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Grip. Chamber. Sights.

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He pulls the man out of the water.

Why he does it is not a question he can answer.

Mind buzzing, aching and on fire like an open wound, he leaves him on the bank of the river and walks away.

He does not look back.

~~~

He retreats from the area entirely.

A news report plays on the radio of the car he steals.

The chatter is all about the damage that had been left in his wake.

He listens to it because he needs information.

There’s talk about cleanup and repairs.

There’s rabid outrage about the newly discovered existence of HYDRA.

There’s bitten back excitement about the Avengers rallying in the wake of what’s happened.

He keeps driving.

~~~

He’s been off mission? insubordinate? running for about two months, or at least he thinks he has.  In truth it could be less than that or it could be more.  It’s hard to tell sometimes with the way his mind sways between sharply focused and hazy.  The way it’s raw and aching still, like a wound that’s been cut to bleeding.

Either way those first days, or maybe it was weeks, after the helicarrier had passed in an adrenaline filled blur.

He Soldier? hadn’t focused so much on the passage of time as he’d focused on staying hidden, on evading every sign, hint, or fragmented memory of HYDRA activity.  He’d done his level best to be a ghost on every system he came across.

Those first weeks, or maybe it had been days, had been nothing more than a push to stay free.  To avoid capture from both HYDRA and the half remembered ghost that had ripped his already fractured mind in half.

Even with a bit of time and some distance that urgency, that drive, hasn’t changed.

So, still disoriented and still hunted, he simply points himself in a different direction and throws himself forward with all of the skill and knowledge he possesses.

~~~

Eventually it begins to wear on him.

He Barnes? was conditioned to perform in a variety of situations, had been trained and sculpted rigorously to never stop, to always push forward, to complete the mission no matter his own physical condition.  To ignore blood and pain and wounds in the face of progress.  He’d only ever been ordered to back down and wait for extraction by a retrieval team when death was imminent and unavoidable unless otherwise instructed.

The Winter Soldier was far too valuable a weapon to lose unless absolutely necessary.

He had shaped the century after all.

But even his body has its limits.  Even his stamina has an end.

A multitude of things begin to pile up around and on him, wearing him down bit by bit, until he’s been run ragged around the edges almost without even realizing it.

The whole experience leading up to that point is surreal, filled with things he can’t seem to completely grasp in his mind.

He Soldat? isn’t used to being activated for so long without having a handler nearby.  Isn’t accustomed to being idle without someone close by ready to hand out orders or send him back to the chair for recalibration.

He finds himself losing long moments of time some days.  Finds himself swimming up through an ocean of hazy thoughts to discover that he is standing, frozen, in an alleyway or a corner of whatever warehouse or building he’s been squatting in, waiting for orders that will never come.

Nutrition and hunger is another issue.

He isn’t used to solid food.  Isn’t used to bread and meat and flavor instead of the thick, tasteless nutrient shakes he’d always been ordered to drink.

The first time he eats after his escape? treason? defection is when he slides his way into a rundown gas station on the edge of the city in the dead of the night.

It is a revelation of sensation.

Unable to stop he gorges himself until he gets sick in a back alley.  He’s weak and shaken afterwards, sweaty and blurry eyed.  His throat burns for long minutes, his mouth tastes like bile, and he feels empty once it has finally passed.

The loss of control over his body is … unsettling in a way he isn’t familiar with.  Different than the searing agony of being recalibrated or the muted pain of conditioning.

He James? doesn’t like those sensations at all.

After that he only allows himself water and the comfortingly bland tasting protein bars he’d stolen.

The sense memory of the taste of that food lingers though.

Haunts him.

~~~

There are other things he isn’t used to either.  Other things he has a hard time adjusting to and has decided he does not approve of and will avoid if at all possible.

Sleep turns out to be one of those things.

The first time he Asset? tries to sleep he finds it impossible.

He’s exhausted even by his standards and rationale says that rest is needed.  Required to maintain functionality.

And yet he finds that he’s too tense and paranoid to actually do it.  Even after days of relentless movement, even as he puts more and more distance between himself and his failed mission, sleep seems to be an impossibility.

So, instead of trying again  he settles down at the rickety table in the old office he’s holed up in and takes his handguns apart one by one.  Cleans them meticulously.  Checks the grip on each one, the magazine, the chamber, the sights.

Then he puts them back together, lines them up on the table in front of him, and stares at them.

His hands shake when he reaches out and grabs the first one in line.

He takes it apart again.

Checks its grip.  Its chamber.  Its sights.

Reassembles it.

Moves down the line to the next.

Grip.  Chamber.  Sights.

And then the next after that one.

So on and so forth.

Over and over and over again until the repetitive motions of it soothes him into an almost meditative state.

It’s enough to beat the exhaustion back a bit, enough to keep him going until sleep might finally be achieved.

~~~

Seemingly endless days and cities away, he succeeds.

Only to discover that there’s no peace to be found in sleep.

Not for him.

What little bit he’s able to get when he all but collapses in an abandoned apartment building is filled with nightmares that leave him unsettled and shaking.  He wakes with a scream trapped behind his teeth and a gun in his hand.

He curls himself into a ball in the corner, one hand clutching his gun and the other buried in his hair, and just rocks himself until the trembling fades.

Then he takes out his guns again.

Grip.  Chamber.  Sights.

~~~

All of Buchanan? his future attempts are the same, his disjointed and broken sleep littered with half remembered faces? targets? victims? missions and the faded but still sharp memory of the agony of recalibration.

Sleep becomes a new form of torture, a new pain that he has no desire to repeat but can’t seem to escape.

Eventually, like with the food, he stops trying for more than the bare minimum.  Only does what is absolutely necessary to keep himself functioning.  No more and no less.

He teeters perpetually on the edge of starved exhaustion, catching only snippets of rest here and there.

It’s not enough but it’s all Bucky? he has.

~~~

In the end he comes to the shaky and almost whimsical conclusion that he Soldier? Barnes? Soldat? James? Asset? Buchanan? Bucky? Who? Please? isn’t used to being alive instead of just existing.

Isn’t used to all of the things that come hand in hand with his newfound attempt at almost personhood.  Isn’t accustomed to all of the things he’s now confronted with because they had always been absent and distant when he was just a tool, just another weapon, just The Fist of HYDRA whose only purpose was to serve.

He hates it.  Hates it with all of the newly resurfaced emotion he is just beginning to wade through.  Hates the way he feels so uneven, so shaky.  Hates how the world around him seems too large and too small all at the same time.  Hates how nothing seems solid anymore.

Sometimes the confusion and the fear gets to him so badly that he almost longs for recalibration again.

Almost longs for the quiet, numb embrace of his stable, of the cryo chamber he knows so well.

~~~

He tries to sleep.

He wakes with a bitten off scream and a remembered agony tracing down his spine.

Instead he checks his guns.

Grip.  Chamber.  Sights.

Over and over again.

~~~

Under HYDRA he’d never been allowed to feel as he does now.

Never been allowed to be fatigued, to be hurt, to be so tired.

He’d been both above and below things of that nature.  Above and below things like hunger and pain unless HYDRA had decided to use them as a form of conditioning.

He thinks, in a dim and melancholy sort of way, that the reality of it all is far different.

The truth is this:  He’s been tired for the better part of a century now.

He just … wants to rest.

He wants the pain to stop.

~~~

Hatred for all of the pains of his newly stolen life or not, when the moment comes and he has the chance to go back to what he’d known for so long he finds himself … reluctant.

He’d been careless somewhere along the way because a covert sweep team finds him.  One that is obviously determined to get him back alive.

Apparently even with HYDRA being in the spotlight now they still want him found and contained.  Still want to make him useful again, to twist him up until he is theirs once more.

It would be easy to let them take him too.  Would be simple.  And yet, when they come for him, he finds that he isn’t willing to go quietly.

Something feral and cold inside of him refuses to give in, sits up and snarls ‘no’.

So, instead of going quietly, he resists.

And then, with a rush of almost gleeful realization that he’s never experienced before, he actively retaliates.

Crushing that sweep team is more liberating than he could have ever imagined it would be.

So, in the end, he tears his way through them and out the other side to safety.

But, body rebelling from too few calories and too little sleep, he doesn’t do it without paying the price first.

He lets his head thump back against the brick wall behind him as he clamps a hand across the gunshot wounds in his stomach.  He’s put a lot of distance between himself and the location of the fight but the movement has taken a toll on him.  Still he’d managed to dig the bullets out himself before he’d finally collapsed so the wounds are healing.

Just … slowly.

Too slowly.

He is almost certain that this, bleeding out in a dirty alley way somewhere in the middle of Delaware, is how he finally dies.

And, despite the way he’s been pushing for survival with a savage sort of desperation, he is almost grateful that it will all finally be over.

His eyes slip closed for a long moment and that’s when he hears it.

The sharp, rhythmic click-clacking of what sounds like high heels.  He recognizes the sound, remembers it with surprising clarity.  There’d been a technician once who had liked to wear heels that sounded like that when she came for his recalibrations and for … other things.

He shies away from the half formed memory in a way that’s quickly become familiar and focuses back on the present instead.

“Me slumming it in a back alley had better pay off J or so help me I’ll do something drastic.  Something that may or may not involve Hawkass and your Gundam collection,” a warm, smokey sounding voice echoes up through the alleyway towards him.  A woman.  She’s obviously talking to someone but he doesn’t hear a second set of footsteps with her so she’s more than likely alone.  “It’s bad enough that I’m in Delaware of all places.  You know my honey bear’s determined to forget this place even exists so there had better be one hell of a treasure at the end of this rainbow to make this story worthwhile.”

His vision wavers in and out, the blood loss and too little rest beginning to really catch up with him once again despite his body doing its level best to heal.

The footsteps get closer and his hand twitches towards his gun before he remembers that it’s empty and he’d lost the other two in the fight.  That doesn’t matter though.  He doesn’t need a gun to kill.  He never has.

Fuck,” there’s a pause, a sharp inhaled breath, and then the sound of faster movements and the feel of displaced air, “this is one hell of a jackpot J.”

When he opens his eyes all he can see for a split second is blue.

Then his vision swims back into focus and he sees the rest of her.

‘Beautiful,’ is the first dazed and surprising thought to swim upwards through the haze of pain and fatigue.

It’s almost enough to take him aback because he’s not used to thinking of things in those kinds of terms.  Isn’t used to seeing someone and cataloging them as anything that isn’t threat/non-threat related.

But that doesn’t change the fact that she is.

Beautiful.

She’s tiny looking there’s no doubt about that, almost delicate to be honest with her thick dark hair swept up into an artful sort of tumble of curls that frames her face.  But there’s a hardness, a strength, in the bright blue of her eyes and the curl of her too red mouth that belays that fragility.

“Oh handsome,” a hand comes up and sweeps across his brow in a move so unexpected and achingly gentle that it takes all of his fading strength not to lean into it and keen.  “Look at you.  Somebody really did a number on that pretty face huh?  Not to mention the rest of you.”

He just blinks up at her slowly.  He feels almost languid as that hand comes down and cups his jaw.  She smells like metal and citrus and her fingers, which are as delicate looking as the rest of her from what he can see, are surprisingly calloused.

Unable to help himself he savors the way they feel as they run over the thick stubble on his face, as she traces them carefully across the line of his cheek and the bruise he knows is there.

She’s the first person to touch him without hurting him in longer than he can remember.

In that moment he never wants her to stop.

“You with me handsome?”  She asks him lowly even as she tracks her eyes over the rest of him, brow pinched in what looks, unbelievably, like worry.  “You gonna fight me if I try to move you to get you patched back up?  Cause with as many holes as you’ve got in you that’s a fight I’m pretty sure not even you’d be able to win.  Plus I’m scrappier than I look.”

She smiles at him then, a soft, small upturn of plush lips painted an entrancing red, and the sight of it makes his entire body thrum.

Ready to comply.”  The words are out almost before he thinks to say them but he can’t bring himself to mind.

He’s tired and still bleeding and she’s gentle and beautiful.

If this is what death looks like then it’s better than anything else he can really remember at the moment so he’ll take it.

“JARVIS you really do give me the best presents.”  Her tone is wry and she obviously isn’t talking to him.  He doesn’t care though, doesn’t care who she’s communicating with, because her hand is still gentle and she smells and feels so good.  “Have Happy bring the car around, I’m gonna need some help with this one.  Also you might want to keep this between us baby boy.  I’ve got a feeling handsome here isn’t going to want the cavalry busting down the door while he’s out of it.”

He new designation? Handsome? feels the world begin to slip away from him.

“Hold on for me,” the woman murmurs to him softly just as another set of footsteps echo down the alleyway.  “I'm going to keep you safe, okay?  We’re gonna get you all fixed up and back on your feet.  That’s sort of what I do.”

A small, desperately lonely part of him wants to believe her.   Yearns to believe her.

His vision blurs, goes black around the edges, and this time, with her hand on his face and her warmth at his side, he doesn’t bother to fight it.

~~~

Toni stares down at Bucky fucking Barnes in all of his beautiful, bloody, beaten glory and finds herself at a momentary loss.

When JARVIS had gotten her to detour into Delaware by way of Happy’s obviously pleased chauffeuring she hadn’t given it much thought beyond a bemused sort of curiosity.  She’d been focused on working on the next version of the armor and thinking about getting back to the Tower.

Then, when he’d directed her towards this alleyway, she’d gone without hesitation, leaving Happy behind to man the car despite his protests.

Her trust in JARVIS is rivaled only by her trust in Rhodey after all.  She knows he’ll never steer her wrong.

Plus the armor’s waiting for her just up above, stealth mode engaged and ready to swoop in at the slightest hint of danger.  And well, she’s never really unarmed these days, armor or no armor.  Not with all of the tech she keeps stashed on her person at any given moment.

“I picked up on his earlier altercation with a small HYDRA cell and have already alerted the proper authorities to handle the bodies and any possible survivors.”  JARVIS’ voice is soft and calm in her ear.  “You were the closest option for extraction and I thought this might be a situation you would prefer to see to alone at first if at all possible Miss.  Given your … affection for Sergeant Barnes’ memory.”

“Well, you’re not wrong baby boy,” Toni reassures him as she traces her fingertips over Bucky’s face with a gentle sort of disbelief even as her mind whirls and her heart clenches.  She’s torn between joy and heartbreaking despair at the sight of him.

On the one hand he’s suffered so much, been through so much.  Been twisted and broken, maimed and tortured.

But on the other ...

He’s another figment from the past, another ghost who should be dead but, by some miracle, isn’t.  Another fantasy brought to life.  Another man who will never … well.

Toni’s been through this once before with Rogers already.  Even if her relationship with Cap has finally begun to even out and their little raggedy family has slowly come together in the Tower she has no desire to set herself up for even more pain.

She’s bad code after all, always has been and always will be, and Bucky has suffered enough as it is.

“Get the jet prepped and stocked with triage supplies and enough anesthesia to knock out a mule team.”  Toni shakes off her melancholy, tucks it down and away with the ease of long practice.  There’s no time for that now.  No time for useless dreams and old pain.  “Also, get the mansion opened up and aired out.  I want a full medical supply drop and enough food to feed a small army waiting on me when we get there.”

“It will be handled Miss,” JARVIS replies instantly.  “Do you wish for me to alert the Avengers at this time?  Or at least Captain Rogers perhaps?”

Yeah,” Toni draws the word out with a slight wince, “how about no.  I don’t think taking him back to the Tower’s a good idea right now.  Steve would be all over him no matter what I said.  I’m guessing that’s not what he needs right this minute given how bad he looks.  I vote we hole up in Malibu for a bit, see how the wind blows with this.  You can tell the team I’ve had business pop up in LA and then have Pepper come up with some kind of ironclad excuse.  Maybe call Rhodey too but tell him I’ve got everything handled, see if he can run interference and be on call at the Tower until I get back.  We can handle the aftermath when it happens.  Better to beg forgiveness in this case.”

“Of course Miss.”  JARVIS, as always, has her back.

“We get into the most fucked up situations J.”  Toni muses as Happy rounds the corner and jerks to a stop.

“Indeed you do Miss,” there’s something undeniably fond in his voice that makes her smile just a bit.  “I’ve decided that it is simply part of your charm.”

Toni laughs.

~~~

He wakes all at once, snaps back online like a flip has been switched.

His mind, clearer and sharper than before but still hazy, automatically takes stock of both his surroundings and himself.

He's immediately aware of the differences.

The low level hum of pain and exhaustion that's been haunting him has faded a bit.  He's clean, there’s a needle in the back of his hand that leads up to a bag of fluids that are probably drugged, and he’s obviously healing much quicker than before.

Plus, the bed he's lying in might be the softest thing he's ever felt.

It all feels unreal, like a soft sort of dream.

Even the room he's in is unlike anything he's ever seen before.  The bed is huge, the carpet looks thick, and the entire far wall is glass and seems to be directly overlooking the ocean.

Whoever has him obviously isn't a part of any HYDRA cell he's ever encountered before.

Which could be either a good thing or an exceptionally bad one.

The faint sound of voices makes him tense and then the door to the room opens and she walks in.

‘Beautiful,’ is his first thought as he stares at her silently, automatically cataloguing her threat level.  She’s small but that doesn’t always mean anything.  He’d known agents her size in the past who were capable of great destruction.  He’d trained a great many of them.

“Well, well,” she arches a brow at him from where she's paused at the door, “look who's awake.  You gonna attack if I get closer, handsome?”

Like a flare of light the memory comes back to him.

The fight, the alley.  Bleeding out on the ground and then … her.

Her and her gentleness.  Her and her warmth.

‘Beautiful and real,’ his mind whispers to him then.

“No,” he forces the word out with difficulty.

She comes closer and his eyes track her every move.

He knows her face, knows it from before the alley.

‘Stark,’ his mind murmurs to him.   ‘Natasha Antonia, genius level intellect, high priority target, Iron Queen, Avenger.  Threat level:  Significant.’

He doesn’t let his realization show on his face.

“You’ve been out for about ten hours,” Stark tells him once she’s hovering at the edge of the bed, just out of arm's reach.  Her hair’s still up and she’s wearing a severe black jacket and short leather skirt that shows off the length of her legs.  He can’t catalouge any visible weapons but he knows better than to underestimate her.  He’s seen what happens to the people who make that mistake.  “We’re in California now, Malibu to be exact.”

“How?”  The question tastes strange on his tongue.  He’s unused to asking anything of anyone, more accustomed to simply listening and accepting.  Normally any questions he has that don’t pertain to a mission are met with pain.

It has never been his place to question.

It’s something he thinks he might like to change.

“I got you patched up and onto my jet and then I drugged you to the gills.”  She admits shamelessly, a dark brow arched high.  “Didn’t want to take the chance of you waking up and pitching a fit while we were in the air.  You’re in my house now.  It’s safe, secure, and no one outside of people I trust with my life knows you’re here.”

“Why?”  He wants the answer.   Needs it in a way that surprises him.

For a long moment she just stares at him silently.

“You know who I am.”  It’s less of a question and more of a statement.

“Stark,” he answers, “Natasha Antonia.  Iron Queen.  Avenger.”

“Exactly.”  Her eyes are half lidded, almost slumberous, but her gaze is sharp.  “There’s a certain Captain who’s been tearing the country apart trying to find you.”

His body tenses automatically and his jaw goes tight against his will.

“He doesn’t know you’re here.”  Stark tells him lowly.  “And I don’t plan on telling him unless you want me to so don’t try to parkour out the window.  The fall wouldn’t kill you but the salt water would sting like a bitch.  So just go back to sleep, let those holes in your gut finish healing up, and then we’ll go from there.  Okay?”

She holds his gaze until he nods at her slowly and then she turns on her heel and walks back towards the door.

She pauses there, one hand on the knob, but she doesn’t look back.

“You might not remember,” she says, voice unexpectedly soft like it had been back in the alley, “but I told you that you’d be safe.  I meant that.  So just … rest.”

She’s gone then, door clicking closed behind her.

He stares at the empty space where she stood for a long moment before he relaxes back against the pillows again.

His thoughts from the alley resurface in his mind.

She’s the first person to have shown him kindness, gentleness, in longer than he can remember.

The threat of running into that man again or not he’s not that eager to leave that, to leave her, behind.

Not yet.

He wants to hold onto this, to her warmth, for just … a moment longer.

Sleep tugs at him then, his still healing wounds and residual exhaustion rearing their heads again.

And, again, he doesn’t bother to fight them.

He sleeps.

~~~

It's night when he wakes up next, the room is dark around him except for the subtle but warm glow of the track lighting.  The sheets slide over his bandaged torso like water and the sensation is enough to make him shiver just a bit in something he thinks might be delight.  Across his lower half is a thick navy blanket that’s even softer than it looks.

He lays there in silence, fingers carefully stroking across the top of that blanket, for only a handful of minutes before the door opens again.

Stark.

Only this time she's holding a tray.

He watches, faintly bemused, as she moves across the room and sets it on top of the table beside the bed.

There's a giant bowl of what seems to be broth and a towering stack of slightly burnt bread and cheese sandwiches piled onto a plate beside it.

He's not exactly sure what's going on.

From the look on her face before she smoothes it out he's not sure she is either.

“Eat,” she finally tells him as she backs away.  “I left the drugs out of this batch, promise."

She's gone again in the next second and he gets the impression that it's more of a retreat than she'd ever admit.

He eats.

The broth is warm and salty, the bread and cheese is thick and filling.

It doesn't make him sick.

He sleeps again afterwards.

He dreams.

There are no nightmares.

Just …

Her.

~~~

It becomes a pattern.

He sleeps longer and deeper than he can every remember sleeping before.

And when he wakes she's there within a few minutes, a tray stacked high with some sort of food in hand, as if she has some kind of sixth sense.  She always leaves quickly, quietly, as if she isn’t sure what to do with him.

Every other time she comes in she checks his bandages.  Traces her fingertips over his skin with firm but gentle touches and a furrowed brow after he nods his agreement to let her come close.

He likes those visits most of all.

Likes them so much that sometimes he's half convinced he's actually dead.

Once again he's not sure he'd mind all that much if it ended up being true.

It's … nice here, with her.

Warm.

Peaceful.

~~~

He doesn’t know where his remaining gun is.

He doesn’t care.

He doesn’t need it here, with her.

For any reason.

~~~

“The Tower's not such a bad place.”  The words take him by surprise.  She's mainly been quiet with him so far.  Reserved, except for a few quips here and there that he doesn't always understand but she seems compelled to make, like she’s taking care not to spook him.

He catalogues each remark she makes, bundles them up and stores them away.

Makes a memory of each and every one of them.

“All of the Avengers are there.”  Those eyes of hers are blue enough to burn when she cuts a look in his direction.  “It can be a little … much sometimes but it’s a good place to be for the most part.”

He stares at her silently as her eyes trace over his face.  He isn’t exactly sure what she’s trying to say because the only thing he can think of seems impossible to imagine.

And then, she says it.

“There's a place for you there if you want it, handsome.”  Her eyes are as piercing as always and even with the carefully controlled expression she wears he can see only honesty in her in this moment.  “Doesn’t have to be as a fighter either.  So remember that, for whenever you're ready to come in out of the cold permanently.  I’d ... we’d, keep you safe.”

He thinks he'd like the idea of her trying over anyone else.

Even that man.

Stevie,’ some small, ghostly part of his mind whispers.  ‘Punk.’

He watches her go.

Does his best to pretend like he doesn't want her to stay.

Does his best to pretend like his chest doesn’t ache for some reason at the thought of having somewhere safe to go.

He fails.

~~~

There's a fresh change of clothes waiting for him on the counter in the bathroom the day the bandages come off completely.  Everything from thick socks to boots to a smooth long sleeve shirt and a pair of gloves that'll obviously help hide his arm.

He presses the fingers of his flesh hand against the material of the shirt and marvels for a moment over how soft and thick it is.

The water in the shower is hot enough to make his skin prickle but he leans into it anyways, savors the heat of it, basks in the way it helps to ease the ever present ache of his shoulder.

The scent of the soap rises up around him like a cloud, vanilla and musk filling his senses in a pleasant way.

Being here, in this place, with her, has given him so many new sensations to marvel over.

So many new memories to keep.

~~~

The clothes fit like they were tailor made for him.

Honestly, by this point, it wouldn't surprise him.

Everything else about this place is as close to perfect as he’s ever seen.

As close to bliss as he can remember ever being.

Makes sense the clothes would be too.

~~~

There's a large backpack, an dark blue overcoat, and a hat on the end of the bed when he leaves the bathroom.

Stark is standing by the window, one hand on her hip and expression distant as she stares through the glass.

He watches her silently in that way he’s found he’s grown to like doing over the days he’s been here.

Watching her, studying her expressions, cataloging what she does and does not let show is … entertaining.

“Should be everything you need in there,” she finally speaks up after a few seconds as she turns to face him.  “Clothes, cash, the whole nine yards.  It's yours if you want it, no strings attached.  Because we both know you're not going back to New York with me.”

She’s right, he's not.

It’s tempting, he admits that, but ...

He can’t.

“I won't tell Rogers about this yet, but I won't stop him from looking for you either.”  Her gaze is palpable, carries weight like a physical touch.

He thinks he'd like to feel the real thing again.

Just to compare.

Just to reinforce the memory.

Not that it really needs it.

“He won't find me.”  It's the truth.  He’s rested, fed, healed, all at her hand.  He won’t be getting careless again any time soon.

“He's real invested in finding you.  He’s persistent on a day to day basis anyways, like a rash, but it’s next level when it comes to his little manhunt he’s got going on,” her lips curl into a smirk but he thinks he sees sadness lingering in the corners of her mouth.

It doesn't suit her at all.

“But no, I don't think he will,” she goes on.  “Not unless you let him.  I could though.  I could find you again.”

He dips his head in her direction in a silent acknowledgment.  That is also true.  If anyone could find him outside of HYDRA it would be either the Widow or her.

“There's a car outside, it's also yours if you want it.”  She tosses a set of keys and a thin, black leather wallet in his direction and he catches them both automatically.  “Take it wherever you want to go.  When the cash runs out use the black card in there for anything you need.  I’ll keep tabs on it, I’m not going to try and pretend like I won’t, but I won’t come after you unless you call or it’s another emergency.”

He tucks the wallet into the pocket of the pants he’s wearing, grips the keys lightly in his flesh hand, and just waits.

“Just remember, the Tower’s open to you.  So is this place.”  She gestures to the room they’re standing in.  “So is pretty much anywhere I am at any given time to be honest.  So feel free to drop in.  Or you pick up the phone that’s in that bag and you call me.  All you have to do is say the word and we’ll get you to the Tower.  So, when you finally get tired of running, you know where to go or what to do.”

He wants to ask her why again.  Wants to know what drives her to be so kind to him, so open.

The words stick in his throat.

He puts the coat on.

Shoulders the large bag.

Leaves.

~~~

Toni watches him leave with a bittersweet feeling in her chest.

She’d known right from the beginning that he wouldn’t stay, that he wouldn’t be coming back to New York and the Tower with her.

He’s running.

Running scared.

She’s done it in her own way on and off for long enough over the years to recognize it in him now.

All she can do is give him what she can to help him, to protect him, and then let him go.

She’s gotten good at that over the years.

Letting people walk away from her.

And he?

He’s never been hers to keep ... and he never will be.

~~~

Later, when the purr of the well tuned engine of the high end but discrete black car she’d given him is just a familiar buzz in his ears, he thinks this might be what longing tastes like.

He swallows it down.

Drives a hundred miles.

Stops.

Drives a hundred more.

Tries to pretend like she doesn't haunt him like yet another phantom.

Tries to pretend like he doesn't clutch onto the memory of her warmth, her kindness, like he's desperate not to let it fade.

Like he isn't terrified of losing the one good set of memories he knows are real.

~~~

There’s a gun in the bag.

A Stark model handgun with a textured grip, an extended clip, and finally tuned sights.  It’s all gorgeous lines and sleek curves.

Beautiful.

~~~

Grip.  Chamber.  Sights.

~~~

He stays constantly on the move for a long time.  Bounces from place to place, city to city.

He thinks about ditching the car, knows it’s more than likely GPS enabled and tracking his every move.

Knows that, like the black card she gave him, it’s probably just another way to keep an eye on him.

He keeps it anyways.

~~~

Every week or so he takes that phone out of the bag and just stares at it, runs his fingertips gently over its surface like a touchstone.

Puts it back.

Keeps moving.

~~~

Grip.  Chamber.  Sights.

~~~

There’s almost ten thousand dollars in cash in that bag she gave him.

He’s pretty sure that black card doesn’t have an actual limit.

He doesn’t understand anything about her.

~~~

He kills a HYDRA sleeper agent in Detroit.

He sees the man by chance, spots him outside of a park completely by accident.

He doesn’t even think about letting him walk away.

Instead he does what he’s been conditioned to do and in the end he disappears into the depths of the city before anyone even realizes the man on the bench is dead.

He does it again in Chicago.

In Raleigh.

In Harrisburg.

His mind seems to be leading him towards HYDRA at every other turn.

He doesn’t fight it, just concentrates on seeing them before they see him.

And if not?

Then he makes sure he’s the last thing they see at all.

But, then again, he would have done that anyways.

~~~

Eventually he stops keeping track of them.

Stops counting.

Keeps running.

Keeps hunting.

Just …

Keeps going.

~~~

Grip.  Chamber.  Sights.

~~~

There’s a message on the phone.

It’s a picture of the Avengers Tower in New York.  It’s obviously been taken from ground level, the camera angled up to capture the glow of the A on the side of the building.

‘Offer still stands,’ is all it says.

He stares at the message for the longest time that night.

He doesn’t reply.

He also doesn’t delete it.

~~~

That night he sleeps.

He dreams of falling into a never ending snow storm.

Dreams of that man screaming after him with one hand outstretched in his direction.

But, when he finally hits the ground, she’s there waiting on him.

Stark touches his face like she had back in the alleyway and her hand is so warm it almost burns.

When he wakes up he can’t decide if it’s a memory, a nightmare, or a fantasy.

Finally he settles on it being a mix of all three.

~~~

Little bits and pieces of his life before HYDRA, before the war, before everything, start to trickle back into his mind.

They're distorted, riddled with gaps and holes, but they're his.

Or, at least he thinks they are.

So he researches, he learns and remembers in equal measure and hoards any information he finds in the process.  Eventually he manages to fill in some of the gaps, manages to patch up some of the holes in his mind.  Manages to soothe a fraction of the wound.

Learns to think of himself as Barnes, as James, as Bucky.

Learns to wear the names like ill fitted suits.

Adequate but not ideal.

A part of him whispers about how he thinks he’d rather be called handsome instead even if it isn’t a proper name at all.

~~~

Six months out and the phone stays in his pocket constantly.

The gun’s never far from his hand.

He sleeps more than he used to, eats more too.

He thinks of her each time he does either, uses the memory of her warmth and her gentleness like a shield and a sword.

Wields the memory of her kindness with a ruthless precision and curls the sense memory of her around him like armor.

~~~

He uses the black card once.

Buys himself a meal in a sleazy little hole in the wall called the Hello Diner.

He has plenty of cash left from what she gave him.

~~~

Bucky sees her sometimes on magazine covers or talk shows or the news.  Sees her smirking on the red carpet, dressed to the nines, or even fighting in her armor as fierce as any warrior he’s ever seen.

He tries not to stare.

Tries not to remember the feel of her hand on his face.

Tries not to remember the warmth of her, her scent, the awkward but blinding kindness she’d given him.

Tries to pretend like the first time he took his cock in his hand it wasn't her face and her scent he thought of when he spilled across his fingers.

Tries to pretend like the same thing can't be said for every time after that as well.

He fails.

~~~

After a while he stops trying.

~~~

Grip.  Chamber.  Sights.

~~~

He gets another message on the phone.

It's a picture of the exact meal he'd ordered at that diner.  A familiar, delicate looking hand is curled around a vibrant red coffee cup to the side of the frame.

In the background he can see the sun setting over the New York skyline.

~~~

He thinks he likes the idea of her watching him.

He isn't sure what that means.

He just knows it makes him yearn for something he doesn’t know the name of.

~~~

He buys a magazine with a full spread of pictures in it of the Avengers in their gear juxtaposed against a spread of them all in fancy dress.

He recognizes all of their faces.

He knows three of them.

He only keeps two of the pictures though, presses them down in between the pages of the notebooks he’s been using to record his information and nightmares in.

One is a picture of Stevie in full Captain America gear.

The other …

Well.

Pictures don’t do her justice but he’ll take what he can get at the moment.

She looks like a dream in that black dress of hers anyways.

~~~

He thinks maybe he should be unsettled by the impact she’s had on him.

Thinks maybe it should chafe.

That maybe it should remind him of HYDRA and having his choices, his will, ripped away from him.

It doesn’t.

She doesn’t.

It, she, the memory of her, feels like choice.

~~~

Grip.  Chamber.  Sights.

~~~

Some nights he’ll take the phone out and pull up that last picture.

He stares at her hand, at the view in the background, traces his eyes and the tips of his fingers across the details in the picture.

His chest aches.

He’s not sure why.

~~~

Nine months out and he’s standing in New York staring up at Avengers’ Tower.

The A at the top glows almost as blue as her eyes.

He wants to stop running.

He wants to see Stevie.

He wants to see her too.

He wants a lot of things now.  Things he would have never considered a year ago.

He pulls the phone out of his pocket, thumbs it on, dials the only number in the contacts.

“Hey handsome,” her voice is as husky and warm as he remembers it being.

His eyes slip closed for a split second.

“I’d like to come in now.”  It’s all he can think to say to her.

“Door’s open.”  She says it like it’s really that simple.

And it is.

~~~

Seeing Stevie again is better than he’d ever imagined.

Now that he can remember him as more than just another mission.  Now that he has a hodgepodge of details and memories to back up the way he’d felt as if he’d known him that day on the bridge.

Steve hugs him, tentative and careful, but when Bucky wraps an arm around him in return it goes tight and almost desperate.

“Buck,” Steve breathes into his neck.

“Hey Stevie,” Bucky knocks his temple against Steve’s, a sign of an old and familiar affection, “long time no see.”

Steve just laughs wetly and holds him closer.

Over his shoulder Bucky sees Stark watching them, a softness he hasn’t seen since the alleyway lurking in her eyes and flirting with the corners of her mouth.

When she notices him watching her she just raises one finger up to her mouth in a hush gesture, winks, and then turns on her heel and saunters away.

~~~

After hours of talking with Steve Bucky eventually agrees to take the floor Stark had apparently outfitted for him personally.  Steve, concern rolling off of him in waves, makes it clear that his own floor is open to Bucky as well but he just waves him off as best he can.

Bucky likes the idea of having space, even from Steve.  He still isn’t used to interacting with a lot of people at one time.  Despite the way the others had seemed welcoming enough when Steve introduced them the idea of having room to breathe is something he doesn't want to give up again unless he has to.

Plus, he likes the idea of living somewhere she put together just for him.

Steve takes the elevator ride with him but leaves him at the door with obvious reluctance.  Bucky can understand but he’s also grateful for the way Steve bows out and lets him have some privacy to get settled.

In the bedroom he finds a note resting on top of a familiar thick navy blanket.

It's written on what looks like drafting paper and the handwriting is slanted but elegant.

Welcome home, handsome.

There's no signature but Bucky knows exactly who it's from.

He spends a long time staring at the paper, tracing his fingertips carefully over the dark lettering, before he digs out one of his notebooks from the black bag he still carries.

He tucks the note into the page with her picture and slips the notebook beneath his pillow alongside his gun.

The bed is just as soft as he’d thought it would be.

The blanket is just as thick and luxurious as it had been back in Malibu.

He sleeps.

~~~

He doesn't see her much for a while after that.  Just small stolen glimpses and brief exchanges.  Run ins in the common areas where she always has a smile and a quip ready but there’s no real chance to talk with her one on one.  Not with the way she seems to constantly be on the move from one business meeting to another gala to another press conference to a product reveal.

Bucky’s not sure what, exactly, he wants to say to her.

He just knows that he wants the chance to say it.

Steve keeps him busy, keeps him occupied with catching up and reminiscing along with learning about the Tower and the rest of the team he's now living with.  There are a lot of surprises, like meeting Thor for the first time or being introduced to JARVIS, but he settles into life at the Tower with an ease that surprises even him.  Slots into the framework of the place with a minimum of disquiet and unease, like his slowly developing life there was just waiting for him all along.

It's good to have a home again.

~~~

He's on the common floor the next time he gets to see her one on one with noone around to interfere or interrupt.

She comes into the kitchen and only pauses for a second at the sight of him before heading straight for the coffee pot.

“Hey handsome,” her now standard greeting for him floats across the room once she has a fresh mug in hand.

“Stark,” he nods his head to her in greeting.

“You can call me Toni,” she tells him breezily, like it doesn’t matter to her either way, but her eyes watch him carefully over the rim of her mug.

She looks softer than she had the last few times he saw her, more like the person he’d met in that alleyway.

More like the one who’d cared for him in that house in Malibu.

Toni,” he rolls the name around in his mouth, tastes the familiarity it implies on his tongue and decides it’s a flavor he enjoys.

“You settled in alright still?”  She tilts her head to the side as she stares at him, free hand reaching up to brush a thick black curl that’s fallen from her updo away from her face.  “Everything still fine?”

He can’t help but wonder how soft her hair is, how it would feel between his fingertips.

How it would look curled around the metal of his hand.

“Yes,” he tells her softly.  “This place is … it’s good.  Like you said it would be.  I’d like to keep staying here, maybe even join the team, see if I can get rid of some of the red in my ledger.  Maybe add some more if you come up against HYDRA again any time soon.”

It’s probably the longest string of words he’s said in decades.

It’s only fitting that it goes to her.

“Look at you,” she smirks at him almost teasingly, “Full sentences and everything.  You’re a growing boy.  I’m almost proud.”

Bucky just snorts, her quip bringing a small but genuine smile to his face.

“Well now that you’re settled in and your bodyguard,” she rolls her eyes just a bit at the mention of Steve, “is out for the moment it's as good a time as any to tell you I really want to get my hands on that arm of yours.”

A shaft of heat slams through Bucky’s gut at the thought of her touching him again.  Not even the memories of HYDRA and the pain they'd always inflicted on him through the arm is enough to stop that.

“Alright,” he agrees after only the smallest of pauses.

“Really?” she looks almost surprised, like she hadn’t actually expected him to agree.

“Yes.”  There’s no other answer he’d give, not to her.

~~~

Being allowed into her workshop is like being allowed into another world.

It’s bright and chaotic and filled with so much life and so many wonders that a part of him never wants to leave.

Mostly though he wants to stay right where he is because she’s close to him, because he can feel her warmth.

Because, even now, she’s still so gentle and kind when she deals with his arm, taking scans and measurement and poking and prodding with the utmost of care.

Because she's even more beautiful here somehow, more vibrant and alive when surrounded by robots and holograms.

By the time JARVIS reminds her that she has another meeting scheduled soon he’s already hoping she’ll ask him to come back sometime.

And when she does he agrees almost before she finishes asking the question.

Her small smile makes it all worthwhile.

~~~

Life moves on.

Bucky settles in even deeper into the Tower and the team, becomes part of the training rotation and develops separate relationships with the others.

His and Steve’s relationship isn’t a mirror of how it was before or during the war but they have a closeness now that can’t be denied or broken.  A closeness that had helped break through seventy years of brainwashing and torture.  A closeness they’re using as a foundation to build on, slowly, bit by bit.

He even develops an unexpectedly friendly sort of rivalry with Sam and a quiet but biting sort of companionship with Natalia.

Even Clint and Thor are easy to get along with, as filled with laughter and unexpected depth as the both of them are.

There’s a bit more distance with Bruce but that’s mainly because he spends almost as much time in a lab as Toni does.  The times Bucky is around him are calm and even and normally involve tea.

The only one who doesn’t seem to warm up to him all that quickly is Rhodes, who watches him like a hawk everytime he’s around.

Especially if Toni is in the room.

The man’s eyes always track suspiciously across him and Steve both and he isn’t exactly sure why.

~~~

He goes back down to the workshop for more scans of the arm.

He ends up staying for hours.

He watches the ‘boy’s’, as she calls the robots, play their strange games.  He keeps an extra keen eye on them most of the time because they’re fascinating.  There’s also the fact that the one with two arms, she calls him Butterfingers, keeps trying to come at him with what he’s pretty sure is a blow torch.

He spends the whole day there, with them, with her.

Watches her flit around the workshop as she snarks at/with JARVIS.

Watches her work on gadgets and tech with a laser like focus he finds appealing.

Watches her stand in the middle of her hologram interface, backlit by blue and glowing like a star.

She makes him feel breathless.

~~~

He makes his first official appearance as an Avenger a handful of months later when HYDRA attacks a local research center.

Fighting in a team, with Steve and all of the others, is as easy as breathing and Bucky revels in the fluidity and comfort of it all.

At the end of the day, when they’re all sweaty and soot streaked but successful, they gather together at a local pizza parlor at Clint’s insistence.

It’s loud and chaotic and there are people watching in awe from across the room, phones out and cameras flashing.

In any other situation he would be uncomfortable, would be twitching with the need to be away from so many people and so many eyes

But here, in this moment, Bucky thinks he wouldn’t trade this for anything in the world.

Then he makes the mistake of looking up just as Toni throws her head back and laughs, loud and delighted and achingly real, at something a smug looking Clint has signed in her direction.

Bucky’s breath catches in his chest and he swears his heart skips a beat.  Stutters and then starts to race.

All he can think in that moment is that he wants to spend the rest of his life seeing her smile just like that.

Wants to be the reason she smiles just like that, open and honest without any of her armors.

Shit.

It’s in that moment that he realizes he might have a problem.

~~~

He debates with himself over what, if anything, to do about his realization.

For a long while he wavers.

But, looking down at the gun she’d given him while he sits on the edge of the bed in the home she’d made possible, he can’t get the thought of her warmth and her kindness out of his mind.

He wants her.

He thinks maybe he’s wanted her since the moment she found him in that alleyway.  Thinks he’s wanted her since before he even knew what wanting was again.

He doesn’t have the right to want her, he knows that.

He’s too broken, too dark and slick with all of the sins he’s been forced to commit.

But, he thinks, he might just be twisted enough now to push those truths away.

Might just want her enough, might just be selfish enough, to try and see if she could ever want him back.

~~~

There had been, Bucky knows, a time in his life where he had been considered charming.

The memories are faded and patchy still, distorted and corrupted by the things HYDRA had done to him, but vague impressions still linger.  So Bucky knows, with a faint sense of pride and a worn but still almost giddy sort of smugness, that he’d been well liked when it came to women.

Even now it is one of the things Steve likes to talk about when he starts waxing poetical about the past or starts trying to embarrass him.  Bucky and his many, many dates.

So, once upon a time, before the war and before HYDRA had gotten their hands on him and hollowed him out inside, Bucky had had a way with the ladies.

Unfortunately all of that barely remembered charm doesn’t seem to be doing him any good with one lady in particular.

Which, honestly, is kind of understandable.

Because, despite everything he’s ever seen or done, Bucky has never met a woman like Toni Stark before.

She is singular in a way that goes beyond the kindness she'd showed him.  Beyond her beauty or her money or her intellect.  Beyond whatever else people always use to quantify her.

He has no idea how to court a woman so unique.

He suspects that even in the past, before the war, he would have been awestruck by her.

So, that fact in mind, he sits down and does his best to plan out an attack strategy.

~~~

The first thing he does is start paying even closer attention to Steve's stories.  He listens with a sharper focus to everything, takes mental notes of all the details.

Step one, he determines in the end, should be compliments.

He remembers, bolstered by Steve's stories, that he used to be good at that, used to be able to make his dates giggle and blush.

Used to be able to fire off compliments and flattery as easy as breathing, always able to find something to flatter a dame on.

Now the words stick in his throat, refuse to be said.

None of them seem adequate.

None of them seem sincere enough.

Because how is he supposed to tell her that she brought warmth and kindness into his world when he'd long come to believe there was only ice and cruelty left for or in him?

~~~

They fight a horde of weak but slippery sea creatures and even though the battle ends quickly they’re all filthy and sweaty, covered in ink and bits of what looks like squid.

All of them, that is, except for Toni who steps out of the armor and onto the sidewalk looking immaculate if a bit flushed.

Her hair is up, her lipstick is flawless, and her skin glows against the blood red blouse she’s wearing.  When she steps to just an arm’s length away from him he catches her now familiar scent of metal and citrus.

“You smell good,” Bucky hears the words come out of his mouth before he realizes he’s saying them.  He tries to stop there and finds that he can’t.  Like he’s been possessed his mouth just keeps moving.  “And your skin looks very soft.”

On his other side Clint makes a bitten off choked sound and mutters something that sounds like ‘puts the lotion on the skin'.  Bucky ignores him.

“Thank … you?”  Toni’s brows are arched high in confusion as she blinks up at him, something like bemusement curling the corners of her distractingly red mouth just the slightest bit upwards.

Bucky turns on his heel and stalks off.

‘At least’, he thinks to himself, ‘it was technically a compliment’.

~~~

He wishes it got better from there, wishes he’d managed to recapture some of his half remembered eloquence when it came to words.

But, it doesn’t, he doesn’t.

~~~

“Your hair looks like ink,” he tells her apropos of nothing while the team sits together around the conference room table.  He finds her hair beautiful even if he’s never seen it loose and free but somehow just telling her that seems impossible.

Across from him Natalia raises a hand to cover the small smile he sees creep over her lips.

“I can honestly say that’s something no one’s ever said to me before.”  There’s an amused and curious sort of tilt to Toni’s mouth.

Steve calls the meeting to order then so he doesn’t get the chance to say anything else.

Beside him Sam has his face buried in his hands and his shoulders are shaking.

Bucky takes great pleasure in tripping him when they leave afterwards.

~~~

It becomes a bit of a pattern, him and his runaway mouth as he attempts to complement her.

The rest of the team watches on in, what can only be called, glee.

Steve is the only one who doesn’t seem overly amused.  If anything he seems slightly sad in a way Bucky can’t explain.  But Steve doesn’t offer an explanation or bring it up to him so he focuses on the fact that he seems to be hopeless when it comes to compliments.

Honestly he’s not even that surprised, hadn’t really expected it to be any good at it.

He spent the better part of the century as a will-less automaton, a puppet whose strings and voice were not its own.

Even now, over a year out from HYDRA’s grip, he still hasn’t relearned the art of words, still prefers quiet and observation over engaging with people on a personal level.

He isn’t sure he ever will.

But that’s what makes it all so frustrating.

Because ...

She makes him want to speak.

~~~

“You’re good with bombs,” Bucky tells her after she defuses the device that’d been left behind in an attempt to distract them from following the latest wave of HYDRA grunts as they retreated.

She’s more than impressed him with how quickly she’d dismantled and disarmed the thing.

Her competence, her laser focus and surety in the face of pressure, is yet another thing he finds entrancing about her.

“Should be by now,” her voice is low, tone tight.  “Spent enough time building them.”

He realizes then that he’s once again misstepped.

She’s gone before he can say anything else.

He’s beginning to believe that words might not be his best avenue.

~~~

Grip.  Chamber.  Sights.

Nightmares still find him in the Tower but they’re not as frequent as they were when he was on the road.  They’re dulled a bit by the safety of the place, by the distance he’s put between him and HYDRA, by the trust he’s managed to find and build against all odds.

But they do still find him.

He’s settled in the living room on the common floor again, his now vast collection of guns spread out around him on the floor when Toni comes in.

She looks tired, circles dark beneath her eyes and her hair pulled up into a simple bun instead of her normal updo.

She blinks when she sees him and then, to his surprise, moves across the room and settles down on the floor across from him.

He sees the way her hands shake when she reaches out, grabs the nearest gun, and starts taking it apart.

She’s quick, efficient, and having her hands occupied seems to calm her down a bit.

He keeps working as well and feels himself begin to relax too.

Having her close helps more than he could ever express.

The night passes quickly.

They don’t speak.

The silence is comfortable, peaceful, in a way that not many would believe Toni is capable of being.

Bucky savors it, revels in the fact that she’s comfortable enough to be silent around him.

Bucky wants every inch of her he can possibly have.

~~~

Gifts are his next option.

Toni’s rich enough to afford anything she could possibly want and smart enough to make anything else there might be.

So that doesn’t leave him with a lot of options.

After much contemplation he falls back on a tried and true method that even he remembers doing in the past.

He buys her flowers.

A dozen roses as dark red and flawless as her armor and her lips normally are.

He sits them on the bar and waits for her to come up and find them.

He doesn’t expect the way she freezes, eyes riveted on the bouquet, when she walks into the kitchen on the common floor and sees them.

“Who,” her voice is low and steady, “are those for?”

“You,” he tells her.

But, before he can say anything else, before he can explain, before he can tell her they’re from him, she strides across the room and towards the flowers.

He can only watch in confusion and what feels a bit like hurt as she picks the flowers up, vase and all, and drops them in the trash with a deliberate sort of violence.

Then she turns on her heel and strides out of the room.

The kitchen is silent for a long moment and Bucky is viciously glad that no one else was there to see what had just happened.

He doesn’t have much left in him when it comes to the capacity for humiliation or shame these days but it’s still not an experience he would like to share.

“Sergeant Barnes,” JARVIS sounds unusually hesitant when he speaks up.

Bucky doesn’t answer but the way he looks up at the ceiling lets the AI know he’s listening.

“There is something I believe you need to see,” JARVIS tells him.  “It will require your word as to your discretion but it would, perhaps, explain Miss’ actions a great deal better than I could.  Just know that cruelty was not her aim.”

~~~

An hour later and Bucky is seething.

Bucky’s rage is an icy river running through him as he thinks about what he’s learned.

Once, when Toni was younger, before New York and before the armor, someone else had given her flowers, bouquets of red roses to be exact.

And then they’d forced their way into her apartment and attacked her.  She’d fought him off, kept him from hurting her in all the ways he’d intended to.

But it had still happened.

She’d still be hurt, still been attacked.

And somehow, by the end of it, she’d been blamed for the entire thing by the press.

JARVIS had shown him the police reports, had let him read Toni’s statements, had shown him clips from the news stations.

Bucky firmly marks any kind of plant off of the list of things he might ever give her in the future.

But that rage, that seething anger and fierce protectiveness, doesn’t fade.

~~~

It’s still there when they all gather for dinner that night, a routine and tradition that he’d slotted into after a few weeks in the Tower and now actively enjoys.

Bucky eats with a slow, methodical kind of deliberation.  He can’t stop himself from cutting an assessing look at Toni every few seconds.

Steve notices his distraction but doesn’t say anything, just bumps their shoulders together in solidarity and then goes back to his conversation with Bruce.

It’s when dinner is finished and they’re lingering in the kitchen with drinks and the cupcakes Clint had baked that he can’t help but say something.

He makes his way over to stand in front of Toni where she’s talking to Sam and waits for her to turn a questioning look in his direction.

“You need something, handsome?”  She’s relaxed for once, open and soft.  He wants her to be like that always, to be like that forever, unguarded and comfortable.

He would let his hands run ruby red with blood to make it so.

“I would gut anyone who touched you without your consent.”  The words spill out and this time he isn’t even sorry for them.

Beside her Sam chokes on his beer, claps a hand to his mouth to keep from spitting, and stares at Bucky wide eyed and shoulders shaking.

Toni blinks up at him, eyes wide and mouth slack for a split second before she seems to regain her composure.

“That’s … sweet?”  Toni narrows her eyes at him but this time he’s sure there’s a small puzzled smile flirting with the corners of her mouth.  “Openly homicidal and blatantly illegal, but still kind of sweet.”

To his surprise Toni steps forward into his space without prompting.

Heat slams into him at her proximity, like it always does, and Bucky immediately freezes, every sense trained towards her.  She’s close enough that he can feel her body heat, can smell the citrus and metal scent of her.

He automatically leans down towards her just a bit when she crooks as finger up towards him.

He watches, half dazed and half predatorily focused, as she goes up on her tiptoe and presses a kiss to his jaw line.

“Real sweet,” Toni says again as she steps back and away from him.  She turns, coffee cup in hand, and saunters out of the kitchen.

Bucky stays where he is, still bent forward just a bit, for a long moment.

All he can think about is how soft her lips had been.

About how much he wants to feel them again, on his cheek, against his own mouth, across his entire body.

Finally it’s Sam that jolts him back to reality.

“I’ve seen some awkward shit in my life but that?  That was something else,” Sam states, beer in one hand and composure apparently regained except for the glee he sees shining in his eyes.  “Jesus man, threatening to gut someone’s not generally an opening most people go for.  You’re just … disgustingly, hopelessly bad at this.  Like, I would pity you if it wasn’t so goddamn hilarious.”

“You got any advice then wise guy?”  Bucky narrows his eyes at him but still asks.  At this point he’s willing to look for advice even from Sam.  Especially if it helps him get to feel Toni’s lips again.

“Fuck no.”  Sam takes a long, obnoxiously loud slurp of his beer.  “I hope this lasts forever.  I’ve got too much money riding on this to help you.”

Figures.

~~~

Grip.  Chamber.  Sights.

“Sergeant Barnes,” JARVIS calls out to him softly.

Bucky doesn’t look up like he normally does when JARVIS speaks to him but he does stop moving, lets his hands rest on the table top beside the gun he’s been meticulously cleaning.

“Perhaps a change of venue would aid you.”  JARVIS says softly.  “Miss is currently awake and in the workshop.  She has also expressed a desire to take further, in depth, scans of your arm if you’d care to join her.”

Bucky nods, pushes his way out of his chair and away from the table.

Seeing Toni, being with her in the workshop, sounds a great deal better than checking over his guns again.

“Hey handsome,” she greets him over her shoulder as the door opens to let him in.  “J said you were up too.  Come down to let me get another look at that sexy cybernetic of yours?”

“It’s all yours.”  He wishes that were true.

“Oh Coldstone if that were true you wouldn’t have to sit through near as much maintenance.”  Toni tells him just a tad boastful and smug before her expression turns contemplative.  “But it could be if you want it to be.  All mine that is.  Top of the line Stark tech built by yours truly.  What do you say Bionic Bucky?  Want me to rebuild you better, faster, stronger?”

‘You already have,’ Bucky can’t help but think.  And it’s even true because he’s clawed his way up from the depths of HYDRA’s cruelty and programming inch by vicious inch but he’d used her as both weapon and armor the entire way through.

She’s part of the foundation he’d used to rebuild himself.  Her and Steve and his own vicious desire to no longer be a tool to be used by hands he didn’t choose.

He doesn’t say any of that though.

Can’t.

Can’t find the words.

Instead he just nods and watches, warmth flaring in his chest, as she grins, bright and happy.

~~~

He’s out in the city for once when something catches his attention from where it’s sitting on a display stand in a shop window.

He takes one look at it and knows that he’s found his next attempt at a gift.

It’s deceptively delicate looking and it’s blue, bright and shining like her eyes.

When he sees it he immediately thinks of her.

He changes direction, goes into the shop, and buys it immediately.

It only takes a short explanation before JARVIS lets him up to her private floor so he can put his gift on her bed.  He leaves immediately though, not interesting in sticking around and seeing if she reacts to this gift like she had his last attempt.

She finds him a few hours later where he’s sitting with Bruce and Clint in the living room of the common floor.  That show with the screaming parents and dressed up toddlers Clint likes is playing in the background while Clint paints Bruce’s toenails a deep purple.

“So,” Toni drawls out as she stops in front of the couch, his gift in her hand.  “J said you left this and I’m going to be honest here handsome I’m not sure what to make of this one.  This a death threat or something?  Cause if so then I’m surprised JARVIS let you get away with it.”

“No,” Bucky shakes his head.  “It reminded me of you.”

“How?”  She seems genuinely mystified, eyes moving between him and the gift.

“Small, deadly,” Bucky tells her slowly, “and it’s blue, like your eyes.”

It had made sense to him at the time, still does really.

There’s a long beat of silence, Bruce and Clint both are looking rapidly back and forth between the two of them.

Toni, surprisingly enough, just hums and stares at him for a moment.

“I feel like that was a compliment of some sort,” is what she finally says.

Bucky feels his heart speed up.

Maybe he’s finally done something right afterall.

“Yes.”  His voice is low and rough when he answers her.

The air in the room is charged.

Finally she dips her head in a small nod and turns to leave.

She takes the slender but sharp knife he’d left for with her when she goes though.

He counts that as a win.

Holy shit,” Clint breathes out beside him, something like awe in his voice.  “I think you actually did it right that time.  I can’t believe that worked.”

“Pretty sure you don’t have any room to talk Clint,” Bruce cuts in dryly.  “You got Natasha a brick of C4 and a pack of Red Vines for Valentine’s Day this year.”

“She has very discerning tastes.”  Clint sniffs and turns back towards his show and Bruce’s toes.

~~~

“She might not see what you’re doing but I do.”  Rhodes’ says as he slips into the gym where Bucky’s been systematically pounding away at a reinforced punching bag for the past hour or so.

Bucky goes still and then turns to face him.  He knows better than to ignore or underestimate Rhodes in any way but especially not where Toni is concerned.

It’s a well known fact that they live in each other’s pockets and would kill and die for each other.

“You hurt her and I will destroy you.” Rhodes’ voice is low and even but there’s an undercurrent there that makes his senses tingle.  The man’s entire body is tense with an unspoken threat of violence.

His calm, simple, declaration is more effective than any sort of honor talk he’d ever gotten in the past.

“She should always be happy,” is all he can think to say in response.  “I would kill to keep her that way.”

“At least we can agree on that.”  Rhodes tells him.

It sounds a little bit like a threat too.

Somehow it just makes Bucky like him more.

~~~

“I,” Clint announces as he saunters off of the elevator and onto Bucky’s floor, “am going to help you.  I figured us awkward assassin types would probably stick together.  Also there’s money involved so there’s that.”

“Weren’t you a carny?”  Bucky asks.

“A damn good one too,” Clint agrees cheerfully.  “Was also an assassin for a while but you know, things change.  Now sit down and let me tell you all about how I’m going to help you go on an actual date with Toni.”

That catches Bucky’s attention instantly.

From the smug look on Clint’s face he knows it too.

~~~

There’s, apparently, a gala that Toni’s obligated to go to and with Rhodes in DC she’s dateless.

It is, according to Clint, the perfect opportunity.

Thankfully Bucky feels at ease in the tuxedo.

It takes more than clothes to make him uncomfortable these days after all.

What is slightly less comfortable is the way the entire team except for Steve is gathered in the living room on the common floor to observe.

He ignores them though and just stares at the elevator doors instead, willing them to open.

But when they do …

She’s gorgeous, even more so than usual.

She’s wearing gold, this silken and draped sort of creation that makes her look like something out of a painting.

Like an old goddess come to life.

“You clean up good, handsome,” Toni smirks as she practically slinks across the floor, her towering heels clicking against the marble.

Her lips are a deep, glorious crimson.

There’s a golden flower tucked into her upswept hair.

It’s like staring at the sunset.

Bucky grits his teeth and clenches his jaw, his hands shoved deep into his pockets to keep from reaching out to touch her.

And he so wants to touch her.

He wants to drop to his knees and worship at her altar.

Instead he just dips his head and moves to her side as she waves goodbye to everyone else and blows a kiss in Clint’s direction.

Clint who is staring daggers in his direction and making pointed hand gestures.

Bucky ignores him and just concentrates on the feel of Toni walking beside him.

~~~

The car ride to the gala is mainly silent, the quiet between them as comfortable as it normally is.

He basks in her presence while she taps idly at her phone and sends him the occasional small smile.

Even the red carpet out front isn’t so bad.  Having her beside him makes up for the flashing lights and yelled questions.

It isn’t until they’re inside that things begin to go down hill.

There’s alcohol and dancing and people pressing in on all sides even in the spacious ballroom.  Everyone is, as always, eager to get close to Toni, to talk with her for one reason or another.  Not even his towering presence is enough of a deterrent for everyone.

The insesent press of people has him on edge in a way that he hasn’t felt since those first few months out from under HYDRA.

So he looms in a corner, watches as Toni works the crowd, mouth curled in a sharp smirk and eyes bright and cunning like they always are whenever she deals with anyone outside the Tower and the team.

She looks at him every few minutes, something contemplative in her eyes.  But she always looks away quickly enough.

An hour or two in is when the alcohol really begins to flow heavy and the people begin to really loosen up.  The small orchestra that’s playing strikes up a few livelier numbers and people begin to dance.

Bucky gathers his resolve and steps to her side, his sudden movement cutting off the conversation some weasley looking guy was attempting to engage her in.

Bucky doesn’t say anything, just holds a hand out in her direction.

To his pleasure she takes it with a smile.

Dancing is, much to Steve’s protests, much like fighting in Bucky’s mind.  It’s all about movement and timing, both of which he has in spades.

Swinging Toni into the crowd and into a waltz is as easy as breathing for him.

Having her in his arms is just as good as he’d always imagined it would be.

“You look like a sunset” he tells her lowly after a few seconds of them moving seamlessly together across the dance floor, something about being in motion making the words come easier than normal.

He feels more than hears the way she sucks in her breath.

It’s true too.  With her ink black hair and blood red lips and her body draped in gold, she looks like a sunset.  Something sultry and hot.  A seductive opening to the dark of night.  The last heat burst before day turns to night.

He wishes he could say these things out loud to her.

But it’s like he freezes up and trips over his own tongue every time he tries and instead says something awkward and half formed.

He reminds himself of his half formed memories of how Steve was in the past.

Toni’s staring up at him, lips parted and eyes heavy lidded.

All Bucky wants in that moment is to kiss her.

To finally, finally know what she tastes like.

That, of course, is when the explosion rips through the ballroom and the screaming starts.

~~~

“Not what I had in mind for the evening,” Toni tells him ruefully as they duck behind a table.

“Me either,” Bucky finds himself agreeing.

The others, Bucky knows, will arrive before too long.  JARVIS keeps too close an eye on Toni not to report this kind of thing to the team.  Plus the armor is never very far away when Toni goes off to an event like this.

There’s been one too many close calls in the past apparently.

Bucky stays at Toni’s side even as the armor rips its way into the ballroom and speeds towards her position.

He only watches as she reaches down and rips the hanging fabric of her skirt away with a ruthless jerk until it stops high on her thighs.

Then she steps into the armor and the real battle begins.

~~~

Bucky’s sweaty, his tux is ruined, and he’s got at least two slowly healing bullet wounds from shielding civilians by the time the battle is done and the AIM goons responsible are captured by the rest of the team.

Clint and Natalia both look surprisingly, disproportionately, angry about the entire thing.

Sam looks smug and Thor looks delighted for the battle.

Steve’s busy talking with the first responders that had finally arrived.

Bruce had stayed behind, the Hulk not being the best option for a midtown affair unless absolutely necessary.

“We’ve got to stop meeting like this, don’t you think so handsome?”  Toni’s by his side then, armor gone and still clad in her now destroyed party dress.  “You’re making getting shot into too much of a past time if you ask me.”

“I’m alright.”  Bucky shrugs, one hand clasped to his stomach where he’s got a slowly healing gash from a bullet that had clipped him.  “It’ll be gone in a few hours.  Had worse.”

“Yeah,” there’s something soft and sad in her smile then as she lifts her hand up and cups his jaw.  “I know you have.  At least this time I won’t have to smuggle you to Malibu.”

This time he doesn’t, can’t, resist the urge to lean into the feel of her.

His lips press against the palm of her hand and this time her small inhale of shock is loud enough for him to hear.

Around them time seems to slow down.  The world fades out.

All Bucky can see is the blue of her eyes, the red of her lips.  The tiny curls that’ve fallen down to frame her face.

She makes him ache in the sweetest sort of way.

“I’d go with you,” he says suddenly as he holds her gaze.  “I’d go with you, back there, to Malibu.  I’d go with you anywhere if you wanted me to.”

“Wha-?”  She makes a tiny shocked, questioning noise.  Her eyes are wide and he thinks there might actually be a small flush on her cheeks.

Bucky plows forward, forces the words out from between clenched teeth because this feels like a pivot point.  Like a singular moment in time upon which everything else in his future is balanced.

This feels like meeting her in that alleyway had felt.

He reaches up his free hand and places it carefully, gently, against her waist.  She steps forward and further into his space with only the slightest of nudges and pleasure flushes through him at that show of trust.

“You're the only good thing I've touched in a century,” he rasps out.  “You and Stevie and this team.”

“I’m not.”  She denies instantly, something brittle and ugly flashing through her eyes.  “I’m not a good thing.  Never have been, never will be.”

He wants to kill everyone who ever made her feel that way.  Who ever had a hand in making her believe that about herself.

“You can’t see it,” Bucky tells her and he hates the fact that it’s true, “but it’s true.  You’re one of the only good things in my life Toni.  I want,” he bites out a frustrated noise, “let me show you.  Not good with words anymore so just … let me show you, Toni.   Please?”

“Okay,” she sounds breathless in a way he’s never heard before.  “Show me.”

It’s all the permission he needs.

Bucky pulls her just the slightest bit closer, bends his head, and kisses her.

Her mouth opens beneath his easily, and his groan is echoed by her own breathy little moan.

She tastes faintly of chocolate and champagne and it’s better than anything else he’s ever tasted in his life.

He wants to spend the rest of his existence right where he is, bloody and injured and kissing Toni.

He kisses her with everything he has in him.  All of the hope and love he’s held onto for months now.  All of the desire and longing that he’s been hoarding since the moment he first met her.

She keeps pace with him even as his hand slides up her side and over her shoulder to cup the side of her neck in his palm.  Her pulse flutters against his thumb as he nips at her bottom lip.  Both of her hands come up to sink into his hair and the feel of it makes him shiver.

They’re both breathing heavy when he finally breaks away, her eyes are dazed and desire clenches low and heavy in his gut.

“Been trying to tell you for months now,” Bucky rasps as he leans forward and kisses her again.  “Keep fucking it up but I keep trying.  Don’t know how to court someone anymore.  Kept getting it wrong.”

He kisses her again, lets his hand trail up a bit so he can finally see what her hair feels like against his fingertips.  It’s as soft as he’d always thought it would be, silky and luxurious feeling even after having been through a battle.

“The knife,” Toni breathes when they part again.  “All that weird shit you said about my hair and gutting someone?”

“Told you,” Bucky quirks a small, rueful smile at her as he presses their foreheads together,  “not good at this anymore.  Could never get the words right.  Or the gifts apparently.”

This time it’s Toni who kisses him, who surges up into his space and steals his mouth for her own.

His eyes slip closed and he revels in the feel, the taste, of her.  In her scent and the warmth of her body.

“Oh James,” she sighs and there’s something like dawning joy in her eyes.  His breath catches sharp and harsh in his throat because it’s the first time she’s called him by his first name and he’s never heard anything sweeter than the sound of it on her lips.  “I talk enough for the both of us.  Pretty sure we’ll be able to figure something out.  If-if that’s what you want?”

There’s more than a hint of insecurity in her voice then.

“Yes,” Bucky tells her firmly.  “I want you, however you’ll let me have you.  For as long as you’ll let me have you.”

“Careful handsome,” Toni breathes.  “Might never get rid of me you keep going like that.”

“Good,” Bucky tells her as he dips down to kiss her again.

As if he’d ever want to be rid of her.

As if he’d ever willingly give this up now that she’s given it to him.

She is infinitely precious to him and he’s lost too much over the decades to ever let her go without a fight.

He wants to build a future with her, one memory at a time.

Wants a life time of her warmth and her kindness, her gentleness and her fierce fighting spirit.

This feels like the perfect starting point to the rest of forever.

And Bucky aims to remember each and every second of it.