Okay, Bucky conceded. As Clint would say—this looked bad.
His arms and legs were bracketed against a concrete wall in a cell that stank of hard water and stale sweat. Scratchy cheap clothing scraped against old wounds, and an electric current pierced him and rattled his teeth every time he tried to shift. He’d woken up worse ways, but not recently. Not since he stopped belonging to someone else.
Opposite him, a grainy television screen mounted in the wall crackled to life. Scan lines raced over black and white closed-circuit footage—Steve and Sam and Wanda and Clint, all in similar rooms, in similar predicaments. Bucky groaned and tipped his head back against the wall.
God dammit, Steve. That’s not how this was supposed to go.
“It would seem you all are enjoying a very lively retirement,” a disembodied voice narrated through the television speakers. “Let’s see just how badly you wish to stay alive.”
The view settled on the camera in Steve’s cell, and a square of white light spilled over his face from an opened door. Steve jutted his chin up, defiant. No, Steve. Don’t. You’ll only make it worse—
Then the black shadow of an approaching figure stretched across him.
Bucky couldn’t be sure who screamed first: Steve or himself.
It had started, as trouble often did, with one of Steve Rogers’s brilliant ideas.
Bucky woke with a start. He rarely had nightmares now that Sam and Wanda had blunted the codewords in his head. But bad dreams still got their teeth in him sometimes. Tonight he dreamed he was drifting in a dark lake, starlight glimmering in its depths. But the starlight kept getting blotted out by something lurking in the water below. It had been enough push him into fight or flight and tear him from sleep’s grasp.
“Steve,” he whispered, and reached for him. How quickly he’d gotten used to it—Steve beside him, ready to pull him into his arms and lull him back to calm. But as he reached over, he found Steve’s side of the bed empty.
Bucky’s eyes flew open and he bounded to his feet.
“I’m here.” Steve stood at the panoramic windows across the suite, outlined in silvery moonlight. “Sorry. I couldn’t sleep.”
Bucky let out his breath and waited for his crackling nerves to stop. Then moved toward Steve, wrapped his arms around his waist from behind, and propped his chin on Steve’s shoulder. “My fault?” he asked, in a tiny voice.
“No—no, that’s not it at all.” Steve clasped his hands over Bucky’s at his waist. “You weren’t . . .”
He wasn’t screaming. Well, that was something. Small steps, he supposed.
“No,” Steve continued, “I was just thinking. About the people who are after those gems. They’ve got to have a reason for it, and a reason for knowing about them. They’ve gotta have backing, you know? These haven’t been your average mercs.”
Bucky exhaled against Steve’s skin, then breathed him in: soapy-clean and soft. “We just got done beating up those AIM douchebags. Don’t you think you deserve a break?”
“Not when someone’s out there trying to kill us all.” Steve turned in Bucky’s arms, facing him now, and looped his arms around Bucky’s neck. “But if you need to sit this one out . . . I understand.” He traced his thumb against Bucky’s jaw. “When I told you it was your choice to help me, I meant it. And every time, it’s your choice.”
Bucky smiled, even as his throat tightened with some unnamed emotion. All Steve had offered him was a choice, ever since they left Siberia. His choice to go under cryo. His choice to follow Sam and Wanda’s therapy plan, though he’d fought against it at first. His choice to join Steve and his crazy crusade to fight all the battles that Stark and his Avengers couldn’t and wouldn’t fight.
Most of all, it had been his choice to be with Steve.
It hadn’t been perfect—there was no fairytale for them, not after all they’d lived through. But it was everything he’d wanted. Steve was everything he’d wanted. Patient and understanding and always, always honest, in a way they never could be with each other in their old lives. There was nothing left to hide. And Steve—Steve was always worth fighting for.
“If we do this plan of yours,” Bucky said, “ do you promise you’ll take a break after?”
“A break?” Steve raised one eyebrow. “What do you have in mind?”
Bucky tilted his head toward the misty Wakandan mountains beyond their suite, gleaming with reflected stars. “I’m thinking . . . you, me, some poolside drinks. And no unlocking the suite for anything except room service for a week.”
Steve laughed softly, then pressed a kiss to Bucky’s temple. “All right, I think I can live with that.”
The tension in Bucky’s chest eased. “Then first thing in the morning, let’s round up the troops. Hear your next crazy plan.”
Twelve hours later, they’d brokered a deal, and landed in Marrakech to see it through.
They camouflaged the quinjet in the mountains outside of town. Clint headed into the city to scout for a base of operations while they waited for the sun to sink into the sea. “Found us a cheap hostel,” Clint said, when he returned. “It’s got a great sniper’s perch. Coverage on three sides, open square beneath it, a floor taller than its neighbors, easy vantage of all the entrances.”
“Any objections?” Steve asked the crew, while signing the same to Clint. Bucky, Sam, and Wanda all shook their heads. “Then lead the way.”
But as they wound through the narrow, labyrinthine streets and the hostel’s rusted sign came into view, Bucky stopped cold.
Felt the sharp claws of memory raking across his skin. Heard the click of a trigger. The echoing screams.
“No.” Bucky’s jaw trembled as he tried to form words. “Can’t stay here.”
Steve studied him for a moment. He was shaking, stomach churning with unnamed dread. Please don’t ask, Bucky thought. Please don’t ask me to explain. Steve reached for his shoulder, question already forming on his lips, but Bucky shook his head. Please. No.
He doubted he could put it in words, anyway. Some of the soldier’s memories were images and nothing more—surveilling an area, slipping into a hideout, waiting out the endless hours and days until his target came into view. Boring in its repetition. Dangerous in its boringness. And always ending much the same—a spray of blood, the smell of fire, or a squirming body going still.
Steve released Bucky’s shoulder. “Then we’ll find somewhere else.”
Bucky closed his eyes and curled his hands into fists, waiting for his unease to dissipate.
“Give me a minute,” Wanda said. “I think I have an idea.”
Ten minutes and a flurry of French haggling later, Wanda secured an entire riad for rent several blocks away: three stories of Moroccan-style townhouse, the rooms all facing a central interior courtyard. Only a few windows, all of them covered with dense metalwork lattices. Good roof access, which put Clint and Sam both at ease. And the smell of za’atar and roasted lamb from the souk around the corner was nothing short of divine.
“You guys set up base,” Bucky told the team. “I’ll go get us some dinner.” It was the least he could offer them, after balking at the first hostel.
“I can go with you,” Steve said.
But the memory was still itching under Bucky’s skin; the enclosed tile courtyard of the riad was pressing in on him from all sides. He forced a casual smile and shook his head. “I’ll only be a minute.”
Steve grimaced, but didn’t press.
In a loose linen tunic and trousers, Bucky looked like any other tourist strolling the narrow stucco streets of Marrakech, nighttime breezes toying with his hair. He wore a holographic mesh over his left arm to make it look like his normal skin, but kept his hands tucked in his pockets as he walked anyway, his expression light.
No one gave him a second glance as they carried groceries home or lingered at the cafés. It felt good to be invisible sometimes—like he was anyone and no one, caught between a stranger and a shadow. Strangers had no past, no future. Shadows had no scars.
When he reached for the door handle on the souk, however, he caught a glimpse of two men watching him across the street, their faces reflected in the glass.
His vision narrowed. Blood thudded in his ears. In the space between heartbeats, he remembered his protocols.
He committed their appearance to memory as best he could: one tall and gaunt, far too pale, and wearing mirrored aviators despite the hour. The other at least a head shorter, and in a seersucker suit that spoke of too much money. Could be their contacts, scouting them out. Or could be the buyers they were about to double-cross. Bucky suspected it was the latter. They looked like just the sort of men too easily lured by promises of power and glory.
He yanked the door to the souk open and browsed through the food vendors’ stalls, ordering in French and angling himself just enough to keep one eye on the door. The men stayed where they were at the café across the street. Watching. Not speaking to each other. Once he’d finished, Bucky stacked the carry-out bags up and down his arm, and moved calmly as he could out the same door he’d entered. After about a block, he heard their loafers shuffle along the sidewalk behind him.
He reached the front door to the riad, but deliberately walked past it. Had to shake these guys first. Assuming he wasn’t being paranoid, which, god, always seemed too likely. Last month they’d been tracking down a lead in Bangkok. Someone had approached him to ask directions, coming up in his blindspot, and he nearly threw them through a wall. Steve managed to smooth the situation over, but even now, some of the team members were giving him a wider berth.
Bucky stopped to peek inside a souvenir shop, and caught the men’s shapes in reflection as they slipped toward a doorway to hide. Not paranoia, then. He squared his shoulders with a faint whir from his arm. If they knew what he was, what he was capable of, then they might have brought something to counter him, but they didn’t appear to have any weapons. No tell-tale bulks of holsters. All the same, he needed to ditch them quick, then double back to the riad.
Then, down the street, he heard the throb of nightclub music, and spotted a thick crowd waiting to get in. Crowds. Perfect. He remembered a time where witnesses and bystanders were the last things he wanted, but no more. The more eyes on him—and the men—the more cautious they’d have to be.
Bucky wove through the throng, carry-out bags bumping against people, and offered a few half-hearted apologies in French before he slipped inside a narrow alleyway.
Now the soldier’s skillset could really come out.
A run, a high jump, and a bounce off a low window ledge. He caught hold of the roof’s lip with his metal hand, painted tiles crunching in his palm, and swung himself onto the roof. Below him, the two men staggered into the alley, then stopped, turning back and forth. With a quick hand signal, they headed back onto the street and pushed their way toward the club’s entrance.
Bucky allowed himself a faint smile, then took off at full speed across the rooftops back toward the riad.
As he landed on the riad’s roof, Clint swung toward him, staff at the ready, but then lowered it as his eyes adjusted. “Fuck. There you are. Cap’s about to pace a hole in the floor wondering where you went.”
Sorry, Bucky signed. Had to shake a tail.
Clint grimaced. “How many?”
Two, but there could be more. No idea who they are. Our buyers, maybe. Unarmed.
“Okay.” Clint eyed the bags of food. “Leave some grub with me, and I’ll take first watch tonight.”
Deal. Bucky unpacked one of the containers and passed it over to Clint, then slipped through the roof access panel into the riad.
“About freaking time.” Sam reached up to help Bucky climb down. “Your boyfriend was this close to calling in an airstrike.”
“Was not.” Steve offered a sheepish shrug. “But I shouldn’t have let you go alone.”
Bucky scowled at him as they headed down the stairs to the courtyard. “I can handle myself.”
“I’m not saying you can’t—”
Bucky shot him a look, and Steve held his hands up. “Sorry. You’re right.”
Sam and Bucky set up the tagine meats, khoubz bread, and platters of couscous on the tiled lip of the courtyard fountain while Wanda grabbed some plates from the kitchenette. They dug into their meal in silence for a few minutes, but Bucky sensed Steve watching him, his blue eyes tense.
“So,” Steve said. Trying his best to sound casual. “What was the holdup?”
Bucky set his plate down in his lap. “Someone was watching the corner. I think our buyers might be suspicious.”
“They should be,” Wanda said with a toothy grin. “Anything we can’t handle?”
“Two goons. One might be the buyer himself—don’t know for sure. I managed to ditch them outside a club a few avenues away.”
Steve’s face tightened, and Bucky braced himself. He knew what was coming next. And after his episode when he saw the hostel, he couldn’t entirely blame Steve. But god, he wished Steve wouldn’t.
“—I handled it fine, okay? They don’t know where we are.” Bucky locked eyes with him. “Please,” he added, softer. You trusted me enough to bring me onto your team. Please trust me now.
Steve was silent for a moment, but then finally unfolded his arms. “Tomorrow’s problem, then.” A huge smile painted his face—too big, though Bucky wasn’t going to complain.
“Although . . .” Bucky looked down at his plate. “I think I might have an idea.”
Sam exhaled. “Oh, boy. Here we go.”
This time when Steve looked at him, it was with a crooked grin and a dimple in his cheeks. “All right. Let’s see what you’ve got, Buck.”
“Eat first,” Wanda said, waving a plastic fork at them. “Then we formulate a new plan.”
“Why do I have a feeling something terrible is about to happen?” Sam asked.
“Because it’s us,” Wanda replied. “What else is new?”
Bucky managed a faint grin. “Trust me. I think you guys will like this one.”
“I should’ve gone with you.” Steve splashed his face in the sink, then crossed their bedroom on the riad’s top floor. His eyelashes were dewy in the lantern light.
“Steve. Come on.”
Steve had kept his doubts to himself while they reworked the mission plan. He’d done nothing but roll his eyes with Bucky while they listened to Wanda and Sam argue about some drinking game they had. But in private now, Steve’s unease had surfaced again, tightening his shoulders and making his expression long. “I was too busy thinking about tomorrow,” Steve said, “and I didn’t think . . .”
“Would you drop it already? I told you it’s fine.” Bucky sank onto the edge of the bed, which rested on a raised tile platform. Gauzy curtains framed the bedposts, and he reached out and absently toyed with one of them. “This is what I’m trained for, after all.”
“Yeah, I know.” Steve laughed, humorless, to himself. Embarrassed. “I guess it’s just that sometimes, I like to think . . .”
Bucky shook his head. Steve turned away from him now, tugging his shirt off overhead; the complex knot of muscles along his shoulders stretched and bunched as he did so. That sight tightened inside of Bucky like a screw—he didn’t think that feeling would ever fade—but right now he was too irritated to act on it.
“You like to think that it’s like old times,” Bucky said. “Like when we were with the Commandos. Am I right?”
Steve turned back toward him with a tired smile. “Yeah, I guess so.”
“Sleeping under the stars, drinking with our pals, and the only people we ever put in our rifle sights were one-hundred percent Bad Guys. Yeah?” Bucky tilted his head to one side. “That everything is new and fresh and I don’t have decades of bad memories lurking in the shadows of every alleyway.” He clenched his teeth. “That you don’t.”
Steve glanced down, the tips of his ears flushing pink. “Yeah. Something like that.”
“You realize that even before you pulled me out of that Hydra labor camp, I’d racked up eight kills as a sniper.” Bucky’s voice lowered. “And by the time you formed the Commandos, I already had the serum inside of me.” God, he didn’t want to fight—that was the last thing he needed, before tomorrow—but he needed Steve to understand. “That time was never what you thought it was. Never what I thought it was, either. But if you think I’m not ready to deal with this—”
“I don’t think that at all. It came out wrong, is all.” Steve stood before him, statuesque in the light trickling through the lanterns overhead. “You’re more than capable of handling yourself. I get it.”
“You saw me get nervous about the hostel, though. It got you fired up.” Bucky tugged Steve toward him, holding him by his hips between Bucky’s thighs. “Because you’re still the same scrappy son of a bitch.”
“Scrappy?” Steve echoed. Body tensing under Bucky’s touch. Bucky smirked, his irritation ebbing away, and ran his thumbs in slow circles around Steve’s hips.
“The moment someone you care about is upset, or hurt, you’re looking for someone to blame. Someone to punch.”
Steve laughed, then it turned sharper as Bucky pressed his lips to Steve’s stomach, just above the waistline of his boxer briefs. “Stop, stop.”
Bucky caught the elastic waistband in his teeth with a laugh of his own. With a quick inhale of air, Steve went very still. Bucky leaned back, tugging the band open, then let it snap into place. “No?” he asked softly. “Feeling shy all of a sudden?”
“Well, these rooms aren’t exactly private.” Steve gestured to the metal lattice door—all that separated their room from the balcony overlooking the central courtyard.
“Trust me,” Bucky said. “Sam and Wanda are otherwise preoccupied.”
“Wait—no.” Steve backed away from him. “No. Really?”
“I’d put money on it. I can see where that’s headed.” Bucky slid out of his linen tourist clothes and peeled off the wrapping around his left arm. “In fact, I’ll bet you they’re down there playing tonsil hockey right now.”
Steve glanced back at him with one raised eyebrow. “All right. You’re on.”
As Bucky climbed beneath the covers, Steve peered down at the courtyard below, hands on his hips and a wry grin on his face. Ever the soldier, Bucky thought as he looked at his stance, even without his uniform or his commission. Yet he was the right kind of captain, the one with his heart so full of love for his troops that he never forgot what they were fighting for. He shouldn’t take it personally that Steve was concerned about him. Maybe he’d have worried the same over Wanda or Clint or Sam.
But Bucky had spent too long feeling breakable. Broken, even. He still felt too far away from whole.
“They’re playing chess, actually.” Steve turned toward the bed and strode toward it.
“With their tongues?”
Steve sat on the edge of the bed, still grinning. “Afraid not. You can pay me later.”
“Damn. Wanda’s probably cheating, too.” He rose up onto his knees and wrapped his arms around Steve’s torso from behind. “I guess we’ll just have to make up for them.”
Steve curled his hand around Bucky’s, pressed against his chest, and laced their fingers together. Rested for a moment, letting their breaths rise and fall together. “You’re still worked up,” Steve said softly.
Bucky felt the tension coiled under Steve’s skin; it was in him, too. Bucky’s heart felt too much like a loaded gun tonight, and it didn’t do them any good. Tomorrow was for work—their mission, Steve’s endless mission to save the world from itself. Tonight, Bucky just wanted to forget.
Just the way his honed senses had clenched him like a fist as he wove through the darkened streets, trying to lose the men. The way the old hostel looked, familiar and not, and the cold unemotional snapshots of memory that unfolded around it. Like looking over a mission brief. Not caring that there were living people in that café, innocent bystanders as he’d slid the detonating charge through the kitchen door.
It cannot look like an assassination, soldier. It cannot be a precision strike. This must appear the unfortunate byproduct of a larger war.
“Not nothing,” Steve said.
Bucky shook his head and rested his lips against Steve’s shoulder. “Memories.” The pieces of shrapnel he carried every day. A part of him, now. He’d accepted that. But sometimes they shifted and scraped at the most inopportune times.
Steve turned his head and kissed Bucky’s cheek. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. It’s not your fault.”
Their eyes met: question and answer. A wordless exchange they’d perfected over the past few months. No, Bucky didn’t want to talk about it. Fine, Steve wouldn’t press. Bucky breathed in, counted to three, breathed out, just like Sam taught him. And then he had to carry on.
“You’re right, though,” Bucky said wryly, speaking right into Steve’s ear. His voice was only a rumble; his tongue flicked against the tip of Steve’s earlobe, sending a shiver through them both. “It is kinda like being in the field with the Commandos.”
Steve reached behind him and gripped Bucky’s hips. “I think I like this much better.”
“Yeah,” Bucky murmured, “me too.”
He tugged Steve down onto the mattress, still holding him from behind, metal arm crooked under Steve’s neck and right hand splayed across the granite of his abs. All the tension drained out of Steve as they sank into the soft mattress.
“I definitely don’t remember anything like this when we were shivering our asses off in the Schwarzwald,” Steve said, his voice turned husky.
“Mm. Don’t tell me you never thought about it, though.” Bucky pressed his hips against Steve’s ass as he slipped his fingers under the waistband of Steve’s boxer briefs. Trailed his fingertips down the taut V where Steve’s abdomen met his thigh. “I know I did. Quietly, so the rest of the guys wouldn’t hear . . .”
Steve answered with a sharp inhale of breath. “It—it might have crossed my mind.”
“Huddled together for warmth . . .” He let the words curl against Steve’s neck, grinning. “I always liked those nights best.” He feathered his hand against Steve’s shaft, the faintest brush of fingertips. “I know we definitely woke up this way a few times.”
“Yeah, and you always apologized, said you must have been dreaming of some dame.” Steve’s eyes fluttered closed as he rocked his hips back against Bucky’s.
“Well, I was a filthy liar.” He nipped at Steve’s neck. “All I wanted was you.”
Steve shuddered as Bucky stroked him and his cheeks flushed red, deepening Bucky’s grin. Bucky curled the metal fingers of his left hand over Steve’s mouth and quickened his pace.
“Buck . . .” Steve clenched a fist against the mattress.
“Now, now, I thought you wanted to be quiet about it,” Bucky teased.
Steve clenched his jaw and arched his back against Bucky in response. With a muffled whimper, he came, muscles locked tight, teeth digging against Bucky’s metal fingers. Bucky kissed his shoulder and stayed still for a moment, body curled around Steve’s, then slowly eased his hand out of Steve’s underwear.
“That,” Steve murmured, “would have made those missions a hell of a lot more interesting.” He turned in Bucky’s arms to face him, and kissed him. Soft at first, but again deeper, insistent, the edge of his teeth grazing against Bucky’s lower lip. He tasted like sunshine—like everything Bucky had gone without. He never wanted to take it for granted again.
“Well, better late than never.”
Steve grinned and climbed out of bed to go rinse himself off. Bucky watched him for a moment, then rolled onto his back and stared at the ceiling. His nerves were still crackling, even if he’d somewhat abated them. Too much restless energy still inside him, but he’d need it for whatever tomorrow brought.
Two months now they’d lived this way, making their way across the globe, tracking down both the gems and the slimebags who sought them, stepping in wherever the Avengers wouldn’t or couldn’t or never even knew enough to care. Two and a half months since they’d pulled him from cryo and gave him the tools to defuse the bomb Hydra built inside his head. Since he’d told Steve the truth—that loving him had been a wound that never healed, one that Hydra salted every time they put him to work.
And yet Steve accepted him. Loved him. The man he was and the soldier he’d become, all knotted together like scar tissue. They didn’t have to run away from themselves anymore. This was their life, and it set them free.
When Steve returned, the boxer briefs were gone.
Bucky let out a low appreciative whistle before Steve clapped a hand over his mouth. With a grin jagged as glass, Steve climbed on top of him, raised Bucky’s arms over his head with his other hand, and pinned them in place. The knot in Bucky’s stomach pulled tight as Steve covered Bucky’s body with his own, brushed his golden lashes against Bucky’s cheek, kissed his forehead, his eyelids, his temple . . .
Steve’s lips paused against his ear. “All right, Big Talker,” he whispered. “Let’s see just how quiet you can be.”
The sound of a safety switching off pulled Bucky out of a dead sleep.
“Steve—” Bucky hissed, as he dove for the .44 he’d taped underneath the night stand. But it was gone. Dim shadows circled the bed from the other side of the gauze curtains. Bucky swung his left arm at the first one he saw move, but when his fist connected, pain flared all the way up his arm. An electrical current. The metal arm went limp at his side as the circuit failsafes temporarily shut down.
Steve flew out of bed, fists swinging, but as the curtains fluttered shut behind him, Bucky heard a sickening crunch. “Steve!” He shoved his way through the curtains, left arm still dangling uselessly, and skidded to his feet on the tile floor.
Five men in full riot gear surrounded the bed, moonlight sketching them as little more than hulking shapes. And Steve—
Steve lay crumpled before him on the floor.
With a roar, Bucky charged the closest man and tackled him to the ground. The arm was coming back online, but he had no time to wait; he brought his fist down again and again on the man’s visor until three of the soldiers wrestled him back.
“If you want your friend, or—” The squadron’s apparent commander looked him over with a sneer. “—Or whatever he is to you to survive this, I suggest you start cooperating, Winter Soldier.”
With a whir, Bucky’s arm snapped back into operation. But the moment he tried to yank it from the soldiers’ grip, they struck him with another electric shock, and his arm went offline all over again.
Bucky sagged in their arms. Not worth it. Not if they were capable of hurting Steve.
“That’s better.” The commander smiled, then reached for the radio attached to his shoulder. “We found the last two. Bringing them in now.”
Then a needle slid into Bucky’s neck and everything swirled into hazy gray.