

 

He was a fighter. He was a weapon. He could handle this.

 


 

 

Steve wished he was surprised when Natasha sat in the seat across from him in a diner in France.

 

“Hey,” was all he said, not even bothering to blink. “How’ve you been holding up?”

 

“I get by,” Natasha said, sporting a French accent. Steve smiled humorlessly.

 

“They still after you?”

 

She shrugged, flicking her hair and flashing him a blinding smile. “A little bit.”

 

“I’m sorry.”

 

Natasha watched him for a moment and sighed. “I’ve been watching you,” she whispered, low enough so that Steve had to strain his enhanced ears to hear. “You haven’t been as sneaky as you’d like to be.”

 

“I’m not trying to be sneaky,” Steve pointed out.

 

“You should,” Natasha said, her eyes hard. “And what’s more, you should stop altogether.”

 

“No.”

 

“What happens when you run out of Hydra bases to burn to the ground?”

 

“Find more bases.”

 

“No. I’ve seen this before, honey. If you keep going, you’re never going to be able to stop looking for revenge. For blood. You know that.”

 

Steve stared down at the table and said nothing.

 

“You’re going to get yourself killed like this,” Natasha added, much more gently.

 

“Well, maybe that’s the idea.”

 

Natasha stilled. She looked at him, her gaze hard. “What happened?”

 

Steve was surprised now. “You haven’t talked to the others? They didn’t tell you?”

 

Natasha shook her head slowly. “I’ve been... busy.”

 

Steve stared at the table again when he said, “He—uh—he wants nothing to do with me.”

 

“So you’re writing a love song to him in lines of corpses?”

 

“No,” Steve growled, with much more anger than he’d intended. Natasha drew up her shoulders into a defensive position, and Steve leaned back, forcing himself to relax. “I’m trying to figure out what I’m fighting for. Now that I’m not Steve Rogers. Now that I’m not Captain America.”

 

“You’re fighting for vengeance. You must’ve figured that out by now,” Natasha said flatly.

 

Steve shifted uncomfortably.

 

“There’s something you’re not telling me. Something else.”

 

Steve took a long sip from his disgustingly cold coffee. He slowly put it down on the table. “I’m—this is gonna sound fucking crazy.”

 

“Try me.”

 

Steve looked at Natasha, and something in her expression softened at whatever she saw in Steve’s face. Maybe it was fear. “I can’t feel anything,” he confessed, his breath hitching with the terrified admission. “I didn’t notice before.”

 

“You’re fighting to feel something?”

 

“I get angry. I get scared,” Steve said. It was the only time he could feel anything other than numb. “I told you I’m fucking crazy.”

 

Natasha didn’t say anything for a long moment. “You should still stop.”

 

Steve barked a bitter laugh, and Natasha tensed. “And do what?”

 

“Whatever the fuck you want.”

 

Steve clenched his jaw. “Is that what you’re doing?”

 

Natasha looked sad. “We both know that isn’t an option for me.”

 

“Then how can it be an option for me?” Steve asked, and Natasha opened her mouth to argue, but she drew up a blank. She looked so fucking tired, and Steve felt so, so guilty. “There’s nobody left to fight for.”

 

“Yes there is,” Natasha said quietly.

 

“Who is it for you?”

 

“You guys,” Natasha said. The Avengers. Well. The previous Avengers. “My family.”

 

Steve dropped his forehead onto the table. “Nat, I can’t.”

 

She ran her nails through his too-short hair and whispered, “I know, I know,” until Steve’s breathing calmed down.

 

 


 

 

“What’s the purpose of this facility?” Steve asked conversationally as he threw the survivor of his raid into a chair.

 

His hostage trembled, eyes wide with fear. “What?” he asked dumbly, staring with single-minded focus at Steve’s gun.

 

“The purpose,” Steve repeated patiently, putting his gun away and fishing out a knife. “What did you do here?”

 

“I...” the man swallowed convulsively. “Research.”

 

“Yes. Figured that part out for myself, funny enough,” Steve said, rolling his eyes. “What kind of research?”

 

The man clamped his mouth shut.

 

“Oh, come on, don’t be coy,” Steve snapped. The man flinched. “Cooperation will get you everywhere.”

 

The man closed his eyes, and the trembling increased to a sort of constant full-body shudder.

 

“Really,” Steve deadpanned, stepping closer. “You think this is brave? You’re gonna stay loyal to these fucking psychopaths?”

 

The man whimpered a little bit, seemingly involuntarily.

 

Steve sighed. “For the record, I don’t like doing this the hard way.” He grabbed the man’s hand and slowly pushed his knife through his palm. The man cried out. “Still loyal?” Steve asked.

 

The man squirmed away from him uselessly. “H-hail Hydra,” he gasped.

 

“Idiot,” Steve muttered. The man screamed when Steve didn’t stop with the knife, pushing it through his hand until the blade showed on the other side. He didn’t stop until the hilt pressed against the man’s palm. “What was your fucking research?”

 

The man stared at the ground, chest heaving.

 

Steve yanked his knife out of the man’s hand. Another scream.

 

“Your research.”

 

Nothing.

 

Steve sighed. This was gonna take a while.

 


 

 

Six hours and one horrifically mutilated corpse later, Steve was numb and angry, still sitting on the floor of the Hydra base, staring unblinkingly at his handiwork.

 

The research base was for psychological trauma, focusing on various methods of torture to mold the human brain into a desensitized, loyal, perfect weapon. They had worked closely with the Winter Soldier project. Steve wondered why this place hadn’t been in the file that Natasha had given him.

 

He couldn’t think about that now. Whatever. It was fine. He knew now.

 

What Steve also had was access to a vault of meticulous notes on the Winter Soldier’s programming.

 

With shaking hands, Steve wiped some of the blood off his fingers, but it had dried by now, so it was useless. He got to his feet, stared at the tortured expression on the scientist’s face, and shakily made his way through the base.

 

The vault was in El Salvador. Steve would be there by tomorrow morning.

 

 


 

 

Steve was sitting in the vault, overwhelmed with the countless pages of research on Bucky’s psych. It was terrible. It was wonderful.

 

Steve’s latest burner phone was in his left hand, and he took several deep breaths before dialing the number that he had memorized, even though it’d been three years since he’d given Steve his card.

 

To his relief, the line connected after a few minutes. “<Who is this?>” T’Challa asked warily in Wakandan.

 

Steve didn’t say anything for a moment. “He’s still in cryo, right?” he finally asked, and his voice was rough and wrecked with disuse.

 

There was a pause. “Yes,” T’Challa finally said.

 

“I found some information,” Steve said quietly, “that may help.”

 

“Oh. And how are you getting this information to us?”

 

Steve felt his expression shut down. “I’m not coming to Wakanda.”

 

“Of course not,” T’Challa said, and if he could sound hasty, he did now.

 

“I know you’re busy,” Steve added. “But someone else can come get it and make the delivery.”

 

“Where is it?”

 

“El Salvador,” Steve said. He rattled off the closest address. “How soon can someone get here?”

 

“Before tomorrow,” T’Challa said smoothly. “Let me make some calls.”

 

“Thank you,” Steve whispered.

 

“My pleasure, Captain.”

 

Steve hung up.

 

And waited.

 

He probably should’ve expected it to be Sam. But Steve was still taken off-guard when Sam stepped out of the small jet. “Steve,” Sam said, giving him an odd once-over.

 

Steve knew he was unrecognizable unless you were really looking for it. It was probably giving Sam some sort of whiplash. “Sam.”

 

Sam walked up to him and didn’t hesitate before throwing his arms around Steve. Steve stiffened for a moment before hesitantly relaxing, tucking himself into the hug. After a few moments, Sam started to pull away, but Steve made a pathetic noise of protest and just fucking clung to him.

 

Sam was rubbing slow circles into his back. “Wow, man. You are really not okay.”

 

Steve didn’t really bother denying it.

 

“You been lying to me in your check-ins?”

 

“No,” Steve whispered.

 

“Lies of omission count, dude.”

 

“Oh. Sorry.”

 

Sam let out a breath and pulled back a little bit to look at Steve. “You’ve been razing Hydra bases down for, like, the past decade of your life.” Steve looked away. “It’s okay to stop. You don’t owe the world anything.”

 

Steve didn’t say anything for a minute. “I saw that you and the others got pardoned,” he said rather than respond to that. “After, the—uh—thing.”

 

“With more aliens coming to destroy the Earth?” Sam asked dryly. “Yeah, the world thought we were cool to forgive. The Secret Avengers are still working on the down-low, but nobody’s really looking to stop us anytime soon.”

 

“That’s good.”

 

Sam inspected Steve’s arms. “You got tattoos.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Just these?” he asked, gesturing to the sleeves on his forearms.

 

Steve shrugged. “Uh. One on my back too.” He’d gotten it done after watching the news in a cheap motel room that the Secret Avengers weren’t being hunted by the UN anymore (excluding Steve, but he wasn’t a Secret Avenger anyway, so...).

 

“I didn’t really take you for a tattoo guy,” Sam said carefully.

 

Steve smiled his cold, terrifying smile, and Sam shivered almost subconsciously. “I didn’t used to be.”

 

“Damn, dude,” Sam said, and Steve had to agree. “So, what did you find?”

 

Steve pulled away completely from Sam and led him over to the vault. “There was a Hydra base specifically designated to psychological torture. These are their notes on the Winter Soldier project.”

 

Sam was tense as he stepped into the vault and glanced around at the sheer number of files. “Shit.”

 

“Yeah.” Steve scratched the back of his neck. “I hope this’ll help you guys be able to... correct the conditioning or something.”

 

“Yeah,” Sam said faintly. “Help me load these up into the jet?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

They managed to cram all the files into the jet in an hour. When they were finished, Steve sat down, leaning his back against the entrance to the vault, and Sam sat down next to him.

 

“You ever coming home?” Sam asked after a minute.

 

Steve wanted to say that he didn’t have a home, but that would be insensitive to Sam. “I don’t know. I don’t think so.”

 

Sam nodded a few times. “You know, you’re still my best friend.”

 

Steve’s head lolled to the side so that he could look at Sam’s profile. “I’m not the same man.”

 

“Three years of doing nothing but burning down bases and killing neo-Nazis doesn’t change a man, you mean?” Sam asked in sarcastic shock.

 

Steve elbowed him in the ribs halfheartedly.

 

“Look,” Sam sighed. “I get that you’re going on this whole mission of self-discovery, but I don’t think you’re gonna find yourself in violence.”

 

Steve shrugged. “What if I’ve already found myself in violence?”

 

“That’s a lie and you know it.” Steve rolled his eyes, and Sam ignored him. “You’re a fighter, man, but that’s not your identity. It’s been three years, and you haven’t found it. You gotta be wondering if you’ll find it somewhere else.”

 

Steve stared at his knees.

 

“You put down the shield.” Steve flinched. “Maybe put down the guns too.”

 

“Sammy,” Steve sighed, raking a hand through his too-short hair. “The fight’s all I have.”

 

“I know. But you left us all to find something new. Maybe it’s about time you give it up.”

 

Steve dropped his head onto Sam’s shoulder. “I’m tired,” he admitted quietly. “All the time.”

 

“Then rest,” Sam said, reaching up a hand to run his fingers lightly over Steve’s neck. Steve shivered. “Rest.”

 

“I don’t know how,” Steve whispered, a tear streaking down his face. “I want it to stop.”

 

“Look,” Sam said. He grabbed Steve’s hand and held it in Steve’s line of sight. “What are these hands made for?”

 

“To fight,” Steve said numbly.

 

“What have these hands done?”

 

“Hurt. Killed.”

 

“Do you want these hands to define you?”

 

Steve’s lips trembled, and his body shook on a silent sob. “No.”

 

“Before the serum,” Sam said gently. “Before the war. What were these hands made for?”

 

Steve shook his head slightly. “They fought,” Steve said desperately. “It was always the same.”

 

What else?” Sam pressed, squeezing Steve’s hand tight enough almost to hurt.

 

Steve cast his mind back for anything else. Let out a shaky breath. “Sketching.”

 

“Art?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Look at that,” Sam said softly. “These hands didn’t always just break things. They made things too.”

 

Steve crumpled, and he turned his face into Sam’s neck and fucking cried, and Sam let him, and Steve didn’t deserve his wonderful kindness, but he was getting it anyway.

 

“I missed you,” he mumbled into Sam’s skin after god-knows-how-long. “So much.”

 

“I miss you too,” Sam said, knocking his head against Steve’s. “Wouldn’t mind a visit every now and then.”

 

“You still in Wakanda?”

 

“Uh. Yeah.”

 

“Then you know why I can’t do that.”

 

Sam nodded. “Fair enough.”

 

Steve was quiet for a few long moments. “I don’t know what I’m gonna do.”

 

“Y’know,” Sam began, “that’s kinda the whole thing about existing. You don’t know anything about what’s gonna happen next. All you can do is try to move forward in the best way you know how.”

 

Steve still dreamed about Peggy Carter. Steve still woke up and thought he was in the war. Steve still turned to tell Bucky things whenever he thought of something. “I’ve never moved on from anything in my life.”

 

“That’s where you’re gonna find yourself, dude,” Sam said gently.

 

Steve knew that there were more than enough superheroes out there doing good and fighting the good fight. He new that he was nothing more than an anonymous face in the sea of people seeking justice. He knew that Captain America wasn’t needed anymore and hadn’t been needed for a long time.

 

That didn’t make it any easier.

 

“Maybe,” Steve whispered.

 

Sam pulled him closer. “Just think about it.”

 


 

 

Steve added a pair of angel’s wings to his arms.

 

 


 

 

He’d been on the streets of Mexico City for three weeks when a woman asked if he was looking for work.

 

Steve only paused for a moment before he said yes.

 

The woman nodded and handed him a stack of brochures. “<Hand these out to tourists, and I’ll pay you.>”

 

When a scrawny teenager accepted his brochure, Steve had to take a minute to stop feeling dizzy.

 

It was the first nonviolent thing his hands had done in over seventy years.

 


 

 

Steve was a migrant. He moved from work to work, only earning enough to buy food. He slept on the streets, or in shelters, or he didn’t sleep at all, and it was fine.

 

He’d been homeless before. He and his mother had been evicted once, and they’d needed to live in a fucking Hooverville for eighteen months. Steve had almost died three times before they’d saved up enough money to rent a room in a tiny, crowded apartment again.

 

He didn’t get sick now, so this was infinitely better.

 

In San Diego, he got a job at a bar.

 

A lot of people flirted with him. Steve found himself flirting back. He took hookups to the bathroom stalls or the alley—never at their homes.

 

Once, a man slumped against him when they were finished, tracing his fingers along Steve’s forearms. “What do they mean?” he asked sleepily.

 

Steve pulled away and started gathering his stuff. “Nothing,” he muttered.

 

The next day, he quit his job and moved north.

 


 

 

Steve was in Vancouver when he called Sam next.

 

“You missed check-in,” Sam said immediately. “What gives? Radio silence for eight months is not cool, dude.”

 

“Sorry,” Steve said, shifting a scratchy blanket someone had given him the other day over his lap. “I’ve been busy.”

 

“Fighting?” Sam asked.

 

“Working,” Steve corrected, unable to help the fragile smile.

 

“God, I’m so fucking proud of you.”

 

“Thanks,” Steve sighed. He pulled the blanket over his free hand. It was cold. “How are things?”

 

Sam paused. “He’s awake, if that’s what you were fishing for.”

 

Steve pressed his lips together. “Okay.”

 

“Recovering nicely.”

 

“Good for him.”

 

Sam paused. “You wanna know anything else?”

 

“No,” Steve said firmly. He didn’t have that right. “How’s everything else?”

 

“Kind of surprisingly good,” Sam said, somewhat in disbelief.

 

“Yeah?” Steve prompted.

 

Sam hummed. “T’Challa is great, man. I’m so sad you haven’t gotten to know him. He’s—he’s amazing.”

 

Steve slowly raised an eyebrow, even though Sam couldn’t see. “Oh?”

 

“Yeah. He’s so smart and noble and shit. It’s so good. Talking to him is, like, crazy. It’s like a rollercoaster. I can’t explain it.”

 

Steve bit his lip to keep from smiling. “So, the cat caught the canary?”

 

“What’re you talking—oh, wait. That’s a bird and cat thing. ‘Cause we’re—Black Panther and Falcon. Hah. Clever,” Sam deadpanned. “It’s not like that.”

 

“Sure.”

 

“One-sided maybe,” Sam grumbled. Steve was about to cut in to ask more questions when Sam continued talking, obviously not wanting to stay on this subject. “Scott’s doing great stressing over Cassie going to middle school. Wanda and Vision are, like, conquering the universe or something. I haven’t heard from them in a little while, but they’re really good. Um. Clint moved back to Brooklyn to start doing solo work again. And you know the other Avengers.”

 

“Yeah,” Steve agreed. The other Avengers were so public that it was hard not to know about them. “I’m glad you’re all doing well.”

 

“Are you doing well?”

 

“Better,” Steve admitted. “I haven’t killed anyone in eight months.”

 

“Look at you,” Sam said fondly.

 

“But still not great, probably,” Steve added, not wanting any false praise.

 

“That’s okay. To be expected, really.” Steve wanted to ask what Sam meant by that, but Sam was already moving on. “Where in the world are you, though? Eight months is a long time to stay somewhere and not be found.”

 

“Oh,” Steve said in surprise. “I haven’t been in one place. Hell, longest I’ve stayed in one place was probably three weeks.”

 

“That’s a tough way to live.”

 

“I like it,” Steve said stubbornly. “It’s enough for me for now.”

 

“Can you at least tell me which continent?”

 

Steve rolled his eyes. “North America.”

 

“Huh. Didn’t expect you to go back there,” Sam said slowly.

 

“Me neither,” Steve admitted. “I dunno how long it’ll last.”

 

They were quiet for a few moments, listening to the reassuring sound of someone else breathing. The evidence of living. “Don’t avoid check-ins for that long again, dude. I swear I’ll hunt you down and ask Nat to help.”

 

Steve winced. “Sorry. I’ll be better.”

 

“You better be,” Sam warned. “Talk to you in two weeks.”

 

“Won’t miss it.”

 

The line disconnected.

 


 

 

Steve was working as a waiter in a diner in Nova Scotia when Natasha found him again.

 

She was brunette this time, sporting a pixie cut.

 

Steve gave her a menu. “Wondered what took you so long,” he said with a smile, happy to see her in spite of everything.

 

Natasha grinned back at him. “You were harder to find this time.”

 

“Well. Change of lifestyle.” Steve poured her a cup of coffee and said, “I think I’ll take my break now. Mind if I join you?”

 

“Please,” Natasha said with a little gesture towards the other side of the booth. Steve sat down.

 

Steve leaned forward on his elbows. “What’ve you been up to?”

 

“Same old, same old,” Natasha offered dismissively. “I’m not here to talk about me.”

 

“I wish you were,” Steve sighed, leaning back. “I miss you.”

 

Natasha was quiet for a minute. “Alright, alright. We’ll catch up too, then.” She looked at him curiously. “Where are you staying? Maybe we could have a slumber party.”

 

Steve scoffed. “May not be fun in this weather.”

 

Natasha frowned. “Homeless?”

 

“Yup,” Steve said, popping the P, raising in eyebrow in an invitation to fight.

 

But Natasha said nothing. “Okay. Cool. Let’s get talk business first, then we can get to some fun stuff.”

 

“Joy.”

 

“You found the vault with the files on Barnes?” Natasha asked.

 

Steve rubbed a hand over his face. “Right to the point, are we?”

 

“Steve.”

 

He sighed. “Yeah.”

 

“Why?” she asked, cocking her head curiously. “I thought you wanted nothing to do with each other?”

 

Steve closed his eyes. “No. He wants nothing to do with me.”

 

“Oh. Well. The files helped. A lot. They let us bring him back. He’s doing really well now. It’s almost shocking. I mean, obviously, there’s still the PTSD and anxiety and other fun stuff, but it’s manageable.”

 

“Okay,” Steve said stiffly. “That’s good. I’m happy for him.”

 

Natasha looked at him sympathetically. “I know you don’t want to hear about it because it hurts, but you deserve to know that your actions have positive consequences. I need you to know that.”

 

“What? Why?” Steve asked, kind of blankly.

 

Natasha grabbed his hand. “Look at me.” Steve forced himself to do so. Natasha’s gaze was hard and intense. “You do not destroy everything you touch.”

 

“Okay,” Steve said warily.

 

“You do not destroy everything you touch.”

 

“You don’t have to—you just said—“

 

“You do not destroy everything you touch.”

 

“I’ve watched Good Will Hunting, Nat,” Steve snapped, yanking his hand back. “I know what you’re trying to do.”

 

Natasha kept her stare even. “But do you believe me?”

 

“How could I?” Steve said lowly. “Look at what I’ve done.”

 

Exactly,” Natasha said. “Barnes is fucking recovering because of the files you found.”

 

“Recovering is on him, Nat.”

 

“Yes, but he wouldn’t have agreed to start recovery if we hadn’t had those files.”

 

Steve looked away.

 

“Just think about it,” she sighed, leaning back.

 

“Alright.”

 

She smiled. “Now, to the fun stuff.”

 

They caught up. About the past four years. Natasha was under the radar to most people, but not to the people that she loved. Clint even knew she was in Nova Scotia, although he didn’t know that Steve was in Nova Scotia. And Steve was so goddamn happy for her that he wanted to burst into song or some shit. Steve told her about his decision to stop killing and start working, and she looked so proud that Steve was immediately embarrassed.

 

“You ever gonna come back?” she asked at one point.

 

“No,” Steve said.

 

“Good.”

 


 

 

Natasha was sitting with Steve in his latest alleyway spot, watching the sun rise with him.

 

“Can I make a deal with you?” she asked softly.

 

“Yeah. Of course,” Steve said.

 

“Can we come back to that diner every year?”

 

“Is this your form of check-ins?”

 

“Yeah. It’ll keep us both from forgetting where we came from.”

 

Steve smiled. “Of course.”

 

Natasha dropped her head onto Steve’s shoulder. “Yay.”

 

 


 

 

On this day eighty-two years ago, Steve had watched Bucky plummet to his death.

 

February 28th. It marked the official start of Steve’s unofficial holiday. In his head, he called it Mourning Days. And it ended on March 10th.

 

Ten years ago, Steve had dropped the shield and tried to choose a life without fighting—a life with Bucky.

 

The past ten Mourning Days had been days of anger and refusal to acknowledge the unofficial holiday. But Steve was done pretending he didn’t miss Bucky. He was gonna celebrate Mourning Days the only way he knew how to properly celebrate them.

 

Steve stared down at the sheer drop-off of the Grand Canyon, dangling his legs off the edge, taking a swig of vodka. It was for ceremony more than anything. He still couldn’t get drunk.

 

He was gonna stop pretending he didn’t miss Bucky. He was gonna acknowledge the eternal hole in his heart, he was gonna hold it close to his chest like a totem, and he was gonna grow older and move on, let the roots of his newfound humanity grow into the absence and curl around it.

 

Steve smiled down at the canyon, his eyes watery. “Bastard,” he muttered to himself, shaking his head. “Goddamn bastard.”

 

He wondered if it’d kill him to push himself off the edge and drop down. It didn’t kill Bucky in the Alps. It probably wouldn’t kill him.

 

Steve sighed in disappointment, choosing not to examine too closely why he was disappointed.

 

There were three pillars of the Mourning Days.

 

February 28th. Bucky’s Death. This was self-explanatory.

 

March 4th. Steve’s Death. This was also self-explanatory.

 

March 10th. Bucky’s Birthday. The constant absence of celebration.

 

Steve wondered if Bucky had ever celebrated his own form of Mourning Days. He knew Bucky cared about him—or at least, Bucky had cared about him. And Steve really did understand why he wanted nothing to do with Steve. What they had was unhealthy. It was a relationship where neither could exist without the other, and Bucky couldn’t rebuild himself around Steve again. Steve was working on accepting it.

 

But fuck, he missed him with every fiber of his being.

 

So here was Steve sitting at the Grand Canyon: mourning for the loss of Bucky once, twice, three times, mourning for the loss Steve Rogers and Captain America and the shield and the Avengers, mourning for the loss of Peggy and the Commandos and a life he could’ve lived, mourning for the salvation that would never come.

 

Later, he would have the endless opportunity to think about how to reclaim some part of Steve Rogers, or even just claim himself as an entirely new person—the person part was the important part. Later, he would focus on how he was gonna live through all the decades stretching in front of him without Bucky. Later, he would focus on how to build something out of the ashes of his previous lives.

 

But for now, he would sit and mourn and let all the grief wash over him in waves.

 


 

 

Eight years after he’d started working as a homeless migrant, Steve picked a hillside in Iceland and built a shabby house.

 

He just wanted a few years to rest by himself.

 

It was quiet here, and the nearest neighbors were two miles away, and it was exactly what Steve wanted.

 

He easily set up a fake identity and got a job at a farm nearby. Steve had found that he liked the mindless quality of the work he’d been doing. He liked falling into a rhythm and focusing on the repetitive motions he was going through. It helped to quiet his mind.

 

But, he reflected one night as he got home and heated up some instant cuisine for himself, not thinking had let him become a ghost.

 

Sure, he was infinitesimally closer to reclaiming his humanity. But he’d been trying to do this for—what?—almost twelve years now, and he still didn’t feel like a person. He was going through the motions of life, letting the world spin, letting himself fall under the illusion of living.

 

He had to figure this out. He had to start thinking.

 

Steve sat on the roof of his cottage and shivered as the snow fell. He wasn’t sure if this type of all-encompassing cold was a good thing or a terrible thing. It sent his mind back to a rushing cold fear that he was being frozen—that he was dying. But something about that was almost reassuring too.

 

Steve closed his eyes. Maybe that was all he was. The outcome of ice and cold and death.

 

Maybe this whole being a person thing was too ambitious. Too selfish.

 

Fuck, Steve felt like the Grim Reaper or some shit. He’d outlived his expiration date, and now he was here as a shadow, haunting people who had every fucking right to be alive, killing and cutting everything short and killing and killing and—

 

This was why he tried not to think.

 

Steve wondered what it’d take to kill him. Obviously, a plane crash hadn’t cut it. Tremendous falls hadn’t. Gunshots hadn’t. Maybe he hadn’t tried hard enough. Maybe he could do it now that there really was nothing left for him.

 

Aw, fuck, here he was being a selfish asshole again. Steve shook his head. He was so cold that he couldn’t feel his face. Maybe hypothermia would do it—and there he goes again, fuck.

 

Steve grimaced. All this time, he’d forgotten what he’d been made a weapon for. The initial intention certainly wasn’t to kill. It was to protect. It was why he’d had the shield.

 

Steve hadn’t protected anyone for a very, very long time.

 

His purpose was supposed to be helping people. But, shit, how could he help people when he couldn’t even help himself?

 

Maybe one would follow the other. Maybe if he started helping other people again, he’d be able to look at himself in the mirror one day and not be disgusted. Maybe if he started helping people, he’d be able to look at his hands and not see dark stains of blood.

 

Steve tipped his head up to the sky. He wasn’t gonna be an ugly shadow anymore.

 

 


 

 

Everything was easier said than done. Although Steve had resolved to change, he’d just fallen back into the easy routine. And he fucking hated himself.

 

I’m going to start today, he said to himself every single day for two years.

 

He was having his bimonthly check-in call with Sam when it all crashed down around him.

 

“Listen,” Sam said, and Steve paused in the middle of doing his laundry. “Wanda’s kind of pregnant.”

 

“Kind of,” Steve echoed dumbly.

 

“Yeah,” Sam said. “We just found out. She—uh—she wants to see you.”

 

Steve was frozen for a few moments before his mind whirred into action again. “Bring her here.”

 

“What?” Sam said, sounding shocked.

 

“She is not allowed to be on superhero duty while she’s pregnant. I’ll look after her.”

 

“Steve. I thought you were homeless.”

 

“Oh. No. I’ve been in—“ Steve only hesitated a beat before shaking his head and going on, “—in Iceland for, like, three and a half years.”

 

“What? And this never came up in conversation?”

 

“No?” Sam made a frustrated noise. “She can stay with me until she has the baby.”

 

Sam sighed. “Sounds like a great idea to me,” he said reluctantly. “But I kinda need your exact location.”

 

Steve was quiet for a few moments. He wished he trusted himself to give out this information without pause, but he’d been alone for too long, and he’d been a ghost for twice as long. “Alright,” he finally whispered. “Call this number when you’re headed towards me, and I’ll give you the coordinates.”

 

“Okay. It’s a plan.”

 

Steve exhaled shakily and told himself that this was a good thing.

 

 


 

 

Sam and Wanda arrived two days later.

 

“Nice place you got here,” Sam said, and he looked older, but in a good, kind way. His eyes had laughter lines and his hair was peppered with gray, and he was just fractionally slower, but age was really suiting him well so far.

 

Wanda was older too, but it wasn’t all kind for her. Her eyes were sharp with intelligence, but they were also war-weary. Her posture was straighter, as if she was always expecting a threat. She was still beautiful.

 

And she was far more similar to Steve than he was comfortable with.

 

Steve engulfed her in a hug, and Wanda wound her arms around him, breathing harshly.

 

“You haven’t aged a day,” she said roughly.

 

Steve had noticed this only a few weeks ago, and he was still numb with the realization. “The serum,” he said. “Repairs my cells as they start dying.”

 

“You’re immortal,” Sam said, although he didn’t sound even remotely surprised.

 

Steve wondered if Bucky—

 

He cut off the thought before it could form.

 

Steve would deal with this the way he dealt with everything. Alone.

 

“Maybe,” he just said, thinking about steep cliffs and bullets and something that could hold people under water.

 

Wanda gave him a look like she’d read his thoughts, and Steve just smiled pleasantly at her, knowing that was entirely likely.

 

“I set up a room for you.”

 

It’d been his room, but Sam and Wanda didn’t need to know that. Really, Steve didn’t sleep much anyway, so it wasn’t anybody’s problem. “Thank you,” Wanda said, putting her suitcase down on the floor and looking around.

 

“Um.” Steve scratched the back of his neck. “Are you guys hungry?”

 

They ate dinner at Steve’s cramped kitchen table, and Sam cracked jokes while Wanda made dry comebacks and Steve watched with minimal input. This could’ve been his life if he’d chosen to stay. He could’ve developed the kind of trust that they obviously had between each other. He could’ve had people to look after him.

 

The thought left him cold, and he stared at the food on his plate, no longer hungry.

 

But it was better to be alone.

 

If he’d stayed, he would’ve still stayed the same while his friends grew older. He would have the privilege to watch them all die before him. It was better to be alone. That’d save him the fucking heartbreak.

 

Y’know. By the off chance that his heart could still feel anything.

 

“I can’t stay,” Sam said apologetically, looking truly agonized by the admission. “I promised somebody that I’d be back for breakfast.”

 

Steve wondered who Sam had promised. “That’s alright. You’ll be back to pick Wanda up when she’s ready to return to active duty,” Steve said with a shrug. This wasn’t goodbye.

 

Sam hugged him. It wasn’t a goodbye.

 

And that just left him and Wanda.

 

They sat at Steve’s table in silence for maybe an hour and a half before Steve whispered, “Wanna talk about it?”

 

Wanda gave him an odd look. “Vision,” she said, patting her stomach.

 

“Ah,” Steve mumbled, trying to figure out how that worked with—whatever Vision was.

 

Wanda smiled. “Don’t ask.”

 

“I won’t.”

 

She kicked him under the table. “I’m going to give them up for adoption.”

 

“Why?”

 

She sighed, looking very, very tired. “To protect them. I know it’s very possible that they’re going to have powers. If they don’t know, they can be normal for a while. They won’t have their lives dominated by what they can do. They won’t be—“

 

“Weapons,” Steve finished, too knowingly.

 

“Exactly.” She frowned. “I know they won’t be able to hide form their powers forever, but I can delay it if they don’t know.”

 

“Alright.”

 

Wanda smiled sadly. “Plus, an Avengers’ life is no way to raise a child.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“They deserve better than what I can give them.”

 

Steve looked at her curiously. “How do you know it’s a ‘them’?”

 

“Twins,” Wanda said, smirking, although the expression was somewhat hollow. “I just know.”

 

“Okay,” Steve agreed.

 

They lapsed into silence. “How ‘bout you?” Wanda finally asked. “You wanna talk about it?”

 

Steve gave a sharp, bitter laugh. “About what?”

 

Wanda waved a vague hand. “Any of it.”

 

“I’m good.”

 

“Clearly,” Wanda huffed with a roll of her eyes.

 

Steve stood up, stretching. “I may not be here when you wake up. I go to work early.”

 

“You work?” Wanda asked in surprise.

 

Steve nodded. “I’m a farmhand.” He grinned, and he knew the expression didn’t reach his eyes, but whatever.

 

“That’s surprising.”

 

“Well. I’m a different man.”

 

“Fourteen years changes a person,” Wanda agreed hesitantly.

 

“Fourteen and a half,” Steve corrected with a wink. “Don’t round down on me. Least I can do is keep track of time.”

 

“Fine, fine.” Wanda stood up. “I’m going to sleep.”

 

“Night, Wanda.”

 

“Night, Steve.”

 


 

 

Wanda got grumpy as the months dragged on, and Steve was more amused with it than put-off. After all, he’d been alone for almost fifteen years. Any emotion from his friends was something he was starving for, no matter how much he tried to deny it.

 

“You can’t fucking cook,” Wanda snapped, glaring heatedly at him from Steve’s couch as Steve innocently dumped some more Mac & Cheese into his pot of boiling water. “Leave me to starve. I’d rather that.”

 

“Who said I was making this for you?”

 

Wanda narrowed her eyes. “Don’t fuck with me. I can read your mind.”

 

Steve hummed vaguely as Wanda sunk into some more sullen silence and Steve stirred the pot.

 

“He’s doing well, you know,” Wanda said out of the blue, looking comparatively serene to how she’d been ten minutes ago.

 

Steve froze, pretending he didn’t know who Wanda was talking about. “What?”

 

“Recovery looks good on him. He’s all about atonement and—and he’s a very good person.”

 

Steve swallowed roughly. “Stop, please.”

 

Wanda watched Steve carefully. “I don’t try and look, you know,” she mused, tapping at her temple to indicate her mind reading. “I really don’t. But, fuck, your thoughts are loud.”

 

“Oh,” was all Steve could say.

 

“And you’re always thinking about him. Even if you’re not, the absence of him in your thoughts feels like a lost limb.”

 

Steve closed his eyes, gripping the counter tight. “Wanda.”

 

“I’m just saying, it’s hard not to bring it up when we are living in a tiny house and the only thing that I can hear is his name on your mind.”

 

Steve took a shuddering breath. “I’m sorry.”

 

“Me too, you know. The both of you deserve a soft ending, and it’s not what you got.”

 

“A soft ending,” Steve scoffed. He looked at Wanda, his jaw tight. “I think the worst part about us is that it doesn’t fucking end. We’re gonna live forever, but forever is maybe the worst type of torture I can think of.”

 

Wanda was quiet for a moment. “If you’re to live forever, it can’t all be riddled with tragedy.”

 

“You’re right,” Steve agreed sadly. “I cashed in my pockets of happiness early. Living with him before the war. Having the privilege of growing up with my mother’s help. Knowing Peggy. Helping the Avengers for a few years.” He shook his head. “And now I’m just about broke.”

 

Wanda frowned. “It doesn’t work like that.”

 

“Maybe not,” Steve conceded, turning off the stove.

 

As Wanda grimaced through her Mac & Cheese, Steve watched her carefully. “What?” she finally snapped, back to grumpy.

 

Steve shrugged. “Can you erase memories?”

 

Her expression dropped into blankness so quickly that Steve faltered. “Yes.”

 

“Could you—“

 

“No.”

 

Steve sighed. “Okay.”

 

And that was that.

 


 

 

“Happy birthday,” Wanda said to him one morning, miraculously awake before Steve left for the farm.

 

Steve faltered in surprise. “Oh.” For a moment, he just stood there, Wanda watching him with a wry expression. “Thank you.”

 

“Hm,” Wanda said, lurching into the nearest seat. “Get to work.”

 

Steve went to work.

 

 


 

 

Steve told his employers that he needed to take a few months off work because his daughter was in her final trimester. They were remarkably understanding, letting him know that the job would be open to him when he returned.

 

Steve was grateful. And now he got to spend 90% of his time with Wanda.

 

Not alone. It was—it felt weird, but Steve loved Wanda, so it was a good-weird.

 

“How are you feeling?” Steve asked, sitting next to Wanda on his tiny couch.

 

Wanda groaned and shifted, throwing her legs into Steve’s lap. “Well,” she began, and Steve started grinning, knowing her tone. “I have a whale in my uterus.”

 

Steve snorted.

 

“And it’s trying to fucking kill me.”

 

Steve cooed sadly.

 

“And everything hurts. And I can’t walk. And I’m sure a slow death would be more pleasant at this point.”

 

“Want some tea?” Steve asked, reaching down to rub her feet.

 

Wanda looked up and glared at him, although she gently nudged Steve’s hands with her foot to tell him to keep going. “You know what I want? I want a goddamn steak soaked in orange juice.”

 

Steve wrinkled his nose.

 

“And I know that sounds disgusting, but it’s all I’ve been able to think about for the past ten minutes.”

 

“Um. I’ll go see if we have orange juice?”

 

“Atta boy,” Wanda mumbled.

 

 


 

 

Steve called the nearest doctor when Wanda started going into labor. “I’ll be there in a half hour,” she said in Icelandic.

 

Wanda broke a few of the bones in Steve’s hand—multiple times, actually—and it was probably the best pain he’d ever felt.

 

When it was all over, she held one tiny human in each arm, looking down at them sadly. “I shouldn’t draw it out,” she mumbled, exhausted. “Cut the chord now.”

 

Steve brushed some of the hair away from her face, his hand aching. “Give it a few weeks ‘til they’re stable for adoption.”

 

“’Kay.”

 

The two boys were so fucking small, and Steve’s heart ached. They were so fragile.

 

“They’re cute,” Wanda conceded, almost reluctantly, after she’d slept for sixteen hours straight.

 

“And loud,” Steve added, wincing at the slight headache that hadn’t gone away yet.

 

“Yes.”

 

“What do their thoughts sound like?” Steve asked curiously.

 

Wanda smiled at him. “Want to see?”

 

“You can do that?”

 

“I can do anything.” And suddenly, Steve had a mental image that could only be described as—loud. It felt like a loud, angry squiggle of sharp discomfort.

 

“Wow,” Steve said, touching the side of his head.

 

“Not quite so cute anymore?”

 

Steve shrugged. “Still pretty cute.”

 

Wanda grinned and lightly poked the cheek of the child with darker hair. He squirmed and made a noise of protest but didn’t stir further. “Did you ever want kids?”

 

Steve frowned. “Maybe in an abstract sense. Never thought I’d live that long. I dunno. I think I’d accidentally break one.” He gestured to the lighter haired child’s tiny fingers.

 

Wanda laughed sleepily. “No kids for you then.”

 

“No kids for me.”

 

Wanda started to fade back into sleep. Before she was completely unconscious, she mumbled, “Steve?”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Thank you.”

 


 

 

Sam arrived to take Wanda and the boys away a month later.

 

Sam stayed for dinner and cooed over the babies and somehow didn’t talk about anything while still keeping up a steady stream of conversation.

 

And then they left.

 

Steve hugged them both and tapped the babies on their noses because he didn’t entirely trust himself to hold them for more than a few minutes.

 

“You planning on staying here for a while?” Sam asked as Steve followed them outside to the jet.

 

Steve shrugged, his hands shoved in his pockets. “I like it here. Who knows? Maybe I’ll settle down. Meet someone. Start a family.” He smiled humorlessly.

 

Wanda was still kinda in a perpetual state of grumpiness, so Steve didn’t even blink at her derisive scoff. Sam just smiled knowingly. “Check-in in two weeks.”

 

“You got it,” Steve agreed, rubbing his jaw tiredly. “Good luck.”

 

Sam saluted him and helped Wanda into the plane.

 

Steve watched them disappear into the horizon.

 

 


 

 

Life here wasn’t bad.

 

Sure, it wasn’t what Steve had dreamed about when he was a child, and it certainly wasn’t what he’d wanted back when he was with the Avengers, but it was fine enough.

 

It was quiet here. Nobody bothered him. Nobody asked him questions. Nobody even looked at him longer than a passing glance. And, really, that was all Steve wanted anymore.

 

He was thinking more now. Having Wanda stay with him for all those months had thrown him off-balance. He was used to company. Hell, he’d ruined fifteen damn years of progress.

 

Because now he remembered who he’d been—the sorry shadow of a man who had led the Avengers.

 

Steve didn’t know what he was supposed to do with himself. He felt restless in a way that he hadn’t felt for years. His skin was itching for a fight, although the fight had long-since bled out of him.

 

And maybe that was just it. This thing that Steve kept pushing down and away in the hopes that it would disappear and cease to be his truth. Steve’s identity had always been wound around the fight. Didn’t matter who or what he was fighting. Just that he was.

 

And he’d been shying away from this reality for his entire life. He didn’t want to be a fighter anymore. He was too fucking old.

 

Fuck, Steve wanted to be made of compassion and a gentle yet firm zeal for justice. Steve wanted to be made of all the good things he’d once embodied.

 

He wasn’t sure when those good things had washed away and been eclipsed by his need to fight. Maybe it’d been waking up in this century, or maybe it had been when Bucky died, or maybe it’d been when Erskine injected the serum into his veins with his damning Good becomes great bad becomes worse condemnation.

 

The thing was, Steve didn’t want to hide from his true colors or whatever the fuck he’d been searching for in all his time alone. He just couldn’t help it. He didn’t want to be defined by violence anymore, but there it was, so closely woven into his skin that he couldn’t separate himself from it if he tried.

 

God, he was tired.

 

He bitterly added another tattoo to his arms and then proceeded to fall back into the depressive funk that he’d never been able to really overcome.

 

He hated himself.

 

Steve was 114 years old, and that number was just going to keep climbing until he was the last person alive.

 

The only way to fix this would be to end it himself. And what did he have to live for anymore? Fucking nothing. He’d isolated himself from everyone he’d ever cared about, or maybe they’d isolated him. He wasn’t even sure anymore. He didn’t care. He was so goddamn old, and he wanted it over.

 

Steve didn’t have his guns anymore. He hadn’t touched a weapon in over a decade.

 

But he had some kitchen knives and an abundance of determination.

 

He examined the knife in the dying light and felt for his jugular with callused fingers.

 

He poised the knife over his fingers and passively felt the sting of a relatively deep cut to his index finger. He adjusted his grip and—

 

There was a frantic knock on the door?

 

Steve stared blankly at the door for a few minutes, blinking slowly. Nobody came here.

 

The knock came again.

 

Steve slowly took the knife away from his neck and let his hand fall back to his side, although he refused to put it down. He approached the door on the balls of his feet and cracked it open.

 

“We need help,” Natasha said.

 

Steve opened the door, more out of surprise than anything else, and Natasha stepped inside, dragging a guy with her.

 

The guy was bleeding pretty badly, his eyes squeezed shut, and Steve just stared as Natasha laid him down on the couch.

 

“First aid?” she said hopefully.

 

Steve shook his head to try to clear it. “Right,” he mumbled and headed towards his bathroom, grabbing his first aid kit.

 

He walked back into his living room and handed it to Natasha, who didn’t even glance at him as she took out the materials for stitches. “You can put that down,” she said, cleaning the guy’s wound.

 

Steve looked at the knife, still gripped tightly in his hand. He sighed in resignation and placed it slowly in the sink.

 

“Alright, Peter, this is gonna hurt,” Natasha said gently.

 

The guy—Peter—groaned indistinctly, and his face pinched as Natasha started to work.

 

“He has a healing factor,” Natasha explained, still not looking at Steve. “But he still got hit bad. I’m sorry for showing up like this, but you were the closest to where we were, and Peter was in bad shape. I didn’t know what else to do.”

 

“It’s okay,” Steve said quietly, frowning at his hands. His fingertips were bloody, and the cut hadn’t completely sealed yet.

 

“We’ll get out of your hair as soon as Peter’s okay to move,” Natasha added.

 

“How’d you get here?” Steve asked, sitting on his coffee table to watch Natasha work.

 

“We were in Iceland already for a mission. We stole a car.”

 

“Who’s picking you up?”

 

“Tony.”

 

Steve’s expression shuttered.

 

“Listen,” Natasha sighed, her eyes flicking over to him. “He’s mellowed out. He’s not angry about the Accords anymore. He fixed it with Bucky—“

 

“Okay,” Steve said, rising up to his feet. “I don’t need to hear anymore.”

 

“Steve,” Natasha sighed.

 

Steve held up a hand, and Natasha seemed to notice the blood.

 

Her eyes narrowed. “What happened there?”

 

“Cut myself cooking.”

 

“What were you cooking?”

 

Steve glared at her and turned away, stalking off towards his room.

 

“We’re not done with this conversation!” Natasha called.

 

Steve slammed the door shut.

 

He sat down in his tiny, cramped closet, drew his knees up to his chest, and wished Natasha hadn’t shown up.

 


 

 

She found him a few hours later but didn’t open the door. She just sat down with her back leaning against the door.

 

“I know what you were thinking,” she finally said.

 

“Do you?” Steve muttered dryly.

 

“Immortality’s a bitch.”

 

“I’m not immortal.”

 

“You’re not getting older either.”

 

Steve let out a breath and pressed his forehead to his knees. “I just want it to be over.”

 

“I know. Trust me.”

 

“How?” Steve demanded harshly.

 

“Because I’m not getting older either.”

 

Steve felt cold. “No,” he whispered.

 

“Yeah.”

 

Natasha deserved this fate the least out of anybody he’d ever known. Steve felt like crying, but he was still so damn numb that he couldn’t even manage that. "How?" he whispered.

 

"Knockoff version of the serum. Same as Barnes."

 

"Oh."

 

“I’ve thought about ending it too, you know.”

 

Steve squeezed his eyes shut.

 

“But do you know what I decide every time I think about it?”

 

“What,” Steve said hollowly.

 

“There’s still so much to do.”

 

“I’m not like you,” Steve said. “My brain is wired wrong. I don’t think like that.”

 

“Yeah, depression is a bitch,” Natasha said. “But, Steve, you’re a fighter.”

 

Steve glared at the door. “Don’t say that.”

 

“It’s true.”

 

“I wish it weren’t.”

 

They were quiet for a long time. “Can you do me a favor?” Natasha finally asked, her voice incredibly soft.

 

“What?”

 

“Just think about it, and find something worth living for.”

 

Steve closed his eyes. “I’ll think about it.”

 

 


 

 

Peter stared at Steve in a daze as he mechanically made breakfast.

 

“You’re Captain America,” he finally mumbled.

 

“No, I’m not,” Steve said firmly.

 

“You were.”

 

“Fine. I was.”

 

“I fought you once,” Peter said, grinning sleepily. “In Germany.”

 

Steve paused. “You’re the kid from Queens?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Oh.”

 

He smiled. “I always wanted to, like, officially meet you. But then by the time the Avengers fixed the whole divorce thingy, you were in the wind.”

 

“Sorry,” Steve said, uncomfortable.

 

“I get it. I like your tattoos.”

 

“Um. Thanks.”

 

“That’s enough, Pete,” Natasha said, emerging from the bathroom with wet hair. “Tony’s almost here.”

 

Steve glared at his eggs.

 

“Sweet,” Peter said.

 

Steve sat at the kitchen table and stared unseeingly at his wrists as Natasha went outside to talk to Tony.

 

And then the motherfucker invited him inside.

 

“Oh,” Tony said, seemingly at a loss for words. “Um. Nice place you got here.”

 

“I built it,” Steve said, forcing himself to look up.

 

Tony had aged like Sam. It looked good on him with his salt and pepper hair and his wrinkles for laughter lines. There was something about him that had changed completely, and Steve realized that his expression wasn’t clouded over with anxiety. His face was tense, but way more relaxed than Steve had ever seen.

 

He looked vaguely impressed. “Huh. Nice job.”

 

“Thanks.”

 

They hovered awkwardly for a moment. “I like the scruff,” Tony said, gesturing to Steve’s face. “Your hair’s darker. It suits your hermit mountain man aesthetic.”

 

“Yeah,” Steve agreed, rubbing his jaw.

 

“Ohhhh, you got tattoos.” Tony’s eyes lit up. “Never really took you for the rebellious type until the whole dealio. That confirms my theory. Cap is a hashtag-rebel.”

 

“Did you just say hashtag?” Natasha deadpanned.

 

“Yup.” Tony rocked back and forth on his heels and stared at the floor. “Anywho. I just wanted to tell you that I forgive you for all the shit that went down. I’ve moved past it, and I mean, I hope we can try to be friends again, but I’ve accepted the idea that that’s probably not going to happen.”

 

Tony has blasted Bucky’s arm off. Tony had tried to kill Bucky. Steve had almost killed Tony. How would he ever move past that? “Oh. Um.” Steve searched for his anger and realized that it was gone, replaced by a bone-deep exhaustion that he wouldn’t be able to shake if he tried. And that left nothing left to do but fucking move the fuck on. “I forgive you too.”

 

Tony nodded rapidly. “Right. I definitely expected that. Why wouldn’t you forgive me? I’m amazing and we’re besties. Cool beans. Totally called it.”

 

“You look good,” Steve said. “You get better with age.”

 

Tony grinned. “Thanks. Pepper agrees.”

 

“You fixed it with her? Good.”

 

“Yeah. We’re married and shit. It’s looks good on us.”

 

“Good.”

 

“You look tired with... a lack of age.”

 

“Yeah, I know.”

 

“Working on it?”

 

“Working on it.”

 

Tony clapped his hands. “Well, this has been sufficiently awkward. Pete, Nat, let’s skedaddle.”

 

“Nice to formally meet you, sir,” Peter said.

 

“You too.”

 

Natasha hugged him tight for a few long moments. “Please think about what I said. I’ll see you in August.”

 

“Okay,” Steve whispered and cleared his throat as they drew back.

 

Tony kept nodding to himself as Steve followed them outside. “Right. Cool. Steve. We’re cool. Nice. Right.”

 

Steve clapped him on the shoulder. “Take care of yourself.”

 

“I have been,” Tony said quietly, smiling a little bit. “Therapy is my bitch.”

 

“I’m proud of you,” Steve said before he knew he was saying it.

 

Tony ducked his head. “Thanks. You take care of yourself too. I get the feeling that you’re not.”

 

“Okay.”

 

“Listen, your boy’s taking care of himself too—“

 

“Tony,” Steve said sharply. “I don’t want to hear anything about him.”

 

Tony blinked. “Right. He kicked you to the curb. Totally slipped my mind. Cool. Okay. Not talking about it. At all. Lips sealed and all that jazz.”

 

“Tony!” Natasha called.

 

Tony snapped his fingers and shot finger guns at Steve. “I’m out.”

 

“Alright.”

 

Ciao.”

 

Steve sat on the ground as they flew away and didn’t move for a long time.

 

 


 

 

Steve left Iceland two days later.

 

 


 

 

He was living in Japan, working on a fishing boat in his spare time, when the earthquake hit.

 

It was bad, and Steve had been in the middle of selling some fish to a grocer, and the ceiling crumbled down, and Steve hit his head, and when he shoved away the debris, the grocer’s neck was at an awkward angle that immediately made him feel cold.

 

Steve was frozen in shock, and it took a few minutes for him to lurch to his feet. Some blood dripped into his eyes, sticky and still achingly familiar even after all these years. He put pressure on his leg and cursed—a bone was broken. But that hadn’t stopped him when he was six and needed to carry a cat back to his apartment, and it wouldn’t stop him now.

 

Steve rushed into a flurry of action that he hadn’t been a part of in years, lifting debris easily and unthinkingly. Nobody seemed to care about his superhuman strength, least of all Steve, but there were so many injured people.

 

And there were no Avengers around. Just normal fucking people trying to pull strangers and loved ones alike out of the wreckage. And Steve fucking felt something other than anger and numbness for the first time in a very, very long time.

 

Steve let himself take the more grotesque jobs after the first panic. He carried the dead to the morgues. He stayed in the overflowing waiting rooms in hospitals and held the hands of people waiting in pain by themselves.

 

This was the ugliest side of the fight, and this was what he was made for.

 

 


 

 

A grainy video of him lifting a massive chunk of debris made it to the news, and Steve left in a flash, knowing he’d be recognized by someone eventually.

 

He didn’t want to take that risk.

 

He headed for the Middle East.

 

 


 

 

There were no repeats of Iceland. Steve could not afford to get attached to one place.

 

But, fuck, it was lonely as hell.

 


 

 

Everywhere he went, Natasha’s words haunted him. Find something to live for.

 

He searched.

 

Sometimes he gave up.

 

Sometimes he thought he found what he was looking for.

 

Sometimes he wished he’d never been fucking defrosted.

 

 


 

 

Steve Rogers was old.

 

He’d been on this godforsaken planet for nearly 130 years. Everyone he’d grown up with was dead, besides Bucky of course, but he hadn’t seen Bucky for 31 years.

 

Everyone he cared about was barely a part of his life anymore.

 

It kinda made a fella wonder whether any of it was worth it.

 

He’d looked for something to live for, and he’d looked for something to die for, and all he’d found was a sense of nothingness.

 

Steve closed his eyes, adjusting his grip on the wheel of his car. Would it kill him to drive off a cliff? Would that do the trick and finally put him out of his misery?

 

Steve gazed dispassionately at the night sky. He’d learned a long time ago that the stars up there were most likely long dead and gone. The light traveled so slowly that looking up was like looking back in time, to the point where what you saw when you went stargazing was just a reflection of the dead.

 

Nothing more than something pretty to look at, mostly obscured by light pollution now anyway.

 

Steve sighed and rubbed his eyes. He’d tried Natasha’s way. He should end it. He should end it now.

 

He reached over to start the engine, but there was a sudden, horrific thump, and his car jolted and rocked with a large impact.

 

Steve cursed and threw himself out of the car, raising his fists as he looked up.

 

A girl groaned, rolling onto her side on the top of his car. Her eyes were squeezed shut in pain, and something in Steve wilted. He climbed up so that his elbows were propped on the roof of the car and asked, “Can I help you down from there?”

 

The girl blinked a few times and looked at him, her eyes wary despite the pain she must’ve been feeling. “You gonn’ kill me?” she mumbled.

 

“Not unless you try to kill me first,” Steve said honestly.

 

“Fair enough.” She threaded her fingers through her mop of curly hair and let out a harsh breath. “I think I busted something.”

 

Steve held out a hand, and she grabbed it, pulling herself up into a sitting position, wincing. “I’m Steve,” Steve said. “Scoot forward. I wanna check your ribs.”

 

The girl obliged, throwing her legs off the edge of the car. She unzipped her hoodie and lifted her shirt to glance down at her stomach. “I think ribs are fine.”

 

“Can I check? I used to be in the military. I know what to look for.”

 

The girl’s eyes hardened, and she drew up her shoulders, blinking a few times as if coming back to herself. “I’m fine,” she said stiffly. “I can take care of myself.”

 

Steve blinked in surprise. I like her, came the thought, almost out of nowhere. He shook his head to rid himself of it. “Can I at least drive you to the hospital?” Steve asked, trying to keep his voice patient, but he was kind of annoyed.

 

The girl glanced at the car as if just noticing it. “I wrecked your car.”

 

“It’s fine,” Steve said. “It’s not really mine anyway.”

 

The girl looked at him sharply. “Oh god. You stole it, didn’t you? I fell onto the car of a criminal.”

 

Steve blinked. “I didn’t steal it,” he said defensively. The girl glared at him. “I took it from a junkyard and fixed it up. It was going to be scrap metal without me.”

 

“Ugh.”

 

Steve looked around them, frowning. “Where did you come from anyway?”

 

The girl scowled. “Not around here, that’s for sure,” she muttered under her breath.

 

Steve was getting some seriously ominous vibes, but like usual, he ignored them. “I can still drive you to the hospital.”

 

“Don’t need a hospital.”

 

Steve gave her an unimpressed look. She matched the look and added an arched eyebrow.

 

“God,” she finally sighed, dropping her head back in exasperation. “You’re like some kind of fucking Good Samaritan, aren’t you? Won’t leave me alone ‘til I tell you I’m fine?”

 

Steve shrugged. “I guess.”

 

The girl crossed her arms. “Fine. No hospitals. No being a fucking mother hen. You can drive me to where I need to go.”

 

“And where’s that?” Steve asked, crossing his arms to mirror her aggression.

 

“New York.”

 

Steve went tense all over. “I’ll take you anywhere but there.”

 

The girl watched him, still glaring. “Drop me off at the border.”

 

Steve sighed, running a hand through his hair. “Fine. Alright. Deal.” He stuck out his hand.

 

The girl shook it. “Deal.”

 

Steve stepped back, and the girl hopped down from the roof, wincing slightly. “Los Angeles to New York,” Steve sighed. “This is gonna be a long drive.”

 

The girl walked over to the passenger’s side of the car and climbed in. “I’ll pay you if we can make the trip in one go.”

 

“Nope.”

 

“Damn.” The girl slouched down, kicking up her feet onto the dashboard. She was wearing muddy converse.

 

“I promise I’m not a creep,” Steve said, closing the door to the driver’s side and turning on the engine.

 

“Highly reassuring,” the girl said dryly. “Listen, you’re my taxi service. I don’t care if you’re a creep. As long as you’re not a creep to me and I don’t ever see you again, bien?”

 

“Fair enough,” Steve grumbled. He’d need a cup of coffee. “I just feel better if you don’t hitchhike the whole way.”

 

The girl turned to look at him in disbelief. “This is hitchhiking.”

 

“Ah.”

 

“Don’t try to murder me, and I won’t take you down with me.”

 

“Alright, okay.” Steve scowled at the jagged terrain and decided that he’d go and fucking kill himself when this was over. He had time. He had a long, never-ending supply of time. “What’s your name?” Steve asked absentmindedly, checking his rear-view mirror.

 

The girl was quiet for a while, and Steve made peace with the fact that she probably wasn’t going to answer, but she said, “America,” into the quiet of the car after a few miles.

 

Steve rolled his eyes. Of course the universe would have the sense of irony to throw a girl named America onto the roof of his car.

 

Steve wanted to make some dry remark about formerly being Captain America, but even though this girl hadn’t even been alive when he’d become a fugitive, he was always keeping it safe. He didn’t want to go to prison.

 

So, instead, he said, “Buckle your seatbelt.”

 

America ignored him and pulled her hood up.

Chapter Text

“What do we tell him about the files?” Sam asked T’Challa, staring at the cryochamber.

 

T’Challa frowned. “We will tell him that we found them.”

 

“Nothing about Steve?”

 

T’Challa shook his head. “No. That will only upset him.”

 

Sam sighed, rubbed a hand across his jaw. “Alright. But I don’t like lying.”

 

T’Challa glanced over at Sam and smiled gently. “I know,” he whispered.

 

Sam’s expression softened, and he forced himself to return his gaze forward. “Shall we?”

 

“We shall.”

 


 

 

Bucky became aware of himself in small increments.

 

There was the tingle of cold in his toes and the bite of cold on his nose and the numbness in five points of fingers. And then there was the rest of him, slow and confused by the brightness and the noise behind his closed eyelids.

 

He slumped against something and groggily pried his eyes open. “Steve?” he mumbled.

 

Somebody had been holding his forearm, and now the hand there retracted quickly, as if burned. “Sam,” a voice said.

 

Bucky looked up, and there was Sam, staring at him with a blank, unreadable expression. Bucky felt tired and confused. “Where’s—where’s Steve?”

 

Sam shrugged. “Hell if I know.”

 

And then Bucky remembered in a flash. He’d practically thrown Steve away, discarded him like an old toy. Bucky shrank in on himself and felt more confused and tired and alone. Why was Sam here? Sam was Steve’s new bestie. Sam should be with Steve, making sure he wasn’t hurting himself. “What do you mean?” Bucky asked.

 

“Why do you even want to know?” Sam said, his voice coming out harsher than he’d probably intended.

 

Bucky flinched. He said nothing for a few moments. “Why am I awake?”

 

“We’ve got seventy years’ worth of detailed files on your psychology,” Sam explained.

 

“Oh.”

 

Bucky wasn’t sure what he’d expected, but this wasn’t it. Maybe he’d expected Steve to be his usual stubborn self and ignore Bucky’s wishes and be here anyway, or maybe he’d expected to wake up and be told that the Secret Avengers needed his help in some crisis or another, or maybe he’d just expected to never wake up at all. He certainly hadn’t expected the only purpose of it to be... fucking... recovery... or whatever.

 

“I don’t want to overwhelm you,” Sam was saying. “So I’ll give you the short version. We have the best psychologists in the world at our disposal, and we have plans A-through-Z in your full recovery. If none of those work, we’ve got psychics who can try poking around up there to make it easier. We also have the best scientists in the world, who have been working on formulas and shit for medication to help a super soldier with anxiety, depression, or anything else you’ve got. Basically, you’ve got everyone here in your corner, and we’re going to do our best to help you get better.”

 

Bucky blinked a few times. “What?” he said, and then he sniffled, and Sam’s eyes widened in shock, and Bucky scrubbed at his eyes almost absentmindedly as his vision clouded. “Why?” he choked out, bewildered.

 

Sam’s expression softened, and he said, “Look. No matter how much of an asshole you are, you deserve your second chance, and you fucking deserve to be able to live your life. This is the only time I’m ever gonna say it, but I’ve got your back, dude. Okay?”

 

Bucky drew his shoulders up and felt so overwhelmed that he couldn’t physically formulate a response.

 

“I’m gonna let some of the doctors run some tests to make sure your body’s working,” Sam explained quietly. “And then we’re going to have dinner with T’Challa, and you’re going to go to sleep, and then we’ll start getting you better.”

 

Bucky nodded dumbly. Okay. He could—okay.

 

Bucky couldn’t fathom the kindness that it took to put all your resources to helping a former assassin redeem themself.

 

He couldn’t help but wish that Steve had been the one to tell him about it, though.

 


 

 

Bucky was wearing a yellow-orange tank top and navy blue sweatpants and socks with weird birds on them. Sam had seen him and started laughing this unabashed snorting laughter that had left Bucky feeling dizzy. But Bucky liked his bright colors, and he didn’t care if he looked ridiculous because he was free to look as ridiculous as he damn wanted to look.

 

One of T’Challa’s scary bodyguards let them into his royal suite or whatever, and they sat down to dinner.

 

“We have been busy for the past three years,” T’Challa explained. “The Secret Avengers are no longer fugitives, but we are still essentially operating underground.”

 

“Everybody just kinda looks the other way,” Sam added, gesturing with his fork, “’cause without us, the world would’ve been enslaved by an intergalactic psychopath.”

 

“Of course,” Bucky muttered dryly.

 

T’Challa offered Bucky a small smile. “Please understand that you will be welcomed to join the Secret Avengers when you have more-or-less fully recovered.”

 

“Thank you,” Bucky said quietly. “But I haven’t fought without the arm in a long time.”

 

T’Challa waved a dismissive hand. “If that is your only objection, we will make you a new one.”

 

Bucky felt like his confusion kept growing and growing like some sort of exponential graph. “Why?”

 

“We have the resources.”

 

“And you’re a great fighter,” Sam added.

 

When Bucky was quiet, T’Challa hastily said, “And you do not need to decide your path right now. Please wait until you’ve recovered.”

 

“Okay,” Bucky said numbly.

 


 

 

Bucky sat down on the edge of the bed in his new luxurious suite.

 

There was a distant ringing in his ears, like he was in shock. He was so fucking overwhelmed with the day that he didn’t even know how to feel.

 

He’d tried to get himself together in Bucharest, but that obviously hadn’t worked out very well for him, and then Steve had found him and fucking ruined everything.

 

Because Bucky could’ve managed to live in a world alone if he didn’t know that Steve still wanted to be with him.

 

Now, he wasn’t so sure. Maybe Steve didn’t want him anymore. After the whole. Sending him away thing. Bucky could do alone. Bucky could get by.

 

And Steve was probably better off, living in some nowhere town and starting an anonymous family to live in oblivion like he’d wanted sometime back before the war. Steve was probably fine.

 

But Bucky...

 

God, he didn’t know what to do.

 

He reminded himself that he wanted this. He wanted to be alone and to push Steve out of his orbit. It was the first right thing Bucky had done in a torrential sea of wrongs.

 

It was fine.

 

And then there was also the matter of T’Challa and Sam’s hospitality.

 

Was he supposed to just accept it like a fucking gift? No. Of course not. This was going to put him in their debts forever. Bucky weighed the options. He could either be indebted to two good men or have his brain fucked up forever.

 

No contest. Really.

 

Bucky sighed and sat against the headboard, rubbing a hand over his eyes.

 

He jerked himself awake every time he started to doze off.

 


 

 

Nineteen days without sleep. Bucky was doing fine.

 

“James. Bucky. You’re not paying attention,” Ashley Kafka said gently but firmly.

 

Bucky blinked a few times. Okay. Maybe not so fine. “Sorry.”

 

Kafka shifted in her seat a little bit with that irritatingly blank expression. “Have you taken any of your sleeping pills?”

 

Bucky scowled. “No.”

 

“Why not?”

 

Bucky scoffed. “I think drugs are the last thing I need.”

 

“They’ll help you sleep.”

 

“I don’t want to sleep.”

 

“Whatever it is you’re doing?” Kafka said slowly. “It’s unsustainable.”

 

“In 1946, I went without sleeping for sixty-three days.”

 

“And do you remember any of those days?”

 

Bucky paused. “Yes.”

 

“Do you remember what it felt like to sleep again afterwards?”

 

Bucky sighed. “Yes.”

 

Kafka nodded. “Just think about that.”

 

 


 

 

Bucky fell asleep.

 

He woke up screaming two hours later.

 

(He knew it had been a bad idea.)

 

 


 

 

“желание, ржаветь, семнадцать.”

 

Bucky shrugged. “Nothing.”

 

“Good,” Kafka said, writing something down.

 


 

 

Bucky woke up and he didn’t know where he was and he didn’t want to be wherever he fucking was he just wanted to go back under the ice where it was safe and no one could hurt him and no one could be hurt by him and—

 

It wasn’t safe.

 

 


 

 

“Little birdie tells me you’re not a live wire anymore,” Sam said when Bucky opened the door of his suite.

 

“The words?” Bucky asked blankly. “Oh. Yeah. They’re fine.”

 

“Three cheers for narrowing it down to severe PTSD!” Sam whooped, pumping a fist.

 

He was utterly ridiculous and Bucky kind of loved him for it. He smirked. “Well, at least now I’m not as fucked up as your face.”

 

Sam gave him an unimpressed eyebrow raise. “Dude, my face is the farthest thing in this world from fucked up.”

 

Bucky had to agree, but Sam didn’t need to know that. “You made me go blind.”

 

“Ugh.” Sam glared at him, but Bucky was smart enough by now to know that it was more of a fond look than anything else. “Come shopping with me.”

 

Bucky snorted. “Sure.”

 

If there was one thing about Wakanda that Bucky loved, it was the cities. They were way more industrial and civilized than anything Bucky had seen in this century, and it was like stepping straight into a science fiction novel.

 

Unexpected noises bothered him, but the thing about cities was that the noise was calming rather than unexpected. It was familiar in a way that not very many things were anymore.

 

And Sam Wilson loved to take Bucky Barnes shopping.

 

It was part of their routine. Most days, they ate breakfast together in silence, occasionally exchanging barbed remarks (“Your hair looks particularly homeless today, Barnes, did you get rid of your shampoo too?” “Sorry, Wilson, didn’t know it was customary to stand in front of a mirror for forty-five minutes to look good when you pass His Highness in the hallway for two seconds.”). Then Sam would go and do whatever it was he did during the days, and Bucky would go to whatever therapist or counselor or psychologist he was scheduled to see for a few hours, and then Sam would come back in the afternoon for some sort of activity that was mostly movies and other outings into the world before Sam left Bucky alone for the rest of the evening until breakfast.

 

Every day was relatively predictable, and Bucky fucking loved it.

 

“This is cute,” Sam said solemnly, holding a shirt in front of his torso.

 

“Brings out the sleep deprivation in your eyes,” Bucky cooed.

 

Sam rolled his eyes and slung the shirt over his forearm with the rest of the clothes he was picking out.

 

Sam shoved a pair of sunglasses onto Bucky’s face and started laughing. “Oh my god.”

 

Bucky peeked in the tiny mirror and couldn’t stop the grin. The sunglasses were sparkly pink and were heart-shaped and had a tiny plastic pink butterfly on the corner of one of the lenses and were so obnoxiously girly and Bucky looked completely ridiculous. “I’m buying these.”

 

“Bless the entire world,” Sam gasped. “You are lookin’ fabulous,” he added in an exaggeratedly flamboyant tone that Bucky had been taught to associate with the gay scene this century.

 

“Honey, you wouldn’t know fabulous if it hit you in the face,” Bucky said in the same tone, flipping the loose line of his scarf over his shoulder and spinning on his heel. Sam choked on his laughter.

 

But Sam was jittery today. Anxious in a way that made Bucky wanted to harness all the shrinks he talked to 24/7 and ask Sam those vague leading questions.

 

So, of course, he tried to bring it up in the most gentlemanly way possible.

 

“You’re acting like more of a wuss than usual today, Wilson.”

 

Sam sent Bucky a warning look, although he causally responded with a flippant, “I’m PMS-ing.”

 

Bucky was a good friend, so he dropped it and said, “Be careful that Nakia doesn’t hear you.”

 

Sam shuddered in horror.

 

At breakfast the next morning, Sam was quiet in a way that he got sometimes. Bucky didn’t press. He was a good friend. Pressure was for therapy, and Sam had his own therapist for that.

 

Bucky honestly didn’t mean to eavesdrop.

 

He was wandering the gardens after a particularly nasty session with Kafka when he heard the low sound of Sam’s voice.

 

Bucky walked towards the sound but soon noticed the highly distressed tone of Sam’s voice. He stopped and moved to turn to the other direction when—

 

He heard.

 

“—over six months, Nat. Our check-ins are supposed to be fucking bimonthly deals.”

 

Who was Sam talking about? Bucky felt cold.

 

“I know. I’m being paranoid, but don’t pretend you wouldn’t be feeling the same. The last time I saw him, he was not doing well.”

 

There was a little pause. An audible ellipsis that made Bucky go tense.

 

“You know exactly what he’s been up to for the past three years,” Sam snapped harshly. “Of course he’s not in his right mind.”

 

...

 

“Nat, he thinks he’s nothing more than a weapon, and he thinks—“

 

...

 

“Yeah. He did. I don’t know if I got through his thick fucking skull though.”

 

...

 

“Just please tell me where he is. I know you’ve been keeping tabs.”

 

...

 

“What.”

 

...

 

“How can you not know?” Sam’s breathing picked up, and Bucky was starting to panic. “What if he’s—“

 

...

 

“No. You’re right. Right? You’ve gotta be right.”

 

...

 

“Right.”

 

...

 

“Yeah.”

 

...

 

“No? I can’t fucking tell him! He doesn’t want to fucking know. I’ve got—T’Challa—probably.”

 

...

 

“He’s in San Francisco.”

 

...

 

“Brooklyn. You know that.”

 

...

 

“She’s with Vision somewhere. You know that too.”

 

...

 

“Yeah. We’re all we’ve got right now. But I dunno, Nat. Steve’s got nobody now. ‘Least we’re not alone and fucking fugitives.”

 

Bucky reached up a hand and touched the hot tears that had somehow appeared on his face, his breath hitching. He turned on heel and ran.

 

—and ran.

 

and ran.

 

Bucky was hyperventilating, sitting on some rock in the middle of the fucking jungle, and he couldn’t breathe.

 

Was Steve okay? What had he been doing the past three years to make Sam sound so panicked and upset? Why the fuck hadn’t the Black Widow been able to find him? Where was he? Was he alive? Why was he alone?

 

This was his fault. Whatever had happened to Steve would be his fault. Maybe he’d assumed wrong when he’d thought that he was the only poison in Steve’s veins. Maybe Bucky hadn’t even been poison. Maybe he’d sacrificed his own happiness for nothing.

 

No. Bucky was poison too. He had to be. Even if he wasn’t Steve’s only poison, he had to be better than he was before. Just suffering a different kind of poison. And he’d figure it out. He was so strong.

 

He had to be alive.

 

Would Bucky know if Steve died? He’d just kind of implicitly assumed that he’d feel something off with the world. Maybe he’d stop seeing color all of a sudden, or maybe nothing would keep him warm, or maybe everything good would feel like bitter blood in his mouth. He’d know. Of course he’d know.

 

Unless he wouldn’t.

 

It was a terrifying thought.

 

Bucky pulled out his phone with shaking fingers and set up a Google alert for “Captain America” and “Captain Rogers.” If he was dead, somebody would have to identify the body eventually, and it’d show up in the news. Captain America wasn’t that far in the past for it not to be huge news.

 

He did not feel reassured in the slightest.

 

Bucky numbly found his way back to his suite by dawn.

 

Sam showed up for breakfast, and his smile was forced. Bucky wordlessly passed him a carton of ice cream. Mint chocolate chip. Sam’s favorite. Bucky hated mint, but he kept the flavor for Sam anyway.

 

Surprise flashed through Sam’s eyes, but he didn’t say anything as he took the carton and grabbed a spoon. Bucky joined him on the couch, the second jarring deviation from their routine, with his carton of raspberry ice cream, burying himself in a mound of blankets.

 

Sam stuck his feet under Bucky’s blankets, and Bucky didn’t even complain about it.

 

“You know something?” Sam asked softly, his voice barely there, after a full hour of silence, ice cream cartons long-since empty.

 

Bucky nodded jerkily and started to cry.

 

Sam made a hushing noise and pulled Bucky into a hug, and Bucky cried some more, and Sam cried some too, and they didn’t say anything until Sam had to leave for whatever it was that he did on Tuesdays.

 


 

 

Eight months and a week and a half after Bucky had been defrosted, Sam showed up at Bucky’s suite with a wide grin, and Bucky startled because Sam had been morose for over two months now.

 

“Romcoms today!” Sam said, shoving past Bucky with an armful of DVDs.

 

“Something good happen?” Bucky asked tentatively after they had both Absolute Not Cried during 50 First Dates.

 

“Yep,” Sam said, beaming, and that was that.

 

 


 

 

Bucky was sitting crisscross applesauce in the middle of a hallway, probably making a complete nuisance of himself, staring blankly into the middle-distance, when he dimly registered someone sitting down next to him.

 

“<Sir—>“ came Okoye’s voice.

 

“<Later,>” T’Challa said, and there was silence. Then: “What happened?”

 

“I dunno,” Bucky mumbled. “Was walking, smelled something familiar, had a flashback, dissociated.”

 

“Will touching hurt or help?”

 

By way of answer, Bucky slumped into T’Challa’s side. Okoye grumbled and shifted in irritation, but she didn’t move to stop him. T’Challa ran his hand up and down Bucky’s spine, and Bucky shuddered, focusing on the gentle pressure.

 

Bucky was half asleep with the steady movement of T’Challa’s hand when he asked, “Better?”

 

Bucky just smiled sadly.

 

 


 

 

“Help,” Sam said at Bucky’s side, where they were watching T’Challa remove his ridiculous cat helmet as he stepped off a jet.

 

Bucky rolled his eyes. “No.”

 

Sam grimaced.

 

T’Challa walked up to them, smiling, and Nakia frowned at them, exchanging a glance with Okoye. “You missed me?” T’Challa asked, his tone light, and even though he was addressing both of them, he was looking at Sam.

 

Sam scoffed, but he ducked his head. “You wish.”

 

I missed you,” Bucky said, just because Sam had said the opposite.

 

T’Challa flashed him a little grin. “I was only gone for a week.”

 

A week of Sam sighing during breakfast and insisting they go to the mall every single day for sadness shopping.

 

“You sticking around?” Sam asked.

 

T’Challa looked apologetic. “I am heading to New York tonight for a conference.” Sam’s face fell. “But I’m all yours until then.”

 

Sam’s eyes widened, and he opened his mouth to respond when his phone started ringing. He frowned at it fished it out of his pocket. “Sorry, one sec,” he muttered and stalked across the room to talk to whoever had called.

 

T’Challa watched him go, and Bucky elbowed him. “Shut up,” T’Challa grumbled.

 

“I’m just saying—“

 

“I will have you thrown in the dungeon—“

 

“—Sam’s a real swell fella—“

 

“—I’m serious, one meal a day down there—“

 

“—sure he’d love it if you—“

 

“—and then the stocks. I think I’ve got some tomatoes in the kitchens—“

 

“—on a date, how ‘bout that? I bet—“

 

“—am the King of Wakanda, I don’t ask people on dates—“

 

“—get laid in no time, you’re too tense—“

 

“—and I will have no choice but to exile you.”

 

Bucky grinned at T’Challa, and T’Challa scowled, but he was a little bit flushed. “Think about it,” Bucky said, more gently, nudging him. Nakia glared at him.

 

“Okay.”

 

Sam wandered back over to them, a slight frown on his face. “Nat’s coming to visit?”

 

T’Challa smiled, although it didn’t reach his eyes this time. “Excellent. I will have a suite prepared for her.”

 

“Cool.” Sam scratched the back of his neck. “Wanna go shopping?”

 

T’Challa laughed, and Sam looked like he wanted to burst into song. “I thought you would never ask.”

 

Okoye and Bucky exchanged glances. Okoye rolled her eyes, and Bucky mimed gagging, and he felt more human than he’d felt in the past lifetime.

 

 


 

 

That night, Bucky stepped into his suite to find the Black Widow sitting on his couch, drinking orange juice and watching Friends.

 

She glanced at him and patted the seat next to her. “Siddown. I love this episode.”

 

Bucky warily sat down on the arm of his choice, keeping one eye on the TV and one on the Black Widow.

 

It was one of Bucky’s favorite episodes too—the one where Monica and Chandler tried to keep their relationship secret and Rachel and Phoebe tried to expose them. A classic.

 

They made it through three episodes before the Black Widow shifted and said, “How’s your head?”

 

Bucky scowled. “I’ve been deconditioned.”

 

“Ah. So you’re just normally severely fucked up now.”

 

“Pretty much.”

 

She turned to face Bucky fully, and Bucky braced himself for the worst. “What did you do to Steve?”

 

Bucky flinched. Yep. That was definitely the worst. “Nothing.”

 

“Don’t lie to me.”

 

Bucky sighed, closing his eyes for a brief moment. Whatever he told her, she’d probably tell someone else. So he had to be careful here. “I told him I didn’t want to see him.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Because I can’t.”

 

It was vague enough that it could mean a million things, and the Black Widow was visibly unimpressed.

 

“I’ve got leftover lasagna,” Bucky said, rising to his feet. “You’re welcome to have some.”

 

“Huh,” the Black Widow muttered, mostly to herself, and joined Bucky in his kitchen.

 


 

 

“I’m just saying,” Natasha said conversationally as she beat the living shit out of him. “You’re doing really well for someone who was only just reformed three years ago.”

 

“Technically it was six years,” Bucky grunted, rolling to duck a punch.

 

“You were frozen,” Natasha said, kneeing him in the crotch.

 

Natasha had requested it and Kafka had approved it. Apparently, sparring could be a healthy step for him.

 

Bucky hadn’t had any flashbacks yet, so he was counting it as a win.

 

“Yeah, I’m not a fist of Hydra anymore,” Bucky said, ignoring the comment on cryo, “but I’m still dangerous. PTSD isn’t fun.”

 

“I know,” Natasha muttered, and then she had him in a chokehold. Bucky slammed her against the wall a few times to make her loosen her grip. “But, to be honest, most of the Avengers have PTSD or something else.”

 

“Powder keg,” Bucky gasped.

 

“Yeah.”

 

Bucky said uncle after Natasha sat on his back and smugly stayed there while Bucky wriggled in protest.

 

“Just think on it,” she said.

 

 


 

 

Bucky officially met Wanda Maximoff when he was cleared for duty.

 

“Barnes,” she said with a curt nod. “Come with me.”

 

Bucky followed her, sending Sam an anxious glance. “Where are we going?”

 

“Manhattan.”

 

“I’m still a wanted man.”

 

“A wanted man under the Avengers’ protection,” Wanda said, not glancing back at him.

 

He fell into step with Sam. “She does not like me,” he observed.

 

“She and—um—you know—were really close,” Sam explained quietly.

 

Steve. Bucky sighed. Of course.

 

T’Challa embraced Bucky before he got onto Wanda’s jet. “I will see you in a few days. We’ll talk about your new arm then.”

 

“Thank you.”

 

“No. Thank you, my friend.”

 

Bucky clapped T’Challa on the shoulder and made his way into the jet so as not to intrude on Sam and T’Challa’s good-bye.

 

(He may have peeked anyway. Who could blame him? Bucky was invested in their relationship. And he may have cheered a little bit when T’Challa stepped forward and grasped Sam’s hand for a long, lingering moment laden with pure sexual tension before Sam bowed a little bit and started to draw away, but T’Challa said something, and Sam said something back, and T’Challa leaned down to kiss Sam’s knuckles before watching him walk onto the jet. Bucky also may or may not have sent Okoye a text that simply read, !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!, and Okoye may or may not have responded with a string of smirking emojis.)

 

Sam joined him in a daze. “What just happened?”

 

“You gonn’ get laid,” Bucky said solemnly.

 

Sam laughed.

 

Bucky pushed his heart-shaped sunglasses up his nose and settled in for the long flight.

 

Wanda walked over to them after about an hour, her expression withdrawn. “We’re going to meet with the Avengers, and they’re going to review your file and see if you’re actually fit for duty. Depending on the verdict, a lawyer may or may not be hired to get you pardoned. Essentially, this will decide if you’re going to be fighting alongside the Avengers when you join the Secret Avengers or if you will only be going on Secret Avengers missions.”

 

“Alright,” Bucky said.

 

“Tony Stark will be there.”

 

“Alright.”

 

Sam squeezed his shoulder, and then punched him in the leg. “We’re gonna rock the house.”

 


 

 

They were not going to rock the house.

 

“So,” a scary lady named Carol was saying. “You’re the Winter Soldier.”

 

A girl stared at him with wide eyes. “You’re the guy that started the Civil War?”

 

“Um,” Bucky said.

 

“Kamala, please,” Carol said with a stern look, then turned to Bucky. “You’re the asshole that started the Civil War.”

 

She and Kamala high-fived.

 

“Leave him alone,” Sam said. Bucky wanted to give him a hug. “He’s ‘armless.”

 

Bucky revoked the hug idea, scowling. Kamala snorted.

 

Bucky turned to Sam. “Since when did they let kids join the Avengers?”

 

“Spider-Man!” Kamala shouted, hand shooting up. “He set the precedent!”

 

Bucky looked at her, wide-eyed. “What the fuck, how many kids are there?”

 

Kamala frowned, ticking off her fingers. “Well, there’s me, Cassie, and Peter. So... three?”

 

“Jesus.”

 

“Nobody tell him about the X-Men,” Kamala stage whispered.

 

“Enough,” Carol said. “We’re supposed to be down on the common floor... six minutes ago.”

 

“Shit.”

 

Carol led them to an elevator and then into a sort of lounge. Which was. Very crowded.

 

Bucky shrunk his shoulders. Sam grabbed his wrist. Bucky reconsidered the hug.

 

“Yo! Order! Calm down, y’all!” someone shouted. “Review’s starting!” Bucky couldn’t pinpoint the owner of the voice. He was getting tunnel vision.

 

Sam’s fingers were pressed to Bucky’s pulse, so he had to know about the panic.

 

A man with distant eyes and a flat-lipped expression barked, “Let’s get on with it, then.” And Bucky realized that it was Tony Stark.

 

Shit.

 

“I’ve got the file,” Carol said.

 

“Read it.”

 

Carol cleared her throat, eyes skimming the thick pages. “Sergeant Barnes was deconditioned within six months with the help of files on his psychological torture and a few psychics. Including Stephen Strange.” She shot a man a narrow-eyed look, and Bucky followed her gaze to find Dr. Strange with a little jolt of surprise. Carol went on. “This has been confirmed by... eight highly regarded therapists. More therapy, yadda yadda yadda, remarkable recovery, etcetera etcetera, lingering PTSD, you get the gist.”

 

Wanda snatched the file out of Carol’s hands, scowling. “Let one of us who’s actually read the damn file relay the information.”

 

Carol held up her hands, glaring.

 

“Barnes has gone from a brainwashed, highly dependent weapon to an individual with a hero complex and a craving for atonement within seven years, excluding his time in the cryochamber. He’s sane, he’s his own person, he’s got his own moral compass, and he’s ready to try to wash the blood off his hands with or without your approval. Good?” Wanda said in a clipped, professional tone. Bucky gaped at her in shock.

 

He’d officially met this girl today.

 

The fuck?

 

“Is that a threat?” Tony Stark demanded, eyes narrowed.

 

“A statement. The Secret Avengers do not operate under your jurisdiction.”

 

Tony Stark scoffed. “Speak,” he said, looking at Bucky. “I want to hear it from you.”

 

Bucky shifted his weight. “Um. What do you want to hear?”

 

“I want to hear that you’re a person,” Tony Stark said evenly.

 

Bucky shook off Sam’s hand and reached into his pocket, pulling out his heart-shaped sunglasses. “I bought these a few years ago because I would’a been beat up for wearing them in the forties.” He held out his arm, looking down at his bright clothes. “I wear bright colors because Hydra only ever dressed me in black and gray and camo.”

 

“Your wardrobe does not equal your humanity,” someone said. Bucky didn’t bother looking for the voice.

 

“I eat nothing but a carton of ice cream for breakfast when I’m upset, and I go shopping because Sam likes it, and I cry at goddamn romcoms, and I take pictures of cool plants when I go on walks, and I haven’t been controlled for eight years.” Bucky glared at the room. “I’m my own person, and I think Rachel and Ross never should’ve gotten together on Friends, and I think that the King of Wakanda makes the worst pizza in the world, and I think that wearing shoes is stupid. I’m my own goddamn person, and I worked hard to get there, and I don’t fucking need a room of asshole superheroes to judge whether or not I’ve got enough humanity to help the world be a little bit less of a shitty place. So, fuck you. I don’t care if you disagree. I’m a fucking person, and you don’t get to tell me otherwise.”

 

Bucky stopped talking and realized that the room had gone dead silent.

 

He shifted uncomfortably. “Er—“

 

“I like him,” Kamala said.

 

“Shut up, you’re like twelve,” someone said.

 

Kamala squared her shoulders indignantly. “I will kick your ass, Wade—“

 

The room erupted into argument, and Bucky’s ears started to ring, so he punched Sam in the arm before making his escape.

 

He found a little balcony that was quiet and good and peaceful. He sat down on the ground and let out a breath.

 

After a while, there was a gentle knock on the door.

 

Bucky looked up to see a woman standing just inside holding two mugs.

 

Bucky opened the balcony door.

 

“Hi,” she said, offering a mug. “I’m Pepper Potts.”

 

“I’m Bucky,” Bucky said quietly, taking the mug warily.

 

“Chamomile,” Pepper explained.

 

“It’s not minty, is it?”

 

“No. It’s sweet.”

 

“Thank you.”

 

Bucky sat back down, and to his surprise, Pepper joined him. “It’s nice out here.”

 

“Yeah. Quiet.”

 

“They can get a little overwhelming,” Pepper said, nodding in the general direction of the Avengers.

 

“You’re not one of them?”

 

“Just married to one,” Pepper said with a little smile.

 

“Oh. Hi, then.”

 

“Hi,” Pepper laughed. “They mean well.”

 

“I know. But I don’t need them to judge me.”

 

“I’m glad you feel that way.”

 

“Me too.”

 

There was a pause. “Who’re you married to?” Bucky asked, at a loss for what else to say.

 

Pepper took a sip of her tea. “Tony.”

 

Bucky’s eyes widened. “Um.”

 

“Relax. I’m not gonna yell at you for killing his parents while you were a brainwashed weapon.”

 

“You’re...not?”

 

“No,” Pepper said stubbornly, jaw set into something that sent Bucky’s mind reeling, reminding him so strikingly of Steve for an instant before Pepper turned to look at him and the image faded. “Tony used to make weapons, you know.”

 

Bucky froze.

 

“Technological weapons,” Pepper added. “He’s never stopped trying to atone for all the lives that his creations destroyed. And he was tortured over it, and he almost died.”

 

“I really don’t have a right to know all this,” Bucky said, eyes round. “This is some personal shit.”

 

“I asked his permission to tell you,” Pepper said dismissively, and Bucky was suddenly tenfold more confused. “The thing is, Tony understands very well the guilt behind being the person behind the trigger. What he has trouble understanding is actually being the weapon.”

 

“Oh,” Bucky whispered.

 

“It’s not the same type of guilt, and it’s not the same type of liability either, but Tony has tried to look at it like they’re the same. And, you know, he’s made a lot of progress in thinking about it from your angle too. And I don’t think he’s angry with you anymore.”

 

“What? Why?” Bucky said.

 

“Tony understands weapons,” Pepper said simply. “It sounds bad like this, but when he thinks about you like you’re a machine, he understands. He just wants to make things right.”

 

“Oh.”

 

“And he’ll tell you something along those lines at the end of the week, but it’ll sound more like, ‘You’re alright, Barnes,’” Pepper said in a ridiculously gruff impersonation of Tony Stark. Bucky laughed, startled. Pepper smiled at him. “Will you have breakfast with me tomorrow?”

 

“Can I bring Sam?”

 

“Of course.”

 

“Then I’d like that.”

 

 


 

 

BUCKY: thing is going surprisingly well will talk more at 0700

 

OKOYE: Nice

 


 

 

Kamala grabbed Bucky’s arm and took him down the Tower to a floor that was full of tiny restaurants.

 

“I’m hungry, and you must be too.”

 

“Okay?”

 

Kamala talked a mile a minute. “We learned about the Civil War in school, and it’s so funny ‘cause everybody in my class either had a crush on you or Captain America. It was so funny. Tony says it was like the whole thing where people either had a crush on Luke Skywalker or Han Solo, and I guess that makes you Han Solo? But anyway, I didn’t have a crush on either of you. I was more like, ‘They’re ninety, my dudes, what the fuck,’ but anyway, they voted you two as the hottest historical figures because of course there was a tie, but honestly, how can you not vote young Stalin for hottest historical figures? Have you seen the picture? Oh my god, you haven’t? Here. I’ll look it up. Look at him. Isn’t he hot?”

 

“Oh my god,” Bucky said in surprise.

 

“Right?” Kamala demanded, waving her phone around. “And, like, okay, it’s crazy. You know who else was super hot? What’s-her-name. Wait. Hold on. I totally know this one. She was—wait. You probably totally knew her. She founded Shield?”

 

“Peggy Carter,” Bucky laughed. “Yeah, she was a dame.”

 

“I love her,” Kamala said.

 

“You and me both, pal.” Bucky frowned. “Can I see young Stalin again?”

 

Kamala passed him her phone, grinning.

 

“Shit,” Bucky whistled.

 

“I know.”

 

“You know who else?”

 

“Who?”

 

Bucky pulled up a picture of Rasputin and passed it to Kamala. She shrieked with laughter. “Lady killer,” Bucky snickered.

 

“Oh my god.”

 

They made their way back to the elevator after another half hour, and Bucky asked, “Hey, I don’t get how you got in with the Avengers?”

 

Kamala shrugged. “I’m a superhero?”

 

“Yeah, but you’re so young.”

 

“And you’re so old,” Kamala said, indignant. “Age doesn’t match skill set.”

 

Bucky sighed. “Alright. I just—don’t put your youth in jeopardy for the sake of the fight.”

 

Kamala gave him an odd look. “You speaking from experience, dude?”

 

Bucky thought about Steve and his bloody face and his raised fists. “Sorta.”

 

She patted him on the back. “Alright.”

 

Alright.

 


 

 

Tony Stark knocked on his door on the last day of their stay and said, “Hi, nice place you’ve got,” brushing past Bucky to get inside their room.

 

Sam stared at Tony. Tony nodded at him. “Hi?” Bucky said.

 

Tony raked a hand through his hair, nodding several times. “So. You know. There’s this—uh—shield. That I have.”

 

Bucky stiffened.

 

“And, well, you know, I sorta always thought I knew everything about the shield. It absorbs vibrations, so it’s untouchable, but it’s got some scratches and some bullet wounds, and the paint’s chipped, but it’s just a shield and a weapon, so it doesn’t matter.”

 

Bucky swallowed convulsively, sending Sam a panicked look.

 

“And,” Tony went on, gesticulating wildly, not looking at anywhere for longer than half a second. “I guess I realized that maybe the shield didn’t actually have a choice when it was decapitating people or whatever. That it just did what it was made for and was just thrown in the direction it was pointed.”

 

“Right,” Bucky said, voice rough.

 

“And. Um. Maybe the shield kills somebody I love, but maybe I should blame the guy that throws the shield instead of the shield. And maybe the shield is actually a bro. Underneath the chipped paint and shit.”

 

“This is a weird metaphor,” Bucky said uncomfortably.

 

“Good talk!” Tony exclaimed, pulling open a cabinet in the kitchen and grabbing a bottle of scotch, drinking straight from the bottle. “Good talk,” he coughed.

 

“Oooookayyyyyy,” Sam said.

 

“Um.” Tony waved a hand. “And even if other people say the shield isn’t a person, I very much disagree with them.” He looked Bucky dead in the eye. “Be a fucking person, Barnes, and fuck anyone who tells you otherwise.”

 

Bucky actually started to tear up. “I—thank you.”

 

“Ew, jesus, save the fucking serenade for Wilson or something.”

 

“Ew,” Sam muttered.

 

Bucky smiled and wiped his eyes.

 


 

 

The Avengers came to the conclusion that James Barnes A.K.A. the Winter Soldier didn’t actually legally exist [winky face].

 

(It was on the card. They gave him a card.)

 

(James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes A.K.A. the Winter Soldier does not legally exist and therefore cannot be prosecuted or belong to any team because he does not legally exist ;) XOXO –the Avengers.)

 

Pepper gave Bucky her phone number and told him to call her the next time he was in town so that they could “get coffee,” and Kamala started texting him pictures of hot historical figures, occasionally sending him the picture from her yearbook of Bucky being deemed one of the hottest historical figures, and Tony saluted him, and it was good.

 

They went back to Wakanda.

 

Wanda landed the jet, and Bucky saw with a little burst of fondness that T’Challa and Okoye were waiting there, even though they must’ve been extraordinarily busy.

 

They walked off the jet, and Sam smiled at T’Challa, looking almost... shy? “Miss me?”

 

“Exceptionally so,” T’Challa said and reached out, grabbing Sam’s hands. Bucky looked at T’Challa and realized he seemed a little disheveled, which was so jarring that he wondered why he hadn’t noticed in the first place. “I missed you much more than I expected to—I—I’m always the one leaving. I didn’t realize—“

 

Sam blinked slowly. “You didn’t realize...?”

 

T’Challa swallowed, sending Okoye a nervous look before composing himself and looking back at Sam. “I dismissed my feelings because I thought we were too different, and I thought it wouldn’t be worth all the complications that come with it, but I think I have been disastrously wrong.”

 

“Disastrously?” Sam echoed, kind of dumbly.

 

“Maybe that was not the best word.”

 

Sam smiled slowly. “Well. You’re a cat. Wouldn’t expect you to have a perfect understanding of language.”

 

T’Challa laughed and put a hand on the back of Sam’s neck. “<God, I missed you,>” he muttered and just fucking laid one on Sam.

 

Bucky’s jaw dropped, and he turned to Okoye. OH MY GOD! he mouthed at her. Her lips curled into a smug smile, and they high-fived.

 

Sam flipped them off without opening his eyes.

 

Bucky cheered in response.

 


 

 

T’Challa oversaw preparation for Bucky’s new prosthetic, and Bucky needled him mercilessly about a bruise on his neck, and T’Challa just sent him a very dignified look, and Bucky got an arm.

 

And Bucky was a Secret Avenger.

 


 

 

“You’re not aging,” Bruce Banner said. “Your cells just keep healing themselves. It’s kind of remarkable.”

 

“Okay,” Bucky said numbly, and Sam punched him affectionately/worriedly in the arm, and Bucky decided not to think about it. He absolutely did not have to think about this ever.

 


 

 

Wanda showed up at Bucky’s door one day, panicked.

 

“I’ve got fucking people growing inside of me.”

 

“Um?”

 

“I’m pregnant.”

 

“Why are you telling me?” Bucky asked, bewildered. They barely spoke to each other, even though they were on the same team.

 

Wanda made an irritated noise. “Let me inside.”

 

Bucky stepped back, mostly just confused.

 

Wanda sat down on Bucky’s couch and glared at the TV where Star Wars Episode VIII was paused.

 

“Are you okay?” Bucky asked warily, the metal plates on his arm recalibrating with his weight shifting.

 

“I can’t have children,” Wanda sighed.

 

“So get an abortion?”

 

“I don’t want to.”

 

“So don’t?”

 

Bucky was so out of his depth.

 

Wanda shook her head. “This was stupid. I shouldn’t’ve come here.”

 

“No, no, why did you?” Bucky asked before she could leave.

 

Wanda looked away. “Well. My first thought was kind of that I needed to tell Steve, but...”

 

“Steve isn’t here,” Bucky finished numbly.

 

“Yeah.”

 

“And I’m a close second.”

 

Wanda shook her head. “It was an asshole way to think. You are separate people.”

 

“I can harness my inner Steve,” Bucky said slowly. He swallowed roughly. “What do you want to do?”

 

“I don’t know,” Wanda sighed. “Just. Watch the movie with me. I’ll think about it tomorrow.”

 

Bucky nodded. “Alright.”

 

Wanda fell asleep with her feet in Bucky’s lap.

 


 

 

“I’m gonna take her to a secure location so that she’s safe,” Sam explained.

 

“Where?” Bucky asked.

 

“None of your concern.” Sam winked. “I dunno when I’ll be back.”

 

“Shoot for breakfast,” Bucky said. “It’s boring without you.”

 

Sam grinned. “Sure thing, Barnes.”

 

“Have a safe trip, guys. Wanda, stay safe.”

 

Wanda embraced him, and Bucky hugged her back, still kinda reeling with confusion.

 

“I’ll be back,” she said.

 

“Okay.”

 


 

 

Sam returned for breakfast quiet, frowning steadily.

 

“You okay?” Bucky asked.

 

“Yeah,” Sam said, blinking rapidly. “I just—yeah.”

 

Bucky shrugged and turned back to his oatmeal.

 


 

 

The Secret Avengers ended up in New Jersey for a battle, and Bucky called Pepper.

 

They went to get tea together.

 

Tony crashed their tea date fifteen minutes in.

 

“Hey, my dudes. What’s crackalackin?”

 

“Tony, please,” Pepper groaned, cocking her head to let him kiss her cheek.

 

“Tea,” Bucky said, sending Tony a hesitant smile.

 

Tony scoffed. “Coffee is better.”

 

Bucky and Pepper exchanged eye rolls.

 

They chatted about Wakanda and the battle and Bucky’s arm, and it was nice, and Tony was fucking hilarious.

 

“Don’t be a stranger, hotshot,” he said when Bucky stood to leave. “We’re bros now.”

 

“We are?” Bucky asked, confused.

 

Pepper sighed, sending Bucky a look. “Yes,” Tony said. “We argued about coffee vs. tea. We’re bros.”

 

“Oh. Cool.”

 

“Yeeeeeaaaahhhhhh,” Tony said, reaching out for a high-five.

 

Bucky high-fived with his metal hand, and Tony pretended not to wince.

 

 


 

 

Wanda returned nine months later with two tiny babies and a more relaxed stance.

 

“Barnes,” she said, “I want you to come on an adventure with me.”

 

“You... do?” Bucky said.

 

“Help me drop them off at adoption places. I don’t want to be connected to them at all, so you’ll get to physically drop them off.”

 

“I—okay?”

 

“Let’s go to Massachusetts first.”

 

They flew to Massachusetts, and Bucky dropped off the dark-haired kid in an orphanage with a pretty good reputation.

 

“You the father?” the administrator asked, not a hint of judgment in her tone.

 

“Um. No.”

 

“Know the parents?”

 

“No?” Bucky lied.

 

The kid cried when Bucky passed him to the administrator, and his heart broke a little bit.

 

He and Wanda flew over to Los Angeles and dropped off the light-haired kid at a slightly more crowded orphanage.

 

They’d be fine, Bucky reasoned with himself worriedly as they flew back to Wakanda. They’d be fine.

 

“Do me a favor?” Wanda asked softly during the flight. “If they turn eighteen after I die, will you check up on them?”

 

“Of course,” Bucky whispered.

 

Wanda looked away. “I may have misjudged you.”

 

And that was that.

 

 


 

 

A few years later, Natasha visited and dragged Sam out of Bucky’s suite without a word.

 

Bucky rose from his chair, concerned, but Sam would tell him about it if it were important.

 

Except Sam didn’t tell him, and when he didn’t show up for breakfast the next day, Bucky went to hunt him down.

 

He found Sam in the gardens, sitting on the ground and probably suffering from a million bug bites.

 

“We can’t find him,” he said tonelessly when Bucky sat down next to him. “He up and left again.”

 

“Who?” Bucky said quietly, knowing the answer.

 

Sam just looked at him. “I don’t know why I expected him to stay there. He’s been nomadic much more often than he’s been stationary.”

 

“Who?”

 

“Steve,” Sam spat. “Remember him?”

 

Bucky flinched at the hostility in Sam’s voice. “I—“

 

“Sorry, sorry,” Sam said, shaking his head. “Don’t pay attention to anything I say right now. I’m upset.”

 

“Would it make you feel better to check it out?” Bucky asked quietly, and Sam just stared at him. Bucky swallowed roughly. “Wherever he was staying?”

 

Sam blinked. “Actually, yeah.”

 

“I’m coming with you.”

 

Sam opened his mouth to argue but no words came out.

 

“Where is it?” Bucky asked after four hours of silence on the jet.

 

“Iceland.”

 

Fucking Iceland? Bucky closed his eyes.

 

Fucking Iceland.

 


 

 

The cottage was small and shabby and solitary and beautiful.

 

Sam wandered through the rooms, distraught, while Bucky sat on the floor in the tiny kitchen and stared at the life Steve had made for himself without Bucky.

 

There was a sketch of the horizon lying on the counter.

 

And there was a chipped coffee mug.

 

And there was a pair of snow boots by the door.

 

And there was a dead burner phone on the coffee table.

 

And Steve had lived here.

 

Steve was alive.

 

Steve had moved on?

 

Steve was fucking alive.

 

Sam eventually sat down with him under the tiny table, and they lapsed into numb silence.

 

“I didn’t have any right to send him away, did I?” Bucky whispered, his voice quiet and hoarse in the dark room.

 

“You didn’t,” Sam said.

 

Bucky bowed his head and dug his nails into his thighs. “I fucked up.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“It’s my fault he’s alone.”

 

“No,” Sam snapped. “That one isn’t on you. It’s on him.”

 

Bucky shook his head.

 

“Sure, you sent him away, but Steve has kept himself isolated for fucking—what—sixteen, seventeen years? As far as I know, the only time he’s been with someone is when Wanda was here for maternity leave. He did that to himself.”

 

Bucky shook his head again. “This never would’ve happened if I’d kept my fucking mouth shut.”

 

“Maybe,” Sam conceded, looking lost. “But maybe not.” He looked at Bucky, his gaze hard. “That boy needed to run.”

 

Bucky’s breath hitched, and he blinked away tears. “I’m sorry,” he said. To Sam, to Steve, to his past, to the memories he’d defaced. “I’m so fucking sorry.”

 

Sam didn’t offer him any comfort when he broke down, and it was exactly what Bucky needed.

 


 

 

Once, Bucky’s Google alert lit up with a notification hat wasn’t bullshit, and he was faced with a grainy video of Steve Rogers lifting a chunk of concrete in Japan.

 

It was grainy and blurry and Bucky could barely make out the details, but it was Steve, and Bucky watched it on loop until it bled into his vision permanently.

 

 


 

 

Bucky moved to New York, and Tony wasn’t an Avenger anymore, but he was there, and he let him stay for a while.

 

The press said, “Do you have the Winter Soldier in your building?”

 

And Tony said, “Who’s the Winter Soldier?”

 

And the press said, “James Barnes.”

 

And Tony said, “I’m sorry, I don’t know who you’re talking about.”

 

And that was that.

 


 

 

Cassie Lang was the unofficial leader of the Avengers when Bucky sat down in front of her and said, “I have a proposal.”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“I want to train the kids who want to become part of the Avengers.”

 

Cassie evaluated him for a long moment. “Why?”

 

Bucky looked away. “I don’t want the fight to steal their childhood.”

 

Bucky knew that had gotten to Cassie, and she nodded a few times. “Do it.”

 

“Thank you.”

 

 


 

 

The building was an old Avengers facility that Cassie and Tony had helped him clean up in upstate New York.

 

Clint Barton, who Bucky had only met a few times, showed up a week after Bucky had dismissed his helpers with a scowling girl in tow.

 

“She wants training,” Clint explained. “Came to me first, but I’m old as fuck.”

 

“First of all,” the girl said, straightening. “I did not come to you for training. I stole your futzing bow, and you threw a hissy fit. Second of all, I did not ask for you to train me, you said, ‘You need training,’ and then dragged me here. Third of all—“

 

“I’m the best sniper in the world,” Bucky cut in.

 

The girl paused. Then stuck out her hand. “I’m Kate Bishop. Pleased to meet you.” Bucky shook her hand.

 

Clint smirked and tossed him a salute before sauntering back to his car. “Did he kidnap you?” Bucky asked, concerned.

 

“What? Clint?” Kate said. “I guess if you want to get technical about the whole thing...”

 

Bucky rolled his eyes. “We’re going shopping.”

 

“I like you more and more every minute.”

 


 

 

Kate started practicing on her (Clint’s) bow, and she started getting really fucking good, and then more kids showed up.

 

There was Teddy Altman, who was apparently kind of an alien prince but also the sweetest, most unassuming guy in the world.

 

There was Billy Kaplan, who had literally been dragged here by Kamala, demanding that he be given a warm blanket and lots of love.

 

(Bucky had quickly obliged when Billy had turned his sad eyes on him.)

 

There was Loki, who apparently used to be a really bad guy but was now just a kid, as Thor (literal god Thor!) insisted as he practically manhandled the scowling kid into his new room, and he had to be trained for the forces of good this time around.

 

There was David Alleyne, who had accidentally run into Teddy after fleeing from some X-Men fight thing that Bucky hadn’t looked into very much (mostly to preserve his sanity), and he was insanely smart but needed the combat training to be as useful as possible in the field.

 

And Bucky started to fall into a rhythm. He remembered teaching Steve how to punch in a boxing ring in Brooklyn over a century ago. He loved teaching these kids how to be useful and safe while still trying to make sure they stayed kids.

 

It was good for him, and it was good for them.

 

So, when Kate said, “We should be our own team. Screw the Avengers. We’re better than them,” Bucky laughed and said, “You just have to think of a name.”

Chapter Text

“Yes, hi, hello, sir? This really isn’t technically an emergency, I don’t think, but—“

 

“Ma’am, what’s wrong?”

 

“Right. Sorry. Sorry, I don’t want to waste your time. It’s just—I saw a girl fall out of the sky?”

 

“...Like the aliens?”

 

“Um. Well. No, not really. She was, well, she was a human girl, but she was just sorta there all of a sudden, and she fell out of the sky.”

 

“Is she in critical condition?”

 

“Um. No. She landed on this man’s car, and this is just the part that concerned me a little bit, but I may be wrong, but—“

 

“Ma’am.”

 

“Well, I’m not one to judge or anything, but the man—the owner of the car this girl fell on, that is—was, like, this big muscle guy covered in tattoos, and, well, I’m not one to judge, but he looked pretty shady, is all I’m saying, and I wouldn’t’ve called if my gut instinct hadn’t told me he was bad news is all, and—“

 

Ma’am.”

 

“Right. Right. Well. I wasn’t close enough to hear anything, but the girl got in the car with him, and I’m just a little bit concerned, is all.”

 

“Thank you for reporting what you saw. We’ll get right on it.”

 

“Thanks! Gosh, I just hope she’s okay, the poor thing. She must be so frightened.”

 


 

 

America glared at Steve from behind her cup of Starbucks coffee while Steve vigorously pretended to ignore her from behind his own cup of Starbucks coffee.

 

The radio crackled between a Spanish soccer channel and some new song that had been played at least eight times in the past three hours. Steve turned on his turn signal. He switched lanes. He turned of his turn signal. He checked the rearview. He took a tiny sip from his coffee. Someone scored a goal over the radio.

 

America finished her coffee and delicately placed it in the cup holder that was already littered with pennies and dimes. Steve rolled down his window and tossed his own empty cup in a passing trashcan when they got stopped at a light.

 

The soccer game finished. America changed the radio station to something more decisive. A song was playing that had been popular when he lived in DC. He winced. America turned up the volume.

 

Steve turned the radio off.

 

America glared at him.

 

Steve stared at the road.

 

“What?” she finally snapped as Steve finally made it out of LA.

 

“What?” Steve echoed, much more neutrally.

 

“What do you want?”

 

Steve’s gaze flicked to America and back to the road. “I want the radio to stop fucking around.”

 

“Not what I meant.”

 

Steve sighed. “You don’t have to fucking look at me like that for the whole drive. You can ask me shit.”

 

“Who says I’m curious?” America demanded.

 

“...I did.”

 

“Don’t be so fucking presumptuous.”

 

Steve hesitantly turned the radio back on, flicking it back to the steadier soccer channel.

 

America slid down in her seat. “Are you a hobo?”

 

“Yeah,” Steve said simply.

 

“You live in this?” She looked at the car.

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Sucks.”

 

Steve shrugged. “It’s not so bad.”

 

America frowned at him. She opened her mouth and closed it, and then turned to the window and pulled up her hood.

 

Steve sighed.

 


 

 

It was sometime past midnight when America broke her silence again.

 

“Aren’t you gonna stop for the night?”

 

Steve looked at her. “I wasn’t really planning on it?”

 

“Why?”

 

Steve blinked. It had been so long since anyone had been privy to his sleeping patterns. He looked at the dull clock on the dashboard. Blinked again. “I don’t need to sleep,” he finally said.

 

America looked unimpressed. “Don’t tell me you’re a mutant or something.”

 

Steve couldn’t help the reflexive tensing of his muscles. “Careful, America,” he said in a low, warning tone.

 

“I don’t care what you are,” America said, rolling her eyes. “Sleep-resistant mutants or whatever-the-fuck-you-are do need sleep. How long’s it been since you’ve slept?”

 

Steve wracked his brain. “Um. Not sure.”

 

“We should stop.”

 

Steve frowned and pulled into a parking lot off the nearest exit. He unbuckled his seatbelt and got out of the car, stretching. “You can sleep in here. Don’t have enough money to get a motel or anything.”

 

“Yeah, whatever,” America grumbled, reclining her seat to lie down.

 

Steve sat on his car’s bumper and drank a bottle of water. He set five alarms on his phone, put down the water bottle, and closed his eyes.

 

He awoke for the fifth time with a jolt, choking on big gulps of air, ice crawling through his veins.

 

He watched the sunrise with numb, tingling fingers, staring blankly at a scene he’d seen far too many times. He’d once thought it was beautiful, some artistic asshole component of his brain insisting that it was a symbol for new beginnings or some bullshit. Now, it was just a marker for another fucking day on this godforsaken planet.

 

America awoke not long after, climbing out of the car. “I’m hungry.” She glared at him, as if she was actually saying something with a double-edged, menacing meaning.

 

Steve mechanically rose to his feet. “Okay.”

 

He drove them to a diner that only had three cars in the parking lot, and then reached over to fish around in the glove compartment for some cash.

 

America stared passively at the crumpled ball of bills, and Steve counted out thirty, figuring that’d be enough, and they walked into the diner.

 

America ordered pancakes and OJ. Steve ordered an omelet and a yogurt thing.

 

“So. You awake?” America asked.

 

“Yep,” Steve said, trying not to jut out his chin defensively, but it was a losing battle. Last night had probably been the most he’d slept in 100 years anyway.

 

“Hm,” America hummed, returning to her pancakes.

 

They ate in silence.

 

“Why do you want to get to New York?” Steve asked when he’d carefully paid.

 

America scowled. “None of your business.”

 

“A little bit of my business, but fine.”

 

“I didn’t ask you to drive me. Could’ve gotten there fine on my own.”

 

“Fine,” Steve snapped, aggressively grabbing his receipt and shoving it in his pocket. The table rattled with his jerky movements, and he told himself to calm down. It’d been a while since his temper had flared like this, and he had to remember to be aware of it. He breathed out. “Fine.”

 

They returned to silence in the car, the radio station on a safe top-40 channel.

 

Steve catalogued what he knew about the girl sitting in the passenger’s seat. She’d fallen onto the roof of his car, seemingly straight outta the sky. She didn’t want his help. She wanted to get to New York. She wore a patriotic wardrobe, most likely ironically. She understood Spanish. She liked pancakes and OJ and didn’t seem to be prejudiced to mutants.

 

That was it.

 

Maybe there was a version of Steve Rogers who would have been cautious around someone he knew so little about, but this Steve Rogers had never put his own caution over helping others. And he’d been trying to help people for decades to limited success, but it was something hardwired into his DNA. He was trying.

 

Maybe he’d know nothing more about America by the time they got to New York. He’d be fine with that. As long as she was okay.

 

She’d be okay, and Steve would shoot himself in the head, and it’d be fine.

 

He adjusted his grip on the steering wheel and plotted the logistics of procuring a gun as they drove across the southwest.

 


 

 

Somewhere in Texas or Oklahoma, Steve saw a couple’a billboards and burst into startled laughter.

 

America’s head snapped up. “What?”

 

Steve just nodded at the rapidly approaching billboards—the advertising for two stores placed unfortunately next to each other: GIANT | DICK’S.

 

“Hell,” America sighed, giving Steve a look, but her mouth was curling up at the corner. “What are you, five?”

 

“No,” Steve said, still grinning. He was nearly 130, but who was counting anyway. “It’s just funny. Didn’t anybody ever stop and say, ‘Wait a second’?”

 

“Guess not,” America mused, trying to smother a smile. “Dumb fucks.”

 

“Amen.”

 

America tugged her hood back up, and Steve shook his head to clear it.

 


 

 

Steve’s hair started to stand on end in Tennessee.

 

Part of being a fucking fugitive for thirty-two years meant that he was paranoid. It was something that had sunk into his veins that he hated with a burning venom, but it’d saved his life a few times, and while it was usually nothing, sometimes it was something.

 

But that guy had been there in the diner in California.

 

He was looking innocently at a suspiciously Confederate shirt in a convenience store, and Steve felt cold all over.

 

That man had been in the diner in California. Steve had noticed him because he was attractive and had incredible fashion sense.

 

Now, he was wearing light-wash jeans and a plain white shirt. Hardly similar. But it was the same fucking guy. Steve would bet his life on it.

 

He slowly paid for the snacks he’d found and grabbed America’s bicep from where she was frowning at newspapers. “Time to go.”

 

“What?” she said, startled. Steve ignored her and dragged her out of the store, and the man looked up and watched them go passively.

 

Shit,” Steve hissed. “Fuck. Car. Now.”

 

America clamped her mouth shut and quickly got in the car. Steve started the engine after fumbling with his keys for an instant, and he tore out of the parking lot as quickly as he could without being dangerous.

 

He didn’t feel relaxed in the slightest.

 

“What happened?” America asked, carefully retrieving a box of donuts.

 

“A guy in there,” Steve said tersely, “was following us.”

 

America stiffened.

 

“Following me,” Steve amended hastily. “Sorry. I—fuck—never should’ve agreed to drive you. I’m fucking—this always happens. I’ll drop you off at the nearest airport. May have enough cash to—to—”

 

“Shut up,” America said. “You’re not making any sense.”

 

Steve took a deep breath. “If you’re with me, you’re in danger,” he explained shortly. “I thought it’d passed, but I should’ve fucking known better. Seventy years and—it didn’t—why shouldn’t it—“ he suddenly realized what he was saying and clamped his mouth shut.

 

“You’re still not making any sense,” America said dryly, sounding very unfazed.

 

Steve scowled and gritted his teeth.

 

“So, now I’m getting the silent treatment?”

 

“Hasn’t this entire car ride been an exercise in the silent treatment?” Steve snapped, rolling his shoulders restlessly, checking the rearview with shifting eyes.

 

“Look,” America said, and Steve knew her tone so well because half the things he said came out in that tone—direct and blunt and brutally honest. “If I’m in danger here, I deserve to at least know why.”

 

God, she had such a good point, but Steve couldn’t let her know that. “Or, I could drop you off at the airport and you won’t be in danger anymore.”

 

“That guy saw me with you, whoever he was.”

 

“I don’t owe you anything,” Steve growled.

 

America glared. “Yeah, right,” she scoffed.

 

He didn’t owe anyone anything he didn’t owe the world anything he didn’t owe himself anything, and he sure as fucking hell didn’t owe some girl with an attitude anything.

 

“If you don’t tell me, I’ll assume you’re a super villain, and I’ll call the cops,” America said, very casually.

 

“You wouldn’t,” Steve hissed, turning to glower at her.

 

She matched his gaze.

 

Steve jerked the wheel and pulled the car to the side of the road, turning in his seat to better glare at America. “I’m dangerous, and I’m dropping you off at the airport. End of fucking discussion.”

 

America clenched her fists, almost imperceptibly, and Steve tensed, his mind flashing back to a cramped elevator of anxious tension that had a physical presence. “I should know who I’m up against in case they come after me.”

 

“I don’t know who we’re up against.”

 

(Where the hell did “we” come from?)

 

“I bet you have an idea,” America said challengingly, raising an eyebrow.

 

“I always have an idea,” Steve said darkly. “But I’m not exactly up to fucking date on who my enemies could be.”

 

“Your enemies? Are you serious?” America demanded incredulously. “You have fucking full-blown ‘enemies’ now? Who the fuck do you think you are?”

 

“I’m no one,” Steve exploded, not realizing how loud he was getting, how angry. “And I don’t have the fucking right to be fucking no one, and that’s why I have goddamn enemies.”

 

You’re not making any sense,” America shouted, same volume.

 

They stared at each other, tense.

 

Steve shouldn’t have been surprised when he was the first to relent, but he was anyway.

 

He rolled up the sleeve of his shirt, exposing his left forearm.

 

“What are you doing?” America said, wary.

 

“When you’re created to be a weapon,” Steve began, his voice unnaturally quiet in the terse atmosphere, “you don’t belong to yourself anymore. You belong to the people who made you.”

 

“What,” she said tonelessly.

 

Steve touched his wrist, where the tattoos began with the 1930s Brooklyn skyline. “I didn’t always belong to—to the world.”

 

“I don’t understand.”

 

Steve pushed up the sleeve to his right arm, and there was the 1940s Brooklyn skyline, burning and smoking ruin, rising up into a ring of fire around the skinnier parts of his forearm. He wasn’t sure exactly why the tattoos there were important to the conversation, but they were, for some reason. “I belonged to the world for a long fucking time,” he said softly, staring at the side-by-side images of a city he’d once been a part of. “But when you decide that you don’t want to belong to the world anymore, the world doesn’t take it very well.”

 

“Are you saying that your enemies literally make up the entire world?” America deadpanned, eyebrow rising judgmentally.

 

“Indirectly,” Steve said, shrugging, yanking his sleeves back down. He didn’t want to look at the beginnings of his tattoos anymore. “They made me, and I let them keep me for—for—seventy or eighty fucking years, but now that I’ve been trying to belong to myself again, they want me back, or dead, or something.”

 

“They made you?”

 

“Yeah,” Steve said, not elaborating.

 

“Who exactly?”

 

“The United States government,” he spat bitterly, “but I belong to them all.”

 

“All the governments?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Not anymore, obviously.”

 

“You don’t understand.”

 

America frowned. “No. You’re running from them. You don’t belong to them.”

 

Steve shook his head.

 

America buckled her seatbelt for, like, the first time since they’d met. “You’re on the run from every single government in the world? Fine. Screw ‘em.” Her face was pulled into something like righteous fury, and Steve was reeling with some sort of emotion that he didn’t bother trying to identify. This girl was getting all justice-intense for him.

 

Nobody had cared that much in a long time, he didn’t think.

 

“You gotta be kidding me,” he said anyway, a little bit desperately. “You can’t just turn your back on every single government in the world.”

 

“I can and I will. I’ve done it before.”

 

The fuck did that mean?

 

“Ninety-six percent of governmental institutions are bullshit anyway,” America said, and her eyes were distant, so much older than her face. “You ever heard of preventive justice?”

 

Steve wrinkled his nose, thinking of Project Insight. “Yeah.”

 

“At least you don’t have that going on.”

 

Steve frowned. “The fuck do you mean?”

 

America faltered. “I’m—not—from here.”

 

“Earth?”

 

America blinked. Shrugged.

 

“Alright,” Steve said, deciding not to press. He could physically see America withdrawing from the conversation. He put the car into drive and pulled back onto the road.

 

“Alright,” America echoed.

 


 

 

His nerves didn’t go down by the time they got to Ohio.

 

America somehow—noticed—and the car ride had a slightly different tone, and something like silent camaraderie settled between them, although Steve wasn’t entirely sure why.

 

“So, you’re like—what—eighty years old, you said?” she’d asked in Indiana, where Bucky had been born.

 

Steve had snorted. “Not even close.”

 

“What then?”

 

“One-hundred twenty-nine going on one-hundred thirty.”

 

“...You don’t look that old.”

 

“And I look eighty?” Steve had asked, grinning despite himself.

 

America had rolled her eyes. “Shut up.”

 

And now they were in Ohio, and at least three people kept looking at him as he carefully counted his money out to buy some food.

 

America had noticed at least one of them, and she kept nudging Steve a little bit, and Steve had to admit that he was impressed.

 

They were silent as they slowly, very carefully, took the food and placed it in the backseat of Steve’s car.

 

America was unsettled enough during the drive that she didn’t even point at the ridiculous billboards to try to make Steve laugh.

 

Forty-five minutes later, a police car was pulling them over.

 

Steve was vibrating with anxious trepidation as the officer sauntered up to the window. “Do you know how fast you were going?”

 

“The speed limit,” Steve said, trying not to sound irritated.

 

“There’s construction.”

 

“Not that I can see.”

 

“Don’t give me that attitude, young man,” the officer said sternly, and Steve wanted to laugh because he was at least a century older than him. America covered a little snort with a fake cough. “License and registration.”

 

Steve made a big show of patting his pockets. “Shit. Sorry. Forgot it at home.”

 

“At home in California?”

 

Steve matched the officer’s hard look.

 

“Sir, I’m going to need you to step outside the vehicle.”

 

“That won’t be necessary.”

 

“Funny, I wasn’t asking.”

 

Steve looked at America, and all the humor had disappeared from her gaze. She nodded at him, and Steve got the silent message. For whatever reason, she’d have his back if things went south.

 

Steve didn’t understand it, but he hadn’t bothered questioning it yet.

 

He slowly got out of his car.

 

The officer held up a scanner to Steve’s face, undoubtedly looking for a facial recognition match, and he faltered, looking at Steve with wide eyes, jaw slack. “That’s not possible,” he muttered, starting to run the facial scan again.

 

Steve slowly grabbed the device. “Maybe not the best idea.”

 

The officer reached for his phone, and pressed the button for backup before Steve could do anything. Steve crushed the facial recognition device in his hand. If he got rid of this guy, nobody would ever know he’d been here. It’d be fine.

 

Steve punched the officer in the face.

 

The officer staggered backwards, pulling out his firearm in a bloody-nosed daze. “Stand down!” he shouted, frantic.

 

Steve hit the officer’s wrist, and he reflexively dropped the gun. Steve caught it with the other hand and pointed it at the officer, flicking off the safety. “If you tell anyone who exactly you think I am,” Steve said lowly, “I will find out.”

 

The officer swallowed convulsively. Steve didn’t know if Captain America was a cautionary tale in police academy or something, but he seemed fucking terrified of him. “Sir.”

 

Steve nodded. “Are we clear?”

 

“We’re clear!” he squawked.

 

“Get in your car.”

 

The officer opened his mouth. “Now, wait—“

 

“Get in your car.”

 

The officer closed his mouth and slowly did what he was told, eyes never leaving the gun.

 

“Cuff yourself to the steering wheel.”

 

The officer seemed on the verge of tears, and some distant, buried part of Steve felt awful about it. He remembered the Battle of New York and the awe in the police officers’ eyes when he’d given them orders. He didn’t know if he missed it or not.

 

“You are not going to tell them who you saw.”

 

“No, sir.”

 

“I have ears everywhere,” Steve lied.

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

Steve rolled down the window for the officer because it was hot and he didn’t want him to suffocate in the car, and he closed the door.

 

Steve shoved the gun into his waistband without thinking about it and climbed into the car.

 

America stared at him while Steve pressed his forehead to the steering wheel and took deep, shuddering breaths.

 

That was the first time he’d been violent to people other than himself in twenty-nine years.

 

“That was intense,” America finally offered after a careful silence.

 

Steve gave a hysterical, sharp laugh, banging his head lightly on the steering wheel. “God, I need to get out of the country,” he muttered. “He’ll only stay quiet for so long.”

 

“So you don’t have ears everywhere?”

 

Steve looked at her. “America. I don’t even have enough money to rent a motel room. I do not have the resources for ears everywhere.”

 

“Fair enough,” she said slowly. “We should get going. You good to drive?”

 

“Yeah,” Steve said, shaking his head to clear it. “’M fine.”

 

He was not fine.

 


 

 

Pittsburg. Steve had stopped for the night to let America sleep and let himself think.

 

He had a gun now.

 

The weight was frightening and reassuring in his lap as he sat on the bumper of his car and took deep breaths. It was there. Right there.

 

He could try—

 

No. Not now.

 

After he dropped off America. After he made sure she was safe.

 

He wasn’t sure why he cared so much that she’d arrive in New York safely. Maybe it was the fact that she reminded him of all the good things about him that’d been washed away. Maybe it was because she was young, and she knew he was a fugitive of some sort, and that had just made her like him. Or something. Maybe it was because her name was America and she got a kick out of herself for wearing red white and blue.

 

Maybe it was just because he was lonely.

 

It didn’t really matter very much. It’d all be over soon.

 

Steve dozed off for a few minutes and jolted awake, instantly alert when another car pulled into the parking lot. He shoved the gun into his waistband, hoping that he wouldn’t need it.

 

(Twenty-nine years twenty-nine years twenty-nine years twenty-nine—)

 

Somebody got out of the car, but they hadn’t turned their lights off, so Steve couldn’t see whoever it’d been. His heart sank.

 

“’Scuse me, sir? I’m totally lost, could you give me some directions?” a man said. Steve forced himself not to squint.

 

“Where’re you trying to go?” he asked neutrally, tension knotted through his body.

 

“Boston.”

 

“Road trip?” Steve asked carefully.

 

“Business trip.”

 

“Huh.”

 

“Well. You know how it is.”

 

Steve wasn’t really sure what that meant. “I suggest following the signs for New York and getting to Boston from there if you don’t know where you’re going.”

 

“Yeah? You from the Big Apple? Good ‘ole NYC? Greatest city in the world?”

 

Steve shrugged uneasily. “Sorta.”

 

“Bet you miss the good ‘ole days.”

 

Steve swallowed convulsively, but this was what he was made for. Maybe it was finally time to accept it. He was a weapon. He was a fighter. “You wanna step outta the light?”

 

“You wanna put your hands in the air nice and slow?”

 

“I’d really rather not.” The man took a few steps forward, and all Steve could see was a silhouette. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

 

“Captain Rogers, stand down,” the man said.

 

Before Steve could pull his gun, the silhouette tumbled over and hit the ground hard. Steve rushed over, drawing his gun, and by the time he got to the tangle of limbs, America was grinding her heel into the man’s wrist, bones crunching disgustingly.

 

“Thanks,” Steve said breathlessly.

 

America looked at him. “I got your back, tio.”

 

Why? Steve’s stupid brain screamed. He ignored it for now, crouching down next to the man’s face.

 

It was the guy from the diner in Cali. From the convenience store in Tennessee. “How did you find me?” Steve snapped.

 

The guy glared at him. “Followed an anonymous tip,” he spat, which really didn’t reveal anything.

 

“Who do you work for?”

 

This time, the guy actually did spit in his face. Steve wiped it away without blinking. “Traitor.”

 

“The government? The fucking UN? Hydra?”

 

The man closed his eyes.

 

Steve briefly considered shooting him in the hands and knees to make him talk, but then he remembered that America was right there and abandoned the idea with a little shudder of self-horror. This was a choice, he realized, maybe for the first time in his life. He could be violent. He could be a fighter. He could be a weapon. He could be what he was made to be.

 

Or he could run.

 

“America. Grab our stuff and throw it in his car.”

 

“Sure,” America said, giving him an odd look of agreement, rising to her feet.

 

Steve dug through the guy’s pockets and found his car keys. “A Subaru. Nice. Never driven one of those before.” And for some dumb reason, all Steve could think of was their sappy little tagline from fucking commercials: Love. It’s what makes a Subaru a Subaru. “Anybody else on our tail?”

 

The man didn’t say anything.

 

“Good thing they’ll only be looking for me in my car, right?” Steve said, flashing the man a grin. He pulled him to his feet and pushed him into the trunk of Steve’s car. “I’ll leave the windows open,” Steve said. “Don’t worry. And I’ll leave you some food. You’re not going to die. But you won’t be able to find us either.”

 

“They’ll look for my car when they find me,” the man said as if he couldn’t help himself.

 

Steve hummed. “Yeah. How ‘bout that.” Like this guy thought he was an idiot. Idiots didn’t survive as a fugitive for as long as he did. “You gonn’ tell them you got beat by a kid too?”

 

The man glared.

 

“That’s what I thought. America!”

 

“Yeah, Steve?”

 

“Grab me some chips and water bottles for the gentleman.”

 

“Do it yourself! I’m carrying shit!”

 

Steve grinned and located his zip-ties, securing the man’s wrists and ankles before grabbing the snacks and water. “This isn’t over,” the man said.

 

“Like I haven’t heard that one before,” Steve scoffed.

 

“If they want you, they’ll get you. And trust me. They want you.”

 

It all sounded kind of sexual, and Steve almost laughed. He didn’t know if he was giddy with the decision to run or if he’d just gotten snarkier and more bitter over the years, but he winked sardonically at the man and closed the trunk. Locked the car. Threw the keys as hard as he could.

 

“How do you know he won’t die in there?” America asked, coming to stand by him.

 

“If he’s got an organization behind him who found me in the first place, they’ll find him.”

 

“What if they kill him for letting you go?”

 

Steve turned away. Captain America would’ve glared at her in horror and praised the justice system, but Steve just shrugged and said, “Not my problem that he made poor life decisions.”

 

America shook her head incredulously, but Steve thought something about it was fond.

 

They were on the road again, had stopped to trade in the Subaru for a beat-up Toyota in a shady car dealership, when America said, “So, Captain Rogers?”

 

Steve hummed. It was utterly dimwitted of him, but he trusted America. At least, he trusted her not to take his identity to the government. After all this.

 

“Isn’t that, like, Captain America?”

 

Steve gave her a look. “That was a long time ago.”

 

America snorted. “Jesus Christ, you sound like you’re the retired old protagonist in an action movie.”

 

Steve lifted a shoulder. “It’s true.” He frowned. “How do you know who Captain America is anyway? You’re, like, eighteen.”

 

America frowned. “Can I tell you something?”

 

“Yeah, anything,” Steve said curiously.

 

“You won’t tell anyone?”

 

“America. Look at me. Look at my life. Who would I have to tell besides you?”

 

For a second, America looked sad before a small, genuine smile took over her features, and Steve just felt... the opposite of lonely. His heart spasmed with it. “I’m from a different dimension.”

 

Steve fell into silence. “That’s a new one.”

 

America huffed, wringing her hands. “I can... jump from universe to universe. Been a lot of places. I’ve—heard of Captain America before.”

 

“There’s a me in different universes?” Steve asked, a lot less surprised than he probably should’ve been.

 

“There’s an everyone in different universes. Well—except me,” America said, frowning.

 

“Oh.”

 

“I’m wanted by a few universes,” she added after a few minutes. “It’s why I—trusted you—at first.”

 

“You trust me?”

 

America punched him in the arm, but they were both grinning a little bit. “No.”

 

“I trust you,” Steve said, trying to sound casual. “You probably saved my life back there.”

 

“Did not,” America scoffed.

 

“Well,” Steve conceded, “I probably would’ve been able to handle it if he shot at me. I mean—I may have killed him if you hadn’t—been there.”

 

America frowned. “Why do I make any difference? I’ve seen shit too, Steve.”

 

Steve scratched the back of his neck. “I guess I just see you and remember that I have a choice.”

 

“I don’t...”

 

“You made the choice to stick out this fucking road trip with me after I told you I’m literally wanted by all governments in the world,” Steve said. “You made the choice to pacify my old-ass self by getting in that car in the first place. You—you started buckling your seatbelt. You remind me of the choices. I dunno. There’s a million choices I could make. I forgot I could do that.”

 

It was probably the most Steve had said aloud in this century.

 

America shifted uncomfortably. “That’s good.”

 

Steve cleared his throat. “Right. Good talk.”

 

America nodded jerkily to herself.

 


 

 

As much as it horrified him, Steve decided to drive through New Jersey to be extra careful. He felt like a live wire more and more the closer they got to New York. What if someone recognized him? What if an Avenger recognized him? What if—

 

He rolled his shoulders.

 

“So, what’s up with this universe?” America asked suddenly, and Steve turned to stare at her for a moment before moving his gaze back to the road. “From what I know about Captain America, he loves NYC and America and all that shit. What happened here?”

 

“I’m not Captain America,” Steve said quietly.

 

“You know what I mean.”

 

Steve sighed. “The Accords. And stuff.”

 

“The what?”

 

“The UN tried to do this whole superhero accountability shit, which, y’know, I wouldn’t mind it if it was just a system of legitimizing superheroes and allowing them to be punished if they do bad shit. But. God, it was just so corrupt. They didn’t even offer him a trial.”

 

“Who?”

 

Steve blinked. “What?”

 

“Who didn’t they offer a trial?” America asked idly, playing with the strap of her seatbelt.

 

Steve frowned. “No one. Sorry. Anyway. I committed high treason and never bothered to redeem myself like everyone else did.”

 

“’You don’t owe them anything,’” America said, throwing Steve’s words back at him. Steve smiled bitterly. He really liked this kid.

 

“Exactly.” He took a deep breath. “Why are you even in this universe? What do you want from it?”

 

America played with the hem of her hoodie for a while, and Steve thought she wasn’t going to respond, but she said, “I’m gonna join the Avengers.”

 

“What? Why?”

 

America drew her shoulders up defensively. “I like to make sure everyone’s in check,” she said, her voice hard. “I can only do that if I’m close.”

 

America. Join the Avengers. He remembered Peter in that battle in Germany, and he shuddered. It wasn’t because he was a kid—well, maybe that was a little bit of it—but it was because of all the nonsense he was being dragged into too early.

 

“I—“ Steve began.

 

“No,” America said.

 

And here was America. This fucking girl. Who looked so world-weary and tired and mature. And Steve remembered Bucky going to work before he was fifteen, and he remembered worrying about rent instead of worrying about school, and he remembered raising his fists and agreeing to be an experiment for the fight and for justice, and he remembered wanting to die every day of his life since Bucky’s death, and he knew that he did not want America to end up like him.

 

“You just want to be close enough to monitor them?” Steve said quietly.

 

“Yeah,” America said tersely, braced for a fight.

 

“Would you consider an alternative?”

 

America frowned. “No,” she said, but it was a tone that meant she might.

 

A year ago, Steve had seen on TV in a restaurant he was working in that a new Avengers initiative had started up. Somebody was using an undisclosed Avengers facility to train unstable kids with powers and show them how to use them. Sorta like the X-Men, but not closed off to mutants only.

 

The rumor was that the Winter Soldier led the initiative.

 

And by rumor, Steve meant Natasha had winked at him last August when Steve had asked about it against his better judgment.

 

Close to the Avengers. Very close. But also far enough to remain objectively involved.

 

“I have a win-win situation for you,” Steve said carefully, wincing. His heart started to thud hard in his chest. Panic. If it got worse, he’d pull over. “What if you could monitor the Avengers objectively while specifically refining your skills?”

 

“My skills are refined,” America grumbled.

 

“Always room for improvement,” Steve reminded her softly.

 

America scowled at him. “Spit it out, viejo, I don’t got all day.”

 

“The Young Avengers initiative.”

 

America was quiet, but the words obviously meant something to her, so she probably knew what Steve was talking about. “You want me to join up with a bunch of teenage assholes with god complexes to keep my distance from the actual Avengers?”

 

“Take it from somebody who knows,” Steve said warily. “When you get close to your team, you’re compromised. Even if you’re not, it’s so much harder to take them down.”

 

America paused to consider this. “I’ll think about it,” she muttered, and Steve almost cheered in victory.

 


 

 

“Last night before we get to New York,” Steve said, breaking the three-hour-long silence. “Figured I could pull enough together for a motel room.”

 

For some reason, instead of making America smile, this just made her furrow her eyebrows and frown.

 

Steve didn’t know what he’d done wrong, but America was morosely quiet as Steve put a few precious twenties on the counter of the motel desk.

 

She continued to be quiet as she took a shower and sat on one of the beds and stared blankly at the powerless TV.

 

“What?” Steve finally asked, restless with anxiety.

 

“Nothing.”

 

Liar.

 

Steve didn’t get any sleep despite having access to a bed for the first time in years.

 

America was going to leave him tomorrow.

 

Steve still had that gun somewhere in a duffle bag.

 

Was it really gonna be over just tomorrow?

 

He didn’t know if he was relieved or scared. Maybe both. Maybe he should’ve been thankful to feel anything. Instead, he wished for the numbness. It’d make things easier.

 

America would be fine. Steve knew exactly which Avengers facility was being used for the Young Avengers initiative, even though it was classified. It could only be the hastily abandoned complex upstate.

 

Bucky was supposedly there.

 

Steve shivered. America shifted a few feet away. She definitely wasn’t asleep either.

 

“Steve?” she whispered into the room.

 

“Yeah?”

 

She was quiet for a while. Steve heard her shift again, and he sat up. They mirrored each other on their respective beds.

 

“What’re you gonna do after tomorrow?” America finally asked, staring at her lap.

 

Steve’s fingers spasmed a little bit, and he clenched his fist. It was a nervous tick, maybe. He wasn’t sure, but America didn’t need to know that he was about to lie to her. “I’ll disappear.”

 

She nodded a few times as if she’d expected the answer. “Ever gonna visit me?” she asked lightly, but her face was serious.

 

Steve frowned. “I can’t go to New York.”

 

“Right,” she sighed. “’Cause of your big scandalous past.”

 

Big Scandalous Past Feat. Bucky Barnes. It could be his album title. “America—“

 

“Sometimes I really hate you, you know?”

 

Steve startled. “What?”

 

“You can be such—such a coward,” she muttered.

 

Steve tensed. “Say it again,” he said darkly.

 

America looked up, jaw jutting out, her eyes hard. “You’re a coward,” she snapped, much more forcefully. Steve flinched. “You think you’re this big hotshot weapon thing, but all you are is a goddamn runner.”

 

Steve blinked.

 

A runner.

 

Steve Rogers had been a fighter. Captain America had been a fighter and a weapon. The guy he was now? Maybe he wasn’t a fighter or a weapon. Maybe he wasn’t avoiding his truths—maybe—maybe that was his truth. He was a runner. He ran. He’d been running maybe his whole life. Maybe he’d been running from that reality too.

 

He should’ve felt angry. He would’ve, once upon a time. But now? All he felt was a bone-crushing relief.

 

“You’re right,” he said slowly. “I’m a runner.”

 

He was a runner! He was a coward! He wanted to call Sam or Natasha and shout it. He wasn’t a fighter. He wasn’t a weapon.

 

He was a person.

 

America glared at him. “Fuck you.” She lurched to her feet. Started gathering her stuff. And that’s when Steve realized that she was actually really fucking upset that he was leaving. “I don’t need this.”

 

Steve got to his feet. “America.”

 

“Don’t,” she snapped, sending him a fierce look that had him faltering completely. “Don’t you fucking dare.”

 

“Let me drive you to the train station,” Steve said desperately. “Please.”

 

“No. Just run away already. It’s the only thing you know how to do.”

 

Steve’s elation at his revelation suddenly fizzled out. “Please don’t say that.”

 

“It’s true. It’s all I’ve ever seen you do.” She jutted out her jaw. “I’ll get outta your hair.”

 

Steve was so shocked at this turn of events that he only watched as America slammed her way out of the room.

 

Steve sat down on the floor and didn’t move for a while.

 

 


 

 

He was in Jersey City, and he was staring at the horizon.

 

It was a horizon he knew. Maybe once he would’ve had the urge to sketch it.

 

He did not have the urge now.

 

Steve Rogers sat on the roof of some office building, gun held loosely in his hand, about to turn 130 in a few weeks.

 

He called Sam.

 

“Hey, man,” Sam said, yawning. “’Sup.”

 

“Not much,” Steve said quietly, tracing the barrel of the gun over his mouth as he spoke. “How’re you?”

 

“Would’a been better if you hadn’t woken me up,” Sam said, all good humor.

 

Steve smiled. “How’s T’Challa?”

 

“He says he’s mad at you for waking us up.”

 

Steve smiled harder. “Tough.”

 

“Hah.”

 

There was a stretch of silence. “You know you’re the best friend I’ve ever had, right?”

 

“Um. Really? Dude. Thank you,” Sam said, sounding emotional. He cleared his throat. “Where’s this coming from?”

 

“Just been thinking,” Steve said.

 

“Dangerous practice,” Sam joked. Steve laughed softly. Somebody said something in the background. Probably T’Challa. “Listen, I gotta go.”

 

Steve closed his eyes to pretend he wasn’t tearing up a little bit. “Go attend to your nation and your sugar daddy.”

 

“Oh, har-har-har,” Sam grumbled. “Talk to you in two weeks.”

 

“Two weeks,” Steve agreed, thanking the universe when his voice didn’t crack.

 

The line disconnected.

 

Steve dropped the phone and regarded the gun more seriously.

 

He checked the bullets. Clicked off the safety. Opened his mouth. Slid the gun in. Stared at the horizon—the never-changing horizon—and put his finger on the trigger.

 

This may do it. This may finally do it.

 

He thought of Bucky for a minute. Maybe Bucky’d find his body and be sad. Maybe he wouldn’t.

 

He thought of Natasha. Who wouldn’t be surprised. Just sad.

 

He thought of Sam. Who would be surprised. And sad. But he’d have T’Challa.

 

He thought of America.

 

Who didn’t have anyone else in this universe. Maybe she didn’t have anyone else in the entire fucking dimension. And he faltered a little bit. His grip slackened the slightest bit, and a bolt of panic shot through him.

 

What if she found out?

 

Steve was so caught-up thinking about it that he didn’t notice when someone joined him on the roof.

 

“What are you doing?” a woman asked, startled.

 

Steve took the gun out of his mouth and pointed it at her in one smooth motion.

 

She made a face. “Are you trying to kill yourself?”

 

And suddenly, the situation struck Steve. Here he was—in fucking Jersey—about to try to eat a bullet—and he hadn’t done it yet because of some girl who wore ironically color-coded clothes and had fallen outta the sky onto his car. And he just collapsed into hysterics that were half-laughter, half-gasps, and maybe it was some kinda psycho panic attack thing he hadn’t experienced yet, but he couldn’t stop.

 

The woman hesitantly sat down next to him. “You okay?”

 

“No,” Steve gasped, laughing, waving the gun around as the woman watched warily. “I’m trying to kill myself in fucking Jersey.”

 

The woman frowned. “The humor of the situation isn’t really hitting me, to be completely honest.”

 

“Gallows humor,” Steve managed, gulping down deep breaths. “I dunno if your generation ever really got the hang of it.”

 

“I’m older than you,” the woman said, offended.

 

“No, you’re not.”

 

The woman continued frowning. “I’m Kamala.”

 

“Steve,” Steve said, sighing.

 

“Can you tell me maybe why you had a gun in your mouth?”

 

“I was about to off myself.”

 

“Can you be more specific?”

 

Steve stared at the damning horizon again, numb and horrified that he hadn’t just fucking done it. “I’m too old.”

 

“Oh-kay,” Kamala said, drawing the word out. “Don’t you have anything to live for?”

 

America popped into his vision, and he shook his head to clear it. “No.”

 

“No friends?”

 

Steve hesitated. “No.”

 

“No family.”

 

“Definitely not.”

 

“No purpose?”

 

“Hah. No.”

 

Kamala sighed. “I’m drawing up a blank here.”

 

“You’re not very good at this,” Steve said.

 

Kamala winced. “Sorry. I should be. Sorry. Um. You sure you don’t have anything to live for?”

 

America would be fine without him. She was already well on her way and way more competent than most people Steve had met. “Not anymore.”

 

“Huh. Maybe you can find something?”

 

“Don’t want to.”

 

“Really?”

 

“I’ve been looking for a really long time,” Steve said. “And, frankly, I don’t owe you an explanation.”

 

“You’re right,” Kamala said, holding up her hands. “You don’t owe me or the world anything.”

 

Steve froze. “What?”

 

“You don’t owe anybody anything. That doesn’t mean you don’t owe yourself something though.”

 

Steve stared at her.

 

“What?” she said self-consciously.

 

“I’ve never thought of it like that before.”

 

“Does that mean you’re not gonna shoot yourself?” she asked, perking up.

 

Steve laughed hollowly. “Don’t get ahead of yourself.”

 

Kamala frowned. “Oh.”

 

Steve toyed with the gun, tucking it under his chin. Kamala watched him carefully. Steve didn’t want to shoot himself in front of her. He’d get brain and blood all over her. Nasty.

 

“So, why’d you hesitate?”

 

“What d’you mean?”

 

“I saw you hesitate. You were about to do it. You hesitated.”

 

Steve glared at the horizon.

 

“There’s gotta be a reason.”

 

Steve sighed, rolling his eyes. “There’s this girl.”

 

“Oh,” Kamala said, wrinkling her nose. “A love story? Really?” she deadpanned.

 

Steve blinked. “She’s a kid.”

 

“Oh. Not that kind of love story, then. Hooray.”

 

“You are really not good at this.”

 

Kamala winced. “You are really right.”

 

Steve smiled at her. “She needed my help for a couple’a weeks, but she doesn’t need it anymore.”

 

“You sure about that?”

 

Steve frowned.

 

“Have you asked her?”

 

“Um. No. We don’t really. Talk about that shit.”

 

“Maybe you should.”

 

Steve scowled.

 

“Did you say goodbye to her?”

 

Steve laughed bitterly. “She slammed a door in my face.”

 

“Huh.”

 

“I’ve outlived myself,” Steve explained half-heartedly. “Could you please leave me alone so I can do this?”

 

“No.”

 

Steve scowled harder.

 

“Listen. I’m not gonna promise you that life’s worth living or anything,” Kamala said stubbornly. “But you’ve obviously got some loose ends there. Don’t you want some closure?”

 

The word “closure” exploded around him, and he thought of all the people he’d left behind. Not just America, but Bucky and Nat and Sam and Tony and the rest of the damn Avengers and Peggy and the Commandos and an entire generation.

 

Steve Rogers had never had closure in his life.

 

Was that a reason to live? Goddamn closure?

 

“I don’t...” he said quietly.

 

“Alright.”

 

Steve looked at Kamala, frustrated. “You don’t even know what you’re talking about.”

 

“You got me there.”

 

“You’re terrible at this.”

 

“You are correct. But I’ve also kept you alive ten more minutes than expected, so who’s really winning here?”

 

Steve snorted despite himself. “Closure,” he repeated.

 

“It’s worth thinking about.”

 

Steve sighed. Thought of America. He checked the time on his phone. Trains had just opened. She was probably on her way to New York now, which—

 

Steve had never told her where the Young Avengers initiative facility was.

 

Steve blinked a few times.

 

America was going to Manhattan.

 

America was going to Avengers Tower.

 

America was going to try to join the Avengers and ruin her life and end up like Steve and—

 

“Shit,” Steve swore, jumping to his feet. “I have to get to Manhattan.”

 

“I can’t believe that worked,” Kamala said, surprised.

 

Steve ignored her. “Does Jersey have trains?”

 

“I can—I can drive you?”

 

“Really?” Steve said, narrowing his eyes at her.

 

“Yep.”

 

“You’re trying to make sure I don’t off myself if you turn your back,” Steve said, accusatorily.

 

“Aaaand you got me again.”

 

He sighed heavily. “Fine. We gotta hurry, though.”

 

“I’m on it. I’m a great driver.”

 


 

 

Kamala blasted old songs from the early 2000s while she drove like some kind of fucking maniac, and Steve gritted his teeth and clutched his duffle bag tight and prayed they’d get to the Tower in time.

 

“Where to in Manhattan?”

 

“Avengers Tower,” Steve said.

 

Kamala side-eyed him. “Why?”

 

“Please.”

 

Kamala blew out a breath. “You’re so going to have to explain this to me when it’s all over.”

 

Steve ignored her. He hoped they could beat the traffic.

 

He was a jumble of panicked nerves, and they were in Manhattan, and Steve was in New York for the first time in thirty years.

 

He couldn’t do this.

 

He couldn’t fucking do this.

 

But he would anyway.

 

Kamala drove up to Avengers Tower, and Steve didn’t let himself think about it before he jumped out of the car with a hurried “thank you” shouted at Kamala and strode into the lobby.

 

The receptionist stared at him, alarmed. “Sir—“

 

“Did a girl named America show up?” Steve asked breathlessly, pulse thrumming. “She’s short. Dark, curly hair. Latina. Wears red, white, and blue. Is she here?”

 

“I’m not sure I—“

 

“Steve?”

 

Steve whipped around, tension radiating off of him in waves, braced for the worst.

 

Pepper Potts was old, but she honestly just looked kinder and more intimidating with it. She seemed. Scandalized. “Is she here?” Steve asked frantically, trying not to think about this all too much.

 

“Who?” Pepper asked, still shell-shocked.

 

“I—America.”

 

Pepper frowned. “Oh. Right. I think I know—she’s in with security.”

 

“Could you take me to her?”

 

“Um. I don’t—“

 

“Please.”

 

Pepper rubbed a hand across her eyes. “Alright.”

 

She led him through several hallways, and Steve had never felt more frenetically held together in his life.

 

America was talking to some bored-looking security guy, and Steve felt himself relax slightly.

 

“America.”

 

America turned around, eyes narrowed. “The fuck are you doing here?” she spat.

 

“Look, I know you don’t want to listen to me,” Steve said. Pepper looked between them like she had no idea what to make of the world anymore. “But I know what you’re about to do. Joining them doesn’t have to be your choice.”

 

“What if I want it to be my choice?” America snapped.

 

“Then I can’t stop you.”

 

She faltered slightly at that.

 

“But,” Steve went on, “I can tell you that I made a similar choice, and it fucked up my whole life. It—it doesn’t have to be this way for you. You can still monitor them without compromising yourself.”

 

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” America said blankly.

 

“If you don’t join them, you’ll still be a person at the end of the day.”

 

America frowned very slowly.

 

“Not to say that you can’t be with them and be a person,” Steve added hastily, shooting Pepper a wary glance. “But. You don’t have to risk it.”

 

“You think teaming up with a bunch of angsty teens would be any better?”

 

“God, yes.”

 

America glared at him for a long moment. “Listen, Steve, I trust your judgment here. I do. Gotta listen to your elders, right?”

 

Steve scowled, but he was starting to relax a little bit more.

 

“But I don’t know if it’d make any difference. I’ve already... given up my childhood if that’s what you’re worried about.”

 

Steve crossed his arms. “Fuck that. All I care about is you being able to be your own person.” He shook his head. “In my experience, you can’t do that with them.” He nodded at the ceiling.

 

America closed her eyes, as if asking for strength. “Viejo, you’re crazy.”

 

Steve’s heart sank.

 

“But you came to fucking NYC.”

 

He looked up at her.

 

America’s lips had started to curl a little bit at the corners. “This must be real important to you.”

 

“Yeah,” Steve agreed, nearly choking on the word.

 

“I’ll give this angsty teen shit one chance, you hear me? One chance.”

 

Steve sagged in relief.

 

“And if it doesn’t work out, I’m coming straight back here.”

 

“Deal.”

 

They shook on it. Before Steve could let go, America added, “AndyouhavetocomewithmetotheYoungAvengersinitiativefacility.”

 

Steve froze. “Um. That’s going to be a problem.”

 

“The Young Avengers initiative?” Pepper interjected, seemingly starting to come back to herself.

 

America and Steve turned to look at her in unison.

 

“I think that’s a marvelous idea.” She smiled.

 

“Um.”

 

“If you go with, um, Miss America, I won’t even tell anyone that you were here,” Pepper added, smiling sweetly at Steve.

 

Shit. “Oh, god.”

 

America released Steve’s hand and patted him on the shoulder awkwardly. “Just drop me off. Then you can do your bullshit coward running act again. You’re already in New York anyway.”

 

Steve felt a little bit dizzy. But he’d made this mistake once, and he wasn’t gonna make it again just because the thought of possibly seeing Bucky made him want to throw up all of his internal organs. “Fine,” he managed after a long moment.

 

“You have a car?” Pepper asked, already straightening into the CEO persona.

 

Steve shook his head.

 

“Take one of ours.”

 

“Not exactly inconspicuous, but thank you, Miss Potts.”

 

Pepper smiled humorlessly at him. “I think you’ll be fine.”

 

America nudged him. Steve elbowed her. She elbowed him back harder.

 

They picked the most ordinary car they could find in Tony’s garage, which was a van that was still pretty remarkable.

 

America sat in the passenger’s seat, and Steve didn’t even have to send her a look before she was buckling her seatbelt.

 

Steve turned the key in the ignition.

 

He was going upstate.

 

He was taking America upstate.

 

This was for her, and nobody else.

 

Steve Rogers did not owe the world anything. He didn’t owe the government anything. He didn’t owe Bucky Barnes anything. He maybe didn’t even owe America anything.

 

But maybe, just maybe, he owed himself something.

 

And maybe that something was making sure this brilliant kid who ironically color-coded her outfits had the opportunity to grow into herself and not think that she was a weapon.

 

Steve looked at her, and the horizon gaped open before them, and he’d never felt more terrified or determined in his goddamn life. “You ready?” she asked him.

 

Steve forced a smirk and turned on the radio by way of answer.

 

(He was not ready.)

Chapter Text

Fifteen minutes from their destination, Steve abruptly pulled over.

 

“I’m gonna,” Steve breathed out shakily, and then he was stumbling out of the car.

 

America blinked at the space where Steve had been five seconds ago, and she launched herself out of the car. “Steve.”

 

Steve crouched by the side of the road, and America cringed as he puked his fuckin’ guts up or something, but she ignored it to drop to one knee beside him, putting a hand awkwardly on his back.

 

After a few minutes, Steve sat back on his heels, pained, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “You okay?” America asked, trying not to sound worried.

 

Steve gritted his teeth, and America knew he was about to lie to her face. “Yup. Let’s get going.”

 

America rubbed her forehead tiredly. “You don’t really have to come with me,” she said slowly.

 

“I know. I want to. Just...” Steve tugged at his hair sharply, and America held back a flinch. She’d seen Steve do shit like this before, even though Steve never really seemed to notice when he drug his nails into his own skin or flicked bruises into his own wrists or whatever. “Don’t be mad if I leave right away,” he said miserably.

 

She knew there had to be more to this whole thing than Steve just being anxious about dropping her off at superhero camp or whatever, but Steve obviously wasn’t gonna tell her, and she’d find out soon enough anyway. “I got your back,” America said, patting Steve’s shoulder.

 

Steve looked like he could’ve burst into tears with relief.

 

America’s unease spiked, but she kept her mouth fucking shut.

 


 

 

“I’m taking votes for breakfast!” Bucky shouted from the kitchen where he knew everyone else would hear him in the other room.

 

“Pancakes,” Loki shouted back.

 

“PANCAKES!” Teddy echoed excitedly.

 

“Pancakes it is, then,” Bucky said with an eye roll, mostly to himself. “As it’s been pancakes for the past several months, I’m not sure why I’m surprised.”

 

Billy walked into the kitchen, yawning a little bit. “You want some help?”

 

“Sure,” Bucky said, shooting Billy a smile. “Grab me my measuring cup?”

 

“Aye-aye, Captain.”

 

Bucky rolled his eyes and hip-checked Billy as he passed. Billy elbowed him half-heartedly.

 

“Did I hear pancakes?” Kate asked, rubbing her eyes.

 

“Did you just wake up?” Bucky asked. “It’s almost noon.”

 

“Hey. A gal needs her beauty sleep. Also, I was up late at target practice.”

 

“I know. I was there. You don’t see me slacking on keeping regular hours,” Bucky said, trying to keep a straight face.

 

Kate scowled, but her eyes were alight. “Well, excuse you. Some of us don’t have wacky PTSD that keeps us awake and obsessed with routine.”

 

“I resent that,” Bucky said, laughing. “Kate, could you check on David? I think he fell asleep in the library.”

 

“David’s outside,” Billy said, frowning.

 

Bucky eyed him, trying to figure out the situation. He knew that there was some kind of tension between Billy and David, but he hadn’t been able to figure out why yet. “Make sure he’s alright?” Bucky said to Kate.

 

“You can’t tell me what to do. I’m an adult,” Kate said distractedly as she headed for the door to the outside world.

 

“Tell him there’s pancakes!”

 

“Will do!”

 

Bucky frowned at Billy. “You wanna tell me what’s up there?”

 

Billy blinked. “I dunno what you’re talking about.”

 

“Uh-huh,” Bucky deadpanned, putting his hands on his hips and all-around feeling like a middle-aged mother of five.

 

“I don’t wanna talk about it.”

 

“Well, I’m here for when you change your mind.”

 

Billy glared at the measuring cup and handed it to Bucky.

 

A few minutes later, Bucky had some seriously perfect pancakes in the making. The first few trials at the beginning of this whole initiative had been below satisfactory, but he thought that maybe now he’d be able to go on a pancake cooking show and blow everyone else outta the water.

 

Honestly, he was more of a cook than a trainer these days. Maybe he should buy a frilly apron.

 

He grinned to himself at the idea and shouted, “Teddy! Loki! Pancakes!”

 

Teddy and Loki walked into the kitchen, sitting down at the round table without looking at Bucky, seemingly in a heated conversation about some movie.

 

“No gratitude,” Bucky sighed, sharing a commiserating glance with Billy. “You get the first batch.”

 

That caught their attention. “Hey!” Loki whined. “I asked first.”

 

“Don’t be a bitch,” Teddy said.

 

“You guys are twelve-year-olds,” Billy groaned, but it was fond. He sat down next to Teddy, and they grinned at each other, knocking their knees together.

 

Bucky wanted to bang his head on the microwave. They thought they were soooo discrete. Loki wrinkled his nose at them, and Bucky couldn’t help but silently agree.

 

Bucky poured himself a glass of water and started drinking.

 

His phone buzzed, and he frowned at it when he saw that Kate was calling him, a flash of worry fizzling through him. “What’s up?”

 

“Um,” Kate said. “There’s a van in our driveway.”

 

Bucky tensed. “Where are you and David?”

 

“On the roof. I’m armed.”

 

“Good. Keep an eye on it from a distance.”

 

“Yeah, I know, I’m not an idiot, I’m a sniper.”

 

If he hadn’t been so worried, he would’ve complained that an archer did not count as a sniper, but as it was, Bucky didn’t reply to that. “I’ll be out in five seconds.”

 

“Cool.”

 

“What’s up?” Billy asked, a furrow in his brow.

 

“Probably nothing,” Bucky said, flashing a small smile. “Van in the driveway. T’Challa probably just sent us something.”

 

“’Kay,” Loki muttered disinterestedly. Teddy frowned at him.

 

“Be right back,” Bucky sighed.

 

Bucky didn’t realize he’d held onto the half-full glass of water until he was slipping outside. Oh well. Anything could be used as a weapon.

 

And there was the van. Bucky rolled his shoulders and shifted to a defensive position in front of the facility, knowing that Kate and David were behind him.

 

A girl climbed out of the van.

 

Bucky relaxed slightly, but he didn’t ease up his stance. “Who’re you?” he asked, his voice confrontational, arching an eyebrow.

 

The girl arched an eyebrow right back at him. “America Chavez.”

 

That literally meant nothing to Bucky. “How’d you hear about this place?”

 

America shrugged stiffly. “A friend.”

 

Bucky narrowed his eyes. “If you don’t start getting specific, I’m gonna have to decide you’re untrustworthy.”

 

“That’s not necessary,” a different voice said quietly, and Bucky looked sharply in that direction, his stomach plummeting as the world flipped upside down in a rush.

 

He stood by the driver’s side of the car, jaw set, eyes distant and cold, and all Bucky could think about was that he’d still recognize him if he’d turned into an alien.

 

But that didn’t mean his world didn’t flip upside down again.

 

He dropped the glass of water.

 

Steve’s eyes flicked down to the broken glass at Bucky’s feet, and his mouth tightened. His hair was a few shades darker. He’d let some scruff grow in. He looked—he looked fucking tired.

 

And Bucky’s brain wasn’t working. Maybe that’s why the first thing that came out of his mouth was, “What are you doing here?”

 

That’s not necessary. What are you doing here? The first words they’d exchanged to each other in over thirty years. Bucky felt like he was going to vomit.

 

Steve’s expression remained distant as he looked at Bucky from behind the van. “I’ll be outta here in five minutes. Don’t worry.” His voice was sharper than Bucky had ever remembered it, but it was also somehow more subdued—resigned. Bucky felt cold all over.

 

“No,” he said, scrambling to find a reason to keep Steve here. “You can’t—“

 

Steve walked the few steps over to America and patted her on the shoulder. “Text me,” he said.

 

“Steve, wait—“

 

Steve’s gaze snapped to him, his eyes alight with something that Bucky couldn’t identify. To Bucky’s surprise, Steve didn’t yell something at him. He didn’t say anything. He just. Dropped his shoulders. Into a defensive stance.

 

And then—

 

And then America Chavez, or whoever the fuck she was, stepped in front of Steve, blocking Bucky’s line of sight. “You leave him alone,” she said, her voice low.

 

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Bucky said. “I can’t—“

 

“I’ll text you,” America said to Steve. “Do your running bullshit,” she whispered, and her lips quirked like it was some kind of inside joke. Steve forced a smile back.

 

This was not going well.

 

“Five minutes,” Steve said to her, and his smile looked a little more genuine.

 

“Clingy,” America muttered, her eyes fond.

 

Steve patted her on the shoulder again, and then strode up to Bucky.

 

Bucky was frozen, rooted in spot, staring blankly at Steve.

 

Up close, the difference was even more jarring. Steve’s eyes. God, his eyes were so fucking dark and sad and resigned. What had happened to him? How had the literal personification of everything wonderful in this world turned into this?

 

Steve’s fingers spasmed, drawing attention to his hands. Bucky’s eyes flicked down. And. He thought he saw the beginnings of a tattoo beneath the sleeve of his shirt.

 

Bucky had not been prepared for this when he’d woken up with the perfect batch of pancakes on his mind.

 

“She wants to join,” Steve said in that quiet, alien tone.

 

“What,” Bucky said dumbly, eyes wide.

 

“America. Just. Don’t treat her differently because she came here with me. And don’t treat her like a child. Okay?”

 

“Okay,” Bucky whispered, his ears ringing.

 

“I’m sorry I came here. I’ll get outta your hair,” Steve said softly, but it wasn’t an intimate sort of tone. Just more resignation.

 

“Wait,” Bucky said, panicked, hand launching out to grab Steve’s wrist. “You don’t have to—“

 

“I gotta go,” Steve whispered, gently pulling his arm out of Bucky’s grip. “I gotta get outta here.”

 

“Steve, fuck, please—“

 

THIS IS NOT GOING WELL AT ALL, Bucky’s internal monologue screamed. I KNOW, Bucky almost screamed back.

 

Steve hunched his shoulders as he turned his back on Bucky, walking to the van. Bucky belatedly took a few steps after him. Don’t go, he wanted to say. Don’t leave again. But he was frozen. He couldn’t.

 

Steve passed America and said something to her that Bucky couldn’t hear because his ears were still ringing. She nodded at him and punched him in the arm. Steve got into the driver’s seat.

 

“You’re welcome back here!” Bucky blurted out before Steve started the engine. Steve stiffened, staring at Bucky in something like surprise. “I won’t—I won’t ever kick you out if you decide to—to come back.”

 

Steve blinked very slowly. He started the engine, his eyebrows pulling together in what was possibly confusion.

 

He didn’t understand.

 

Bucky hated himself.

 

He stood still, shaking all over as Steve shook his head and drove away, out of his life maybe forever again.

 

His knees felt weak.

 

He sat down on the ground in shock.

 

America walked over to him warily. “So, that was unexpected,” she mused mildly.

 

“How did you two meet?” Bucky asked in a numb, dull tone.

 

“I fell on his car.”

 

Bucky put his head in his hands. “Fuck,” he hissed. “Shit. That did not go well.”

 

“No, it did not,” America agreed.

 

“Bucky!” Kate shouted, dropping down to the ground from the roof. “The fuck was that?”

 

He and America both looked in her direction. America shifted her weight slightly. She was restless. She reminded Bucky of Steve immediately, and Bucky continued to hate himself.

 

“Steve,” Bucky said quietly.

 

“Who’s Steve?”

 

“That was Steve.”

 

Kate smirked, sticking out her hand towards America. “Hi, Steve, nice to meet you.”

 

America scowled at her. “Funny,” she said icily.

 

Kate dropped her hand.

 

David joined them gracelessly, frowning. “I have no idea who that was.”

 

Kate startled a little bit. “Huh.”

 

“And you won’t be finding out,” Bucky declared, forcing himself to his feet. “We’ve got a new member to the squad.”

 

Kate and David eyed America critically, and America just inclined her head, unmoved. “Cool,” Kate finally said, turning back to Bucky. “But I’m not going to stop asking about who that was.”

 

“Drop it, Kate,” Bucky said sharply, and Kate’s eyebrows shot up. Bucky liked to make a point of raising his voice as little as possible, so her surprise was warranted. Bucky turned to America. “Do you like pancakes?”

 

America frowned. “Is this a test?”

 

Bucky’s heart pounded in his chest, and he wanted to scream. “Rule Number One of the Young Avengers: Not everything has to be a test.”

 

America frowned like she didn’t entirely agree with him, but she didn’t say anything.

 

“Kate, why didn’t you lead with the pancakes thing?” David asked, elbowing her.

 

“Listen,” Kate said, but didn’t follow up with anything else.

 

“We have pancakes every day. I dunno why you’re surprised,” Bucky grumbled, his brain buzzing, his mood souring. “Follow me.”

 

Bucky slammed into the kitchen, aggressively putting his ingredients together for more pancakes while Billy, Teddy, and Loki stared at their ensemble.

 

“Bucky,” Teddy said. “Who’s your new friend?”

 

“This is America Chavez. She’s joining up,” Bucky muttered, scowling at his frying pan. “She gets the next pancakes.”

 

“How dare,” Kate gasped. “After all I’ve done for you.”

 

Loki narrowed his eyes at America. “Have we met?”

 

“No,” she said sharply.

 

The kitchen fell into an awkward silence for about two seconds.

 

“David found a cave,” Kate said proudly.

 

“It’s not a cave,” David said, frowning.

 

“Is it a cool cave?” Teddy asked expectantly, and Billy glared at his plate.

 

“It isn’t a cave, so no.”

 

“It’s a cave.”

 

No, it isn’t.

 

“What was it then?” Loki asked disinterestedly, still eyeing America uneasily.

 

“A cavern.”

 

“Oh, for crying out loud—“

 

Bucky tuned them out to focus on steadying his shaking hands. He had to make breakfast. He made perfect pancakes. The kids were counting on him for his goddamn fucking pancake method. He had to—

 

“Bucky,” Billy said firmly, standing near him now, and Bucky drew in a harsh breath. “I can do it.”

 

“Okay,” Bucky whispered, and he didn’t bother trying to register Billy’s pleasant surprise. “I need to—“

 

“Take a minute,” Billy said, nodding with authority.

 

Bucky all-but stumbled out of the kitchen.

 

He made it to his room by some kind of fucking miracle before collapsing, fumbling with his phone.

 

“Sam,” he gasped when the line connected. “I can’t breathe.”

 

“Aw, fuck,” Sam said distantly, and Bucky listened mostly to the sound of his voice for the next indeterminable amount of time before he finally started to calm down. After a few more minutes of exhausted silence, Sam asked, “What happened?”

 

He,” Bucky choked out. “He came here with a fucking girl for the Young Avengers.”

 

Sam paused. “Who?”

 

“Don’t fucking bullshit me, Sam!” Bucky shouted, and he knew he’d feel bad for yelling at him later, but now all he felt was hysteria. “How’d he find me here? Did you fucking know about this? Where’d he fucking come from?”

 

“Jesus,” Sam hissed. “I swear I have no idea. I talked to him fucking yesterday. He seemed upset, but not like he was going to show up on your doorstep.”

 

“Yesterday,” Bucky said faintly. He wished it were fucking yesterday. “How’d he know where I was?”

 

“He used to be an Avenger, dude. We lived there for, like, almost a year.”

 

Bucky shook his head. “He just fucking drops this fucking girl off with his fucking sad eyes and fucking scruff and then he fucking leaves five seconds later. I can’t deal with this. I can’t fucking—where’s Wanda? Can she—“

 

“Bucky, shut the fuck up. Slow down. He just... showed up with some girl?”

 

Bucky took a deep, shuddering breath and forced himself to slow down, his volume lowering to a whisper. “He shows up in my driveway in some van and I say, ‘What are you doing here?’ and then—shit—it just went so badly, Sam, and he looked so different and terrible and his eyes were so sad, and I can’t deal with that shit. It’s my fucking fault.”

 

“We’ve been over this,” Sam said gently. “You’re like the guy that killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, but Steve started World War I all on his own.”

 

“You and your fucking metaphors,” Bucky sighed. “Did I kill Archduke Franz Ferdinand? Oh, god. I killed Archduke Franz—“

 

“Dude. You weren’t born yet.”

 

“This is it. My greatest shame. I started World War I. It was me. I’m a colossal—“

 

“Bucky, dude, shut the fuck up. Did Steve say anything to you?”

 

Hearing his name was like a punch to the gut, and Bucky breathed noisily for a minute. “Yeah. About the girl. He left so fast. I didn’t even get to say anything. I told him he could come back, and he just looked so confused.”

 

“To be fair, you did tell him that you never wanted to see him again.”

 

Bucky scowled. He hated himself. “He looked so different,” he said in a small voice.

 

“And you’re trying to tell me that thirty-two years won’t change a person?” Sam deadpanned.

 

“I changed for the better,” Bucky growled. “I didn’t expect—“

 

“What did you expect? Steve to settle down in fucking Ireland or something with an anonymous cookie cutter family with 2.5 kids and a dog?”

 

“No,” Bucky snapped. “I expected him to take care of himself at least a little bit.”

 

“Well, he’s alive.”

 

Bucky closed his eyes tightly. Steve was alive. That was good. That was a place to start. “I want him to come back,” he said miserably.

 

“He probably won’t,” Sam said gently.

 

“He’s gotta come back. We always come back to each other.”

 

“That’s some Shakespearean shit, man, but you know that there’s gotta be an end to everything.”

 

“Not us,” Bucky snapped. Because how could he articulate the fact that neither of them had aged and had refused to die? How could he articulate that death literally hadn’t kept them apart? Bucky had waited only about half the seventy years it’d taken to come back to each other, but he would wait another seventy years. He’d wait until the serum stopped working and exploded in his veins. He’d wait.

 

“I dunno, man,” Sam said dubiously.

 

“He’ll be back,” Bucky insisted. “I’ll be—fucking ready next time. I’ll write him a fucking sonnet about how much I fucking miss him. I’ll—I dunno—burn down the world in his honor. It’ll be fucking romantic. He’ll have to at least consider me.”

 

“You still in love with him?” Sam asked, and Bucky could hear his frown. “What about the whole—“

 

“—unrequited pining thing? Going great. Glad you asked,” Bucky grumbled. “Even more swell when I just saw him high-tail it outta my life again.”

 

“Again, it was your fault he left at first.”

 

“But not that he didn’t fix himself, I know,” Bucky finished the lecture, but he really didn’t know.

 

“Did you see his tattoos?” Sam asked after a pause.

 

“Tattoos,” Bucky repeated. “As in, plural. Multiple tattoo.”

 

“Like. A lot of them.”

 

“Oh my god.”

 

“Right?”

 

“Shut up. I’m moping here. I’m freaking out. We’re not allowed to discuss—“

 

“His arms. They’re so good.”

 

Stopit.”

 

“Alright,” Sam relented. “But, seriously, they’re super—“

 

“Sam. Dude.”

 

“Okay.”

 

Bucky sighed. “What am I gonna do?” he asked, voice cracking.

 

Sam’s silence felt like he wanted to pat Bucky on the shoulder through the phone. “Well. You’re gonna calm down, and you’re gonna stand up, and you’re gonna leave your room, and you’re gonna train the Young Avengers.”

 

Bucky blew out a breath. “You’re right.”

 

“And if Steve Rogers comes back, you’ll deal with it. But don’t spend all your time waiting. He’s a runner.”

 

Bucky bit his lip to keep from arguing. “Okay.”

 

“Go get ‘em, man. I’ll see you for Christmas.”

 

“That’s forever away.”

 

Sam laughed. “Bye, old man.”

 

“Bye, asshole.”

 

Bucky sat still for another five minutes before lurching to his feet with a groan. He had the kids counting on him. He had a new recruit. He had a responsibility. There was no time to freak out over Steve Rogers in his schedule. He could do this.

 

He returned to the kitchen and stopped in his tracks.

 

The remains of pancakes were strewn around the table as Loki and America shouted at each other and everyone else watched with interest.

 

“—fucked up my life!” Loki was shouting.

 

“I saved it!” America snarled.

 

“Whoa!” Bucky called out, holding up his hands, and America and Loki and everyone else turned to look at him.

 

“Oh, look who finally decided to show up,” Loki snapped. “You don’t have to intervene every time we disagree with each other.”

 

Bucky narrowed his eyes. “What?”

 

“The other day, you made us separate because David thought strawberries were better than blueberries and Billy disagreed,” Teddy pointed out slowly.

 

Bucky frowned. “Okay, first of all, we all know how passionate David is about fruit.”

 

Everyone reluctantly looked at David, and David bit his lip, inclining his head in agreement.

 

“Second of all, I started the Civil War. I know how superhero disputes start and escalate. I’m trying to help you guys be able to rationalize through them for when you won’t have my help.”

 

“We don’t need your help!” Loki exploded. “I’m here on fucking timeout for when Thor decides he needs me again! I don’t need help!”

 

Bucky rubbed his forehead. His day could not get any worse. He sat slowly at the table. “You wanna tell me what’s going on?” He glanced between Loki and America.

 

“No,” they said at the same time.

 

Bucky looked at the rest of the table. They shrugged, clearly just as lost. “Okay,” he sighed, frustrated. “Then how ‘bout this. You two spar.”

 

America eyed Bucky warily while Loki visibly relaxed. “Okay,” he said.

 

“Wait,” America interjected, holding up a hand. “I need to know the ground rules.”

 

Bucky frowned, and Kate said, “No rules except no fatal injuries. We play dirty here.”

 

A slow, small smile spread across America’s features. “Alright, then.”

 

“Dude,” Billy started, potentially as a warning that Loki was the literal god of mischief, but Bucky cut him off with a look.

 

“Show off,” he told America. “I wanna see what you can do.”

 

“Trust me,” America said, eyeing Loki like a predator. “I’m not holding back.”

 

Loki’s smile dimmed a fraction, and he swallowed visibly.

 


 

 

Kate sat on the top of the climbing wall while David, Billy, and Teddy situated themselves by the much more practical benches. David shied away from Billy when Billy glared at him, although not much, and Bucky wanted to bang his head against the wall.

 

Loki was standing in his corner of the boxing ring while America paced across her side of the ring, stretching with deliberate slowness. Loki looked nervous. America looked calm. Bucky felt wary.

 

“Alright,” Bucky said. “First rule of Fight Club—“ he began, and everyone groaned behind him, “—do not talk about Fight Club.”

 

“Stop referencing old movies!” Kate complained. “Why do you act like you were born in the 80s when you were born in 1917?”

 

“Shut up,” Bucky said without heat, but America was looking at him critically, and Bucky wondered what she was thinking. “Basically, fight until your opponent is unconscious.”

 

“That doesn’t seem very safe,” America pointed out, not sounding like she objected at all.

 

“Rule Number Two of the Young Avengers: Being a superhero is not safe, so training is not safe either. I’m conditioning you for a hard life, so I’m not pulling my punches. Neither should you.”

 

“When did he make up rules?” Billy whispered to Teddy, and Teddy cracked up. Bucky ignored them.

 

“Ready?”

 

Loki nodded, and America just flexed her hands.

 

“Fight.”

 

It was hard to watch.

 

Not because Bucky was squeamish about violence (obviously), but because Loki always used a lot of flashy tricks that hurt Bucky’s eyes/brain. Also because Loki was seriously panicking against America, who clearly knew her shit.

 

They only spent about five seconds in the boxing ring before Loki teleported up to the ceiling banisters or something. Bucky wasn’t entirely clear on how it all worked. America didn’t chase him like he obviously wanted her to, but instead slammed a kick at the place Loki’d been five seconds ago, and Loki fell off the bannister and disappeared, then reappeared rolling away from America’s leg.

 

Bucky blinked and watched as Loki scrambled for increasingly elaborate tricks. America fell for exactly two of them, and paid for this with a black eye and what looked like a sprained wrist.

 

She won when she shoved Loki’s head into the wall, and Loki was so dazed with the collision that he was having trouble with balance. Bucky counted it as unconscious and carefully took hold of Loki’s arm as he looked nauseously at the ceiling.

 

“Well then,” Kate said into the silence of the gym, staring at America. America licked her split lips and rocked back on her heels, and Kate looked like she lost a little bit of balance.

 

“I win.”

 

“You win,” Bucky agreed, impressed. “Loki?”

 

“Hm.”

 

“You good?”

 

“’M good.”

 

“Go rest up. Make sure you don’t have a concussion.”

 

“Right,” Loki mumbled, muttered a slurred incantation, and disappeared, presumably to his room.

 

“Somebody check on him later,” Bucky sighed.

 

“I will,” Teddy said.

 

Bucky loved Teddy. Teddy was the best. “You get first pancakes tomorrow.”

 

“Sweet.”

 

“What now?” America asked, shaking out her fists.

 

“We wrap your wrist,” Bucky declared. “And then eat lunch.”

 

“But we had breakfast like an hour ago.”

 

“Second breakfast,” Bucky said.

 

“Why are you so old?” Kate groaned, dropping down to the ground.

 

“Hey. You got the reference. And Tolkien is timeless.”

 

“Ugh.”

 

Bucky nodded at America. “Follow me. The rest of you: prepare lunch ideas.”

 

(As if Bucky didn’t know that Kate would demand pasta and David would complain about lack of proper nutrition and Billy would side with Kate out of spite and Teddy would tentatively suggest a healthy pasta stew or some shit like that.)

 

America shuffled after him into the med room. “I don’t know shit about doctor crap, but I know how to deal with field injuries,” he explained, pulling out a roll of gauze and a splint that’d probably fit America.

 

“Okay,” she said, sticking out her arm.

 

Bucky tried not to think about the fact that he was alone with a girl who knew about what Steve had been up to. He tried.

 

“So—“ he attempted to begin but,

 

“How did you meet Steve?” America asked before he could finish.

 

Bucky chewed on his lip for a moment, hoping he didn’t look as devastated as he felt. “Well. It’s a long story.”

 

“Hm. Really?”

 

“No,” Bucky admitted.

 

“Then go.”

 

“I saw him get thrown into a pile of garbage bags, so I sat down with him and talked about cats,” Bucky admitted.

 

“Huh,” America said. “What did you do to make him so scared of you?”

 

Bucky flinched. Scared. Of him. Steve was scared of him. He swallowed convulsively. “I told him that I never wanted to see him again,” he said quietly, staring determinedly at America’s wrist.

 

America was quiet for a moment, probably judging that he was the worst person on the entire planet. “You two... what? Grew up together?”

 

“Yeah,” Bucky said, sounding kind of breathless and pained. He couldn’t bring himself to care all that much.

 

“So, like, you were close?”

 

“You could say that.”

 

America nodded. “Then why...?”

 

Bucky shook his head. “I don’t know,” he lied.

 

America frowned at him, her eyes definitely hard and judgmental. “Listen,” she said. “I’m here because Steve asked me to give it a try. He’s the only person in this entire universe whose opinion I care about.” Bucky startled at her honesty. “So if you do anything to fucking... hurt him... I’ll have no objections turning against you and your team like that.”

 

“Understandable,” Bucky said in a measured tone, although he bristled.

 

“Steve,” America said, holding her hand flat at eye level. “You,” she said, dropping her hand down to about a foot above the ground. “Got it?”

 

“Yep,” Bucky said, fake-nonchalant. Because he agreed with America too much to try to take it seriously.

 

America nodded decisively. “He’s a good person.”

 

“I know,” Bucky choked out, blinking a few times.

 

America frowned at him. “Thanks for the hospitality.”

 

“Well. It’s my job.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“That feel alright?” Bucky asked, releasing her wrist.

 

“Yes. Thank you.”

 

Bucky nodded a few times with jerky movements. “Second breakfast.”

 

America followed him back to the kitchen, where Kate and Billy were scowling at David while Teddy looked guilty. Bucky tried not to roll his eyes. “Well?”

 

“Pasta primavera?” Teddy said.

 

Bucky bit his lip to keep from saying So close!, turning to his cabinets. “Turn on the Food Network, will ya?”

 

Teddy flicked on the tiny TV in the kitchen that Bucky almost never used. He let the sound of culinary geniuses wash over him as he put together the meal.

 

America was right about him. Bucky didn’t even have the right to feel mad about it, but he did. Who was this girl to take Steve from him? It used to be Bucky who’d hold his hand flat at eye level and say, “Steve.” It used to be Bucky who threatened anyone who told Steve off.

 

He didn’t have the right to be angry. It was his fault anyway.

 

When no one was paying attention, Bucky pressed his forehead against the refrigerator and wished for something easy like cryo.

 


 

 

“Ultimate Hide and Go Seek,” Bucky declared the next morning after getting exactly zero seconds of sleep.

 

“Yes!” Kate cheered, while the rest of them gave more mild reactions.

 

“What’s that?” America asked, chewing on her pancakes.

 

Kate stood up, clearing her throat. “Oh, it’s nothing,” she said in an aloof tone, rubbing her knuckles against her chest before casually inspecting her nails. “Just the game where I’m the four-time defending champ. No big deal.”

 

“Kate,” Billy complained.

 

“Just admit defeat now, suckers.”

 

Bucky turned to America. “It’s basically every man for himself.”

 

“And Bucky hunts us down,” David added. “We use any resources we can to try to stay away as long as possible.”

 

“No rules?” America asked, her face carefully blank.

 

“Well. Don’t board a bus to Canada,” David said.

 

“I’d still find you,” Bucky cut in, pouring himself a generous cup of coffee.

 

“You get the gist, though.”

 

“Hm,” America said. “I’m going to win.”

 

“Hah!” Kate shouted. “I’d like to see you fucking try!”

 

“Bring it, princess,” America shot back, smirking.

 

Kate fumbled in the middle of picking up her glass of water.

 

“Finish eating and meet me out back,” Bucky said, taking his coffee and making a break for it.

 

He saved Ultimate Hide and Go Seek for special occasions. IE: Whenever he needed a break from the kids and also something to focus his mind. It was a wonder he’d even held out a day before deciding it was time again.

 

Bucky sat with had back resting against a large tree, pulling out his phone to scroll through some texts.

 

T’CHALLA: Am I invited for Christmas this year too?

 

BUCKY: dude

 

He didn’t bother elaborating. T’Challa was an asshole.

 

TONY: http://www.itf.blog.com/post/264309943-70

 

Bucky clicked on the link to find a post on Tony’s asshole blog about nonexistent assassins.

 

He didn’t bother responding.

 

PEPPER: Hey!! :) :) :) How are things?? We miss you!

 

BUCKY: theyr good! maybe we can get lunch this weeknd

 

And then there was—

 

KAMALA: Had a weird day

 

BUCKY: elaborate??

 

The response was almost immediate.

 

KAMALA: I am an amazing superhero I’d just like to lead with that

 

BUCKY: uhuh

 

KAMALA: Dude almost offed himself on my watch?????????????

 

BUCKY: shit girl

 

KAMLA: It was intense man I’m tellin you

 

Kate walked outside, her shoulders set in determination, and Bucky bit his lip.

 

BUCKY: tell me more later im doing ultimate hide an go seek by e

 

KAMALA: Who needs you anyway

 

The rest of the Young Avengers followed quickly.

 

“You know the drill,” Bucky announced. “You get a three hour head start. I’ll be inside. Last man standing wins. Go!”

 

And they were off in different directions.

 

Bucky wandered back inside and sat down on the couch, flicking to the old movie channel.

 

Batman it was, then.

 

 


 

 

Forty minutes into Batman, Bucky’s phone started ringing.

 

“Hey, Pepper.”

 

“Bucky,” she said, sounding relaxed. “Bring the kids into the city for lunch.”

 

“Got it,” Bucky said. “We got a new recruit. Just a heads-up.”

 

“Oh?” Pepper asked, sounding way too cheerful for Bucky’s mood.

 

“Yep. She’s very... uh... capable.”

 

“That doesn’t sound fun.”

 

“I like her.”

 

“Right.”

 

There was a pause like Pepper was waiting for him to say something else.

 

“How’d she get recruited?” she finally asked.

 

Any good mood Bucky was working on faded immediately. “Um.”

 

“Oh boy,” Pepper said. “That doesn’t sound good.”

 

“Old friend paid a visit,” Bucky said quietly.

 

“And how’d that go?”

 

“Poorly. Very poorly.”

 

“Aw, fuck,” Pepper sighed, and Bucky blinked in surprise at the curse.

 

“What?”

 

“Nothing.” She sounded unhappy. “Sunday for lunch. Meet us at the Tower.”

 

“’Course.”

 

“Take care, Bucky.”

 

“Take care, Pepper.”

 

Bucky frowned and attempted to not dissect the exchange too hard.

 


 

 

Teddy was always the easiest to find. Bucky loved the kid, but deception wasn’t his strong suit.

 

Then there was Loki who always got bored by that point.

 

Then there was Billy and David, who were both insanely clever. This year, David won out against Billy. Bucky thought it was out of some sort of spite that he didn’t understand, but he couldn’t be sure. David followed soon after anyway.

 

Then there was just Kate and America left.

 

“I have no idea where they are,” David said. “I checked the cavern, like, eight times. I could’ve sworn—“

 

“It was a diversion, you idiot,” Billy said. David bristled.

 

“Calm down,” Bucky said, rubbing his forehead. These kids were gonna give him an aneurism one of these days. “Any ideas on America?”

 

They stared at him blankly.

 

“Okay, then.”

 

“She’s a scary enigma,” Loki said solemnly. Bucky had to agree.

 

Eventually, Bucky found Kate hiding under his bed.

 

“Genius, right? Hide behind enemy lines. It’s elementary. Where’s my trophy?”

 

“You didn’t win.”

 

“Are you shitting me,” Kate demanded. “Where the fuck is that stuck-up asshole?”

 

Bucky wanted to remind Kate that she’d grown up the daughter of a very wealthy mob boss and had been, in fact, quite stuck-up herself, but he refrained. “Working on it.”

 

In the end, America wandered towards the facility while they all tried to come up with strategies. “I assume I won?” she asked.

 

“Where the fuck were you?” Bucky demanded.

 

America mimed zipping her lips.

 

“Seriously,” Bucky said.

 

“I was in the woods,” she said nonchalantly. “Just. Not in the same universe.”

 

You gotta be kidding me, was the first thing that came to Bucky’s mind.

 

“So, what?” Kate said, trying to be all snarky. “You can, like, dimension-hop?”

 

America winked. “Maybe.”

 

Kate groaned. Bucky refrained from banging his head against the wall.

 

 


 

 

It was July 4th.

 

Bucky woke up grumpy and clattered into the kitchen grumpy and hunkered down on the couch grumpy and sipped from his coffee grumpy long before the kids woke up.

 

And when they did, everything got on his nerves.

 

“Happy America Day!” Kate shouted, showering America in a halo of red-white-and-blue glitter from the ceiling beams.

 

America scowled. “Watch it, princess.”

 

“Happy You Day!” Kate continued, just to be an asshole.

 

“Oh, shit, I didn’t even realize,” Billy laughed.

 

“How? Her name is literally—“ Teddy said, and Billy waved him off with an, “I know, I know.”

 

Bucky glared at them.

 

“What’s your problem?” David asked.

 

Bucky glared harder. “I hate today.”

 

“Bucky’s in a bad mood!” Loki announced.

 

Boooooooo.”

 

“Leave me alone,” Bucky grumbled, hiding behind his cup of coffee. “I have PTSD.”

 

“Why you always gotta pull the PTSD card?” Kate sighed, and it was a testament to the nature of their relationship that Bucky didn’t growl at her or something.

 

“Take a day off, dude,” America said, and Bucky thought she was maybe being nicer to him as the days went by, but he may’ve just been getting used to how much she hated him. “We can all take a day off.”

 

“I have an idea,” Teddy said. “Movie marathon.”

 

And that was how Bucky got roped into a marathon of romcoms, trying not to cry at every single love confession like an idiot.

 

“You are, like, the least scary person I’ve ever met,” Kate declared.

 

“Shut up,” Bucky sniffed.

 

And it turned into a not-so-shitty day after all.

 


 

 

Pepper and America barely blinked at each other when they met, and they seemed to exchange a knowing glance, and Bucky just felt very out of the loop.

 

But the lunch went well, and America definitely liked Pepper better than him (which wasn’t actually saying much, to be honest), and the kids all bought some new clothes, and Bucky remembered that this was a life he’d built for himself, and that Steve Rogers hadn’t had a part in it before he’d dropped America off, and that didn’t mean he had to have a part in it now.

 

 


 

 

Bucky was sitting in the kitchen after everyone else had gone to sleep, trying to keep his mind quiet.

 

He couldn’t seem to stop thinking.

 

About everything.

 

He groaned quietly, dropping his forehead onto the table.

 

And there was a soft, insistent knock at the front door.

 

Nerves instantly lighting with tension, Bucky got to his feet and approached the door. He peeked through the peephole.

 

Steve.

 

Bucky threw open the door faster than he could draw in his next breath.

 

Steve was leaning heavily against the doorpost, looking exhausted in the dark. He’d taken off his jacket and had crumpled it into a ball to hold to his chest, and Bucky suddenly had an eyeful of two sleeves of tattoos. The left sleeve stopped at Steve’s elbow, but the right disappeared up into his shirt.

 

Bucky’s eyes zeroed in on Steve’s face. “Hi,” Bucky said, somehow out of breath. Was it raining outside? What the fuck, why was this so cinematic? “Hi.”

 

Steve kept his face blank, and he somehow looked even worse than he had the last time Bucky’d seen him. “I need to... talk to America,” he whispered, and his voice was a little hoarse.

 

Bucky swallowed roughly. “Yeah, yeah, of course. Come in. Please. It’s raining.”

 

Steve’s face pulled into one of determination as he pushed himself off the wall and drew in a ragged breath, his grip on his jacket going white-knuckled.

 

“She may be asleep,” Bucky said, stepping back and opening the door wide. “She ran a marathon today.”

 

Steve took a few steps forward, and Bucky’s heart pounded at the realization that Steve’s gait was uneven. “’Course she did,” he mumbled, lurching to brace himself on the door, grimacing.

 

“You okay?” Bucky asked.

 

“I’m fine,” Steve growled. He blanched as he took another step forward, and then he stumbled, and Bucky’s heart went into overdrive. He grabbed Steve by the biceps to keep him from fucking falling on his face, about to demand what the fuck was happening, when he noticed the jacket.

 

The jacket was dripping red.

 

“Fuck!” Bucky hissed, grabbing the jacket and pulling it away from Steve’s chest to see a fucking massive bloodstain behind a tiny, ragged hole in his shirt. “Fuck this, fuck this.”

 

Steve shook his head, all the while leaning his weight more and more on Bucky’s arms. “It’s fine.”

 

“It’s not fucking fine,” Bucky snapped, dragging Steve forward. “I’ll get you to the med—“

 

Steve’s knees buckled, and Bucky caught him mostly on panic response.

 

“Never mind. Couch will do. Couch.” He grunted as he half-carried, half-dragged Steve over to the couch in the living room, laying him down on the cushions.

 

Steve gritted his teeth, propping himself up on one elbow. “I gotta talk to—“

 

“Shut the fuck up.” Bucky started to yank at Steve’s shirt when Steve shoved him away.

 

“No,” he said harshly. “Leave it.”

 

“No,” Bucky snapped back.

 

It was truly a testament to how much pain he was in that Steve barely put up a fight after that, and Bucky quickly but gently pulled the ruined shirt off and away.

 

He didn’t have time to look at the tattoos, nor did he have the right. Instead, Bucky’s eyes focused on the fucking bullet wound.

 

God, he wasn’t a doctor, but he could guess that the bullet had probably pierced Steve’s lungs. Fuck.

 

“Any other ones?” Bucky gritted out, probing the swollen skin with metal fingers.

 

After a pause, Steve wordlessly touched his lower back, and Bucky rolled Steve onto his side, his eyes stinging when Steve drew in a ragged breath.

 

Yeah. Okay. This sucked.

 

“Okay, Stevie, this is gonna hurt a little. Just look at me, alright? Listen to me, we’re gonna be okay. We’re gonna kick these bullets’ asses, alright? Hey, no, look at me, we’re gonna be fine,” Bucky babbled as his arm’s sensors picked up the location of the bullet in Steve’s back.

 

Bucky dug his fingers in and yanked the bullet out in one fluid motion.

 

Steve gasped, choking on the breath, and his hand flew up to grasp Bucky’s shoulder tight enough to hurt.

 

“More blood. Right. Blood,” Bucky muttered, grabbing Steve’s shirt and pressing it to his back. This sucked. This sucked.

 

“Don’t,” Steve coughed, and his teeth were bloodstained. “Don’t touch,” he tapped the bullet wound on his chest, unable to finish through another wracking cough. “Serum,” he finally rasped. “It’ll take care of it.”

 

Bucky had to agree that the serum was probably more qualified in pushing out the bullet than Bucky would be. Steve flopped onto his back, eyebrows pulled together in pain, and Bucky felt a rush of frantic desperation.

 

“Hey, no,” he whispered, moving to sit on the couch by Steve’s head. “Gotta elevate your head or you may choke.”

 

Steve grunted noncommittally, and Bucky shook his head, moving so that Steve’s head was balanced on his thigh.

 

“Buck,” Steve said, his voice rough.

 

“Yeah, Steve?” Bucky whispered, stroking his hand through Steve’s hair, which was matted with blood and sweat.

 

“I gotta talk to America.”

 

“In the morning, pal. Don’t wanna freak her out, do we?”

 

“She’ll freak out anyway,” Steve grumbled, eyes sliding shut.

 

Bucky pursed his lips to keep from asking a million questions and pressed his metal hand to Steve’s chest, feeling for his heartbeat.

 

It was faster than normal, but it was still regular.

 

“How’d this happen?” Bucky whispered, unable to help himself.

 

Steve either didn’t hear him or was ignoring him, and Bucky honestly couldn’t tell which was more likely right now. His eyes fluttered open. His expression was glazed with pain and delirium. “Bucky,” he breathed, as if somehow just realizing he was there.

 

“Yeah, Stevie?”

 

Steve grabbed Bucky’s metal hand and said nothing for a moment, breathing raggedly.

 

Then,

 

“Hi.”

 

Bucky gave a bit of a hysterical laugh. “Hi,” he managed, voice breaking.

 

“Been a while,” Steve said, smiling a bloody-teethed smile like he thought he was hilarious.

 

“Thirty-two years and a couple’a months.”

 

“Aw, you remember,” Steve slurred. “I remember too.” His expression went distressed. “Sorry I came back. I’m sorry. God, I’m so—“

 

“Don’t apologize,” Bucky said in a rush. “I want you here.”

 

A crease appeared between Steve’s brows. “I don’t understand.”

 

“I fucked up,” Bucky said, like that would even begin to cover it.

 

“I respect you so much,” Steve said loyally, patting Bucky’s hand. “So much. I don’t want—“

 

I changed my mind,” Bucky whispered fiercely. “Please.”

 

Steve frowned. “I’m not gonna remember this conversation tomorrow.”

 

“Yeah,” Bucky agreed because Steve was clearly delirious right now.

 

“Missed you,” Steve mumbled with a sigh, and the sound of his breath was wet and worrying.

 

“God, I missed you too. So much.”

 

Steve flashed another bloody smile. “Good to hear.” He waved around his arm before letting it fall back down, hand still covering Bucky’s. “I got tattoos.”

 

“I can see that.”

 

Steve hummed, and his chest seized for a moment before it calmed down again. He coughed. “Fuck.” His eyes flicked to Bucky. “Just like old times, eh?”

 

Bucky closed his eyes because he felt like he had one foot in each century, like he was seeing double. “Yeah,” he choked out, running his hand through Steve’s hair again.

“It’s okay. I’ve had worse.”

 

“Y’know, that actually doesn’t make me feel any better.”

 

Steve laughed, which turned into a bloody cough pretty swiftly. When he was finished, he breathed heavily for a moment and said, “Sorry.”

 

“Me too,” Bucky said softly.

 

Steve closed his eyes and didn’t say anything for a while. Bucky stared down at his restless face and wanted nothing more in the world than to take the pain away from him. “I should go,” Steve mumbled at some ridiculously early hour, his eyes still closed.

 

“Stay,” Bucky begged, and Steve frowned but didn’t respond.

 

The shudders started soon after, and Bucky turned Steve onto his side to help ease his breathing, and Steve hacked a cough before convulsing his way through puking up his fucking bloody dinner all over Bucky’s shirt.

 

Bucky ran his hand down Steve’s back, hoping that it was providing some comfort, at least.

 

Steve fell unconscious not long after that, and Bucky watched in fascination as the bullet wound in Steve’s chest seemed to gurgle for a good twenty minutes before the bullet oozed out in a mess of shit Bucky didn’t want to identify. He sighed in relief and put the bullet in his pocket. The wound started to close up, and Steve’s breathing started to become more regular, and Bucky was exhausted.

 

At 0500, he slowly pulled his phone out of his pocket and opened the Young Avengers group text.

 

BUCKY: don’t come into lving room

 

DAVID: Why?

 

BUCKY: pls just trust me on this one

 

KATE: O.O suspicious

 

BUCKY: im setting force fields

 

KATE: BUCKY NO

 

Bucky set the force fields.

 

America texted him outside of the group text half an hour later.

 

AMERICA: What’s going on

 

BUCKY: u better come here

 

He disabled the force fields for her, and she walked into the room two minutes later.

 

Her expression shuttered when she saw Steve, and she quickly approached the couch, dropping to a crouch and letting her hand hover over the puckered bullet wound on his chest. “Hijo de tu puta madre,” America hissed.

 

“I—“ Bucky began, but she shot him a glare.

 

Chingate, pinche idiota,” she muttered, barely looking at him as her attention turned to Steve while Bucky scowled. She shook her head. Cleared her throat. “What happened to him?”

 

“I don’t know,” Bucky whispered, pushing Steve’s hair off his forehead for the millionth time. “Two bullet wounds. Came to the door at, like, midnight asking to talk to you.”

 

America nodded, swallowing visibly. “Is he okay?”

 

“As far as I can tell,” Bucky sighed. “Can you run into my room and grab a sweatshirt?”

 

America pushed herself to her feet, obviously relieved to be given a task. “Yeah. Be right back.”

 

“Don’t tell the others,” Bucky called after her belatedly. He heard America scoff like she thought he was an idiot.

 

Which was likely.

 

Bucky looked down at Steve’s face. “What am I gonna do with you?” he murmured. Steve chest rose and fell with each breath, and Bucky wanted to pass out with how relieved he was, but his worry was growing exponentially.

 

What shit was Steve mixed up in that got him shot twice?

 

America returned with a big sweatshirt, and together they maneuvered it over Steve’s head without moving him much. Bucky relaxed. He’d been trying to avoid looking at Steve’s tattoos because it felt like a raw invasion of privacy. He was glad they were covered now.

 

America ran a hand through her hair and sat on the armchair by Steve’s feet. She stared into the middle distance, and Bucky hoped she was okay.

 

Steve’s fingers spasmed in his sleep, and Bucky closed his eyes, trying to smother his hitched breath.

 

He could fix this.

Chapter Text

Mostly out of sheer spite, Kate furiously created another Young Avengers group text, this one without Bucky.

 

KATE: @everyone meet me in my room if you want to partake in scheming which ofc you do so come on

 

DAVID: You are a nuisance.

 

David appeared in her doorway five minutes later.

 

When everyone had arrived minus America (the stupidly ethereal asshole), Kate called the informal meeting to order.

 

“Bucky’s being a bitch,” she declared.

 

Loki rolled his eyes from where he was vigorously pretending that he was above drama. “Ugh. I can go scout it out if you want.”

 

“Bless,” Billy sighed, leaning his head on Teddy’s chest, eyes half-closed.

 

Loki left and returned a surprisingly short amount of time later, his face pale, his expression carefully blank. “What?” Kate demanded impatiently.

 

Loki shook his head slowly. “I think you’re better-off not knowing.”

 

Kate scowled. That was where Loki was wrong.

 


 

 

Steve’s chest hurt.

 

He wanted to let out a groan, but he wasn’t an actual idiot. He had no idea where the fuck he was, and his chest hurt, and he could taste blood, and he kept his breathing even as he slowly woke up.

 

His head was resting on something firm and muscular. Another person. (The fuck?) He was wearing something soft and unfamiliar. His hand was resting on something metal with ridges like plates.

 

He shifted slightly enough not to draw attention to himself, but he confirmed that the gun was still wedged in the waistband of his jeans. He was getting out of here alive.

 

Steve opened his eyes and rolled to the side, landing in a crouch on the fucking carpeted floor and drawing his gun in one fluid motion.

 

And Bucky slowly held up his hands, and ah, there was a breathtakingly familiar expression: Bucky’s heart breaking all over his face.

 

Why was he here?

 

Why was Steve here?

 

He told himself that he’d never come back—

 

The events of the previous night crashed back into his head, and he sucked in a sharp breath. Ah. That was why.

 

But that didn’t explain why he’d been lying in Bucky Barnes’ lap in an unfamiliar sweatshirt.

 

“Steve,” Bucky said, and Steve clenched his jaw to keep from crying out. It was like Bucky was trying to kill him. Every time he said his name felt like a twist of a knife in his gut.

 

“Put the gun down, viejo,” another voice said, and Steve whipped around.

 

He almost sobbed in relief. America was right there. Sitting with her elbows braced on her knees, ready to launch herself out of her chair. Her eyes were sad and hard and concerned. Steve clicked the safety on and dropped the gun.

 

“I’ve gotta talk to you,” he said in a rush, his voice raspy with all the shit that’d gone on yesterday.

 

America smiled hesitantly. “Yeah?”

 

“Yeah,” Steve agreed, clambering to his feet and striding over to her chair. “They—they’re after you.”

 

“Who?”

 

“Remember trunk guy?”

 

“Yes,” America said, frowning.

 

“Them.”

 

“Why?”

 

Steve opened his mouth to continue when Bucky cut in, “Can I maybe be included in this conversation?” He sounded annoyed.

 

Steve turned to look at him, and he could physically feel America’s tiny smile turn into a scowl. “Um.” Steve shifted uncomfortably. What was he supposed to do in this situation? Bucky’d been clear in his wish to never see Steve again. Steve was gonna leave as soon as he told America what was what.

 

“Steve,” Bucky continued, still annoyed, and Steve wanted to snap at him, but he kept his mouth shut. “I deserve to know who the fuck is hunting down my kids.”

 

His kids. Funny. Steve felt his face morph into a scowl. “I don’t know much.”

 

“Catch me up,” Bucky said, visibly reigning himself in from looking pissed off.

 

“There are some people following me,” Steve said after a few tense moments of silence. “I thought I’d lost ‘em, but I didn’t. Got shot.”

 

“And what does this have to do with me?” America asked, getting to her feet to move more into Steve’s line of sight. “They hurt you. They were after you.”

 

Steve nodded, turning to America because she was way easier to talk to. “I know,” he sighed, frustrated. “But last night—“

 

Last night.

 

God, he was an idiot if he’d ever thought he could amount to anything more than a weapon.

 

Steve swallowed roughly. “Last night, they said it was a failed mission because ‘the girl wasn’t there.’”

 

“Me,” America said.

 

“You,” Steve agreed. “Dunno why. Just what happened.”

 

“And what exactly happened?” Bucky asked, also rising to his feet now.

 

Steve stared at Bucky for a moment. He looked tired, which probably meant he hadn’t slept very well for a little while. He was absolutely covered in caked blood, his hair was a mess of tangles, and his metal arm kept recalibrating. He was nervous.

 

Steve closed his eyes to block the sight. What was wrong with him? Why was he drinking in the sight of a clearly worse-for-wear Bucky? Why did that in itself feel like a homecoming? He needed to snap the fuck out of it, or it’d be even harder to leave this time.

 

“Got ambushed at a gas station,” Steve said quietly, not opening his eyes. “I—“

 

Twenty-nine fucking years.

 

“You hurt someone,” Bucky said, like a too-understanding revelation.

 

Steve took a shuddering breath and opened his eyes. America was frowning at him speculatively and Bucky’s eyes were going all tragic, and Steve couldn’t deal with it.

 

He turned away, picking up his gun from the floor and putting it back in his jeans. “Hurt someone very badly,” Steve amended quietly. He didn’t look up to see their expressions. “Alright. Well. Thanks for the sweatshirt,” he said. “Thanks for listening to my—uh—warning. I gotta go. I’ll get outta your—“

 

“No,” America said.

 

Steve and Bucky both froze, turning to gape at her. “What?” Steve asked in shock.

 

“No,” America repeated simply, crossing her arms. “Look at me, viejo. Do I look like I’m fucking with you? No. Look at me.”

 

“I’m looking,” Steve snapped.

 

America raised her chin and glared at Steve hard. “You got shot. Twice.”

 

“Yes, I know, I was there.”

 

“Trunk guy is after you. They found you again after you lost them.”

 

“Yeah, again, I was there.”

 

“You’re not going back out there,” America concluded, like it was just that simple.

 

“Now, hold on,” Bucky said, and Steve tried not to glance at him, but his heart was pounding and he glanced and Bucky’s expression was completely unreadable. “You don’t get to make the rules here.”

 

“Yep, ‘cause you were just about to let this fucking idiot walk out the door again,” America said in a measured tone, her voice laced with quiet sarcasm.

 

“That’s not—“

 

“I’m not staying,” Steve cut in. “I told you when I dropped you off here. That’s not in the cards.”

 

“Well, I’m dealing out a new deck,” America said. “Look at me, Steve. I joined the Young Avengers because you fucking asked me to do it. Look at me. This is what we do for each other, and you know it.”

 

Steve did know it, but the thing was, Bucky Barnes was standing three feet away. “Look, there are just some things that I can’t do,” he explained, a little bit desperately. “I—I made a promise, okay?”

 

America scoffed. “You’re staying here so that we can keep an eye on you and make sure trunk guy doesn’t pop you in the head next time. End of discussion.”

 

“Not end of discussion, you’re not my mother.”

 

“Real rich coming from you, viejo—“

 

“I’m a grown-ass adult and I can make my own choices—“

 

“—you are fucking compromised right now—“

 

“—don’t need you to tell me how to live my fucking life—“

 

“—trying to do what’s gonna keep you alive—“

 

“—and maybe that’s the fucking problem—“

 

“You two!” Bucky shouted into the room, and both of them flinched. “Shut up for five seconds!”

 

Steve clamped his mouth shut. His fingers spasmed, and he rubbed his hand against his thigh. America put her hands on her hips, waiting.

 

Bucky took a deep breath. Steve braced himself for the rejection again. He knew it was coming. He always knew it was coming. Maybe he’d even be prepared this time.

 

But—

 

—he said—

 

“I agree with America.”

 

America made a wide, sweeping gesture that said, Told you so.

 

But Steve had turned to stare at Bucky.

 

Bucky’s expression was still unreadable, but there was a hard set to his face that bled determination. He’d made up his mind about something, and his eyes flicked to lock with Steve’s and—

 

Bucky Barnes was glaring at Steve Rogers, and Steve Rogers was sixteen years old and puking up blood in an alleyway and Bucky Barnes was glaring at him for being a dumbass and Steve Rogers was just happy that someone cared, and Steve Rogers was twenty-five years old and Bucky Barnes was glaring at him for planning another suicide mission, and Steve Rogers was ninety-seven years old and Bucky Barnes was glaring at him for saying Yes you do, and—

 

“I don’t understand,” Steve said, his voice sounding distant to his own ringing ears.

 

“We’re not letting you leave this compound,” Bucky said, his voice tense. “At the very least, not until you’re fully fucking healed from the bullet wounds, but preferably until we can get a handle on the situation with ‘trunk guy’ or whoever the fuck is after you both.”

 

Steve’s eyes widened. “You can’t fucking keep me barricaded in here.”

 

“Steve,” America said, sounding exasperated. “We are not taking away your right to fucking run.”

 

Bucky side-eyed America like he had no idea what she was talking about.

 

America pointed at Bucky without looking at him. “You literally don’t have to see him at all. It’s a big compound. Ask for his schedule or some shit. He relies on it religiously. If you don’t want to see him, you won’t.”

 

Steve’s eyes widened. America hadn’t just acknowledged the elephant in the room. She’d barreled straight into it and thrown a ceremony for the goddamn elephant, and Bucky was frozen like he’d never expected it in a million years either. “Um,” Steve said.

 

America held up a hand. “I know you two have some sort of fucking history that apparently ruins nations or something, and I really could care less that it makes you uncomfortable. Your safety takes priority over that.”

 

Steve was inclined to disagree, but he wisely kept his mouth shut.

 

“I told you,” Bucky said, and his voice was way too soft and way too familiar for Steve to be able to deal with. “You can stay here any time you want. I’ll never kick you out again.”

 

There was something underneath those words that encompassed a whole universe that Steve wasn’t willing to touch with a fifty-foot pole, lest he go completely insane.

 

“So, I’m under house arrest,” Steve said, and his voice was blank.

 

“No,” America sighed. “You’re here because I care about you, and whether or not you two want to acknowledge it, Bucky cares about you too. And neither of us are willing to see you split and do something stupid just because of an awkward situation.”

 

Bucky shot America a half-hearted glare, but he didn’t argue with anything she’d said.

 

Steve felt very, very dizzy. He closed his eyes. America grabbed his shoulders and shoved him back onto the bloodstained couch. “When’s the last time you ate?” she asked.

 

“Um,” Steve mumbled, and he could almost hear an exclamation point popping up over Bucky’s head.

 

“Pancakes!” he shouted. “I’ll—um—pancakes! I’ll be—right—back—with, um—pancakes!” Steve cracked an eye open to watch Bucky furiously bolt from the room, knocking over a lamp in his haste.

 

America and Steve exchanged glances.

 

“Why are you both like this?” America asked despairingly, but Steve was 82% sure that it was a rhetorical question, so he didn’t respond.

 

Steve let his head drop back onto the couch, his eyes sliding shut again as the world spun. “How much do you know?” he mumbled.

 

“About you and Bucky?” Steve nodded slightly, regretting it when nausea burbled up. “Not enough.”

 

Steve let out a shaky breath. “You deserve to know. I just can’t talk about it.”

 

America punched Steve in the arm. “Talk to him about it before you talk to me about it.”

 

Steve laughed breathlessly. “Alright, you’ll just have to wait another several centuries.”

 

“Don’t be an ass.”

 

“Too late.”

 

America sighed. “How’d they even get the jump on you?”

 

“I told you. Ambushed.”

 

“You’re too paranoid to get ambushed.”

 

Fuck, she was right. Steve shrugged. America jabbed him in the side. “Fine,” he grumbled. “I let it happen.”

 

“Yeah, but why?”

 

Steve rubbed his forehead. “I don’t wanna talk about it.”

 

The truth was, Steve had seen it as a way to just naturally let things end, but then he’d realized that America was in danger and had thought, Fuck that.

 

And now America was narrowing her eyes at him like she could see straight down to his soul. Steve forced himself to not so much as twitch.

 

“Hm,” she finally said, and Steve relaxed fractionally.

 

Bucky bustled into the room with a stack of pancakes as big as Steve’s head. Steve felt a little overwhelmed. He hadn’t eaten that much in... a while.

 

Bucky thrust the plate into Steve’s general direction, and when Steve just blinked at it, America took it with an aggrieved sigh and pushed it into Steve’s hands.

 

“Thanks,” Steve whispered, his throat dry.

 

“Ah. No problem,” Bucky whispered back anxiously.

 

Steve took a bite of the pancakes and instantly forgot about everything that had happened in the past century. “Oh my god,” he moaned, his eyes fluttering shut. “Oh my god.”

 

“Good?” Bucky asked, sounding a little bit breathless.

 

“Jesus fuck, you’ve been holdin’ out on me, Buck, when’d you lean to cook?” Steve demanded before remembering the past century and swallowing, looking at Bucky to gauge his reaction.

 

Bucky’s eyes had gone all soft and tragic. “Just a couple’a years ago. Sam complains too when he visits.”

 

“Fuck,” Steve sighed, returning to the pancakes.

 

“I’ll stay outta your way, then,” Bucky said quietly. He looked at America. “Keep him safe, you hear me?”

 

America saluted Bucky by way of answer.

 

“Rest up, pal,” Bucky said to Steve before shoving his hands into his pockets and exiting the room much more slowly now.

 

Steve closed his eyes.

 

Fuck.

 


 

 

Steve slept.

 

America led him to an empty room, and he pitched forward onto the bed without taking off his shoes and slept for four hours.

 

When he woke up, he blearily stumbled into the bathroom, took a military-efficient shower, and slid under the covers and slept for six hours.

 

The next time he woke up, he brushed his teeth three times and started to feel more like a person, despite his groggy brain.

 

He hid in the closet in only his boxers and slowly dialed the number Natasha had given him for emergencies.

 

“Steve,” Natasha said before the first ring had even ended.

 

Steve felt himself go boneless with the relief of hearing her voice. “Hey, Nat.”

 

“What’s wrong?”

 

Steve sighed. “I dunno where to start. Nothing—urgent—I guess. Sorry. I shouldn’t’ve called. I should’ve just waited a few weeks ‘til Nova Scotia. I’m sorry—“

 

“Shut up,” Natasha said fondly, her voice softening into something more relaxed. “Tell me what’s going on.”

 

“Well,” Steve said tentatively. “You know how Bucky started training kids in upstate New York?”

 

“Yes?”

 

“I’m hiding in one of his closets.”

 

There was a pause.

 

Then,

 

“Explain.”

 

So, Steve explained everything starting with America falling on his car, not even bothering to leave out his failed suicide attempt. Natasha needed the full picture here to get what was going on, and she understood. She fucking understood him.

 

When he was done, the quiet stretched out between them.

 

“Yikes,” Natasha finally said. “I’m so glad Nova Scotia is only a few weeks away. You need a fucking hug.”

 

“I love you,” Steve sighed.

 

“Me too, Steve. What are you gonna say to Bucky?”

 

“Nothing. I’m gonna hide.”

 

“That sounds like it won’t backfire in any way ever,” Natasha noted sarcastically.

 

“Just let me live, Nat,” Steve grumbled.

 

“No. You two need to have a fucking adult conversation.”

 

“Yeah, duh, but that is also literally the last thing I ever want to do in my entire life.”

 

“Do it.”

 

“Make me.”

 

“Don’t test me, Rogers, I so fucking will.”

 

Steve shook his head even though she couldn’t see him.

 

Natasha’s voice went low. “I think this might be a good thing for you. You haven’t had a stable location since... Iceland. That was, what, fifteen years ago? Give or take?”

 

“Give or take,” Steve confirmed.

 

“Rest for a while. Let someone else protect you for once.”

 

Steve closed his eyes. “It’s not that simple.”

 

“Trust me, I know.”

 

“I know you know.” Steve shook his head again. “He told me he never wanted to see me again,” he whispered in a small voice. “And now he’s acting like—like he missed me.”

 

“He did. I swear, you two need to exchange some words.”

 

“Nat.”

 

“Steve.”

 

Steve let out a breath. “Let’s just stay in Nova Scotia for a while. We’ll get an apartment. Do laundry together. Get a dog.”

 

Natasha laughed, and Steve smiled. “I want a cat.”

 

“Alright. Cat works.”

 

“You can be a fireman or something. I’ll still be a spy.”

 

“Wouldn’t expect anything less.”

 

“God, I miss you,” Natasha said.

 

“Me too.”

 

“Why are we both so... migratory?”

 

“We’re runners,” Steve said simply.

 

Natasha paused. “We are, aren’t we?”

 

“Yep.”

 

“Go get something to eat. I can hear your metabolism from Spain.”

 

Steve snorted. “But I may run into people.”

 

“Suck it up.”

 

“That’s what she said.”

 

“Fuck off.”

 

“That’s what—“

 

The line disconnected.

 

Steve smiled at his phone for a minute before reality set back in.

 

He was hungry.

 

People were probably... around.

 

The only clean piece of clothing he had was his sunglasses.

 

And everything was awful.

 

Starve to death, Steve’s brain suggested helpfully. Leave me alone, Steve responded grumpily. Starve to death, Steve’s brain began to chant, STARVE TO DEATH!! STARVE TO DEATH!!! Steve buried his face in his knees.

 

“Ugh,” Steve said and pulled on the sweatshirt that only had a little bit of blood on it and the jeans that definitely had a lot of blood on them.

 

He’d run out to the van for clean clothes on his way back from food.

 

Steve entered the kitchen, and all the tension drained from his shoulders when no one was in there.

 

He opened all the cabinets until he found the pantry and started chewing on a granola bar as he looked for something more substantial.

 

“Who’re you?” someone asked warily, and Steve whipped around, holding out a can of peas like a weapon.

 

The guy just arched an eyebrow judgmentally.

 

“I’m... Steve,” Steve said quietly, slowly lowering the can of peas.

 

“And what exactly are you doing here?”

 

“I’m—I’m a friend of America.”

 

“Yeah, I know you’re the guy that brought her here, otherwise I’d be asking questions later.” The guy rolled his eyes like he thought Steve was an idiot.

 

Steve nodded at the kid, instantly respecting him. “She and Bucky put me under house arrest.”

 

“Why?”

 

Steve shrugged. “Some people want me dead or captured or something.”

 

“So, naturally, they’re bringing the threat here.”

 

“That’s exactly what I tried to say,” Steve sighed. “They insisted.”

 

“Idiots,” the guy said, shaking his hand. “Protective idiots. I’m David.”

 

Steve nodded. “Will anybody else be coming in here?”

 

David shrugged contemplatively. “I doubt it. Bucky’s Skyping with Kamala and Billy and Teddy are probably making out somewhere and America and Kate and Loki are watching Friends.”

 

Steve awkwardly put the can of peas back in the pantry and looked at David. “And what’re you doing?”

 

“Getting a snack,” David said wryly. “As one generally does in the kitchen.”

 

Steve cracked a smile and pulled out a packet of egg noodles he’d seen earlier. “I know how to make exactly one thing, and I haven’t done it in over a century.”

 

David blinked once, and then huffed a laugh. “Is that your way of offering to make me this questionable thing?”

 

“Yep,” Steve said with a curt nod. “It’s called kugel. Bucky’s grandma taught us how to make it. Bucky sucked, but I managed it pretty decently.”

 

“You knew Bucky’s grandma?” David asked with interest.

 

Steve paused and swallowed roughly. “Yeah, we grew up together.”

 

“Huh.”

 

Steve busied himself with setting up the kugel, trying to remember the steps. “You look confused,” he observed after a few moments of David watching him with an unusual level of concentration from the counter.

 

David blinked a few times. “Sorry. I’m being rude. I just—I used to be an X-Men. I knew... everything, basically. But I have no idea who you are.”

 

Steve felt weirdly proud. He squared his shoulders. “Tell you what,” he said, and David leaned forward on his elbows in interest. “I’ll tell you who I used to be eventually if you can make sure Bucky is never in the kitchen at—“ he glanced at the clock, “—nine-thirty.”

 

“Deal,” David said easily, smiling smugly like he thought he’d gotten a much better end of the deal.

 

The kugel took longer than Steve remembered, but when it was finished, he and David took wary bites at the same time before blinking at each other in relief that it wasn’t gross.

 

“Not awful,” David said.

 

“Thanks.”

 

Steve’s phone buzzed.

 

AMERICA: We’re gonna watch a documentary about the Sokovia Accords are you sure you don’t want to join

 

Steve rolled his eyes.

 

STEVE: Asshole.

 

AMERICA: [peace sign emoji] [American flag emoji]

 

Steve and David finished the kugel, and David straightened. “Thanks for the decent food,” he said, eyes twinkling. “I’ll see you around.”

 

“See you,” Steve said, and then turned for the door.

 

He went outside and rummaged through the van for his duffel.

 

As he was throwing it over his shoulder and closing the door of the van, he heard a soft, “Oh.”

 

Bucky was hovering by the door. “Sorry. I heard the door open. I just...”

 

“It’s okay,” Steve said quietly. “I just... clothes.”

 

“Right,” Bucky said, glancing down at his own outfit, which was distinctly less bloodstained.

 

So much for hiding.

 

“Listen,” Bucky said as Steve approached, shifting his weight nervously. “Can I talk to you for a second?”

 

Steve stopped a few feet in front of Bucky, feeling so much taller for some reason. He didn’t understand anything that was happening between them, and he didn’t know if he wanted to, but Bucky was trying to keep the tentative hope out of his eyes, and he’d never been able to deny Bucky anything in his life. “I—“ His fingers spasmed. “Sure.”

 

Bucky’s face dropped into abject surprise before he smoothed it over. “Okay,” he said, looking like he was psyching himself up. “I have wanted to say this to you for twenty-five years, okay? So just—listen? Please?”

 

Steve blinked. Where the fuck did this emotional articulation come from? This was not Bucky “I don’t wanna talk about it” Barnes. He frowned. “Uh. Sure.”

 

Bucky waved his hands around speechlessly for a moment. “It’s like—“ He waved his hands around some more. “You know?”

 

“Um,” Steve said.

 

Bucky let out a frustrated breath. “Okay. Right. Okay.” He squared his shoulders and set his jaw. “I should have never sent you away, and I miss you. More than anything.”

 

Steve blinked again. “I don’t understand.”

 

Bucky looked at Steve searchingly. “I fucked up, okay? I thought I was doing the right thing, but I don’t think I did. I just... hurt us both in the end. And I miss you. And I hope you stay. Of your own free will. Because. I miss you.”

 

Steve’s brain was pure, blissful static. “I—“

 

“Right! Well! I said what I wanted to say! You don’t want to look at me! I won’t hold you up anymore.”

 

Steve stared at Bucky, his eyes roving over his features like he was seeing him for the first time in a century. “You ‘fucked up’?” he echoed numbly.

 

“Yes. Very much so,” Bucky agreed curtly.

 

Steve narrowed his eyes, funneling the static in his mind into the only thing he knew how to use. “You fucked up,” he said again, his tone hard.

 

“Yeah,” Bucky said miserably, voice cracking.

 

“That’s your fucking explanation for completely backtracking on not wanting to see me?” Steve demanded, suddenly very fucking furious. “Unbelievable. Fuck you. ‘I fucked up,’ he says. Now everything can go back to normal, huh?” His voice tasted like acid on his tongue.

 

Bucky flinched. “No, I can—“

 

Steve shook his head. “Bucky, I’m confused as fuck and very fucking tired. Can I just—“

 

“You deserve a massive explanation,” Bucky said hurriedly. “A fucking debriefing with power point slides and notecards and shit.”

 

Steve was briefly deterred from his anger by that imagery. He almost cracked a smile. Almost.

 

“Please, just. Let me explain?”

 

Steve rubbed his eyes. “Tomorrow,” he conceded reluctantly, because for some dumbass reason, he still couldn’t deny Bucky Barnes. “I expect a power point.” And with that, he breezed into the facility and made a fucking break for his room.

 

He forced himself to think.

 

If Bucky had just “fucked up,” Steve had lost thirty-two years.

 

No. That wasn’t right. Those years had been conducive. Steve had abandoned the suffocating uniform and had become his own person. He wasn’t a weapon anymore because of those three damn decades. Maybe he should be thanking Bucky.

 

Except... he could’ve become a person if Bucky had been with him too. He was sure of it.

 

Steve felt cheated of a million different choices. He imagined a life where Bucky had wanted him to stay. He tried to imagine patching things up with the Avengers and maybe settling down to marry Sharon Carter, since that seemed like the thing to do at the time, but he couldn’t. That wasn’t a happy ending. That wasn’t... that wasn’t anything.

 

He imagined a life where Bucky had said he’d be able to live with Steve in his life eventually. He imagined having biweekly phone calls. He imagined tentative meet-ups. He imagined them collapsing into a hug one day and buying a house and getting a dog in oblivion. He felt robbed.

 

He imagined a life where Bucky said, “Let’s run away.” He imagined every place he’d been in the last thirty-two years, trying to insert Bucky into the equation. He tried to imagine not feeling so fucking alone. He couldn’t. He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t remember how that felt.

 

A thousand alternate timelines bled before him, and Steve thought of his fucking luck, and he thought of Bucky’s, “I fucked up,” and he thought that life was pretty shitty.

 

Steve buried his face in his pillow and pretended that he was going to get some sleep tonight.

 


 

 

There was a power point.

 

Steve had taken approximately one step out of his room that morning, and America had materialized out of thin air to tow him down the halls and into a room. She’d wordlessly shoved him inside.

 

And Bucky stood at the front of the room with a long conference table, an actual power point behind him.

 

Something in Steve wobbled at the sight.

 

“There’s a power point,” Steve heard himself say, as if from a great distance.

 

“You said you wanted one,” Bucky mumbled. He glanced between Steve and the screen. “I can get rid of it. If—Do you—do you not want the power point? Because there doesn’t need to be a power point.”

 

Steve blinked and stayed silent for a beat too long. “No. The power point is—it’s fine.”

 

“Right,” Bucky said, nodding a few times very rapidly. “Uh. There are pancakes too,” Bucky said quietly, gesturing to the plate at the head of the table.

 

Steve sat down slowly and picked up the fork.

 

And Bucky began, looking like he hadn’t slept at all. “Look, I don’t expect you to forgive me at all. I don’t deserve things being able to go back to normal. I just want you to know. I don’t want you to have to be so confused, because I was really confused for a long time, and I’d never wish it on you.”

 

Steve chewed on his pancakes and kept his face blank.

 

Bucky clicked the power point to a slide titled ORIGIN STORY: THE POTOMAC complete with a picture of the Insight crash over the Potomac.

 

Bucky cleared his throat.

 

“So, I was obviously in a really bad place after the Potomac. I thought I was poison. I—I thought I was your poison, actually. I thought nothing good could ever be associated with me, so I ran away. Away from you, specifically. Because I didn’t want to corrupt your goodness or whatever.”

 

Steve smiled dryly at Bucky, and Bucky rolled his eyes. “Now that I say it out loud, it sounds dumb, but you were the only good thing in my head. So. Bucharest. Avoiding you. Living life. Recovering from being a brainwashed amnesiac. It was going great until you showed up.”

 

Bucky changed the slide. CIVIL WAR, it was titled, and it had a picture of Bucky’s Most Wanted ad. “And I went along with you because what else was I supposed to do? And I missed you, so. It wasn’t like it was a chore to be with you again. But that didn’t change the fact that I was still really fucked up in the head, and I still thought I was poison.”

 

New slide: THE FUCKING-UP POINT. Did not have a picture. Just massive text. Bucky was terrible at power points. “So I thought that I could save you from me. But I remembered enough, and I knew you, so I knew exactly the right thing to say to make sure you never came near me again. And it worked, even though I kinda half-believed it wouldn’t.”

 

STAGES OF DENIAL was the next slide, which had a bulleted list that Steve read quickly.

  • Not thinking about it
  • Obsessively thinking about it
  • Justifying yourself
  • Hating yourself
  • Lots of crying, to be totally honest

 

Steve shoveled some more pancakes into his mouth.

 

“I was in denial,” Bucky said, “for, like, sixteen-ish years, I believe. I thought I’d done the right thing. I thought you were better off without me. If I didn’t know that you were doing badly, I couldn’t have done anything wrong. You were probably fine. You were probably better. You had probably retired and had a family and a pet fish and stuff.”

 

Steve raised his eyebrows. “I know,” Bucky said, grimacing. “I know.”

 

He switched the slide.

 

“I FUCKED UP!”

  • Fuck-up: noun; one who has committed a grave error that has probably ruined lives and toppled empires; see also: Bucky Barnes
  • “I fucked up”: a simplistic statement that inadequately conveys deep regret and willingness to make up for a terrible mistake

 

Steve forced himself not to say anything.

 

Bucky’s face had crumpled into that tragic expression again. “When I said that I fucked up, I meant that I didn’t have any right to try and force you to live your life the way I thought was best. I thought you were too compromised to make that decision, but I was too compromised to see that I couldn’t. I had no right to send you away. And, I guess rationally, I know I’m not poison. At least, I know I wouldn’t have been the most deadly poison for you. Not then, and not now. My head was a mess. I’ve grown as a person. I can take the blame for thirty-two fuckin’ awful years. So, um, in conclusion, I’ve missed you like someone ripped out my heart—which, yeah, me, I did that, go figure—and I hope you can stay here without thinking you’re going against a promise or something. Because I rescind my end of the promise, so it’s invalid now. Yeah. Sorry. I’m so—I’m so fucking sorry, Steve, I’m sorry.”

 

Steve put down his fork.

 

He stared at Bucky for a long moment.

 

Bucky shifted uncomfortably.

 

“Thank you for explaining,” Steve finally said. “You’re fuckin’ awful at power points.”

 

Bucky collapsed into the nearest chair in relief, looking like he wanted to cry. “I’m bad at public speaking too. Just FYI. The things I do for you, Rogers, I swear.”

 

Steve felt like too much of a live wire to try to go comfort Bucky. He looked down at the table and tried to think about Bucky’s explanation.

 

“We can’t go back to normal,” he finally said.

 

There was too much to think about. Fuck.

 

“Right,” Bucky said hastily. “I get it. I totally understand.”

 

“I also can’t let you take all the blame here.”

 

“What?” Bucky said, startled. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

 

“I ran,” Steve said. “I made myself completely inaccessible.”

 

“But I asked you to do it.”

 

“No. I did that on my own. All you said was that you didn’t want to see me again. I could’ve still visited Wakanda. Hell, I could’ve still lived there. I just wouldn’t. I was done, and I would’ve run whether you were a dick or not.”

 

Bucky was startled into a little hysterical laugh. He shook his head. “I could never blame you for this shitshow.”

 

“You don’t deserve all the blame either,” Steve said quietly. “But I am very upset with you.”

 

“You are being weirdly calm about it,” Bucky observed warily.

 

Steve shrugged. “I think I’m dissociating.”

 

Bucky looked miserable. “I’m the worst person to ever exist,” he said forcefully, letting his forehead thunk onto the table.

 

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Steve said, and he did feel very far away from the conference room. “You know what I thought? All these years? You know why I thought you did it?”

 

“Why?” Bucky whispered, looking up with shiny eyes.

 

Steve tried to establish more connection between his brain and his body, but no dice. “I thought you wanted a fresh start. I thought you wanted to be able to determine your own destiny without me holding you back. I thought you wanted to force us to break from the fucking codependency thing.”

 

“See, that’s too rational, I would not have thought of it in a million years,” Bucky said, pointing. “I just wanted to protect you. Didn’t have the right. I’m fucking sorry.”

 

Steve stared blankly at the table, lifting a shoulder. “No use changing the past,” he said quietly. It was a realization he’d come to last night in exhausted resignation. No use.

 

“I guess.”

 

Steve let his head fall back onto the chair. Bucky buried his face in his elbow, and they didn’t say anything, didn’t move, for a long time.

 

 


 

 

Steve was Very Upset.

 

Naturally, he’d stalked into the woods behind the facility with an axe and some feelings to bury.

 

He didn’t like chopping wood because of Global Climate Change. But yesterday, David had said there was a cavern somewhere, and Steve figured he could spend some time ripping apart boulders or something.

 

Constructive violence. AKA physical labor. It worked pretty well for Steve. At least, it had for a couple’a decades there.

 

He felt like Bucky’s power point had literally run him through with a sword, and now Steve was walking around with this blade stuck in his chest and cutting at his lungs.

 

Bucky. Poison. For Steve. Funny.

 

So funny! Haha! Hahahaha! Hah! Ha!

 

Steve ripped apart his first boulder. The rocks cut into his palms, but he didn’t really care.

 

Steve had been good at 180° turns. He was suddenly 6’2”? Cool. Bucky was dead? Fine, he’d join him. He was seventy years in the future? Okay, let him know how to work a tablet. Aliens? Right—punch ‘em. Shield is Hydra? Burn it all down. Bucky wanted Steve gone? Fine.

 

What Steve was terrible at was 360° turns. He tried to imagine turning small again. Tried to imagine waking up in the 40s. Tried to imagine aliens pulling off masks to show human faces. Tried to imagine Hydra saying, “haha jk we were Shield the whole time psych.”

 

Bucky hadn’t died. That was his first 360°. He’d dealt with that pretty poorly.

 

Bucky changed his mind on wanting him gone. Steve’s second 360°. And it felt almost as ridiculous as Hydra throwing up finger guns and saying, “Whoops.”

 

(Oh, god, that’d been a tasteless comparison, holy shit, he really deserved every bad thing that had happened to him. Steve banged his head against a stalactite a few times as some form of penance.)

 

A few hours later, Steve lay on the ground of the cavern, starfished out. He stared blankly at the cavern’s ceiling, and he wanted to just go back to 0°.

 

The thing was, he was a weak piece of shit when it came to Bucky Barnes, so he knew he’d end up forgiving him wholeheartedly within the week or some shit. Because he couldn’t look at Bucky’s tragic expression with the knowledge that he put it there. He was weak like that, but he’d never been able to care a whole awful lot.

 

The thing was, Bucky actually had no idea what he’d asked for when he’d asked for Steve to stay. Absolutely no idea. Unlike Bucky, Steve hadn’t become a well-adjusted adult with PTSD firmly under control. Exhibit A: Breaking rocks for emotional purging.

 

But Bucky made pancakes. Bucky cooked in general. Bucky took regular showers and trained his team and had a schedule and a life.

 

Whereas Steve’s life consisted of physical labor and wanting to shoot himself in the head.

 

The thing was, they’d never even gotten to know each other after that first seventy-year gap. Steve had predictions on how Bucky’d changed, but they didn’t get to know each other. Bucky didn’t know who Steve Rogers, Captain of the Avengers was. Bucky knew Steve, and Bucky knew Captain Rogers. Never really Captain America.

 

And Steve never knew the Winter Soldier. Not really. They’d had—what—a week? Less than that? Much of which included brainwashed chunks of time.

 

And now here they were again, and they were strangers. Steve didn’t know how Bucky took his coffee, or if Bucky even liked coffee anymore. Steve didn’t know if Bucky liked to sleep on the right or left side of the bed. Steve didn’t know how Bucky calmed down from a panic attack.

 

And Bucky didn’t know that about Steve either. Bucky didn’t know Steve as a veteran. He knew Steve as an angry kid and an angry Captain, but never as the tired goddamn veteran who had never quite been able to calm down from his first panic attack.

 

It was sure as hell a Situation.

 

Sounded like a great problem for future Steve.

 

“Holy shit!” a voice said, and Steve scrambled to his feet, lifting a sharp rock. “Why are you in my cave?”

 

“It’s a cavern, actually,” Steve said because he was an idiot.

 

“Listen, I looked this up! Caverns are a subcategory of caves! It’s a fucking cave!”

 

Steve stared at the vague silhouette. “Caverns are—“

 

“I know the difference! I looked it up! What the fuck are you doing here? Who are you?”

 

“Steve,” Steve said.

 

“What?”

 

“Steve!” Steve called, louder.

 

“Why are you in my cave?”

 

Steve threw out his arms. “I’m punching rocks!”

 

“That’s crazy,” the voice said, and the silhouette dropped down from the steep entrance to the cavern. “Why would you do that? That’s so dumb.”

 

Steve shrugged. “It seemed like a decent idea at the time.”

 

“You’re wrecking my cave.”

 

“You don’t own the cavern.”

 

“Look, this is my safe spot. You can’t have it. I found it first.”

 

“Fine,” Steve grumbled. “Suit yourself.”

 

“You’re America’s friend, right?” the person asked after a pause. “You have authority to be here?”

 

“Just a tip,” Steve said dryly. “When trying to authorize me, don’t give me the information that’d give me the authority to be here. I am America’s friend, though.”

 

“I’m Kate. Kate Bishop,” the person said, ignoring his advice.

 

“Hi,” Steve said.

 

Kate’s shadow shifted. It was hella fucking dark down here. “Rocks?” she asked.

 

“Breaking rocks isn’t as shitty as cutting down trees,” Steve said, like that justification made any sense.

 

“...Right.”

 

“I’ll get outta your hair. Sorry.”

 

“Nah, you don’t have to go.”

 

“Safe spot. I get it,” Steve said easily. And he did. It was near impossible to let go of a safe spot or even let someone else have it.

 

“Thanks,” Kate said quietly.

 

“No problem.”

 

Steve climbed out of the cavern. He blinked the bright out of his eyes.

 

“You got bloodstains on our couch, you know,” Kate called after him, clambering out of the cavern.

 

Steve turned.

 

In the light, the girl looked terrible. Just kind of all-around miserable. She shoved her hands into the pockets of her purple hoodie and shifted her weight, not bothering to turn the bruised side of her face away form Steve.

 

“Are you okay?” he asked automatically.

 

“What?” Kate asked, tucking a strand of loose hair behind her ear. “I’m fine. You’re the one who got blood on our couch.” She eyed him critically. “America told us not to talk to you.”

 

“Did she?” Steve mused dryly.

 

“Yeah. Said she’d beat us up if we messed with you.”

 

Steve couldn’t help the little smile. “Aw.”

 

“Very sweet,” Kate agreed sarcastically. “I just figured that you should know that we all know you’re somewhere around here, and we’ll all probably only freak out a little bit the first time we see you. ‘Cause I have it on good authority that you haven’t met, like, half of the Young Avengers.”

 

“Thanks,” Steve said.

 

Kate nodded. “Thought you should know. I think your beard looks stupid. I’ll be in my cave if you need me.”

 

Steve watched her disappear back underground.

 

He scratched his cheek.

 

Right.

 

 


 

 

When America barged into his room that evening, she stopped in her tracks and stared at him.

 

“You shaved,” she said in an odd tone.

 

Steve rubbed his weirdly smooth face. “I—yeah.”

 

“Are you trying to impress Bucky?” she asked suspiciously.

 

Steve cringed. “No?”

 

America fell back onto Steve’s bed. “I hate you.”

 

Steve paced in front of the bed. “It’s not my fault.”

 

“Never said it was your fault.”

 

“I’ve had scruff for a while,” Steve said defensively. “Figured it was time to switch it up.”

 

“And remind Bucky of what you used to look like. You gonna go blonde, Steve?” America asked, glaring.

 

“No,” Steve said, scowling.

 

America nodded. “Fine. Whatever. I trust you. Asshole.”

 

“Suit yourself,” Steve muttered. “I met Kate Bishop the other day.”

 

America sat up straight, suddenly very attentive. “What’d she say to you?”

 

“Not much,” Steve said, shrugging. “She had...” He touched the side of his face, remembering the bruises.

 

America let out a deep sigh. “Teddy hit her when we played Capture the Flag.”

 

“Is she okay?”

 

“She doesn’t like losing,” America said, and that was the end of it. There was a furrow between her brows, though.

 

“You’re worried.”

 

“No.”

 

“Yes, you are.”

 

“Drop it.”

 

Steve held up his hands.

 

America fell back onto the bed, frowning at the ceiling. “We’re all going shopping tomorrow. You should come.”

 

“Why?” Steve asked warily.

 

“Because you have—like—two outfits. And Bucky will buy you an entirely pink wardrobe if you don’t come with us.”

 

Well, when she put it like that... “Fine.”

 

“Loki never comes shopping,” America went on. “But you’ll meet Billy and Teddy. They’re—you may like them.”

 

“Alright,” Steve said.

 

“Wanna watch a documentary about glaciers?” America asked.

 

“Yes,” Steve sighed, climbing onto the bed to sit on the pillows. America flashed him a smile and flicked on the TV.

 

 


 

 

He called Sam for his check-in before the shopping thing.

 

“What the fuck, dude,” Sam said immediately.

 

“Hi,” Steve said.

 

“That’s all I get?” Sam deadpanned. “’Hi’?”

 

“Yep.”

 

“WHAT THE FUCK, DUDE.”

 

“Did you know Bucky can cook?” Steve blurted out.

 

“Fuck. Dude. Yes, I—“

 

“And he’s shitty with power points. And I’m really fucking upset, but I also feel like this is all I ever wanted, and I shouldn’t be upset about it. I assume you know. Knew. I don’t know. I feel weird.”

 

“I’m so sorry,” Sam said guiltily. “I would’ve told you to haul ass back to Wakanda the second Bucky realized he—you know—fucked up. But. I knew that was the last thing you could believe.”

 

“Still is,” Steve admitted. “I suck at 360°.”

 

“I dunno what that means.”

 

“Never mind,” Steve sighed. “But Bucky—he has, like, a life. And he has it together. And I really don’t.”

 

“Bucky worked really hard to get to be where he is today,” Sam said after a pause. “But he’s never gonna be normal, dude.”

 

“Well, yeah,” Steve said, frustrated. “But I’m a massive mess. I can’t just—let myself into his life, which he finally has under his control.”

 

“Dude...”

 

“He doesn’t even know,” Steve said, “the half of it. Looks so guilty every time he sees me ‘cause he thinks he had a hand in me being a mess, but he doesn’t even know the half of it. Nobody does.”

 

“Let him be the judge of how much of a mess he sees you as,” Sam said, his voice measured.

 

“Sure,” Steve said dully, thinking about rooftops and saliva on his gun. “How’re you? How’s Wakanda?”

 

“Excellent,” Sam said softly. “Beautiful. Best life ever.”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Yeah, man. I run fundraisers and donate billions of dollars to people who need it. I got the best fucking sugar daddy—“ Steve choked on a little laugh, “—in the entire world. I got friends and support. I’m great. But I’m worried about my two besties in upstate New York.”

 

Steve rubbed his forehead. “I’m going shopping today.”

 

“Great.”

 

“I’ve had four conversations with Bucky.”

 

Great. Make it five today, okay?”

 

Steve closed his eyes. “Okay.”

 


 

 

Steve walked into the kitchen, and two guys sat by the counter, talking to each other quietly, but they both froze when they saw Steve.

 

“America’s friend?” the taller guy finally asked.

 

Steve nodded. “I got invited to shopping.”

 

“Bucky’s gonna flip his dick,” the shorter guy said, and Steve choked on his next breath while the taller guy snorted. “Billy,” he said to Steve with a nod.

 

“Teddy,” the taller guy said.

 

“Steve,” Steve said.

 

“Who’s ready for shopping?” Bucky sang as he practically floated into the kitchen. He faltered when he saw Steve, the smile freezing on his face. “Oh. Hi.”

 

“Hi,” Steve whispered.

 

They stared at each other for a minute.

 

“There’s too much sexual tension in this room,” Kate declared without so much as glancing at them as she swept through the door. Steve jerked his head in her direction.

 

“That’s homophobic,” Teddy said without any heat whatsoever.

 

“What? Why?”

 

“I’m gay and offended.”

 

Billy laughed. “Aren’t we all?”

 

“I’m straight,” Kate said.

 

“Honey,” Billy said, his tone soft and kinda teasingly condescending.

 

America entered the room like his fucking guardian angel, and she grabbed a slice of bread. “What happened?” she asked distractedly.

 

“We’re all gay and offended,” Teddy supplied.

 

“I’m—“ Kate started, but then her eyes darted to America, and she faltered.

 

Steve’s eyebrows shot up.

 

“Cool,” America said, smirking. “Can we change Young Avengers to Gay and Offended Squad?”

 

“No,” Bucky said while Billy and Teddy cheered.

 

“Why?” Teddy asked with a pout.

 

Bucky shrugged. “Some of us are bi.”

 

Steve needed to go lie down. Possibly for another century.

 

“Straight!” Kate shouted, and then cringed dramatically. “I mean—“

 

“Right,” America said, a line appearing on her forehead. “Doesn’t work then. Young Avengers it is.”

 

Steve looked at America, and the humor had melted from her expression, and his eyebrows shot up even higher.

 

This was great.

 

He elbowed America, and America elbowed him back roughly, and Steve just grinned at her. “Shaddup,” she grumbled, low enough that only he could hear. “Stop being perceptive. Stop.”

 

“I didn’t say anything.”

 

“Are we ready?” Bucky asked. “I wanna get back before Loki decides to run away again.”

 

“Yep.”

 

Bucky had a mom van.

 

Steve stared at it as everyone clambered into the backseat, and his lips twitched despite himself.

 

Bucky poked his head into the passenger’s side of the car, a shy, hesitant smile playing on his lips. “You coming?”

 

Steve bit his lip and climbed into the car.

 

He glanced back, and America made challenging eye contact with him as she buckled her seatbelt with a lot more sass than necessary. Steve laughed under his breath.

 

Bucky glanced at him, looking delighted, and said, “What music?” as he started the car.

 

A ten-minute argument ensued, and Steve let the noise wash over him and realized that he wasn’t in the driver’s seat for the first time in decades.

 

How ‘bout that.

 

Steve didn’t know what he’d expected once they got to the mall, but it was not for Bucky to turn in his seat and say, “You know the drill. Buy shit, and meet us in the food court at noon.”

 

Steve stepped out of the car and watched Billy grab Teddy’s wrist and pull him along without a backwards glance. America glanced between Bucky and Steve with a furrow in her brow, but then Kate said something to her about sneakers, and America turned to argue about converse, and Kate challenged America to some sort of shopping game, and they shook hands, and Steve and Bucky were left alone.

 

America Chavez was a traitor.

 

Bucky sent him a nervous look. “You don’t have to shop with me. I usually go alone anyway.”

 

Steve shoved his hands into his pockets, feeling the tremors going through his fingers. “It’s okay.”

 

Bucky ducked his head to hide his expression, his hair falling into his face.

 

Steve had never felt so tentative around Bucky. It was kind of... nice... in a weird way. It felt like everything they’d never been. They’d never had a choice, but now it felt like every second was a choice, and it made Steve feel something like safety.

 

Steve followed Bucky into a candle shop that made him feel dizzy every time he took a breath, but Bucky seemed unaffected as he grabbed a candle and paid for it.

 

Steve watched him interact with the cashier. Bucky was relaxed, and he flashed easy smiles as he paid, and Steve felt like he’d been left behind a long time ago.

 

They went into an athletics store, and Bucky contemplated the price of a little trampoline, and Steve wandered down the aisles and stopped in his tracks at a rack of Frisbees.

 

One looked like the shield.

 

Steve knew he must’ve zoned out, because the next thing he knew, there was a hard hand on his shoulder and a voice low in his ear. “You okay?”

 

Steve cleared his throat. “Did you get the trampoline.”

 

Bucky watched him for a moment, a frown pulling at his mouth. “Yeah,” he finally said.

 

Steve nodded, and his hand shook when he ran it through his hair. “Alright.”

 

Bucky telegraphed his movements as he reached out and circled his fingers around Steve’s wrist, and Steve let him do it. “C’mon.”

 

He dragged Steve into a store with a bunch of shirts and pants and stuff and turned to Steve firmly. “What’s something that he would never wear?”

 

Steve knew he was referring to Captain America. He swallowed. His eyes drifted over the store, and he looked back to Bucky.

 

“Helped me a lot,” Bucky explained, and he gestured to his outfit, which encompassed bright orange track pants and a pink V-neck that didn’t match at all, put together with sunglasses shaped like hearts perched on his head. “Winter Soldier doesn’t do bright.”

 

Steve smiled a little bit, but it was a sad expression. “I dunno.”

 

“Just try.”

 

So Steve sent Bucky a doubtful look but still grabbed a shirt that said IT IS GREAT TO BE WHITE with a great white shark on it and thrust it in Bucky’s direction with a blank expression.

 

Bucky had to prop himself up against the nearest rack of pants to avoid collapsing from laughter. “Not really what I meant.”

 

“I know,” Steve said wryly, putting the shirt back with a wrinkled nose of distaste.

 

“Something Shield would’ve never let you wear,” Bucky prompted.

 

Steve sent Bucky a look for even referencing Shield and crossed his arms. “They didn’t control my outfits.”

 

“You know what I meant.”

 

Steve sighed. “Fine,” he grumbled irritably and grabbed a fishnet tank top that surely wouldn’t fit him in a million years.

 

Bucky looked at it and raised an eyebrow at Steve. “This is what you want?” he asked judgmentally.

 

“Well, now it is.”

 

Steve thought he saw something flash through Bucky’s eyes, but he was feeling too smug about himself to really notice. “Fine. I’ll buy it.”

 

“I got money.”

 

“It’s a gift.”

 

Steve shook his head. “Nope. I got it.”

 

Bucky shook his head and trailed after Steve to the register.

 

The cashier barely batted an eye at the shirt, and Steve happily paid for it with a few crumpled bills while Bucky glared at Steve’s little bag moodily.

 

“Happy now?” he asked as they exited the store.

 

“Super,” Steve agreed, and it occurred to him that this had been Bucky’s goal in the first place, and he cleared his throat. “Where next?”

 

“I need some new obnoxious scarves,” Bucky said. “You should get one too. They’re fun.”

 

Steve didn’t really know what he’d expected, but Bucky striking flamboyant poses with his little heart-shaped sunglasses as he flicked different scarves around certainly didn’t begin to hit the mark.

 

“I like this one,” Bucky announced, winding a frilly pink scarf loosely around his neck.

 

Steve shook his head in a cross between awe and disbelief.

 

“Come on,” Bucky said, grabbing two separate ends of a soft yellow scarf and flicking it so that it went over Steve’s head and pulled snug against the back of his neck as Bucky tugged. “Get a scarf.”

 

“I’m not getting a scarf,” Steve said.

 

Bucky stood on his tiptoes, waggling his eyebrows. “We’ll match.”

 

“No scarf, Buck.”

 

“Fine!”

 

They then went to a shoe store, and Bucky got a new pair of combat boots—the only militaristic apparel Steve had seen him wear.

 

Steve bought a new pack of hair dye because his supply was running low, and Bucky watched curiously.

 

“Why’d you go brunette?”

 

“It’s common,” Steve said with a shrug. “And someone once told me my hair was the first thing they noticed about me, so. It was the first thing to go.”

 

Bucky nodded a few times. “Why did you never change it?”

 

Steve gave him a little speculative look. “Nobody looked at me funny with this hair, so why would I change it?”

 

Bucky shrugged. Sensing Steve was probably done with the conversation, he asked, “Do you think I could pull off purple hair?”

 

“No,” Steve lied.

 

“You’re no fun,” Bucky said, leaning away from the display.

 

You don’t know the half of it, Steve almost blurted out, but he didn’t.

 

They sat down at a greasy table in the food court at 1152 hours, and Steve kept bunching his shoulders anytime someone passed behind him, and Bucky looked pretty displeased with the crowd himself, so Steve didn’t feel too terrible when he stood up and moved to lean again a wall instead.

 

Bucky slumped against the wall next to him. “You too?” he asked in mild surprise.

 

“Me too,” Steve said quietly, not offering anything else.

 

America, Kate, Billy, and Teddy all showed up around the same time, and Steve hung back as they bought food. He wasn’t really that hungry anyway.

 

“What’d you get?” he asked America quietly while she very unsubtly stuck a pack of French fries in his face.

 

“Converse. A patriotic jacket.” She smiled. “Kate thinks it looks stupid,” she said proudly.

 

Dear god, this was the best thing to happen to Steve in this century. He raised an eyebrow.

 

“Anyway,” she said, too loudly. “What’d you get?”

 

Steve wordlessly fished out his new tank top from his little bag.

 

“Oh my god,” he heard Billy say distantly, and he felt increasingly proud as America instantly dropped her head into her hands. “Oh my god,” she mumbled.

 

“Own it, Steve,” Kate said solemnly while Teddy wolf-whistled.

 

Steve snorted and put the shirt away again.

 

Bucky sent him a tentative little smile.

 

America shoved another pack of fries in his direction.

 

And all in all, it wasn’t a bad day.

 

 


 

 

And then he had to ruin it, like he ruined everything.

 


 

 

“I’m gonna drive up to Canada for the day,” Steve said offhandedly to America at breakfast, and he could see Bucky look up from where he was making pancakes.

 

“Why?” America asked.

 

“Tradition.”

 

“Thought you were under house arrest.”

 

Tradition, America.”

 

“What’s this I hear about Steve Rogers following tradition for the first time in his life?” Bucky teased, dropping a plate of pancakes in front of Steve.

 

Steve shrugged. “My tradition.”

 

“How long will you be gone?”

 

“A day. Maybe two.”

 

“Well. Keep me updated,” America said while Bucky looked anxious. “Don’t die.”

 

As Steve was carrying his duffel out to the van, he ran into Bucky.

 

Bucky ran a hand through his hair. “You’ll be safe, right?”

 

“Why do you care?” Steve asked, too sharply, internally wincing because that wasn’t fair of him.

 

Bucky rolled his shoulders. “It’s you,” he said simply.

 

“Buck, I hate to break it to you, but you really don’t know me,” Steve said quietly.

 

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Bucky snapped.

 

Steve shrugged tiredly. “What? Are you the same guy you were seventy years ago? You even the same guy you were thirty years ago?”

 

Bucky shut his mouth with a click.

 

“I don’t know you either, so. We’re even.”

 

“Sorry,” Bucky sighed. “I’m a damn hypocrite. I should be the first person to—to understand that. Sorry.”

 

Steve lifted his shoulder. “S’no problem.” He clapped Bucky on the shoulder thoughtlessly. “See you.”

 

As Steve brushed past Bucky, Bucky blurted out, “I’d like to know you. The—the new you.”

 

Steve tossed a wry smile over his shoulder. “I don’t know if you would, actually.”

 

“I would. I promise.”

 

“Suit yourself,” Steve grumbled, throwing his duffle in the car.

 

He drove away and relaxed into the quiet of the van.

 

 


 

 

“Clint’s getting old,” Natasha said after a few minutes of quiet, looking sad. “He could pass for my father now.”

 

“Sucks,” Steve sighed.

 

“Yeah.” She shrugged. “What’re you gonna do? People get old. How are things with...?”

 

Steve scoffed. “He thinks he wants to get to know me.”

 

“You should let him.”

 

“He doesn’t want to know this,” Steve said with a self-deprecating tilt to his mouth.

 

“Well. I love you like this,” Natasha said loyally.

 

“Thanks, Nat.”

 

She smiled at him. “You look different.”

 

Steve laughed a little bit. “I shaved.”

 

“Your shoulders are less slumpy,” Natasha said, gesturing.

 

“Huh.”

 

“Yeah. How ‘bout that.”

 

“Visit me in upstate?” Steve asked. “I’m under house arrest.”

 

“You’re here now,” Natasha pointed out.

 

“It’s tradition.”

 

She snorted. “Maybe.”

 

Steve kicked her under the table. Natasha kicked back.

 


 

 

Steve returned to the facility at 0347 hours and sat down for a while and crawled under his bed and stayed there for a good 24 hours.

 

AMERICA: You back?

 

STEVE: Yeah

 

AMERICA: Ok

 

At some point around the 30-ish hour mark, Steve’s door opened. He stayed where he was.

 

“If my highly reliable gossip chain is to be believed, you haven’t eaten since you’ve gotten home,” came Bucky’s voice. “Where the fuck are you?”

 

Steve didn’t respond, and Bucky’s head poked down to look at him after a minute, and his expression pulled into concern.

 

“I brought you some food.”

 

Steve looked at the plate. “Not hungry.”

 

“Is there... anything I can do?”

 

Steve made a face.

 

Bucky nodded a few times, settling down on Steve’s carpet. “Can I stay?”

 

Steve scrunched up his shoulders in a shrug.

 

“Tell me to leave if you want me to,” Bucky sighed.

 

Steve rolled onto his back and stared at the mattress frame.

 

He didn’t know how much time passed before he mumbled, “Don’t you have responsibilities and a schedule and shit?”

 

“Yeah,” Bucky said.

 

“Go.”

 

Bucky looked at him for a long moment. “Come with me?”

 

Steve turned away.

 

He finally peeled himself out from under his bed on a Thursday, and he felt so fucking weak from not eating that he didn’t know what to do with himself for a moment.

 

He ventured out of the room at 0930. David nodded at him but didn’t otherwise acknowledge him as Steve ate for a good hour.

 

Then he went and sat on the floor in America’s room while America pretended to ignore him.

 

Finally, she demanded that he stop being an asshole. “Spit it out,” she said impatiently.

 

“Bucky saw me lie under my bed for a week and now he knows,” Steve said.

 

“Knows?” America echoed, arching a brow.

 

Steve glared at his knees. “Never mind.”

 

“Knows what?”

 

After a few minutes of mulling things over, Steve looked up at America and said, “Have you ever met me in other universes?”

 

America was quiet for a beat before saying, “Yeah.”

 

Steve nodded. He wasn’t sure how he’d known that’d be the answer, but he did. “You ever get mad that you got stuck with the most fucked up version of me?”

 

America frowned. “You’re not the most fucked up version of you.”

 

“Really?” Steve asked dryly.

 

“No.” America sat down across from him. “The most fucked up version of you killed himself in 2013.”

 

Steve stilled, and an entire world seemed to shift on its axis. He stared at America. “How?” he asked.

 

America blinked. “What d’you mean?”

 

“How’d I do it?” Steve asked, his mind whirling into something frantic. “It worked?”

 

America’s expression shuttered. “You—“

 

“It’s possible?”

 

“Stop it,” America snapped. “You’re freaking me out.”

 

Steve took a deep breath and ran his hands through his hair. “Sorry.”

 

“Okay,” she said, letting out a breath. “May have to take that back. You’re... pretty fucked up.”

 

“See?” Steve winced. “I didn’t mean for you to know that I’m... that—“

 

“You want to die?” America finished, her eyes hard.

 

“Yeah,” he mumbled. He was never getting out of house arrest.

 

America reached forward and grabbed his wrist in a tight grip that may’ve hurt, once upon a time. “Do I ever regret that I got stuck with this version of Steve Rogers?”

 

Steve blinked.

 

America shook her head. “Not once.”

 

“I don’t...”

 

“I don’t trust easy. I don’t like people easy. I don’t lie about it either.” America shrugged, trying to downplay the gravity of her words. “As far as I’m concerned, you’re the best version of Steve Rogers out there. Okay?”

 

“Why?” Steve asked, bewildered.

 

America smiled at him, her eyes sad. “I dunno. You’re so conscious of yourself. It’s cool. And—you respect me. You respect everyone who deserves respect and usually doesn’t get it. Usually, other yous are a little condescending. I like this you way better.”

 

Steve shook his head wordlessly.

 

“And it’s precisely that reason why I’m never gonna tell you how you killed yourself,” she said. “Stick around a while.”

 

Steve’s shoulders slumped. “Okay,” he mumbled. “Don’t tell Bucky.”

 

“I don’t tell Bucky anything,” America said with an eye roll.

 

“Can I sleep here tonight?”

 

“Yeah, Steve.”

 

So, Steve slept on the floor, and he woke up to America knocking a converse shoe onto his nose by accident, and he had never felt better.

 


 

 

Steve was dumb.

 

He’d fallen asleep in the van for the third night in a row because he couldn’t sleep in the too-soft room anymore, and he was so, so dumb.

 

‘Cause the thing about nightmares was that you lost control of yourself sometimes. And that part didn’t happen to Steve often, but it happened, so.

 

It was just dumb.

 

He sat outside of the van, shivering in the drizzle, staring into the middle distance, and he thought about how he was an idiot and how he should just move to get into the van or get inside. But then he continued to not move.

 

“Hey, let’s stand up for a minute,” came a soft voice, and Steve sagged forward, feeling delirious.

 

“What’re you doing here?” he croaked.

 

“I live here.”

 

“Oh yeah. I used to live here too, you know,” Steve mumbled. He reached up and planted a hand on Bucky’s chest. “Wow,” he said.

 

Bucky helped heave Steve to his feet. “Come inside with me. Please.”

 

“Was sleeping in the van,” Steve said. “I hate real beds sometimes. Most of the time.”

 

“Why?” Bucky asked.

 

Steve wondered why he was even answering, and then ignored himself and said, “I’m a nomad. I’m homeless.”

 

“That doesn’t have to be true, you know.”

 

“Yeah,” Steve agreed. “I know.”

 

They stumbled inside, and Bucky yanked Steve’s jacket off his shoulders. Steve was so tired. He dropped his forehead onto Bucky’s shoulder.

 

“I miss you,” he mumbled.

 

“I’m right here,” Bucky whispered, sounding pained.

 

Steve lifted his head, looking at Bucky curiously. “You know,” he began, and Bucky seemed to brace himself, “when you really start getting to know me again, you’re gonna wish you could go back to 0°.”

 

“The hell does that mean?”

 

“To the beginning. You know. Before it got so fucked.”

 

Bucky shook his head. “I like where we are now.”

 

“I get it,” Steve said. “Every second feels like a choice. It’s nice.”

 

Bucky nodded a few times in agreement.

 

“But I’m gonna scare you,” Steve said. “I scare myself.”

 

“I don’t care. Maybe I wanna be a little bit scared.”

 

“Who the fuck in their right mind would wanna be scared?”

 

“Exactly,” Bucky said.

 

“God, Buck, I’m so tired,” Steve said, letting out a whoosh of a breath.

 

“Lemme take care of you,” Bucky whispered. “Please.”

 

Steve dropped his gaze and didn’t protest as Bucky guided him down a hallway and into a new room. Bucky tugged lightly at Steve’s soaked shirt, and Steve took the hint and shucked it off.

 

“I’ll grab you a towel.”

 

Steve rubbed the towel through his hair and over his torso and then looked down at his pants, and Bucky shoved him into the bathroom, and Steve shucked off his pants and dried his legs.

 

Bucky threw a pair of sweatpants into the bathroom without poking his head inside, and Steve put them on.

 

“No shirt?” he asked dryly, emerging.

 

But Bucky was sitting on the floor, looking at the opposite wall with a dark expression.

 

“Hey,” Steve said, nudging him with his foot.

 

“Hey,” Bucky said, his voice small.

 

Steve sat down next to him, and their shoulders pressed together.

 

“You ever think,” Bucky began, and then cut himself off.

 

Steve elbowed him.

 

Bucky cleared his throat. “You ever think that you can never make up for all the bad you’ve done?”

 

Steve shrugged. “Yeah.”

 

Bucky dropped his head onto Steve’s shoulder. “I don’t want this to be a fresh start. I don’t want to forget anything ever again. And I don’t deserve us moving on.”

 

“Yeah, you do,” Steve said softly.

 

Bucky just shook his head. “But I want to learn everything about you again, and I wanna do it right this time.”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

Steve’s fingers spasmed at the thought. “You won’t like what you see.”

 

“Who says you’ll like what you see either?” Bucky demanded, giving Steve a challenging look.

 

Steve smiled. “I like you already.”

 

“Exactly.”

 

Steve looked at the sleeves of tattoos that had kept him company for the past three decades. His life detailed in a few stretches of skin. “You first.”

 

Bucky nodded. “Fair enough. I cry at almost every romcom I see.”

 

Steve huffed. “I haven’t cried in years.”

 

“I don’t even like pancakes.”

 

Steve grinned. “I still remember how to make kugel.”

 

“I get stuck in loops sometimes.”

 

“I dissociate.”

 

“I’m overprotective of these kids.”

 

“I can’t protect myself.”

 

“Well, that one isn’t new,” Bucky snorted.

 

“Shaddup,” Steve said halfheartedly. He slumped against Bucky’s side, exhausted. “Last person I lived with was Wanda Maximoff.”

 

“Last person I saw shirtless was Sam Wilson.”

 

“How was that?”

 

“Great.”

 

Steve let out a little content breath. “I’m old, Buck.”

 

“Yeah,” Bucky agreed.

 

“Tired.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Dunno if I’ll ever be okay.”

 

Bucky was quiet for a long moment, and Steve was nearly asleep again when he murmured, “Yeah.”

Chapter Text

Tommy wasn’t a fan of cops.

 

And the army was probably just, like... super cops. Cops on steroids. That made sense. The logic flowed there.

 

“Why aren’t you registered?” Army Dude #1 asked. He was not very friendly.

 

Tommy shrugged. “Dunno.”

 

“Did you know it’s against the law?” Army Dude #2 demanded. His eyebrow twitched. He was also not very friendly.

 

“Yep.”

 

“Are you in league with the Young Avengers?” Army Dude #1 continued, shooting Army Dude #2 a look.

 

Tommy snorted. “Those vanilla jackasses? Nah. I work alone.”

 

Both Army Dudes exchanged unhappy looks.

 

And Tommy wasn’t actually a complete idiot. He knew when there was a fishy situation. And it was apparent that these two guys did not like the Young Avengers very much, and Tommy would not bet that their reasons aligned with his own reasons. “I ran into them once, though,” he lied.

 

Army Dude #1 twitched a little in interest. “When?”

 

“Recent-ish-ly,” Tommy said flippantly.

 

Army Dude #2 tapped something on his phone. Tommy leaned forward to flick his eyes over the text and leaned back before they could notice. He smiled blandly.

 

The text had read:

 

WE MAY HAVE A WAY IN

 

Like that wasn’t ominous at all.

 


 

 

Bucky woke up blearily when Steve got to his feet. It was still very fucking dark out, and he rubbed his eyes, glancing at the time.

 

They’d slept maybe an hour.

 

Ugh.

 

Steve looked like a live wire. He paced in front of Bucky’s bed for a moment, running his hands through his hair, and then let out a long breath and forced himself to stop walking.

 

Bucky heaved to his feet and warily approached Steve. “You okay?”

 

Steve nodded, wearing his sad puppy dog expression.

 

“We’re okay,” Bucky said, reaching out almost without thinking to grab Steve’s wrist loosely.

 

Steve sighed, closing his eyes briefly. “I should...”

 

“What?” Bucky prompted.

 

“Leave,” Steve finished. “Before—“

 

Bucky had kinda thought they were done with the whole leaving thing. “Please don’t do that.”

 

Steve lifted a sagging shoulder. “It’d be better for all of you, probably,” he explained in that quietly resigned tone that Bucky still hadn’t gotten used to.

 

“No it wouldn’t, and you know it.”

 

Steve shrugged again, looking down at where Bucky was holding his wrist. Bucky followed his gaze and suddenly remembered that he hadn’t given Steve a shirt.

 

He opened his mouth to offer, but then he really looked at the tattoos at Steve’s wrist. “Is this... our Brooklyn?” he asked before he could stop himself.

 

“Yeah,” Steve said softly. “The skyline.” He lifted his other arm and turned his wrists so that they lay side-by-side.

 

“Shit,” Bucky whispered, ghosting fingers across the skin. “Why is this Brooklyn on fire?”

 

Steve lifted his left hand a little. “This is what I rationally know is true. Brooklyn was real, and it was safe.” He lifted his right hand a little. “But this is what I think happened every time I let my mind wander.” He cleared his throat, looking embarrassed. “Sorry.”

 

“Why’re you sorry?” Bucky asked absently, staring down at Steve’s forearms. Now that he was actually looking, they did seem to parallel each other. He moved his fingers up Steve’s left arm, along blue skies that faded into the blue blasts of the Tessaract guns arcing across his skin. Meanwhile, Steve’s right arm hosted burning skylines that bled into charred skeletons frozen in acts of war. Above that was a weird disc-looking thing with a backdrop of craggy ice. “What’s this?”

 

“The Valkyrie,” Steve whispered.

 

Bucky looked at Steve’s left arm, where in place of the Valkyrie there was a thick band of train tracks surrounded by ice. He shivered and did not ask about that one.

 

Above the train tracks was a vortex that spit out little black things that looked like miniscule flies, and then the outline of an impression of a fist filled in with color to make it look metal, and then the bright light that could have only been Tony’s repulsor beams. The tattoos on this arm ended at the elbow with a conclusive band of black.

 

“Your wars?” Bucky asked.

 

“Yeah,” Steve murmured.

 

Above the Valkyrie was... something that just looked fucking scary. Steve’s skin turned to an ashen gray color, and abstract designs mingled together, and Bucky just got the distinct impression of blood and haze.

 

“My wars,” Steve explained with a wry, sad twist of his lips.

 

Bucky didn’t know how much he wanted to get into that, so he just nodded

 

There was a black band that separated Steve’s forearm from his bicep. First, a red serpent wound around his arm and lay dead, and Bucky had no idea what it was. “What’s this?” he asked.

 

When Steve didn’t respond, he looked up, and his eyes had gone dark and distant. “I hunted down Hydra for a while on my own time,” he said vaguely.

 

“This isn’t a Hydra,” Bucky pointed out. “It’s a snake.”

 

Steve frowned. “They’re just snakes, Buck, no matter how fancy the name.”

 

Bucky stared at him for a minute. “Okay,” he said dubiously.

 

There was a big pair of angel’s wings folded so that they made a sort of triangle that wrapped all the way around Steve’s arm. In the triangle of empty space between the wings and the serpent was a black silhouette holding up a hand with a little tiny peace sign, and Bucky’s heart stuttered in his chest. “What about these?”

 

Steve touched the silhouette. “Decided not to fight anymore. Because of Sam.” He pointed at the wings.

 

“That’s beautiful,” Bucky whispered, fingers lightly tracing up to Steve’s shoulder.

 

Steve’s fucking shoulder.

 

A dark blue star’s body took up basically the entire ball of Steve’s shoulder, the points extending beyond. But the thing about the star was that it was shattered apart into these mismatched shards, all trying to fit together in a picture that didn’t look quite right, like if Bucky glanced at it he would frown and wonder if it had actually been a star in the first place. Little tiny flecks of blue exploded outwards from the star and across Steve’s chest, up his neck, and when Bucky peeked, across his back too.

 

“Shrapnel,” Steve said, echoing Bucky’s thoughts. He nodded at the star. “Me.”

 

Bucky’s heart thrummed with unease, but the fucking art was fucking beautiful, and he had no room to argue because he didn’t know this Steve, and maybe this was Steve’s way of trying to get Bucky to start to really understand that. “Wow.”

 

Steve smiled mildly.

 

Bucky peeked over Steve’s back again because there was another tattoo between his shoulder blades. A simple and small A. Black. Times New Roman. Centered.

 

“For the Avengers,” Steve said. “Got it after the—uh—aliens thing.”

 

“The Infinity Wars,” Bucky said.

 

“Yeah, that.”

 

There was one more tattoo that wound all around Steve’s torso, over the line that would cross his heart. “How ‘bout this one?”

 

“They’re like... a sine and a cosine wave,” Steve said hesitantly.

 

That they were. Sort of, anyway. One wave was red and the other was blue, and they jumped around Steve’s chest irregularly. Some gaps between them before they intersected again were big, but others were so small that they were almost indistinguishable. “Yeah, but what do they mean?”

 

“It’s a secret,” Steve said quietly, and that was that, Bucky conceded.

 

“Are these it?” he asked.

 

Steve nodded. “I want to get one for America,” he said after a long pause. “But I dunno what to get yet.”

 

“You’ll think of something.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

Bucky held both of Steve’s wrists, looking down. “Why didn’t you keep going on this arm?”

 

Steve winced, and Bucky panicked internally, wondering if he’d asked the wrong thing. But Steve answered with a small, “Don’t really have anything real for this arm.”

 

That was actually the saddest thing Bucky had ever heard in his entire life. “That can’t be true,” he whispered distantly.

 

Steve looked at Bucky tiredly. “You don’t know what I’ve been doing,” he said simply. He gently pulled his left hand from Bucky’s hold and pointed at the abstract scary art on his forearm. “This is what I’ve been doing.”

 

Bucky shuddered and debated asking about it.

 

Before he could, Steve started talking again. “If you’re really that hell-bent on getting to know me again, there’s one thing you need to understand.”

 

“What?” Bucky asked quietly.

 

“I’m this,” Steve said, nodding to the shattered star. “I’m this,” he added, pointing at the abstract piece on his forearm. “I’m not this,” he murmured, grabbing Bucky’s free hand and guiding it to rest on the small A at his back.

 

Wow, okay. They were, like. Almost hugging. They were. Very close. The closest they’d been in a whole century. “You know that I’d be the first person in the world to understand that,” Bucky whispered, searching Steve’s face, trying not to think about the warmth that was starting to envelop him like an embrace.

 

“Are you, though?” Steve demanded softly, and his gaze was intense. “You never expected me to change.”

 

“Yeah,” Bucky conceded. “But I still understand. I’m working on—accepting it.”

 

Steve looked at him for a moment before his expression relaxed fractionally, and all of his strings seemed to be cut. He sat down heavily on the edge of Bucky’s bed, and Bucky let go of him with supreme reluctance as it happened. “You are, aren’t you?” he asked in a small voice.

 

“Why wouldn’t I?” Bucky said, genuinely bewildered. “You’re my—“ best friend, soul mate, partner, right-hand, “—Steve.”

 

Steve swallowed visibly, staring down at his loosely folded hands. He chanced a look up at Bucky, and Bucky’s breath caught.

 

God, he was beautiful.

 

Steve slowly reached out and put a hand on Bucky’s hip, fingers twisting into the fabric of his pants, watching Bucky’s face intently. Bucky’s throat worked convulsively, and he wondered if this was what it felt like to be completely consumed raw by something much bigger than the universe.

 

And then—

 

Steve closed his eyes and bowed his head and leaned forward so that the crown of his head was resting against Bucky’s stomach, and Bucky thought, Yes, this is what it feels like.

 

America had called Steve paranoid and Sam had called Steve a runner and Tony had called Steve a mess and Wanda had called Steve lonely, and Bucky didn’t know what to even begin to believe, but here was Steve Rogers exposing the back of his neck to Bucky Barnes with his eyes closed, and it was a fucking massive leap across a canyon where you couldn’t even see the other side, and Steve was reaching and probably thinking that Bucky wouldn’t reach back but—

 

Bucky would always reach back.

 

He put his metal hand on the back of Steve’s neck protectively, and Steve gave a full-body shiver, and Bucky slid his other hand into the dark strands of Steve’s hair, and Steve almost went boneless, reaching out his other hand to grip the other side of Bucky’s hip.

 

Bucky didn’t really bother trying to blink away his tears. Because Steve was trying to trust him again, and Bucky really didn’t want to fuck it up, but when hadn’t he fucked it all up?

 

“I’m gonna do this right,” Bucky swore fiercely, his voice thick. “We’re gonna get it right this time.”

 

Steve just pressed his head a little bit more firmly against Bucky.

 

They stood like that for a long time, and Bucky carded his hand through Steve’s hair, and Steve kept fucking shivering, and it was the best thing that had happened to Bucky since he’d met the Young Avengers.

 

Eventually, Steve lifted his head and tugged at Bucky’s hand, and Bucky climbed onto the bed and pulled back the sheets, and Steve sighed as he slid under them, and Bucky just watched him for a minute.

 

“What?” Steve finally asked, and his voice was rough.

 

Bucky took a deep breath for courage and faced Steve on his side and reached out to throw an arm across Steve’s torso.

 

Steve didn’t move for a moment, but then he curled forward until his nose pressed against Bucky’s collarbone, and Bucky wrapped both arms around Steve and was overwhelmed by the warmth and a smell that was just distinctly Steve.

 

Steve shuddered and curled his hands into fists in Bucky’s shirt, and they didn’t sleep, but it was good.

 

Really, really good.

 


 

 

It was a little bit awkward in the morning.

 

For one thing, Steve had kinda maybe slid his leg between Bucky’s thighs while half asleep and Bucky was trying desperately not to let his body react with only moderate success. For another thing, Steve still looked at Bucky like he didn’t know if Bucky was about to ask him to leave or not. And for a third thing, Bucky wasn’t really entirely sure where they stood with each other.

 

So, they kind of ended up just looking at each other for a good ten minutes before Steve shoved Bucky’s shoulder and literally climbed over him to get out of the bed.

 

Bucky blinked at the space Steve had been and sat up, pulling his knees to his chest to hide his little situation in his sweatpants.

 

Steve shifted his weight, running a hand through his hair. “Can I make breakfast?” he finally asked.

 

Bucky wondered if it was possible for his heart to sing with this much warmth. “Yeah. Fair warning, though. It’s gonna end up being pancakes.”

 

Steve’s lips twitched. “I have been living here for a few weeks, and I do know the deal with breakfast, funny enough.”

 

Bucky laughed softly. “I’ll meet you in the kitchen.”

 

“Shirt?” Steve asked, glancing down at his chest.

 

Bucky panicked for a minute about standing up before his brain came up with a brilliant solution. He shucked off his own shirt—a threadbare thing that had the Winter Soldier star on it—and threw it at Steve.

 

Steve smiled at the shirt and quirked a brow at Bucky. “Alright, that works too.”

 

And he slipped the shirt on, and now Bucky was damning his brilliant solution because now Steve was wearing his clothes, and it was not doing him any favors.

 

“Pancakes,” Steve said and left the room with an awkwardly adorable little wave.

 

Bucky blew out a breath and took out his phone.

 

BUCKY: help

 

SAM: What

 

BUCKY: steve is wearing my clothes

 

SAM: !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

 

SAM: DID YOU TWO DO THE DO

 

BUCKY: dnot get excited he just slept here

 

SAM: YOU TWO TALKED

 

BUCKY: a little

 

SAM: OH MY GOD

 

BUCKY: [grumpy emoji]

 

SAM: T’CHALLA SAYS HE THINKS YOU TWO ARE CUTE

 

BUCKY: tell tchalla he can tchill

 

SAM: You got that from the internet don’t lie

 

BUCKY: :)

 

Bucky closed his phone and glanced down. He was going to take a shower, and he was going to get dressed, and he was gonna go eat Steve’s pancakes, and he was gonna train his kids, and today was going to be normal.

 


 

 

Today was not going to be normal.

 

Bucky walked into the kitchen, and Steve was standing at the stove in Bucky’s clothes prodding a little circle of batter, and David was looking at Steve dubiously from the table.

 

Bucky sat down next to David.

 

“I’m not sure about Steve’s pancakes,” David whispered, low enough that a normal human wouldn’t be able to hear, but Bucky wasn’t so sure about Steve.

 

“Shhhhhh,” Bucky whispered back, and Steve tossed him a dry smile over his shoulder, and yep, he’d heard.

 

Steve gave David a half-burnt pancake, and David tried to smile reassuringly through a grimace, and Bucky was kind of supremely delighted.

 

Kate and America sauntered into the kitchen as David tried to smother a cough, talking about the advantages of boxing gloves, it seemed. “—get in the way,” America was saying.

 

“But your knuckles get fucked up. Wouldn’t want your hands to get all futzed.”

 

“Didn’t know you cared about my hands,” America said with a smirk, and Bucky watched with interest as Kate went pink.

 

“I don’t!”

 

“Uh-huh,” America said slowly, grinning, and her eyes flicked lazily around the room, but she paused when she looked at Steve, and her eyebrows shot up. “Uh-huh.”

 

Steve shot her a grumpy look, and then they seemed to have an intense conversation with the use of only micro expressions.

 

Bucky frowned because he used to be able to do that with Steve. Kate caught his eye and shrugged too casually to be believable, and Bucky just rolled his eyes as she sat down next to him.

 

“You get pancakes last,” Steve finally said.

 

America looked distinctly smug. “Worth it.”

 

Bucky was kind of lost. He glared at the table for a second before a voice in the back of his head snapped, Let it the fuck go, and he sighed and tried to let it the fuck go because it was his fault in the first place that he didn’t know Steve anymore.

 

Steve presented Bucky with a little stack of sad-looking pancakes with an adorable little flourish, and Bucky tried not to think about it as he shoveled the food into his mouth.

 

Why had he forgotten how bad of a cook Steve was?

 

Breakfast was kind of quiet, and Bucky realized that this was the first time Steve had eaten with them. Maybe it was weird for the kids. Bucky didn’t give a fuck. He smiled down at the terrible pancakes and thought that this wasn’t so bad.

 

Loki wandered into the kitchen late into breakfast, and Bucky didn’t think anything of it until Steve straightened.

 

Everyone looked at him.

 

Steve was staring at Loki, an odd look on his face. “You’re...”

 

“Oh dear,” Loki said resignedly, sitting down next to America with a huff.

 

“Are you... him?” Steve asked tentatively.

 

“Sort of?”

 

Bucky remembered that Steve had fought Loki in the Battle of New York, and understanding dawned on him. That’d probably be freaky.

 

Steve blinked at Loki, and Loki waved a hand. “Norse shit,” he explained.

 

“Ah,” Steve said.

 

“How do you know me?” Loki asked, cocking his head suspiciously.

 

“I was around,” Steve mumbled, shrugging.

 

“He’s old like Bucky,” Kate added.

 

“Oh.”

 

Kate turned to David. “I found a crevice.”

 

David looked at her in interest. “In the cavern?”

 

“It’s a cave, but yeah.”

 

“Kate, listen, it’s a damn cavern, I don’t even—“

 

Bucky relaxed and let the argument wash over him, and Steve caught his eye across the table, and they exchanged a tiny smile, and it was good.

 


 

 

“What’s on the docket for today?” Billy asked.

 

Bucky glanced at where Steve was talking to Kate and America at the other side of the gym. He wasn’t sure why he was so surprised that he was here, but Steve had been doing his best to avoid Bucky for the past several weeks, so he was entitled to a little bit of shock. “Um.”

 

“Let’s do Ultimate Let’s Dance,” Teddy said.

 

“No,” Bucky said reflexively. “Let’s do Ultimate Paintball. Kate! America! You’re team captains!”

 

Kate and America turned from their conversation with Steve. “Nice.”

 

“Why them?” Loki asked, apparently in a bad mood from meeting Steve.

 

“Because,” Bucky said.

 

“Ugh.”

 

They split into Kate, Billy, and David versus America, Teddy, and Loki. Bucky ushered them outside and made sure they put on their gear safely, and he didn’t notice Steve until he said quietly to Billy, “That helmet isn’t right.”

 

Billy frowned at him. “What d’you mean?”

 

Steve tapped the brim. “Too loose.”

 

“His hair has an unparalleled mass,” Teddy explained, and Kate fist-bumped him.

 

“Still unsafe,” Steve said. “You should either get a different helmet or ditch it altogether.”

 

Bucky eyed the situation and nodded because of course Steve was right. “I’ve got another one inside.”

 

When they were all situated, Bucky took America’s team to the side. “You guys are orange. Your base is in that one really fucking huge tree.”

 

“Nice,” Teddy said.

 

“Go.”

 

And then to Kate’s team: “You guys are blue. Your base is right across the creek by that little beaver dam.”

 

And they were all off.

 

Bucky grabbed his phone and sat down with his back to his usual tree, and after a moment, Steve hesitantly sat down next to him. “You don’t watch?”

 

“Nah,” Bucky said. “They know what they’re doing.”

 

Steve nodded slowly.

 

Bucky fidgeted with his phone for a minute before opening his texts.

 

KAMALA: Yo can I visit this weekend

 

BUCKY: new phone who diss

 

KAMALA: Haha see you Saturday

 

BUCKY: cool

 

“A friend is visiting this weekend,” Bucky informed Steve after a few minutes because that would probably freak him out.

 

“You have friends?” Steve asked, genuinely curious.

 

Bucky snorted. “Yeah, of course.”

 

Steve just frowned at him, and Bucky was once again struck by the impression that this was an entirely different person.

 

“You’ll like her,” he added quietly.

 

Steve settled against the tree more firmly. “Alright.”

 

“Nice catch on the helmet, by the way.”

 

“No problem.”

 

Bucky elbowed Steve lightly. “You know what I miss?” he asked, internally praying that he wouldn’t regret this conversation.

 

Steve glanced at him. “What?”

 

“That plastic USO helmet.”

 

Steve ducked his head, and Bucky relaxed with relief when he caught sight of a little smile. “I was in a hurry, okay?”

 

Plastic,” Bucky said fervently.

 

“Yeah, but they said you were dead, so plastic it was.”

 

“It was loose too,” Bucky said, grinning as he remembered, turning to face Steve.

 

Steve angled his body towards him too, almost by reflex. “Listen—“

 

“Better nothing than loose,” Bucky mocked, and Steve tried to smother a grin.

 

“Worth it.”

 

“And what about that shield?” Bucky asked. “What was it made of?”

 

Steve shrugged, and his expression dimmed slightly. “Metal.”

 

Bucky backtracked so fast that he almost got vertigo. “My hero,” he sang. “Plastic helmet and all.”

 

“Shut up,” Steve said without heat, relaxing a little bit.

 

Bucky experimentally knocked their shoulders together. Steve shoved him. Bucky let himself fall on his back, and he threw his feet into Steve’s lap.

 

Steve shot him a glare, but instead of pushing his feet away, he circled his fingers around Bucky’s ankle with such a gentle, soft grip that Bucky almost cried.

 

Steve looked away, out towards the woods, and Bucky imagined a dramatic lense flare to keep from writing sonnets about Steve’s profile in his head. “Yeah,” Steve whispered, the tiniest, most beautiful smile tugging carefully at his lips. “Worth it.”

 


 

 

All six of the Young Avengers came back to them doused in paint.

 

And Bucky felt his inner cranky mom flare at the sight of Billy and David splattered in blue.

 

He got to his feet, eyes narrowing.

 

Before he even had to ask, David said, “It was—“

 

“Inside,” Bucky snapped quietly. When everyone moved to go inside, Bucky held up a hand. “Nope. Just you two. The rest of you stay with Steve.”

 

Steve gave him a vaguely panicked look before America shoved her paintball gun into his arms with a muttered, “Hold this,” and Bucky was too pissed to really entirely care as he stalked after Billy and David.

 

By an unspoken agreement, they made their way into the gym, and Billy and David sat on opposite ends of a bench.

 

Bucky crossed his arms and stared at them with a hard expression.

 

“It was my fault,” David said, looking vaguely miserable.

 

“Uhuh,” Bucky deadpanned.

 

Billy said nothing, staring at the ground.

 

Bucky let out a breath and spoke in a measured tone. “I was fine with being out of the loop before because it wasn’t getting in the way with anything. I figured one of you would come tell me what was going on if it got serious, but I can see that I was wrong. So. One of you. Talk.”

 

David looked very guilty as he whispered, “Um. I kissed Teddy.”

 

Billy glared at the ground harder.

 

Oh boy, Bucky’s internal monologue cried. “How’d that happen?”

 

David, distinctly uncomfortable, muttered, “Well, he’s nice and good-looking and—“

 

“Shut up,” Billy snapped.

 

“You two weren’t even dating yet,” David said.

 

“But you knew we were—“

 

“Quiet,” Bucky said, and they shut up. “Billy. Did you tell David that you were planning on asking Teddy to—uh—be your boyfriend?”

 

Billy rubbed his temples. “No. But everyone knew.”

 

That was probably fair. But still. “You can’t have ownership over a person.”

 

“I know. But—”

 

“No buts on that one,” Bucky said. “Teddy does not belong to you exclusively.”

 

Billy slumped a little. “Yeah, okay.”

 

“David. Why’d you really kiss Teddy?”

 

David sighed and rubbed his forehead, not looking surprised that Bucky had called him out. “He’s my friend. And I had to tell someone I was bi or else I was gonna lose it. And I couldn’t think of how else to do it.” He sounded embarrassed.

 

“What?” Billy demanded, turning towards David. “You couldn’t have just said, ‘Hey, Teddy, I’m bi,’ like a normal person?”

 

“I’m not normal,” David said, narrowing his eyes. “The X-gene made me know so many things. I thought it maybe—“

 

“—made you bi,” Bucky finished sympathetically. “You wanted to know if it was real or if it was just the X-gene.”

 

David shrugged. “Not necessarily. Maybe the X-gene made me bi. Whatever. I just wanted to know if it was my thoughts or if it was somebody else’s.”

 

“And?” Billy prompted, sounding a little bit less angry.

 

My thoughts,” David said with a tentative smile.

 

Billy gave David a look. “I would’ve kissed you.”

 

“You didn’t like me.”

 

“Still would’ve kissed you.”

 

David smirked. “No offense, but you’re not really my type.”

 

“I thought everyone was your type.”

 

David laughed a little bit. “Nope.”

 

“Blondes,” Bucky guessed, starting to relax.

 

“Yeah.” He turned to Billy, who still looked fairly grumpy. “I’m not in love with Teddy or anything. He’s my friend. We’re friends.”

 

Billy sighed, closing his eyes briefly. “Sorry. This is dumb.”

 

Bucky let out a breath. “It’s not dumb. It’s just avoidable. You two could’ve talked about this.”

 

David and Billy exchanged a glance.

 

“Come on. Let’s head back outside. I’ve officially got a new plan for today.”

 

The boys followed him cautiously while Bucky marched outside to find Steve evidently trying to hold down the fort.

 

It was cute.

 

“—then Bucky said that it wasn’t a black cat, and it felt like I’d just been betrayed by the entire—oh, hey, Bucky’s back!”

 

Bucky gave him a curious look. “Were you talking about the day we met?”

 

Steve rubbed the back of his neck. “You remember that?”

 

“’Course I do,” Bucky said softly.

 

Billy stepped on his foot.

 

Bucky cleared his throat. “Alright, guys. New plan for today. I’m gonna fucking help you guys be the most well-adjusted superhero team ever.”

 

He got a lot of blank looks.

 

Joy. He frowned at them. “Bottom line. You need to talk to each other. Communicate. So. Starting today, we’re gonna have Honesty Hours, alright? Go get clean, change into PJs, and meet me in my room in a half hour.”

 

“What,” Kate said.

 

“You heard me.”

 

Everyone hesitantly made their way back towards the building, but Steve stopped to stare at him. “What are you doing?” he asked.

 

“Honesty Hour,” Bucky said, bristling.

 

Steve just stared at him in that new blank way of his before he said tonelessly, “I don’t have any PJs.”

 

And that was how Steve Rogers ended up sitting on Bucky Barnes’ bed in a pair of hot pink flannel pants and the same shirt from before, clutching a pillow to his chest.

 

“Do I have to do Honesty Hour?” he asked quietly, not looking at Bucky.

 

Bucky shrugged. “Just tell them something dumb and inconsequential.”

 

Steve’s said nothing, absentmindedly flicking at the skin on his wrists.

 

America walked inside approximately two minutes later and didn’t even bother acknowledging Bucky before sitting down next to Steve and pulling his hand away from his wrist.

 

Steve blinked at her, as if startled by her presence. “Hi.”

 

“Hi,” she said, shooting Bucky a glare like everything was his fault.

 

(Which, yeah, okay.)

 

Steve forced a little smirk. “You have to tell people shit.”

 

“I already tell people shit,” America protested. “I’m always honest.”

 

Steve laughed quietly. “Oh boy.”

 

Bucky felt increasingly left out and moved to slowly pace the room.

 

By the time everyone had come inside and settled themselves, he was feeling a little bit better. “So, David and Billy just started to solve a highly solvable communication issue.”

 

Billy and David scowled at him.

 

“And now we’re going to communicate,” Bucky announced. “I’ll start. We really need to wean off our pancakes because it’s not healthy.”

 

“Blueberry pancakes,” Loki pointed out, and everyone nodded in agreement.

 

Bucky sighed in resignation. “I suppose that’s the closest we’re gonna get.” Loki grinned. “Why don’t you go next, Mr. Blueberry Smartass?”

 

Loki squared his shoulders. “I hate every single one of you.”

 

“Dude,” Teddy said.

 

Loki held up a hand, evidently not finished. “But you’re also... not so bad.”

 

Steve laughed softly like he thought that was hilarious, and Loki flashed a triumphant grin.

 

“Not really what I meant,” Bucky said. “We can come back to you. Teddy?”

 

Teddy suddenly looked very nervous He wrung his hands and hesitated for a good minute before saying, “Um. Billy and I are dating.”

 

“We know?” Kate said, arching a brow.

 

“Was it a secret?” Bucky asked at the same time.

 

Teddy gaped at them. “You knew?”

 

“Sweetie,” Kate said.

 

“I told Bucky,” Billy added guiltily.

 

Teddy threw up his arms. “Nobody tells me anything.”

 

“That’s why we’re doing this,” Bucky said. “We’ve gotta talk to each other. Billy?”

 

Billy cleared his throat and looked at David. “I’m sorry I got angry with you without asking about what you did.”

 

“What’d he do?” Loki asked, eyes alight.

 

All eyes went to David. Teddy and Billy exchanged a glance while David swallowed visibly. “I... kissed Teddy?”

 

“OH SHIT!” Kate shouted, whacking David on the arm. “WHAT THE FUCK.”

 

Loki laughed, collapsing into Teddy’s side while Teddy scowled. And America just offered David a very stoic high-five that David reluctantly accepted.

 

Steve looked at Bucky, clearly baffled. Bucky waved his hand with an, I’ll tell you later, look.

 

“We’re good now, though, right?” Bucky said.

 

Billy and David looked at each other for a minute. “Getting there?”

 

“Good enough. America?”

 

America frowned. “I always tell the truth,” she said matter of factly.

 

“Bro,” Kate said.

 

She shrugged. “Alright, fine. Here’s one.” She glanced at Steve, who nudged her gently. “I only joined the Young Avengers to keep an eye on the Avengers from a distance.”

 

The room dropped into a serious quiet.

 

And America shrugged with purposeful nonchalance. “But you guys are alright.”

 

Kate broke the moment by standing up from her seat on the floor and saying, “Asshole.”

 

America stuck out her leg to kick Kate halfheartedly.

 

“That’s fucked up,” Teddy added.

 

“It’s what she does,” Loki muttered darkly.

 

“I’m not monitoring you guys,” America said with an eye-roll. “And I like you.”

 

“Aw,” Billy said. “We like you too.”

 

“You like us?” Kate said dubiously.

 

America gave Kate a look that had Bucky narrowing his eyes. “Yeah?”

 

“I thought you didn’t—“

 

“You’re wrong,” America cut in before she could finish. “I—I feel for you.”

 

Bucky saw Teddy subtly whack Billy’s thigh, and they exchanged grins. Bucky looked back over to Kate and saw that she was staring at America, lips slightly parted as if in awe.

 

And Steve, the bastard, fucking smirked.

 

“Your turn now,” America said quietly, and Bucky wanted to congratulate her on smoothness. Give her a damn medal or something.

 

Kate had turned a little bit pink, but she apparently vigorously ignored it. “Noh-Varr tried to get in touch last week.”

 

The room went ominously silent, and Bucky straightened. “What?”

 

Kate shrugged. “Wanted to work an op with me. I—uh—declined.”

 

“Who’s Noh-Varr?” Steve whispered to America, quietly enough that a normal person at Bucky’s distance wouldn’t have heard.

 

“Dunno,” America whispered back.

 

“Well,” Billy said, breaking the silence. “I support you.”

 

“Thanks,” Kate said quietly.

 

Bucky gave Kate a look. “We’ll talk about this more later,” he said, and Kate grimaced. “You wanna try again, Loki?”

 

“Steve hasn’t gone yet,” Loki pointed out.

 

Everyone looked at Steve. Steve shifted uncomfortable. “Right. Honesty. Truth. And all that.”

 

“Yep,” Kate said cheerfully.

 

“Just get it over with,” David suggested helpfully.

 

Bucky smiled at Steve, ready for him to say something bland but dryly humorous, but what came out of Steve’s mouth was, “I used to be Captain America.”

 

It felt like the air had been sucked out of the room. America’s eyes widened fractionally, and she pressed her knuckles into the side of Steve’s thigh as some form of comfort or support or something.

 

Steve just lifted a nonchalant shoulder, like he hadn’t collectively blown the minds of everyone present. “Was a long time ago,” he explained softly.

 

What the shit,” Teddy hissed.

 

“Steve Rogers,” Steve said, pointing at himself. “Don’t go—uh—spreading that around.”

 

“I thought you were dead,” Billy said.

 

Steve gave that blank smile, and a bolt of some nameless, frantic feeling of dread spiked through Bucky, but he didn’t know what it meant, so he decided to ignore it. “Guess not,” he said dully.

 

“What happened to you?” Kate blurted out. “I watched a documentary on you.”

 

Steve shrugged again. “Just. Ran away.”

 

David rubbed his eyes. “Damn. I can’t believe I didn’t see it.”

 

“WAIT WAIT WAIT,” Kate shouted, throwing out her arms, her eyes wide as she glanced between Steve and Bucky, and Bucky thought, Oh no. “Is this the same Captain America that started the Civil War for Bucky?”

 

“Oh my god,” Teddy said, looking a cross between faint and delighted.

 

Steve swallowed visibly. “Is there any other Captain America who’s started a Civil War for Bucky?”

 

Kate screeched. “OH MY GOD.”

 

“It isn’t a big deal,” America said.

 

“America is right,” Bucky cut in, beginning to recover. “Steve hasn’t been Captain America for a long fucking time.”

 

Steve sent him a vaguely grateful look.

 

“Don’t treat him differently,” America warned. “Or else I’m gonna go all Chuck Norris on your asses.”

 

“Alright, alright,” Billy said. “Jeez.”

 

“Loki, don’t think I’ve forgotten about you either,” Bucky said lowly.

 

Loki shrugged. “Whatever. Let me have my secrets.”

 

Bucky sighed, exhausted. “We’re coming back to this.”

 

Loki groaned.

 


 

 

They ended up spending the rest of the day watching movies in Bucky’s room. And Bucky felt like the day was the weirdest day of his life as Steve leaned against his legs and chewed on chips while some movie played and the Young Avengers made fun of it.

 

It was a great day.

 

And by the time it was past midnight, everyone had sort of trickled off to their respective bedrooms except for Steve, who had stuck around to help clean up.

 

“You didn’t have to do that,” Bucky said quietly as they returned to his room.

 

“What?”

 

“Say that you were—him.”

 

Steve looked a little bit uncomfortable. “You said to say something inconsequential.”

 

Bucky shot him a smile. “Yeah.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

Bucky climbed in bed and stretched out, sighing. “Are you staying here tonight?”

 

Steve froze like a deer in the headlights. “Um.”

 

“You don’t have to.”

 

Steve shook his head. “I—uh.” He swallowed visibly. “You want me to stay here?”

 

“Um. Yes?” At Steve’s blank look, Bucky said, “Yes,” more firmly.

 

Steve rolled his shoulders and burrowed under the covers on what Bucky had already associated as Steve’s side of the bed, not touching Bucky. Which was fine. Obviously. They didn’t even know each other anymore. It wasn’t like they’d cuddled much before everything happened to them anyway.

 

Bucky fell asleep cold.

 


 

 

He woke up with fear pounding through his veins and unwelcome images from the past flashing through his mind, breathing hard.

 

Where was he? Why was he in a fucking bed? Had his handlers become—

 

A big, warm hand touched his shoulder, and Bucky startled, eyes flying open.

 

There was—

 

He was—

 

“Buck,” Steve said slowly.

 

Bucky sucked in a breath. “You’re alive,” he breathed.

 

Steve’s expression crashed into something sad and unreadable, and he gave Bucky’s shoulder a squeeze before dropping his hand.

 

Because Bucky wasn’t with Hydra anymore. Bucky was his own person with his own life and his own team, and he’d sent Steve away but Steve had come back, and Steve was here, and Bucky was his own person.

 

Bucky let out a shuddering breath and, without pausing to think, turned to curl into Steve’s chest because he was warm and wonderful and alive and Steve.

 

There was a big beat of hesitation before a strong arm slowly wound around Bucky’s torso, and Bucky shuddered, closing his eyes.

 

“You’re okay,” Steve whispered. “You’re safe. You’re free.”

 

Bucky wanted to cry. God, he didn’t deserve this. Why was Steve being so nice to him? “I don’t—“ he managed, but Steve slid his other hand into Bucky’s hair, and Bucky’s eyes rolled shut in surprise. “Jesus.”

 

“You’re free,” Steve said again, more firmly. “I’m here.”

 

“You’re here,” Bucky gasped, blinking back tears. “Fuck, you’re really here.”

 

Bucky felt Steve’s chest move in a deep breath. “Yeah,” he said, and his voice was as low and beautiful and rumbly as it had always been. “I’m here.”

 

And Bucky fucking melted into a boneless puddle of mush, and Steve kept his arms around him, and he was still fucking disoriented from the nightmare, but it was the best fucking way to come out of a nightmare that Bucky had ever experienced.

 


 

 

So, although Steve has sorta implicitly acquiesced to letting Bucky get to know him again, he was also sorta not letting Bucky do that.

 

But Bucky had learned things. Because he was an observant motherfucker.

 

Steve flicked at his wrists all the time. It was like the finger-twitching thing that had started somewhere between Bucky dying and the Civil War, but it probably wasn’t a tick, if Bucky’s second-hand psychology knowledge was anything to go by. But Steve honestly didn’t seem to notice it, and every time America was nearby when it happened, she just yanked his hands apart, and Steve still didn’t notice.

 

(It was worrying.)

 

(Bucky was worried.)

 

And then there was the thing with the food. Steve was never hungry. At least, he wasn’t hungry as often as he should’ve been to maintain his body mass. And America always shoved food in his general direction even when he refused it.

 

And Steve was fucking wired. Bucky remembered the all-encompassing paranoia that had gripped him for a solid decade after he’d been defrosted. It was like Steve had never recovered from that. Like he still expected Hydra to be right there.

 

But Bucky had gotten better at reacting to Steve’s new mannerisms, like the bland expressions and the resigned tones and the fatigued slope of the shoulders. He was getting used to it. He was getting better.

 

And that wasn’t to say Bucky had only noticed the bad changes in Steve. Certainly not.

 

Because Steve was also quieter. He was ready to listen before he’d argue. And although everything about him seemed more raw and sharp, he was really a much more gentle person, which was a startlingly wonderful change.

 

(Even though Bucky had loved Steve’s prickly fighter attitude, it was just nice. Especially now that Bucky was tired too.)

 

Steve was achingly self-aware too. It was almost like he wanted to be as unobtrusive as possible. Bucky wasn’t sure yet. But every time Steve thought he was maybe unwelcome in a conversation, he’d step away without comment and go do something else. It was weird and jarring and interesting and Bucky didn’t know what to do with himself.

 

Because if this was Steve just being Steve, not even trying to teach Bucky about who he was now, Bucky didn’t know how he would be able to process everything if that time ever did come.

 

“In conclusion,” Bucky said into the phone. “Ugh.”

 

“You are weak,” Okoye said.

 

“Whatever. Tell me about the thing.”

 

“The thing?” Okoye said dryly.

 

Bucky flapped a hand. “The—fundraiser—gala—thing.”

 

“Of course,” she said, mirth in her voice.

 

And the kids weren’t fuckin’ helping either.

 

“So,” Kate said one night when they were by themselves at the shooting range. “Steve’s like. The guy who started a Civil War for you.”

 

“Yes. We’ve been over this,” Bucky grumbled, cleaning his tranquilizer rifle.

 

Kate didn’t look away from her targets. “Did you know there’s a lot of speculation—“

 

“Oh, speculation, now,” Bucky grumbled.

 

“—that Captain America was, like, super duper in love with—“

 

Bucky shot her a glare, and she grinned. “He isn’t Captain America.”

 

“I know that,” Kate said defensively, still smirking like an asshole. “But still.” She lowered her bow slightly to waggle her eyebrows. “Is that a thing?”

 

Is that a thing,” Bucky scoffed in disbelief. “He isn’t even—“

 

Kate raised a single judgmental eyebrow.

 

Bucky put his hands on his hips. “Hey, I can go there for you too.”

 

Her smiled faltered. “What d’you—“

 

“Miss Kate Bishop-Chavez,” Bucky sang, batting his eyelashes theatrically.

 

Kate scowled. “I’m not even—“

 

Bucky sighed, serious now. “Look, Kate, you don’t have to be gay to have crushes on girls.” God, he did not sign up for all this teen drama when he offered to train young superheroes, honestly.

 

“I know that,” Kate huffed, not looking at him anymore. “Most of the team is, like, bi or pansexual anyway.”

 

“Then what’s the problem?” Bucky asked softly.

 

“I’ve never liked a girl like that before.” She shot him a look. “Don’t tell anyone I said that.”

 

“Who would I tell anyway?” Bucky asked.

 

“Steve.”

 

Bucky ignored that. “Listen. Attraction doesn’t make sense a lot of the time. Hell. I’m super hella fucking gay, and I was a little bit in love with Natasha for maybe a year there.”

 

Kate wrinkled her nose. “What?”

 

“Nothing happened,” Bucky laughed. “But it’s weird. Your brain does weird shit. Don’t overthink it. If you like America like that, don’t sit on it. If you don’t, then fine.”

 

“I was supposed to be roasting you,” Kate complained, raising her bow again. “Why you gotta turn everything into life lessons?”

 

“It’s my job.”

 

“Do you even get paid?”

 

“Nope. Neither in money or in gratitude.”

 

“Aw, hey, that’s not—“

 

“Yeah, it is.”

 

“...Fine.”

 


 

 

It was probably at night when Bucky got to know things about Steve the best.

 

Another thing about this Steve: he did not sleep very much.

 

And it wasn’t like Bucky was the most psychologically hunky-dory assassin in the book, so he didn’t necessarily sleep very well either (although he did seem to sleep more than Steve), so it was some good allotted bonding time.

 

(Bucky was also a massive fan of the new sleeping arrangements. They were a very nice development. Not that cuddling ever equated that things were A-Okay, but it was still pretty fucking amazing.)

 

Steve was staring at the ceiling, waving the arm that wasn’t pinned by Bucky’s body absently as he spoke softly into the stillness of the room. “So, I think Florida is still probably my least favorite place on Earth.”

 

“What’s your favorite, then?” Bucky asked, almost entranced by the way Steve talked now with his soft words that were sometimes so bland that Bucky couldn’t tell if he was joking or just apathetic about whatever he was saying. But everything he said seemed to have weight, since he talked so sparingly now, which had never been true in Brooklyn.

 

“My favorite?” Steve said, frowning. He mulled it over for a minute before saying, “Iceland.”

 

It felt like a punch to the gut. Bucky remembered visiting Steve’s apparently hand-made house vividly. He wanted to say something about it, but he could barely breathe with the force of the memory.

 

“Yeah,” Steve said, smiling just slightly enough to break Bucky’s heart. “Definitely Iceland.” He turned his head to look at Bucky. “What about you?”

 

Bucky forced himself to take a deep breath. There’d be another time to talk about that. But Steve just looked so soft and lovely right now, and he didn’t want to ruin it. “I still hate Serbia.”

 

Steve gave his shoulders a reassuring squeeze.

 

“And nothing can beat Wakanda,” Bucky said, shaking his head in wonder. “It’s like it’s straight outta a science fiction novel. It’s amazing.”

 

“Yeah,” Steve said quietly, and his eyes were sad, but they were also sparkling with something like fondness.

 

“How ‘bout the worst thing you did in the past three decades?” Bucky asked.

 

Steve made a face. “Pass.”

 

Bucky nudged him with his knee. Steve halfheartedly nudged him back. “But it’s Honesty Hour.”

 

“Liar,” Steve muttered, smiling.

 

Bucky hid his own smile in Steve’s shoulder. “What about the best thing you did?” he asked, voice muffled.

 

Steve was quiet for a while before he whispered, “Offered to drive America Chavez to New York.”

 

And Bucky felt a twisted feeling of jealousy and happiness, and he was getting there.

 

 


 

 

Kamala texted Bucky that she was outside after dinner on Saturday, and Bucky let her in with a little hug.

 

“You would not believe traffic,” she complained, flicking her scarf over her shoulder.

 

“Try me,” Bucky said.

 

“I left before lunch.”

 

“Fucking hell.”

 

“Told you so.”

 

“That’s crazy,” Bucky said, shaking his head. “Hey, did I tell you about the new people?”

 

“America,” Kamala said. “There’s more?”

 

“Just Steve,” Bucky said, and to his own ears, his voice sounded shy, and he cringed internally.

 

Kamala raised an eyebrow, grinning. “Just-Steve?”

 

“Steve, like. You know Steve. My Steve.”

 

Her eyes widened. “Your Steve? The Your Steve that nobody’s seen for thirty years?”

 

Bucky nodded.

 

“Damn. Where he at?”

 

Bucky shrugged. “I think he was trying to show the kids how to make pillow forts strategically.”

 

“Nerd,” Kamala observed.

 

“Yes.”

 

They caught up for a while, drinking coffee in the kitchen, when Bucky heard a little flurry of movement, and Steve slid into the doorway of the kitchen. “There’s a—“ he began, but his eyes zeroed in on Kamala, and every single one of his muscles bunched up in tight tension.

 

Bucky’s eyes flicked to Kamala, and her mouth had fallen open inelegantly. “Oh my god,” she said.

 

Steve looked a little bit frantic as he took a step back. “Never mind! I was never here! I—“

 

“Steve,” Bucky said, sticking his hand out meaningfully.

 

Steve reluctantly drew up his shoulders and slowly approached Bucky to grab his wrist. “What?” he asked, and everything about him screamed, I WANT TO RUN AWAY RIGHT NOW.

 

“This is Kamala Khan. Ms. Marvel. Have you two met?” he asked, making sure his voice was neutral.

 

“Nope!” Steve said, too quickly. “Pleasure to meet you, Miss Khan.”

 

Kamala still looked like someone had slapped her with a truck full of cracked eggs. “Nice to—um—right—nice.”

 

Bucky looked between them. “Don’t bullshit me, guys.”

 

Kamala stared at Steve’s, her eyes widening in some sort of meaning that Bucky didn’t understand, and Steve jerked his head robotically as if vehemently declaring, NO.

 

“Steve,” Bucky said again, turning to him, tugging on Steve’s hand to draw him closer.

 

“We ran into each other,” Steve said tersely. “Before I dropped off America.”

 

“Yup!” Kamala said, her voice too high.

 

Bucky glared at them.

 

“Please tell him, oh my god,” Kamala snapped. “I can’t actually keep a secret from Bucky. I’m gonna ruin it.”

 

“No,” Steve snapped back.

 

“Tell me, please.”

 

“No,” Steve said again, much more forcefully. “You don’t want to fucking know. I promise you that.”

 

Bucky was getting frustrated now. “I told you that I wanted to know you.”

 

“Not this,” Steve said darkly.

 

“I’M GONNA GO SAY HI TO THE KIDS,” Kamala shouted. “AND NOW I’M YELLING BECAUSE I’M UNCOMFORTABLE. HAHA. OKAY. YOU TWO PROBABLY HAVE SOME SHIT TO TALK ABOUT.” And with that, she made a bolt for the door.

 

Steve stared after her, and Bucky stood up, putting his hands on Steve’s biceps. “Steve,” he said softy.

 

Steve didn’t look at him. “There’s nothing to say.”

 

“I want to know.”

 

“You don’t.”

 

“Yes, I really fucking do.”

 

“Oh, do you?” Steve snarled, and genuine, pure anger flared through his eyes as he grabbed Bucky’s shoulders and shook him a little bit. “What d’you wanna know, huh?” he demanded, voice hard. “You wanna know that I sat on a motherfucking rooftop in fucking Jersey and put a goddamn fucking gun in my mouth?”

 

Bucky’s stomach plummeted, and he abruptly really wanted to throw up. “You what?” he said faintly.

 

“You wanna know that the only goddamn motherfucking reason I didn’t fucking blow my brains out was because America was trying to join the fucking Avengers instead of your fucking team?”

 

“Steve—“

 

But Steve was evidently on a roll now. “You wanna know that Kamala fucking Khan was there on that fucking rooftop? You wanna know that that wasn’t even my first fucking try? You wanna know that that wasn’t even my twentieth try?” His grip on Bucky’s shoulders was hard enough to hurt. “Is that what you wanna fucking know about me? Is this the fucking person you wanted to know? Is this what you fucking wanted when you saw me pull up in that fucking van?”

 

Bucky felt like he’d been assaulted with some kind of powerful fever all at once. He blindly reached out, planting a hand on Steve’s chest, the other on Steve’s neck. “You—“

 

“I have wanted to die for over a hundred fucking years,” Steve spat forcefully. “Is that what you wanted to fucking know?”

 

“Yes,” Bucky whispered, and the tears were starting to build up in his eyes, and his body felt like it was fucking constricting. “Yes, it fucking is.”

 

“Liar,” Steve hissed. “You can’t want this.” He nodded down at himself. “The rooftop on Jersey isn’t even the fucking half of it, Buck. You can’t want that.”

 

Bucky shook his head rapidly. “I want to know it all,” he begged, hiccupping on a sob now.

 

Steve scoffed. “So you can feel guilty for things that have nothing to do with you?”

 

“No,” Bucky said.

 

“And now you won’t look at me the same anymore,” Steve said, his lips curling into a terrifyingly awful smile. “You’ll just see the fucking suicide risk.”

 

“Hey,” Bucky snapped. “You’re so much more than a fucking suicide risk.”

 

Steve laughed sharply, without humor, and Bucky’s insides curdled. “Fuck you.”

 

“You listen to me, Steve Rogers,” Bucky said fiercely, his voice thick with tears, “You are a suicide risk,” (Bucky’s entire body shuddered at the words, his brain not even beginning to digest it, but he needed to say this now) “And you are an artist. And you are a fighter.” Steve flinched. “And you are a soldier.” A more violent flinch. “And you are a runaway. And you are a protector. And you are kind. And you are fucking smart as hell. And you are passionate. And you are a good fucking person.”

 

“You sound real convinced,” Steve said bitterly, but his voice was quieter.

 

“You’re a suicide risk,” Bucky said, and the mindless tears had not stopped yet. “But you are not just a suicide risk, you fucking asshole. You’re a fucking person.”

 

Steve bowed his head, and his shoulders slumped. “I’m sorry,” he whispered with that soft resigned tone, and Bucky lost it.

 

He slouched forwards and dropped his forehead onto Steve’s shoulder as his body convulsed through sobs. “Over—twenty—fucking—attempts?” Bucky gasped.

 

Steve put a hand on Bucky’s back. “Sorry.”

 

“How many?” Bucky demanded thickly.

 

Steve shrugged. “Between twenty and thirty.”

 

“You don’t even fucking know,” Bucky whimpered. “You don’t even keep count.”

 

“Sorry.”

 

Bucky could process this. He could internalize this. Steve was suicidal. Apparently. Very suicidal. Apparently. He could—he could adapt to this. He could figure this out.

 

“Why?” Bucky asked, lifting his head with swollen eyes to look at Steve.

 

Steve looked uncomfortable. “I’m old. I’m tired. I’m useless. I don’t have any reasons left.”

 

“America,” Bucky said immediately.

 

“Yeah,” Steve agreed.

 

“The kids. Me.”

 

Steve paused this time. He seemed to think about it. “Yeah,” he finally said, his voice very quiet.

 

“Please don’t leave,” Bucky said, voice already broken.

 

“It doesn’t exactly work like that,” Steve pointed out, sounding exhausted.

 

Bucky shook his head. “Sorry.” Steve watched him, looking kind of scared. “How—how does it work?”

 

Steve looked surprised that Bucky had asked that. He frowned for a minute. “It feels... like... like an inevitability.”

 

Bucky’s breath caught in pain.

 

Steve shrugged passively. “I dunno. Sometimes it’s all I think about. Was like that before America fell on my car. Was gonna try to drive off a cliff. See if that’d work.”

 

“Fuck,” Bucky said helplessly.

 

“Nat helped for a while,” Steve added. “But I think she may be running out of reasons too. She gets me.”

 

Bucky didn’t know what to say. Bucky was still crying. Steve was still suicidal.

 

Steve flashed Bucky a smile. “I’m not gonna do it, like, now, though.”

 

“What?” Bucky croaked.

 

“I can’t leave America like that,” Steve said matter-of-factly. “I’ll wait ‘til she moves on and doesn’t want me around anymore.”

 

What about me? Bucky wanted to ask. But he’d stopped being Steve’s reason to live the moment he’d said he didn’t want to see Steve again. And maybe that was healthy. Maybe that was for the best. But right now, it just hurt.

 

“Don’t worry about it,” Steve said softly, putting a hand on Bucky’s waist. “I’m here for now.”

 

Bucky closed his eyes. Maybe that was all that he could ask for right now. Maybe he didn’t have the emotional energy to do anything else.

 

“Let’s go to bed,” he said roughly.

 

Steve glanced at the clock. “It’s only—“

 

“I don’t care.”

 

Steve indulged Bucky as Bucky aggressively wrapped Steve in mismatched arms. For his part, Steve tucked his face into Bucky’s neck, and Bucky hated himself.

 

Because even if he hadn’t actually killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, it felt like he had.

 

Or something like that.

 

“Don’t overthink it,” Steve mumbled. “It’s common.”

 

“Shut up. I’ll deal with practicalities in the morning,” Bucky grumbled.

 

Steve shut up.

 

After a while, Bucky pulled back slightly and said, “Hey. I love what I know about you so far. Okay? You gotta know that.”

 

Steve’s expression went all wonky. “Whatever you say, Buck,” he whispered.

 

“I do,” Bucky said stubbornly. “I love your stupid depressed, fucked-up ass. Okay?”

 

Steve looked away. “Okay.”

 

He obviously did not believe Bucky.

 

Bucky let out a breath.

 

Okay.

 

He could deal with that later.

 

He had time.

 

 


 

 

Kamala and Steve avoided each other like the plague until she left, but Bucky did almost walk in on them talking quietly to each other in the med-room once, and he figured that that was good.

 

That was good.

 

 


 

 

Bucky didn’t really love addressing the whole thing about Steve trying to kill himself twenty to thirty times, but sometimes it was the only thing that he could think about.

 

What would it be like if Bucky had lost Steve without even knowing it?

 

What if they’d never met again?

 

He tried not to think about it.

 


 

 

Bucky was reading a book with Steve’s feet in his lap several weeks later when Billy came rushing into the room, looking a little bit wild.

 

“Um,” he said. “There’s a guy.”

 

Bucky and Steve were both instantly on their feet, walking after Billy as Billy failed to articulate the situation beyond the fact that there was a guy and that David was there.

 

They reached David, and David was trying to drag a guy in what Bucky would guess was the direction of the med-room. The guy was definitely in bad shape, his head lolling down, his hair matted with blood.

 

“Shit,” Bucky said, taking the guy’s other side.

 

“I dunno what’s happened to him,” David said, eyes wide with concern.

 

“Something bad,” Bucky said.

 

They dragged the guy to the med-room and did their best to fix him up, which took about two hours of fumbling around. And then the guy didn’t regain consciousness for another five hours in which Bucky set up a watch system.

 

“What happened to you?” Bucky asked the kid.

 

The kid blinked at Bucky blearily. “Who’re you?”

 

“I’m Bucky Barnes.”

 

The kid closed his eyes. “Aw, fuck,” he mumbled and passed out again.

 

When he came to again, he managed to get across the fact that his name was Tommy, and that some assholes had done this to him, and he passed out again.

 

Bucky sat down heavily on the couch and leant into Steve’s side. “This is not my day,” he grumbled.

 

“This is a decent book,” Steve said from where he’d already surpassed Bucky’s page in the book he’d been reading.

 

“Fuck you,” Bucky said without any heat.

 

Steve reached over without looking to pat Bucky on the shoulder. “Maybe later,” he joked, and his lips turned upwards wryly because he thought he was funny.

 

And Bucky watched the vague smile and the way that there were lines on Steve’s face that he had never ever imagined being there before and the way that Steve couldn’t decide if he wanted stubble or not and the way that Steve’s hair was dark but still soft and the way that his eyes followed the text of the book with a lazy flick like he had all the time in the world, and Bucky was so in love with him.

 

Maybe he’d been in love with Steve when he was a tiny spitfire because he complemented Bucky back then. Maybe he’d been in love with Steve as an angry captain because Bucky had been a fucked-up sergeant.

 

And maybe now he was in love with Steve because he was a tired veteran who was just as fucked up as Bucky but in different ways. Maybe they had always complemented each other like this. Maybe the Winter Soldier would’ve fallen in love with Captain America too. Maybe he had, and Bucky just never understood it.

 

Bucky smiled at Steve, not surprised by the realization because he knew it would’ve come eventually, but resigned to his fate of forever being consumed by his love for this person who maybe could only ever love death and the end of the line. And that was okay. Maybe. Maybe it would be okay one day. But Bucky would stay with Steve until then, and it would be good until then, and maybe some small part of him had always known that Steve was reserved for something else, although Bucky had never expected it to be death in a million years.

 

But Steve Rogers was a surprising individual.

 

Not to say that Bucky condoned suicide or anything. But who the fuck had ever been able to change Steve’s mind about anything? Bucky had to prepare himself for all the inevitabilities out there, and maybe this thing was one of them.

 

Maybe.

 

Or maybe not.

 

Maybe it would all change for some inexplicable reason and there’d be the newest tragedy to tear them down. Bucky didn’t know.

 

But Bucky was also 131 years old, and he was also tired, and he also didn’t particularly care where the line took them anymore.

 

But he knew that every single version of Bucky Barnes loved their respective version of Steve Rogers, and that was at least one given rule for the rest of Bucky’s life.

 

“What’re you staring at?” Steve asked, not looking.

 

Bucky’s smile softened. “You have some bread crumbs stuck in your stubble.”

 

Steve scowled, scrubbing at his face. “Should’ve shaved,” he grumbled.

 

Bucky shrugged, closing his eyes. “I like you either way.”

 

A pause. “Thanks.”

 

Bucky let out a breath. “Any time.”

 


 

 

Tommy was delirious most of the time that he was awake, and David tended to spend the most time chilling with him, and it was all very dramatic without being very dramatic, but Bucky gathered that Tommy had super speed or something and was also apparently a dick.

 

“A certified Asshole,” David confirmed, a capital letter audible.

 

Bucky was already a fan.

 

But that didn’t mean that he wasn’t prepared for the knock on the door.

 

“Is Thomas Shepherd here?” some guy with sunglasses asked.

 

“Who’s asking?” Bucky said back.

 

“The government.”

 

“Why?”

 

The guy scowled. “Did you know that he isn’t registered?”

 

“Can’t say I did.”

 

The guy flashed some paperwork. “I’m gonna have to take a look around in there. I have a warrant.”

 

“On whose authority?” Bucky asked, wishing he was a telepath so that he could tell the kids to hide Steve and America and Tommy.

 

“The UN Security Force,” the guy said.

 

Bucky swallowed roughly and stepped aside.

 

And Steve walked into the kitchen, singing an old Britney Spears song under his breath.

 

The guy glanced between Bucky and Steve.

 

“Is that Captain America?” the guy asked.

 

Steve looked up.

 

His eyes widened fractionally.

 

Bucky’s heart thudded in his chest.

 

And Steve said, “Um.”

 

“Requesting backup to the Thomas Shepherd case immediately.”

 

And Bucky stepped to block the guy’s line of sight to Steve. Because this was one thing that he knew how to do.

 

And the guy pulled his gun.

 

And there was the noise of something breaking, and Bucky thought he heard America. Maybe she was shouting something. Maybe she was close by.

 

And another person was running up to join the first guy.

 

And the world shattered around them.

Chapter Text

David watched Tommy while he struggled to eat a granola bar while retaining his dignity.

 

Tommy tried to smirk at him, and David wanted to sigh. “So, this is fun,” he mumbled, and David was just glad that Tommy’s mouth had stopped bleeding so that he was a little bit easier to understand.

 

“How are you feeling?” David asked.

 

Tommy twirled around a finger. “Great. Could run a marathon.”

 

David rubbed his temples. “I’m grabbing you a glass of water.”

 

“Do you have strawberries?” Tommy asked, his eyes still glazed over. “Could totally go for some fuckin’ strawberries.”

 

“Fine,” David said.

 

He was a hallway away from the kitchen when he heard a voice say, “Is that Captain America?” and saw America, who had been hovering outside the doorway, rush inside.

 

There was a shattering noise, and David’s ears popped, and he stood in the hallway for five seconds before rushing inside.

 

There was no one in the kitchen.

 

David ran back to Tommy, eyes wide, and Tommy said, “Strawberries,” but David ignored him.

 

“Someone just showed up asking about—“

 

Tommy’s expression shuttered, and lines appeared on his face, and he was still objectively attractive, but something in David bowed away from the expression because something about it was so ugly. “Registration,” he finished.

 

David shook his head in wordless confusion.

 

Tommy’s scowl deepened. “Get your fuckin’ team together. This is my fault.”

 


 

 

Steve felt like he’d been twisted into a tunnel, like he was plummeting, like air was whipping around him, like everything had spun around and around, and then it stopped.

 

He fell to the ground, breathing harshly, and his head felt like it had been mixed to jelly, and he turned to look to the side, and—

 

America crouched down next to him. “Take a minute.”

 

Steve rolled onto his back and closed his eyes. He heard Bucky groan nearby, and America didn’t say anything comforting to him. Steve knew she wouldn’t. He blindly reached out a hand. “Buck?”

 

“All here,” Bucky managed.

 

“Take a minute,” America said again. “I got this.”

 

Steve opened his eyes and watched America grab the guy that Bucky had been talking to. She yanked him up, and he looked pale. “What the fuck—“

 

America shoved him against a thick tree, and Steve pushed himself into a sitting position. They were in a stretch of woods that looked remarkably similar to the woods behind the facility. But. Something was different. Something was off.

 

America punched the guy in the face. He lurched to his feet and glanced at Bucky, who had rolled over. He was shivering a little bit, but Steve could worry about that later.

 

“What does he want?” Steve asked, voice rough, but he was reorienting himself already, shifting to accommodate the world’s new axis.

 

“Fuck if I know,” America spat, clearly very fucking furious.

 

“Hey!” Steve snapped at the guy, and he flinched. “What do you want?”

 

“Fuck off,” the guy said, and blood dribbled down his chin.

 

“Where’s the other one?” Steve asked.

 

“What?”

 

“There was a woman.”

 

“I don’t—“

 

Steve heard the click of the gun’s safety coming off, and he whirled around.

 

The woman stood with a wide fighting stance, both hands steady on her gun even as half her hair fell out of her ponytail. Her gaze was hard, and her aim was trained on America.

 

Steve’s stomach dropped abruptly, and a familiar pulse started up in his ears like an old friend. Rage.

 

There it was again.

 

“Put the gun down,” Steve said, his voice a lot more quiet and level than he would have expected.

 

“Not a chance,” the woman said, not even looking in Steve’s direction. “Step away from that man.”

 

America didn’t move, her jaw clenched in wordless defiance.

 

“I said—“

 

Bucky grabbed her ankle and yanked it.

 

It wasn’t enough to make her fall down, but it was enough to make her lose her grip on the gun for an instant, and Steve launched himself forward, tackling the woman to the ground and taking out her wrist with an efficient elbow, pushing her gun in the general direction of away. “What do you want?” Steve shouted, his voice like a gunshot in the relative quiet of the woods. The women slammed her elbow into his nose, and Steve felt it break and crush and instantly start realigning. It’d happened before. It’d happen again. He ignored it. “What do you fucking want?”

 

The woman grabbed a knife from her belt and stabbed Steve in the thigh before he could stop her, and Steve growled in muted, removed pain, yanking the knife out and pressing it to her neck. “Who are you?” he demanded. “Hydra?”

 

The woman’s face crumpled into something horrified and revolted, and Steve let out a bitter, sharp laugh. “Who, then? The fucking Avengers? The fucking government? The fucking UN?”

 

“I—“ the woman said, and Steve distantly noted that the knife was breaking skin. She swallowed convulsively, and a bead of blood escaped, fat and slow and rolling. “Shield.”

 

Her eyes were hard and cold and challenging, and Steve hated her. Nothing in his gut was surprised at all. They were going to come for him eventually. He had known this. That didn’t stop his anger. “And what d’you fucking want?”

 

“You committed high treason and—“

 

“I know what I did!” Steve shouted. “It hasn’t been that fucking long that I’d fucking forget. If you found me now, you could’ve found me ten years ago. Why now?”

 

“Steve,” Bucky warned, his voice low. A reminder maybe. Of his humanity. Steve didn’t know. He didn’t care.

 

The woman looked like she wanted to flay him alive. “You make me sick.”

 

“Ditto,” Steve spat. She wasn’t going to talk. Steve remembered burning Hydra to the ground. He remembered finding answers through less-than-Kosher means. He remembered it all. He didn’t want to do it again, but this was important. He grabbed the woman’s hand from where it’d been pinned under his knee and took the knife away from her throat, tracing along her palm. “What do you want?” he ground out.

 

“Steve,” Bucky said again. Steve ignored him.

 

The woman obviously understood his intent. “We want you and Miss Chavez under arrest and in custody, as we are lawfully entitled to—“

 

“I don’t give a fuck what you’re ‘lawfully entitled’ to do. Why?”

 

The woman didn’t say anything. She struggled some against his hold, but he was much too strong. Steve let the knife break skin, and she hissed in pain. “You’d do it, wouldn’t you?” she asked lowly. “You’d cut me up to get me to talk.”

 

Steve bared his teeth. “I’ve been alive too fucking long to play this game. Your life matters very little in the long run. I’ll just get my information from the next asshole to come along.”

 

It was subtle, but fear flared through the woman’s gaze.

 

“You have a choice,” Steve said. “You always have a choice. And this one is very simple. Live or die?”

 

“Fuck you,” she growled.

 

Steve shrugged. “It’s not against the rules to tell me why you’re arresting me, is it?”

 

Maybe the woman had some sense of decency way deep down because some of the fight slumped out of her. Steve wondered why they’d sent him an easily compromised agent. “Your serum is the secret to immortality,” she said simply. “Epidemics are decimating populations every year. To be frank, we need a way to combat the situation.”

 

That made sense. That was noble. That was logical. “And America?”

 

The woman tensed again, her eyes flicking around, and Steve forced himself to keep his attention. “She needs to be put in check.”

 

“How,” Steve said, his voice blank.

 

The woman clenched her jaw. Less than savory means, then.

 

And that was it.

 

Steve hauled the woman to her feet and slammed her into the nearest tree America-Chavez-Style. “You know,” he said. “It’s one thing to come after me.”

 

He kneed her in the stomach. Not too hard. He wasn’t done.

 

“Take me. Hurt me. Capture me. Experiment on me. Kill me. Fine. I’d love the extra input.”

 

He stilled, grabbing her roughly by the shoulders and making sure she was looking at him.

 

“But the second you go after my goddamn family, I’m gonna fucking kill you.”

 

“Steve,” America said. “That’s enough.”

 

Steve turned to glare at her, and he could tell he looked scary by the way she twitched, just a little bit. “They’re not gonna stop,” he said, his voice immediately sounding weaker as he turned to her.

 

“And neither are you,” America said. “I thought you weren’t a weapon anymore.”

 

“This is different—“

 

“No, it isn’t,” America whispered. “Look at me. We’re in a different universe. You don’t have to kill her. Look at me. We’re safe. We can just leave them here.”

 

Steve stared at her. She stared back. “I—“

 

“I know you don’t want this,” she added, nodding towards the woman.

 

The woman. Her face was swollen and bloody, and her hand wasn’t wrecked, but it wasn’t good either. He’d done that. He’d done that to another person again.

 

“Shit,” Steve hissed, taking a jerky step backwards, letting the woman slump against the tree. “Fuck.”

 

He looked around. The woman was slumped over, and Bucky was restraining the man a good ten feet away, and America was facing him with placating palms, and Steve was a mess

 

America snatched his wrists, and Steve realized that he was shaking. “Hey. Calm down, viejo.”

 

Steve shook his head wordlessly and felt like he was crumbling within himself. This was his truth. This was his inescapable truth. He was born of violence and anger and blood, and—

 

America moved her hands to his back and pulled him into a hug, and Steve collapsed like a dying star. He wound his arms around America’s back and realized that this was the first time he’d hugged her, and he wanted to cry.

 

“I’m sorry,” he gasped.

 

America let out a breath. “There is always a choice,” she said quietly. “Remember that.”

 

God, Steve loved this kid so fucking much.

 

“This isn’t over,” Bucky said ominously from his spot several feet away, and it felt like galaxies separated them. His gaze was dark and unreadable. “Shield’s after you both. They won’t stop.”

 

“Neither will we,” America said. “We protect each other.” She pulled away from Steve to glare at both him and Bucky. “It’s what we do.’

 

Steve nodded dumbly, and Bucky just closed his eyes for a minute. “This guy isn’t Shield. He’s UN. What do you wanna do with him?”

 

“Leave him,” America said. “He’s after that kid, and he knows our whereabouts now. He won’t keep quiet.”

 

Bucky’s mouth pulled into something tight.

 

“It’s not like I’m dropping him into a universe of demons,” America snapped. “This is a good universe—better than your own.”

 

“Fine,” Bucky sighed, scrubbing a hand over his face. “Can we go back?”

 

“Yeah,” she said. “It’ll still make you dizzy, though.”

 

“Dizzy,” Bucky scoffed in semi-hysterical disbelief. Steve wanted to reach out and maybe touch him, but there was blood on his hands and rage in his heart, and he was so fucked up.

 

America kicked the nearest tree, the star-shaped tattoos on her wrists glowing, and Steve blinked through the weird window and saw their kitchen.

 

“Come on. Step through.”

 

It wasn’t quite as jarring as the first time had been, but Steve could feel himself dissociating at least a little bit, so maybe that was why. He drew his shoulders up around his ears and sat on the floor of the kitchen and heard and saw nothing.

 

“You need to calm him down,” Bucky said lowly. “I have to talk to everyone else.”

 

“Okay,” America said, and Steve distantly registered that she’d put a hand on his arm. “Let’s go for a walk.”

 

Steve didn’t remember the walk to the entrance of the cavern. He didn’t remember sitting down on a rock. He didn’t remember America silently sitting down next to him. He didn’t remember the sun crawling across the sky.

 

He blinked back to himself a few times and cleared his throat. “Hey. Sorry.” His voice was rough.

 

America shrugged. “Don’t be.”

 

They sat in silence for a while, and Steve ran a hand through his hair, blinking lethargically at their surroundings as America fiddled with the sleeve of her hoodie.

 

“You feeling okay?” she asked.

 

Steve shrugged tiredly. “I’m sorry.”

 

“Stop saying that.” She sounded annoyed.

 

Steve shrugged again.

 

“You aren’t a weapon. Sorry I said that.”

 

“No,” Steve mumbled. “I need to face the truth. I haven’t done that for—for—thirty years, now.”

 

“Don’t be melodramatic,” America said, knocking their shoulders together.

 

Steve shook his head.

 

“You were violent back there,” America conceded.

 

Steve laughed bitterly. “Well. I’m a fighter,” he said numbly, and the words tasted like acid on his tongue.

 

“You don’t—you don’t need to be violent to be a fighter,” America said, peering at him curiously. “You do know that, right?”

 

Steve looked at the ground.

 

“Steve,” America said, her voice judgmental.

 

“Shut up,” Steve grumbled, but his voice was weak. Drained.

 

“You don’t need to be violent to be a fighter,” America said firmly. “You can be a fighter by just—standing up—when people hit you or whatever. No fists needed.”

 

“You like fists,” Steve said, trying to lighten the mood.

 

“Yeah, but I’m trying to make a point here. Being a fighter isn’t a condemnation.”

 

“I don’t want to be a fighter,” Steve said quietly. “Even if it doesn’t involve bloodshed.”

 

“Fine,” America sighed. “Then don’t.”

 

Like it was so fucking simple.

 

“But just for the record,” she said, “you can be a fighter and a runner at the same time. It’s not mutually exclusive.”

 

“Sure,” Steve agreed hollowly.

 

“I’m serious.”

 

“Are you?”

 

“I mean. Look at me.” Steve frowned and turned his head to study her. She spread her arms a little bit. “I’m both.”

 

Steve frowned harder. “You...”

 

“I’m a runaway,” she said simply. “I haven’t stayed in one universe longer than a year since I was six.”

 

Steve blinked a few times. “But—“

 

“No buts. It works. You can be both.”

 

“How?” Steve said miserably, voice cracking.

 

America let out a tired breath. “You gotta figure that out yourself.”

 

Great.

 

America pulled Steve’s hand away from his wrist, but Steve hardly registered it. “What’re we gonna do about Shield?”

 

America lifted a shoulder. “I dunno.”

 

“What’re we gonna do about the UN?”

 

“Dunno.”

 

“Tommy?”

 

“Dunno.”

 

“Great,” Steve said. His voice broke. He dropped his head. Closed his eyes.

 

“We’ll figure it out,” America said, and Steve almost believed her.

 


 

 

Steve had mindlessly walked to Bucky’s room because he hadn’t slept anywhere else for weeks, but he stopped outside the closed door.

 

Maybe he should go back to the other room he’d been sleeping in.

 

Bucky had seen that shit. Bucky had tried to get him to stop. Bucky had—

 

Bucky’s door opened, and he poked his head outside. “You’re breathing loud,” he complained. “Get in here.”

 

Well. That was that, then.

 

Steve wrung his hands and dug his nails into the backs of his hands and wished it hurt more as he stood in Bucky’s room with hunched shoulders.

 

“How are the kids?” Steve finally asked.

 

“Good,” Bucky said. “Okay. I don’t know. They’re worried.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

Bucky eyed him critically. “How are you?”

 

Steve bristled defensively, and Bucky held up his hands.

 

“Just. You were gone for a while.”

 

“Yeah,” Steve agreed tightly.

 

Bucky grimaced. “We’ll get rid of Shield.”

 

Steve wondered if he could get away with turning himself in to let Shield leach away all of his blood for the good of humanity while he finally died, and then he remembered the fierce look Bucky got on his face when he found out about Steve’s rooftop suicide attempt, and he remembered America saying that he was the best version of Steve Rogers out there, and he remembered Natasha begging him to find something to live for, and he remembered the relief in Sam’s voice every time he called, and he thought that it may be hard to get away with anything like that. So, instead of routing escape plans in his head, Steve just said, “Okay,” and hoped that the conversation would be over.

 

“We’ll get you pardoned.”

 

“What if I don’t want to be pardoned?”

 

Bucky shot him a look. “What?”

 

“Never mind.”

 

“Steve,” Bucky said, and his voice was so fucking soft. Steve closed his eyes, and he felt Bucky’s hands close around his wrists. “You gotta talk to me.”

 

“Do I?” Steve managed.

 

“Well... I mean... I can’t make you do anything.”

 

“Damn fucking right.”

 

Bucky sighed. “What’s goin’ on up there?” he asked, and Steve opened his eyes to see Bucky nod at his head.

 

Steve gave a semi-hysterical laugh. “You don’t wanna know.”

 

“We’ve been over this, and I do. I really, really do.”

 

Steve mulled over the day, letting himself stew in his self-hatred for a moment, before he tried to look at it from Bucky’s angle. Bucky had seen Steve be volatilely violent. Had seen him dissociate. Had seen him freak the fuck out. Bucky was probably worried.

 

And the most important thing:

 

Bucky had been a weapon too.

 

Steve stared at some spot on the wall just to the right of Bucky’s head. “I keep trying to be something I’m not.”

 

“What d’you mean?” Bucky whispered, stroking his thumb over Steve’s pulse point.

 

Steve let out a breath and tried to step away and tug away his hands, but Bucky’s grip just tightened a little bit, and he slumped. “This is stupid.”

 

“Never stupid.”

 

Steve bowed his head. “I keep trying to think I’m something else, but all I’ve ever been is a weapon.”

 

“That’s not true,” Bucky whispered.

 

Steve lifted his head a little bit, and Bucky lifted his metal hand to grab the back of his neck, anchoring him.

 

“Steve Rogers, you better listen to me,” he said fiercely, and then their foreheads were pressing together almost to the point of pain, and Steve was squeezing his eyes shut, feeling overwhelmed. “I’ve never ever known you as a weapon.”

 

“But—“

 

“You may’ve been one, sure. But I didn’t know you then. I knew you as a fighter before we died.”

 

Steve flinched a little bit, although his mind cast back to America’s words. Maybe—

 

“And I know you as a runner now. Look. That’s what you were trying to get me to understand, right? You’re a runner.”

 

“I’m—“ Steve said weakly, but he still didn’t know how to finish the sentence, even after thirty-fucking-two years.

 

“You’re Steve,” Bucky said simply. “You don’t have to define yourself within one box. You’re not a weapon.”

 

Steve let out a shuddering breath, and he felt like he was going to crumble to dust in this room. He shook his head against Bucky’s a little bit. “You sound so sure,” he said, voice choked.

 

“I’ve always been sure about you.” Bucky smiled a little bit brokenly. “Every damn day of my life, okay? Always.”

 

Shit.

 

Steve inhaled sharply, and Bucky started to pull back, his eyes widening in some sort of panic. “I mean—“

 

Steve grabbed Bucky’s face before he could pull back any more, and Bucky’s wide eyes went completely round with surprise, and Steve said, “Shut up,” and pressed a small kiss to the corner of Bucky’s mouth. Bucky’s body arced towards the touch, and his eyelashes fluttered, and Steve said, “I can’t fucking believe you,” and kissed him firmly on the mouth.

 

Bucky’s whole body shuddered as he leaned into Steve, and the kiss was quick to turn from a stubborn press of lips-against-lips to something deep and urgent and gasping, and Steve’s brain felt like it was spinning within the confines of his head because—

 

Shit.

 

There was a whole selection of thoughts in Steve’s mind that had been hidden by a wall of defense. The thoughts about Bucky Barnes.

 

Steve remembered loving him in Brooklyn and not realizing it, and he remembered dying for him in the war and not thinking much of it, and he remembered missing Bucky most acutely—remembered the permanent ache in his chest and throat that would keep him awake for weeks at a time. He remembered the cocktail of joy and horror at finding out Bucky was alive. He remembered how the tentative hope had eased away into a haze of dark depression as he waited and looked and waited. He remembered the days of the Civil War, and the turbulent desperation-numbness-anger ratio of emotions constantly at play. He remembered Bucky’s frozen skin like a fucking angel, and he remembered the resentment and the loneliness—god, did he remember the loneliness. He remembered missing Bucky even worse than before. Because this time he wasn’t dead. This time he just didn’t want Steve.

 

Steve remembered the gut-churning fear of seeing Bucky again. Steve remembered the past couple months. He remembered how he’d begun to crumble in front of this man, like the gradual flow of volcanic lava, constantly moving and cooling and existing.

 

A century ago, Bucky Barnes had been his person. But now they were both just people. And they belonged to no one.

 

But Bucky said he was sure about Steve.

 

And Steve hadn’t been sure about anything for a long time.

 

But he wanted to keep waking up next to Bucky. And he wanted to be able to make him terrible pancakes. And he wanted to be able to yell at the Young Avengers. And this whole—situation—made him want to stop fucking running.

 

Steve didn’t know where that left him. Apparently chasing Bucky’s lips like the goddamn fountain of youth was a place to start.

 

The kiss wasn’t pretty, Steve noted dazedly. It was messy and emotional, and it felt like a fucking fight, almost. The ebb and flow of some sort of emotional dominance.

 

Bucky planted a hand on his chest and managed to pull away, and they were both gasping, and Bucky’s eyes were huge, and his hair was messed up, and his lips were swollen, and Steve—Steve didn’t know what he was feeling, but he wound an arm securely around Bucky’s back, pulling them together.

 

Bucky’s eyes roved over his face restlessly, and Steve wanted to kiss him again, but Bucky whispered, “I love you,” a little bit hoarsely.

 

Steve jerked a little bit, startled. “What?”

 

Bucky’s gaze softened into something sad. “Listen to me.” He traced his metal thumb across Steve’s cheek, but Steve was frozen. “I love you as a fighter, and I love you as a runner, and I love you as anything in between. Okay?”

 

To his utter horror, Steve felt his eyes rapidly filling with tears, and he couldn’t see anymore. “I don’t understand.”

 

Stevie—“

 

“I don’t understand,” Steve said again, his voice thickening with hysteria, and then he was fucking crying, his breaths hitching, and it was really fucking ugly, and he hadn’t cried like this maybe since Bucky had died, and if that wasn’t fucked up then Steve didn’t know what was.

 

He tried to withdraw a little bit, but Bucky made a hushing noise, and Steve pressed his face into Bucky’s neck and lost it, sobs convulsing through his whole body, and he didn’t get it.

 

“You can’t,” he gasped “I—I d-don’t—“

 

“I can,” Bucky said quietly, just fucking... holding Steve there. “I do.”

 

Steve’s knees buckled, and Bucky caught him by the arms before he could completely fall, and then he guided them more gently to the floor. Bucky sat with his back resting against his bed, pulling Steve with him, and Steve went limply, unable to even form a coherent thought anymore as he tucked himself against Bucky’s chest and fucking sobbed.

 

Bucky ran his hand through Steve’s hair in this soft way like he was touching something precious, and Steve didn’t deserve it, and he didn’t understand, and Bucky was being so nice to him.

 

Bucky pressed a delicate kiss to the back of Steve’s neck, and Steve shuddered hard, hands twisting into the fabric of Bucky’s shirt.

 

When Steve’s sobs had decreased to exhausted sniffles and hitched breaths and the intermittent silent tear, Bucky said, “I hurt you really badly, didn’t I?”

 

Steve didn’t say anything. He couldn’t.

 

He didn’t remember falling asleep, but he did anyway. And when he woke with a start, Bucky was looking at him with these sad eyes and these dark circles of sleeplessness, and Steve’s stomach swooped with guilt.

 

“Sorry,” he said numbly, his voice rough, although he didn’t move very far away.

 

Bucky hesitantly reached out to grab his hand. “We should probably talk about this.”

 

Steve swallowed convulsively. “Um.”

 

“Super Mega Ultra Ultimate Honesty Hour,” Bucky said solemnly, and Steve cracked a fairly weak smile, and a little bit of light returned to Bucky’s eyes.

 

“Yeah,” Steve sighed. “Probably smart.”

 

They stared at each other.

 

“I’m not starting,” Steve said.

 

Bucky gave him a fond look. “Stubborn bastard.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Alright,” Bucky said, clearing his throat. “I just—why did you—“ Bucky waved his hands around. “You know.”

 

Steve blinked very slowly.

 

Bucky blew out a frustrated breath. “Why did you kiss me?” He immediately ducked his head, and Steve knew with absolute certainty that this was going to be the most stilted conversation of his life.

 

Steve shrugged.

 

“Please,” Bucky said, and his voice was edging on desperate, and Steve remembered that he wasn’t the only person in the room who felt like the axis of the world had shifted.

 

“Right,” Steve said, clearing his throat when his voice cracked. “It looked like you—uh—wouldn’t hate me if I did?”

 

Bucky frowned at him like that was the wrong answer.

 

Steve floundered for a minute. “Short answer—I guess—is—um—I don’t entirely know?”

 

“Long answer?” Bucky asked, a pleading edge to his tone.

 

Steve closed his eyes. He couldn’t look at Bucky for this. “I realized that I was in love with you after you died,” he said slowly.

 

“Oh.”

 

“And then I made myself not—not think about it. At all. For—for a long time. I still haven’t really...”

 

“And?”

 

“And,” Steve said, clearing his throat. “I don’t remember what it feels like to be in love anymore. I’ve—it’s been a long fucking time.”

 

“Oh.” Bucky’s voice was weak.

 

“But, uh. I think I don’t want to remember.”

 

“Right. Right.”

 

Steve looked at Bucky now, and Bucky was hunching his shoulders and looking exhausted, and Steve couldn’t have that, so he reached out and tapped Bucky’s metal palm.

 

Bucky looked up at him.

 

“It’s not the same,” Steve explained, trying desperately to get his thoughts across. “You’re a different man. I’m a different man. We’re separate people. We’re not—we did get rid of the codependency thing.”

 

Bucky blinked at him, clearly kinda confused. “Yeah?”

 

“This,” Steve said, gesturing between them, “is like a completely different dynamic. It’s not just you and me that are different. It’s how we work together.”

 

Bucky said nothing. Just looked at him.

 

Steve shrugged. “I don’t want to remember how it felt before. I want to be able to understand how it works now.”

 

Bucky’s lips parted ever so slightly, and Steve really wanted to kiss him again. “Oh,” Bucky whispered, and it sounded much less pained this time.

 

“I’ve only known you for, like, two months,” Steve said. “I don’t understand us yet. So don’t—don’t look at me like I’m breaking your heart. Please.”

 

“Steve Rogers,” Bucky said, laughing softly, “you break my heart every time I look at you.”

 

“See,” Steve said, trying for a smile. “That’s the type of shit we have to try not to do. That could become—”

 

“The codependency thing,” Bucky finished with a solemn nod.

 

“Yeah.”

 

Bucky nodded a few times. Then he gave Steve this breathtakingly shy look, and a small, beautiful smile pulled at his lips. “We can work with that.”

 

Steve wanted to kiss him.

 

Bucky must’ve seen something in his face, because he leaned forward and pressed his lips to Steve’s forehead for a moment before pulling away. “’Kay. Your turn.”

 

“Is this out of guilt?”

 

Steve chanced a look at Bucky before looking away. He didn’t know what to think. Bucky didn’t say anything for a moment, and then he pulled Steve’s hand away from his wrist. “No.”

 

“No?” Steve echoed.

 

“I do feel guilty,” Bucky admitted, and he took Steve’s other hand and smoothed his thumb over the irritated skin of his wrist. “A lot of shit in this life has been my fault.”

 

“It—“

 

Bucky shook his head with a sad smile. “I’ve been to much more therapy than you have, and trust me. I know you’re gonna tell me that most of it isn’t my fault. And I know that. I do. But guilt isn’t objective. You know that too.”

 

Steve’s shoulders sagged. He did.

 

“But I’d never love someone out of guilt. You know what guilt makes me do?”

 

Steve shook his head.

 

“Nowadays, I mean,” Bucky added. He laughed self-deprecatingly. “’Cause I used to be all masochistic about it.”

 

Steve winced.

 

Bucky gave his hands a squeeze. “I make myself better. I’ve helped so many people because of my guilt.”

 

“And how does that apply here?” Steve asked hesitantly.

 

The corner of Bucky’s mouth quirked upwards. “I just wanna do this right. I wanna be better for you.”

 

“You’re so well-adjusted,” Steve breathed, and maybe he was letting his awe of Bucky’s recovery show for the first time.

 

Bucky laughed, more easily this time. “Took me a while.”

 

Steve ducked his head under the force of the—the—the adoration in Bucky’s gaze. “Your turn.”

 

“Do you want to keep doing this?” Bucky asked.

 

Steve stared at him blankly.

 

“The—the kissing.”

 

Steve snorted despite himself. “Well. I mean. If you do.”

 

“I do,” Bucky said, so quickly that Steve almost didn’t understand him. He laughed.

 

“Only took me a hundred and thirty years,” Steve mused.

 

“Shut up. I think we have a chance now.”

 

“Maybe,” Steve agreed.

 

“Your turn.”

 

Steve took a deep breath. “I’m not an easy person to live with,” he said slowly.

 

Bucky quirked a private smile.

 

“You’ll have to... be patient with me.”

 

“I’d wait forever for you,” Bucky said quietly.

 

What the shit how the fuck was Bucky so good at words??

 

Steve shook his head wordlessly and couldn’t help but press a kiss to Bucky’s lips. Bucky let out a little breath against him, eyes fluttering shut. “You’re so...” Steve murmured, lips brushing Bucky’s as he spoke. “You’re so...”

 

“What?” Bucky whispered dazedly.

 

Steve searched for the word. “Unbelievable. Incredible. Wonderful.”

 

Bucky cocked his head and gently bit down on Steve’s lower lip. “Hate to break it to you,” he murmured as Steve’s breath stuttered, “but so’re you.”

 

Steve shifted so that he was straddling Bucky’s lap. Bucky let his head fall back against his bed and ran his hands up Steve’s chest.

 

“We’re supposed to be talking about serious shit,” Bucky said, but his eyes were dark.

 

“You’re very distracting,” Steve said and started kissing at Bucky’s neck.

 

“Fuck,” Bucky breathed, clutching at Steve’s back. “You...”

 

Steve pulled away to look at Bucky. “How ‘bout a compromise?”

 

Bucky blinked slowly.

 

“Every time we say something true and constructive or whatever, we get to make out.”

 

Bucky gave a gravelly laugh. “Master strategist of the Second World War, everybody.”

 

“I didn’t hear a no.”

 

“You most certainly did not,” Bucky agreed. “Alright.” He took a deep breath. “I visited your house in Iceland with Sam after you left.”

 

Steve went perfectly still.

 

Bucky shrugged. “It’s actually where I admitted that I’d fucked up majorly.”

 

“Shit,” Steve whispered, voice raw.

 

“Sorry I didn’t tell you sooner.”

 

Steve kissed him, and Bucky relaxed slightly. “It’s—it’s okay.”

 

“Really?” Bucky asked dubiously.

 

“Yeah,” Steve said, and realized that he was speaking the truth. Iceland had been the best part of those thirty-two years before America Chavez fell on his car, and he wanted Bucky to know good things about him instead of just the bad. But all he could say was, “Yeah.”

 

Bucky gave him a relieved look and said, “Thank god.”

 

“My turn, I guess.”

 

“What about the making out thing?”

 

“Wait,” Steve said and pulled off his shirt.

 

Bucky’s eyes went to his torso. “Um,” he said, his hands hovering over Steve’s skin.

 

Steve grabbed Bucky’s hand and guided it to rest above his heart and above his newest tattoo. “The two lines are us,” Steve said.

 

Bucky’s finger traced along the blue irregular wave. “Oh,” he said breathlessly. “’Cause we keep separating and intersecting again and again.”

 

“Yeah,” Steve agreed.

 

The next kiss was much softer and slower than their last kisses had been, and Steve felt like he was physically melting into it. He felt so aware of himself, and he could feel everywhere that he and Bucky were touching, and it was amazing.

 

“Um,” Bucky said when they broke apart, foreheads resting together gently. “I want you to stay with me forever.”

 

Steve’s heart broke a little bit, and he offered Bucky the only thing that he could promise. “You and America make me want to stop running.”

 

Bucky was quiet for a minute before he pulled away slightly and looked at Steve intently. “I’m glad she saved you instead of me,” he whispered like a confession.

 

Steve smiled. “Yeah. Me too.”

 

“I’m a little jealous, though,” Bucky admitted. “You two know each other like we used to know each other.”

 

“Yeah,” Steve said. “And that’s okay.”

 

“That’s okay,” Bucky echoed. He pressed a quick kiss to Steve’s lips. “I have another secret.”

 

“What?” Steve whispered.

 

Bucky smiled. “I’m hungry. And I am not making pancakes this morning.”

 

Steve laughed, swinging his legs off of Bucky to sit next to him. “Waffles?”

 

“Fuck you,” Bucky said, but they were both smiling.

 


 

 

“What the fuck,” Kate said blankly when Bucky gave her an omelet.

 

“We’re trying something new,” Bucky said, and then his eyes flicked to Steve, and he ducked his head to hide a shy little smile.

 

Steve grinned at him.

 

Kate was too grumpy to notice. She speared a piece of egg, and it fell off her fork. “I hate life.”

 

David helped Tommy into the kitchen, who was still bleary with sedatives. As soon as Tommy had been situated in the seat next to Kate, David turned to Steve and said, “Are you okay?”

 

Steve blinked in surprise, and he felt something incredibly fond. “I’m—I’m alright.”

 

David nodded curtly. “We aren’t going to let Shield take you away.”

 

Kate nodded in grumpy agreement.

 

Steve felt overwhelmed. “Thanks.”

 

“Sorry,” Tommy mumbled. “My fault.”

 

Steve looked at him curiously.

 

“Shield—I think—beat me up and threw me on your property to have reason to break in and find some fugitives. Captain America—and—uh—some other America something.”

 

“Me,” America said, entering the kitchen. “Miss America.”

 

“Yes,” Tommy said. “They do not like you very much.”

 

America just snorted and sat down next to Steve, kicking him under the table. Steve kicked back.

 

“It’s funny,” Steve said wryly. “But for five minutes there, I actually thought I’d gotten rid of Shield.”

 

Bucky gave him a sad look. “They’re persistent fuckers.”

 

“Are they the ‘cut off one head’ ones?” Kate asked absently.

 

Bucky tensed. “No. Used to be the good guys.”

 

“Oh,” Kate said, then she frowned at Bucky. “You okay?”

 

“Hydra, dude,” David said.

 

Kate’s eyes widened. “Shit, I’m sorry.”

 

“It’s fine,” Bucky said, shaking himself out of something. Maybe a flashback. “What kind of omelet do you want?” he asked Tommy.

 

Tommy wrinkled his nose.

 

Steve watched Bucky cook—watched the muscles of his back move under the thin fabric of an old Stark Industries T-shirt.

 

America kicked him harder.

 

Steve turned to scowl at her.

 

She raised her eyebrows in question, cocking her head slightly in Bucky’s direction.

 

Steve felt heat rush to his cheeks, and America blinked. Her eyes flicked between Steve and Bucky, and then she grabbed Steve’s arm and dragged Steve from the room with as little subtlety as possible, apparently.

 

“Oh my god,” America said. “Did you—“

 

“It’s not—“

 

“—with Bucky—“

 

“—leave me alone—“

 

“—after that mess—“

 

“—I can’t believe you’d think—“

 

“—why didn’t you tell me first thing?”

 

Steve rolled his eyes. “We didn’t—do—anything—besides—like.” He made some vague gestures.

 

“You made out,” America said smugly.

 

“And I passed out on him,” Steve explained. “I would’ve texted you otherwise.”

 

“Steve!” America exclaimed. “You passed out on him?”

 

Steve flushed. “Not like that,” he hissed.

 

America clapped her hands together once. “This is great.”

 

“I thought you hated Bucky?” Steve groused, feigning irritation.

 

America shrugged. “Well, yeah. He messed with you.”

 

Steve loved this kid so much.

 

“But if you’re letting him make out with you, then he’s trying to make amends, and I’m not an asshole. I can respect that.”

 

“Oh,” Steve said, kind of dumbly pleased.

 

“So, you’ll always be my favorite person,” America said, “but I can tolerate Bucky.”

 

Steve laughed. “You’re the best.”

 

America grinned. “I know.”

 

“Now, you just have to make a move on—“

 

“She’s straight,” America said.

 

Steve shrugged. “I really think she’s not.”

 

“Well, she says she’s straight,” America muttered. “And I don’t want to be her—experiment—or whatever.”

 

“Alright,” Steve agreed quietly.

 

America punched him in the arm, shaking herself out of her thoughts with a little smile. “Are you gonna tell the Young Avengers?”

 

“Oh—I don’t know.”

 

America smirked. “This is gonna be great.”

 


 

 

“Today, we’re gonna research Shield,” Bucky said.

 

“Real life Ultimate Recon,” Teddy whispered.

 

Billy was staring at Tommy where he was kinda splayed out on one of the couches, but everyone else was tapping at tablets and looking for information. Steve wondered what the issue was. He knew Billy was evidently some kind of all-consuming magical guy, but he didn’t exactly know what that entailed. Maybe it was like what Wanda could do, but Steve had no way of knowing.

 

Billy looked over at him, his eyes narrowing like he could tell what Steve was thinking, which Steve conceded was entirely possible. He looked back at Tommy after another minute.

 

Bucky came to sit down next to him, and their thighs pressed together. He passed Steve a cup of—something.

 

“Hot chocolate,” Bucky said quietly. “You okay?”

 

“Great,” Steve said, staring at where Bucky was biting his lip.

 

Bucky smiled. “Good. We’re gonna keep you two safe.”

 

Steve let out a breath and dropped his head onto Bucky’s shoulder for a minute.

 

Kate glanced up at them and fumbled with her tablet for a minute. She glanced at America, questions painted all over her face.

 

America looked up and smiled blandly at her.

 

Kate looked at Bucky. She signed something.

 

Bucky glanced at Steve and slowly signed something back.

 

Kate grinned and silently pumped a fist before going back to her tablet.

 

“What’d you say?” Steve asked, righting himself.

 

Bucky smiled softly at him. “I told her to mind her own business, and I guess she read between the lines.”

 

“’Course.” Steve dropped his voice lower, so that he could barely hear himself even with his enhanced ears. “Is Billy okay?”

 

Bucky glanced at Billy and frowned. “Dunno.”

 

“Shield doesn’t officially exist,” Loki complained after a few minutes. “All this information is from before 2014. It’s ancient.”

 

“Says the 500-year-old demigod,” America snarked.

 

“I resent that,” Loki grumbled.

 

“I found shit from 2031,” Teddy piped up. “Some crazy guy claimed they’d kidnapped him. Logan Howlett.”

 

David looked up sharply. “I know him.”

 

“X-gene voodoo?” Kate asked.

 

“Sorta,” David said. “He was the Wolverine. Kinda immortal. Kinda crazy. I think he had the most fucked up PTSD I’ve ever seen.”

 

“Nice,” Bucky said. “Sounds like a fun guy.”

 

Steve smiled a little bit.

 

“But there’s probably some truth to his words,” David said.

 

“He still alive?” America asked.

 

“No idea.”

 

“We should email him,” Teddy said. “His email’s right there.”

 

“That email is older than you,” Bucky said.

 

“Worth a shot.”

 

Everyone crowded around Teddy’s tablet to read his email.

 

Dear Mr. Howlett,

 

We are interested in your knowledge of Shield. Please contact us if you’d like to talk.

 

Thank you in advance,

 

The Young Avengers

 

“Simple. To the point,” Bucky said, nodding. “Not bad.”

 

Teddy hit send.

 

“I’m hungry,” Tommy mumbled into his elbow, loud enough that they could hear.

 

Bucky rolled his eyes.

 


 

 

Steve pressed Bucky against the wall of the pantry and kissed him. “Hi.”

 

“Hi,” Bucky said breathlessly. “I love you.”

 

A stab of something wordlessly panicked and desperate and somehow beautiful stabbed through Steve’s brain, and he kissed Bucky again with more intent. He nudged his thigh between Bucky’s legs, almost without thinking, and Bucky’s breath hitched, and he pulled Steve closed, widening his stance a little bit, and—

 

David opened the pantry door.

 

They all stared at each other for a good five minutes.

 

“Right,” David said, his cheeks darkening. “Right. Of course. I’ll—um—right. I just—“

 

Steve stepped away from Bucky and handed David his usual granola bar snack.

 

David nodded a few times. “I—thanks. Please don’t—ah—contaminate—the—pantry. Please. Okay. Right. I’ll just—“

 

And David shut the pantry door and practically ran away.

 

Steve and Bucky exchanged a look.

 

“Oops,” Bucky said, looking way too smug to give the statement any validity whatsoever.

 

“We traumatized David,” Steve said.

 

“David knows what sex is,” Bucky said flippantly.

 

Steve shifted his weight. That was—

 

“Not that we were gonna—“

 

“I know.”

 

Bucky reached out and put a hand on Steve’s waist. He smiled. “I love you.”

 

Steve looked away and grabbed Bucky’s hand. “Ultimate Recon.”

 

“Right.”

 

 


 

 

“Where’s my snack?” Tommy grumbled when they walked back into the room.

 

“Yeah, Bucky,” Kate said, eyes sparkling. “Did you get distracted or something?”

 

Bucky scowled and threw a bag of grapes in Tommy’s direction. “I wanted strawberries,” he complained. Everyone ignored him.

 

Billy arched an eyebrow. “What’s going on?”

 

David buried his nose in his tablet, and Kate started laughing, and America winked at Steve, and Steve wanted to sink into the floor.

 

“Um,” Bucky said, obviously panicked, and Steve held up both hands.

 

“This one’s on you, Mr. Ultimate Honesty Hour,” Steve said, sitting down next to America.

 

Sergeant Ultimate Honesty Hour,” Bucky corrected absently. “Um.” He looked at Billy, Teddy, and Loki. “Well. When—uh—two people—uh—really like each other—“

 

“Oh my god,” Loki said gleefully, dropping his disinterested expression.

 

Bucky flailed a little bit. “Right. Good talk.”

 

Loki joined Kate laughing, and they high-fived.

 

“They’re banging,” Loki gasped. “Oh my god.”

 

“We’re not—“ Steve said.

 

“Oh my god!” Billy shouted, and Teddy startled. “That’s fucking—adorable!”

 

“Ha-ha-ha,” David said miserably.

 

“Why are we the last to know?” Teddy grumbled. “I swear, nobody tells me anything.”

 

“Literally just found out this morning,” Kate said.

 

“Because it happened last night,” Bucky said.

 

“Wow,” Billy said faintly. “But don’t you two—like—have a legendary friendship?”

 

“Evidently,” Steve muttered, lying down and throwing his feet in America’s lap.

 

Woooooooooowwwwwwww,” Billy said, putting a hand over his heart. “And you literally just started dating?” He made a weirdly high-pitched noise.

 

“Dating is kind of a lame word,” Steve said to the ceiling. America patted his foot consolingly.

 

“Calm down. It’s not that big of a deal,” Bucky lied.

 

“We need to throw a party,” Teddy said solemnly.

 

“Let’s not do that.”

 

“Wait,” Loki said, sitting upright. “I just realized. Is anyone in this room straight?”

 

“Um,” Kate said uncomfortably.

 

Everyone stared at Kate in disbelief.

 

She coughed. “Never mind.”

 

America looked at Steve, eyebrows climbing up her forehead. Steve smiled at her reassuringly. They’d get there.

 

As Billy started philosophizing on their wedding or something, Bucky looked at him across the room and shrugged helplessly, and Steve thought that yeah.

 

They’d get there.

 


 

 

After dinner, Steve was stretched out on Bucky’s bed, watching as Bucky wrestled with some weird pajamas.

 

When Bucky had finally gotten them on, he flopped down next to Steve, and Steve turned to press a kiss to Bucky’s shoulder.

 

Bucky smiled at him. “We’re calling Sam.”

 

Steve blinked. “What?”

 

“Sam!” Bucky said happily, taking out his phone. “He’ll be super happy.”

 

“Why are you Facetiming him?” Steve asked, caught off-guard.

 

“Shhhhh,” Bucky said.

 

Sam picked up the phone, and Steve hadn’t seen him since Iceland, but he still looked old and kind and happy. “Hey, Bucky—oh. Steve! Hi Steve!”

 

“Hi Sammy,” Steve said.

 

“What’s crackalackin?” Sam asked, obviously trying to hide his delight.

 

“This,” Bucky said smugly, and then planted a kiss on Steve’s lips.

 

Sam shrieked and dropped his phone. Distantly, they heard him shout, “T’CHALLA! OH MY GOD! GET OVER HERE!”

 

Bucky laughed, and Steve looked at him curiously. “You told him you—“

 

“That I’m in love with you? Yeah, Steve, Sam knows all.”

 

Steve flushed. “Right.”

 

Sam picked his phone up, and now his face was squished next to T’Challa’s. “Do that again.”

 

Steve rolled his eyes and met Bucky halfway this time for a kiss.

 

“I TOLD YOU SO!”

 

“Stop yelling,” T’Challa complained, but he was smiling. “Finally.”

 

Sam and Bucky yelled at each other some more, and Steve and T’Challa exchanged exasperated looks, and it was kind of wonderful.

 

“We’re going to bed,” Bucky said after a while.

 

“They’re going to BED,” Sam said.

 

“Sammy,” Steve complained.

 

“<Stop teasing them,>” T’Challa murmured. “<Although... we should go to bed too.>”

 

Sam smirked at them. “I gotta go.”

 

“Wow,” Bucky said. “Putting your dick before me. Very mature.”

 

“Seeing as you are a dick, I dunno why you’re surprised.”

 

Bucky laughed. “Go get some.”

 

“Woo!” Sam said, and T’Challa rolled his eyes, and the connection clicked off.

 

Bucky rolled over so that he was lying on top of Steve, burying his face into Steve’s collarbone. “Ugh,” he said, voice muffled.

 

Steve ran his hand through Bucky’s hair. “Heavy,” he said absently.

 

Bucky somehow dropped more weight onto Steve.

 

“Hey,” he protested half-heartedly.

 

“I love you,” Bucky said.

 

Steve swallowed convulsively. “Stop that,” he murmured.

 

Bucky propped himself up on an elbow to look down at Steve critically. “Really?”

 

Steve sighed. “No. Not really.”

 

Bucky grinned. “Yay.” He dropped back down onto Steve’s chest, and Steve wound his arms around Bucky, closing his eyes.

 

He could—he could get used to this.

 

 


 

 

Young Avengers,

 

(FYI that’s a stupid fuckin name.)

 

This is Logan. Why do you want to know about shield?

 

Steve stared at the curt email and instantly decided that he liked this guy.

 

“What an asshole,” Teddy was saying.

 

“I’ll take this,” Steve said at the same time.

 

Howlett,

 

They’re trying to find a legal means of detaining three persons for potentially unjust purposes.

 

Thank you for the response,

 

The YA :)

 

“What’s with the smiley face?” Bucky asked, hovering over Steve’s shoulder.

 

Steve flashed Bucky a very fake and exaggerated smile, and Bucky huffed a laugh.

 

“Alright.”

 

“This is the weirdest conversation ever,” Kate complained. “Imagine what he’s like in real life. Oh my god. Imagine him and Steve talking in real life.”

 

Everyone kind of laughed, and Steve frowned. “I don’t get it.”

 

“Manly man conversation,” America explained. “No emotions or pleasantries here.”

 

“Oh. Hah.”

 

“You’re so weird,” Kate said, eyes crinkling.

 

The response they got a few days later was:

 

Ok.

 

-Logan

 

Steve shrugged. “Guess he didn’t like the smiley face.”

 

Bucky glared at him.

 


 

 

“I’m calling Wanda,” Bucky said when they hadn’t been able to find anything else on Shield a few weeks later.

 

“Why Wanda?” Steve asked from where his head was in Bucky’s lap.

 

“She knows shit.”

 

“Who’s that?” Billy asked distractedly as he scrolled through the TV channels.

 

“Scarlet Witch.”

 

Billy frowned and glanced at Tommy, who was leaning on David and pretending he still required a shitton of medical attention while he really just wanted attention.

 

Steve wondered if Billy knew something about Tommy. Because. Nobody knew anything about Tommy except that he was an asshole.

 

Or... maybe David knew something. They seemed to hang out a lot.

 

Whatever. Bucky was carding his fingers through Steve’s hair, and there was nothing at all to worry about ever anymore.

 

“Hey, Wanda,” Bucky was saying into his phone. “Yeah. We were—Shield. Yeah. Steve’s—yeah. He’s—yeah. Yeah. Can you—? Oh! Great! Yeah. Thank you. Bye.”

 

“That was quick,” Steve mused, relaxing as Bucky’s hand returned to his hair.

 

“She knows shit,” Bucky agreed.

 


 

 

Wanda showed up two days later, and she looked at him for a moment and smiled wide, and Steve threw his arms around her, and they collapsed into a hug.

 

“Missed you,” Steve mumbled.

 

“Me too.” She pulled back. “You look better.”

 

“I do?”

 

Wanda smiled and shoved his shoulder. “Like you’ve got a purpose again.”

 

Steve ducked his head. “Want to meet the reason why?”

 

“Aw,” Wanda said, already nodding.

 

“America!” Steve shouted, and America jogged into the room.

 

“What?” She looked kind of annoyed.

 

“This is Wanda.”

 

“Hi,” she said warily.

 

“Hi.”

 

They regarded each other critically for a moment before Wanda nodded kind of decisively. America relaxed her stance and turned to Steve. “Good.”

 

Steve smiled.

 

Wanda was more or less normal meeting the Young Avengers, but when she and Billy faced each other, it seemed like the room’s air was sucked away.

 

But all they did was shake hands.

 

Her meeting Tommy was similar.

 

Steve tried not to think much of it.

 

Until:

 

“I think those are my sons,” Wanda said to Steve quietly outside the facility.

 

“What?”

 

“Billy and Tommy.”

 

Steve blinked a few times. “Oh my god.”

 

Wanda nodded. “Do with that information what you will. Damn. That’s so weird that you and Bucky ended up taking them in.”

 

Steve swallowed roughly through his shock. “Why?”

 

“You helped me take care of them for a month, and Bucky helped me get them to adoption centers.”

 

“Oh.”

 

Wanda patted Steve on the arm. “I’ll get back to you guys on Shield.”

 

“I—thank you.”

 

And then she was—gone.

 

 


 

 

“Wanda thinks Billy and Tommy are her kids,” Steve blurted out to Bucky as they got ready for bed.

 

Bucky froze. “What the shit?”

 

“I know.”

 

“That actually... explains a lot.”

 

“Should we—should we tell them?”

 

Bucky thought about it for a long moment. He climbed into bed and settled into the crook of Steve’s arm. “Maybe not yet.”

 

Steve sighed. “Alright.”

 

 


 

 

Kate was sick.

 

“I’m not sick,” Kate said miserably, hacking a cough into her elbow.

 

“Princess,” America sighed.

 

“I’m not.”

 

Bucky rubbed his forehead. “Why don’t we take the day off?”

 

“I could fight the entire world at the drop of a hat,” Kate complained.

 

America shook her head, slinging an arm across Kate’s shoulders as she towed her away, presumably to either the med-room or Kate’s room. “I know you can.”

 

“Damn right.”

 

“We get the day off?” Loki asked excitedly.

 

“Can we go to the mall?” Billy said at the same time.

 

Bucky held up his hands. “You guys can do whatever you want. I trust you. But I am taking the day off right here.”

 

“I can drive,” Tommy offered. “If David comes too.”

 

David shrugged. “I don’t know why I expected anything less.”

 

“Nice!” Teddy shouted.

 

“Are you coming?” Tommy asked Loki.

 

Loki shuffled. “Uh. Sure.”

 

Teddy beamed at him.

 

Steve watched from where he was leaning against the doorpost as they trooped out to the car, and Bucky was frowning like a worried mother letting her children out to a party by themselves.

 

“They’ll be fine,” Steve said quietly.

 

“I know,” Bucky said, turning to face Steve. “Wanna hang out in our room and watch movies all day?”

 

Steve smiled fondly. “Yeah.”

 

Bucky linked their hands together as they walked back to their room, and Steve looked over at him and studied his profile.

 

He was beautiful.

 

They did end up watching movies for a while, and Steve kind of liked the teen movies from the eighties. And Bucky pretended not to cry during the scene in The Breakfast Club where they all explained why they were in detention. And Steve loved him.

 

It was different than before.

 

Before, the realization had been furious and all-encompassing and laden with grief. It’d taken up everything, leaving room for nothing else.

 

Now, the realization was as soft as everything else had been so far. It was like a quiet exhale on a cold morning. And Steve loved Bucky because every fucking second they spent together was a choice, and it was their choice. And he loved Bucky because of how gentle he was with the kids, and how much he cared about them even when they were being complete dicks. And he loved Bucky because he fucking cried watching movies made half a century ago and pretended not to notice.

 

“Shit,” Steve said.

 

“I know,” Bucky agreed, pouting at the screen like it’d personally offended him.

 

Steve put his head on Bucky’s shoulder, and Bucky leaned his head on Steve’s.

 

When the movie ended, Bucky whispered, “What a fucking classic.”

 

“I love you so much,” Steve whispered back, and Bucky startled.

 

“You do?” he demanded, turning to face him.

 

Steve swallowed. “Yes.”

 

Bucky swung his leg over Steve’s lap and framed his face with mismatched hands. “Say it again?”

 

“I love you,” Steve said.

 

Bucky smiled like his heart had just been broken in the best way possible. “God. I love you too.”

 

They exchanged a slow, languid kiss like they had all the time in the world. Which. They kind of did. At some point, their shirts came off, and Steve broke away from Bucky’s wonderful mouth to give some rightful worship to Bucky’s collarbone. And chest. He took his time mapping out Bucky’s torso with his lips, giving slow, gentle, open-mouthed kisses to every inch he could reach. Bucky’s skin tasted like salt and something very clean, and his hand was tangled in Steve’s hair, and every time he made a soft sort of noise, Steve felt like he was falling.

 

Eventually, Bucky pulled Steve’s head back, and Steve looked up at him through glazed eyes.

 

“Hey,” Bucky said, his voice cracking.

 

Steve leaned into Bucky’s hand, eyes fluttering shut. “Hi.”

 

“I love you.”

 

Steve flushed, embarrassed. “Loveyoutoo,” he mumbled.

 

Bucky pressed a tiny kiss to Steve’s mouth. “Text America,” he murmured. “See if Kate’s doing okay.”

 

Steve groped for his phone and eventually secured it, opening his texts with America. Bucky dropped his head onto Steve’s shoulder, closing his eyes.

 

STEVE: How’s Kate?

 

AMERICA: Lol she’s a mess

 

STEVE: You love it

 

AMERICA: Do not it’s gross

 

AMERICA: ;)

 

Steve huffed and tossed his phone to the side. “I think they’re doing fine,” he said dryly.

 

“Mmm. Good,” Bucky hummed, and he licked Steve’s neck.

 

Steve made a squeaking noise and cringed away. “Ew.”

 

“Did I know that you were ticklish?” Bucky asked, looking delighted.

 

Steve scowled. “No because I’m not.”

 

Bucky jabbed Steve under the arm, and Steve shrieked. “Stop it!”

 

“Make me,” Bucky said gleefully, and Steve grabbed Bucky’s arms and flipped them around so that Bucky was on his back on the bed, and Steve pinned his arms above his head.

 

“Hah.”

 

“Ha-ha,” Bucky said faintly, his eyes on Steve’s lips.

 

Steve kissed him.

 

“Your tattoos are crazy,” Bucky managed between fervent kisses a little while later. “I love them.”

 

“Me too,” Steve said.

 

“You’re so—“

 

Steve pulled back an inch to give Bucky room to think.

 

“You’re so fucking beautiful.”

 

Steve ducked his head. “Gross.”

 

“It’s true,” Bucky said shamelessly.

 

Steve wanted to tell Bucky about the time he tortured a man for twelve hours to get information before he finally just died, and all Steve did was scoff and move on to the next hostage. He wanted to tell Bucky about burning down Hydra bases while people were still alive in there. He wanted to tell him about the wicked work he could do with a knife and a gun. Just to see if he could wipe that look off his face.

 

He didn’t.

 

Instead, he collapsed on top of Bucky, and Bucky grunted but didn’t do anything besides draping his arms across Steve’s back.

 

“Let’s watch Mean Girls,” Bucky said after a while.

 

“Only if I don’t have to move. And only if you cry when Cady makes her speech.”

 

“You have a deal, good sir,” Bucky said, and he did something that remotely turned on the movie.

 

Steve hummed and nuzzled against Bucky’s neck. “Did you ever think we’d get to be like this?” he asked as the opening credits played.

 

“Like what?” Bucky asked, tracing patterns across his back.

 

“Like... together and kinda normal.”

 

Bucky was quiet before he said, “No. But I can’t tell you how glad I am that we fuckin’ made it here.”

 

“We did,” Steve said, his voice thick.

 

“Only took a hundred and thirty years.”

 

“I love you,” Steve whispered into Bucky’s skin.

 

“What was that?” Bucky asked, his voice teasing.

 

Steve scowled. “Shut the fuck up and watch your movie.”

 

Our movie.”

 

“Fine.”

 


 

 

There were some days in which Steve was rendered incapable of doing anything.

 

It made him feel like shit, but this’d been happening for almost forty years now, so he dealt with it.

 

“We should get you a therapist,” Bucky said nonchalantly one day as Steve glared at the ceiling and cursed his existence.

 

Steve said nothing.

 

Maybe he didn’t want to get better.

 

(That was a lie. Steve hated himself, and he hated hating himself, and the world sucked.)

 

Maybe Steve would think about it.

 

He closed his eyes.

 


 

 

Natasha showed up at the facility out of the blue, and after she was done hugging everyone, she handed Steve a file.

 

“Congrats. You exist,” she said, smiling.

 

Steve looked at the file. “Is this... a fake ID?”

 

Natasha shrugged. “A wise woman once said that truth is a matter of circumstance.”

 

Steve laughed. “I remember the same woman once said, ‘beep beep,’ in the middle of a fucking end of the world battle.”

 

“No,” Natasha said, feigning confusion.

 

He looked back down at the files.

 

ROGERS, STEVEN GRANT

BIRTH: 04 JULY 2019

HAIR: BROWN

EYES: BLUE

HEIGHT: 6’2”

CITIZENSHIP: ICELANDIC; AMERICAN

ENHANCEMENTS & REGISTRATION: N/A

 

Steve felt like he was going to cry. “Thank you, Nat.”

 

“You have a choice now,” Natasha said. “You don’t have to keep being a fugitive. You’re a normal fella now.”

 

Steve hugged her again.

 

“I got one for you too,” Natasha said, poking her head up to look at America.

 

America’s eyebrows shot up. “Really?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“I love you,” Steve informed her.

 

“Love you too, Steve,” Natasha said happily.

 

Bucky smiled at them.

 

America smiled too.

 

 


 

 

Steve was sitting on the floor in the gym, watching as Bucky and the kids dicked around with equipment, not really getting anything accomplished but having a lot of fun.

 

“Guess who I am,” Loki demanded, hefting a fake Mjiolner.

 

“Thor,” everyone chorused. Loki pouted.

 

“Guys, check this out,” America said, hefting a—

 

Holy shit.

 

“Ultimate Frisbee,” she said, smirking.

 

Bucky shot Steve a panicked look, and Steve numbly got to his feet.

 

The shield’s design had faded so thoroughly that you’d only be able to see it if you looked really hard for it. So it just looked like a massive disk with a few scuffmarks on it. Claw marks too. From the—from T’Challa.

 

Steve swallowed convulsively, and walked over to the group. They must have sensed something serious, because they’d all fallen quiet as Steve stepped over to look at America and look at the shield and look at everything.

 

America met his gaze with a question in her eyes. “What’s up?”

 

Steve made an aborted movement towards the shield, and then gave a little laugh. “That’s—“

 

America glanced down at it, and her eyes widened in realization. “The shield.” She quickly thrust it forward, offering it to him.

 

Steve took a step back to get that thing the fuck away from him. “No,” he said firmly. “You keep it.”

 

“Me?” America said, aghast.

 

“Suits you,” Steve said simply.

 

“Captain America Chavez,” Kate whispered.

 

America stared down at the shield for a moment, and everyone watched in silence as she frowned at it. “You know what,” she finally said, very slowly. “I don’t know if I’m ready for this yet.”

 

Steve smiled, feeling at ease for maybe the first time in his entire life. “When you’re ready. You know where to find it.”

 

America nodded, her eyes sparkling. “Yeah.”

 

And Steve felt something tight in his chest loosen for the first time in thirty-two years.

 

 


 

 

They hadn’t heard anything about Shield in months, and Steve had a legitimate fake ID. He felt like he was going to burst out of his skin.

 

“I’m going to dye my hair,” Steve informed Bucky, who was reading a book on their bed, his tone challenging.

 

“Okay?” Bucky said blankly.

 

He obviously did not expect Steve to step out of the bathroom an hour later with blue hair.

 

“What the fuck?”

 

Steve scowled. “I told you that—“

 

“I thought—“

 

Bucky stared at him. Steve glared back.

 

“Holy shit.”

 

“Holy shit, what?” Steve demanded.

 

Bucky yanked him in for a rough kiss. “It suits you,” he whispered. “Hey, remember that fishnet tanktop you bought?”

 

“...Yes?”

 

“You still have it?”

 

“I—yeah?”

 

“I wanna see what you look like with it on,” Bucky said.

 

“This is kinky,” Steve observed.

 

“Shut up. I’m curious. I’m a scholar. Humor me here.”

 

Five minutes later, Steve was standing in the middle of their room in jeans and a fucking fishnet tanktop, his hands still stained blue, and his hair bright and flashy and different.

 

“Fuck me to hell,” Bucky whined.

 

“Like I said: Kinky,” Steve said, a cross between amused and aroused.

 

“I’ll show you kinky.”

 

“Yeah?” His voice was maybe a little bit breathless.

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Steve! Bucky!” Billy called from just outside their room. “David and Tommy—“

 

“I guess I’ll show you kinky later,” Bucky sighed and opened the door.

 

Billy blinked at them. “I can come back later,” he said, his eyes glued to Steve.

 

Steve groaned in embarrassment. “It was Bucky’s idea,” he said before Bucky could ruin his honor any more.

 

“Get in here,” Bucky said, ignoring him. “What about David and Tommy?”

 

Billy scowled, throwing himself into the chair that Steve and Bucky never ever used. “They’re making out.”

 

“What?” Steve demanded, kind of helplessly delighted.

 

“First my boyfriend, now my brother,” Billy said gloomily. “That guy’s a menace.”

 

“Your—“ Bucky said. “Billy, how did you—“

 

“I can read minds, dude. I know Tommy’s my brother.”

 

“Oh,” Bucky said.

 

“Tommy doesn’t know. But still.”

 

“Just let David live,” Steve said. “They obviously like each other in a weirdly emotionally stunted way.”

 

Billy glared at him. “I can’t believe they got together before America and Kate.”

 

“Kate’s working out her shit,” Bucky said firmly. “Leave her be.”

 

“Fine,” Billy said. “Sorry.” He got out of the chair. “This was dumb. Go back to your weird kinky sex thing.”

 

“Billy!” Bucky said, horrified, and Billy actually cackled as he let himself out of their room.

 

“Well,” Steve said. “You heard the man.”

 

“Oh my god, shut up.”

 

 


 

 

Sometimes Steve liked to walk around the grounds and give himself the illusion that he was running away so that he wouldn’t actually do it.

 

He found himself at the cavern, and he remembered breaking rocks because he couldn’t believe that Bucky wanted to keep him around.

 

He thought that maybe he was getting there now. Maybe he believed it a little bit—or a lot bit—more than he had.

 

Kate was there.

 

She sat with a vacant gaze and hunched shoulders and said, “Hi,” in a quiet tone that Steve had never heard from her.

 

“Hi,” Steve said and sat down next to her. “Mind company?”

 

“Stay,” Kate said.

 

Steve settled himself in and waited.

 

“I like this cave a lot,” Kate said eventually, and Steve refrained from saying, “cavern,” because this was a serious moment. She looked at him. “You know. I have really fucking great vision.”

 

“Yeah,” Steve agreed because Kate’s aim was insane.

 

Kate nodded. “I like going down there and not being able to see. It’s like.” She sighed, scrubbing a hand through her hair. “It’s like a reminder.”

 

“How so?”

 

“Me and David are the most defenseless people on this team,” she said bluntly. “I’ve got a stick from the Paleolithic Era, and David’s just got the knowledge from his dead X-gene.”

 

“You’re not defenseless.”

 

Kate scoffed. “I’m not the Wiccan though.”

 

“Don’t compare yourself to Billy,” Steve said quietly.

 

“Right,” Kate mumbled. “But anyway. I like not being able to see down there because it reminds me that even though I have fucking perfect vision, I still shouldn’t rely on it.”

 

Steve’s heart ached. “I—I know what you mean.”

 

“I know you do,” Kate said. “It’s why I’m telling you this instead of Bucky.”

 

Steve smiled.

 

“There are no absolutes,” Kate said like a mantra. “That fucking cave reminds me of that.”

 

“Good,” Steve said.

 

Kate took a deep breath, squaring her shoulders. “I think I’m in love with America,” she said like she was bracing for a fight.

 

Steve patted her on the shoulder. “Good.”

 

Kate sagged in relief. “Thanks.”

 


 

 

“Hey,” Steve said, deliberately nonchalant as America doodled on her converse. “Can I get a tattoo like your stars?”

 

America gave him a look. “Why?”

 

“Because they’re real,” Steve said, hoping he was making sense.

 

“Huh,” America said. “Sure.”

 

She went with him to get them done, and she watched like a hawk as the tattoo artist carved a band of blue-white stars around his left arm, right above the decisive black line.

 

“How are they?” the tattoo artist asked nervously, looking at America instead of Steve for approval.

 

“Good,” she said. She looked at Steve.

 

“Good,” he agreed.

 

America nodded decisively. “Good.”

 

When Bucky saw the tattoo, he glared at him. “You didn’t tell me you were gonna get that.”

 

“Surprise,” Steve said.

 

Bucky gave him a semi-reluctant kiss. “I hate you.”

 

“Yep.”

 

But later that night, Bucky whispered, “I’m so proud of you,” into his skin, and Steve felt alight with fire and alive and burning.

 


 

 

Steve frowned at the rapidly fading purple of his hair and made his way into the bathroom.

 

He started trying to wash out more of it so that it wouldn’t corrupt his next color (pink) as much, and since Steve used the cheap hair dyes, it worked pretty well.

 

He reached for the pink, and then something caught his eye.

 

Steve stared at the mirror. He placed his palms flat on either side of the sink and looked closer.

 

Dear god.

 

Bucky found him like that a few hours later, sliding into the cramped space of the bathroom with concern. “Hey,” he said softly. “Everything alright?”

 

“Buck,” Steve said, voice rough and broken. “Look.”

 

Bucky frowned and followed Steve’s gaze to the mirror, then back to him. “What the fuck—“

 

Steve’s breaths shuddered in and out, and he managed a watery smile, and Bucky’s eyes were wide and breathlessly hopeful, because it was right there in front of them—

 

A gray hair.

 


 

 

Steve stared at the doctor, and the doctor stared at Bucky as he explained.

 

“Dr. Banner wasn’t wrong when he said your cells keep regenerating,” he said, and Bucky nodded. “But there’s not an exhaustive supply. Your cells are just dying at a much slowly rate.”

 

“How much slower?” Steve demanded, voice hoarse.

 

The doctor glanced at him, and Steve’s fingers spasmed. “I’d say about three times. Maybe closer to two-point-five.”

 

“But they’re dying?” Steve said desperately. “The cells?”

 

“Yes,” the doctor said uncomfortably.

 

“Thank fucking god,” Steve gasped, dropping his head into his hands.

 

“I’ll—just—give you two a minute.”

 

“Thanks,” Bucky said quietly. The door closed.

 

Steve folded in on himself, breaths shuddering, trying to pretend that he wasn’t crying.

 

“Stevie?” Bucky murmured, and Steve looked up at him.

 

“We’re gonna die someday, Buck,” Steve said.

 

Bucky’s smile was sad and breathtaking. “Yeah, Steve. Yeah. We are.”

 

Steve pressed his forehead against Bucky’s collarbone. “There’s an end.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“We’re not immortal.”

 

“We’re not.”

 

Steve took a minute to get himself under control before he raised his head again, eyes red-rimmed.

 

Bucky had this tentatively hopeful look in his eyes. “Does this mean you’re not gonna kill yourself?”

 

Steve ached for him viscerally, but he just offered a subdued smile. “We’ll see.”

 

Bucky pulled Steve into his arms. “I’ll take it.”

 

 


 

 

They got the email out of nowhere.

 

I’ll meet you tomorrow.

 

-Logan :)

 

“What the fuck?” Teddy complained. “This guy is so rude. Literally no manners.”

 

“I like him,” Steve said thoughtfully. "Smiley face."

 

“I should meet him,” Bucky said.

 

“I’ll do it,” Steve said, shooting him a little smile. “This is my war.”

 

Bucky frowned reluctantly. “Alright.”

 

Logan showed up on a motorcycle, wearing an outdated leather jacket and smoking a cigar and all-around looking like he belonged in a movie from when Steve had been frozen.

 

“Logan Howlett?”

 

“Yep,” he said, swinging his leg off his bike. “You the Young Avengers?”

 

Steve shook his head. “Just Steve.”

 

Logan grunted. “Shield after you?”

 

“And a few others.”

 

Logan nodded a few times. “I think I have some shit that could save your lives.”

 

“Thanks.”

 

Logan shot him a grumpily curious look. “Did they give you the whole greater good spiel?”

 

“Yes,” Steve said. Something about this man felt like he was talking to a CO all over again. He resisted the urge to snap off a salute.

 

“It’s bullshit,” he said. “They don’t want you for nothin’ but weaponry.”

 

Steve took a breath and nodded. He’d expected that.

 

Logan handed Steve a little backpack. “Hard copies. Don’t scan them to a tablet. They’ll find it.”

 

“Noted,” Steve said. “Thank you for your help.”

 

Logan shrugged. “Whatever. Was just in the area.”

 

“Right.”

 

“Good luck,” Logan said, mounting his bike just as abruptly as he’d arrived.

 

“You too.”

 

Logan offered a noncommittal grunt and revved his engine.

 

Steve stared at the backpack.

 

Maybe they had a fighting chance here.

 


 

 

Steve Rogers was old and tired and alive on his 105th annual Mourning Days.

 

And he was done mourning.

 

Maybe he’d never gotten his closure. Maybe Peggy and the Commandos and Sarah Rogers and a whole generation and the Avengers had all faded to the back of his mind without a proper goodbye. Maybe Steve had never been able to say goodbye to himself or to Bucky, and maybe closure was fucking overrated.

 

He was done mourning for the memory of who he used to be, and he was done mourning for the shadowy memory of who the people he loved used to be.

 

He was a person now. And he was a runner, and he was a fighter, and he was not a weapon, and he was going to be okay.

 

Steve watched Bucky through the window. He was struggling with some sort of decorations. It was the anniversary of their deaths, and they were celebrating. It was probably symbolic, but Steve was too old and tired to try to piece it together.

 

America walked up beside him, and they watched Bucky curse as he tried to untangle some wires.

 

“Dork,” Steve noted.

 

“Asshole,” America agreed.

 

Steve smiled at her. He remembered a stilted car ride and thought about how far they had come. She’d become his family. And maybe someday, Steve would be able to say with confidence that they’d maybe joined the Young Avengers family too. But for now and forever, he was content with his lot.

 

He was... he felt kind of... happy.

 

“You two are really gross,” America said, and Steve smiled at her.

 

“You wish you and Kate were as gross as us.”

 

“I really don’t,” America said, wrinkling her nose.

 

Steve laughed quietly.

 

“Can you make kugel for the death party?” David asked, wandering into the kitchen to grab his granola bar.

 

“Yeah,” Steve said, disproportionately pleased that someone liked something that he cooked.

 

America rolled her eyes. “I’ll make it with you,” she said.

 

“Great,” Steve chirped happily. “Put some egg noodles on to boil. I’m gonna go see if Bucky needs any help before they’re ready.”

 

“Ugh,” America said fondly. “I’ll call you back in.”

 

“Thanks,” Steve said, punching her in the arm as he passed.

 

Steve felt weird and giddy. Like he was seven years old again or some shit. “Buck!” he shouted, and Bucky started to turn towards him, and Steve ran forward and leapt at him because he was a dumb idiot.

 

“Shit,” Bucky said, scrambling to catch him, and then they were losing balance and falling back onto the grass. Bucky laughed and rubbed at his head.

 

“Sorry,” Steve said, hovering over Bucky.

 

“You’re being weird,” Bucky noted.

 

“It’s just,” Steve said. “I’ve been alone on this holiday for the past hundred and five years.”

 

“Jesus,” Bucky swore.

 

“I’m just happy,” Steve said simply. “I don’t think I liked being alone very much.”

 

Bucky smiled up at him, and there were eons of great things and promises and memories in his eyes. “I love you,” he whispered.

 

“I know,” Steve murmured. He pressed a chaste kiss to Bucky’s lips. “Need any help out here?”

 

Bucky shoved Steve off of him, and Steve rolled to the side so that their shoulders were pressed together. Bucky looked at him, and Steve looked back. “Help me with the lanterns.”

 

Steve got to his feet, and Bucky watched him lazily as Steve started to string up these fucking lanterns before he finally joined him with a groan, and Steve didn’t know why there needed to be fucking lanterns, but oh well.

 

America yelled at him that the pasta was ready. And Bucky caught his wrist before Steve could go inside and kissed him briefly.

 

And Steve felt fire and life burning through his veins.

 

America wordlessly handed Steve a spoon, and Steve pointed at the refrigerator, and she opened it to shovel through some ingredients.

 

“So,” she said, head stuck in the fridge. “What’s got you in such a good mood?”

 

“It’s Mourning Days,” Steve said. “Happy Mourning Days.”

 

“You’re weird,” America noted.

 

“Yeah.”

 

She eyed him critically. “You haven’t run away in a while,” she observed, almost accusatorially.

 

“Yeah,” Steve agreed. He shrugged. “I think I’ll stick around for a while.”

 

America nodded. “Good.”

 

Steve nodded back and wordlessly passed her the spoon.