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Bucky Barnes isn’t particularly superstitious, but when he knows he’s about to head into a dangerous situation, there are two things he always tries to do first. One of them is sending a quick text to his sister Becca—never a big thing; maybe a photo of Clint’s dog that he’s been saving on his phone, or the latest stupid cat meme, or just a quick hey, hope you’re having a good day. But it has to be something, because she’s put up with a lot of his crap over the years, and if anything did happen to him, he wants to go out knowing he’s recently made her smile at least once.

The other thing is calling his boyfriend to make sure he isn’t being a total fucking idiot.

“Hey, Buck,” Steve says, when he answers the phone, and Bucky can hear the warmth in his voice. But then he starts coughing, a deep, lung-rattling sound, and Bucky shuts his eyes and presses his metal hand against his temple. Steve has, for maybe the first time in his life, really been taking care of himself lately, keeping up with his meds and even getting somewhat toned from his martial arts training with Melinda May, and he’s been rewarded with a surprising run of good health. He’s going to be mad as hell that it couldn’t last for a few more days, which means it’s important that Bucky plays this exactly right.

“Hey, bae,” he says cheerfully. “You sound like shit.”

“Thanks,” Steve says dryly, choking off a final cough. “And ‘bae’? We’re doing that now?”

“I could change it up if you want. Would you rather be ‘sugar’ or ‘dollface’?”

“You know nobody in the 1940s really talked like that, right?” Steve takes a deep breath, with enough of a wheeze in it to make Bucky cringe. “And this is just my asthma playing up, by the way. I’m not getting sick.”

“I didn’t say you were, bae.”

“I can’t be sick right now,” Steve clarifies. “I’m too busy.”

Experience has taught Bucky that when Steve has made up his mind to be stubborn, logic will just piss him off. He tries his conciliatory voice instead: “Well, you’ve only got one more final to get through—which you’re gonna ace, by the way—and then you can take a couple days and get some rest.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence.” Steve sighs. “It’s gonna be a tough one. How can one exam count for half your grade, anyway? They don’t measure you on what you know, just on what you can remember long enough to spit it back out on a test. If I’d had any idea that this country’s education system was so broken—”

“You punched Adolf Hitler in the face over two hundred times,” Bucky points out, before Steve can really get going. “You’re not gonna get beat by a test. I’m gonna turn on my phone when I get back in American airspace and look for the text that says you crushed it.”

“You have too much faith in me. But thanks.” Steve pauses. “I should be there.”

“Hey, no, don’t start with that stuff. We agreed you’ve gotta focus on school right now. Besides, this isn’t even an Avengers mission. It’d be a standard Clintasha job if Clint hadn’t jacked up his shoulder. I swear, sometimes I think he gets himself thrown in dumpsters on purpose just to get the medical leave.”

“What the hell is a Clintasha job?”

Bucky smiles. He still counts it as a little win every time he gets Steve to swear. “That’s Tony’s celebrity couple name for Clint and Natasha. You know, like Brangelina? I know they’re not a couple, but it’s like a work husband-work wife thing.”

“That sounded almost like English, but I’m not convinced,” Steve says. “And please tell me Tony doesn’t have some cutesy name for us.”

“Yeah, you didn’t know? We’re Stucky.”

“Stucky?” Steve repeats. “That’s horrible. Also, Buck Rogers was right there and he went with a made-up word instead?”

“It’s a travesty,” Bucky agrees. “He dug his own grave, though. I’m gonna start calling Pepper and him Pepperony.”

Steve laughs. “See, that’s why I keep you around, Barnes,” he says. And then, seriously, “Be careful, okay?”

“I’m always careful. And you take care of yourself, and remember the nebulizer is there if you need to use it.”

“Ugh. You know I won’t get any sleep tonight if I do.”

Bucky prides himself on being a great boyfriend, which is why he doesn’t point out that some people love to rattle on about how many lives those little tubes of liquid albuterol would have saved in 1928 until it’s time for them to take their medicine, at which point they turn into stubborn assholes. “Tell you what,” he says instead, dropping his voice low, “I’ll make you a deal. If you do a breathing treatment, then when I get home, I’ll do something that’ll put you right to sleep.”

“Why wait? You can talk about how much you love Doctor Who from there.”

Bucky cracks up. “Punk,” he says, affectionately. “Hey, I gotta go. Don’t do anything stupid until I get back, okay?”

“How can I? You took all the stupid with you.” Steve takes another deep breath. “I love you, Buck.”

Bucky knows that if Natasha so much as glances in his direction right now, he’s never going to hear the end of the big sappy grin he’s wearing. He also kind of doesn’t care. “Love you too, Stevie. Talk soon,” he says, before he stashes the phone securely in his locker.

Then he picks up the matte-coated vibranium shield and gets ready to jump out of a plane.

 

“Five minutes to target, Cap,” Rumlow says, and Bucky nods, flicking on the little S.H.I.E.L.D. earbud and running his hands over the guns and knives on his belt one more time.

“Okay,” he says, “let’s hear the sitrep.”

“The target is a mobile satellite launch platform called the Lemurian Star,” Rumlow says. “They were sending up their last payload when pirates took them, ninety-three minutes ago.”

“Lemurian Star?” Bucky grimaces. “I don’t know what kind of name that’s supposed to be for a ship, but I’m telling you right now that if I get down there and find a bunch of those fucking singing animals from Madagascar, I’m out.”

“You’re a trip, Barnes,” Rumlow says, chuckling. “They’re asking for ransom. A billion and a half.”

“The fuck makes them think one ship is worth that?”

“The fact that the one ship belongs to S.H.I.E.L.D.”

“Great. So let me guess, it’s not supposed to be where it is, and now we have to clean up Fury’s mess before there’s an international shitstorm about it?”

“I'm sure there’s a good reason,” Natasha says, coming up behind him.

“Sure, but you know what would be cool? Having all the fucking facts before we go in.”

“Relax,” Natasha says. “It’s not that complicated.”

“Says you. Do we at least know how many pirates we’re dealing with?”

“Twenty-five mercs, led by this guy,” Rumlow says, pulling up a photo on the viewscreen. “Georges Batroc. Ex-TGSE, Action Division. Before the French demobilized him, he had thirty-six kill missions. Guy’s got a rep for maximum casualties.”

“Wow, today just keeps getting better and better. Who are the hostages?”

“Mostly techs,” Rumlow says. “One officer, Jasper Sitwell.”

“Jeez, whose pet project is this satellite if it got a frigging desk jockey like Sitwell off his ass? Okay,” Bucky says, “here’s how it’s gonna go. I’m gonna sweep the deck for pirates, take out as many as I can. Natasha, you kill the engines and head to the rendezvous point. Brock, take your team aft, find the hostages, and get them to the lifeboats. And if you see Batroc, do not engage. Leave him for me.”

Rumlow nods. “S.T.R.I.K.E. team, gear up,” he says into his comm.

“You sure you want to go up against Batroc alone?” Natasha asks, raising an eyebrow, as they head toward the bay doors.

Bucky absolutely does, because if Batroc is half as bad as he sounds, then the only reasonable thing to do is send the guy with the super-serum after him. But he can’t say that here, so he shrugs and says, “My boyfriend’s sick and this asshole is the reason I’m over the Indian Ocean and not at home taking care of him, so I guess you could say I’m kind of spoiling for a fight.”

“Wait, Steve’s sick? Is he okay?”

“I dunno. He says it’s just his asthma flaring up, but that’s how it always starts with him. And even if it’s just a cold or something, I still want to be there, you know?”

“If you like him that much, maybe you should marry him.”

Bucky rolls his eyes. “That was my endgame when I proposed, believe it or not.”

“I thought he proposed to you.”

“Beat me by like two minutes and he didn’t have a ring, so I win on a technicality.” Bucky’s ring is currently under his uniform, on the chain with his dog tags, for safety. “Secure channel seven.”

“Seven secure. So, have you set a date yet?”

“Not yet. Do me a favor and check my parachute.”

“You’ve checked it yourself at least four times.”

“I know, but I didn’t exactly love freefall before that one time I was in a house that exploded and fell off a cliff. Hey, I got a question. Why isn’t your boyfriend here when he’s the one who can fly?”

Natasha just smiles inscrutably. “Coming up on the drop zone. You ready?”

“Don’t have much of a choice, do I? Guess I’ll see you down there.” He takes a deep breath, makes sure the shield is securely strapped to his arm, and jumps.

 

Watching the altimeter spin on his wrist never gets any less nerve-wracking, but Bucky’s parachute deploys perfectly, and once he’s no longer falling, everything else snaps back into focus. He shoots one pirate in the chest with his silenced M4 while he’s still ten feet overhead; by the time the guy’s buddy comes over to check out the noise of the body hitting the deck, Bucky has already cut the chute loose and is waiting to snap his neck with his metal arm before Pirate Number Two knows what hit him.

It’s not pretty. It also isn’t the way Captain America is supposed to operate. But Bucky hasn’t always been Captain America, and there are times when what the world really needs is a Winter Soldier.

Two down, twenty-three to go, he thinks, as he melts into the shadow of the wheelhouse.

The third pirate goes down easily enough, but the fourth one actually has a brain, and when he realizes what’s happening, he doesn’t even try to fight Bucky, just cuts and runs toward—shit—a fire alarm. Bucky whips a knife out of its sheath and pins the guy’s hand to the wall; he howls in pain before Bucky crosses the deck and punches him into submission, but it was enough to alert two more of the bad guys, who come running toward him from opposite sides.

Shit. Bucky dives and slides like he’s stealing second base, and bullets ping off the shield. But then there are two soft thumps and the shooting stops, and when he looks, Natasha is drifting toward the deck under her own parachute, a gun in each hand. “Thanks,” he says.

“Don’t mention it.” She releases the buckles on her flight harness and falls into step beside him as they keep moving; this is something they’ve had a lot of practice with. “So why haven’t you two set a date yet? Steve getting cold feet?”

“Really, Nat? Ice jokes? Too soon.” Bucky rounds a corner and finds himself face to face with three more bad guys; he takes them out with a face-shattering shield bash, a throat punch, and a roundhouse to the solar plexus, respectively. “And if you must know, I’m the holdup, not him. I want to marry Steve, but I didn’t realize it was gonna be a whole big thing, you know? I mean, it’s supposed to be exciting, but—hang on—” Shield-bash guy is trying to get up again; Bucky kicks him in the stomach and leaves him whimpering on the deck while he finishes, “Standing at the front of a church with everybody I know watching me do vows? It freaks me out just thinking about it.”

“Weddings aren’t that bad, Barnes. Certainly not as bad as press conferences.”

“How the hell would you know? Three o’clock,” he says, whirling, and the shield spins out of his hand to bounce off another pirate. He comes in low behind it and bashes the guy hard enough in the chest that he won’t be getting up again for a while.

“What makes you think I’ve never had a wedding?” Natasha asks, zipping one of her wrist stingers into the face of Pirate Number—shit, Bucky wonders, does that make ten or eleven?

“Hold up, what now? You were married?”

“You think I got the name Black Widow by swiping left on Tindr?”

“Oh, so this was when you worked for Russia.” They’re inside the boat now; Bucky rounds a corner, ducks a badly aimed blow, and knocks out a handful of pirate teeth. “Were you in love?”

“Not with him. So you definitely do want a church wedding? There’s a Unitarian church on Lexington that’s supposed to be nice.”

“How about you secure the engine room and then plan my wedding?”

“I’m multitasking!” But Natasha does peel off down a corridor, and Bucky leans against the wall and takes a moment to ground himself. He’s spent a lot of time in therapy over the last few years, and he’s got a lot of little tricks to deal with situations where it would be easy to trigger a flashback—and it’s a damn good thing he does, because he still finds himself needing them more often than he’d like. When he’s fighting, he’s fully absorbed in the tactics, too busy to dissociate; it’s the moments like this, the lulls, where things start to hit him, and he has to take a minute to re-focus.

The night air is cold, and even inside the ship, it smells like brine and metal. He feels the strap of the shield in his right hand, the hilt of a knife in his left—there’s no sense of texture in the metal fingers, but there’s a sense of pressure when they connect with anything, however lightly; that took a long time to get used to. He can see a green light blinking at the end of the corridor. Okay. He has some things to hang onto, to keep him in the moment. He’s ready.

He moves.

Three more pirates get dealt with, in the final sense, before Bucky hears Rumlow over the comms: “Targets acquired. S.T.R.I.K.E. in position. On my mark… three… two… one,” and there’s a burst of pops, a handful more pirates finished off in as many heartbeats. “Got ’em, Cap.”

“Good work, S.T.R.I.K.E. team,” Bucky says. “Do you see Batroc?”

“Not here.”

Shit. “Hostiles are still in play. Get the hostages out of there.”

“Hostages in route to extraction,” Rumlow confirms. And then, “Romanoff missed the rendezvous point, Cap.”

“Widow, what’s your status?” Bucky says, and then, “Natasha! Status!” When she still doesn’t answer, he says, “Fuck. Okay, if you can hear me, stay put. I’m coming to y—”

Batroc comes out of nowhere, a flying kick that by all rights should knock Bucky to the ground. He thinks he’s got the element of surprise, but thanks to Bucky’s serum-enhanced hearing, he’s got just a little less than he knows, and Bucky gets the shield up and braces with his left arm; the blow knocks both of them to the ground, but he leans his weight into the fall, rolls, and springs back up again. Batroc tries another kick and then a surprisingly acrobatic spin, but Bucky trains with Natasha Romanoff, and mid-fight gymnastics don’t surprise him the way they used to. He rushes Batroc, perfectly willing to let him break his wrists on the shield if he wants to, and there’s a brief round of competing kicks and punches, none of which does any serious damage through his reinforced uniform or Batroc’s heavy protective gear. He shoves with the shield, not a graceful blow but a powerful one, but Batroc converts the motion into a series of impressive backflips, and suddenly they’re standing fifteen feet apart in a classic face-off.

It’s clear to both of them that Bucky has the advantage in a hand-to-hand fight, and Batroc wanted the room to maneuver, but clearly, there was something else he wanted here, too; he wanted a good look at his opponent, at Captain America. And when he gets it, he smiles, almost imperceptibly, with his fists raised and ready.

“<I thought you were more than just a shield,>” he says, in French.

Bucky takes a deep breath and squares his shoulders, planting his feet. Slowly, very slowly, he takes the shield and settles it into its harness on the back of his uniform, feeling the magnets catch and snap it into its holding position.

Then he draws his gun in one fluid motion and pulls the trigger three times, targeting the weakest point of Batroc’s body armor, the joint in the leg plates just above the knee. Batroc lets out an extremely satisfying yell when he goes down.

“Fuck you, asshole,” he says, kicks Batroc under the chin hard enough to make him flop back to the deck, and heads off to find Natasha.

 

“Well, this is awkward,” Natasha says, when he kicks open the door of the control room and finds her standing over the computer console, with her hand on a flash drive stuck in the USB port.

“What are you doing?” Bucky demands.

“Backing up the hard drive. It’s a good habit to get into.”

Bucky appreciates a snarky comeback as much as anybody, but he’s not in the mood. Batroc got some good hits in and he can already feel the bruises stiffening up under his uniform. “Come on, Natalia, cut me a break.” He steps around the console and looks at the screen, at the running download on the screen. “Are you trying to save S.H.I.E.L.D. intel when we’ve got hostages to evac?”

“Whatever I can get my hands on. And rescuing the hostages is your mission, not mine,” she says, pulling the flash drive out of its socket.

“Yeah? Well, my mission could go sideways and get people killed because you’re in here instead of out there.”

“I think that’s overstating things,” Natasha says.

Which is when Batroc—who really is a tough son of a bitch to have crawled as far as the doorway with three bullets in him, Bucky has to give him that—lobs a grenade through the control room door.

Bucky bats the grenade back toward the door with his metal arm and it rolls into a corner, but he knows that’s not enough. He grabs Natasha and lunges, raising the shield so that when he crashes through the control room window, the vibranium takes the brunt of the impact. Broken glass flies everywhere, and Bucky feels a knife-sharp shard of glass slice through his right sleeve and bite into his right arm, but at least the wall under the window shields them from the blast of the grenade, which leaves little more than a smoking crater where the ship’s computers used to be.

“Okay,” Natasha says, panting slightly. “That one’s on me.”

“Fuckin’ A it is,” Bucky snaps. He doesn’t really mean it, though. He’s furious—he’s livid—but he knows the blame for this one doesn’t really fall to Natasha.

She was following orders. And Bucky knows whose orders they were.

 

“You know, I had a crazy idea that being Captain America would get me past all this need-to-know horseshit,” Bucky says, storming into Nick Fury’s office in the Triskelion. His right arm is in a sling, with two layers of stitches holding his bicep together, but that’s not even the part that pisses him off. “We’re lucky those hostages aren’t dead right now.”

Fury spins his chair around, regarding Bucky grimly with his one good eye. “I sent the best soldier in S.H.I.E.L.D. to make sure that didn’t happen.”

“Flattery isn’t gonna work on me this time, Fury. I know the only reason I’m on this job is because Barton is magnetically attracted to dumpsters.”

“You’re on this job,” Fury says, without changing expression, “because I believe this hijacking is tied to Project Winter Soldier.”

“Oh,” Bucky says, all of his snarkiness falling away. “Oh, shit.”

“Come with me,” Fury says, making it clear that this isn’t a request, and Bucky follows him to the elevator. “Insight Bay,” he tells the computer. “Authorization code: Fury, Nicholas J.”

The elevator jerks as it starts to move, and Bucky opens his mouth to tell Fury that he should really bring Stark in to do an upgrade, until he remembers that Tony made himself persona non grata with S.H.I.E.L.D. during the whole Mandarin mess. Bucky himself is trying not to hold grudges over the trouble it caused him personally, mostly because Steve had a worse time than he did and is somehow still managing to be kind to Tony about it.

“So,” he says, assuming that Fury wants to talk to him in true privacy. “What does a satellite launch have to do with the super-soldier serum?”

“That’s what I don’t know,” Fury says. “And that’s why I sent Agent Romanoff to obtain the files from the ship’s computer. Right now, all we know is that someone at S.H.I.E.L.D. secretly authorized testing a formula on men like yourself, who were part of the Winter Soldier project.”

“I’ve been wanting to ask,” Bucky begins.

“I followed up on the other men who were part of the program. Some of them re-integrated into civilian life, just like you did before you joined the Avengers. A handful are dead—some apparent suicides, mostly natural causes. Another dozen are currently working in various departments of S.H.I.E.L.D. They’re spread out across departments, hired over the course of two years.”

“Are you saying there’s no connection, or that someone’s trying to hide a connection?”

“What do you think?” Fury says, in a tone Bucky can’t read at all.

“Jesus, Fury, I don’t know. Spy stuff is Natasha’s department, not mine. If I was you, though, I’d keep an eye on the other soldiers from the Project. I knew some of those guys, and let me tell you, a few of them were scary motherfuckers before they had bionic limbs and potential super-soldier abilities.”

Then the elevator doors open, and Bucky stares into an enormous bay that holds not just one, but three distinct, and massive, helicarriers.

“Yeah,” Fury says, when he’s stared for a while. “It’s a little bigger than a bionic limb.”

Bucky follows him out of the elevator, still staring. He’s been around SHIELD long enough to get used to things feeling a little science-fictional on occasion, but this is something else. “What is this?” he says.

“This,” Fury tells him, “is Project Insight. Three next-generation helicarriers synced to the network of targeting satellites we launched from the Lemurian Star. Their long-range precision guns can eliminate a thousand hostiles a minute. The satellites can read a terrorist's DNA before he steps outside his spider hole. We’re going to neutralize a lot of threats before they even happen.”

Bucky is still staring at the helicarriers, deeply disturbed by them and not quite sure why. As one of the guys who spent some time being held prisoner in one of those spider holes—as a guy who lost his left arm because there was no way for him to get rescued—there was a time when he would have cheered to see S.H.I.E.L.D. implementing something like this. But since then, he’s spent a lot of time hanging around Steve Rogers, who’s made him think hard about the big-picture stuff that it was easy to ignore as an Army sniper, following orders and racking up medals and kill shots. The work always seemed necessary at the time, and he still thinks a lot of it was, but… well, he was born too practical to ever be the kind of idealist that Steve is, but he knows exactly what Steve is going to say when he finds out about this, and he might not be wrong. “You know,” he says, “some people would say that punishing folks who haven’t done anything yet is a great way to make more criminals.”

“S.H.I.E.L.D. can’t afford to wait that long,” Fury says.

“Yeah, that’s fine unless S.H.I.E.L.D. is—” Bucky begins, and then he stops abruptly.

Unless S.H.I.E.L.D. is compromised, he was about to say. But isn’t that exactly what he’s been afraid of ever since he found out that scientists from S.H.I.E.L.D. had pumped him full of knockoff super-serum without his consent?

Bucky is a soldier. He’s good at being a soldier. He thinks he’s even a decent Captain America. But a compromised S.H.I.E.L.D. in possession of three giant war machines is way, way above his pay grade. And at the end of the day, it almost doesn’t matter what he thinks. It’s not his decision, after all, and there’s going to be precious little he can do to stop what he sees in front of him from becoming a reality.

“Fury, this is fascinating and all,” he says, glancing down at his bandaged arm, “but it’s been a long day. If it’s all the same to you, I think I’d like to go home.”

 

Bucky gets it that not every alien attack or mutant lizard disaster is going to hit New York City just for his own personal convenience, but it’s still a pain in the ass that S.H.I.E.L.D. insisted on debriefing him in D.C. rather than New York. Even with a Quinjet at his disposal, it still takes him forever to get back to Midtown and Avengers Tower, and it’s after midnight when the elevator doors open onto the lobby of his own apartment.

Steve texted him a couple times while he was still in Medical, getting stitched up—You were right, the test went fine, the first one said, followed by, I feel like death warmed over. Going home to crash—so he isn’t surprised when he opens the door and finds the place dark and quiet. The nebulizer is out on the kitchen table, next to an empty albuterol capsule, which means Steve actually listened to him and gave himself a breathing treatment, which is a minor miracle. There’s also an empty mug, half a lemon, and an open bottle of Jameson that’s down a couple of shots, and Bucky grins to himself as he walks past it. Not that he’s knocking Sarah Rogers’ folk cure, but Steve is just so Irish sometimes.

When he gets to the bedroom, he’s both pleased and disappointed to find that Steve is out cold, with his glasses tilted on his nose and his cheek resting on one hand, the other marking his spot in the book he’s been reading. He looks pale and unwell and his breathing is slightly labored, but at least his lungs aren’t making the rusty-hinge sound that Bucky associates with the fluorescent lights and hard plastic chairs of the Mount Sinai emergency room.

God, he wishes asthma had a face, so he could punch it.

Since that’s not an option, though, Bucky will do what he can to make Steve more comfortable. He carefully lifts off Steve’s glasses, sets them on the book—an eight-hundred-page biography of Alexander Hamilton which only Steve, of all people, would choose to read for fun—and puts the book on the nightstand, after he makes a space for it by moving Steve’s hearing aid, his inhaler, a box of Band-Aids, and the roll of athletic tape he wraps his hands with before his kickboxing sessions with May. If that isn’t the distilled essence of Steve Rogers right there, Bucky doesn’t know what is.

In the bathroom, he shuts the door and strips his shirt off, wincing at the boot-shaped bruises that have started to blossom across his chest. He tells himself not to poke them, does anyway, and gets the predictable results that it hurts a lot and he feels stupid about it. The bandage the S.H.I.E.L.D. medic wrapped around his arm is greasy with medical goo, and it’s pulling uncomfortably at his stitches. He unwraps it, grabs fresh gauze and surgical tape from the medicine cabinet, reaches for the scissors, and drops them in the sink with a clatter that echoes through the otherwise silent apartment. “Shit,” he mutters, and sure enough, he hears the mattress creak as Steve sits up.

“That you, Buck?” he calls, and Bucky grimaces, fumbling with the gauze and the tape, which is now hopelessly stuck to the scissors, in a completely futile effort to cover up the gash before Steve can see it and get unnecessarily worked up. He hears a cough, then a thump, then some muffled grumbling as Steve kicks aside whatever he tripped over and opens the bathroom door. “Hey, sweetheart, what’s—” he begins, sleepily, and then he sees the wound and goes on full alert, grabbing Bucky’s arm and turning it over. “Jesus. You’re hurt.”

“Yeah, well, you oughta see the other guy.” Bucky tries to pull away, but considering that Steve doesn’t have a hand made of metal, he certainly has Bucky’s right arm in an iron grip. “It’s fine, Medical patched me up. What about you? Are you doing okay?”

“Yeah. I mean, I caught another damn cold and I’m not thrilled about that, but at least all my blood is on the inside. Okay, sit down,” he says, in his captain’s-orders voice. “I’m going to dress your arm first, and then I’ll get the ice packs. And please tell me they at least gave you some anti-inflammatories this time, because if they just stitched you up and let you go, I’m going to have words with—What? What’s funny?”

“Nothing.” Bucky hooks his metal arm around Steve’s waist, pulling him close enough that he can rest his cheek against Steve’s. “It’s just, all I could think about was getting home so I could take care of you, and here you are, taking care of me.”

“Well, you’re clearly more pathetic than I am,” Steve says, with a shrug. “Besides, I can take care of myself.”

“I know, but you shouldn’t have to.”

“You shouldn’t have to patch yourself up when you come home looking like Sally from The Nightmare Before Christmas either, and yet.”

“Hey,” Bucky says, pleased. “A+ pop culture reference, punk. You’re getting good at those.”

“I live under the same roof as Tony Stark. It’s basic self-defense.” Steve is ruthlessly efficient with the bandages, a skill he picked up in the War and has been honing in his paramedic training; the stitches disappear under clean white gauze. “And really, don’t fuss about me. I promise I’ll be fine by Friday.”

“Why? What’s Friday?”

“Well,” Steve says, “you’ve been so great while I’ve been busy with school, I figured I owed you something nice, and you were complaining that you never get to see anything but the Triskelion when you’re in D.C. for work, so I booked us a long weekend at that bed and breakfast we liked in Alexandria. I thought we could take the motorcycle down, maybe spend Saturday at the Air and Space Museum. If you want to,” he adds quickly, and hits Bucky with his did I do okay look, arched eyebrows under a creased forehead. “I can cancel if you don’t.”

“Oh, gee, let me think about that for a minute. I get a road trip on the bike, a romantic getaway with my guy, and a trip to space nerd heaven?” Bucky pulls him in for a hug, wrapping both arms around Steve’s waist and squeezing until Steve makes a sound that’s a combination of pleased, amused, and aggravated all at once. “Best boyfriend ever.”

“Out of all of space and time? Yeah, that’s probably valid,” Steve says, grinning. “There is something else I want to do this weekend, though.”

“What is it?” Bucky says warily. If this is going to involve a trek to another war memorial, or the Wall of Valor at the Triskelion, where Peggy Carter is the very first name on the monument—well, he’ll go along with it, but he’ll just have to brace himself for what it’ll do to Steve, that’s all. He really does get it—considering that Steve survived a war only to lose his entire world in what felt like a single day to him, it’s honestly a miracle that he’s as functional as he is—but the guy does seem to have a pathological need to make himself miserable sometimes, and Bucky doesn’t believe that all started after World War II did.

“I want us to make the guest list for the wedding.”

Bucky pulls back enough to stare at him. “You mean it? We’re really doing this? I mean, you’re ready now?”

“Yeah. I figure we need to know how many people we’re having before we pick a place, right? Hey, don’t look so excited. You’re the one who has to do all the work, since you’ve got actual non-Avengers to invite.”

Bucky frowns. Steve’s tone is deliberately light, but there’s an edge to it that tells him they’re on shaky ground here, something beyond the usual dark-humor-as-defense-mechanism that they’re both so good at. “Hey,” he says, “I know you wish your mom could be there, but you do know that my family is your family now, right? And they don’t care that it’s not official yet, they’ve already adopted you in every way that matters. Hell, when I told Becca we were engaged, almost the first thing she said to me was that I better not screw this up and hurt you, or else her and the girls will turn on me like a pack of wolves.”

“Well, that’s… sweet, in a slightly terrifying way.” Steve gives him a thin smile. “I do love your family. And I love our friends. Guess I’m just afraid I’ll look around the church and not be able to see the people who are there because I can only see who isn’t.”

“I get that,” Bucky says. “And it really does suck that you won’t have anybody who’s there just for you.” He considers for a minute, then says, “Hey, what about Kate? You’re inviting her, right?”

“You mean Katie? Clint’s archery friend?”

“No, Kate as in your study buddy from school, who you only saw every single day this semester.”

“I don’t know, Buck, I’ve been trying to keep school separate from home for a good reason. Our lives are complicated enough already.”

“Yeah, but a lot of the people at the wedding are only gonna know our civilian identities anyway, and for everybody else, we’ll make sure we tell them ix-nay on the whole Captain America thing. I mean, I’m definitely not gonna let my stupid cousin Greg find out that I put on a costume and fight robots and giant lizards for a living. I’d never hear the end of it.”

“That’s a good point. How are we gonna explain it to people when the Avengers show up at our wedding?”

“That part’s easy. I’ll say I work for S.H.I.E.L.D., but, like, in some boring desk job. One that’s important enough to the Avengers that it would be rude if they didn’t come to my wedding, but boring enough that nobody’ll ask me questions about it. Ooh, I got it! Steven Grant Rogers, meet James Barnes, Actuary of S.H.I.E.L.D.”

“Huh,” Steve says, grinning. “And what are we going to say if someone asks why Captain America is the only Avenger who hasn’t made an appearance?”

“Even easier. We’ll tell everybody that Cap used to be your boyfriend until you dumped his star-spangled ass for a hot actuary. He’s still got a massive crush on you, though,” Bucky says, sliding his right hand down Steve’s thigh. “Poor guy, he can’t keep his hands off you. It’s sad, really.”

He goes in for a kiss on the sensitive spot at the base of Steve’s throat, and Steve shoves him away with a sound between a laugh and a sigh. “Now I know that’s the serum talking, because otherwise you couldn’t possibly be in the mood right now. Not when I’m this sniffly and gross.”

“Right, because I couldn’t possibly just like you and want to make you feel better. Besides, I’m trying to look out for your best interests here, Stevie. Sex is supposed to be great for your immune system.”

“How pure and selfless of you,” Steve says dryly. “Ask me again in the morning. Right now, I’m gonna get you those ice packs—”

“No, I’ll get the ice, you go back to bed. You won’t get better if you don’t sleep.”

“I slept for seventy years,” Steve says, pushing himself up and heading toward the kitchen. “I think I can handle being awake for a few more minutes.”

“That line is getting really old, Stevie,” Bucky calls after him.

“That’s appropriate,” Steve’s voice carries back down the hall. “I’m a senior citizen.”

Bucky lets out a snort of laughter, which is followed by one of those surges of affection that hit him out of nowhere sometimes—the ones where he loves Steve so much that it’s almost a physical ache in his chest, where he’d happily give up his remaining flesh arm if it would protect Steve from a world that’s been pretty consistently dumping on him since 1918. Momentarily overwhelmed, he almost misses Steve’s next question. “What?” he asks, following him into the kitchen.

“I said, other than however you got those cuts and bruises, did the mission go okay,” Steve repeats.

“Oh, yeah,” Bucky says. “Went off with hardly a hitch. Pirates defeated, hostages rescued, day saved. Notice how I’m not bragging at all about how I solo tanked the boss and took him out Indiana Jones style.”

“Once again, that really sounds like it’s supposed to be in English,” Steve says, his voice muffled by the open freezer door. “Sounds like it was pretty straightforward, then? No new supervillains to worry about or anything?”

“It says something about our lives that you can ask that in complete seriousness,” Bucky says.

He should tell Steve, he thinks. About the Lemurian Star and its possible connection to the super serum, about the fact that their suspected mole within S.H.I.E.L.D. seems like less of a long shot now and more of a sure thing, about the helicarriers and the predictive justice and the whole mess. But it’s late, and Steve is so clearly run down and exhausted, and Bucky’s whole job as Captain America is to be a shield for the people he cares about. So he smiles, and takes the ice packs Steve hands him, and hugs him again, and tells him, “Nothing to worry about, Stevie. Everything is fine.”