Chapter 1: [ recharging ]
Fifty one point two percent charge. Satisfactory regeneration. System reconnecting; data restoration complete.
A faint whirring sound drifts through the air, the clean taps as electronic synapses click back online. The taste is metallic in his mouth as he regains consciousness, more iron than electricity, which is always an unexpected result of recharging. Sorry, refueling. Android rights are human rights, he hears a refrain echoing in the back of his mind. He’s still disoriented, trying to wade through data and memories at the same time he’s adjusting to regaining consciousness. Recharging is a false narrative. They’re not batteries, it’s just a different source of energy. Food for us, electricity for them. They’re refueling. He appreciates the sentiment, but he’s too groggy to contemplate the moral and philosophical differences of inter-species semantics at this particular moment.
“You know,” a familiar and slightly unwelcome voice says as he painstakingly opens his eyes. The onslaught of visual images, colors, scents, and sounds is almost too much for him to process at the same time. He feels like he’s going to be sick.
Leave me alone, Sam, is what he thinks he says in response, but what he actually manages to say is something along the lines of “Mrrgh.”
“As I was saying,” Sam’s voice drones through his struggling conscious. “You know, if you didn’t let yourself drain to below ten, you wouldn’t have such a hard time coming back online, Rogers.”
That’s none of your fucking business, is what he says in response. Also, don’t tell me what to do. He expresses both sentiments succinctly with a devastating “Ugggh.”
“You’d also have an easier time cursing me out.” Sam’s voice is cheerful. Too cheerful. The bastard has an aggressively good time whenever Steve comes stumbling in, close to zeroing out, and then spends the next day of his life refueling and dealing with the unfortunate and wholly foreseen consequences of his reckless behavior.
The first five percent after coming back online is the absolute worst because it’s a complete system regeneration after a crash to near zero. If Steve ever came in before his fuel levels fell below, you know, ten percent, he would be able to refuel like a normal Android without any of the unpleasant side effects. As it is, he nearly almost forgets until he’s shutting down around six or seven percent--except for the one time he had to be rushed in close to one point five percent, which was dangerously stupid even for him and for which Sam had given the shouting to of his entire goddamned 302 years of life, and then the cold shoulder for nearly the next month after--and they had to send him into stasis mode while refueling him back up to fifty percent. System regeneration starts at fifty one point two percent and for the next five percent points, life is an utter nightmare of overwhelming sensations. It gets more functional when he hits the sixties. Well, it gets marginally more bearable at any rate.
“Eight point seven percent this time,” Sam says. He’s leaning over Steve’s shoulder to check his statistics on the monitor. He pulls back and what’s on his face is the slightly off facsimile of a smile. That is, it’s a hideous smirk. “You’re losing your touch.”
Fuck you, Steve glares. That is, he tries not to drool on himself and says something like “Hhhngh.”
Sam pats Steve’s shoulder and draws back.
“You’ll live,” he says. “Your stats are fine, no data or memory loss. Gotta do my rounds, but I’ll be back in an hour. You should be up to sixty by then. If you’re nice, I’ll bring you a popsicle.”
Steve tries to heave a sigh and actually manages it, too.
Sam’s an asshole, but, well, Steve wouldn’t hate a popsicle.
Steve lets himself drift off for the next hour while the whirring continues. He starts feeling less nauseous as his charge increases and by the time it finally hits sixty, he can process multiple sensations simultaneously without actually wanting to go into stasis. He blinks awake when he feels that internal shift from lagging to active and swallows past the metallic taste to take stock of his surroundings.
There’s only one other fueling specialist working the room, a pretty and deadpan blonde named Sharon, who’s running through the stats of one of the other Androids still in stasis. Steve’s seen the other man before, some awkward, self-effacing second generation Android named Lang. When Lang’s online, he tends to talk a lot and flirts with all of the other technicians and specialists, usually quite poorly. It’s better for all of them that he’s offline.
Steve sighs and tries to stretch, but his arm hits one of the thick charging wires plugged into the back of his neck. Grumbling, he readjusts himself so he can look around without disconnecting. There are only three Androids plugged in that he can see and one Altered Human dozing in the leather armchair of an empty dock. Alts don’t need to refuel, technically, but they show up to the Station anyway, presumably and inexplicably for the company, although Sharon will tweak their chips if she’s in a good mood. Usually Steve can’t hear himself think over all of the whirring and verbal sniping. Must be a slow Saturday.
He lets his head drift gently back against the leather armrest and blows strands of blond hair out of his face. He contemplates tearing out of his metaphorical, electrical chains before he reaches full fuel, but he knows it would cause more problems than it would be worth. It’s not like he isn’t aware of the ramifications of his actions. He would start powering down weeks earlier than expected, probably fall offline somewhere inopportune, get emergency dialed to a refueling station, nowhere near his own, and have to deal with Sam’s You’re a Goddamned Idiot and I am Goddamned Unimpressed With Your Inability To Take Care of Yourself face for the next month of his life.
Steve’s been alive in some manner for over three hundred years, but even his life is too short to deal with that face for more than five minutes.
Out of the corner of Steve’s eye, he sees Lang’s neckline start to pulse purple before he hears him splutter back online.
“Welcome back, Mr. Lang,” Sharon smiles at him, graciously.
Lang lets out a string of completely incoherent words as he starts processing sensations and, presumably, thought fragments again, and immediately the heavy, lazy doldrums of the Station breaks neatly in half.
Steve sighs wearily and tips his head back. He watches his percentage points painstakingly climb back up, Lang’s squeaking providing unsolicited white noise in the background.
Refueling station #1918 is a medium-sized station in the heart of Jupiter Sector. It’s really a combination of convenience and sheer luck (to say nothing of reckless stupidity) that Steve’s first real crash had been at work, just blocks away, at the hideous glass and metal structure that calls itself home to StarkCorps. He had been in the middle of giving a design presentation to his team when he had just keeled over halfway through a sentence, powering down face-first onto his simpad keyboard. The team had blinked for a full second and then panicked. Steve had woken up half a day later, groggy and disoriented, strapped to a dock in this strange refueling station, with the unhappy and red-lipped face of a stunning nurse glaring at him. Turns out going nearly three months without refueling would cause an Android to zero out with remarkable swiftness. Who knew?
That had been nearly fifty years ago and Peggy Carter still gave him shit for it every time she saw him.
For better or worse, for Peggy or for Sam, Steve had been coming to Station #1918 ever since.
With one large, octagonal-shaped port room in the center and smaller, octagonal-shaped port rooms branching off to all sides around it, the Station itself resembles more of a strange, electrical beehive than a normal building. The port room walls are lined with charging docks for Androids, with one circular dock in the middle that three can easily be attached to if there’s some kind of refueling crisis and dock shortage. (This has happened once in the one hundred year history of Station #1918, when poor refueling management and unlucky timing saw every dock connected for a whole three hours before all of the docks burned out with a spectacular clap of electrical malfunction and left the staff with a smoldering shell of a building and nearly twenty five forcibly, and accidentally, deactivated Androids. It had caused a local and national crisis and had almost borderline triggered an International Incident. The staff now try to avoid situations that would replicate the events of the Great Meltdown, as it were).
Sam usually likes connecting Steve to the middle dock because he can check on him easier when he walks past the glass doors looking into Central Port. The technicians and specialists have their own personal octagonal-shaped rooms branched somewhere off to the side and Sam, being both a fueling specialist and an Alt-Human Therapist, has an office of his own next to Dr. Banner’s.
That’s all to say that Sam’s usually running around the Beehive and sometimes, when Steve sees him through the glass doors, attached as he is to his charging dock in the center of the room, he likes to flip his best friend off as conspicuously as possible. Sam complains that he undermines his authority and Steve complains that he’s too goddamned old to be charging for ten full hours. Then Sam tells him it’s not his fault that Steve is approximately the age of a dinosaur and can’t charge faster and Steve responds by flipping him off some more. Their friendship is truly a miracle that cannot be explained.
Steve is going out of his goddamn mind with boredom by the time Sam finally appears again. He has his Therapist Coat on and a look on his face that’s part thoughtful and part pure bastard. He’s empty-handed, but for that unbearable smirk.
“Where’s my popsicle, Wilson?” Steve grouses.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were serious about consuming frozen red dye number forty,” Sam says. “Doesn’t that cause wrinkles? You’re not getting any younger.”
“I’m not getting any older either,” Steve says. “I’m part fucking robot and I’m three hundred and two years old and I was made promises.”
“No,” Sam says cheerfully. He takes his time adjusting wires behind Steve’s head again, which is evidently as much one of Sam’s favorite activities as much as it’s one of Steve’s least. He holds his breath each time a wire gets tugged. The little dip and wave in the electrical current makes him feel a jolt in his stomach, like he’s missed a step or suddenly plunged from a height. “You were made with advanced technology.”
Steve swallows the nausea.
“The joke doesn’t work if your grammar isn’t parallel,” he says, looking up at his best friend.
“Your popsicle doesn’t work if you annoy your specialist to death,” Sam replies.
“Now you’re just saying words,” Steve says.
“You know what they say,” Sam says.
“No, Wilson,” Steve looks at him, deadpan. “What do they say?”
“No, that’s my answer,” Sam says, seriously. He presses something that makes the entire dock start beeping. Or rather, the beeping occurs and the entire dock starts. Steve swallows an unexpected gasp as the cyan lights in his arms flicker back on and his heart starts racing.
“What?” Steve blinks in confusion. He tries to breathe in and out to calm the thudding in his chest. “Sorry, got distracted by the--you know. Arm lights.”
“My answer, Steve,” Sam says. He’s amused. He takes entertainment in Steve’s suffering, which is why in most, if not all, of Steve’s internal monologues, Sam Wilson is a rat bastard. “They say what they say using the words they say.”
It takes Steve a moment to process that. Mostly because it makes no fucking sense . That it takes him entire seconds to figure it out is not something he’s proud of, but he shuts his mouth immediately and then finds the words he’s looking for.
“What the fuck,” Steve says loudly.
Somewhere behind his shoulder, someone starts snickering loudly.
Steve frowns and Sam looks up from where he’s checking Steve’s arms for reactivity. Whoever he sees makes him grin.
“Oh hey, sleeping beauty. This idiot wake you?”
“Sounds like two idiots to me,” the person, a man, says.
Steve half turns his body to see who’s been eavesdropping, leaving Sam to mess with the semi-robotic arms. He can’t see the person from his side of the circular dock, but he can hear him. His voice is deep and soothing. It’s a little scratchy from disuse, which likely means he’s also been through a system regeneration. That or he’s just a very sleepy human.
“Man,” is all Sam says. He taps on Steve’s arm, turns it around and checks the configuration on the underside of the glass panel to make sure everything is functional. “How does that feel?”
In truth, Steve can’t really feel much of his lower arms. The reinforced glass cases reverberate when someone taps them and every once in a while if the electricity is short-circuiting inside he’ll feel a distinctly unpleasant burning within the cylinders, but robotic arms were not made for feeling. His hands feel better than they have in weeks, though, in that he can finally feel them again.
“Good,” he says.
“Go through your digits for me,” Sam says.
“Sam--” Steve starts in annoyance, but his annoyance at being excessively cared after is met with equal annoyance from Sam at Steve for not letting Sam do his goddamned job. Steve swallows a sigh and flexes each of his fingers, one by one. Three hundred and two years old and still waving his fingers after every near systems crash, like he’s a newly made Android. It takes him approximately ten seconds, but it’s the principle of the matter.
“See, you could have saved us both a whole three seconds of nonsense if you’d stopped arguing with me.” Sam stands up from where he’s been crouched and pulls a small simpad out. “You should be fully fueled in another few hours. I got a client, but Sharon will check you before you go. That okay?”
“Yeah,” Steve says. “Hey, come over for dinner? I have leftover lasagna and beer.”
Sam dials something else into the tablet and turns it off with a faint smirk.
“Least you can do for me, Rogers. Saving your ass on a constant basis works up an appetite.”
“Yeah and it’s showing.”
Sam pats his belly--not that he has one to speak of--happily.
“All right, I’m off. You okay, Barnes?”
Barnes--presumably the other man Steve can’t see--gives a hum of assent.
“You need anything, buzz me or Sharon. Or throw something at Steve and his self-righteous anger will set off all of the alarms.”
Steve flips Sam off once and then again for good measure. He likes to be thorough. Sam, as used to Steve’s antics as he is, ignores him and walks out the sliding doors.
After he leaves, Steve leans back into his seat again, trying to mentally calculate when and how he can make up all of the hours he’s so inconveniently missed at work. The crash had been slightly unexpected, in that he hadn’t been watching his fuel levels and so when it occurred, it had been a surprise to him. He’s been working at StarkCorps for almost three quarters of a century now, so he has some job security, but his current design project is on a razor thin deadline and if his team delivers the product even thirty seconds late to the client, he’ll probably personally hear Stark’s head explode over speaker phone.
He’ll have to come in on the weekend to catch up. If he planned better, generally, he could refuel on the weekends and avoid a complete system shutdown altogether, but Steve’s been three hundred and two years of shit long-term planning.
He wanders off into his head, juggling design schematics, logistics, and frustrated, self-deprecating commentary for long enough that it’s a surprise when a voice jars him back into the real world again.
“Eight point seven, huh?” the voice--Barnes, says.
“You heard that?”
“That’s pretty stupid of you, pal,” Barnes says. That rankles Steve, of course. He’s about to open his mouth when the other man stifles some kind of a snicker. “But I got you beat.”
Steve pauses with expectation.
“Five point one.”
“That’s--” Steve knows better than to sound impressed, he really does. It’s not that recklessness is a particularly attractive quality to him, but he can’t deny that sometimes he tempts fate just to see if he can get close to zero without permanently deactivating.
“Wilson gave me an earful,” Barnes says.
“He likes the sound of his own voice,” Steve says, grinning into the air in front of him, because he can’t see Barnes and Barnes can’t see him.
“It’s his fault, really,” Barnes says. He sounds like he might be smiling too.
“Yeah?” Steve doesn’t disagree, but--“How’s that?”
“Sounds to me like he purposefully consorts with a bunch of class A idiots.”
Steve can’t help it, he has to laugh in response to that. He takes a moment before trying to twist far enough to see if he can see Barnes. The cords hold him tight and he winces as the wire at the back of his head jostles again.
“With poor self preservation instincts?” Steve grins.
“He accuse you of that too?” Barnes asks.
“Buddy, you don’t even know,” Steve says. “At least twice a day on a good day. Up to four or five if he’s in fine form.”
“And--?” Barnes sounds amused.
“--And I’ve done something particularly...inadvisable,” Steve says. He at least has the wherewithal to sound sheepish.
Barnes lets out a bark of laughter that makes Steve smile. There’s something nice about the other man’s laugh. It’s somehow clear and throaty at the same time. Steve can almost feel it disrupt the air around him. It’s pleasant.
“You chase zeros don’t you?” Barnes asks.
“Not on purpose.”
“That sounds like bullshit,” Barnes says. “I’ve known you all of five minutes and I can tell that sounds like bullshit.”
“You don’t know my life,” Steve declares. But he has to relent. “Not always. I guess it’s not the healthiest coping mechanism, but I know my limits and I know if I really zero out, Sam will be there to make sure I don’t deactivate.”
“You sound like an adrenaline addict,” Barnes says. He’s silent a moment, then asks--, “Coping mechanism for what?”
Oh. That’s a more complicated question than Steve is willing to give anyone an answer to, including his compulsory therapist. Lord know she’s tried to get Steve to sift through three hundred years of human and Android memory and trauma, but his history starts with losing Sarah Rogers to the destruction of Earth 1.0 three centuries ago and that’s when, incidentally, he stops willingly processing all of this. He stops before he even starts. Maybe he is an adrenaline addict, also.
“Being alive,” Steve says and then catches himself. “Wait--that sounds more morbid than I meant for it to.”
Barnes laughs again, although it’s a little quieter.
“You a full Android?”
“Yeah,” Steve says. It had been a long time since he was human or even an Altered Human. “First generation.”
Barnes lets out a low whistle.
“So you’re what, two hundred? Three hundred?”
“Three hundred and two,” Steve says.
“Jesus, old man,” Barnes says. Steve can almost hear the grin in his voice. “Do you remember--”
“Yeah,” Steve says, perhaps a little shortly. “Enough.”
It’s a sensitive topic for most Androids, their human memories.
“Three hundred two,” Barnes says after a moment. “That’s before--”
“Yeah,” Steve says. He looks unseeingly at the wall opposite him. It’s an empty dock, just a leather seat and metallic cords curled around themselves.
“What was it like?” Barnes asks. “Earth.”
Steve was small when the first Earth was destroyed. He had been a sick child, chipped early enough just to survive to adulthood so that by the time they were shuttling off what remained of humanity, he was already fully Android. It had been Sarah Rogers’ last wish, to protect her son and give him a life she couldn’t. To give him a life at all. She had died just before the shuttles left. Earth had followed soon after.
Steve swallows, the memories dusty, but clear. He tries not to think about his first life, but when he does, it takes barely a tug of thought before the vision spreads out around him. It was almost entirely destroyed, near the end. Steve remembers black spires of deadened trees, ash constantly falling from a harsh sepia and red-toned sky. What remained of humanity lived underground, for the most part, with some tent cities hastily constructed near the few remaining water sources. Almost all of the water was toxic. The air was thick and unbreathable. Steve hadn’t been the only child born with near debilitating diseases, but he was one of the last few children born at all to that end era. The few pre-apocalyptic novels about post-apocalyptic life that had been saved from destruction had not come even close to the reality of it. It wasn’t a place for anyone to grow up, but it was still his home. On perfect nights on Earth 2.0, Steve still misses the husk of Brooklyn his mother made home for him.
“I’m sorry,” Barnes suddenly says. It’s only then that Steve realizes he had fallen into a lengthy silence. “Fuck. That was rude of me. It’s personal. You probably don’t want to--.”
“It’s okay,” Steve says. It’s measured, but not untrue. It’s one thing for a therapist to try and make Steve excavate his feelings and memories and another for him to just remember Earth as it was. “This Earth is better. There’s life here. Potential and promise for something better. What we left behind...humanity had tried its hardest to kill everything and it had succeeded. There was nothing left for us there anymore.”
“You remember it though,” Barnes says.
“It was your home.”
Steve sighs, runs a hand over his face.
“I had a home once,” Barnes says after a moment. “I guess I still do. But it doesn’t feel like it anymore.”
Steve turns his head again, wishing he could see him.
“What changed?” he asks, instead.
“I did,” Barnes says. “I went off to war and came back an Android.”
“How long?” Steve’s known a few Androids like this, the survivors of the intergalactic wars. Give humanity advanced technology and half a chance to flourish again and they give back into their imperialist impulses, now with a few additional galaxies thrown in.
“About a hundred years,” Barnes says. “Give or take. Thought I was doing right by my planet. Then I got caught in an ambush, just far enough away from a nova bomb to survive and just close enough to lose too many limbs.”
“They didn’t give you a choice,” Steve says, understanding. “Convert or die.”
“It’s not that I’m not grateful,” Barnes says. “I got to come back to my family. Get to be alive. But everything tastes different and looks different and I’m stuck in a refueling station once a month.”
Steve has to smile at that. He’s been an Android so long that he doesn’t really remember the difficulty of transition, but he does have a distinct recollection of all of his favorite foods tasting like ash for a while. Then again, everything kind of tasted like ash near the end of the world, so maybe it wasn’t just getting turned into a robot.
“You been coming here long?” Steve asks. “I haven’t seen you before.”
“Haven’t seen me now,” Barnes says and he’s clearly grinning.
“Yeah, you sound ugly,” Steve grins back. “What’s your damage? Three eyes? Heavy jowls?”
Barnes barks out laughter again, which makes Steve smile.
“Yeah. Four arms. No lips to speak of. Unibrow.”
“I’m imagining you as--did you ever watch the Little Mermaid?”
“The old animation from first Earth?” Steve can imagine Barnes raising an eyebrow.
“I’m imagining you as Ursula. Tentacles and all.”
“Fun fact, Ursula was based off of my ancestors,” Barnes says. “Good old Great Aunt Ursula. Brought great gifts, but was a monster during karaoke.”
That makes Steve laugh.
“I always kind of thought she was the real hero of that movie,” Steve says. “Trying to save Ariel from giving up her entire life for a man she just saw.”
“Aww, Rogers, you don’t believe in love at first sight?” Barnes teases.
“Thought I did once,” Steve smiles. Briefly, he remembers the first time he saw Peggy Carter’s glaring, unhappy, red-lipped face.
“Didn’t work out?”
“Turns out love at first sight isn’t for everyone,” Steve says, quieter. He tries to ignore the slight dip in his chest. Some heartbreaks even Androids can’t easily get over. “Some people need a little more notice.”
The other man hums, whether in assent or disagreement, Steve doesn’t know.
“About ten years now,” Barnes says after a while. “It’s close to where I work. I almost zeroed at work one day and my boss flipped his shit and brought me to the nearest refueling station. Wilson chewed me out when I woke up and I keep coming back for more.”
“Deep masochistic tendencies?” Steve asks lightly.
“That self-preservation thing again,” Barnes says. “And he’s...good. He’s good at what he does.”
Steve smiles at that.
“Yeah, he’s a keeper,” he says. “Don’t tell him I said that.”
Barnes is quiet a moment.
“Are you two seeing each other?”
The question is so unexpected and ludicrous to Steve that he actually laughs hard enough to jar his cords again.
“Fuck!” he says, wincing through his laughter. “Fuck no. I’ve known Sam for ages. He’s my neighbor and best friend but I would never--god, no.”
“He’s not bad looking,” Barnes says, haltingly. “He has that genuine caring charm thing going for him. Like he’d take you out and ask you your feelings and actually care about your answer.”
This nearly makes Steve wheeze with laughter. He tries to contain his shaking, not wanting to suffer through more electrical surges.
“We would drive each other crazy,” Steve finally manages. “I love him, but we already drive each other crazy and we don’t have to wake up to each other. And he’s hopelessly straight. Sorry.”
“What? Oh--no, god no,” Barnes says quickly. “I make it a rule not to date my therapist.”
“What about Androids you meet at a refueling center?” Steve asks with a grin. “Any rules about that?”
“You asking me out?” Barnes asks. He’s quick, sharp, and sounds just the right amount of arrogant, which, for better or for worse, is exactly Steve’s type. To the extent that he has a type, anyway. He hasn’t dated anyone in nearly three decades, much to Sam and Natasha’s chagrin.
“I’m asking a question,” Steve says. “Conducting a survey. For science.”
“Science cares about my dating life?” Barnes asks.
“Cartoon octopus love is severely understudied in the future,” Steve says. “I’m trying to contribute to the discourse.”
“You’re into weird shit, huh?” he asks.
Steve just smiles.
“Maybe I’ll let you know one day, Ursula,” he says, just as his dock starts flashing.
Somehow, inexplicably, he’s passed enough time talking to the disembodied voice of the other Android that he doesn’t notice his charge filling to capacity. Steve looks behind his head, bemused, as the dock flashes and beeps loudly. The alert must go off on Sam’s simpad because he shuffles in a few minutes later.
“Feel better?” he asks as he looks over Steve’s statistics and declares him fully refueled. He starts disconnecting Steve from his wires.
“I was fine,” Steve insists, really just out of sheer stubbornness, because they both know he’s been seeing dark spots in his vision for the past week. “I coulda kept going.”
“Shut the fuck up,” Sam says. “And get out of my Station.”
Steve grins and stifles a groan as he peels himself out of his dock. His bones creak and his muscles seem to have atrophied in the past ten hours. Sam grumbles to himself as he records all of Steve’s vitals into his tablet.
“You gonna leave without saying goodbye?” A familiar voice comes from the other side of the dock.
Despite himself, Steve feels a little thrill low in his stomach.
“I don’t want to ruin the carefully constructed image in my head,” Steve says. He shoves his leather jacket over his shoulders and pockets his wallet. “The unibrow, especially.”
“You’re right,” Barnes says. “I’ll never live up to that. It’s better we remain disembodied voices to each other. More concept than person.”
Sam, who’s still keying things in, looks up from his simpad, eyebrows comically shooting up. Steve studiously ignores him.
“On the other hand,” Steve says.
“Yeah,” Barnes replies.
“Maybe you’re more hideous,” Steve says.
“That’s true,” Barnes says.
Sam aggressively rolls his eyes. Steve flips him off and Sam reaches forward and gives him a shove in the right direction.
Steve takes a breath and pokes his head around the corner.
He sees a metal arm first, silver plates fit neatly like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, gleaming brightly under the Station lights, against a white shirt rolled up at the shoulders. Then long, strong, leather-clad legs stretched out before him, crossed at the ankles, long, brown hair pulled back into a sloppy bun, followed shortly by the most defined jawline Steve has ever seen. Cheekbones he could cut his fingers on. And, finally, horribly, when Barnes turns to look at him, blinking in surprise, a pair of almost electric, slate grey eyes.
Steve stares, a little stunned.
“Oh,” Barnes says. His face, surprised, as though he had not really expected Steve to reveal himself, smooths into a smile a second later. He looks inordinately pleased. “So that’s what you look like.”
Barnes is, in a few words, incomprehensibly beautiful. He looks like someone took the image of what they thought an ancient Greek god might look like and turned him into a cyborg. With thighs that could kill and full lips that refused to be ignored. Steve’s brain is short-circuiting.
“You’re not,” Steve says, dumbly. Three hundred and two years old and all he can manage is a fumbled sentence fragment.
“I’m not what?” a flicker of confusion crosses the other Android’s face.
He swallows a sudden burst of nerves, the unusual feeling of restless, kinetic energy buzzing through his limbs, although he’s actually fallen utterly still.
“More hideous,” he manages.
“Oh,” Barnes says. His lips twitch a little, but Steve notices the flush crawling up his neck.
“Sorry to disappoint. If it makes you feel any better, I had braces when I was younger.”
“That’s--” Steve stares. “How is that supposed to make me feel better?”
“Nobody looks good with braces,” Barnes says. His eyes crinkle near the corners with self-deprecating amusement and Steve gets momentarily distracted by the, for lack of a better word, cute dimple in his chin. What the hell.
“I doubt that,” Steve mutters.
“Huh?” Barnes smiles widely.
“Listen,” Steve says, starting suddenly. “I have to leave. I have to--not be here anymore. I’m very busy.”
Barnes looks like he’s only barely refraining from laughing. Somewhere behind him, Steve is pretty sure Sam is laughing at him.
“Right, sure,” Barnes says. “You have to do the--what is it? Science?”
“Right,” Steve nods. “Science. The survey. Contributing to the discourse. I’m very important.”
“Yeah, of course,” Barnes says. He’s still plugged into his dock, so he can’t move very much, but he tries to give Steve a slow nod. There’s a soft smile on his face that is very close to making Steve have a mental crisis. “I wouldn’t want to keep you. Thank you, though.”
“For what?” Steve shoves his hands in his pockets.
“One of my better afternoons,” Barnes says. “Steve.”
Steve is too old to feel jittery, but he feels it nonetheless. Impulsively, he extends a hand.
“Barnes,” he says.
Barnes looks at him and takes Steve’s hand with his flesh one.
“Bucky,” he says. “Barnes is for strangers. Bucky, for friends.”
“We’re friends now?” Steve asks, like an elementary school child. He should honestly probably willingly deactivate now just to put himself out of his misery.
Barnes--Bucky squeezes Steve’s hand and lets go.
“Yeah,” Bucky says with a nod. He tips his head back against his seat and closes his eyes, his mouth curved into a smile. “I feel good about that.”
Steve doesn’t particularly disagree.
[ saturn sector, earth 2.0 ]
Saturn Sector is a single sonicrail ride from Jupiter on a good day, or two Sonicrail transfers and a thirty minute bus ride depending on a variety of factors that include, but are not limited to: any worker strikes, inclement weather, power outages, derailings, government closures, suicide attempts, stray animals on the rails, or, honestly, the slightest desire of the conductors to not run on time.
Steve’s mostly used to the unpredictability of his commute home, ranging anywhere from twenty minutes to two hours and twenty minutes, but he’s always particularly tired after refueling sessions. There’s a give and take for any Android during refueling. While Steve’s charge goes up, his energy goes down. It’s somehow inversely proportionate and makes no real fucking sense, although that doesn’t keep his body from aching with exhaustion after every session. Steve holds onto the handrail and tries not to doze off as the sonicrail glides smoothly along, for once.
The bullet train, moving as fast as it is, makes no stops and the outside cityscape blurs silver and green outside of the massive windows. Steve’s body sways gently with the motions of the train and he’s mostly in an exhausted trance when the conductor announces they’re pulling into Saturn. The train slows to a crawl and then a slightly jarring stop.
The doors slide open with a soft hiss and Steve stumbles out with other humans and Androids who, all tired, are not quite wealthy enough to stay in Jupiter or live in Neptune, but who have enough financial stability to afford Saturn. The weary and slightly jealous eyes of those continuing to Uranus, which is mostly government-subsidized affordable housing and, unfortunately, slums, watch those disembarking before the doors slide close and the sonicrail rushes back into motion.
Steve steps onto the escalator for a quick shift down and manages not to stumble into anyone else as he blearily walks the path home. Saturn doesn’t have the rich, feelingless chrome and glass magnificence of Jupiter, but it’s not completely run down either. The buildings are a manageable size, mostly apartment complexes because the only people who can afford actual houses in the sector built them with their own hands before government regulations kicked in. There’s a clean street that cars hover over and nothing is particularly new or upscale, but it’s all functional and well enough and Steve sometimes looks at the trees--actual, real, living trees--and finds he can’t complain. He has it better than most Androids, anyway. He joined StarkCorps early enough that he never did have to live in the slums.
He’s in between stifling a yawn and contemplating whether to just order food when his simwatch emits a loud, irritating beep. He taps the screen strapped to his wrist. For a moment it flickers and then it goes black again.
Steve blinks. He frowns and taps it again.
Again, the screen flickers for a second and then goes dead.
“Oh for the love of--” he’s about to curse when, suddenly, it beeps again and a hologram projection of Sam’s head casts above his wrist.
“Whose love?” Sam asks immediately. “What’d I miss? You found love? It’s been like five minutes.”
“Are you broken?” Steve asks. “Casual question. Just curious.”
“Probably,” Sam says. “Job hazard. Hey, speaking of--really sorry, don’t think I’ll make it tonight.”
Steve frowns as he gets jostled by someone whizzing past on their anti-grav bike.
“Everything okay?” he says once he stops squinting and glaring at the kid who’s just grazed him. The kid’s already half a mile away by now. Sometimes he thinks the future is the worst.
“Yeah. Well, more or less. We have a couple of Androids that zeroed, an Alt who overchipped and fried their human and their robot systems, and--” Sam hesitates.
Steve, who’s only been half-paying attention, reverts his thoughts from futile plans of revenge to Sam’s face.
Sam runs a hand across his head and sighs.
“One of our patients got DeComm’d,” he says.
Steve swallows, something tight and uncomfortable slowly coiling in his chest.
“He got his letter,” Sam says. “In the mail. Earlier today. He came in near meltdown. Tried to deactivate himself and panicked at the last second. It was--fuck. A mess.”
“Fuck. I’m sorry,” Steve says. He looks up at the sky. The bright blue is easing into the beautiful, deep purples and dark blues of approaching twilight. “It--I don’t know how you handle that.”
“He has thirty years,” Sam says quietly. His best friend sounds tired. “I had to sit down with him, tell him that was time enough to make what he wanted of his life. It’s not no time.”
“No,” Steve says. “But no one wants to hear that they have to die and that there’s a timeline on it. Even if it’s a--generous timeline.”
Although what’s thirty years to Androids who have been alive for hundreds? It’s a shorter time frame than humans will understand, more like a few long months or a few short years than thirty full ones.
“I know,” Sam says. He runs a hand over his face. “I know why, right? I get it. Humanity’s got its numbers back in the game, they don’t need Androids anymore, everyone has to die sometime, but--”
“We,” Steve says.
Sam looks confused. “What?”
“We, Sam. You’re a human. It’s okay to be one.”
Sam laughs something that’s fond and self-deprecating. Maybe Steve’s projecting.
“I know that, Rogers. I live next to you, I get your pep talk once a week,” he chuckles. Then he sighs. “I don’t know. It doesn’t seem fair. We created Androids. We gave them life. We turned into them. And now because some group of assholes decide there are too many, they force a death timeline on them? It’s fucked up, man.”
Steve gives a low laugh.
“I know, Sam,” he exhales. “Jesus fuck, I know.”
Sam promises a raincheck to dinner and Steve runs out of excuses to dawdle outside. Night is quickly falling, the dark sky filling up with pinpricks of light, the glow of stars burned out thousands of years ago, the dim colors of planets, perfectly spherical or slightly oblong, and the swirls of entire galaxies within anyone’s plain eyesight. There’s a lot to be said for the destruction of Earth 1.0 and 2.0’s relative lack of biological diversity and smallness besides, but one thing Steve will never get over is the sky. He remembers the spread of inky black and stars--only stars--back on the first Earth, or what he could see through the red atmosphere-burnt haze. This one gives him more. When he looks up at night here, he can see entire universes he never would have fathomed before.
It makes it hard to go back inside.
It also makes it hard to forget just how small and insignificant they all are, at the end of any given day or hour or minute or second. He was dust on the first Earth and here, he’s no better.
It almost makes it easier, that--well. It almost makes it easier.
Steve’s building is one of the taller ones in Saturn, twenty-one floors of square single and rectangular multi-units. He has to key in a long and inconvenient string of numbers and press his thumb against a metal pad that scans for his signature before he can get into the lobby. He and Sam are on the fourteenth floor. As he crosses to the elevator bank, he nods at a young, woman with slick, jet black hair, dressed in purple, with large sunglasses resting against her forehead. She’s crouched beside a golden retriever that Steve knows only too well.
“Hey Steve!” the girl says. The dog is nuzzling at her hand, which Steve suspects holds some kind of treat.
“Hey, Kate,” Steve greets her. He frowns. “Clint still at work?”
“Yeah, can you believe the nerve of that guy?” Kate grins. “Working all weekend and letting me take care of his sweet, perfect pup?”
“He’s been all weekend?” Steve’s frown deepens. Clint doesn’t work in the same department as him, but coding and designing are never too far off in the technological hellscape of Starktech creation.
“Yeah,” Kate says. Beside her, Lucky starts trying to investigate her clothes for more treats. “Something about a special project? You know I don’t listen when he talks.”
“Does he know that?” Steve asks.
“I tell him to his face at least three times a day,” Kate grins.
“I suspect he appreciates it,” Steve says with a half-smile. “Secretly. He hates it when people treat him differently because of, well--”
Clint Barton, who lives three floors below him and works one department over at StarkCorps, is a bit of a strange, old soul. He has all of Starktech at his fingertips, has coded some of the most confidential and complex programs in modern history, and still uses a flip phone. Also he likes bows and arrows. Also, he’s deaf in one ear.
“Yeah, yeah,” Kate says. She rummages inside her jacket and pulls out another biscuit. Lucky barks happily. “I mean I get it, the man was raised in a circus and can’t hear out of an ear. What, that’s supposed to make me not give him shit for wearing the same hoodie four days in a row? It’s the future, Steve, we don’t have space in modern society for a guy who can’t groom himself.”
“There’s--too much for me to really respond to,” Steve says. “Also, I don’t think he was raised at the circus. Did he tell you that?”
Kate shrugs. She finally gets to her feet, Lucky’s leash in her hand.
“He acts like he was raised at the circus and that amounts to the same thing.”
“Does it…?” Steve starts and then shakes his head. He doesn’t have time for this. “I’ll tell him you’re taking good care of Lucky.”
Kate salutes him.
“Oh, and Kate--?”
“Don’t steal his dog.” Steve leans down and pets Lucky’s head before straightening with a wry look on his face.
“Don’t tell me what to do, Rogers,” Kate says haughtily. She lowers her sunglasses to her face, but she can’t quite hide the smile blossoming underneath. Clint’s next door neighbor can be really sweet and charming when she’s not being a complete handful. Steve suspects that’s why Clint likes her so much.
“Bye, Lucky!” Steve calls as he, Kate, and dog cross paths.
Lucky barks as Steve gets into the glass elevator. Then he presses fourteen and he’s hurtled up to his floor.
Steve presses his thumb to the scanner outside of where his door should be and the door frame forms itself into the white wall and clicks open with another soft hiss. He groans as he stumbles through the door, taking his shoes off and somehow managing to almost trip over them at the same time.
He doesn’t bother turning on the light before dumping his discharge papers on his kitchen island and stumbling back to his living room. He collapses back onto the couch, with just enough energy to pull his legs up onto the cushions. He looks up at the ceiling and closes his eyes.
Steve remembers the one bedroom apartment he shared with his mother for the entirety of his human life. It was the dying days of Brooklyn, the last few years before what was left of humanity had to be shifted either underground or out into refugee tents on wide stretches of dead plains. They were refugees from themselves, the remnants of a species that had destroyed the planet and each other. The StarkCorps shuttle launched only a few short years later, a last gasp effort to save the human race, taking Steve, a few dozen other half-chipped humans and full Androids, and a small handful of humans away altogether. Tapping the window of the space shuttle with long, pale fingertips and looking back down on Earth, it would have been the last time he’d see his mother, but no. Sarah Rogers had died of disease a year before the final exodus. Steve had nothing left there, on the planet that used to be his home.
Still, Steve remembers their shitty apartment, an area so small they could barely fit in it together. They had a single bed and a single couch between them, a kitchen that had fallen into disuse years before, and a closet that held all four outfits they owned and Sarah’s jewelry box. It was the only thing his mother had owned that wasn’t strictly necessity. It was also the only thing Steve had brought with him to space.
Even crammed together, the world ending as it was, Steve still remembers being happy. He was a sickly child and there were few kids being born and even fewer growing into adulthood by then besides, but he had his mother and she had her stories and if Steve remembers one thing about his life then, it’s that everything was more vibrant by Sarah Rogers’ side. She would laugh into desolation, smile bright enough to beat back any hint of despair. When the nights were long and Steve exhausted, she would lie beside him, under the stars, and weave stories out of constellations. She was a star herself, burning bright and hot beside him, giving love, so much love, more than he ever knew what to do with.
She was unrepentant in that way, unapologetic in offering hope even when there seemed to be none left. Sarah would take Steve into her arms on his worst nights and make him feel, if not better, then at least loved, safe in a world with no guarantee of safety. Sarah would bring her small son close to him, smooth back his blond hair, even on a bad day, even when he was burning with fever, or perhaps especially when he was, and press kisses into his temple and whisper her wishes for him into his ears.
Steve can’t remember everything now, but he knows, with certainty, that she wanted him to be happy. He knows she wanted him to live, to be alive and feel alive and love as desperately as she had, when she had met his father and fallen pregnant and brought into her world her tiny, perennially angry, beautiful baby boy.
I want you to have the world in your hands, Steve remembers her whispering and he didn’t know what she meant then and he doesn’t think he knows what she meant even now.
The difference in a person’s world isn’t everything that’s changed, but everything that’s lost. And Steve had lost so much. He had lost everything.
He sits up in the quickly darkening, cavernous space of his living room. His apartment isn’t large, but it’s large enough to feel, acutely, how alone he’s been and for how long.
She would be heartbroken, Steve suspects, if she knew how tired he was. He was three hundred and two years of bone-crushing weariness. His apartment was too cold. He had stopped drawing years ago. He hadn’t been able to make it work with the only person he had ever loved and he had never tried again.
Steve wore his years like an albatross around his neck and, somewhere along the centuries, he thinks he lost what was left of what made him human.
Sometimes, he looked up at the ceiling and wondered if he hadn’t just imagined a woman named Sarah Rogers altogether.
His stomach gurgles angrily, dragging him out of his stupor through sheer necessity. Steve squints into the dark, pushing away his depressive thoughts, and tries to visualize the contents of his refrigerator instead. He comes up with a hunk of cheese, week old bread, the last egg in a finished carton, and a protein shake he hadn’t finished on Monday. It wasn’t promising.
He’s about to give up and order in when the mail slot starts beeping. The slot, which is more a tube attached to the side of the door, blinks in bright flashes of blue and emits the most annoying beeping noise in the world before the mail shuffles through to a caged tray.
Steve drags himself up with no small amount of effort and over, also with great effort, and presses his thumb to the scanner to unlock the cage.
He rifles through it while his stomach continues making itself known. Most of it is junk—a politician’s glossy campaign flyer, a glossy announcement from the Saturn Building Association that the water would be shut off during the day for the next week, a sushi restaurant’s glossy menu (that he eagerly sets to the side), a glossy postcard addressed to the tenant who lived here before Steve (really, the use of gloss was unprecedented in the future), approximately 80 years ago, an official letter from the Governmental Deactivation Commission.
Steve is thinking about sushi and envisioning himself eating sushi and generally considering becoming a sushi when he pauses. He slowly looks back down at the pile again.
He blinks and time skips a beat.
Heart slowing a little, he picks up the thin white envelope, officially embossed with the governmental seal in the corner.
He stares at it, his brain churning slowly, his limbs coming to a terrifyingly still rest. He turns it over and it’s there too, the familiar logo. A planet that looks like Earth 1.0 with a satellite in its orbit and the scales of justice resting in the center. The Governmental Deactivation Commission written in raised, embossed font just beneath.
He thinks of the last letter he opened with this seal, a letter sent one year ago, echoing the words of a letter he received ten years ago and then, before that, fifteen and, before that, the very first, twenty nine years ago.
He slides a finger under the seal and breaks it. The words, familiar as an unwanted, terminal disease, float in his vision.
Each of those old letters, he keeps, each of them at his bedside table, each read only once, except that very first time, that very first letter, when he could not stop rereading it, letters otherwise left unacknowledged, but never forgotten all the same.
After all, how can you forget your death warrant?
Chapter 2: [ reconnecting ]
[ café automata, pluto sector, earth 2.0 ]
“So wait,” a pair of deep green eyes swivel onto Steve. Steve winces immediately, tenses for--yes, there it is, the delicate and brutal raise of a perfectly crafted red eyebrow.
“Don’t listen to him,” Steve says. His hand is hovering by the handle of a teal ceramic cup, curve smooth, gloss shiny. This entire conversation has gotten out of control and his coffee is suffering for it. But the past ten minutes has required damage control that Steve, being the idiot that he is, only recognized within the past, say, thirty seconds.
“You calling me a liar, Rogers?” Sam’s wearing that smug, borderline shit-eating grin that he wears when he’s pleased with himself. The grin leaves much to be desired as does, Steve thinks, their entire friendship.
“I’m calling you a--” Steve pauses. “An exaggerator. One who exaggerates. I saw the guy once.”
Natasha, who’s drying glasses behind the teal counter pauses. The eyebrow comes back into play. To the right of her, barely withholding a giggle, is Wanda. Wanda used to be on Steve’s side, Steve laments. But recently she’s been consorting with Sam and Natasha to cast aspersions on Steve’s life.
“That’s what you say when you run into someone at the grocery store and flirt in line,” Sam snorts. He breaks off the edge of his pain au chocolat and brings it up to his mouth before pausing. “Not when you spent an entire recharge talking to him.”
“Those are long, right?” Wanda asks. She’s been in the middle of rearranging the pastry display, but has, apparently, since given up on her task to become fully engrossed in Steve’s drama. Or lack thereof.
“Ten hours minimum,” Sam says. “They started talking when I left him and when I came back three hours later, they were still talking.”
“Talking,” comes a semi-bored drawl from the other side of the room. A thin, tall man with inky black hair spilling across his shoulders, and bright green eyes watches the exchange with barely concealed disdain. Well not disdain exactly. It’s more that Loki has to physically stop himself from rolling his eyes at half of the conversations he hears on a daily basis. “All of this is about talking? I thought they’d at least fucked.”
Steve pinches the bridge of his nose.
“Aren’t you supposed to be wiping tables?” he asks.
“Do you see anyone doing work around here?” Loki asks. “You’ve riveted all of us with your thrilling tales of talking.”
“Ignore him,” Natasha instructs. She gives Loki a dirty look and he gives her a sarcastic salute because she’s his boss and he can’t flip her off. Not that he hasn’t tried. “Back to the point. Steve. You met a cute guy, talked to him for hours, and walked away without a number?”
Steve stares at the contents of his mug. Coffee, he thinks, is exceptionally interesting, if you think about it.
“Don’t ignore me for your coffee,” Natasha says. She snaps her towel in the air and Steve looks up immediately. Natasha Romanoff has a presence that only those who do not fear death can ignore. “I give it to you, I can take it away. How cute was this guy?”
“James?” Sam is the one who answers and Steve tries to find his foot under the table to kick it. He ends up sharply kicking the table leg instead and he has to bite down on a hiss of pain.
“James,” Natasha says, thoughtfully.
“James,” Wanda says, gleefully.
“James,” Loki says, and this time he does roll his eyes.
“Holy shit,” Steve says, looking up. “Stop saying his name.”
“Why?” Loki’s drawl is back. “Will he appear out of thin air?”
“He’s ex-Force and full Android, so imagine that physique,” Sam says.
Natasha leans forward interestedly and Steve scowls.
“Why don’t you date him, then?” he mutters.
“I didn’t know beefcake was Rogers’ type,” Loki remarks.
“He’s not a beefcake,” Steve says loudly. “I don’t have a type. Give me more coffee.”
“Sorry,” Loki says, sweetly. “I’m wiping the tables.”
Natasha snorts as she resumes wiping the dishes. She opens her mouth, but then the automatic doors whirr open. For a moment, all are interrupted by a customer. Wanda moves over to assist and Natasha starts the order off behind the espresso machine. Loki, typically, does nothing.
For a moment, Steve is given respite. But it’s only a moment.
Café Automata is a cozy coffee shop tucked away along a long line of cozy coffee shops and restaurants in Pluto Sector. Pluto Sector is more well-kept than the housing districts and less lavish than Jupiter, which is the center of technology and finance. It’s somewhere in the middle, a renovated street full of charming cafés, restaurants, and businesses that are frequented by the young, the old, and the parents with strollers. The shops are mostly independently-owned and display an assortment of progressive-minded signs in the window, including Earth 2.0 conservation causes, science and development movements, and, importantly, circular stickers showing an old data chip surrounded by a thick, white circle border. It was the symbol for the Android rights movement and the sticker was a sign that this place was accepting of all kinds of humans--full, altered, and former.
Café Automata did the movement one better. It was not only welcoming of Androids, but it was the only Android-run café altogether. Natasha is never at liberty to tell them who the owner of the café actually is, but she’s heavily chipped herself and anyone who wanders in without specifically knowing the politics of the coffee shop does not leave the same way. Even if the rest of the employees were not, in their own manner, radical, altered bastards, Natasha’s arms were covered in ink that highlighted the small, glowing nodes where she was chipped. Where Steve’s own lights and nodes are cyan, hers flash a bright red. She mostly wears sleeveless blouses or shirts with the sleeves rolled up to her shoulders. The tattoos, and the nodes, are impossible to miss. That is, of course, the entire point.
The coffee shop is a full three districts past Saturn, but both Steve and Sam make it out there with a regularity anyway. For Steve it’s one of the only places he feels the most like himself and the least on display. For Sam, well, he just likes the coffee and how Natasha can make Steve sputter with a single raised eyebrow.
Steve finishes his coffee while bickering with Sam and after the customer comes a family and after them a businessman who looks like he’s going to report them to the terrestrial police, until he goes to pay and they see the flashing green port at the back of his neck.
“So, where were we?” Natasha asks, a half an hour after Steve thinks he’s been rescued by fate and half a dozen people’s need for caffeine and Loki’s strangely delicious baked goods.
“We weren’t,” Steve says. “Where’s my coffee? The service in this place is terrible.”
“Don’t push it,” Natasha says. She puts down the towel, ducks under the counter and comes out on the other side. Then she slides into the booth next to Steve. She reaches over for the rest of Sam’s pain au chocolat. “I’m taking this.”
“Hey!” Sam protests.
“Should have eaten it faster,” Natasha says, unfazed. Then she turns back to Steve and tucks a red curl behind her ear. She smiles sweetly, which makes Steve’s stomach drop. “Steven.”
“I hate this,” Steve says and Natasha’s sharp smile somehow gets more predatorial.
“You’re being dramatic,” she says, taking a bite of the pastry. She cocks her head and without looking over yells, “Needs more chocolate!”
“Fuck you!” Loki answers. They have this bit down, somehow. Natasha tries Loki’s pastry and offers critique. Loki curses her out. Loki fixes the pastry. The pastry is a masterpiece.
“You haven’t dated in--how many years?” Natasha looks over at Sam for help.
“One century?” Sam says. “Two?”
“The only dramatic person here is the two of you,” Steve says. He frowns at the poor grammar and ignores it. “Listen, it’s not that big of a deal. I’m fine.”
“When was the last time you got laid?” Natasha asks. She does crane her neck back this time. “Wanda, get me something.”
Wanda is apparently used to reading Natasha’s mind because she slips behind the espresso machine and different steam vents and pressurizers begin whistling in the background.
“Not everything is about getting laid, Nat,” Steve says. His friends mean well, but he’s starting to get annoyed.
“I know that,” Natasha says. She looks at Steve and her expression softens. “But it’s not about that. It’s about physical intimacy. Even Androids get touch-starved.”
Steve looks intently at the ceiling, but even he can’t deny what she’s saying. In truth, it has been years since he’s been with someone and he does crave it in some capacity, physical intimacy. Just the feeling of someone else there with him. But not everyone is comfortable being with an Android anymore and Steve’s tired of meeting someone only to see the look of repulsion flicker over their features. He’s just tired, in general.
“Even Loki’s seeing someone,” Wanda interrupts. She sets a small teal blue, glossy mug in front of Natasha.
Natasha and Sam and Steve all pause. Then, as one, they swivel toward the other man.
Loki, for his part, playing some game on his simpad, freezes.
“Say what?” Sam raises an eyebrow.
“That’s,” Loki slowly begins. “That’s not—.”
Natasha’s razor-sharp, predatory grin resurfaces. Loki pales. Wanda whistles cheerfully.
Steve thanks his lucky galaxies for the distraction and drains his coffee.
The service slows the later it gets, so Natasha dismisses both Wanda and Loki for the evening. Sam has to leave because he’s picked up a shift for Sharon, but it’s the weekend and Steve has nothing to do he can’t do on his Starktech-issued simpad, so he stays settled in his booth, cups of coffee flowing freely, his stomach full of pastry, sweet and savory alike.
He’s frowning at an aspect of his design that doesn’t work. He moves his finger so he can enlarge it on the screen and then, frustrated with the aspect ratio, he fiddles with the buttons on the side so it projects up three dimensionally. It’s not that he doesn’t care about confidentiality, it’s that Dernier sent him the prototype design of a roof panel that’s about three generations old and can’t work with the current housing regulations or rooftop designs.
He squints at the rotating, green projection and is about to dial Dernier’s number when Natasha walks to the door and presses her thumb to the scanner beside it. The outside lights flicker and dim, and the word CLOSED scrolls across the top of the glass doors.
Steve looks past the projection and blinks.
“What time is it?” he asks. As hyperfocused as they can be, Androids aren’t particularly good with time and Steve even worse than most, but he feels especially disoriented.
“Ten,” Natasha says. “Please put away that hologram, my eyes are starting to turn from boredom.”
“It’s not boring,” Steve mutters as he presses the side button again.
“Tell me a single thing you like about rooftop design,” Natasha snorts.
“The people need a roof,” Steve says. He sighs and logs out of the networks, powers his Starkpad off.
“Uh huh.” Natasha’s voice conveys clearly how unimpressed she actually is, which is only half unfair, because she’s known him for too long and too well to not call him out on his bullshit.
Still, it’s not like Steve meant to get caught in rooftop design. He had joined the StarkTech division of StarkCorps about seventy five years ago as a talented and vibrant designer of technology and, specifically, modern, futuristic architecture. Then StarkCorps had acquired some contracts to build hyper-solar rooftops across the planet and Steve had been in shingle hell ever since.
“Walk you home?” Steve asks. He pulls his leather jacket over his shoulders and tucks his Starkpad and personal simpad into a black, leather messenger bag.
“Maybe I’ll walk you home,” Natasha smirks. She lives in Saturn too, in a different complex from Steve and Sam. She ties her hair up and pulls her own leather jacket on. She gives the kitchens, the counters, and the shop one last lookover and thumbs the light off.
Steve waits for her, hands in his pockets, and when they step out into the cool, night air it’s actually a relief. He smells like too much coffee, but she, somehow, smells like jasmine flowers. That definitely makes no sense, so he squints at her suspiciously.
Natasha just smiles and then loops her arm through Steve’s.
The walk from Pluto to Saturn isn’t an insignificant one, but it’s a beautiful night out and Steve and Natasha rarely get time to just talk and walk. As heavily chipped as she is, Natasha is still human, but she’s ex-Special Ops, so he feels comfortable around her. In a sense, she’s just as much on the outskirts of everything as he is. He walked into the café one day and saw her and he had never really walked back out.
“You’re awful quiet tonight,” she says after they’ve been walking in silence for a while. She leans into him and it’s an offering, he knows, because despite his protestations, Steve is touch-starved and Natasha knows it.
“Hmm?” Steve murmurs and she shakes her head. Her fingernails press a little firmly into the flesh part of his upper arm.
“You’re brooding,” Natasha says. Her voice is light, compared to her presence.
“Do you ever think you’ll go full?” Steve asks her after some internal deliberation.
Natasha makes a little tsking noise, which sounds dismissive but isn’t. She’s thinking.
“No,” she says after a while. “It’s not personal. Android, human, alt, who gives a fuck? We all have to sleep with ourselves at night. But—”
She pauses. After a moment, Steve leans into her, encouraging her to go on.
“I’ve killed a lot,” she says. “Some for profit, some for fun. If I can do that much as a human, what could I do as an Android?”
“It doesn’t take away your morality,” Steve says, maybe too sharply.
“I know that.” Natasha’s voice has an edge and Steve has the wherewithal to look slightly mollified. “But you have extra abilities. And people have agendas. I’m done being used for someone else’s agenda.”
“Androids have the capacity for destruction,” Steve agrees. “But so do humans. Humans destroyed the Earth the first time around.”
“Like I said,” Natasha says wryly. “We all have to sleep with ourselves at night.”
“So if—” Steve hesitates. Then sighs and looks up at dark sky. He thinks he can see the outlines of Aries and Leo caught in between this galaxy and the next. “You were dying and the only thing left to save you was to become an Android—?”
“Death isn’t the worst thing,” Natasha says lightly. “Out of all of the suffering in this life, it’s far from the worst thing at all.”
And Steve knows that’s true. It’s not that he’s afraid to deactivate, really. He’s lived through worse than death, had lost his humanity and his planet and the one person who had made up his entire world, and had lived for centuries longer than he should have besides. But it’s not an easy decision to take, to look up at the galaxies surrounding him and over at his beautiful friend on his arm and know he has no choice.
Maybe that’s the entirety of his problem.
Death was both in his hands and out of his hands. It was a decision made by someone who had seen his picture in a database and decided he had lived long enough. Then they had the audacity to send him an envelope and try to present it as a choice. The injustice burns at him as much as the weariness.
“You’re hiding something from me,” Natasha says quietly, after a while. He’s fallen into another silence. Natasha’s never minded silence, but he supposes it is suspicious to ask so pointedly about death, with no follow up.
“I’m--” he says, starting and then stopping. He doesn’t know how to go about doing something like telling his best friend he’s going to die soon.
She squeezes his arm lightly and then tilts her head onto his shoulder.
“Tell me when you’re ready,” Natasha says.
“What if I’m never ready?” Steve says, asking her two questions at once.
Natasha, being Natasha, shrugs easily.
“Then I’ll know when it happens,” she says. “Whatever it is.”
They walk along in silence for another mile or so, both of them deep in their own thoughts.
It’s only when they get to the front of Natasha’s building and she extricates herself from him that she takes Steve’s face between her hands.
“But I would prefer not to,” she says, as though she’s spent the entire time thinking about this. “So tell me sooner rather than later. Okay, Steve?”
Steve looks into her green eyes and exhales. His shoulders deflate, although he hadn’t known they had been hunched to begin with.
Steve nods and Natasha offers him a rare, genuine smile. She reaches up on her tiptoes and presses a kiss to Steve’s cheek. She pulls away and silently turns on her heels.
He watches her press her thumb into the scanner, open the door, and disappear inside.
Steve exhales again, blinks up at the sky, and walks the short distance back to his own, empty apartment.
[ refueling station #1918, jupiter sector, earth 2.0 ]
A month later, Steve and Sam are sitting on Sam’s couch, watching some strange space soap opera when Steve’s arm cylinders start emitting the most annoying sound known to man and Android. The usually bright and calm cyan turns an alarming red and Steve barely finishes opening his mouth when Sam’s turned his stank face on him.
“If I don’t see you at the Station tomorrow, so help me Black Jesus,” Sam says, glaring pointedly at Steve. “Actually, you’ll need all the Jesuses to help you, Rogers.”
Steve mutters something into the bowl of popcorn that’s magically been raised to hide most of his face.
“Sorry?” Sam raises an eyebrow. “Don’t think I heard that.”
Steve sighs aggressively and swallows a mouthful of popcorn.
“I’ll come in tomorrow,” he says.
“The nerve,” Sam mutters as he reaches over for some popcorn himself. “Acting like I’m asking him to get his teeth pulled and not zero out on both of us.”
“I’m right here,” Steve says. “I can hear you.”
“Well that would be the first time,” Sam says, crunching loudly and pointedly on kernels.
Steve has half a mind to argue, but the look in Sam’s eye is so viscerally deadly that Steve hastily bites back any thought he had in opposition.
“I’ll come in! I’m going to do it!” Steve says quickly and Sam’s glare intensifies before he reaches for the remote and turns up the volume.
“If you’re late,” Sam says, “I’m going to jostle your wires when you least expect it.”
Which, frankly, is just rude.
But, Steve can’t help but admit to himself sheepishly, not entirely undeserved.
He sends a message to his team before the sun’s even risen and ignores all of the ribbing replies he gets over the next hour. Apparently Steve’s inability to properly care for himself is a pervasive and popular topic in multiple spheres of his life and the day they all intersect is the day he takes himself offline for good.
He gets to the Station early, just so Sam can have no reason to give him any attitude. He gets there so early, in fact, that Sam’s not there at all. Which just figures.
“Well this is a surprise,” Sharon raises an eyebrow and Steve sighs.
“How much does he complain about me?” he asks as he gets settled into his usual dock. It’s so early that almost all of the docks are empty.
“There’s a board in the back with a running list of gripes,” Sharon says as she helps get all of the wires connected. She guides the main plug into his neck and it connects magnetically with a soft click. She thumbs the switch on the dock and the jolt of electricity sets Steve’s heart immediately racing.
It always takes a moment for him to adjust to the burst of electric energy. He feels the jolt through his chest, into his arms, all the way out to the very tips of his fingers. He buzzes a little and then swallows back the electrical taste in his mouth.
“Also, there’s a running pool and I think he might be on the verge of winning a hefty sum,” Sharon laughs. She takes a step back. “That good?”
“Wait--” Steve says. “Running pool? Of what?”
“How many times you zero out before you show up voluntarily. Everyone learns eventually.”
“I’m not here voluntarily,” Steve says. “Sam threatened my life.”
“Now that’s not very ethical of him,” Sharon tsks, although she doesn’t sound sympathetic to his cause. In fact, she sounds borderline amused.
“How close is he to winning?” Steve asks her instead, raising an eyebrow.
“Two more times,” Sharon says.
“And where are you in this pool?” Steve asks.
“If you could hold out twice more after that, it would really help me out,” Sharon says with a smile and a wink.
“Okay,” Steve says. He leans his head back onto the pillowed headrest. “We’ll take that bastard down together.”
“Let me know if I can get you anything, Steve.” Sharon chuckles as she walks away to finish doing her morning rounds and Steve dozes for the next hour.
He doesn’t know how long he’s been out when the thrum of the dock next to him starting shakes him from his drowse.
“Well, well, well,” Steve hears as he blearily opens his eyes to the sounds of someone connecting beside him. There’s a slight thwump, a slight groan, and then-- “Look what the cat dragged in.”
“Not cat,” Steve mumbles. He doesn’t open his eyes. “The Wilson.”
“Not as good as a cat,” the voice, a familiar one, says.
“You’re telling me,” Steve replies.
Steve lets out a large yawn and then finally rubs his eyes with the base of his palms. When he finally opens them and looks over, he sees a familiar face with familiar blue eyes and a familiar sculpted body with a familiar arm of metal. Barnes--no, James--no, Bucky looks as blearily tired as he is.
“Casual question, is it too early to be alive?” Steve asks.
“It’s always too early to be alive,” is Bucky’s answer. “But in this particular case, yes. Fuck yes. Why are we awake?”
“The ghost of Wilsons past guilted us into not crashing?” Steve offers.
“First of all, the ghost of Wilsons past needs to mind his own goddamned business,” Bucky grumbles. “And second, hope the ghost of Wilsons future gets us a good breakfast. I’m starving.”
Steve can’t help but grin at that. His stomach swoops a little as he finally wakes up enough to process the person beside him. Bucky’s eyes are a little pink too and he has some bags under them, but his hair is clean and tied back again and he’s in a pair of nicely fitted dark jeans and a black t-shirt. He looks astoundingly good for 7 am or whatever the fuck hour in which they’re currently suffering.
“Hi,” Steve says.
“Hey,” Bucky’s smile is soft and pleased back. “Fancy meeting you here again.”
“What’s a nice Android like you doing in a place like this?” Steve asks.
“Got me a nice fella who gives me the juice I need,” Bucky says with a grin. “Tried to stop, but I just keep coming back.”
“Is nice the word we’re using for him now?” Steve asks.
“It’s too early for antonyms,” Bucky sighs. “Also, beggars can’t be choosers.”
“That’s nice,” Steve says. “He’ll be happy to hear that.”
Bucky laughs and then looks over at Steve.
“You’re in better shape than last time,” he says. “Wilson really got to you, huh?”
“I try not to make it a habit of crashing,” Steve says and Bucky raises an eyebrow. “I know the evidence is against me. Last time was a bit of an anomaly.”
Bucky raises his eyebrow further and Steve laughs.
“Okay, not so much of an anomaly, but I hadn’t almost zeroed in a while,” Steve says. “I was just--stressed, I guess. I wasn’t watching my levels.”
“Yeah?” Bucky looks at him with an appropriate amount of concern. “Been there, fucked that up. You doing better?”
“Depends on the day,” Steve says. “But I was on Sam’s couch when the fuel alert went off and there’s no hiding flashing cylinders.”
Bucky groans empathetically.
“Those fucking cylinders!” he says. “Mine is--look.” He moves his left arm forward. The entire arm, from fingertip through shoulder, is robotic, with a red line running down the side and a red star sitting at the top.
“When mine goes off it’s the entire arm. Not just the light down the side, the entire thing lights up like a homing beacon,” Bucky says.
“That’s--” Steve stares and starts laughing. “That’s awful, wow.”
“Don’t I fucking know,” Bucky grouses. “Imagine it’s winter and my levels get low. My entire sleeve starts glowing red. Try being inconspicuous when half of your clothes are flashing.”
Steve laughs harder for that and after a moment of looking grumpy, Bucky starts chuckling too.
“Most public place yours has gone off?” Steve asks.
“Job interview,” Bucky says immediately.
“Oh, god,” Steve says and Bucky gives him a nod of appreciation.
“Yeah,” he says. “No, it’s worse than you think. There I am, hair pulled back, shaved, dressed to the nines in my best suit. Mind you, this was a year or two after I turned? So I didn’t know what I was doing. I was breaking doors and my Ma’s table and--it was a mess. Anyway, there I am trying to be as professional and normal as possible. It’s a panel interview of mostly humans. Two? No, three in person, two netted in over video. And I’m in the middle of giving some bullshit answer about why I would be perfect for this bullshit desk job and--it goes off. The entire thing.”
“Fuck,” Steve starts laughing again.
“The entire fucking thing. My entire suit arm is flashing red and this was before I realized I could mute the siren, so--”
Steve’s face contorts in horror.
“Yeah,” Bucky says with a satisfied groan. His head falls back against the headrest with a noise. “Let’s just say I didn’t get the job.”
“Bet they never told you what you had to look forward to,” Steve says with a smile. He also lets his head fall back against the leather, but he turns so he can still see Bucky.
“Become an Android, they said,” Bucky gives a half-smile. “It’ll save your life, they said.”
Steve doesn’t know Bucky’s story. People have personal reasons for becoming Androids, but they’re rarely happy ones. If a human can solve a problem by chipping, they will. It’s better to be an Alt-Human than to turn robot. Every robot has a deadline ticking in the middle of their foreheads, metaphorically speaking. Becoming an Android--well. It’s a last resort.
“Do you regret it?” Steve asks, instead.
Bucky’s smile, so easy and warm, fades a little at that. He turns from Steve to look at the docks opposite them. There are only one or two other Androids being refueled at the moment, and they’re both in stasis. Or, rather, they’re asleep.
“I don’t know,” Bucky says. “It helped me stay alive and I guess I can’t hate it for that. But it changed everything.”
Bucky’s voice is soft and thoughtful, but Steve doesn’t think he hears any sort of warning. He just sounds a little tired, is all, and what can Steve relate to, if not that?
“What did it change?” Steve asks carefully. It’s not in his place to pry and he usually doesn’t care to anyway, but talking to Bucky is--easy. They slide off of one another with barely a thought.
Bucky doesn’t say anything for a minute and Steve’s about to apologize for overstepping, when he lets out a sigh. It comes from somewhere near his core and his entire body deflates with it.
“My family,” he says quietly. “I don’t think they realize they treat me differently, but they do.”
Steve doesn’t say anything and Bucky picks at a loose thread on his jeans before speaking again.
“I think they thought it would be easy,” he says. “I got--I died, in the war for Taurus. I was in the Force.”
Steve’s eyes sweep over the strong curves of Bucky’s shoulders, down the solid planes of his chest. He sits more rigidly than most humans and Androids do and his eyes are always flicking around the room and toward the doors, as though he’s always mentally calculating where his exits are in case of imminent threat. Even if Sam hadn’t told him, the signs that that Bucky was galactic military were all there.
“You died?” Steve asks.
“Yeah. Or I almost did. My heart stopped beating for almost two minutes,” Bucky says. He continues picking at the thread. “I got picked off the line by a laser blast or something, I don’t know. It took my arm and stopped my heart. By the time the medics came, there was only one decision. Robot up or death.”
“Who chose for you?”
“My parents,” Bucky says. “They got patched in. They panicked and said Android, of course Android. They wanted me alive. I’m grateful for that. Some of the guys I fought with--they can’t say the same.”
Steve knows. He remembers, from centuries ago, one of his first friends, a foul-mouthed ex-con named Falsworth. Falsworth had lived in the slums, when everything was the slums, really. His mother had died with Earth 1.0 and his father had dealt with it by drinking himself into a stupor every night. Steve had met him as their housing assignments were given out. Falsworth had lived in the quarters across from Steve for nearly a year before he had given in and joined the Force. No one gives a shit about me here, so might as well go die for something else were the last words he’d said to Steve. As far as Steve knows, he’d made good on that promise because he’d never come back.
“They probably thought it was the same,” Bucky says. “I’d be the same Bucky after as I was before, just alive with some different hardware. But they don’t tell you that, do they? Your body changes, but you change more.”
“Yeah,” Steve says. It had been a long time since he had made that change himself and he had been so small at the time, he can barely remember what he had been before. But he remembers there was a change, a distinct before and after, and everything had been after ever since.
“Anyway.” Bucky puts on a smile which doesn’t quite reach his eyes. “I’m just whining. They’re good people, my family. And I guess I don’t regret it. Better to be alive than to be dead.”
Death isn’t the worst thing, he can hear Natasha saying again. Out of all of the suffering in this life, it’s far from the worst thing at all.
But he doesn’t say that, of course. Steve lets out a short breath and closes his eyes instead.
“Yeah,” he says. “I guess it is.”
An hour later, Sam finally shows up. By now, both Steve and Bucky are hovering over Steve’s simpad. It had started out innocently enough--Steve had told Bucky what he does for a living and Bucky had proceeded to badger him into showing him all of the publicly available designs he had worked on. Then Steve had told him what he actually wants to be working on and that he has prototypes of designs for everything from the next generation of robotic bees to his own conceptualizations of modern art and then Bucky had harassed him into showing him those. Then Bucky had wanted to show Steve a video he had watched the night before that involved two different species of animals becoming friends. Then Steve had wanted to discuss an article he’d read online the night before on the sociopolitical ramifications of state-sponsored genetic modifications. Then they had taken a break to solve a crossword together, and now they were watching some Stark interview.
“That’s what he looks like?” Bucky asks, raising an eyebrow.
“He’s scarier in person,” Steve says. “Okay, not really. He’s kind of an asshole in person. But he’s taller.”
“This is the man who owns most of our tech and like three fourths of the wealth on this planet,” Bucky says. He lets out a whistle that’s either impressed and disdainful or a little bit of both. “What’s he like to work for?”
“He has a temper,” Steve says. “But he’s a genius and you can’t really deny it. I’ve never seen a brain work like his. Well, except his son, I guess. His son drives him up the wall, though.”
“Oh, yeah, I forgot about that,” Bucky says. He zooms in on Howard’s face. “The wayward kid or whatever. Imagine self-emancipating from a zillionaire family. Couldn’t be me.”
“I can see why,” he says. “Something about Stark as a parent doesn’t really...make sense. Anyway, I guess they don’t talk anymore and Stark overcompensates by never leaving the goddamned office.”
“Celebrities,” Bucky says. “They’re just like us.”
That makes Steve laugh and it’s in the middle of this that the glass doors slide open and Sam’s unimpressed face appears before them both.
“Oh no,” he says. He looks at both of them. “No. Nope. This is just trouble.”
“I couldn’t possibly know what you’re talking about,” Steve says as Bucky grins broadly.
“This right here?” Sam points a finger between the two of them and then motions back and forth between them. “I’m putting a stop to it.”
“Yeah?” Bucky smirks. “What are you going to do about it? You’re the size of half of my arm.”
“Man,” Sam says and moves to start checking their charts. He starts with Bucky, looking over the readings behind his head. “How are you gonna call a brother out like that? I go to the gym.”
“When exactly…?” Steve, who lives next door to Sam and has seen him go to the gym exactly all of twice, asks.
“Oh you think I’m done with you,” Sam says, looking over his shoulder at Steve. “When was the last time you went to consultation?”
Consultation is the Station’s fancy way of saying therapy. Steve winces.
“Yeah, you better cringe,” Sam says. He records Bucky’s vitals into his simpad and then reaches for one of the cords. “Ignoring court-mandated consultation. Gonna have to jostle you a sec, Barnes, hold tight.”
Bucky doesn’t wince when his wire moves, but a moment of discomfort does flicker over his face before he looks between Sam and Steve eagerly.
“Wait,” he says.
“Shit,” Steve mutters.
“Court-mandated?” Bucky asks. He looks, well, borderline gleeful. “As in as part of sentencing for a criminal arrest? Have you been arrested?”
To which Steve sighs and Sam barks out laughter. More than is strictly required, in Steve’s opinion. Steve half-heartedly settles him with a glare.
“Has this boy been arrested?” Sam is cracking up and when he manages to wipe a probably imaginary tear from his eye, he looks at Steve. “Rogers, you didn’t tell Barnes how we met?”
Bucky looks at Steve with renewed interest.
“What am I missing?”
“Sam and I—” Steve says and then mumbles something into the air.
“Sorry, didn’t hear that,” Bucky beams.
“You,” Steve looks pointedly at both of them. “Are both assholes. Sam and I met because he uh, was my arresting officer.”
“Holy shit,” Bucky says just before Sam cracks up again. “Tell me everything.”
The story was kind of ridiculous and involved a Steve Rogers when he was about fifty years younger and about five times angrier. He can’t remember the details exactly perfectly, but he had been on the picket lines, protesting some ill-advised acquisition or advancement of StarkCorps and one thing led to another and Steve had thrown a Molotov cocktail at a line of armed TerraPol.
“You fucking what?” Bucky looks at Steve incredulously.
“What?” Steve mutters. “You think the future’s immune from Molotov cocktails?”
“What the fuck!” Bucky exclaims as Sam laughs louder.
Across from them, Scott Lang, who’s also come in for refueling, jerks awake.
“What!” he twitches. “What did I miss! Is there a fire?”
“Give Rogers a bottle and there might be,” Bucky says with a grin and Steve covers his face with his hands and groans.
“It was one time!” he says. “I got carried away and Sam stunned me into submission.”
“Yeah I did,” Sam says, good naturedly. “Arrested his fire happy, angry ass.”
“He threw me in Android jail,” Steve grumbles. Then he sighs and looks at Sam and Bucky sheepishly. “But once I stopped wanting to kill him, I realized he was trying to help me out. The only reason I avoided the Pen or DeComm is because Sam stuck up for me. Said I needed consultation instead.”
Bucky’s smile flickers at that.
“They’d DeComm you for that?”
“Moderate aggressions they can keep Androids in the Pen for,” Sam says darkly. The Pen is a long-term incarceration facility for Androids. It’s heavily guarded and has a reputation for being a cruel and violent system of Android suppression. Both Steve and Bucky shudder.
He moves onto Steve and starts imputing his statistics. “But something that violent? Against the state? It’s a fast track to deactivation.”
Steve swallows. He remembers being told that by the prosecutor. There had been two options on the table for his stupid ass. Until Sam Wilson stepped in.
“He saved my life,” Steve says, quietly. “I’ll never forget that.”
“You were justifiably angry,” Sam says. “You didn’t deserve to die for it.”
Which is easy enough for them to say, sitting here under the clean and bright Station lights, but that’s not how reality works.
“No one else would have thought twice about it,” Steve says. “No one else would have looked at me and seen a human worth granting mercy to.”
Because the fact of the matter is that Steve had been angry enough to throw a makeshift bomb across lines. It didn’t matter that it was an institution that he hated and it didn’t matter that they were wrong and he was right. At the end of the day, Steve was an Android, and an angry one. It had been different then. This was before, when he had so much anger it was spilling out of him. If they had DeCommed him then, he would have gone out fighting. Now, he just takes in a breath and wonders if it wouldn’t be easier.
But he watches Sam and Bucky joke now, Sam telling more stories about Steve in the fifty years he’s known him, and Bucky listening intently to him and grinning at Steve, beaming at him like he’s never met anyone like him before.
And it’s not everything, but it’s enough to make him pause.
“Wow, Rogers,” Bucky says with a low whistle. “Sounds like you owe Wilson.”
And because Steve’s never been good at completely hiding his feelings, he nods.
“I would die for him,” he says. And he means it.
“Hey, Rogers,” Bucky says, when they both finish refueling, an hour or two later.
Steve is putting on his leather jacket again. He slides it over his shoulders and fingers his mussed bangs out of his eyes.
Bucky follows the movement of his fingers and then quickly smiles when Steve catches him.
“Bucky?” Steve taps his arm cylinders and watches as the cyan light resurges brightly.
“Hey do you want to—” Bucky starts, then Bucky stops.
Steve looks up at him and Bucky just smiles at him. It’s a friendly thing.
“What is it?”
“Nothing, just—” then Bucky reaches into his pocket and pulls out an honest-to-god post-it-note. He scrambles for a pen and then writes something down. Then he leans forward and sticks it to Steve’s forehead.
“What the—” Steve looks up at the post-it, cross-eyed.
“Call me next time you wanna burn something down.”
Bucky sticks his hands in his own leather pockets and the doors slide shut behind him. Steve watches him go, unable to stop staring at the slope of that back.
“Hey!” Scott Lang says as he gathers up his papers. “You got something on your forehead—here.”
Steve blinks as Scott takes the post-it-note from his forehead, reads it, and slaps it into Steve’s palm.
“Someone named Bucky Barnes wants you to call him.”
Scott gives him a big grin, pats him on the shoulder, and leaves.
Chapter 3: [ redesigning ]
I can officially say that the writing portion of this fic is done and dusted! All systems are a go! I'm not saying there's 50,000 more words where this came from, but I cannot in good conscience not not say that, either.
That just means there's more stucky to go around. :)
[ starkcorps, jupiter sector, earth 2.0 ]
As ugly and modern as the monstrosity of a grey glass building as StarkCorps is, Steve can’t help but admit that the amenities are beyond comprehension. Everything inside the building is state-of-the-art, StarkTech incorporated into almost every square inch of slick, chrome surface. The doors open automatically, the windows clean automatically, everything is run through scanners and three dimensional projections, and there’s an AI customizable to every team floor. The AIs are nearly sentient beings meant to wait hand and foot on every human and human-adjacent species, which is nice in the moment and difficult once anyone stops to think about ethical ramifications for longer than two seconds.
The AI on Design is named JARVIS. JARVIS is very polite, sometimes snarky, incomparably helpful, and misses his creator very much.
Most of what Steve knows about Tony Stark, he knows through JARVIS’s stories. Steve spends enough late nights here in the Design Lab that JARVIS has become companion more than disembodied AI. When Clint leaves early and Steve pulls a 2 or 3 am night, he’ll just ask JARVIS to talk to him while he works, and JARVIS very kindly will. For an AI, though, he’s very fixated on a single topic. That single topic being Young Master Stark.
“Hey, are we ever gonna meet him?” Clint says through a mouthful of sandwich. Clint’s eating habits leave much to be desired, but it was his turn to grab lunch from the cafeteria and Steve has enough on his plate without physically having to go and get a plate.
Steve has barely touched his chicken pesto sandwich. Instead, he keeps casting his three dimensional projections into his design space and stepping into the projection to examine all angles. Every once in a while he’ll blindly reach for his coffee, which Clint will nudge over with a dirty look.
Lunch to Clint Barton is a sacred time. Usually he insists on taking it in the incomparable state-of-the-art StarkCorps cafeteria—this is the only thing not replicated on every floor, something about shared experiences and morales and a health inspection criteria—but he had come in whistling, ready to fill his belly, and had taken one look at Steve’s stormy face and backed away with his hands raised.
He had returned 15 minutes later with their lunches, which Steve would be grateful for if he had time for it.
So in the meantime, Clint’s been chatting with JARVIS. JARVIS likes Clint. He asks a lot of questions about Tony.
“I do hope so, sir,” JARVIS says. “He has been out lately, due to the threats and bad blood between himself and Master Howard, but he would never abandon us entirely.”
“‘Us’ being you and Howard?” Clint asks. He reaches for his orange soda and takes a loud and undignified slurp.
“And the rest of us, sir,” JARVIS insists. “He cares very much about the company, in his own way.”
“His own way seems awfully like abandoning the company and funding shadowy rivals, JARVIS,” Clint says. “Sorry to say.”
If JARVIS had a corporeal shape, Steve imagines he would be frowning.
“That is mere speculation,” JARVIS says after consideration. “He would never do anything like that.”
“Then where is he?” Clint asks. He crunches on some leaves. “When’s the last time you saw him?”
JARVIS disembody-frowns again.
“Stop harassing our AI, Clint,” Steve says. He’s standing between two steeply angled pieces of holographic metal. “Do these angles look wrong to you?”
Clint looks over at him with disinterest.
“Do those look like lines of code to you, Rogers?”
Steve sighs and steps out of the projection.
“This is useless,” he says. “Where’s my sandwich?”
Clint pushes it over to him.
“Thanks,” Steve says and unwraps the plastic to take a bite. It’s only when it’s in his mouth that he realizes how ravenous he is. Strictly speaking, Androids needs more electricity than food, but there’s still a human body that needs maintenance. Steve’s bad at maintenance. He must have a look on his face, because Clint snorts.
“You forgot to eat again didn’t you?”
Steve squints at the ceiling and mumbles, through a mouthful of sandwich, “No…”
Which anyone can tell is a lie. What no one can tell though is that he hasn’t eaten since lunch the day before.
“Wilson’s gonna kill you,” Clint says. He starts on his apple.
“He’s not my Ma,” Steve says. If he sounds a little petulant, well, he’s an old man, he’s earned it. “How’s the security testing?”
He swallows a mouthful of sandwich and reaches into the jumbo sized bag of barbecue chips that Clint’s bought for both of them.
“Good,” Clint says, shrugging. “Or I guess bad? They still can’t build a Wall I can’t hack my way through. Keeps food on my table, but bad for digital holes.”
Honestly, Steve understands about as much coding as is required to implement parts of his design and not much more. Sometimes Clint will launch into a diatribe about ethics in coding and coding challenges and the future of coding and Steve tunes him out, like a particularly persistent and passionate buzzing about technology in the background. It’s nice.
“Can you code this contract finished?” Steve mumbles. He takes another bite of his sandwich. It’s somehow half-demolished already. He blinks at the size of his bites.
“Wait, can you—” Clint looks at him suddenly, apologetically.
Steve immediately wipes his hands on a napkin and reaches across. Clint turns his head to the controls of his hearing chips. The chip itself is deeply embedded into Clint’s ear drums, amplifying sounds enough that he can hear almost perfectly. Sometimes different frequencies and background noises will interfere with his altered hearing, but it’s leaps better than it was even a few decades ago. StarkCorps might be evil, corporate overlord bastards, but they were good at what they did. Or, more specifically, they were good at poaching the best of the best for StarkTech.
Still, there was a design flaw here that Steve would be fascinated to work on if he wasn’t stuck in shingle hell. Every time the hearing aid glitched, it had to be reset from a small panel behind the ear. Clint probably could manage near mirrors, but it was a bitch to toggle with anywhere else.
Steve leans forward, sees the flashing error message, and manually resets it by thumbing across the digital reset dial.
Clint shudders as the sounds get distorted in his ear, but then relaxes.
“No problem,” Steve says and means it. Clint gives him a fist bump, which Steve accepts with good humor. Then he reaches for more coffee.
“How many cups, Rogers?” Clint eyes him with suspicion.
“Hush,” Steve says and then with a swiftness that belies how much of an expert in pivot he truly is, he grins at Clint. “So how was the date?”
To this, Clint groans and lets his forehead slump onto his arm.
“She was so neurotic she almost made me neurotic!”
This is an impressive enough feat that Steve has to raise his eyebrows.
“From the minute she sat down she couldn’t stop fidgeting. She needed to be in control of everything. She ordered for me because she didn’t want to be tempted by the culinary options available to her at present—direct quote.”
Steve, who hasn’t had a date in at least two years, smiles in amusement as he finishes off his sandwich. He’s not on any sort of self-imposed dating hiatus, but he sure doesn’t miss awkward dates.
“How was the conversation?”
Clint lifts his head and looks at Steve blearily.
“How much do you want to learn about old file extensions?”
“Do you want to learn the history about JPEG and PNG files, Steve? Because I can tell you.”
“No thanks—” Steve says quickly.
“When the Internet was first created in the 1980s, there presented to its creators the idea that files could be saved in different formats and—”
“Get outta here!” Steve says loudly, laughing.
Clint sighs heavily, although it’s with humor.
“You take her home?” Steve asks. Clint’s standards are—well, they’re not high.
“She wouldn’t leave Neptune,” Clint rolls his eyes.
Steve raises an eyebrow.
“Where’d you meet her again?”
“Pepper referred her to me.”
“Ah,” Steve says.
That would explain it. Pepper Potts was in management at StarkCorps and although she was certifiably a case study in high functioning neuroses herself, she was rather nice. She and Clint had crossed paths throughout their educational careers and had found themselves in the same chrome shiny StarkCorps lunchroom about fifteen years ago.
“Hey, is she—?” Steve asks.
“I don’t know,” Clint admits. “I asked once and she was so uncomfortable with it I never pried again. She’s never said anything about him.”
The zillion dollar rumor was that Pepper Potts and Tony Stark were an item. They were rumored to have met just after she had started at StarkCorps, a few years before Stark had fled the premises and his overbearing father. The going story was that they had hated each other at first and then they had gotten stuck on the same assignment and one late night had led to another and there’s a fine line between hate and love, or something.
Pepper is still here, though. And Stark is—well, somehow no one knows.
“Wonder where he disappeared to,” Clint wonders aloud.
“Should have taken us with him,” Steve says morosely.
“Aww,” Clint grins. “Shingle hell got an Android down?”
“Kill me,” Steve says. Then he straightens. “Come on, let’s check the news.”
There’s a large common room dedicated to media and nap pods on every floor. Design Team’s room is, very appropriately, well-designed. Its bright colors offset the chrome, with interesting trinkets arranged to make the area look welcoming and less like a depressing spaceship. This is almost entirely America’s doing. She had been hired about ten years ago. She had come into the room, taken one look around, said nope, and walked back out.
The next day Steve had come in to find a mini renovation. He then helped America paint a variety of murals on the walls, which no one in management had ever berated them for, although it had made Pepper’s eye twitch once or twice.
The rest of the Design Team’s actually sprawled across the room now. America and Kamala are playing some kind of board game projected from their Starkpads. Parker is eating his own lunch and watching the entire wall of monitors scrolling news and media. Isaiah is blatantly laid out and napping across a couch, which is strictly speaking, against protocol and, also strictly speaking, most of what Isaiah does on any given day.
“Hey Barton,” America says, without breaking her concentration.
“Hey Chavez,” Clint nods. Clint’s been coming to Design Team long enough now that the team mostly forgets he’s a part of coding.
He blinks at America and Kamala’s game.
“Don’t talk shit about my games and I won’t talk shit about your clothes,” Kamala says.
“Who’s talking shit about your games?” Clint asks. He looks at Steve. “Are you talking shit about her games?”
“Hey, don’t pull me into this,” Steve says. He tends to stay out of Clint and America’s friendly bickering, which had begun almost instantly after the two had met a decade ago and hadn’t stopped since.
“What’s wrong with my clothes?”
Clint sits down in an empty chair at the table and only then do America and Kamala actually look up at him.
“Where. To. Begin,” America says, raising a dangerous eyebrow.
Steve chuckles and moves past them to the media bay.
“Hey, Peter,” he says. “Mind if I join you?”
“Sure, boss,” Peter says and kicks out one of the empty chairs so Steve can sit next to him.
“What’s on the news today?” Steve asks.
Peter is an eager, borderline hyperactive, veritable child, but he’s dead smart and a news junkie. If he’s not in the lab he can usually be found in the common room, eyes flickering between all of the different news screens.
“In order? Death, destruction, and bigotry,” he says.
“Ah, all of my favorite things,” Steve says.
“There are more riots in Uranus,” Peter says. “They’ve been forcibly evicting Androids and Alts from their apartments. Some of them started a silent protest in front of the government building and TerraPol moved in on them.”
Steve frowns deeply at that.
“Even the Alts?”
Humans didn’t love alt-Humans, since they were just a few steps removed from actually being robots, but they usually left them alone in order to better focus on how to make it as uncomfortable as possible for Androids.
“Yeah,” Peter says. “First they force them into the slums and then they say they can’t even live there.”
Steve lets out a low breath and frowns
“They’re sending out more DeComm letters too,” Peter says. “And I think they’re doing a slow sweep of StarkCorps.”
“That’s fucking bullshit,” Clint curses loudly as he drops into another empty chair. “This entire fucking company was built on robots and robotic technology.”
“It makes no sense,” Peter agrees. “Androids have a much higher accuracy and innovation rate than humans. Like, don’t get me wrong, I think I’m pretty damn good at the job, but there’s a reason boss here is boss.”
“It’s because he’s 900 years old,” Clint says.
Steve flips him off and Clint grins.
“They act like Androids are a completely different species,” America says. She and Kamala join the three of them around the table. Nothing gets America angrier than Android discrimination. Her brother and her father have both had to go robot for reasons beyond their control, so she has a personal investment in the movement.
“They were necessary for us to survive, and now we’re just turning them off because it’s no longer convenient for us? That’s evil.” Kamala crosses her arms at her chest. None of her family are Androids, but her younger brother had to get heavily chipped after a resurgence of scarlet fever left him nearly blind. He’s not quite Alt, but he’s close, on whatever arbitrary scale human purists have put forward this week. Kamala has the most grace of anyone on the team, but her boiling point comes swiftly and usually when she detects some form of injustice.
Steve’s entire team is filled with young humans, but they’re honestly fucking great young humans. He’d do anything to protect them. Even Isaiah, who spends a concerningly large amount of his time napping.
“Riots suck, though,” Clint says.
“I’d join them if I could,” America says stubbornly.
Which sets off another argument between them—Clint saying it doesn’t help anyone to riot in the community they live in and America saying sometimes you have no choice and you have to do what’s loudest to get attention—and, Steve has to admit, neither of them are particularly wrong.
They don’t linger too long in the common room. Clint has to return to his own team soon. In his words, “Those assholes are useless without me. They’ll try to crack a Wall and end up deprogramming the entire security program for our Corporate Overlords. And then guess who’s losing his weekend? Well it sure isn’t Shepherd.”
Steve has to get back to his roof scales at any rate. Peter and America are working on a different side project, but he enlists Kamala’s help in rousing Isaiah from his hourly slumber. He needs them to run angles so he can fix the diametrics of his model.
“Hey,” Clint says and offers Steve his fist again.
Steve’s done nothing to earn a fist bump, but try telling that to Clint Barton. He returns the bump.
“Let’s get drinks after work,” Clint says.
“Today?” Steve looks at his Starkpad dubiously. There’s a list of shit he needs to do that’s an Aries mile long.
“Nah,” Clint says. “I have another doomed date.”
“With the same woman?” Steve looks at Clint as though he’s had a second head sprout from his shoulder.
“I deserve that judgment,” Clint says. He gives Steve the one over. “But I have nothing to say for myself. Beggars can’t be choosers. I wouldn’t expect you to understand.”
Steve looks down at himself and frowns. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Don’t worry,” a deep, sleepy, rumbly voice comes from behind Steve’s shoulder. Isaiah Bradley, finally awakened from his eternal slumber. “Cap hasn’t been laid since the prehistoric age.”
“I thought he was the prehistoric age,” Peter says, puzzled, and every single traitorous member of Steve’s team laughs spectacularly hard.
It’s later, in the dead of the night, when everyone except Isaiah (turns out he’s just nocturnal) has gone home and Steve is restructuring the shape of a roof tile when his phone emits a loud beep.
Isaiah, who’s hand drawing Steve’s new conception for this mess, looks up with a skeptical look on his face.
“You getting booty called at 1 am, Cap?”
“No,” Steve mutters. There’s genuinely no one who would offer him sex right now. He assumes Clint’s having a late night too. “JARVIS, read the message out loud.”
His hands are tied with the projection file and he doesn’t care if Isaiah hears whatever Clint’s complaining about this time.
“Certainly, sir,” JARVIS says. He scans into Steve’s phone for a moment and then reads, “What’s a guy gotta do to get a text around here?”
Steve stops and flushes immediately and Isaiah stops and stares at Steve.
“Holy. Shit!” he says out loud. “It is a booty call!”
Steve scrambles toward his phone before Isaiah can reach it and calls out, “Thanks, JARVIS! That’ll be all!”
The AI falls silent, but Steve could swear he hears him snicker first.
Steve picks up his phone and sees the message.
Bucky Barnes: What’s a guy gotta do to get a text around here?
Steve tries not to flush further, but he does turn his back to Isaiah, which is probably suspicious enough that his entire team will know about it within the next five seconds.
Steve texts back without thinking too hard about it.
give me a reason to text?
The answer is almost immediate.
Bucky Barnes: what kinda reason are we talking about? arson?
Steve smiles and replies.
you know you don’t need a reason to burn shit down, right?
A moment and then—
Bucky Barnes: see now texts like this are the reason only one of us has been arrested
someone sounds jealous
Bucky Barnes: I don’t have a death wish
Bucky Barnes: ok, but maybe
Bucky Barnes: show me your ways, Rogers
my pleasure. first we have to get you really pissed at like, everything. then we get you acquainted with civil disobedience. then we hand you a bottle of gasoline.
Bucky Barnes: hold on, I’m taking notes
Bucky Barnes: now take me back to the really pissed at everything part. what if I’m already there?
Steve can’t help the look that comes over his face, a smile that’s borderline goofy.
then you’re perfect.
It starts like that. The thing is, it just doesn’t stop.
Steve forgets about roof shingles for a while and somewhere behind him, Isaiah Bradley rapid-fires texts of a moment by moment recount to the people best situated to spread the rumor that Steve Rogers, their Steve Rogers, might actually have feelings.
[ refueling station #1918, jupiter sector, earth 2.0 ]
He gets the text Friday night.
Bucky Barnes: tomorrow, 7 am?
sorry, I don’t recognize that time
Bucky Barnes: come on!
I have to be asleep during the witching hour. it’s v. important I be asleep then.
Bucky Barnes: thought that was midnight.
every hour is the witching hour. when you’re a witch.
Bucky Barnes: ...are you a witch?
robot. close enough.
Bucky Barnes: wish I was a witch. imagine flying everywhere.
there are literally spacecrafts that can take you to different planets
Bucky Barnes: yeah, but broomsticks
broomsticks are cooler than spaceships?
Bucky Barnes: yeah! well, no. but there’s something appealing about flying on a common household appliance
what abt flying vacuums? flying microwave ovens?
Bucky Barnes: yeah. that would be amazing.
i’ll take that into consideration. while I’m asleep. during the witching hour.
Bucky Barnes: OK fine, but if I have to spend the entire time talking to Lang about his ant farm I’m telling Wilson what really happened to his porcelain elephant collection.
you bastard, I told you that in confidence.
Bucky Barnes: yeah idk why you thought I’d keep that secret
this is blackmail
Bucky Barnes: it sure is. See you at 7 am! :)
So that’s how Steve finds himself at the Station at a time when he would usually be enjoying his well-earned and often hard-gotten rest.
Bucky is already docked when the doors slide open. He’s half-asleep and nodding off, but his head jerks up when he hears the hiss of the doors and Steve walks in. Maybe it’s just wishful thinking, but Steve thinks Bucky even lights up when he sees him. He sure grins, at any rate.
“You came,” Bucky says. Maybe it’s how early it is or maybe it’s because Steve hasn’t seen him in a month, but he thinks Bucky’s voice sounds lower. It’s a nice sound. “How was the witching hour?”
Steve takes off his jacket and slides into the dock next to Bucky.
“This is the witching hour, asshole,” he says.
“Aren’t you supposed to be in a pointy hat?” Bucky grins. “Dark robes? A cauldron on your arm?”
“That’s a stereotype,” Steve yawns. “We wear arm cylinders now. Witch fashion sets a fast pace.”
Bucky laughs as Sharon comes around to get Steve clipped in.
“Was this voluntary?” Sharon asks, eyebrows raised.
“No,” Steve says. “This was blackmail.”
Sharon looks up from where she’s starting the stats behind Steve and sees Bucky watching them with a grin on his face.
“Uh huh,” she says. “Blackmail.”
She gets him connected and set up the rest of the way. Before she leaves, she leans in to Steve’s ear.
“If you don’t go home with him, I will.”
To which Steve turns slightly pink and swats her away.
“Hey,” Bucky says. He’s settled into his dock, but looking at Steve expectantly.
“Hey yourself,” Steve says back.
“Tell me something,” Bucky says. He leans on the arm to his chair.
“Tell you what?” Steve asks. He, too, leans on the arm to his chair. It just so happens to be the arm next to Bucky’s.
“You’ve been alive a million years,” Bucky says with something dangerously close to a smirk. “Get creative.”
“You’re an asshole,” Steve declares. But he doesn’t mind. The thing is, Steve kinda likes assholes.
“Oh come on, Stevie,” Bucky says with that large, charming smile of his. He almost dimples and the bastard doesn’t even have dimples.
Steve has to look at his boots and ignore the strange, almost unfamiliar tension in his chest.
“Stevie?” Steve raises an eyebrow.
Bucky offers him another grin, slow and almost lazy. He reaches over and ruffles Steve’s hair.
“Yeah. You look like a Stevie.”
His heart is trying to fucking skip and he will not fucking allow it.
“You make this place a little less terrible,” Bucky says with a smile. He pulls his hand back.
Steve stares at him, his hair pulled back, his eyes bright blue and genuine. Bucky Barnes looks like something out of a dream.
“You’re okay,” Steve says and Bucky’s smile somehow widens. “You’re an okay person to wake up ungodly early for.”
Bucky looks like his face might break, he’s so pleased with that lukewarm attempt at deflection.
“Come on,” he almost wheedles and Steve, all three hundred and two years of him, gives in.
“When I was younger, I painted a lot,” he finds himself saying. Steve hasn’t told anyone this in decades, perhaps longer. He doesn’t know why he tells Bucky now or why it’s the first thing he thinks of.
“Yeah?” Bucky asks, softly. “What happened?”
Steve takes a breath.
“My Ma died,” he says.
“I’m sorry,” Bucky says and Steve shakes his head.
Even now, with it almost three hundred years in the past, the grief catches in his chest. He can’t think of his mother without something sticking in his throat. He can’t talk about his mother without missing her deeply, achingly, almost uncontrollably.
“I lost someone too,” Bucky says. “My little sister. Becca.”
Steve looks at him and something flickers inside. Recognition, maybe. Alliance. Maybe he looks at Bucky and finds in him someone who will understand the kind of loss he’s felt.
“I’m sorry, Bucky,” Steve says.
“I went into the Force because of her,” Bucky says slowly. “I thought I could protect her that way. But she was sick. And you can’t protect against illness by fighting the next bad guy, you know?”
It sticks in Steve’s chest again, heavy, like a weight he can’t exhale around.
“Yeah,” he says. “I know.”
“I didn’t know how else to process it,” Bucky says and turns his eyes to the ceiling. “That my baby sister was dying. So I left, thinking I could restore balance. Like, I don’t know, I sacrifice my freedom for this good thing and the world will be good to my baby sister.”
“Bucky,” Steve says, but Bucky shakes his head.
“It was stupid,” he says. “She died anyway. And then I almost died and my parents—well. They couldn’t have taken it.”
“Is that why—?” Steve asks and Bucky smiles sadly.
“I don’t know if I would have chosen it, given the chance to choose. But.” He looks at Steve. “It’s not been all bad.”
Steve doesn’t know why he does it. Maybe he thinks it will help. Or maybe he thinks he needs it himself. Without thinking, he offers his hand. Bucky looks at it for a second and takes it.
“My Ma’s name was Sarah Rogers,” Steve says slowly. “And she was my best friend in the entire universe.”
“Tell me about her,” Bucky says and squeezes Steve’s hand.
And Steve, who never shares this part of himself, who would rather hold onto memories of his mother and that life he lived before everything else that had come after, takes a breath and does.
And when he’s done, Bucky doesn’t look at him with anything even resembling pity. Instead he gives him a warm, bracing smile and squeezes his hand again.
“Now tell me about these paintings,” he says.
[ saturn sector, earth 2.0 ]
Steve manages to luxuriate on a rare Saturday off by doing all of the things he doesn’t have the energy to do during the week. What this means is that he does three loads of laundry, scrubs his apartment top to bottom, goes through his email and clears his inbox, returns some phone calls he hasn’t gotten to before, and plods around his empty apartment in slippers, a robe, and a strong cup of coffee. It’s mid-afternoon by the time he finishes and he’s considering actually making it to the gym for the first time in two months, when his simpad beeps.
Steve picks it up and lets himself fall into his couch with a soft sound. He swipes with his forefinger and it’s a message from Peter that just says Station 4.
Intrigued, Steve switches to the screen that controls his household amenities. He flicks on the digital remote and turns the television on to Station 4. The very familiar face of Mary Jane Watson appears at her usual station with news headlines scrolling across the bottom of the screen. She’s wearing a deep teal button up that complements her dark complexion remarkably well and that Steve knows for a fact was an awkward and well-meaning birthday gift from Peter.
Steve raises an eyebrow and messages Peter back.
She going to announce you’ve finally asked her out?
Peter Parker: Shut up! Just listen!
Steve’s still not sold, but he turns the volume up.
Mary Jane is a master in schooling her expression while on the air, which is remarkable considering she has absolutely no patience and no filter in person.
“The instances of Android and Alt disappearances have been increasingly concerning activist communities. Activists say the government is hiding more than it is currently revealing. Systematic discrimination against altered humans has, of course, been heavily criticized for decades now, although governmental spokespersons deny any such overall scheme. Questions to the Governmental Public Affairs Commission about current disappearances have returned no answers.”
Steve listens, feeling increasingly queasy. He repeatedly taps one of his arm cylinders with his forefinger, an unconscious nervous habit born decades ago. Mary Jane’s expression is neutral, but because Steve knows her, he can see the slight tick of her jaw that indicates that she is unspeakably angry.
“In the meantime, rumors of an Android smuggling initiative persist, although there has been no evidence to corroborate such claims.”
The camera zooms out a bit and Mary Jane turns to a smiling Alt beside her.
“And now for interplanetary weather and travel advisories with Ned Leeds. Ned?”
Steve sets his simpad and coffee to the side, ignoring another beep from Peter. He turns the television off and stares into the black screen for a while.
It sits heavily on him, the societal turn against Androids. The problem with being alive as long as he has been is that he remembers all stages of time. It wasn’t always like this and he suspects, or hopes, it won’t always be like this, but he won’t be around long enough to find out one way or another.
His fingertaps become increasingly agitated until he suddenly, abruptly stands up.
Without allowing himself another thought, he grabs his gym bag and leaves the apartment to punch out his aggressions.
He’s in between rounds of pummeling the shit out of a poor, abused punching bag when he hears a beeping sound in his ears. His portable simpad is safely ensconced in the pocket of his pants and his ear chip is turned on to directly broadcast his music as loud as possible into his ears. His feet have been pounding circles around the perimeter of the running track on the upper gym deck for almost an hour. Now he slows his run to a manageable pace, breathing a little heavily. He fishes the portasim from his pocket and presses a thumb onto the screen. A flashing message notes that he’s received one new text.
Bucky Barnes: okay, hear me out
Steve raises an eyebrow, but smiles despite himself. He types a reply.
on a scale of 1 to 10, how concerned should I be?
The reply comes immediately.
Bucky Barnes: scales are all relative. less than if I were asking you to hop onto a spacejet with me.
Steve snorts and slows to a walk.
that’s not a promising bar. you know that, right?
Bucky Barnes: you’re too paranoid, Rogers. first of all, you should be so lucky as to be asked to hop on a spacejet with me.
where are we going in this hypothetical spacecraft?
Bucky Barnes: somewhere with a lot of beaches. I wanna lay out in the sun and burn to a crisp.
so you want me to accompany you on a suicide mission?
Bucky Barnes: it’s the most noble death, Steven.
burning to a crisp in the sun?
Bucky Barnes: yeah. vacation to death. it’s the second way I want to go
what’s the first?
Bucky Barnes: death by chocolate.
how much chocolate does that require?
Bucky Barnes: so. much chocolate.
ok, I’m going to keep that filed away in case I ever have to take you out
Bucky Barnes: I appreciate that. now, listen
I’m listening .
Bucky Barnes: you know how you haven’t watched a single movie that wasn’t created 4500 years ago, when you were born?
Steve rolls his eyes.
you’re really selling this to me.
Bucky Barnes: it’s fine. I just think you need some education. let’s watch a movie
This actually surprises Steve. He and Bucky have been messaging almost constantly since Bucky first texted him. It hadn’t really started out slow or gone too much too fast. They had just started talking and somehow forgotten to stopped. More often than not now, when his simpad or portasim go off, there’s a surprisingly good chance it isn’t Natasha, Clint, or Sam. Sam’s been with him once or twice when his phone’s gone off and the smile Steve couldn’t quite hide had earned him a knowing glance from his annoyingly intuitive best friend. Luckily, Sam is smart enough not to pry. Steve, who is trying his hardest to ignore how much he looks forward to talking to Bucky, appreciates it.
His only real saving grace is that neither of them have tried to meet outside of refueling. Steve’s not sure of Bucky’s reasons, but he has his own. The thought of sitting next to Bucky in a theater makes his hand twitch, as though he doesn’t already need to convince himself not to trace the back of Bucky’s wrist.
what were you thinking? he texts, despite himself.
Bucky Barnes: there’s a movie about extraterrestrial superheros that came out last year. I can send you the file. we can watch it at the same time.
Steve blinks at the message. Oh. He ignores the way something in his chest slips in disappointment.
how trustworthy is your taste?
Bucky waits a minute, but then texts back.
Bucky Barnes: you can trust me, Stevie. :)
Steve tries to swallow the giddiness that blossoms out of nowhere.
I know. He types and then deletes. Instead, he sends,
I guess we’ll find out. :)
This is better, he thinks and puts away his portasim. Safer.
Because when he gets back home, it’s there again. The same white, embossed envelope that slides through to his caged mail tray in a flash of blue.
Steve stops at the door and dumps his gym bag onto the floor. He knows what it is, of course. They’ve been sending him a letter every single day now. Sometimes he opens them and sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes he feels numb with the weight of knowledge and other times he’s so tired he lets them collect in the cage. One time, he’s so angry he breaks the cage itself. It doesn’t stop the letters from coming, so he fixes it and stares at it at the same time every day.
3:05 pm, a familiar beep, a familiar whoosh. A familiar white envelope.
So he opens the cage today, for his daily warning. He’s neither numb nor tired today, he just is, which is just as well. He slides a nail through the envelope and opens it.
Inside, the same smooth, white paper with the Deactivation Commission seal in the corner, and a letter that is less a letter and more a three lined warning.
ATTN, STEVEN GRANT ROGERS:
OUR RECORDS INDICATE YOU ARE STILL ACTIVE. AS NOTED, YOU MUST DECOMMISSION BEFORE THE STATED DEADLINE: THREE MONTHS FROM RECEIPT OF THIS LETTER. PLEASE TAKE ACTION IMMEDIATELY OR AS SOON AS POSSIBLE OR YOU MAY BE SUBJECT TO FORCIBLE ACTION.
ALL THE BEST,
THE GOVERNMENTAL DEACTIVATION COMMISSION
It’s not a punch to the gut it was even a month ago. It’s the specter of the inevitable and there’s something morbidly comforting about that.
But that doesn’t change the fact that he wants to better get to know this person he’s just met. It doesn’t change the fact that for the first time in years, he finds himself wanting to be a better person or to, at least, know a better person.
It doesn’t change the fact that as wonderful as Bucky is and much as he makes him smile, and as much as Steve can’t help but stop and slow down around him, there can never be anything there.
Because in three months, Steve has to DeCommission, and it would be a cruelty to both of them to pursue something that will only end in his death. Bucky deserves better than that.
He exhales shakily and crumples the envelope in his fist. He throws it in the trash.
Then he goes to watch a movie on his couch with a friend.
[ the docks, mars sector, earth 2.0 ]
Unlike the more commercial or residential sectors, Mars is pure industry. It’s a single industry—the industry of transportation, but it’s an industry all the same. The docking ports are large magnetic and electric landing strips that stretch along the length of the water in large enough intervals that ships of different sizes are able to comfortably breach the atmosphere and land without risking collision. There are both governmental and private outposts near the docks that process papers and grant entry to personal and commercial space travelers alike. What this really means is that there are always enough people crawling around the docks that any even tangentially related business keeps within a walking distance of the water.
It also means that Bucky can never seem to get to work without running into someone with his hand up a hooker’s skirt or down a hooker’s trousers. More than once, running on the thin line between fashionably and aggressively late, Bucky’s tried to cross through an alleyway only to find someone on his knees with someone else’s dick down his throat.
Which is all fine and well, it’s not like Bucky’s about to call TerraPol on a legitimate business enterprise, except that Venus is literally a two minute sonicrail ride away and Bucky feels most parties would enjoy the amenities of the redlight district better than gravel digging into their knees.
He’s also no stranger to someone trying to force themselves on a hooker and that he absolutely will not stand for, especially since it seems too coincidental that almost all cases he’s had to get involved in has involved an Alt or Android sex worker.
This morning he’s already running particularly late because he and Steve had gotten into a movie marathon and he had finally fallen asleep around 4 in the morning. Android-enhanced abilities aside, he’s no longer a spry 50 year old. An Android needs sleep.
So he’s already that uncomfortable mixture of dead tired and running almost purely on the adrenaline of needing to be to work before his boss goes off on him again and in a consequently terrible mood when he hears the struggle.
He knows what it is before he sees it because he’s not green and he’s already broken two noses in the past month.
“Third one’s the charm,” he mutters under his breath as he veers sharply toward the alley where a young boy’s voice is raised.
Bucky barely registers the asshole manhandling the kid before he has his hand closed around his throat and lifts him into the air. The man is big, but not big enough to pose any sort of threat against Bucky’s Force training and robotic arm. Bucky grunts at the kid to run, which the kid does after pulling his pants back up.
“If I ever see your sorry, assaulting ass around here again, I will personally see you strapped to a fucking aircraft and blown into space.” Bucky bears his teeth and leans into the man’s face. The man’s eyes are large and panicked and Bucky adds a little pressure on his throat for added emphasis. “Do I seem like I’m joking?”
The man can’t answer of course, but his eyes flicker larger. Bucky grunts and throws him into the trash in a heap.
“Get the fuck out of here,” he spits and the man flees as though he’s on fire.
Bucky’s flexing his fingers and rolling his wrist when his simwatch chirps loudly. Against his will, his boss’s face gets cast into the air above the glass watch face.
“Say,” his boss says, blinking at him. “Question for you.”
Bucky tries not to flinch.
“Now I’m just spitballing here, tell me if I’m wrong, really, but I could have sworn my employee had a start time.” His boss strokes his goatee as though he’s contemplating.
“I can explain—” Bucky starts.
“No no, I mean I could definitely be wrong. I mean what do I know, I only employ you and pay you and rely on you and wrote your contract and—”
“I don’t have a contract, Tony,” Bucky says. He steps over an overturned trash can and hops out of the alley.
“I think—wait, you what?” Tony does blink in genuine confusion this time. “Of course you have a contract. I gave you a contract. We both signed a contract.”
“No, Tony,” Bucky says. “You gave me a form that said in exchange for periodically messing with my arm, I wouldn’t sue you.”
“That’s what that was?” Tony asks. His holographic face floats above Bucky’s watch as Bucky makes his way across the docks. “Why haven’t I been periodically messing with your arm, then?”
“Because you have the attention span of a goldfish and it was in my best interests to never remind you,” Bucky says.
“And you haven’t sued me?”
“Not to the best of my knowledge,” Bucky says.
“I need to think about this,” Tony says. His hologram eyes Bucky’s arm.
“Weren’t you about to fire me?” Bucky deflects his crazy boss’s wandering gaze from his prize.
“No?” Tony asks. “Wait, was I? Wait, whose nose did you break this time?”
“No one, luckily,” Bucky says. He waves across to one of the private border processors he knows, a sharp and slightly chaotic black woman named Valkyrie who Bucky occasionally goes to gay bars with. Next to Val is the largest blond man Bucky has ever seen. The blond man smiles at him too and Bucky raises an eyebrow and turns away.
“So you’re telling me I’ve been servicing aircrafts for an hour by myself and no one’s nose got broken?” Tony asks.
“Aren’t you supposed to be encouraging me from committing criminal offenses?” Bucky asks.
He sees the familiar, scooped out hangar with the shiny, bright red, metallic sign affixed to a post that reads The Iron Man. It’s a ridiculous name for a surprisingly successful spacecraft repair shop and, incidentally, everyone at the docks does seem to know and call Tony “Iron Man” instead of, you know, his real name.
“I don’t like to do what they expect me to do,” Tony says.
“Like follow the law?” Bucky asks.
“The law is subjective, it’s man-made to begin with, rarely based in science, and fallible in the way that man is, having inherited all of man’s flaw and--I don’t have time to be giving you a history lesson. If your angsty little ass isn’t here in the next two minutes--”
Bucky snorts and abruptly cuts off the transmission. God, but Tony is the most annoying person Bucky has ever had the misfortune of meeting. He has a good heart, probably, and he had given Bucky a job even when Bucky had been at his most fucked up and vulnerable and, sure, he had actually messed with Bucky’s arm once and turned it into the hyper-functioning piece of technological art that it currently was, but he talks entirely too much and his anxiety gives Bucky’s anxiety more anxiety.
“--your ass,” Tony says as Bucky walks past two aircrafts in queue to find him finishing his message.
“I hung up on you a minute ago,” Bucky says. “Do you just watch yourself talk and forget to see if anyone’s listening?”
“I don’t have to answer that,” Tony says. He swivels around in his favorite chair. He has on one of his monoculars, which makes him look half-Android although, surprisingly, he is entirely human.
“You’re not even working on the queue,” Bucky says. He goes to his locker to hang up his jacket. “Why are you complaining again?”
“I don’t have to work on the queue,” Tony answers immediately. “I hired you to work on the queue. Which is why we have a queue, because you haven’t been here, to the place of your work, to do your work, which is working, on the queue.”
“How much coffee have you had today?” Bucky asks. It’s barely 9 in the morning, so by Bucky’s estimation, Tony probably hasn’t slept in 72 hours and is on at least his 15th cup of coffee.
Tony’s eye twitches. “I don’t have to answer that either.”
Bucky snorts. He shoves the rest of his shit into the locker and takes out his portasim. There’s a message from Steve that’s flashing there. He must have texted while Bucky was threatening the man in the alley.
I’ve already had so much coffee this morning that America’s threatening to send me home. Remind me never to say yes to any of your ideas again.
Bucky can’t help but grin at that. He types out an emoticon, which is a little yellow face blowing a heart kiss, hits send, and pockets the portasim.
He’s just brushing his ear chip on when he sees Tony’s overeager face in his line of vision. He immediately groans because he knows exactly what Tony’s going to say before the words leave his mouth.
“Late night, Barnes?”
“Sorry,” Bucky says and gestures at his ear. “Can’t hear you.”
“I know the drivel you listen to that you consider music and trust me, you’re better off listening to me,” Tony says. “Who is she? He? Did you get laid? Is that why you’re late? Why are you smiling? When did you meet? How did you meet? How long have you been seeing them? When can I meet her? Him? Them?”
Bucky ignores Tony and turns the music up in his ear.
“You can’t ignore your boss!” Tony says loudly. “I deserve information!”
Bucky just gives him a grin and a thumbs up and disappears under the first spacecraft in the queue to check under the hood.
When Bucky was first released from the Force, he was a complete mess. He had blood loss, trauma; he was severely malnourished, had spent a war watching his buddies die. His arm had been blown to pieces. He woke up in the middle of the night screaming —every night. It didn’t help that his body was being programmed out of being human and being chipped into being an Android. They replaced parts of his flesh body with cylinders and cybertronic wires and chipped him so deeply that when he woke up from his coma, he thought he was going insane. Colors were brighter. Sounds were louder. His trauma seemed unbearably, acutely, unshakeably heightened.
It had been a rough few months.
In truth, it had been a rough decade.
Bucky had left a human and had come back something else. He had to relearn how to exist. He had to learn how to live without Becca. He hadn’t done either particularly well.
He had coped in the usual ways—too much booze, self-destructive habits, isolation, going home with strangers and not coming back for days at a time. His parents had saved their child only to see him spiral into a deep sea of self-loathing.
Tony had pulled him out of a literal trash can.
He had taken one good look at him—drunk, homeless by his own design, miserable, hurting, stinking to high heaven of liquor, with a first generation robotic arm that kept sparking at the shoulder joint—and dragged him from the garbage and into his garage.
That had been almost forty years ago, now.
Bucky has never had an inclination to leave The Iron Man since. Or Tony. Even though he talks so fucking much.
And the fact is he’s a damned good mechanic and the work is challenging and hot and laborious enough that when he finally takes the rail back to Neptune, he’s so exhausted that all he really has the energy for is to scarf down whatever dinner his mother’s made and crash into the same bed he’s had since childhood.
He’ll never admit this to Tony’s face, but he had saved Bucky that day he had pulled him to his feet, looked at him and declared that he was too good looking to be this big of an idiot. And, in a way, Tony and the garage have been saving him ever since.
And because of this, because they’ve known each other for nearly forty years and because Tony has seen Bucky in nearly every state he’s been in, the fact that something has recently changed doesn’t escape him either.
“What gives?” Tony asks, a few hours later.
Bucky’s come out from under the hood of the aircraft. His hair is tied up, he has grease smeared across his forehead and his jaw, and he’s sweating enough that he’s stripped out of his flannel shirt and is now in jeans and a dirty tank. His metal arm gleams under the overhead lights of the garage.
Bucky raises an eyebrow and grabs his now lukewarm bottle of electrowater. He unscrews the cap and dumps half of it into his mouth.
“What are you talking about, Tony?” he asks.
“You,” Tony says.
He still has his monocular on because while Bucky’s doing hard labor on temporarily grounded spacecrafts, Tony’s at his bench, tinkering. This is almost the entirety of Tony’s essence on any given day—some contraption strapped to his body and some futuristic piece of technology that not even StarkTech has developed yet, just laying out on a bench in front of him. Bucky’s wondered on more than one occasion why Tony hasn’t been snatched up by StarkCorps, but he’s never cared enough to pry. Why look a gift horse in the mouth and have it skitter off? Anyway, give Tony half a breath and he’ll start railing about StarkCorps and that’s an ethics lecture that Bucky is too old to sit through for the three thousandth time.
“What about me?” Bucky asks.
Tony looks at him in annoyance and throws him a towel that’s sitting next to him.
“Wipe your face, you look like some kind of oddly specific sex dream,” Tony grumbles. Bucky snorts, but does as he’s told. “Do you really not know?”
Bucky raises an eyebrow again.
“Do I ask questions I know the answer to?”
“Who know what’s happening up in that annoyingly handsome head of yours? When I met you, you thought the president was an alien and tried to drink an entire canister of aircraft sludge,” Tony says.
“That was forty years ago, Tony,” Bucky says. He’s amused despite himself. He drinks more water. Tony can never know. “And you kept your sludge in empty bottles of Grey Goose.”
“It was thick and black! Semantics!” Tony splutters. “You’ve been whistling all day!”
That does make Bucky stop and slow blink. He’s been listening to his music so loud he hasn’t registered anything else he might have been unconsciously doing.
“You know what whistling while you work is a universal sign of?” Tony asks.
“An evil witch with a poison apple nearby?” Bucky offers.
“No, asshole!” Tony stops and considers. “Well okay, that too. No, in this case it means someone—that’s you, Whistler—is happy. Or distracted. Or both. What happened? Did you get laid?”
“Nothing happened, Tony,” Bucky says with an eye roll.
“Something happened,” Tony squints. “You’re different. You’ve only talked back to me like five times today. Your shoulders are more relaxed. You’re whistling. You’re twice as slow and you keep checking your portasim.”
“I can stop,” Bucky shrugs.
“What?” Tony blinks. “Oh, no, I don’t care about that. I want to know who has my surly robot friend all bright-eyed and optimistic.”
“I eat optimism for breakfast,” Bucky says and turns back to his queue.
“No!” Tony insists. “Tell me!”
“No,” Bucky smiles at him as his portasim buzzes in his pocket. He turns his music back on loud.
He disappears under another aircraft for some time. His portasim buzzes from time to time and he pauses to smile and answer a text.
Steve Rogers: I fell asleep on the lab bench
haha. I told you to go to sleep after the first movie!
Steve Rogers: you challenged me. you offered me an explicit challenge
I literally just said ‘you’re probably too tired for another.’
Steve Rogers: tell me how that’s not a challenge
yr a madman, Rogers
Steve Rogers: a madman who fell asleep at work and woke up to devil horns drawn on my forehead!!
Bucky knows all of Steve’s team by now, if not personally, then anecdotally. He could mention any number of facts about any of them and if that isn’t creepy, he doesn’t know what is.
Steve Rogers: no one would confess, so I fired all of them
that sounds reasonable
Steve Rogers: I am very reasonable
It slows his work down, but Tony actually doesn’t care and Bucky doesn’t mind. He’s thorough and responsible and good at his job, so there’s no chance of him leaving before his work is complete. He usually works like an actual robot anyway, so it’s a nice, almost human break for him.
Steve Rogers: I give up. I told the team we’re replacing rooftops with sheets of fried potato
I thought you fired them. how’d they take it? and when’s the last time you ate?
Steve Rogers: you think they listened? they said I was delirious, but also they agreed so I’m not sure how to take that. coffee counts as eating, right?
not unless you’re chewing it
Steve Rogers: you don’t chew soup and that’s considered a food
sometimes you chew soup. well, parts of it. how much coffee, Rogers?
Steve Rogers: I don’t answer to you
Steve Rogers: you’re not the boss of me!
right, ok. hold on, I have to text Wilson something
Steve Rogers: okay okay okay, let’s not do anything we’re going to regret
it’ll just take a second. I’m almost done
Steve Rogers: OK I’ll eat something! put that goddamned sim down, James Buchanan Barnes.
Bucky almost laughs out loud at that. As it is, he catches himself at the last moment and lets out a single chuckle instead. He can’t help but grin as he sends Steve another kissy emoticon and pockets his portasim.
It’s really no surprise when he looks up and sees Tony’s face glinting dangerously at him.
“Tell me!” he all but screeches. “Or you’re—you’re fired!”
Bucky smiles in feigned confusion, points to his ears as though his chips are still playing music, and disappears back around the aircraft.
It’s near the end of the day and Tony still hasn’t given up his pursuit of knowledge and Bucky still hasn’t given him more than a mysterious smile and the middle finger. He’s taken to guarding all of his messaging devices because he doesn’t trust his boss not to just take one and hack through his password to read his messages. Which, to be clear, he’s pretty sure Tony’s tried to do anyway.
He finishes his work and is about to call it a day when he sees someone approach the hangar. Bucky takes a quick look around, but Tony’s disappeared for the moment, so he sighs, rolls a shoulder, and ducks out from behind the ship.
“Hey,” he says. “Can I help you?”
The person turns out to be a woman. She has dark hair that’s pulled up in a bun, arms crossed at her chest, a perfectly tailored leather jacket stretched across her shoulders, and the perfect winged eyeliner. She’s wearing heeled boots that are at least six inches. The look on her face half says she has a question and half says she’s going to kill the first person who tries to talk to her. If Bucky wasn’t currently having feelings, he’d already be in love with her.
“Depends,” the woman says. “Can you keep a secret?”
Bucky raises an eyebrow and crosses his own arms at his chest. His very silver and very robotic arm flashes itself at her.
“Not in the business of secrets, lady,” Bucky says. “Sorry. If you got a ship for us though--”
“I do,” the woman says. “It’s a ship and a secret.”
Bucky watches her carefully and then nods.
“I can do that,” he says. “You running from TerraPol or Force?”
“Tell you what,” the woman says. She nods her head to the side and Bucky follows the movement. There’s an unmarked, white spacejet that the same blond man from earlier is driving in. Even from a brief, cursory scan of the craft, Bucky can tell it has, at a minimum, extreme physical damage on its right side and, probably, engine and software damage too. He frowns.
“You don’t ask any questions and I pay you double your rate,” the woman says.
Which isn’t ideal, mostly because it sounds like Bucky’s going to get caught up in some cross-sector drug deal gone bad, but who is he to say no to good money? He’s just a mechanic, after all. He shrugs.
“Deal,” Bucky says. He extends his metal hand. “Barnes.”
The woman smiles, pleased, and extends her hand to him.
“Hill,” she says. “I need you to fix this ship. And I need you to do it without letting another soul know.”
[ refueling station #1918, jupiter sector, earth 2.0 ]
The thing is, almost dying in the Force got Bucky real fucked up in the head. His spiral was only half of it; he had come back from Taurus missing an arm, up half a body of circuitry, with a head stuffed full of nightmares he couldn’t quite shake. He would wake up screaming any time he fell into anything longer than a shallow non-REM sleep, which meant he spent a good two decades after being discharged perennially sleep-deprived. In retrospect, he supposes the alcoholism hadn’t helped, but in retrospect, there was nothing else to fucking do.
His parents made him meet with dozens of certified therapists. None of them could handle his complicated combination of acute anxiety, surliness, aggressive PTSD, and, frankly, lack of will to live. None of them had ever handled a former human who had been brought back from the brink of death by robotics either, and he supposes the two might not have been unrelated.
That had been until he had stumbled into the Station one day to refuel and Sam Wilson had taken one good look at him and gone, “Man, you are more fucked up than my best friend. And he’s been an Android longer than human existence.”
Bucky can’t say now whether it was the way Sam treated him, like he wasn’t just a normal human but also wasn’t some alien creature, or the knowledge that Sam knew someone like him, but something inside him clicked open that day. It was similar to when Tony had dragged him out of the trash can. Sam offered him a hand and Bucky took it.
He’s been taking it ever since.
His sessions with Sam used to be at least once a week—twice a week when he was going out of his goddamn mind—and it’s a testament to Sam’s skill that Bucky is well enough to only see him twice a month now. The day Sam had suggested it—that Bucky could function without having his therapist on call multiple times a week, Bucky had nearly cried from relief.
He gets to the Station a little later in the morning than he usually does, because he has a Session with Sam. He gives Sharon a nod and a smile as he crosses through the Beehive toward Sam’s office.
“Hey,” she says. “No boy toy today?”
Now Bucky is over 200 pounds of terrifying muscle, metal arm, and general internal circuitry, but he has a difficult time not ducking his head and coloring. How obvious has his crush been that even the nurses can tell?
“I don’t have a—one of those,” Bucky manages.
“Uh huh,” comes Sharon’s dry reply. “He comes in here on his deathbed 10 months out of the year and suddenly he’s here bright and early once a month on the dot and I’m supposed to believe—what, exactly?”
“A late developed sense of self care?” Bucky offers and Sharon laughs.
“How long have you known him now?” Sharon asks with no little amusement.
“A few months,” Bucky says.
“And in that time, how has his sense of self care struck you?”
“What self care?” Bucky automatically replies and Sharon laughs again. She pats his shoulder on the way to the main port room.
“Welcome to Steve Rogers,” she says as she disappears through the doors.
Bucky looks after her, bemused, and then let’s himself into Sam’s office.
Sam’s office isn’t large, but it isn’t small either. It’s a clean hexagon unto itself, with a large desk with neat stacks of papers and pens held in a cup with a falcon on it. There’s a porcelain elephant next to it because Sam’s a fucking nerd and collects porcelain elephants for no reason he’s willing to offer other than a raised eyebrow accompanied by a “Cause I want to, Barnes.”
There’s a chair at the desk for Sam and a comfortable yellow chair on the other side in case his patient doesn’t want to sit on the couch. The couch is light blue and plush and should clash with the yellow, but somehow doesn’t. Everything in Sam’s office is curated to be soothing and somehow—Bucky hasn’t figured out how yet—it is exactly that, without being too contrived.
Bucky used to sit in the yellow chair because he needed something stiff to keep himself held together, but these days he’s migrated toward the couch. He considers this character development too.
Bucky sits his ass down on the couch and takes out his portasim to check for messages while he waits.
The last message he has on his phone is from him to Steve.
gonna refuel today. arm started shrieking at me on the rail yesterday and made some kid cry.
He should have at least three texts from Steve laughing at him and one complaining that he’s ruining his reputation at the Station, but there’s nothing.
Bucky feels a twist of disappointment and the slight pressure of irrational anxiety in his chest, but he doesn’t have time to dwell because Sam opens the door just then.
“You know you can’t be here without me, right?” Sam asks, eyebrow raised. “There’s confidential files and shit.”
“You know I can’t read, Wilson,” Bucky says, deadpan, as he puts his portasim away.
“I swear you and Steve are gonna get me fired one day,” Sam mutters as he dumps his messenger bag on the chair. He’s in slacks and a nice button up.
“Who are you all dressed up for?” Bucky asks, raising an eyebrow.
“What, a man can’t dress nice when he’s on the job?” Sam thumbs open a panel that hides a closet built into the wall to the side of his desk. Inside is a row of white medical coats. He doesn’t usually wear his white coat during therapy sessions, but it’s required for his refueling shifts. All this means is that Sam’s on call for the ports and Bucky has to mind his hour very carefully.
“Not unless he’s angling for a date,” Bucky says. He tilts his head and gives Sam his best smile. “You anglin’ for a date, Wilson?”
Sam laughs and thumbs the panel closed. He ruffles through the papers on his desk to uncover a Starkpad.
“Yeah,” he says. “With Banner and the Board.”
That makes Bucky’s smile falter.
“They still thinking of shutting the Station down?” he asks quietly.
Sam gives a sharp, weary shake of his head as he takes his seat.
“It’s across all of the sectors,” he says. “They think they’re out of date, which is really a bullshit way of saying they’re phasing out Stations because they don’t think we need Androids anymore.”
“There are still Androids, though,” Bucky says uneasily. “We exist. What the fuck are they suggesting? Some kind of mass deactivation?”
“I don’t know,” Sam says. “It’s bullshit. I just--I can’t think about it anymore, my head hurts. How are you doing?”
Sam turns on the Starkpad and swipes to Bucky’s files. He shifts in his seat so that he’s sitting a little bit straighter and his voice flickers just so, a subtle and yet discernible change from Sam the Friend to Sam the Therapist.
“Okay,” Bucky says after taking a breath. “I’ve been okay.”
“You know I don’t accept that,” Sam says. “Break it down for me. What does okay mean for you?”
Bucky shifts uncomfortably on the couch. No matter how often he sees Sam, no matter how many years he’s been doing this, the first couple of minutes is always uncomfortable for him. He has to readjust his head, get past walls to trust someone and open up to them.
“I haven’t had any nightmares in a few weeks,” Bucky says. That’s a good place to start.
“That’s good,” Sam nods. “Have you been sleeping through the night?”
Bucky chews on his thumbnail. It’s a bad habit.
“Yeah,” he says. “Well, no. Well, sometimes.”
“Okay,” Sam says. “Why not consistently? What’s stopping you?”
“I think I’m anxious,” Bucky says after thinking about it. “Everything has been--going well. I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop.”
“That makes sense,” Sam says. He makes some kind of a note on the Starkpad. “It’s one thing to trust yourself, it’s another to trust good things will happen to you. Is that how you feel?”
“Kinda,” Bucky says. He tries to take a breath and gauge how he’s feeling. The thing is, things have been going well. He’s been enjoying his work more lately. He hasn’t fought with his parents in a while. He even visited Becca’s grave without having a full meltdown a few weeks ago. And, of course, there’s Steve.
Bucky can’t admit it to Sam, but talking to Steve has been the highlight of most of his days. It’s not just that Steve is dead attractive, although that doesn’t hurt. The thing is, Steve Rogers is fucking funny. He has a sharp wit and a terrible temper. He’s angry most of the time and grumpy the rest. Nearly everything he says is interesting and nearly everything he says makes Bucky laugh. He hasn’t laughed this easily in years. He catches himself, sometimes, laughing at something Steve has said and he has to stop and take a moment to look at himself and wonder who he is and what he’s done that he could deserve this--the easy smile, the natural laughter.
Steve makes Bucky feel light. He makes Bucky feel as though he’s not the only fucked up humanoid in this entire, godforsaken galaxy. When he talks to Steve, he forgets about his past traumas and all of the mistakes he has to atone for and is left only with this reality; that they are both here, somehow, alive, somehow, and have to make the best of it. They can only be angry so long as it takes for them to take a breath and release it.
Steve forces Bucky to take a breath and release it. He hasn’t had anyone force him to do that in a very, very long time.
“Tell me,” Sam says gently.
“I--” Bucky says and sighs. He slumps a little. “I guess I don’t think I deserve it. All of these good things, these chances I’m getting. I’m afraid the universe is gonna realize it made a mistake and take them from me.”
“Again,” Sam says.
“Again,” Bucky is forced to admit.
“What if it doesn’t?” Sam asks after a moment.
This causes Bucky to look up at him, slight confusion on his face.
“What?” he asks.
“What if it doesn’t?” Sam repeats. “What if the universe just lets you be, because you’re a good person who’s had bad things happen to him? What if the universe looks at you and says nah, this is good, and lets you have the good things?”
Bucky swallows. It’s too much of a good thing to think that way. He doesn’t deserve it, that much he knows, but the world also doesn’t want him to have it and that much he knows as well. It makes his stomach hurt a little, to think about the what ifs.
“Tell you what,” Sam says. “Think about the best thing you have going for you right now. The thing that’s making you happiest. You don’t have to tell me. Just think about it.”
Bucky thinks about unread messages on his portasim and nods.
“Accept it,” Sam says. “The other good things, let those be. Let the universe decide what it wants about that. But this thing, the one that you’re thinking of? Accept that it’s yours. Accept that you deserve it. Can you do that?”
Almost as though in answer to Sam, Bucky feels his pocket buzz. Immediately, or almost immediately, Bucky’s shoulder relaxes and he softens into a smile.
“Okay,” he says. “This thing. It’s okay for me to be happy about it.”
That actually makes Sam smile widely, warmly.
“Yeah, Bucky,” Sam says. “It’s very okay for you to be happy about it.”
Sam and him talk for the rest of the hour, but, as with all of their sessions, it almost goes by too fast. At the end, Sam gives Bucky a lollipop because Bucky made a quip about it like ten years ago and Sam’s an asshole. Bucky enjoys the lollipop, though.
He makes his way through the hexagon to the main port room. He walks through the glass doors, hoping to see a bright blond head connected to the middle dock. He hopes it so much that he almost physically manifests it into existence.
The disappointment when he finds it empty is almost like a punch to the stomach. His eyes do a circuit around the room, but there are no blond heads that he recognizes. Bucky takes out the portasim to check his messages. There’s only a single one, just a “Haha.”
His stomach twists again and he drops into his usual seat. For the next ten minutes, he watches the glass doors expectantly as they open and slide closed. One by one, Androids filter in and one by one, they fill Bucky with disappointment.
Finally, Scott Lang comes in and gestures at the dock next to him. Steve’s dock.
“Do you mind?” he asks.
Bucky has half a mind to say no, but in the end he just shakes his head.
“No,” he says. “No one’s connecting today.”
He must fall asleep because the next thing he knows he wakes up to someone grumbling next to him.
Bucky pries his eyes open and everything swims before him for a moment. Refueling makes everything so sharp and intense that it’s always disorienting to fall asleep in the middle and wake back up.
As it is, this particular disorientation preys on his subconscious because it materially manifests into a blond with annoyed blue eyes and a general scowl on his face. His head is backlit by the Station ceiling, which makes him look like he has a halo framing his face. It makes Bucky’s heart skip a single beat.
It would make sense that Bucky’s subconscious thinks Steve Rogers is an angel or some shit.
Then the blond hallucination moves.
“I can’t believe,” the hallucination says, “you let Scott Lang take my spot. I had to promise him my friendship to get my dock back.”
“Hallucinations can’t dock,” Bucky says with a yawn. “It’s rude.”
“Hallucination?” The hallucination says. “Are you still asleep?”
Bucky frowns lightly and the Steve dream reaches over and pinches his side. Hard.
“What the fuck!” Bucky jerks and the adrenaline is enough to kickstart his brain online. He blinks rapidly and stares at Steve. “You’re real! You little shit!”
Steve grins at him, too pleased with himself.
“You dreaming about me, Buck?” he says.
“Yeah,” Bucky grumbles. “I think I prefer that version of you. He’s significantly less of an asshole.”
This makes Steve laugh.
This is the only reason Bucky notices, really. Because although Steve seems perfectly all right on the surface, Bucky Barnes has Steve’s laugh memorized.
The thing is, Bucky Barnes had seen Steve Rogers a good while before Steve had seen him. He had heard enough about him from Sam that by the first time they overlapped during refueling, Bucky had recognized him just from the conversation he was having on the other side of the dock. Bucky hadn’t meant to eavesdrop, but Steve wasn’t exactly being quiet, going off the rails as he was at Sam about something Sam had no control over. It seemed like a pretty heavy critique of the government and the state of corporate-fueled hypercapitalism for 8 in the morning, truth be told. Bucky had half a mind to be annoyed at the disruption, but Sam let Steve rant uninterrupted and after the third or fourth loop about StarkCorps and the recreation and repetition of Earth 1.0’s capitalist traps, Steve’s voice had become a deep and soothing kind of background noise. Sam had aggressively rolled his eyes and eventually walked away. Bucky had leaned his head against his seat and listened better.
They overlapped more than once more. Usually they were on the opposite sides of the middle dock and Bucky could only be aware of Steve by his voice. Sometimes Bucky would be connected at an angle to him, just close enough to see floppy blond hair and muscles and two cyan-lit arm cylinders. Steve was not a subtle sort of person. He was broad, strong lines and a nervous kind of grace, as though he was actually much smaller than the body he was in and he somehow did not know what to do with the body he had. He was angry and grumpy and deeply annoying. He was magnetic, somehow, even from a distance. Sam and Sharon clearly adored him.
Even so, Bucky thinks that’s not what drew him to Steve. When he stops to think about it now, he thinks it was the anger that mesmerized him. Steve never wanted to be where he was and he was always indignant about something Bucky had either never heard of or never given thought to. Bucky, who had spent years hating only himself, found that to be arresting. To be able to spend that kind of energy fighting something other than himself had never occurred to him before, and that kind of passion, he found strangely comforting.
So it’s because of this, because he has spent weeks and months slowly being drawn to Steve, absorbing him like he would sunlight or charge of raw electricity, that he notices there’s something wrong just off.
“Hey,” Bucky says, questioningly.
“Hey,” Steve says. He smiles, but this too flickers.
Bucky thinks Steve’s eyes are sad. He thinks they’re the saddest eyes he’s ever seen.
Are you okay? is what Bucky wants to ask, but he doesn’t know that he’s earned that yet.
“You came,” Bucky says, instead. This, too, is a novelty for him. To ask something of someone, without really asking, and have that person listen, just for him. To Bucky, this is something special.
“Yeah,” Steve says, after a moment.
“You didn’t have to,” Bucky says.
“You asked me to,” Steve says. He sounds at once sure and uncertain, like maybe he thinks he wasn’t supposed to agree all.
“Yeah but—” Bucky says and offers his most genuine smile. “No one ever listens to me.”
Steve stares at him for a moment and Bucky thinks he’ll get a smile out of him. And he does, in a way, except somehow it makes Steve look even more devastated than he had before. Maybe it’s in the way it falls just short of his eyes.
“Steve,” Bucky says and Steve shakes his head and plasters something fake on his face.
“If I have to suffer,” he says, “I’d rather suffer with you.”
“Hey,” Bucky starts and then stops. “Yeah. Right back at you pal.”
Steve watches him for a second and then tips his head to the side so that it’s resting at the top of Bucky’s robotic shoulder. Everything in Bucky slows and stills.
“Can I rest here for a bit?” Steve asks and he sounds so tired it almost breaks Bucky’s heart.
He can only feel the slight pressure of Steve, but he can smell the clean scent of shampoo in his hair and that’s enough for him.
“Yeah, Stevie,” Bucky says. “Of course you can.”
Steve can’t actually curl up into Bucky while connected to his own dock, but Bucky gets the sense that he somehow is anyway. That suits Bucky just fine. He raises a hand to the back of Steve’s head and lightly drags his fingers through his hair. Steve tenses, only for a second, before sighing and letting out a breath that seems to take all of the tension out of his body.
He’s allowed to be happy about this, Bucky thinks. He’s allowed to accept this one good thing.
Steve falls asleep on him like that and when Bucky looks up, he sees Sam watching them carefully from the other side of the glass doors.
Bucky doesn’t know what expression he has on his face, but Sam looks at him as though he’s figured something out. It’s not a bad thing. After a moment, Sam nods at him and goes back down the hallway.
Bucky is left with an unsettled feeling in his stomach, as though something has been decided here that he hasn’t been made privy to. It’s out of his grasp, whatever it is. Steve frowns in his sleep and makes a little snuffling sound and Bucky has the fleeting thought that if he could protect him from whatever is bothering him, he would give his left arm again to do it.
[ café automata, pluto sector, earth 2.0 ]
Bucky gets off the sonicrail after a shift where everything goes wrong. He can’t figure out what’s wrong with the aircraft he’s supposed to be fixing, at least two customers try to start a fight with him, he breaks a replacement part that he then has to scour through the rest of the dock shops to replace, Tony’s in a pissy mood all fucking day, and he forgets to eat until he finally gives up and clocks out.
By the time he shuffles past the sliding doors to the café he’s tired and starving, with a budding migraine and a tolerance for other sentient beings that is dangerously lower than usual. He grunts as he slides into his usual booth near the back. Not only is the booth usually empty, but it gives him a good vantage point of the rest of café while keeping him far enough away from other people that the only person he really has to interact with is Natasha. And Wanda, since she hasn’t yet learned to be afraid of him.
“You look terrible,” a familiar, gravelly voice speaks to him from behind the counter.
“If I wanted compliments, I’d go home,” Bucky grunts at Natasha. Apparently glowering and grunting are the only two actions he can currently manage.
“Someone’s pissy,” Natasha remarks, and Bucky finds it hard pressed not to flip her off. The only reason he doesn’t is because he wants her caffeine and her food and anyway, she’d probably kill him with a look alone for his efforts.
His temper gets the better of him anyway.
“You mind doing your job instead of harassing me?”
Natasha raises an eyebrow at him.
“You want to try that again?” she asks.
“Sorry,” Bucky says, after taking a breath. “Coffee. And a sandwich. Please.”
Natasha doesn’t look particularly pleased with him, but he’s too grumpy to really do much damage control there. Instead, he closes his eyes and lays his forehead against the cool marble top of the table.
He’s dozing in his ire when he hears and feels a plate sliding across toward him. He lifts his head, vision a little blurry, and sees Natasha standing by him. Her arms are crossed at her chest and it’s entirely clear that she is less than impressed with his display of surliness.
“You talk to any of my employees like that and I’ll kick your ass out, Barnes,” she says.
“Sorry,” Bucky mumbles and this time he has the wherewithal to look a little sheepish.
“Eat your food,” Natasha says. “Wanda’s getting your usual.”
“Thank you,” Bucky says and he actually means it. He starts in on his grilled chicken sandwich and Natasha stares at him for a minute longer before turning on her heels and walking back to the counter.
Somewhere behind her, Wanda gives Bucky a questioning look. She has her hair tied up in a ponytail and she’s wearing a huge pin on her apron that says ANDROID RIGHTS ARE HUMAN RIGHTS. On the pin, there’s a cute little robot with hearts for hands next to a data chip in the middle of a white circle border. Wanda probably designed it herself. She’s always doing things like joining protests and designing banners and logos to show her loud and colorful support of social and political movements.
Natasha, who’s probably rightfully pissed at Bucky, ignores him for the next hour. In that time, Wanda brings him his triple shot mocha latte with extra sugar, because he has a bitch of a sweet tooth and he’s had a rough day. She brings him up to date about some guy she’s seeing, updates him on her crazyass brother’s latest crazyass stunts, and sits with Bucky as he eats his way through the grilled cheese sandwich, a bag of chips, two spinach and cheese pastries, and a chocolate croissant that’s so fucking good it nearly makes him go cross-eyed.
At that point, he’s finally full. Wanda leaves him to actually go do her job and Bucky is sitting there slurping his latte and feeling much more alive and much less murderous when Natasha finally deigns to forgive him.
“You come here, into my store,” she starts and Bucky gets ready to cringe, “and drink that abomination. Under this roof. That I pay for.”
Bucky blinks and has to hide a smile into his mug.
“Technically we pay you for it,” Bucky says. “The customers. We pay you and then you pay it, so we pay it.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t realize I invited a math prodigy into this establishment,” Natasha says.
Ironically, Bucky actually had been really fucking good at math when he was younger. And science. That was a long time ago now, though.
“That’s what they call me,” Bucky says. “Bucky Barnes, Math Whiz Kid.”
“Yeah,” Natasha says, looking over him. “I always got the sense you got beat up as a kid.”
“First of all, math is cool,” Bucky says. “And second of all, fuck you.”
That actually makes Natasha smile. She leans forward and plucks Bucky’s mug right out of his hand.
“Hey,” Bucky protests. “I was using that.”
“My café, my rules,” Natasha says as she takes a sip. The serenity of her expression is only slightly punctuated by a grimace that belies her horror at how fucking sweet the drink is. “Now tell me what that was about earlier.”
This time Bucky does actually cringe, but he follows it with a sigh.
“Sorry,” he says. “Shitty day.”
“You don’t come in here and take your shitty day out on me or my staff,” Natasha says. “You got that?”
“I know,” Bucky says. “I’m sorry.”
“Good,” Natasha says approvingly. “Now, tell me about your shitty day.”
Bucky met Natasha when he was coming out of his spiral of self-loathing and accompanied self-destruction. One of the first things Tony had said to him out of the garbage can was Kid, as the reigning prince of fucking everything to shit, let me offer you a piece of advice. It wasn’t advice, really. It was an address.
There was a veterans support group that met weekly at the basement of a synagogue that had a symbol on the front door—a data chip with a white circular border around it. Earth 2.0 wasn’t much for religion, but some of the heavy hitters managed to persist and had enough of a following that they could seemingly afford rent. Bucky had been drunk and miserable and skeptical, but he’d had nothing to lose at that point. So he had gone and he was still too deep in self-hatred to think it was anything more than bullshit.
The only other person in the back row with him—a blonde woman with a sharp haircut at her shoulders, full lips, and clad completely in leather, was leaning back in her seat, making unimpressed sounds.
Bucky had looked at her, leaned over, and said “Wanna get outta here?”
The woman had given him the most blistering look he had ever received and has ever received to date, and snorted.
“Drunk and desperate isn’t my type,” she said.
“Sharing feelings isn’t mine,” Bucky said, which kinda made no sense but sounded cool enough.
The woman had looked him over and then back to the front of the room. A man was sharing story of his trauma and the air was thick with emotion.
“Yeah, okay,” she had agreed.
They had left and gotten burgers and beers. The woman was Natasha, of course, about two hair colors ago. She was dry and sarcastic and kind of terrifying. She was ex-Special Ops, which made sense because unlike Bucky she was unassuming, but one look at her left no doubt that she could kill a man with her bare hands.
“Have you been there before?” Bucky asked.
“Yeah,” Natasha said. “I stay away from feelings, but it’s good to know other people have them.”
“Feelings are bullshit,” Bucky said and Natasha had snorted.
“I see we’re being the robot cliché,” Natasha said. Then she leaned forward in such a way that Bucky almost leaned away from her in his seat. “Listen, James—”
“Bucky,” Bucky said.
“I’m going to call you James,” Natasha ignored him. “You got out of a war that made no difference, came back without an arm, as a robot. I am aware that is difficult so I’m going to let this slide for this night and this night only. But if we’re going to be friends, I’m not going to tolerate your self-destruction or self-pity. It’s not productive and it’s not attractive. Everyone has shit they regret, everyone has shit they wish they could change. Not everyone has to be an asshole about it. Got it?”
Bucky had stared at her, this tiny woman he had just met, who was already yelling at him and who he was allowing to do so. Somehow, all that really registered was—
“We’re going to be friends?” Bucky asked.
“Dear god,” Natasha rolled her eyes. Then she slapped an actual, honest-to-God, old school, paper business card across the table to him. “I hope you like coffee.”
Café Automata, the business card read. Opening soon.
The thing about the café is that Bucky genuinely likes everyone who works there. Even Loki, who’s a certified Little Shit, actually, surprisingly, and remarkably, gets along with Bucky exceedingly well. Sometimes, Loki will meet Bucky at a bar after work and complain, sometimes about men, sometimes about the café, mostly about his idiot stepbrother. It makes Bucky feel normal, as though he’s someone worthy of having friends, or, at least, other people in his life who tolerate him. Bucky has had such difficulty becoming a functioning human, or Android, or whatever, that he’s never anything less than grateful for people who put up with his shit and serve him pastries at the exact same time.
He’s less grateful when they know him so well that they can pinpoint exactly what’s happening in his life.
“So who is he?” Natasha asks without ceremony.
With food, caffeine, and Natasha’s chastisement in him, Bucky is remarkably less asshole and more himself. This means that he only barely manages to not fall out of his seat at the question.
“What?” he says and eats half of an almond croissant in one very aggressive bite.
“I guess it could be a woman,” Natasha allows. “But you’re usually only dopey over guys.”
“I’m not dopey,” Bucky says, alarmed, despite himself.
“You’re--hold on,” Natasha says. She looks over her shoulder and scans her employees. Wanda is helping a customer and Loki is--reading at a table. How Loki retains employment at this establishment is a question Bucky has had for years. “Laufeyson! Get your useless ass over here!”
Loki looks up from his book and scowls immediately. He looks as though he’s considering disobeying his boss, but Natasha raises a single eyebrow and he puts his book down and slowly gathers his long and skinny limbs to slink over to them.
“Take your time, why don’t you?” Natasha says. Then she looks at Loki and back to Bucky. “Look at Barnes.”
“Loki, don’t--” Bucky starts, but Natasha shushes him.
“You have to listen to me, I’m your boss,” Natasha says. “Look at Barnes.”
Loki looks at Bucky, his own eyebrow raised, and Bucky is hard pressed not to appear as sheepish and embarrassed as he feels.
“Nat, please--” Bucky says.
“What does he look like?” Natasha asks.
“Excuse me?” Loki blinks.
“His face,” Natasha says. “If you were to use one word to describe his expression and his general demeanor lately, it would be…?”
“Idiotic,” Loki says immediately and Bucky scowls. “Distracted. What is that really ridiculous dwarf from Snow White?”
“Hey!” Bucky protests just as Natasha turns on him with a truly triumphant look on her face.
“Thank you,” Natasha says. “You are dismissed.”
“Do I get a raise for playing these ridiculous games?” Loki asks.
“Are you still employed despite playing ridiculous games when you should be working?” Natasha asks. She takes a very, very slow sip of her iced coffee.
“Excuse me, I think I hear a voice calling my name,” Loki says and quickly backs away.
Bucky watches him go, wishing he could go with him. Then he exhales and lets his head fall onto the table.
“Is it that bad?” Natasha asks.
“It’s bad,” Bucky says.
Natasha tilts her head just so and asks him a question without actually using any words.
“Because,” Bucky says into the tabletop. “I really like him.”
“Oh, boy,” is all Natasha says.
“And we’re, I don’t know,” Bucky says. “We’re just friends.”
“Uh huh,” Natasha says.
“If even that,” Bucky says. “I don’t know. We see each other when we refuel and we message, but he never suggests anything else.”
“Refuel,” Natasha says carefully. “He’s an Android too?”
“Yeah,” Bucky says. He sighs and closes his eyes. “There’s that too.”
Natasha doesn’t say anything directly to that, but he knows what she’s thinking. They’ve been friends long enough that she knows about his family and how weird they are about Androids.
“Tell me about him,” Natasha says after a moment, switching gears.
“He’s annoying. Opinionated,” Bucky says with a smile. “Angry all the time. Doesn’t take care of himself. I think he’s only recently stopped solving problems fist first. He’s honestly a complete mess. But he’s funny. He makes me laugh even when I don’t want to. And he’s so hot, it’s unbearable.”
“James,” Natasha says. Bucky doesn’t want to hear sympathy in her voice, but maybe that’s not what she’s offering at all. He swallows his angst and groans into the table.
“Oh, stop. You are so dramatic. What’s keeping you from starting something?”
Bucky pauses at that. Honestly, he’s not completely sure. Bucky has his issues and he hates his arm on the best of days, but he’s not completely unaware of what he looks like. He takes good care of his body and he knows, or has been told, that he’s objectively, moderately attractive. He doesn’t necessarily think that Steve would reject him because he’s an ogre.
“I don’t know,” Bucky says. “It’s good the way it is.”
“Are you doing that thing again?” Natasha squints at him. “What’s Wilson call it? Depriving yourself out of lack of self worth or whatever?”
“Don’t Wilson me,” Bucky groans. “It’s not that. I--he just seems like he has a lot going on.”
Bucky remembers Steve’s sad eyes and something settles heavily in his stomach. He picks his head back up.
“I think he’s keeping something from me,” Bucky says. “And who am I to pry?”
“Who are you to not?” Natasha asks. “Listen, you’re not asking for my advice--”
“Never stopped you before,” Bucky mutters.
Natasha pushes her toe into Bucky’s calf, almost painfully. He winces.
“But you’ve done this before. You make everything big in your head, deprive yourself because you don’t think people will put up with you or whatever the Issue Du Jour is and I’m here to tell you it’s all bullshit.” Natasha takes another sip of her coffee, imperiously. “It’s all bullshit excuses and you know I don’t tolerate bullshit excuses.”
“You’re a bullshit excuse,” Bucky says because he’s the very picture of maturity.
Natasha rolls her eyes and gets to her feet in one fluid motion.
“Ask him out,” Natasha says. “Go get laid. If it doesn’t work out, who cares? At least you get an orgasm out of it.”
“Nat!” Bucky says loudly. His face heats and Natasha cackles--actually, legitimately cackles in his face.
“If you’ll excuse me,” Natasha says as she backs away. “I have to go take care of customers who aren’t children.”
Bucky scowls after her, but he can’t help but wonder if she’s right. This thing he has with Steve--it could be a good thing, if they wanted it to be.
He could be good for me, Bucky thinks. And then, perhaps feeling a little empowered, I could be good for him too.
Bucky gets up from his table and shrugs his jacket on. Natasha and Wanda are busy fending off a new line of eager-eyed, coffee-deprived Android zombies who Bucky doesn’t know, but relates to on a painfully deep level.
He gives Natasha a nod before taking the sliding doors out.
Outside, the day is settling into those last gasp colors, darker streaks among softer ones as one sun sets and two moons rise. The trees are changing from greens to pinks, the smell of blossoms in the air. Bucky loves this season. It’s cold and warm and everything comforting at the same time.
He’s rummaging in his jacket for his portasim when he hears a familiar voice off to the side of the building.
“Oh, for norn’s sake!” the voice says. The exasperation is so clear and so familiar to Bucky that he almost thinks it’s directed at him. “How did you even manage that? Can you do nothing without my help?”
Bucky turns toward him, ready to say something, when he’s pulled up short.
Loki, Bucky recognizes. He has on his jacket and he’s leaning close to someone else, a look that can only be described as pure irritation, written clearly across his face. Behind Loki, or in front of him, is a broad, blond man.
Loki is stiff, body language coiled tight like a snake. The other man, indescribably beautiful, blond hair pulled back, shirt pulled tightly across a chest someone could break a tooth on, stands a head taller than Loki. He has a hand curved to Loki’s shoulder. Loki looks like he’s going to stab him.
“Please,” the other man says and his voice is both soft and pleading.
“No,” Loki says. “Forget it.”
“Come on,” the man says and he offers a smile. It’s tentative and encouraging, a completely cheap play that Loki could not possibly fall for. “I will pay you back. I know how you like it.”
Bucky genuinely thinks Loki is going to stab him. He wonders if he should step in. He almost does when, to his surprise, Loki’s stance softens.
“Fine,” he snaps. “But you owe me. You will be owing me for a very, very long time.”
“Mm,” the other man says and he’s grinning broadly now. “I am not opposed to this.”
Loki scoffs. Bucky can’t really believe his eyes, but he can almost see him giving in, falling for whatever charm this tall, broad, extremely handsome man made purely of muscle is using on him. Well, Bucky can’t really blame him.
“You are an absolute idiot,” Loki says. He curls his hand into the front of the man’s shirt. “I cannot stand you.”
“I am,” the man smiles. “An idiot. Of the worst kind.”
Loki sighs and softens further. “But you are my idiot, are you not?”
“Yes,” the other man murmurs and he ducks close. “I am ever yours.”
Loki makes a little pleased noise and leans up. The other man leans down and their mouths open and meet in the middle. The man snakes a stupidly large, obscenely muscled arm around Loki’s back and Bucky is left wondering, very very briefly, how he doesn’t just break him in half.
Loki puts a hand to the man’s chest and shoves him a little. The man laughs against his mouth and stumbles back. The two of them disappear around the side of the store.
Bucky’s left with nothing but the empty street and his portasim buzzing in his pocket. For the first time in weeks, his first instinct isn’t to check it immediately for what Steve (he assumes it’s Steve) is messaging. There was something there, between Loki and this man, that Bucky can’t place. Something that’s niggling at the back of his mind. He tries to grasp it, but it slides through his fingers just as soon as he’s hinted upon it.
It isn’t that Loki is seeing someone or that he has a lover. Honestly, Loki usually has a lover or two that he’s balancing. It isn’t even necessarily seeing this one tame him, soften him. The look in Loki’s eyes, Bucky was surprised by, but that isn’t what’s bothering him either. Loki is a certified Little Shit, but everyone is capable of love.
What it is eludes Bucky entirely. He exhales in frustration, turns and starts the walk back to the rail.
It’s ten minutes into his ride, as he’s hanging onto the overhead railing, being jostled by humans and Androids alike and staring at a woman in a leather jacket with brown hair that it hits him. It comes to him in one fell swoop and takes the breath out of him for some reason.
The large, mysterious blond man Loki is seeing. And the large, mysterious blond man he had seen at the docks with Hill. There are a lot of large, blond men in the world, but these two?
They had been one and the same.
We're halfway to the end here and yet still so much more to go. If you've been reading and commenting--thank you so much! :) If you like what you're reading, feel free to pass the fic along!
Chapter 5: [ recalling ]
This rather long chapter brought to you by a healthy dose of internal angst and some soft stucky before every single shit hits the fan.
[ neptune sector, earth 2.0 ]
Unlike Saturn, with its rundown streets and middling buildings, Neptune sector is where the affluent gather to be affluent and stay affluent. Where the other sectors are crowded with people and buildings, Neptune allows its residents to breathe. There are houses here, instead of apartment complexes, large, brick and glass houses with wrap around porches and driveways lined with rose bushes. They’re some facsimile of what the future thinks houses looked like in the past, except there’s something off about each of them, as though the architect of this neighborhood couldn’t quite decide how to reconcile old glamor with modern technology.
The Barnes family lives in one of these spacious, sprawling homes. Bucky had grown up in this home, as had Becca and Louise and Eleanor after him. It hadn’t seemed out of the ordinary to him at the time. He had been a child and known only what his parents had given to him. What his parents had given to him just happened to be quite a lot.
It didn’t really occur to him, this discrepancy between what he grew up with and what the reality of the world was, until he left for the Force. The Force didn’t discriminate by wealth. There were men and women from all sectors and walks of life and if Bucky hadn’t felt a difference before, he did then. He did after, too, after he came back, after he left his home, after he drunkenly slept his way through half of the sectors he never would have had to see otherwise.
Now when he comes home, it feels different. The grandeur, though not so indulgent as to be tacky, is still grandeur and it feels uncomfortable on his skin. Maybe it no longer feels right to him or maybe he simply no longer fits there anymore.
Bucky shrugs off his jacket and hangs it on a hook that quickly retracts into the closet immediately afterward. He can smell something in the kitchen so he takes off his boots and plods his way through the long hallway toward the back of the house. There are multiple rooms that shoot off to either side, each bigger than the last. The Barnes’s have a sitting room, two living rooms, a play room, an entertainment room, an entertaining room, and a room just for the dog. Bucky doesn’t see or hear Quincy, another honorary member of the Dead Presidents Club, so he assumes he must be in one of the girls rooms. Quincy adores Louise, but he had been Becca’s dog first. Bucky still can’t bring himself to look at him for too long.
“Ma,” he calls as he winds his way through the house. “You home?”
“No, James,” his mother’s voice comes from the kitchen. “All of this food is making itself.”
“We live in the future, Ma,” Bucky says as he approaches the doorway. “You know self-cooking food doesn’t even crack the top 10 things we’re gonna get this year.”
Winifred snorts. Bucky’s mother is a no-nonsense, stout Jewish woman with frizzy hair and slate grey eyes that Bucky inherited and made brighter. She’s stern and funny and Bucky can always tell her mood by what she’s cooking. Or rather, by what she’s not cooking. Winifred Barnes only ever bakes when she’s feeling particularly sad. Today, Bucky comes into the kitchen and sees fresh baked scones on the counter. His heart sinks a little.
“You made scones,” Bucky says, softly.
“A woman can’t make scones for her family?” Winifred asks. She stands at the counter and aggressively kneads more dough.
“A woman can,” Bucky says. “You can’t. What is it?”
“You are my son,” Winifred says. “You will eat what I make and you will be quiet about it.”
Bucky gets his emotional depth from Winifred. He also gets his stubbornness from her and his inability to not lash out when he’s particularly stressed. They’re more alike than they’re not. In the middle, his father is quiet and distant. Bucky gets his occasional intensity from him, and his hair.
“You told me I couldn’t be quiet anymore,” Bucky says. He comes up behind her and drops a kiss on the top of her head.
This makes his mother slow her kneading for just a moment. She closes her eyes and sighs.
“Tell me, Ma,” Bucky says. “Talk to me.”
Winifred sighs and when she speaks, her voice is a little watery.
“Quincy,” she says. “He got into her things, somehow. I think Eleanor left her door unlocked. I came in to find him chewing on her favorite doll.”
It goes through Bucky like a knife to his stomach. Decades later and he can still barely think about Becca without completely disassociating. His mother isn’t the same, but she isn’t particularly better. Sometimes, Bucky will catch her on Becca’s floor, clutching one of her dresses to her chest.
It’s difficult, losing a sister. It must be impossible, losing a child.
“You know she’d laugh about that,” Bucky says. “She wouldn’t care. She loved that dog.”
“I know,” Winifred says. “It’s silly, forming such an attachment to such a material thing. But--”
“But she’s gone,” Bucky says. His voice sounds quiet, almost hollow. “And we only have so much of her left.”
Winifred shifts slightly so she can look up at Bucky. She places a palm on his cheek, ignoring the flour and dough she gets on there.
“She loved you, James,” Winifred says. “She would be so happy that you’re still here.”
Bucky only manages to not cringe away from that. It’s a sweet sentiment in isolation. It’s what’s untold that smarts. They rarely talk about it, how he survived. Bucky goes to work, goes to refueling, goes to the cafė, and comes back. Never once do they address what he is or how he hit rock bottom to deal with it. Not once does his family look at his arm and ask him how it feels today.
Bucky’s family is kind and loving and sweet, but they’re old fashioned and conservative. They have an Android for a son and don’t know how to begin processing that information, so they don’t. They’re happy that he’s alive, but don’t acknowledge why that is the case. Bucky feels suffocated here, caught between his reality and truth and the careful, eggshell-thin façade his family maintains.
He talks and he doesn’t talk. He speaks and says nothing at all. He wishes his family would notice, but they rarely do, opting for a silent peace than no peace at all.
He watches his sisters tumble in through the door, Quincy at their heels. They laugh into each other’s shoulders and Louise smiles when she sees Bucky.
“Hey, old man,” she says. “Where have you been?”
There’s a lot Bucky could say as an answer. The Refueling Station. The docks. An Android cafė. The places his life really exists, the places and people he revolves around.
He imagines it for a moment, speaking it into existence.
I am a fucking robot and I do what robots do, he says aloud in this dream. Which is what you do, Louise, and what you do, Eleanor, and what you and Dad used to do, Winifred. I’m the same, but I’m different, and pretending otherwise won’t make this fucking arm go away.
He doesn’t, though, because he’s a coward.
Better to maintain a silent peace, than to have no peace at all.
“Around,” he says with a smile that doesn’t quite reach his eyes.
Louise doesn’t ask for more and neither does anyone else. No one ever asks Bucky for more and that, Bucky thinks, is why it’s getting harder and harder to breathe.
They eat dinner as a family a few hours later, after George comes home. He walks through the door, tired, grumbly, and arms full of gadgets that Winifred will throw out the minute she gets the chance. George was an engineer in StarkTech for almost five decades before making the switch to the managerial track. The transition had come with a significant pay raise, an understanding he would work obscene hours, and free toys whenever he wants. Incidentally, Bucky would not be half the fucking nerd he is without his father.
He dumps his armful of toys on the couch in the entertaining room, much to Winifred’s ire and Eleanor’s delight. Eleanor, like Bucky, takes after their father. Becca had too, so Bucky has a soft spot for his babiest sister, although she tends to be stuck to Louise and Louise and Bucky fight half the time they’re in the same vicinity as the other.
“You’re later than usual,” Winifred comments as they sit down. The table is set pristinely, which is actually Bucky’s handiwork because his sisters defy conventional gender norms by being outrageously useless around the house.
Bucky picks up his glass of wine and gives Eleanor a grin as she sneaks him an extra roll.
“Protestors again,” George grunts. “Disrupted rail service by blocking all the entrances.”
“What do they hope to accomplish by that?” Winifred frowns. She scoops salad onto her plate.
“They’re targeting all StarkCorps ports of entrance,” George says.
“They’re boycotting the company?” Louise asks with interest. Louise comes off just on the side of vapid and shallow, but she’s actually sharp as a tack. She’s been enrolled in doctoral level business and communications classes for the past few years. She’s going to make StarkCorps a fine mouthpiece one day.
“Is it the Android thing again?” Eleanor asks.
Next to his father, Bucky imperceptibly freezes. Of everyone in this family, Eleanor is most likely to be the one to throw unspoken social conventions to the wind. In this too, she’s like Becca.
“What Android thing?” Winifred asks, carefully.
Winifred is always careful on this subject. They all of them are, except Eleanor.
“They’re accusing StarkCorps of pushing out Androids and Alts,” his baby sister says through a mouthful of chicken. “It’s like, part of a larger plan or something.”
“That’s bullshit,” Louise says, just as Winifred snaps at them both—“Louise, language! Eleanor, stop talking with food in your mouth!”
Eleanor shoots Bucky a look across the table and he swallows a mouthful of wine bitterly.
“Why would they do that?” Louise asks. “It makes no sense for their bottom line. Androids built StarkCorps, there’s no way they’d push them out. This is some leftist propaganda.”
Bucky takes in a mouthful of wine. This is why he and Louise fight. Shit like this.
“Louise, don’t be naive,” Eleanor starts.
“It’s being naive to point out that what they’re crying about is completely inconsistent with logic?” Louise asks. Sometimes she’s straight up a condescending asshole, which neither Bucky nor Eleanor take well to.
“I don’t think bigotry cares about logic,” Eleanor snaps at her.
“Oh, so now they’re bigots?” Louise’s eyes flash. “Dad works there. Is he a bigot?”
“Are you kidding--” Eleanor starts and they’re about to turn on each other when George finally intervenes.
“I don’t care,” he says. “I don’t care what they’re angry about, but they should find a better time to protest. They keep disrupting everything.”
“Oh I’m sorry Androids fighting for their rights is such an inconvenience, dad. That must be so terrible for you,” someone says, loudly, almost bitterly. The room quiets and four pairs of eyes swivel onto Bucky.
Bucky blinks slowly, slightly confused and then realizes--oh. Oh, shit, he must have said it.
“Bucky,” Eleanor says, cautiously.
His family look at him uncertainly and Bucky only realizes then that he’s breathing erratically and the wine glass in his metal hand is cracking under the force of his grip. His arm is vibrating, plates shifting, red light blinking through the spaces in between.
“James,” George says, looking tense.
“Bucky,” Louise stares at him with a wary expression on her face.
“Sweetheart, put the glass down,” Winifred says in a voice that’s so soft that it’s almost pleading.
And suddenly, Bucky is blindingly, breathlessly angry. He can’t even get irritated over his family’s lightly bigoted and uncomfortably privileged world views without them tensing. He can’t breathe too heavily without them treating him like he’s glass or glower without them wincing, as though he is liable to lose all sense of control at the slightest provocation. Bucky has to sit here and listen to them argue about and reject something that he is and pretend that he feels perfectly bland about all of it.
“Not hungry,” he grunts and gets up from the table.
His family watch him, still tense.
“James, please,” Winifred tries, but Bucky can’t be in here with them for a moment longer.
“I’ll see you later,” he says and manages not to kick his chair on the way out. Maybe.
Bucky doesn’t think before he dials Steve’s code. He clomps his way up the stairs and down the hallway to the room at the very end. Bucky’s had the exact same room since he was a child and it’s never felt more suffocating than it does now. He slams the door shut behind him because the extra friction and loud noise makes him feel better.
It takes only a moment before Steve picks up on the other end.
“Buck?” Steve answers.
“Hey,” Bucky says. He kicks his chair and it goes spinning on its axis.
“Hey,” Steve says.
Bucky is so pissed--he’s so angry that for a moment he doesn’t even know what to say. He exhales loudly and crouches down to his knees, hand covering his face.
“Bucky,” Steve says. He sounds out of breath on the other end for some reason. “Is everything okay?”
Bucky shakes his head and then realizes Steve can’t see him.
“Are you out?”
“Yeah,” Steve says and Bucky immediately feels like shit. “No, hold on. Give me a sec.”
Like Bucky has anything else to give. He doesn’t say anything and just hears some murmuring in the background. He immediately thinks about what Steve might have been doing and with whom and his stomach churns.
“Hey, yeah, sorry about that,” Steve says. He’s still out of breath.
“No,” Bucky says suddenly and straightens. “I shouldn’t have called. I’m sorry, I interrupted--”
“Slow down, Barnes,” Steve says. “I was just at the gym. I welcome the interruption.”
“Oh,” Bucky says, swallowing. That makes the churning abate, somewhat. “I’m sorry.”
“Stop apologizing,” Steve says firmly. “Talk to me.”
“It’s--” Bucky starts and then stops. He doesn’t know what to say. He feels trapped and suffocated and he should find some healthier way to cope with it that doesn’t involve dragging Steve into whatever dark mental space he ends up in.
“Okay,” Steve says. “Tell me how you feel. Just your feelings.”
“Angry,” Bucky spits out. “I can’t think. I’m so fucking pissed and I can’t stop shaking. I feel like I’m going to break something.”
“Okay,” Steve says. Bucky can almost see him nodding at the other end. “Do you have a roof?”
“Yeah,” Bucky says.
“Go onto the roof.”
“What?” Bucky blinks.
“The roof, Barnes,” Steve says. “Give me like ten minutes and I’ll call you back.”
The portasim line goes dead and Bucky stares at its black glass face. He continues staring at it until he hears footsteps in the hallway. He doesn’t want to deal with anyone he’s related to right now, so he crosses his room, opens the window, and lifts himself out to scale the side of the house to the roof.
Ten minutes later, his portasim lights back up.
“Okay,” Steve says. “Lay on your back.”
“What the fuck, Rogers,” Bucky says, despite himself.
“You know what’d be great?” Steve snipes. “If you’d shut the hell up and listen to me.”
Bucky’s about to say something else, but then he just sighs. Most of the Barnes family roof is sloped, but there are a few ledges that smooth out into places he and Becca used to always sprawl during hot summer nights.
He takes a breath and lays down.
“Okay,” Bucky says. “What now?”
“Look up,” Steve says.
Bucky frowns, but looks up above him.
Spreading out across the inky black sky are pinpoints of bright lights--clusters of stars, swirls of galaxies, and the deep colors of planets that Bucky’s never been to, but has always dreamed about.
“Oh,” Bucky says with a quiet sigh.
“What’s your favorite?” Steve asks.
“Favorite what?” Bucky asks, dumbly.
“Planet, idiot,” Steve replies, at once amused and chastising. Steve Rogers isn’t made of patience, but he is made of compassion. His voice comes over the line, deep and soothing.
“Oh,” Bucky says and then, immediately, “Pisces.”
“The fish,” Steve says and Bucky can hear the smile there. “Why?”
“It’s a water planet,” Bucky says. “Guess I’ve always wondered how they survive there. Merpeople?”
“Are those real?” Steve asks.
“How else are people supposed to live underwater, Steve?” Bucky asks dryly.
Steve laughs lightly to that.
“Aren’t there textbooks about this?” he asks after a moment.
“Probably,” Bucky says. “I didn’t finish much of school.”
“I went to school in a toxic swamp,” Steve says. “Almost three hundred years ago.”
This somehow makes Bucky laugh. It helps ease the hot, tense knot in his chest.
“You’re so fucking old,” Bucky says.
“I know,” Steve replies. “Respect your goddamn elders.”
Bucky smiles and looks back up. He watches something light flit across the dark background. It could be a comet or it could be a space ship. That’s the thing Bucky loves most about space; it could really be anything.
“What’s your favorite?” Bucky asks Steve.
Steve takes his time answering.
“Leo,” he says.
“The lion,” Bucky laughs. “Can you be any more of a cliché?”
“Hey, what’s that supposed to mean!” Steve protests, but even he relents after a moment. “Yeah, okay. Because I’m always angry?”
“I want to say passionate,” Bucky says.
“But you’re not going to, huh?”
“Nope.” Bucky exhales and spreads his arms and legs around him.
“It’s supposed to be beautiful there,” Steve says. “Trees and rivers of every color you could imagine. People who are bright and happy too. Also I like that it’s named after a lion.”
Bucky laughs lightly.
“Ma and I--” Steve starts and then stops. Then he starts again, softer. “When I was young and angry. She’d take me outside and we’d lay down on the roof and watch the stars. You couldn’t see as much on Earth, but you could see enough to know how small we were.”
“Usually that gives people anxiety,” Bucky says.
“Does it?” Steve sounds thoughtful. “I’ve always found it comforting. There’s always something out there, something better. We were dying on Earth and I could look up at the stars and feel small, but significant. I could imagine there was something better than we were.”
Bucky’s quiet for a moment.
“Was there?” he asks. His unasked question of course is is this better?
“Yeah,” Steve says. “It’s not perfect, but it’s better.”
Bucky looks up at the clusters above him and imagines that--a place different than this. A place where he could be who he was and what he was without feeling guilty for it. A place where he was accepted and where Steve was accepted and everyone in between. A better place than this.
“You think we could find something better?” he whispers.
“Maybe,” Steve says. “Or maybe we could make something better here.”
Bucky turns his ear chip on and lets the portasim rest beside him. He feels, somehow, the frustration ebb from him, little by little, like a lake draining through slow drips of water. His anger is always like this, deep, almost bottomless. He has a reservoir of it and nightmares to make it brim over. He doesn’t know how to bear that burden and he’s spent seventy five years trying to find out how. He closes his eyes and presses a fist into them until the stars are behind his eyelids too.
Eventually, his shoulders drop away from its rigid hunch.
“How are you feeling?” Steve asks, after a while. His voice, quiet and calm, is nestled deep in Bucky’s ear.
“Better,” Bucky says.
“Do you want to tell me?” Steve asks.
If anyone would understand, it would be Steve.
“Tell me about when you turned,” he asks quietly.
“Oh,” Steve says.
He doesn’t say anything for a while after that, but Bucky is finally breathing properly. He doesn’t think Steve has forgotten and he doesn’t think Steve is angry at him for asking. Steve is deliberating and if Bucky was there, he would put his hands on his shoulders and help.
“I was sick,” Steve says finally. “Really sick. Like, one hundred pounds soaking wet, asthmatic, hearing impaired, colorblind, pneumonia-once-a-month sick. And we lived in a toxic swamp. Brooklyn. The air was thick, the water poison. Toxins everywhere you touched. A lotta kids were sick then, at least those that made it through childbirth. It was inevitable. But still, I was really sick.”
Bucky tries to imagine that, a small, coughing, pale, sickly Steve Rogers. The image doesn’t fit in his head. Steve is tall and broad and intense. He’s serious, but laughs easy. He looks like he could crush Bucky with the strength of his thighs.
“I hate that,” Bucky says.
“Me too,” Steve says softly. “Ma made the decision for me. I came too close to dying one time too many and she took me to the last turning facility in New York. I was too young to care about much other than feeling better.”
Something in Bucky clenches. A resonant grief that he can’t quite identify.
“Do you remember it?” Bucky asks.
“Bits of it,” Steve says. “I remember her taking me to the facility. I remember changing into a hospital gown. I remember her kissing my forehead and saying everything was going to be okay. And then I woke up and I felt like there were wires stuffing my head. Parts of my body had been replaced. The chips felt weird. First generation chips weren’t integrated like they are now. Mine kept short-circuiting and sparking.”
Steve sounds like he’s remembering and processing at the same time.
“I could see and hear better, but every once in a while I’d overheat and that was a different kind of pain.”
Bucky remembers waking up similarly. A metal prosthetic where his arm used to be. Chips behind his ears. He had gone to sleep in burning, incomprehensible pain and woke up feeling as though something had been removed from within. Something felt electric inside now, like every time he breathed something was sparking into clicks and whirs. He was alive, but it was the first time he felt anything less than fully human.
“How did people react?” Bucky asks quietly. “How did you?”
“Buck,” Steve says and then stops. His voice gets quieter. “You have to understand, I’ve always stood out, whether I wanted to or not. I was one of the last human children born on the first Earth. I was sick. I survived. I’ve never had the opportunity to be normal.”
Bucky doesn’t know how to feel about that. Mostly he wants to gather Steve in his arms and tell him that he’s okay.
“I’m sorry if that’s not helpful,” Steve says.
“I shouldn’t complain,” Bucky says, shaking his head. “I know my family loves me. I just—they look at me and hope it’s the person I was before. And I look at me and I see what I am now. I’m okay with that person, I guess, but he’s not the same as he was before. He’s not a person at all anymore.”
His voice is getting strangely tight, so he stops, takes a breath, and somehow barrels on.
“Or at least not entirely one. So I can’t be who they want me to be and I can’t be who I think I am. I don’t know who else is left over, after.”
“You get to decide who you want to be,” Steve says. His voice is protective, almost fierce. “It can be either of them, it can be both, or it can be somehow new altogether. What you went through--no one else went through that. So no one else can tell you that you aren’t allowed to be different, after all of that.”
Bucky shakes his head again. He tries to speak, but he can’t force anything out.
“You’re allowed to want that, Buck,” Steve says, after a minute of silence. He’s quiet himself. “You’re allowed to be angry.”
And is that what Bucky has needed to hear all along? Because Steve says that and suddenly something painful shifts inside him, like a puzzle piece slotting into the last spot. Steve gives him permission and Bucky closes a fist and presses it to his face in something close to anguish.
“It wasn’t my choice,” Bucky says aloud, for the first time. His breathing comes out shaky, his voice breaking slightly on the last syllable. “They made it for me without asking and pretend they didn’t.”
“God,” Steve breathes. “Buck.”
“I think I hate them,” Bucky says. His throat feels raw. “They took that from me and I think I have always hated them for it.”
“You’re allowed to,” Steve repeats. “You’re allowed to feel this way.”
“I’m tired, Steve,” Bucky says. “God, I’m so fucking tired.”
Steve’s voice comes low and sincere.
“I’m sorry, Bucky,” he says. “I’m so, so sorry.”
If Bucky turns his head, he can almost imagine that Steve is there with him. He closes his eyes and swallows his heartache and desperately wishes he was.
Eventually, he feels less like he’s drowning. Eventually, he’s able to speak without choking on his words.
Steve stays on the call with Bucky until the cool night air starts creeping over his skin. They exchange silences and conversations in turn, both comfortable and warming, like a favorite blanket he’s only just discovered. Steve tells Bucky about the first Earth. Bucky tells Steve about all of the mischief he and Becca used to get into together. They share stories about their first times, about their last times, about what they thought they would be when they were little and all of the failures that have derailed them along the way.
They laugh quietly, sharing confidences and whispering secrets to one other, while staring up at the same deep, night sky.
It’s the most at home Bucky has felt in his own skin in a very, very long time.
“You should go inside,” Steve says, sometime around 2 or 3 in the morning.
“Come inside with me,” Bucky says, sleepily. His anger had finally broken, sometime in the last hour or so and he had just gotten very, very sleepy. He hasn’t been really making sense for a while.
“Okay,” Steve says. “Take me inside with you.”
Bucky’s heart drums steadily against his veins. He sits up and the blood rushes to his head.
“Are you up?” he asks.
“Yeah,” Steve says after a moment.
Bucky grasps the edge of the roof ledge and lowers himself back over to scale the house into his room. He lands inside with a little oof like a cat.
“Are you inside?” Bucky asks.
“Yeah,” Steve says.
Bucky closes his window. Then he strips to his boxers, folds his clothes neatly into his closet, and crawls into bed.
“Are you in bed?” Bucky asks after a while.
Steve’s breathing in his ear slows.
“Yeah,” he says.
“Me too.” Bucky smiles and closes his eyes.
[ refueling station #1918, jupiter sector, earth 2.0 ]
Bucky has been avoiding his family for the better part of a week now. This has meant getting up earlier than them and getting home later than them and foraging for most of his meals and what that has meant has been begging Natasha for late night leftovers from the café. He drags himself out of bed on a Saturday morning and it’s so early that he nearly falls asleep in the shower. He manages to avoid that particular mishap, shaves without cutting his nose off, and throws on clothes that are arguably not too wrinkled and arguably match, in a sense. He puts his wet hair up into a messy bun, combs his bangs out of his face, and tugs on the bottom of his Definitely Not Wrinkled maroon henley.
By the time he’s in the kitchen, the sun is only beginning to show himself. Bucky turns on the coffee machine and dumps extra scoops of ground coffee in because he either likes his coffee tasting like a dessert or like Death himself melted a limb and stirred it into a mug.
Bucky’s standing with his steaming mug between his hands, eyes barely squinting open, when Quincy comes wagging in. Quincy’s a grey Border Collie with a tongue so long it’s almost always hanging out of his mouth. He’s an early riser and noses around Bucky’s ankle for his breakfast.
“If you slept longer, you wouldn’t have this problem,” Bucky mutters grumpily.
He presses a thumb to the top of Quincy’s food dispenser and it spits out protein pellets into his dish. He presses his thumb to the water dispenser next to it and a stream of electrowater splashes into his water bowl. Life must be great as a dog, Bucky decides. All Quincy has to do was wag his tail and nose his dumb, cute, wet dog nose into someone’s palm or thigh or ankle and he gets exactly what he wanted. And no one makes him feel bad for not being a human.
Quincy barks up at Bucky gratefully and starts slurping his water.
The two of them eat their breakfasts--Quincy with his protein pellets and Bucky with a bowl of multicolored, fake fruit cereal because he’s a child--side by side, crunching in tandem. The silence of the morning is broken only by the sounds of Bucky’s chomping and slurping and Quincy’s slurping of water and snuffling. Both have slightly heavy breathing. Bucky stops mid-crunch and squints down at Quincy. Quincy, in return, thumps his tail against Bucky’s feet.
It’s an expectant thump.
“No,” Bucky says.
“I’m busy,” Bucky says.
“I have coffee to finish,” Bucky explains.
A thump accompanied by a whine.
Bucky sighs and finishes his cereal. Then, coffee mug in one hand, he nods at the dog.
“Fine,” he says. “But if the family wakes up by the time we get back, you’re fielding all the awkward small talk.”
Quincy barks at him, pleased, and Bucky presses a chip near the base of his flesh wrist. The chip sends out a signal that automatically syncs with Quincy’s collar. Quincy must feel the click because he immediately bounds out of the kitchen and down the hallway to the front door.
Bucky sighs, drains the rest of his coffee, and slogs out after Becca’s dog.
They take a good hour walk and by the end, Bucky feels marginally more alive in the world. They come back in and Quincy thumps back toward his water bowl and the remainder of his breakfast. Bucky tenses in the hallway, turning off the leash sync and listening for any sounds of his family. It’s still early enough that, blessedly, he still doesn’t hear anything.
Bucky breathes out a sigh of relief. He walks to the kitchen and puts his used bowl under the clear plexiglass cube of the dish decontamination unit. He slides the bowl in through the field in the front and presses his thumb to the scanpad built into the wall. He presses the selection for the DDU and a laser scans over the dirty bowl. It goes across it once, twice, and then a third time. The food that’s on it disintegrates into nothing, the liquid evaporating into thin air. It gets sprayed with the decontaminant and then scanned one last time to dry. The front field then flashes blue and Bucky can reach in and pull the bowl out to put away.
He does this with his mug too and he’s so busy watching the spectacle of this technology that he doesn’t hear the footsteps until Quincy barks in recognition.
“Bucky?” comes a small, sleepy voice and Bucky internally curses.
He plasters on a semi-neutral face and turns around to find Becca’s spitting image staring at him with her hair tied on top in a messy bun.
“El, what are you doing up?” he asks.
“Couldn’t sleep,” Eleanor says. “Is that coffee?”
“It’s some of my sludge,” Bucky admits. He feels a twinge of guilt. “Why couldn’t you sleep?”
Eleanor shrugs, which is unlike her. Becca was harder to read than her other sisters. Eleanor, being the youngest, is often a completely open book. Louise falls somewhere in the middle, but maybe that’s only because Bucky has no interest in reading her.
“Gimme,” his baby sister says and Bucky sighs and fills a mug for her. He finds it difficult not to actually think of Eleanor as a baby, even though she’s in her late twenties. That’s still fairly young in this era of enhanced human age, but it’s not a child. Or so Eleanor claims.
She takes her mug and then hops up on the counter. Bucky tries his hardest not to smile at that. Becca used to do the same thing. It’s amazing and a little uncanny, the similarities between the two.
“You been avoiding us, big brother?” she asks.
Eleanor, like Becca, is also not a bullshitter.
“Been busy,” Bucky mutters.
“Yeah, sure,” Eleanor says with a yawn. “That definitely tracks. Especially when you come home smelling like coffee and pie.”
Bucky pauses at that.
“Can someone smell like a pie?” he asks.
“I have a great sense of smell,” she says with a grin, tapping her nose. Under her, Quincy barks and licks her feet. “Good boy, he knows.”
“You mean he...nose?” Bucky says, cracking a grin and Eleanor almost breaks her face trying to keep from laughing.
“Ugh. Shut the hell up!” she says. “You’re so annoying!”
Bucky even chuckles. It makes something loosen within him. He ducks his head.
“You ran away before we could talk, Bucky,” Eleanor says. “You didn’t let me explain.”
“You--” Bucky starts and stops. “You don’t gotta explain nothing, Ellie.”
“Louise was out of line,” Eleanor says. “So was dad. I know they’re...the way they are, but they love you. We all do. And I know it doesn’t seem like it, but we’re trying.”
“I know,” Bucky says, letting out a heavy breath. “I--know, I think. I’m sorry. I’m trying too.”
“It has to suck,” Eleanor says. She takes a sip of the coffee and makes a face.
“The coffee?” Bucky asks.
“No--” Eleanor starts. “But yes, that too. Are you aware this tastes like foot?”
“It tastes like coffee, you ungrateful brat,” Bucky glares and Eleanor laughs.
“I meant it must suck to be something else,” Eleanor says, smile softening. “In a family like ours. We’re not one to buck tradition. And all of these years tradition is...well, it’s stifling. It’s being normal, whatever that means. And you’re not normal. You know and I know that that’s not a bad thing. The rest of them, well...you just have to give them some time.”
Bucky stares at his little sister with something like awe. Somehow, he had blinked and she had grown up into a real person. It’s somehow just like talking to Becca, but also nothing like that at all. Becca had also been feisty and rebellious, but she’d never had Eleanor’s eloquence.
“Will you promise me that?” Eleanor asks. “Will you give them some time?”
Part of Bucky wants to scream, because he wasn’t given any time. He wasn’t given a chance at all. He was just thrust into this and expected to swim for himself. And it’s been seventy five fucking years. How much more time does his family fucking need? But another part of him knows that she’s right. This is his family and that has to count for something, especially when he’s already lost everything else.
“Yeah, okay,” Bucky breathes out. “I promise.”
Eleanor beams at that. This, too, is different from Becca. Becca was almost as moody as Bucky is. They were like two sides of the same coin, or maybe the same side of the same coin. Eleanor is everything about that, distilled into someone who is optimistic and kind and progressive and bright. She’s Bucky’s little ray of sunshine.
“God, Ellie,” he says and wraps her in his arms. He presses a loud, sloppy kiss to the top of her head. “I love you, kid.”
“Ugh,” Eleanor groans. “Get off me and go see your secret boyfriend.”
That makes Bucky pause in surprise. He must look ridiculous, because Eleanor sees his face and grins.
“What?” she says as she hops off the counter. “You know I can hear you when you have late nights on the roof, right? My window is right next to yours, Bucky.”
That--Bucky’s not one to color, usually, but he only barely keeps from flushing now.
“I don’t--” he splutters. “He’s not--I don’t have--”
“Yeah, okay,” Eleanor grins. She pats his arm as she goes by him. “I stay up until three in the morning watching stars with my very platonic acquaintances too.”
“I--” Bucky’s still spluttering as he turns around and watches her go. “That’s not--”
“Tell Steve I say hi!” Eleanor says cheerily as she exits the kitchen. “And that I can’t wait to meet him!”
Behind her, Quincy follows, tail wagging happily.
“He’s not--” Bucky gawks after her. And then he calls, in a panic-- “I’m not going to do that!”
To which Eleanor laughs and disappears up the stairs.
Bucky can hardly believe his eyes when the glass doors slide open. He stops in his tracks and rubs his eyes to confirm what he’s seeing. He squints and considers getting glasses.
“No,” Sharon Carter says next to him. She’s keying something into her simpad with a slight hum. “You’re not seeing things. He’s here of his own free will. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a delightfully healthy pot of money to collect.”
She walks away, happily whistling, and Bucky manages to cross the threshold to his usual station. Steve’s already sitting in his usual seat, plugged in and talking, strangely, inexplicably, to Scott Lang.
“You’re trying to tell me,” Steve is saying. “That you almost hacked into the StarkCorps servers and sent them into a meltdown.”
“It was more...physical than that?” Lang offers. “They were physical servers. We broke in and almost physically melted them down.”
“Why is Stark still keeping physical servers?” Steve frowns. “Wait, what did you do, take hair dryers to them?”
“You laugh, but hair dryers cause mean damage,” Lang says smugly. “Anyway, they deserved them. Fuck the system!”
Steve stares at him.
“You’re an idiot,” he says. “No offense.”
“None taken,” Lang says, cheerfully.
Bucky clears his throat and Steve finally looks up at him.
“Oh hey!” Lang says and turns excitedly to Steve. “It’s your—”
Steve covers Lang’s mouth with a large hand and beams up at Bucky.
“Look what the cat dragged in,” Steve says, face lighting up. Bucky feels something warm and helpless wash over him.
“Are you the cat?” is the dumb thing Bucky says as he shuffles forward.
“Lions are just big cats,” Steve laughs and Bucky’s sure he has a dumb, infatuated look on his face. Steve turns to Lang. “Lang.”
“I know, I know,” Lang grumbles. “I’ll go to my corner.”
Which Bucky would feel bad about, except Lang sees an Alt named Hope come in through the door and immediately forgets both of them anyway.
“Hey,” Bucky says as he plugs in to his dock.
“Hey,” Steve says back to him.
They look at each other for a moment, unreservedly pleased to see one another.
“I hear you made Sharon’s morning,” Bucky eventually says with a grin.
That makes Steve groan.
“They’re never going to let me live it down,” he says. “Everyone was in on this bet. Even Dr. Banner.”
“Bruce too?” Bucky says with surprise. “Huh, i didn’t think he left the lab long enough to participate in human activity. I asked him to lunch once and he panicked and almost set his office on fire.”
“Apparently all you have to do is almost zero out a couple dozen times and become the subject of an inter-office betting pool,” Steve says.
That makes Bucky’s eyebrows shoot up.
“A couple dozen times?”
“Anyway,” Steve says quickly, ignoring him. “It was in my interest to make sure Sam didn’t win.”
“You guys are so weird,” Bucky says.
“He’s so annoying,” Steve replies cheerfully.
Bucky shakes his head in amusement and Steve watches him. His expression softens.
“Hey. How are you?” he asks.
Bucky shrugs. He swallows, feeling embarrassment pool in the pit of him stomach. He doesn’t regret staying up all night talking to Steve, but he imagines he could have handled the entire situation somewhat better. He could have waited to have his meltdown on someone who had signed up for it.
“I’m sorr—” He begins, but Steve cuts him off immediately.
“Don’t,” he says. “Who are you apologizing to? Who’s going to understand how that feels better than me?”
“I don’t usually,” Bucky starts and sighs. “I’m usually better than that. I was having a bad night.”
“Every night’s a bad night, pal,” Steve says with a faint smile. “Did you figure it all out?”
“No,” Bucky says and then remembers Eleanor. “Maybe. I’m trying to be patient.”
“You don’t strike me as someone patient,” Steve says.
Bucky gives him an unimpressed look.
“Is the pot speaking?”
“Does that make you the kettle?”
“So maybe we’re both a little outta patience,” Bucky says, a smile tugging at his lips.
“I never had patience, Buck,” Steve says with a yawn. He leans his head back and absentmindedly pats Bucky’s flesh arm. “That’s the whole secret.”
“We’re trading secrets now?” Bucky asks.
“Yeah,” Steve says. “Slow day at the Station.”
Bucky considers this and finds it’s not a difficult decision at all. He watches Steve, who is unaware that his blond hair is flopping into his eyes. Bucky only just stops himself from reaching over and pushing it back.
“Okay,” he says. “A secret for a secret.”
That makes Steve pause. He looks over. For a moment he seems startled to find that his hand is still on Bucky’s arm.
Bucky gives him his best, disarming smile and Steve takes in a little breath.
“You’re such a—” he says and when Bucky’s grin gets deeper, he laughs. He tilts his head to the challenge. “Okay. A secret for a secret, Barnes. Nothing lame.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it, Stevie,” Bucky says and leans closer.
He doesn’t end up moving his hand.
“When I was a kid, I put hair dye in Becca’s hair. She woke up screaming cause her head was purple and her pillow was purple.” Bucky grins. “I convinced her she was turning into an alien and the only way to stop it was to give me all her chocolate.”
“You did not con your baby sister out of her chocolate,” Steve says with a laugh.
“For two months,” Bucky says with relish. “Every bar she got was deposited to the Bank of Bucky.”
“A budding con artist,” Steve says, admiringly.
“And an asshole to boot,” Bucky says smugly.
“I told Sam the neighbor kid broke his window,” Steve confesses. “He didn’t. It was me.”
“Are you shitting me?” Bucky looks at him incredulously.
“Not my finest moment,” Steve says. “But this kid was so goddamned annoying and I couldn’t tell Sam I accidentally flung a remote too hard through the glass.”
“I uh, get frustrated,” Steve says sheepishly. “At Jeopardy.”
“Holy shit,” Bucky says, staring at him. “Jeopardy?”
“It was an easy question and they fucked it up!” Steve insists, as though that makes him less of a fucking dork.
“You broke Wilson’s window over a game show and blamed it on a kid,” Bucky repeats. He can’t stop laughing. He buries his face in his arm.
“Shut up,” Steve grumbles. “You extorted your sister.”
“Yeah,” Bucky says, swallowing breaths of laughter. “That’s called being an older brother, asshole.”
“Whatever,” Steve says, but he’s sheepishly grinning. “Something with more meat, Barnes.”
“Meat, huh?” Bucky says suddenly, raising his face from his arm with a positively wicked smile.
“Oh good God,” Steve says.
“No room for God there, Steve,” Bucky says. “Okay. I lost my virginity twice.”
“Excuse me?” Steve’s eyebrow shoot up.
“The uh, first time,” Bucky says and suddenly realizes his mistake. Steve’s face lights up in pure, untempered delight and Bucky groans. Stupid, Barnes. “I didn’t get all the way uh, in. So then I had to try again.”
“With the same person?” Steve laughs.
“Uhhh,” Bucky manages.
Steve dissolves into fucking giggles. The only reason Bucky manages not to turn pink is because Steve’s arm is close enough for him to reach his metal arm over and release a little electrical shock that makes Steve make what can only be considered an unmanly squawk.
“Okay, asshole,” Bucky grumbles. “Let me hear your first.”
“Oh,” that makes Steve stop. “That’s uh—”
Bucky taps his fingernails on Steve’s arm, as though he’s waiting. It’s just above the cylinder and the brief touches of fingertip to warm skin are almost thrilling.
“Sure laughing a lot for someone not willing to talk,” Bucky smirks.
Steve flips him off, much to Bucky’s own delight.
“It was after we transplanted here,” Steve says. “She was another Android. I saw her at one of the camps. She was always out at night, always dressed real nice. She did this thing—tucked her hair behind her ear and looked over her shoulder like she was looking for you.”
“Steve…” Bucky has an idea where this is going and sure enough, Steve tinges pink.
“I had no experience. I spent my entire life being the sick, small kid no one looked twice at. And she did look at me,” he says.
Bucky’s smile fades.
“So maybe I should have been more, you know, aware of how eager she was,” Steve says.
“Aw, Stevie,” Bucky finds himself saying.
Steve runs a hand through his already messy hair and suddenly, Bucky can see it, the same nervous, insecure kid, as though within this large, heavily muscled body is that small guy who could barely reach his mother’s shoulders. Bucky wants to—he swallows. He wants to show him that’s not who he is anymore.
“She was great,” Steve continues. “She was patient and uh, showed me what I needed to do. It was a good experience. It just—you know. Was a shock when she asked to get paid when we were done.”
Steve is so pink, he’s burning to the tips of his ears. Bucky has the almost uncontrollable urge to press his flesh fingers to them to feel how hot they are.
“Nothing wrong with sex workers,” he says instead, after showing what he thinks is unparalleled restraint.
“I know,” Steve says. “I actually—for a while. I mean there wasn’t. Much choice for a while.”
It occurs to Bucky, briefly, that Steve’s story doesn’t speak to whether he’s slept with men. Or if he would be open to that. Bucky’s not exactly used to insecurity in that realm, so it’s doubly unsettling when he’s hit by a wall of nerves.
He’s not stupid. He knows that Steve is absurdly attractive. The kind of attractive that’s only made more unbearably so by the way he doesn’t seem to recognize it. If Steve gave Bucky half the chance, he would take pleasure in taking him apart and putting him back together. He wants that chance. If Steve looked at him even once in that way, he would lean over and take it.
But Bucky can’t tell if that would be welcome and the last thing he wants is to ruin the only good thing he’s ever done for himself. Reaching out to Steve, bringing him into his life. He won’t fuck this up too.
Apparently he’s unnerved enough that he doesn’t hear what Steve says next.
“Bucky,” he finally hears Steve say. “Buck?”
Bucky blinks into focus and what he sees is the rigid, tense lines of Steve’s body.
“Oh,” he says with a slight laugh. “Just thinking about my next secret.”
“Oh,” Steve says. He looks suspicious, but Bucky manages to turn a smooth smile on him. After a moment, his shoulders ease back. “Okay. Make it good. Tell me about this meat.”
That almost makes Bucky ugly laugh. Which is helpful, because it clears his mind enough to stray away from the one secret he’s not ready to trade yet.
Still. When Steve looks back over at him and his hair flops into his eyes again, Bucky can’t help but reach over and push it back with his fingers. Steve watches him and Bucky’s heart flips in his electric chest.
They lazily trade secrets back and forth, laughing at the dirtier ones and softening at the quieter ones. Bucky admits that he hasn’t slept with anyone in nearly a year and Steve laughs, admits he hasn’t slept with anyone in nearly two years. Bucky lets Steve runs his hand through his hair to prove it’s real and Steve shows Bucky the ink that’s crawling up his side. It’s roses and vines, intertwined with electrical currents. His mother’s date of birth and date of death are inked in Roman numerals inside two of the roses. It’s beautiful and Bucky can’t help but press a palm against the warm skin. He wants to trace it with his mouth. He thinks he feels Steve shiver, but he can’t be sure.
Bucky admits that he used to want to be an engineer for StarkTech and Steve admits he hates everything about his job except his team.
“You should meet Clint,” Steve says at some point.
“Which one is Clint again?” Bucky teases. “Your boyfriend?”
To which Steve lets out a loud and rumbling laugh that Bucky feels reverberate against his metal arm. He doesn’t answer Bucky’s question though, which makes Bucky curse inside.
“What part of sex is your favorite?” Bucky asks. It’s half devious and half curious. They’ve turned back to dirty topics.
“I—“ Steve says. He sighs and glows rosy again. He blames it on his mother’s Irish background. Bucky only just stops from telling him it’s a good look on him. “Don’t laugh.”
“I’m not gonna laugh at you, Steve,” Bucky says because a man’s sexual preference is a personal thing.
For Bucky, it’s not so much of the act as everything leading up to it. He likes exploring his partner. He likes looking him in the eyes. He likes cupping his face and kissing him. If Bucky just wanted an orgasm, he could do it himself. He likes sex because it’s about connecting with someone else. It’s about two people coming together and making each other feel good.
Maybe he’s a goddamned hopeless cliché. No one looks at his killing machine of an arm and thinks that.
Steve mumbles something and Bucky raises an eyebrow.
“Sorry? Didn’t catch that.”
“Kissing,” he says. “I like kissing the person I’m with.”
Everything in Bucky slows a little. For a moment, he doesn’t know what to say. He does know what he wants to do.
Half a chance, he thinks. That’s all it would take.
“Aww,” he teases instead, a beat too late. “You’re all fake barbs and real romantic, huh?”
“Shut up,” Steve says, clearly embarrassed and Bucky smiles.
He doesn’t lean over and kiss him, but it’s the closest thing.
Eventually, Steve’s dock starts flashing.
“All right, Rogers,” Sam says. “Get outta my Station.”
“Someone’s gonna start to think you hate me, Wilson,” Steve says as he gets unplugged and processed.
Sam doesn’t look up from his simpad.
“Someone’s gonna have to explain why he threw a remote out of someone else’s window and blamed the neighbor kid.”
Steve suddenly gets a coughing fit and Bucky snickers into his arm.
“Weird,” Steve says faintly. “No one would do that.”
“Uh huh,” Sam says. “Come here.”
Steve follows Sam to the counter to get his papers. At some point, Sam leans into Steve’s ear and says something. Bucky tried to pinpoint the stab of jealousy as completely irrational. Steve, for his part, turns bright red and shoves Sam away.
“Well,” Steve says and Bucky grins up at him.
“See you around?” Bucky offers.
Steve looks like he’s going to say something, but just shakes his head with a smile instead.
“Yeah, Buck,” he says. “See you around.”
Bucky watches that ass leave, not for the first time.
“You’re drooling,” Sam says absently from the counter.
Bucky flips him off. Then he spots something on the floor.
Steve’s discharge papers had fallen from his pocket and the idiot hadn’t noticed. Bucky disconnects himself from his dock without permission to pick them up.
He’s about to stick them into his jacket pocket when something catches his eyes--an embossed seal that looks rather official.
He frowns and unfolds the top of what turns out to be a letter.
He takes a sharp breath as the crest in the corner comes into focus, along with the words written next to them in bold letters:
The Governmental Deactivation Commission
The first words read Dear Steven Grant Rogers.
The rest of the words read something that Bucky can see, but can’t quite process. He reads it once and then twice and then again, just to understand. He can hear something that he doesn’t quite understand--a whirring sound, maybe, a shifting of plates. His blood pounding in his ears.
All the best, the letter ends. All the fucking. Best.
Bucky doesn’t realize he’s shaking until a jerk of his hands rips the paper in half.
Chapter 6: [ reviving ]
Today's chapter brought to you by a healthy dose of feels, a sprinkle of snarky banter, and entirely too much shithousery.
[ café automata, pluto sector, earth 2.0 ]
Steve can’t look at shingles for another goddamned second. He’s about two wrong angle projections away from deleting all of his files and setting two years of work on fire. He must be muttering under his breath or looking particularly deranged, because most of his team slowly back away and they return with a Clint.
“Rogers,” Clint says. He slams down a bottle of beer on the lab table and Steve resettles his dragon glare from the projections to his friend. “Don’t look at me like that. You’re scaring the children.”
“They’re all grown,” Steve grumbles.
“Take the beer,” Clint says. “When’s the last time you slept? Or ate?”
Steve squints at him.
“Good fucking lord,” Clint swears. “America wasn’t wrong.”
“Did you agree with America on something? Am I hallucinating?”
“Yeah, it’s being triggered by your inability to take even the basic level of care for yourself,” Clint says.
Steve sighs and opens the bottle cap with a smooth twist of his hand. He does feel tense in his shoulders, if truth be told. He’s tired, his muscles ache, his brain is near fried, and he thinks he’s going cross eyed from staring at holograms.
It’s possible that Clint isn’t entirely wrong.
“Come on, Rogers,” Clint says. “Yes, away from the projection, just like that. That’s a good boy.”
“You’re so annoying,” Steve grunts and Clint grins with a light cackle.
He knocks back the beer in three swift gulps. It’s not the healthiest way to consume alcohol, but it does remind him how thirsty he is. And how hungry. It might have been a few...hours. Okay, a day, max.
Steve looks at his mess of a project and swallows a sigh.
“You want to get some food?” he asks Clint and the smaller blond really fucking whoops. Somehow, it only serves to remind Steve further about what an irreparable disaster his life has become.
During the rail in, Steve manages to ignore enough of Clint’s chatter to send a message to Sam, who has the day off. They agree to meet at the café and see where the night takes them, which, in their youth, used to be a euphemism for Let’s Get Wasted, but has, over the last few years, tempered to something close to Let’s Get Just Drunk Enough And Not Much More Because We Have Work In The Morning And Everything Already Hurts. Steve actually can’t remember the last time he and Sam and Natasha had a real night out and he suspects he will hear about it not from just one, but both of them and probably half the café staff besides.
“So anyway, their Firewall’s complete shit and I tell them this,” Clint is saying. Steve nods as though he’s been paying attention, which he supposes makes him a bad friend, but he grabs Clint by the back of his collar before he accidentally falls off the sonicrail platform, so he figures he at least moderately redeems himself.
“Clint,” Steve says. “No offense, but how many stories do you have about ripping StarkCorps security to shreds of coding?”
Clint scratches his bare face as though he has a beard to speak of.
“At least six,” he says, thoughtfully. “As high as ten, but definitely lower than fifteen.”
“With that many destroyed Firewalls, you’d think they’d just hire you to build them something indestructible. Or throw you in a dungeon or something for knowing too much,” Steve says.
“That’s what I said!” Clint says. “Well, the first part. Anyway it’s more fun to destroy shit and I’m pretty sure the only reason Stark doesn’t throw me in a dungeon is because he hasn’t met me yet.”
That makes Steve pause and frown.
“You have a StarkCorps ID chip,” Steve says. “Your face is in the databases. You’re recorded by the security scan every time you’re in the building.”
Clint just smiles smugly and whistles as they walk the street toward the café.
“Do I? Is it? Are they?” he puts his hands in his pockets and kicks up some rocks like he’s some kind of bashful old cartoon, which is really too much.
“I don’t know,” Steve says, raising an eyebrow. “Do you? Is it? Are they?”
“Clint Barton,” Clint Barton says, “is an enigma. He might look like me, he might look like you, he might look like Fitzsimmons on a bad day. Nah, his days are never that bad.”
“You know that’s not his name, right?” Steve asks. “That’s two different people you’ve turned into one entity by virtue of portmanteau.”
“That’s exactly what Clint Barton wants you to think,” Clint says wisely. He’s so pleased with himself that he nearly runs into the glass doors.
“I don’t know how you survive,” Steve says, rolling his eyes and grabbing Clint by the collar again and pulling him back so the doors can slide open with their usual hiss.
“I’m sorry,” Clint says. “Remind me again the last time you had a meal?”
“Oh look, friends,” Steve says, ignoring him.
Natasha was working behind the counter today, red curls pulled back, a black, sleeveless blouse on top of flowy, black pants. Her shoulder ink is creeping out from under the blouse and she’s added multiple earrings to the shell of her ears. She looks, objectively, like a bombshell, but one that’s probably hiding half a dozen knives on her person and is as likely to gut you as she is to give you her number.
Steve grins. Next to him, he’s pretty sure Clint is drooling on himself.
“Well aren’t you a sight for sore eyes,” Natasha says. She’s simultaneously ringing up a customer and eyeing Steve and Clint with interest.
Steve points at himself and mouths who me?
Natasha snorts and finishes with the customer, who looks like she’s drooling on herself too. She tries to linger, but Steve is right behind her, so she walks away, dejected.
“How many numbers you get today?” Steve asks, amused.
“Oh, her? She comes in twice a day and leaves with more coffee than she’ll ever drink,” Natasha says. She fixes Clint with a stare. “She doesn’t drink coffee.”
Clint grins delightedly.
“Still nothing?” Steve asks.
“I thought she was going to work up her courage last week, but then she just tipped 200% instead.”
This makes Steve laugh.
“Not a fan of the accidental 200% tip?” Clint asks. He leans slightly against the counter and Steve barely keeps his eyebrows from disappearing into his hairline.
“I know what I’m worth,” Natasha says. Her gaze is casual, but Steve knows her well enough to know when she’s being a predator. If Clint isn’t careful, she’ll eat him alive.
“What’s a better method, then?” Clint asks. Although, Steve observes, Clint might actually welcome that.
Natasha gives him one of her most dangerous half smiles.
“I don’t have time for teenage nerves,” she says. “If someone’s too skittish to be direct, that’s not my problem.”
“Seems harsh,” Clint says.
“The price of being an adult,” she says.
This almost makes Steve snort, because as put together as Natasha appears, he knows she’s a complete mess too. Well, slightly less on the scale, but still, somewhere on that spectrum. As it is, he says nothing, because watching Natasha and Clint flirt is like watching the world’s most dangerous game of chicken. Like chicken, if it was played on wildly careening hovercrafts, above charged electric wires, and with knives.
“In that case,” Clint says and he leans forward a bit more. “Can I get your…”
Steve’s eyebrows do shoot up this time.
Clint grins victoriously and Natasha, for her part, actually, genuinely looks like she might laugh out loud.
She gives him an amused look and slides a simpad with the scrollable menu on it across to him.
“Thanks,” Clint says and turns to find them a table. His walk is exaggerated, making sure to show off his ass as he goes.
Natasha, for her part, seems torn between amusement and possibly intrigue.
“Careful,” Steve says. “That’s the look of someone who’s open to falling into interest.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Natasha says. “Shut up and go sit down with your cute friend. Wanda will get you. And after, we’re going to have a conversation about introducing your friends to your other attractive friends.”
Steve grins, leans over and presses a kiss to her cheek, and then goes to find Clint.
Clint is being completely obvious about craning his neck to see if Natasha is still talking about him. He grabs Steve’s arm as Steve slides into the booth seat across from him.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” he hisses.
“What?” Steve says innocently. “Their sandwiches are good.”
“I’m going to kill you,” Clint declares. “Straight up murder your morose ass.”
“Hey!” Steve protests, but it’s a thin exclamation given he’s also simultaneously snickering.
“She’s so fucking hot,” Clint says. His nails dig into Steve’s flesh and Steve winces.
“Killing my arm isn’t going to make her want to go out with you,” he grumbles.
“What?” Clint says. “Is that a possibility? Did she say something? Do I have a chance?”
“Sure you do, pal,” a familiar voice suddenly drawls. “You also got a chance of her stabbing you with a fork, but go on and reach for the stars.”
Clint pauses in confusion, but Steve’s heart skips a whole, entire beat. Because he knows that voice. He’s stayed up entire nights just listening to that voice.
Bucky’s hair falls across his face as he sticks his head over the back of the booth over. He’s half laughing and half grinning. He’s lit up like the goddamned sun itself willed him into existence. Steve’s eyes widen.
“Hi, Stevie,” Bucky says.
Steve’s heart skips a whole, entire second beat.
“Who’s that?” Clint says, dumb for a moment, and then he looks between Bucky and Steve and then back to Bucky. He lets out a low whistle. “Holy shit!”
“Buck,” Steve says, hard pressed to keep a delighted smile off his own face. “What are you doing here?”
“This is my place,” Bucky says with an even wider grin. “Well, it’s Nat’s place, but I co-opt it because of what I deserve as a person.”
“You know Nat?” Steve says. He looks over his shoulder at the counter, but Natasha’s mysteriously disappeared.
“Yeah,” Bucky says. “For ages now. Are you following me?”
“How’d you guys—you know,” Clint’s still looking back and forth. “Did you—are you—?”
“We’re friends,” Steve says quickly, conveniently leaving out the part about how he’d jump his bones in a heartbeat. And also how often he thinks about jumping his bones in a heartbeat. Unfortunately, he thinks that Clint must figure that out anyway because his confusion turns into a very slow smirk.
“We’re refuelin’ buddies,” Bucky says. He extends his arm over the booth back. “Bucky Barnes.”
Clint’s mouth does a perfect o of recognition and not to be dramatic, but Steve thinks he might collapse in his seat.
“Clint Barton,” Clint says, shaking Bucky’s hand.
Bucky’s mouth, likewise, does a perfect o and oh no it’s worse than expected; Steve knows he’s completely and utterly fucked.
“You’re the coworker,” Bucky says.
“He talks about me?” Clint grins. “You’re the mechanic.”
“Aww, he talks about me!” Bucky says, delighted.
Steve groans and lets his head fall onto the tabletop.
“What else does he say about me?” Bucky says. “Wait, hold on—”
Bucky disappears for a second and Steve uses that moment to trod on Clint’s foot. Clint clenches his teeth and gives Steve a beatific smile.
Bucky reappears a second later.
“Scoot over,” he says and Steve only realizes Bucky’s talking to him when he feels an arm and a thigh pressed against his own.
Trying not to flush, Steve ignores the way his chest gives a slight twitch and moves in a little so that Bucky can sit next to him. Bucky slides in effortlessly and sits a little closer than he strictly needs to. Steve can feel the heat coming off his flesh arm and it’s only the rumbling of his starving stomach that saves him from leaning into it.
“So,” Bucky says with a grin. “Clint Barton.”
“Excuse me,” Steve says loudly. “Wanda? Loki? Any day you’d like to come take our order would be fine.”
Bucky ignores Steve and leans forward across the table.
“So you know all his secrets, right?”
“Yeah,” Clint nods seriously. “Fuck yeah. And I’m willing to sell them all, for a price.”
“What kinda price we talkin’?” Bucky asks. He strokes a beard he doesn’t have because Steve’s surrounded by idiots. Idiots who never should have met. This has been a magnificent miscalculation on his part.
“My price is high,” Clint says. “Like, I’m gonna need a sandwich, fries, a milkshake, a latte, two of Loki’s pastries of the week, a beer, and intel on the redhead.”
“Okay that is a high price,” Bucky says. “Mostly because Natasha would kill me. But also she’d appreciate that she played a part in this and she’s probably gonna kill me one day anyway, so I’m in.”
“Pleasure doing business with you, Bucky Barnes,” Clint says and extends a hand over the middle of the table.
“Honestly I think I made out better than you,” Bucky says solemnly, meeting the hand for a shake. “So what was Steve like when you met him?”
Clint’s face breaks into a grin of pure delight.
“Wanda!” Steve calls. “Food! Now!”
Wanda, who’s been talking to Sky behind the counter, looks up in confusion and irritation. Then she sees the group and her face, too, lights up.
“Steve!” she says. “Oh you’ve met James!”
There is a beat—a single, solitary beat, where Steve swears everything freezes. Wanda’s eyes widen. Natasha, who has mysteriously reappeared beside her, raises one perfectly terrifying eyebrow and looks smug.
“Oh,” Wanda says. Then she claps her hand to her mouth. “Oh! ”
Steve wants to deactivate now. He is absolutely going to deactivate on the spot, right this second, immediately.
“What?” Bucky’s eyebrows furrow.
“What’d I miss?” Clint asks from his side.
“Nothing,” Steve says, coughing. “The staff here is wacky—sandwiches? Clint I’m gonna pass out.”
Natasha looks as though she’s trying her very best not to burst out laughing. Wanda, next to her, recovers enough to finally approach their table for their order, but her walk is suspiciously jaunty. Her eyes flicker over both Steve and Bucky and if she was any more obvious, she’d be shoving the two of their faces together.
It’s not an altogether unpleasant idea, but—
“The usual, boys?” she asks sweetly.
“You come here too?” Bucky asks next to him, excitedly. Steve turns his head to look at him and—oh, he’s right there, his face inches from his own. Steve momentarily forgets what he’s going to say, he’s so mesmerized by the proximity. There are two freckles on the bridge of Bucky’s nose, he’s never noticed that before. And his eyes really shift between grey and blue, depending on the like. He’s distracted by how nice he smells. And the way Bucky’s smiling, so pleased and eager. And the way their thighs and shoulders are grazing.
Steve’s heart does a little ribbit and he realizes has to answer before he gets lost in the cool shifting colors of Bucky’s eyes.
“Yeah,” he says. “For ages.”
“They make you suffer too?” Bucky says, side-eyeing the staff.
Next to them, Wanda and Cliff are introducing themselves and eavesdropping while very poorly pretending not to.
“Every damn time,” Steve says.
“We don’t deserve this,” Bucky says.
“We sure damn don’t!” Steve agrees.
“I’m sorry, what don’t you deserve?” Natasha appears right above Steve’s head. She only manages this because Steve is sitting, but both he and Bucky startle nonetheless.
“What the fuck, Nat!” Bucky yelps.
“You were disparaging my business,” Natasha says. “Something about not deserving my—coffee? That’s what you said, right?”
“No, no,” Bucky says so quickly Steve laughs. “We deserve it, we are deserving of your coffee, don’t take my coffee from me, I’ll die.”
“Strange,” Natasha says with a smirk. “I could have sworn it was the other thing.”
“Insulting your livelihood?” Steve adds. “Couldn’t be us.”
“Guess it was some other pair of ungrateful brats,” Natasha says.
“Yeah,” Steve grins. “Definitely them.”
“You two are trouble,” Natasha says with a more genuine smile. She leans over and kisses Steve’s cheek. “I’ll get you your coffee.”
“What about me!” Bucky yelps.
“Still not convinced about you,” Natasha says and Bucky flips her off before she disappears.
“Did she kiss you?” Clint’s voice comes, urgently. “Did I see that correctly?”
“Yeah,” Bucky says, seriously. Under the table, his fingers dig into Steve’s thigh. Steve tries to ignore the slight thrill that goes up his spine at the touch. “You didn’t get one? Natasha kisses everyone. Wow, she must really hate you.”
“Listen here, Barnes,” Clint begins and they devolve into friendly bickering that is only sometimes interrupted by Wanda’s observations that they’re all children.
Bucky apparently forgets to move his hand and Steve, for his part, doesn’t correct him.
Their table manages to get food before Steve passes out, somehow. Steve appreciatively tucks into his chicken salad sandwich and side salad, while Bucky gets a fancy grilled cheese sandwich with like four kinds of cheeses and fries, and Clint ends up with an entire plate of just chocolate pastries.
Clint spends at least fifteen minutes complaining about some video game that keeps glitching and lamenting about how he could have coded it better and Steve and Bucky spend that time exchanging looks and jostling each other. At some point, Natasha appears with a triple shot red eye and slides in next to Clint. Clint doesn’t miss a beat. He turns his attention to her and, surprisingly, it turns out Natasha has a mountain of opinions on video games herself. Clint honestly looks as though he’s found the woman of his dreams and when she tries to sneak a chocolate pastry off his plate, he yells at her. This, mysteriously, makes her grin.
Steve, for his part, has been trying to steal fries from Bucky.
“C’mon Buck,” he’s been wheedling. “Just one.”
“Get your damn paws off my fried potatoes, Rogers,” Bucky growls.
“You got so many and I have none,” Steve says. He tries to look pathetic.
“That’s your own fault. Keep your goddamned batty eyelashes to yourself,” Bucky says, loudly. “Hey! You punk!”
Steve’s managed to sneak a hand into the pile and Bucky slaps it.
“One fried potato,” Steve says.
“Just a single one!”
“Nope,” Bucky says and eats one in Steve’s face. Steve is so close to kissing the salt off Bucky’s lips that it’s a miracle he somehow manages not to.
“I’m gonna die if I don’t get a fry,” Steve tries. “You wanna be responsible for that?”
“Shoulda thought about your life force before you ordered a fuckin’ salad, huh?” Bucky looks so smug that Steve shoves his shoulder with his shoulder.
“You little shit!” Bucky exclaims and then they begin shoving each other like schoolchildren, which Wanda declares them to be, before dissolving into laughter.
“Man, you two could not be more obvious if you tried,” an ominously familiar voice comments.
Steve and Bucky look up, mid-struggle.
“Aw man!” Bucky says loudly. “Who called in TerraPol?”
“Ex-TerraPol, jackass,” Sam says.
“Wilson!” Clint says, interrupting his deep dive with Natasha long enough to offer him a fist.
Sam bumps it and the group shifts to let him in. He sits next to Natasha and she looks so unsurprised that Steve suspects a covert text thread immediately. He raises an eyebrow and both guilty parties ignore him.
“What’s a guy gotta do to get invited to things around here?” Sam asks. He reaches forward for a fry and Bucky lets him take it.
“Hey!” Steve protests and Bucky grins.
“Sorry, Doc, didn’t know you left your lair,” Bucky says. “Thought you were legally bound to haunt the halls with your unsolicited therapeutic advice.”
“I’mma haunt you,” Sam says. “How’s that for therapeutic advice?”
Bucky takes a sip of his coffee. Over the rim, he says, carefully, “It leaves much to be desired, to be perfectly honest.”
Steve snorts and Wanda laughs and Sam bangs a fist on the table.
“I want,” he declares. “To go out. I deal with you assholes too much, I deserve to go get drunk.”
“I am in favor of getting drunk,” Clint agrees.
“My man,” Sam says and offers Clint a fist to bump.
“Do you two need a moment?” Bucky asks and Steve pinches his side in warning, but Bucky’s hiss comes too late.
Sam’s eyebrows are already up.
“Do you two?”
Steve looks at Bucky and questioningly offers a fist. Bucky looks like he’s going to burst out laughing, but graciously bumps it instead.
“Nah, we’re good,” Steve grins.
“I hate you two,” Sam says and then bangs his fist again. “Out! Out!”
“You break that table, you buy it, Wilson,” Natasha says and Sam looks put out. Maybe it’s because of this that she rolls her eyes. “Where?”
Sam grins and eats another fry.
“I know a place.”
“A place” turns out to be a dive bar named The Gauntlet that’s deep in Pluto, just before it runs off into no sector’s land. Steve has only been out drinking with Sam and Natasha once before and it had led to an unfortunate drinking challenge that Steve, of course, could not turn down and which had led not only to his defeat, but also to a subsequent massive three-day hangover. Natasha had emerged unscathed. She had also been the one to drink him under the proverbial table.
Sam heads down the stairs first, followed by Clint, who’s in a debate with Natasha about how to best brew beer. At least Clint is talking about beer. Natasha might be talking about vodka.
Steve suddenly grabs Bucky’s wrist before he follows them down.
“Don’t let Nat convince you to do anything,” he says urgently.
“Like what? Dance on a table or something?” Bucky asks.
“No,” Steve says. “If she asks you to do that, agree to it. Agree to everything except a drinking contest. Never say yes to that. You’ll think she can’t drink you outta the galaxy, but suddenly it’s a week later and you’re getting chipped for a new liver and she’s still drinking quadruple espresso shots mixed with vodka at 7 am.”
Bucky pauses and looks mildly nauseated slash terrified.
“Are we sure she’s...not the robot?”
“No,” Steve says immediately. “I do not think we can say that for certain at all.”
“Steve, I’m scared,” Bucky says, clutching Steve’s arm.
“If we make it out of this night alive,” Steve says, “I’ll buy you a pony. No, a hovercraft. No, one of those Easy Bake Ovens.”
“Oh, I’ve always wanted one of those!” Bucky exclaims.
“Three hundred years later and all that survives are cockroaches and Easy Bake Ovens,” Steve mutters.
The two of them finally follow the others down the narrow set of dirty chrome stairs.
“Yeah, what kind of terrible Noah’s Ark reality did you old relics bring with you?” Bucky asks. “No one wanted this.”
“I wanted to bring puppies, but I was allergic,” Steve says. “So cockroaches it was.”
Bucky makes a face and laughs. Then the front door slides up from its ground slot and the two of them are immediately swamped by the strong smell of liquor and the not-so-quiet din of a popular dive bar on a Friday night.
In the time it’s taken Steve and Bucky to come inside, Sam, Clint, and Natasha have found a high table near the back of the bar. Everything inside is dark and dingy and chrome, which could be a carefully curated look or the result of decades of unmaintained residue. At least the liquor is in bottles along the shelves behind the bar, each row backlit by a different color. When someone orders a specific kind, the bottle lights up in a different color from the rest, which is helpful in theory, but a rainbow disaster when the bar is packed.
“Glad you two made it in,” Sam says. He and Natasha scoot in and Steve follows. “Thought you’d gotten lost in each other’s eyes.”
Steve elbows Sam aggressively for that, but, thankfully, Bucky doesn’t seem to hear. Or, at least, he pretends not to and his light skin somehow manages to not betray him, which is not something Steve could ever say for his own.
“First round’s on me,” Bucky says, raising his voice. The music in the background is a little louder than they prefer, something synthetic and terrible. “Beers?”
There’s general agreement, except for Natasha, who asks for something with an umbrella in it.
“What?” she says as everyone stares at her. “A girl can’t like her vodka and her fruity drink? It’s the future, I can have pineapple with my alcohol.”
Even Clint knows better than to challenge Natasha on this point. Possibly, Sam has also in the intervening time warned him not to, under any circumstance, allow Natasha to say the words I challenge you.
Bucky gives Steve a look before pressing his way into the crowd and to the bar. Steve looks over parting shoulders to squint at the bartender. She’s definitely an Android. She not only has an arm cylinder, but she has a neck cylinder as well, which is lit up in neon green and is half unsettling and half terribly interesting.
Steve turns back to the table to comment as such, when he notices that every pair of eyes is staring at him. Every single pair.
“What…” he blinks at them nervously.
“Are you shitting me?” Clint says, too loudly.
“Man, I thought you two were just refueling buddies,” Sam adds. “I didn’t know it was like that.”
“Like what?” Steve asks and his ears turn pink. “We’re not--we haven’t--”
“Shut up, man,” someone says and honestly it could be either Clint or Sam or probably both, simultaneously.
“He can’t take his eyes off you,” Clint says with a low whistle. “The entire time! Like his entire face didn’t fucking light up when he saw you.”
“That’s not--” Steve starts. “He was just surprised.”
“Bullshit,” Clint says. “I know what surprised looks like. That was infatuation.”
“Also what do you two keep whispering about?” Sam says. “You’re texting all the time, you still got that much to say?”
“We’re just being friendly, Sam,” Steve says. “Like friends. Who are friendly. And good at being friends.”
“Oh yeah,” Sam says. “Now I believe it. That sure sold me.”
“Come on, boys,” Natasha says. She has her elbow on the table and has her face resting in the palm of her hand. “Leave him alone. You’re gonna break poor Steve--”
“Thank you--” Steve is just saying, when Natasha’s casual expression flickers into something borderline wicked.
“--like Barnes will when they finally get their head out of their asses long enough to fuck.”
Steve turns bright, bright red.
“Is it their heads that are gonna be in their asses?” Clint says innocently and Steve swears, the ugly laugh that emits from Natasha’s mouth is unlike any sound that has been recorded in human existence.
“That is a sure thing, Rogers,” Natasha says after she’s done ruining his life. “Remember what I said about being touch-starved?”
“I’m not touch-starved,” Steve mumbles.
“This man has not been touched in five hundred years,” Sam declares. “When Barnes gets back with the beer, we gotta toast to Steve getting laid.”
“We are not doing that,” Steve says with a glare. “Do not do that!”
Of course Bucky takes this moment to appear. At his elbow is another Android. This one has bright purple electric eyes and fingers that are also purple-lit cylinders. The Android, a woman, comes up to Bucky’s shoulders, barely, and has neon green hair.
“What are we not doing?” Bucky asks. He helps the Android waitress distribute the beers to the appropriate member of the party. “And for you, Romanoff, one highlighter yellow fruit cocktail with a slice of pineapple and an umbrella to stick in your hair later.”
“Aww shucks, Barnes,” Natasha says. “You do care.”
Bucky gives her an exaggerated wink and slides back in next to Steve. Steve realizes how small the table and bench are, mostly because Bucky’s side is flush against his own. Bucky doesn’t notice, but Steve sure does. Suddenly it feels about ten degrees warmer and he’s having difficulty taking in the breaths necessary to survive.
“What aren’t we doing, Stevie?” he says and Steve knows, he fucking know that he’s turned into a fucking tomato plant because he also fucking knows that everyone at the table heard it and is drinking their beers while being extremely, infuriatingly, insufferably smug.
“Letting anyone else say another goddamned word,” Steve says, loudly.
“‘Bout what?” Bucky takes a sip of his beer.
“Anything,” Steve says. He takes a sip of his beer and glares at everyone who isn’t Bucky. Everyone, for their part, finds this highly entertaining and clink and do a toast anyway.
“To--” Clint starts and snickers as Steve sends daggers his way. “--beer. May we know it. May we love it. May we drink it always.”
“Amen,” Sam says. “I’ll drink to that.”
“Boorish,” Natasha drawls. “All of you.”
“--and to vodka,” Clint addends. “May...it not kill Romanoff one day.”
“That’s sweet,” Natasha says with a serene smile. “That you think vodka would stand a chance.”
“You’re fucking terrifying,” Clint says to her face. “You know that right?”
“Flattery will get you everywhere, Barton,” Natasha says. She puts her hand on Clint’s thigh because she knows exactly how to get anyone to do her bidding at any given time. “Everywhere.”
“For the love of--” Bucky says and puts his glass to the middle. “To beer! And Natasha’s inexplicably intact liver!”
“To beer!” And Nat’s liver!” they all echo and clink their glasses together, even Natasha and her pineapple and liquor fruit cocktail with a bright blue umbrella.
Two hours later, they’re starting to get sloppy. They’ve gone through three rounds of beer, two rounds of specialty shots, and a single round of fruit cocktails for the table that everyone had agreed was delicious and had made Natasha throw back her head and cackle because she was the only one with a straight shot of whiskey. She had tried to order absinthe, but both Bucky and Steve had laid down the law.
“Absolutely not!” Steve had said, loudly.
“Are you fucking crazy!” Bucky had also said, equally loudly.
“Don’t tell me what to do,” Natasha had looked both of them in their eyes and silently promised to deliver death. She, of course, hadn’t been outwardly drunk, but she had been listing just slightly enough that Clint had been sitting very very still. Then again, maybe she had just wanted to lean against Clint.
“If you die I’ll have to find a new friend,” Bucky had whined in response. “I don’t want to find a new friend.”
“You have—” Natasha’s eyes had flickered between him and Steve and the resultant glare had made her actually fucking giggle. “Tony. You have Tony.”
That had made Bucky groan and bury his face in his hands.
“Tony?” Steve had asked. “Who’s Tony? Tell me who Tony is.”
Natasha had cackled some more while Steve had all but poked Bucky’s side and Bucky had wailed and it had all been the beginning of their descent into chaos.
That had been followed, shortly, by Sam shuffling off to get them more drinks and when he hadn’t returned, the group had looked over to find the bartender leaning forward, elbows up on the bar, a smile on her face, and Sam trying and failing desperately to look cool.
That had set off another round of raucous laughter and a toast.
“To Wilson getting laid!” Clint had held up his glass of beer.
“Finally!” Bucky had said.
“About goddamn time,” Natasha had growled approvingly.
“I’ll drink to that,” Steve had grinned, as though he hadn’t been drinking to everything.
Then, Clint had said he needed to go pee and so he’d disappeared and then Natasha had said she needed to freshen up her makeup because not all of them could look like someone had tried and failed to revive the dead and so disappeared and Steve and Bucky had looked at each other significantly.
“They’ve gone to feel each other up, huh?” Bucky grins.
“I’m not going to lie,” Steve says and takes another mouthful of beer. “I did not see that coming.”
“Nat’s into blonds,” Bucky says and Steve raises an eyebrow. Bucky smiles at him wolfishly. “What? She didn’t try to pick you up?”
“No,” Steve says and he wouldn’t even have wanted her to, but he’s just drunk enough that it comes out as a pout.
That should make Bucky laugh, but somehow it makes him smile softly at him instead.
He reaches over and sticks a hand into Steve’s slightly damp hair.
“Aww Stevie,” Bucky says. “I’ll pick you up.”
This makes Steve duck his head and blush because he doesn’t quite have enough control over himself to ignore how that makes everything flutter in his chest. He’s almost flustered.
The hand in his hair shifts and Steve barely has time to miss it when Bucky’s leaning into him. Steve turns his head and Bucky’s right there, eyes bright, infectious smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. Small dimple on his chin that Steve has to make a conscious effort not to lean in and kiss.
“Wanna get some fresh air?” Bucky says into his ear.
“Please,” Steve replies.
Bucky grins at him again and when Steve slides out of the booth, Bucky follows close enough behind that Steve can feel his breath on his neck. It makes him shiver.
He pretends it’s from the cool night air washing over them when they push through the crowd and the door slides up to let them out.
“God, this feels so much better,” Bucky says.
Steve turns around and Bucky’s running a hand through his sweaty strands. He takes them between his fingers, shaking his head until what hair was left in his bun falls loose around his shoulders. Steve has known, for an indisputable fact, that Bucky Barnes is out of this galaxy gorgeous, but there’s something tonight that makes him look like something out of someone’s dreams. His shoulders are relaxed, his black t-shirt pulled across his ample chest, his biceps fit to bursting out given half the opportunity. Steve would like to give them that opportunity.
Bucky looks drunk and happy and unguarded for just the moment. It’s a good look on him.
Steve leans against the wall, hands in his pockets, and Bucky joins him a minute later. They stand side-by-side, shoulders touching, not saying anything, but being aware of the other all the same. Steve can feel Bucky’s presence by the steady, nervous, thrilled drumming of his heart against his chest.
“I’m glad you came to the café today,” Bucky says after a while. He sounds just slightly sheepish, but unapologetic at the same time.
“I didn’t know you went there,” Steve says with a smile. “Have we just been circling each other everywhere all this time?”
Bucky doesn’t reply right away, but when he does, it’s thoughtful and genuine.
“You believe in fate, Rogers?” he asks.
Steve’s been alive too long to believe that life is anything but random chances and consequences.
“I believe that things happen for a reason,” he says. “But most of the time that reason is just pure happenstance.”
“You think us meeting was pure happenstance?” Bucky asks.
“You think it was fate?” Steve smiles.
“Maybe,” he says. “Would you judge me if I did?”
Steve doesn’t say anything for a moment.
“No,” he admits. “I think it would be nice.”
“For it to be fate?”
“For someone to believe it was,” Steve says.
Perhaps he looks a little sad--because that’s how he feels, something tugging him down slightly, just south of the happiness he’s been feeling all night--because Bucky turns to face him. He looks like he wants to say something, but can’t find the words to say it.
Steve takes a deep breath, trying to dispel the sudden melancholy of the moment. Because the thing is, if this was something like fate, then fate has a cruel sense of humor. Steve’s waited an entire lifetime—multiple lifetimes, even—to find someone he wants to share himself with. He had found Peggy, briefly, and they had been good, until they hadn’t been. He supposes he still hasn’t forgiven the universe for giving him someone only to make it unworkable.
But Bucky—god. Steve likes him so much. He makes him feel lighter and brighter, like there’s a better person he could be or like there’s a best version of himself he hasn’t discovered. Bucky makes him laugh. He makes him think. He makes him retreat from his past and exist now, here, in this moment, with him. Steve would be happy to share whatever part of his life Bucky would want to have. When Bucky closes his eyes, Steve wants to kiss his eyelids. And when he looks downcast, he wants to take his hands in between his own and promise him they can make it better.
But he can’t take this. If fate has brought them together only to break them in the time Steve has left—then fate is a cruel hand indeed. Steve can’t do it to himself, but he especially can’t do it to Bucky.
“Steve,” Bucky says, softly. “Hey.”
Steve doesn’t realize that he’s stopped talking or that they’ve moved closer together. His body has gravitated toward Bucky without his knowledge or consent.
Steve shakes his head and is slightly horrified to find that his throat is tight. There’s a burning feeling in his chest. He swallows what tastes like anguish.
“What’s wrong?” Bucky asks as he cups Steve’s face.
His flesh hand feels warm against the chill of Steve’s skin. I want this, he wants to say. I want you. But he can’t. Steve turns his face into it anyway.
They look at each other, unable to turn away. It feels heavy and thick between them. Melancholy and electric. Steve thinks if he closed the distance between their mouths, they would burn alive.
“You look sad,” Bucky whispers.
Steve tries to say I’m not, but manages only something soft and strangled.
“Tell me,” Bucky says. “I don’t get to be the only fucked up one here. I want to know anything you want to tell me.”
Steve takes in a shuddering breath.
How do you tell the person you love that there’s a timeline on this, that there’s a timeline on you? How do you tell them that the timeline is ending and the end is the only thing that’s left? Because the thing is, he’s already decided. It’s not as though he really had a choice. If he doesn’t deactivate, then DeComm will forcibly do it for him. If it’s his free will or their guillotine, well, he won’t let them drop the blade. The last letter sits heavy in his pocket. One month.
“Remember when you said you didn’t have a choice?” Steve finally says, his voice thick.
“Yeah,” Bucky says. He hasn’t let go.
“We have to take the choices we have left to us,” Steve says.
If Bucky is confused by what he’s talking about, he doesn’t show it.
Instead, Steve starts to shake and Bucky envelops him within his arms.
“It’s okay,” Bucky says as Steve trembles against him. He strokes one hand through Steve’s hair, and holds the other one against Steve’s back. “It’s okay. You’re not alone, idiot. We’ll get through it together. Whatever it is, you have me, okay? You have me, Stevie. You always have me.”
Bucky presses kisses to Steve’s hair and to his brow and to his cheeks and to his eyelids. He almost kisses his mouth, but Steve doesn’t let him.
This one thing, he couldn’t bear losing it too.
[ refueling station #1918, jupiter sector, earth 2.0 ]
Bucky gets to the Station at an hour when even the specialists are sleepy. He’s spent the last week thinking about how haunted Steve had looked, how quietly devastated, as though the inevitable was bearing down on his shoulders and he no longer had space to run from it. He had the look of a man with a gun against his forehead. It had scared Bucky, if he was being honest. But it made it that much easier, after. He had made up his mind and the thought of it had distracted him enough that he had even eaten dinner with his family last night. It might have been largely awkward and silent, but he’d been so in his head that he hadn’t really noticed.
In his pocket is the crumpled, torn deactivation letter. He’s read it so many times now that he has the damn thing memorized. Every time he thinks the words will change, he’s furious when they don’t.
It isn’t fucking right for a group of anonymous assholes to decide who gets to live and who gets to die while they sit comfortably in their ivory fucking tower. They draw a name out of a hat and decide this person’s lived long enough and send a letter, as though the good luck and best wishes at the end absolves their sin of forcing Androids to take their own lives. Like, sure, they’re lowkey encouraging government-sponsored, systematic genocide, but it’s fine because they were polite about it in their fucking letters. Fuck that.
Bucky’s been so angry about it that even Tony’s stopped forcing his tired StarkCorps rants on him during work. Every time he’s about to start, Bucky must look so stormy that he shuts his mouth and goes back to his tinkering. Bucky’s ruined nearly three engines out of frustration.
How long until Bucky gets a DeComm letter of his own? If the bastards at the Deactivation Commission think he’s going without setting the entire damn building on fire, they’re going to burn with it. He won’t waste time shedding a tear for them.
Bucky takes his usual dock and if he’s glowering more than usual, well Sharon Carter is too groggy to comment on it. He waits, a little nervous and a lot impatient, for Steve to show up.
“Tell me,” Bucky had said that night. “I want to know anything you want to tell me.”
And for a moment, Bucky had thought Steve might. Steve had looked so quiet that night, so deep within himself even when he was pretending not to be. He had smiled and laughed and even leaned into Bucky’s touch, but there had been something melancholy about him and Bucky doesn’t think he’s the only one who noticed.
Natasha had followed him to the bar when he had gone to get them shots.
“I’ve known Steve for a long time,” she had said, unprompted. “He’s always been good at hiding his feelings. Not anger, never that. And not love or affection either. But when he feels sad, he weathers it alone.”
Bucky had looked at her questioningly and Natasha had just leaned against the bar, arms crossed, elbows on top.
“He thinks he does anyway,” she had admitted. “In truth, he’s terrible at hiding it because his big, goddamned eyes give everything away.”
“Nat,” Bucky had said. “What--?”
“He’s about to fall apart, James,” Natasha had said. “And he won’t let anyone know or do anything about it. Do you know why?”
Bucky had thought to the letter he had found.
PLEASE TAKE ACTION IMMEDIATELY OR AS SOON AS POSSIBLE OR YOU MAY BE SUBJECT TO FORCIBLE ACTION.
He had swallowed, breathing in through his nose to calm down the sheer, spitting anger he felt every time he read those callous words.
“I have an idea,” he had said.
Natasha had put a hand on his flesh arm and pressed on it slightly.
“Look at his eyes,” she had said. “You won’t find a sadder pair.”
“What should I do?” Bucky had asked because he wasn’t in the business of hiding his feelings from Natasha and he was pretty sure Natasha had taken one glance at how he looked at Steve and figured it out anyway.
“Be there for him,” she had said. “Make sure he’s not alone.”
She hadn’t clarified what she meant. She could have meant--make sure he’s not alone tonight, or--make sure he’s not ever alone, or--make sure he’s not alone, at the end. Whatever she meant, Bucky hadn’t needed to think twice about it. For Steve Rogers, he thinks he would do anything.
So he had been there with him, had braced a hand against his face and a hand against his back, and taken as much of his pain as he could.
And Bucky would have taken more, but Steve had finally pulled back, with a smile.
Bucky did as Natasha was told and found in Steve, the saddest pair of eyes he had ever seen. It nearly took his breath away, the depth of his sadness.
“Thanks, Buck,” Steve had said.
“Steve,” Bucky had said. “I have to tell you something.”
And maybe Bucky wanted to tell him he had found the letter, or maybe Bucky had wanted to tell him that he was falling in love with him, but what Bucky wanted, he never had a chance to find out.
“Don’t,” Steve had said. “Let’s have this be enough. The rest, we can leave up to fate.”
“You don’t believe in fate, Steve,” Bucky had said. It had taken something from him to say it.
“But you do,” Steve had said, looking at him with his sad eyes. “That can be enough, too.”
Maybe they had been drunk and it had all been more unbearably charged because of it. But Bucky thinks he can feel the weight of that moment, even now, how his heart had broken a little, or whatever he had left of it.
Let me fight for us, Bucky had repeated to himself over and over again that night and the nights that followed. He should have said it then, with a hand in Steve’s hair, and their bodies so close he could feel their breaths intermingling. But he hadn’t and he hasn’t had a chance since, to ask this of Steve, to ask him to allow them to have a chance.
So he’s going to now. He’s going to take Steve’s face between his fingers and tell him it’s going to be okay, one way or another, that he is going to make it okay. Bucky doesn’t know how he’s going to make it okay, but let anyone try to stop him.
He waits first an hour, and then another. He makes small talk with Scott, has some mindless conversation with Sharon that he can’t remember the moment after it finishes. Mostly he sits in his dock, anxiety eating at his stomach.
He gets his portasim out to message Steve once or twice and puts it away. Then he thinks better of it and messages him anyway.
Another hour goes by and he hears nothing and sees nothing.
It’s not the dread in his stomach that finally indicates that something might be wrong, it’s Sam’s face.
“Barnes,” Sam says as the glass doors slide open. He looks unsettled, almost ashen. It’s not a normal look for Sam Wilson and it sets off something close to panic in Bucky already tense nervous system.
“Wilson,” Bucky says. “What is it?”
“Have you--” the worry is evident in Sam’s usually calm demeanor. He runs a hand over his mostly bare head. “Have you heard from Steve lately?”
For a moment, the panic is so intense that Bucky nearly blacks out with it. Then he does some breathing exercises that Sam had taught him years ago. He tries to bring himself back down.
“No,” Bucky answers, tensely. “Not since...yesterday morning.”
“Wilson,” Bucky starts and stops. “Sam. Is he--what’s going on?”
“It could be nothing,” Sam admits. “Maybe, I mean he could have zeroed or maybe he’s with Nat, but I haven’t seen him for a few days. Haven’t heard from him.”
“You live next to him, don’t you?” Bucky asks slowly.
“Yeah,” Sam says. “That’s why I’m a little concerned. I mean, maybe I’m just being paranoid. Something just feels off, you know? And I trust my instincts.”
Bucky shakes his head. He clenches his teeth because the effort gives him something to focus on, some friction to ground him. He reaches into his pocket and digs out the letter. He shoves it at Sam.
“What’s this?” Sam asks with a frown. He takes the crumpled pieces of paper and smooths them out as best as he can, holding the two sides together. His face grows more and more drawn as he reads the lines. “Fuck. Holy shit.”
“He can’t--” Bucky says. He swallows. He leans forward and unintentionally jostles the cord at his neck and the electricity jars inside him, the familiar feeling of nausea crashing through his body. He ignores it. He doesn’t have time for nausea. “--Sam, he can’t have. He wouldn’t have, without saying anything. Right?”
“That motherfucker is crazy enough to--” Sam says and he stops. He looks actually, genuinely, borderline devastated. It’s the most off-kilter Bucky has ever seen Sam Wilson. “If he thought it was sparing us. God, he’s been saying weird shit to me lately, but I thought--god, I thought he was just feeling a little depressive. It fucking happens all the time, to most Androids and Alts. It’s hard not to be depressive when--fuck. Fuck.”
Bucky reaches behind him and rips the cord out of his neck. The disconnection is so fucking unpleasant and jarring that he stumbles forward. Sam catches him, both hands to his shoulders.
“We have to find him,” Bucky says. “We have to keep him from doing something stupid.”
“Have you met Rogers?” Sam says. “Everything he does is something stupid. He’s impossible to stop. It would take a bulldozer.”
“Then we’ll fucking be bulldozers,” Bucky nearly roars and he’s so fucking agitated, so out of his mind with anger and anxiety, that he doesn’t realize he’s scaring everyone until Sam squeezes his arm.
“Down, Barnes,” he says. “Steve is my best fucking friend. I’m not letting him do this. But we can’t lose our heads.”
“Where--” Bucky tries to calm down. His entire arm starts flashing red with his agitation. He can feel it burning against the seam where his flesh meets the cylinder. “Where would he go. To do this. Stupid fucking. Thing.”
“Somewhere no one would think to look for him,” Sam says. “Somewhere he could be alone.”
“That could be anywhere--”
“Bucky, wait,” Sam says suddenly, as though something has just occurred to him. He grasps Bucky’s arm. He’s staring down at the letter. “The letter. It says he has two months left.”
“The date,” Sam says. “Two months from that date was--”
“Fuck,” Bucky says, everything grinding to a halt. “Fuck.”
Two months from the date on the letter had been last week.
Please take action immediately or as soon as possible or you may be subject to forcible action.
Steve’s time had run out a week ago and now he was missing.
That’s the only thing Bucky has time to think before a sudden series of beeps starts blaring from each of the simpads and portasims in the room. Sam frowns as Bucky digs his portasim out of his jacket pocket. Around the room, one by one, Androids, Alts, and specialists alike take their devices out, just to stop the noise.
Bucky doesn’t really comprehend the message at first. Then, Sam’s grip tightens on his shoulder so hard that he comes back to himself.
Because on everyone’s device is a government-issued, system-wide alert.
WANTED, FOR ARREST AND DEACTIVATION: STEVEN GRANT ROGERS, ANDROID
And under that a rotating, scowling picture of Steve and under that, another warning:
MAY BE UNSTABLE AND DANGEROUS. IF SEEN, CALL TERRAPOL IMMEDIATELY.
Chapter 7: [ refracting ]
Remember that shithousery I promised? Here we go.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
[ saturn sector, earth 2.0 ]
“Come on,” Bucky mutters under his breath, his anxiety cresting as the sonicrail, faster than a speeding photon or some shit, stalls between stops. Usually there’s no mode of transportation faster or more efficient; except, evidently, when someone is trying to keep the person they love from dying or being captured in order to be killed.
The next time the rail stalls, Bucky nearly screams. Luckily, Sam is right next to him. He keeps squeezing Bucky’s bicep because it’s the closest thing he can reach in the packed train car. It doesn’t really calm Bucky down, but it does make him stop himself from punching his robotic arm through the window.
“He’s gonna be there,” Sam says quietly near Bucky’s ear. “We’re gonna get there in time.”
If they don’t, DeComm is gonna see exactly what kind of a killing machine the Force turned him into.
Bucky doesn’t stop to let himself think about the what if’s—what if they don’t get there in time? What if DeComm get to him first? What if Bucky loses Steve forever? Is this what happens? He says this is a good thing, I accept I deserve a good thing, and the world just takes it from him anyway?
Sam’s squeeze comes again.
“Steady, soldier,” he says.
So Bucky takes a deep breath and watches the scenery in between sectors pass by with all of his passivity burned and only his hatred remaining.
Saturn seems eerily quiet when they get out. Bucky’s only been to this sector once before, when he had been up to his eyeballs in substance abuse. He remembers very little other than stumbling into people and getting dragged out of an alley by TerraPol. The only reason he hadn’t spent the night in jail is because he still had his Force badge on him and power recognizes power. Not that Bucky had really had power. Raw, killing power, maybe, but beyond that, he was nothing but a wreck of a former human being.
The half-memory of that night doesn’t really compare to what he’s seeing now, which is mostly empty streets. There are a few twitchy Alts lingering on sidewalks outside apartment complexes, but other than that, there’s just a thick silence that makes Bucky’s hair stand on its ends. There are no cars, hovering or otherwise. It’s like the site of a zombie apocalypse.
“Is this normal?” he murmurs.
“Maybe,” Sam says. “I don’t see any forces yet. C’mon.”
Steve’s apartment is the first place TerraPol would be dispatched. Bucky and Sam have no reason to be nervous themselves, but Bucky can’t help but feel something isn’t right. He watches his step and thinks, for the first time in decades, about turning his arm on.
He follows Sam across stretches of empty sidewalk until they reach a tall building with glass windows. Sam pauses to key in a long string of numbers and Bucky breathes in and out through his nose rhythmically to calm his jitters. This feels wrong. It all feels wrong.
The door clicks and slides open and they carefully cross into the lobby. Here, too, it’s empty.
“Somethin’s not right,” Bucky says. He wishes he had a gun on him.
“Yeah,” Sam says. “Is that—?”
Sam frowns and whistles and a golden retriever comes bounding to him.
“Lucky,” he says. “Where’s Katie?”
The dog barks and licks Sam’s hand. His owner and babysitter are nowhere to be found.
“C’mon,” Bucky says.
He and Sam cross to the glass elevator bank, Lucky at their heels.
“Anyone could see us,” Bucky murmurs of the glass. Sam nods tersely and almost thumbs the number fourteen before thinking better of it and pressing twenty.
“I get a feeling,” Sam murmurs back.
“You too?” Bucky asks. “My skin’s crawling.”
The glass shuts and the magnetic particles start charging. Their bodies hurtle up through the glass tube until they hit the twentieth floor. The floor materializes under their feet and the door slides open.
The hallway is empty.
“This place is bugged to hell and back,” Bucky says through gritted teeth. “Or I’ll eat my metal arm.”
“They want us to lead them to him,” Sam says, agreeing. “They’ve been tracking him.”
“Motherfuckers,” Bucky swears.
“Okay,” Sam says. He has a hand on Lucky’s neck. “We’re paying a visit.”
“What?” Bucky jerks. “Where the fuck are we—”
“Come on, boy,” Sam says, ignoring Bucky. “Let’s take you to your dad.”
Bucky shuts his mouth as Lucky leads them down the nearly endless hallway. The doorway to each apartment is almost seamless with the white walls. The only indication that there are apartment doors is the lit numbers above blank spaces that could be doors if there were doors.
Sam stops in front of 20-K and Lucky barks up. Sam passes a hand over the lit numbers. Nothing happens for a minute, then a little circle of an eye-scope appears and an eyeball blinks on the other side of it.
Lucky barks again, louder, and suddenly the outline of a door carves itself into the blank space. The door slides open, melting into the side of the wall.
“Hey,” Clint says. He looks stiff and sounds stiffer. Lucky barks up at him and his demeanor flickers a little. He bends down to pet him. “Hey, boy.”
“Hey, Clint,” Sam says. “Found Lucky downstairs. Didn’t see Kate around, so thought you might be missing him.”
“Yeah, thanks,” Clint says. His eyes flicker between Sam and Bucky and the hallway behind them. “You guys wanna come in? Just bought some beer.”
“Yeah,” Sam says. “I could go for a beer. Bucky?”
“Yeah,” Bucky says, tensely. “Beer. And I need to. Piss.”
Clint stands and Lucky bounds into the apartment behind him. Sam walks in behind Lucky.
Bucky takes a breath and follows, his every hair and nerve on end. The door seals itself behind him.
Inside, the three of them look at each other with apprehension. Then Clint lets his shoulders down.
“Didn’t know if you were TerraPol,” he says.
“There’s no one outside,” Sam says. “Not a soul. It’s eerie as hell.”
“They have the place surrounded,” Clint says. He whistles at Lucky to follow him to the kitchen, where he has the same protein and electrowater dispenser Bucky has for Quincy.
“I could feel it,” Bucky says. He looks at the dog, happily starting in on his food and his stomach twists.
“This isn’t normal,” Sam says. His arms are crossed tightly at his chest. “They don’t usually freeze an entire building to deactivate an Android.”
“They came for him at StarkCorps first,” Clint says. He’s still squatting by dog, scratching behind his ear. “America tipped me off. They had TerraPol crawling all over Design, shut down his project, confiscated his work. America almost got herself arrested, but Parker talked her down.”
“Where are they now?” Sam says. He has TerraPol training. He’s assessing the situation as a former police officer.
“I told them not to tell me,” Clint says. “Somewhere safe.”
“His apartment cased?” Sam asks.
“Yeah.” Clint nods. “Broke in and ransacked it. Everything’s destroyed. Found a stack of DeComm letters and are holding them as evidence of his belligerence or some shit. I think they were waiting for someone to lead them to him.”
“They’ve been watching him for weeks,” Sam says and it’s not so much surprise or horror as knowing dread.
“Fuck,” Bucky swears, suddenly. He can’t stand here just talking about this anymore. He’s about to tear his hair out. “This is—fucking bullshit. Where is he? We have to find him before they get him and do—fuck.”
“Clint,” Sam says urgently. “When was the last time you heard from him? If I can get you his account information, can you hack into—”
“They froze all his accounts two days ago,” Clint says.
Bucky’s suddenly seized with unshakeable suspicion.
“How do you know that?” he asks slowly.
For a moment, everything in the room grows quiet. Sam’s body posture held frozen, Clint staring at Bucky, hard, Bucky on the verge of turning his arm on and throttling Clint with it.
“You wanna say something, Barnes?” Clint’s usually relaxed demeanor goes brittle.
“You seem to know a fuckload about what happened to him,” Bucky says. He’s not doing a great job of sounding neutral or calm, but fuck all if he cares. “Without knowing where he is.”
Clint’s jaw twitches.
“I’m gonna say it again,” he says. “You wanna say something, Barnes? Cause the way I see it, you’re the weakest link here. Knowing him all of six months and trying to ferret out where he’s hiding.”
“Clint,” Sam says sharply.
“Say that to my face, asshole,” Bucky growls. He clenches his fists without his knowledge. He takes one step closer.
“Barnes,” Sam warns.
“That not your face?” Clint Barton almost sneers. “Am I saying it to your ass hole?”
Bucky jerks toward Clint unthinkingly and he and Clint almost have each other by the throats when Sam gets between them, a hand on both chests.
“Stand the fuck down,” he snaps. And then, “Listen.”
Both Clint and Bucky stop snarling long enough to hear very soft and very obvious sounds—the unclicking of safeties, quiet footsteps outside Clint’s door.
“Fuck,” Bucky says. The dread is a live thing now, angry and writhing in his stomach.
“Fuck,” Clint agrees. “We’re outta time. We gotta get him out of here.”
That makes Bucky’s anxiety grind to a halt.
“Yeah, asshole,” Clint says, but it’s without heat this time. There’s no time for ire.
He gets up and walks down the hallway to his bedroom. Halfway down the corridor, in a narrow panel between doors, he presses his palm. A keypad and scanner appear. He puts in a string of characters and lets the scanner scan his eye.
Silently, the panel of wall shifts to either side. Inside is a narrow, short set of stairs and up the stairs, a small duct, just big enough for a person to sit and wait.
Bucky looks up and finds a pair of familiar blue eyes staring down at him.
“Steve,” he croaks.
“Bucky?” Steve blinks in surprise.
“Oh, god.” The relief is overwhelming, almost dizzying. He had thought that maybe Steve had—he has to pinch his side to keep steady. “God, I thought you had—that you were—I found one of your letters and—”
“What? My letter--” Steve’s expression crumbles from surprise to apologetic. “God, no. I wouldn’t—not without saying something. Not without saying goodbye.”
“No one’s saying goodbye today, Rogers,” Sam’s voice comes from behind Bucky’s shoulder.
“Sam?” Steve looks surprised again. And then, as their situation dawned on him, slowly— “They’re here. Aren’t they?”
Outside, the footsteps grow louder. And then, suddenly, some banging on the wall.
“Gotta go, Steve,” Clint says, urgently.
Steve jumps down from his duct and Bucky steadies him as he wobbles on his feet.
“How much fuel do you have left?” Bucky asks quietly. His hand is on Steve’s side, Steve’s surprisingly calm face just a few inches away from his.
“Enough,” he mumbles.
It doesn’t look like enough. Steve looks paler than Bucky’s seen him and Bucky briefly wonders when Steve last ate or properly slept, but there’s no time for it.
“We have to do this the old-fashioned way,” Clint says. “And scale a fucking wall.”
“White boy say what?” Sam stares at him.
“They’re about to break my door in, you have a better plan, Wilson?” Clint seals the hidden closet duct back up.
“Anyone got a spacejet?” Sam mutters.
“Actually--” Bucky says and the other three look at them. “I have an idea. Barton, you have an untraceable device?”
“You think I’m a hack hacker?” Clint says. “Don’t answer that. Here.”
He takes a sleek black bracelet off his wrist and pitches it to Bucky.
“Just tell it who and what you need. But do it fast. Go out the back.”
“Clint--” Steve says and Clint shakes his head.
“I live here. They’ll ask some questions, but not more than that,” he says. He claps a hand on Steve’s shoulder and something that sounds mildly like a battering ram hits the door wall. “Fuck. Hopefully. Guess we’re gonna find out. Good luck, Cap.”
“Thank you, Clint,” Steve says. He looks like he’s about to give Clint a hug, but there really is no fucking time because the wall starts splintering.
“Steve, come on,” Sam says worriedly.
Sam and Steve barely make it into the other room before another battering ram sound cracks through the apartment. Lucky barks at the door or at the sound or the general feeling of doom in the air. He barks a lot and the three of them can hear a soft, good, boy from Clint as they shove into Clint’s bedroom and seal the door behind them.
Bucky, in the meantime, gets his call through. By the time the other two join him, his military training has finally jumpstarted his system. He feels calmer and more clear-headed than he has in years. His arm glows a bright, steady red, like a warning beacon on a harbor.
“You have to get to the sonicrail ports,” he says. “He’s reprogrammed one to take you to Pluto. Get to Automata and there’ll be a craft waiting to take you to the meeting point.”
“What meeting point?” Sam asks, just as Steve seems to register what Bucky’s said.
“You?” he demands furiously. “What do you mean by you?”
“Steve,” Bucky says. “You have to do this.”
“Bucky, what the fuck do you think you’re doing?” Steve grabs his flesh arm, curls his fingers in painfully.
“Steve, I’m sorry, we don’t have the time,” Sam says.
He shoves open Clint’s window. Clint’s on the twentieth floor, which means a fuckload of stories to climb down. Luckily, they live in the future and Clint Barton believes in technology. Outside of his window is a black disc that Sam passes a palm over. It quickly sends a charge that ripples down twenty stories. It’s not the safest rappelling system, but it’ll wrap around them like a tangible cord, as much as a mostly magnetic charge can.
“Stevie,” Bucky says. He frames Steve’s face with a hand. “You gotta trust me.”
“Buck, I’m not leaving without you--” Steve says angrily, but then Clint’s voice is loud in the other room.
“Can I help you fellas out?”
Bucky doesn’t stop to think. If this is the last moment he sees Steve, so be it. If this is the last thing that he fucking does, well this is the fucking choice he gets to make. Not his parents, not Steve, him.
“Steve,” Bucky says again--and then kisses him.
Steve lets out a surprised little sound that Bucky swallows whole. He opens his mouth and pulls Steve to him, pushes himself closer, the hard lines of their bodies meeting in the middle urgently, almost desperately. In the midst of all of this, with their worlds ending in a colossal crescendo of fuckery, they feel it between them, the deep hunger. He doesn’t give a shit about the rest.
Bucky braces his non-charged hand and his non-charged fingers against Steve’s face and feels Steve’s slight stubble under his fingertips. He makes sure to remember this, to memorize the way he breathes into him, the way Steve tastes, the way their mouths fit together like they were made for only each other. Even now, under the threat of death, under a moment that is collapsing, Bucky stops to feel the electricity between them.
Steve is the one who pulls away, red-lipped and slightly panting, looking as torn and anguished as that night at the bar, askew as a ship dashed against rocks.
“You don’t have to do this,” he says. “Come with me.”
“Don’t tell me what to do, Rogers,” Bucky says. “I’ll protect who I wanna protect. It’s my choice.”
Steve looks like he’s going to argue against it at first--he even opens his mouth to--but then he stops, as though he’s realized what Bucky’s said and is struggling to accept it--both Bucky’s choice and the fact that it might be possible that this one time, he might not the most stubborn and suicidal asshole in the room.
“Promise me,” he says instead, jerkily. “You’ll make it out. Promise me, Buck.”
“You got it, pal,” Bucky says. “Got no plans of dying tonight.”
Steve frames Bucky’s face with both of his hands and kisses him again. It’s torture. It’s the light of his entire fucking life.
“Meeting point. I’ll meet you there. We’ll continue this there.”
“Rogers!” Sam calls. He’s already out the window, rappelling down over the ledge.
“Steve, I am almost positive that I am head over fucking heels in love with you,” Bucky says. He passes a hand over his arm cylinder. In response, it glows red. “But if you don’t get your cute little stubborn ass out that window I am going to show you what this fucking arm can do.”
“Show me another time,” Steve says. He presses a kiss to Bucky one last time before breaking away. “And me too. Head over heels in love. Tell you more later.”
Bucky grins at that--like really just fucking grins. His chest just fucking expands, like he’s swallowed light and now it’s just everywhere inside of him. It’s maybe stupid or psychopathic to feel this fucking ecstatic when everything is going to shit, but he supposes he’s been fucked in the head for decades now, so why stop now?
Steve quickly makes it to the window and lifts himself up and out.
Bucky thinks he’s managed to scale a few floors--maybe more, when the door bursts into pieces. Five TerraPol officers, armed to the teeth, wearing masks, point their guns at him.
Bucky licks his lips and grins. This is going to be fun.
“Hey, guys,” he says. “Let me show you what a pissed off Android can do.”
Then his bright, red arm cylinder starts spinning.
[ café automata, pluto sector, earth 2.0 ]
Steve and Sam scale the building down as fast as they can and it’s only by virtue of sheer luck and the building’s wide spaced windows that they get down undetected. Steve hears shots and crunching sounds and something that might be a small blast from above and he has to almost physically keep himself from scaling back up to help Bucky and Clint. The magnetic charge of a rope wrapped around his waist and his wrists helps to steady him and when their feet hit the ground, he gives a tug of his hands and they let go.
The street is empty. When he had come home from work, three days ago, there were the usual crowds of tired workers commuting home, exhausted and unaware of their surroundings. Steve’s always been aware of his surroundings, so it had occurred to him that something felt off, even if he couldn’t say what. It hadn’t just been in Saturn, it had been at work and on the sonicrail too—little looks from strangers that lingered a beat too long, finding a seat too easily on the train, and having his clearance access at work glitch so that he’s forced to go to the front terminal to check in with a human instead.
It had all felt off. And then he had tried to access his bank accounts and found them frozen. He tried to access the simpad network next and found his access denied. That’s when he had known.
He’d gone to Clint immediately and told him everything. He’d been shoved in Clint’s secret closet duct ever since.
“If we keep to corners and trees, we’ll mostly be out of sniper shot if that’s the way they wanna go,” Sam mutters.
“TerraPol doesn’t work that way,” Steve frowns.
“They also don’t usually set an entire sector on freeze,” Sam says.
“I guess the Androids they deactivate aren’t usually political dissidents,” Steve says.
Clint had done what Clint does best and hacked into the TerraPol mainframe and the DeComm database. The TerraPol network actually had walls and protections up, but the DeComm database had been, according to Clint, insultingly easy to take down. It had all taken him a matter of thirty minutes. It wasn’t a completely clean hack, but clean enough that it would take the proper authorities a while to figure out who had done it, or, at least, piece context clues together.
Sam and Steve jog through the sector toward the rail, taking corners and buildings where they can.
“It’s because of your Molotov cocktails?” Sam asks incredulously.
“Android dissidents are a threat to peace and stability,” Steve says, repeating verbatim a line from his file. They see the glass tubes ahead of them. Each of them are clear, colorless. One, Steve thinks, has a strangely gold tint to it.
“Yeah, right,” Sam snorts. “Where peace and stability are parroting government propaganda. Fuck that.”
“One Molotov cocktail too many,” Steve says with a grim smile. “You shoulda told me when you arrested me.”
“Man, you think I didn’t try?”
They check 360° around them and decide to make a dash for it.
“We need weapons!” Steve shouts as they pound toward the gold tube.
“Sorry, I forgot to grab my photon rifle from my office when my worried ass came to look for yours!” Sam shouts back.
Steve is about to answer when, out of nowhere, a photon blast rips the ground next to his feet.
“Fuck!” he swears. “Run!”
They split up and run, dodging photon snipes, trying to temper their oxygen needs with the rush of pure, electric adrenaline. Steve needs badly to refuel, but he hasn’t felt this alive in decades. A zap next to his head singes the top of his ear and he hurls himself left. The burn is immediate and painful, but he has no time to check. Sam’s closest to the tube now and he almost makes it when a shot more than grazes his thigh.
Steve hears the pained grunt and Sam stumbles on his feet. Steve can almost see the next blast aimed at Sam’s head.
He throws his body at Sam, slamming into him. They both go rolling to the right just as the blast destroys the concrete where Sam was a second ago.
“Come on, come on,” Steve mutters. He uses his enhanced strength to haul Sam to his feet and drags him the last few feet to the golden tube.
He gasps, slamming his hand through the glass, which vaporizes under his touch. They fall through just as three photon blasts ricochet against the tube’s exterior. Physical touch will let people through the barrier. Energy blasts won’t.
Steve and Sam pant together, their knees slammed into the ground, Steve’s fingers still curled painfully into Sam’s arm.
Steve barely has the chance to process their near escape when the energy starts thrumming around them. The tube glows a bright, blinding gold and Steve and Sam are hurtled up through particles.
They slam back down onto the ground together, pain shooting through every limb in their bodies. Every part of Steve aches fiercely and Sam’s face looks sweaty with discomfort. They lay sprawled into each other, trying to catch their breaths.
Steve knows they have limited time if an alert’s gone out on them, so he forcibly drags himself up and Sam with him.
“Can you walk?” he asks, one arm at Sam’s back to help him stand.
“Hurts like a mother,” Sam hisses. “But I’ve had worse. I’ll be fine.”
“Automata’s not too far,” Steve says. He wants to sound helpful, but he’s mostly bone tired.
Sam nods his assent and the two of them manage to hobble out of the glass terminal (which has turned colorless in the meantime), the casing of the tube melting over their skin like fog as they step through easily. Automata is a few blocks and an avenue over.
Luckily, no one’s remembered to shut Pluto down too. There are people out, enjoying the late afternoon sun, mingling on sidewalks, and walking in and out of shops.
Steve and Sam wearily clench their teeth against the exhaustion and pain and make their way quickly into and through the crowd. Steve guiltily relieves a young woman of the stunner hanging off her purse and a man of his charge disrupter. He must some kind of an electrician, because the disrupter is portable but several voltage above standard issue. Steve gives the disrupter to Sam. Stunning and temporarily disrupting photon blasters aren’t the most ideal weapons in a fire fight, but it’s better than nothing.
They cross corners and avoid shops that are known TerraPol associates. Steve’s pretty sure he sees his image with a news alert bulletin scrolling across the bottom of one.
They get to Automata without trouble. It’s the only bit of luck they’ve had all day.
Then Sam grabs Steve’s arm.
“Holy shit,” he swears.
Steve looks up and for a moment can’t process what he’s seeing or if he’s seeing it at all. Then he realizes that it isn’t that the wreckage in front of him doesn’t exist, it’s that his brain can’t comprehend it.
Trouble found the Automata long before they did.
The door has a bright red X spray painted across the glass. The windows are smashed in, the sign missing letters. It looks like photon shots that have blasted off chunks of the roof. Someone’s ripped the All Beings Welcome sticker from the front window. There’s glass and debris everywhere. Whatever happened here was quick and violent. Automata did not go down without a fight.
Steve stares at the destruction, almost uncomprehendingly. This café has been his home away from home for so long, it’s incomprehensible to him that it might be gone. That Natasha might be gone. That this life he built on this planet, might be gone.
It’s really then that he understands.
There’s no coming back from this. He either deactivates and saves everyone who’s been caught in the zone of destruction or he finds a way to get out, leaves this all behind, and starts somewhere new. Whatever he chooses, he can never have this back; there’s no scenario in which he can stay here, in his home, with his friends and this life and still remain alive.
It hits him like a photon blast. He nearly doubles over under the weight of it.
“Am I being selfish, Sam?” he murmurs. “Is all of this worth it?”
“Are you worth it?” Sam asks. He braces a hand against Steve’s shoulder and squeezes. “Looks like we damn well think so.”
“This was Nat’s life,” he says, the guilt raw in his voice. “She built this up from nothing.”
“No,” Sam says sharply. “What you’re not gonna do is take away our agency to feel guilty about whatever it is you’re feeling guilty for. Nat’s a big kid, Steve. We all are. If she was willing to give up Automata for you, then it’s because she chose to. She thought you were worth it.”
It’s a strange twist in his gut, guilt mixing with gratitude. He’s always said he would die for the people he loved. It’s almost overwhelming to realize they might think the same.
Steve swallows thickly and nods.
“Good,” Sam says and claps a hand on Steve’s back. He sways a little with the effort and grits his teeth in pain.
“We gotta get you medicine,” Steve says quickly. He looks down at Sam’s leg and it’s a slightly bloody mess. The photon blast really did a direct hit.
“I’ll be fine,” Sam says. “I trust Romanoff to take care of herself. We gotta find that craft Barnes mentioned.”
Steve nods and repositions his arm to help support Sam again. If he can focus on this one, concrete task, he can forget that everything else is falling down around him. If he can distract himself, he can momentarily ignore the hard knot of anxiety in his stomach worrying about Bucky.
He doesn’t have time to ask the questions he wants to ask. So he helps Sam skirt around the shuttered café instead.
They go down the block and are passing a communication cube, raised from the ground with a flickering, translucent top, when the station begins to emit a loud beep.
Steve and Sam ignore it, but it beeps again, somehow more insistently. They look at each other warily, before Steve moves forward and presses “accept.”
Suddenly, a small, holographic torso and head projects up, and the goateed man attached to both blinks rapidly.
“Have you ever tried one of these before? They feel weird. You’d think they’d just take your image and project it out, but they make you chip in and now my entire body feels funny,” the man says, rapidly. “I feel weird. Can you have an allergic reaction to these things?”
Steve and Sam blink at him.
“I’ll take your silence as a no,” the man says. “Hey—wait, hold on, FRIDAY, remind me later to fix the communication portal—cube—things. Planetwide. They’re a mess. Weird that they don’t have a better name, but what else should I expect of amateurs?”
“Is he…” Sam whispers to Steve and then he makes a circle near his temple.
“I saw that!” the holographic man says. “And that’s offensive.”
“Look, if you need some kind of help, call the police,” Steve says. “We don’t have time.”
“Really, Rogers?” the man says, with a cocky smirk. “You want to tell me to call TerraPol? Now? At this juncture in your life?”
“How do you know my name?”
“Because, Mr. Robot—can I call you Mr. Robot?”
“No,” Steve says flatly.
“I’m going to call you it anyway—because, Mr. Robot, your friend and not-quite-lover and my employee finally decided to fill me in on your predicament. At the 11th hour. I’m surrounded by amateurs.”
That makes Steve start.
“You’re Bucky’s boss?”
“The one and only,” the hologram beams. “The artist known as the Iron Man, but for a friend of a friend, you can call me Tony.”
There’s something about that name that catches Steve’s attention. He stares at the goateed, rapid fire talking, clearly neurotic little man and tries to identify what’s nagging at his memory.
“Well, Iron Man,” Sam says. He’s still clenching his teeth in pain and looking around to make sure the coast is clear. His fingers dig into Steve’s shoulder and it shakes Steve from his stupor. “You got a plan for us? Because we’re one friendly neighborhood hotline call away from spending the rest of our lives in an underground prison.”
“No, you’re one call away from that,” Tony says. “Mr. Robot here—well, they’ll deactivate him and scrap him for parts. Maybe keep him active and run some experiments on him.”
“What?” Steve stares.
“We don’t have time to get into the ethics of our government,” Tony says, slamming a hand on something that doesn’t get cast to the hologram. “Listen. Rogers. You can’t stay here. You know that, right? Your time here is done. There’s no end here for you except death by their hands or an escape somewhere else. Are you ready for that?”
To his side, Sam looks startled.
But Steve’s been expecting this. In a sense, he’s been expecting this the entire time, ever since his file got pinged. The truth is that there’s no life left here for him anymore. If he wants to live, he has to start over somewhere else.
“I know,” he says, finally. “I’m ready.”
“Okay. I have someone coming for you,” Tony says. “Big blond guy, huge muscles, a body Adonis himself would salivate over. He’s mine. He has a craft.”
“Where are we—?” Sam starts to ask, shooting looks between Steve and Tony.
“Meeting point,” Tony says. “Barnes told you about that, right? Better not to say anything else.”
“How do we know you’re not gonna sell us out?” Sam asks and even manages to cross his arms at his chest sternly without falling over.
“You don’t, hotshot,” Tony says. “Guess you gotta roll your dice with the police or with a crazy genius.”
“Who’s going around calling you a genius?” Sam snorts.
“Anyone with two brain cells.” It’s cocky, so arrogantly, annoyingly cocky that Steve almost feels like he’s talking to Howard Stark.
“Steve,” Sam says, hitting Steve’s chest, “Incoming.”
“Remember—blond Adonis,” Tony says. “Oh! His name is—”
He doesn’t get a chance to finish, because a photon laser slams into the sidewalk next to Steve’s feet.
“Fuck!” Sam swears as another blast nearly takes off his head. Steve grabs him and hurls both of them to the side just in time.
Steve wishes he had something—a gun, a shield, something that wasn’t just a close range stunner.
A voice comes through some loud, abrasive speaker system:
"Steven Grant Rogers, come out with your hands up. You are under arrest for refusal to comply with governmental orders, property destruction, murder, and treason. Any attempts to escape will result in your termination and the termination of all who aid or abet you."
They squat behind the communication cube, waiting just long enough for another blast to take out half the cube before they fling themselves out and start running.
“This is bullshit, man!” Sam yells just as a shot blasts off half of a rooftop of a pet supply store. “Hey! Pets ain’t done nothing to you assholes!”
A part of the roof comes crumbling down and Steve just grabs Sam by the collar and drags him out of the way in time.
“Less talking, more running,” he manages to pant out and they veer behind the corner of another shop as a lightpost gets struck and comes crashing down.
“How much did you piss these guys off, Rogers?” Sam says through gritted teeth. He has a hand against his burned leg. Beads of sweat are rolling down his forehead. He looks pale.
“Sam, we have to get you help,” Steve pants harshly. “You’re not going to make it like this.”
“I’m fine,” Sam manages, which sounds and looks like bullshit, but they don’t have much of a choice.
They hear shouting around the corner and footsteps running in tandem.
Steve grabs Sam again and manages to heave him away, down the little alley in between two strips of shop buildings. The alley opens up onto another street and Steve stops them both to look out. Sam nearly stumbles into him, but catches himself in time.
There’s still footsteps and sirens behind them on the street they left, but this one seems clear. They inch out, around the corner, scanning the streets and skies for signs of TerraPol.
There’s nothing until they get to the end of the street. That’s when they run smack into an armed officer. The officer grabs at his arm and Steve elbows him away.
“Fuck,” Steve grits out and the officer barely has a chance to call out to his squad before Steve slams a palm into his nose as hard as he fucking can. The officer grunts and stumbles, holding his broken nose, and Sam manages to twist his wrist and force the gun to the ground.
“Over here! ” they hear shouts from behind them and suddenly Steve feels, rather than sees the dozens of TerraPol officers swarming their location. They pour out from the alley behind them, from the corners of the shops. Steve sees sniper rifles somewhere a few roofs away, moving steadily closer.
“Steven Grant Rogers. Samuel Thomas Wilson. You are under arrest. Any sudden movements will--”
The bleeding officer lunges forward during their moment of distraction and Sam shouts, stumbling back as his arms try to close around Sam’s neck. Sam hisses in pain as he comes down too hard on his injured leg and then he goes down, the officer on top of him.
“Fuck no,” Steve growls and palms the stunner out, slamming the lit end of the black stick into the officer’s spine.
The officer gives out a howl of pain and crumples to the ground. Steve takes Sam by the arms and hauls him away, just as more photon blasts break the ground around them. Concrete and rocks jump around their feet, large, jagged edges serving to trip them as they try to dodge more incoming blasts.
Steve’s breath is coming up in puffs. He’s running out of what reserve fuel he’s been functioning on. He hears a familiar, sharp beeping noise and his arm cylinders light up in warning.
“Not. Now,” he glares at them.
“Steve,” Sam says urgently. He grabs Steve’s arm, fingernails digging deep into flesh. “Look.”
Another laser blast sweeps close enough to Steve’s face that the heat from it nearly burns him. As it is, it singes some of his hair and the top of his ear. He curses just as he feels the ground trembling under his feet.
“What th--” he looks up, finally, to where Sam had pointed. In front of them, coming down from the sky like an alien’s dream itself, a black, circular craft about three hovercars long and two wide. It’s small enough to cut through the sky easily and large enough to carry more than one person. The craft lowers itself to the ground and for a moment, the photon blasts halt, the appearance of the ship apparently confusing the police into a momentary ceasefire.
“Hello!” a voice calls out as a ramp lowers down from the front. At the mouth of the ship, carrying an enormous cannon-looking gun, a blue-eyed, blond-haired, perfectly cheerful looking Adonis. “Are you, by chance, Steve Rogers? I hear you need a lift.”
Steve barely has time to process what’s happening before Sam’s leg finally gives out. He collapses into a heap on the ground and a photon blast bounces off the hull of the ship.
“Now that is in poor manners,” the Adonis says. “I shall have to teach you a lesson, as my mother taught me when I was but a child. I do not suppose your mother had the courtesy of doing the same. Or perhaps she did and you have disrespected her memory. In any case--”
He hefts the cannon gun onto his shoulder and fires.
A thick, blue beam blasts out of the gun. It looks a bit like lightning.
Steve doesn’t wait for the cries of pain or the sounds of destruction behind him.
“Come on,” he says to Sam, putting one arm around his back and one behind his knees. Steve feels like he’s running on fumes, leaning toward falling apart himself, but he manages to carry Sam toward the ship. He doesn’t check for the police, doesn’t even try to dodge any gun blasts that might be aimed at them.
He has one objective and one objective only--to get Sam to this ship. After that, well. Adonis can handle it.
And Adonis does.
As Steve somehow stumbles with Sam across the rampart, the other man cheerfully continues firing his canon. Once, a photon beam comes for him, but he simply moves his head and it misses him entirely. In response, he takes someone down. Everything about him is raw, electric power.
“Come,” he says to Steve as he drags Sam up the ramp. “Give him to me. Get inside.”
The other man flings his cannon aside and grasps Sam from Steve, lifts him as easily as a pillow.
“Goodbye, dear Earthlings” the man says aloud to whoever must be left outside or what must be left of them. “And may you be cursed forevermore.”
Then he slams his hand into the side of the ship and the rampart withdraws swiftly.
Steve takes what few steps he can inside before his legs give away under him. He collapses to the ground, clutching his side.
“Steve Rogers,” the man looms over him. “Are you unwell? My name is Thor and this is--”
But Steve’s head is swimming too much to hear what this man named Thor has to say. His head is pounding, his throat feels like it’s filling with grains of sand, and his muscles are so tired they’re seizing up from lack of fuel. He’s hearing sounds in loud beeps and his vision is swimming in and out, bright, harsh, discordant colors. His heart, in the middle, is spritzing, beating so quickly and erratically that he can barely catch his breath--this is, he’s certain, what zeroing must feel like. Not close to zeroing, not hovering around it, but the full-tilt, meteoric crash of a true zero.
It feels like he’s dying.
Steve gasps raggedly, taking in gulps of air like his lungs can’t process them fast enough. It’s as though he’s human again, asthma taking oxygen from him before he can breathe it in.
He’s in so much pain, shutting down so fast, that he starts to hallucinate.
He thinks he sees some phantom shape that looks like and sounds a lot like Bucky.
“Steve?” the hallucination says. It falls to its knees beside him, touches his shoulders, pushes back his hair. Can hallucinations touch people? This one does. This one cradles his face. “Steve, listen to me. You have to hang in there, buddy. Come on.”
Steve hears something like a siren and something like blasts and a really annoying beeping. The entire ship seems to tilt onto its side. He shakes his head.
“Just a little while longer. We’re gonna get you refueled,” the hallucination says. He seems worried. The Bucky dream won’t let him go. “We’re almost there. Look at me. Can you hear me? Nod your head if you can hear me.”
Steve blinks at him, slow and lazy. Bucky’s face swims in and out of his vision. He tries to reach up and touch him, but his arm cylinders are too loud and heavy. He gives up and offers him a tired smile instead. He wishes Bucky was really here. He wants to see him one more time before he dies.
“Rogers, you crazy son of a bitch,” dream Bucky says desperately. “If you die on me, I’ll kill you.”
Steve tries to laugh, but he can’t. He closes his eyes and zeroes out.
Tomorrow is my official posting day for the Cap RBB, which means all parts of the fic will be finally be posted. If you'll notice, we're at 7/9 chapters, which means you get double the trouble--the final chapter and the epilogue! Hope you've been enjoying this massive undertaking! See you at the end. :)
Chapter 8: [ reclaiming ]
This is a last, but not least kind of situation! An action-packed finale, but not quite the end. Just the epilogue after this.
[ the docks, mars sector, earth 2.0 ]
There have been few times in his life when Bucky’s been able to draw on his Force training and be grateful that he’d given his life and a limb to the military, and this is one of them. Steve goes slack in his arms and for a moment, the sheer panic of losing him nearly overwhelms Bucky and threatens to shut him down. But he hears Clint speaking to Sam somewhere behind him and Thor steering the craft and he lets the little noises and sensations filter through so he doesn’t disconnect from reality completely.
He takes a few deep breaths, manages to compartmentalize his terror, and assesses the situation. If they can make it to the docks uninterrupted, Tony will have some kind of electrical source to put juice back into Steve. But Steve’s rapidly cooling under Bucky’s touch. He doesn’t know how long an Android can last in zero state, but he doesn’t think it’s an overwhelmingly long time. They might lose him before they can get to the docks.
“Sam,” Bucky says. He lets Steve down onto the ground gently and turns to where Clint is helping spray solvent and wrap up Sam’s leg. “He won’t make it. We need another option.”
Sam grits his teeth and nods.
“One more time,” Clint murmurs and sprays on another coat of the medicine. It sanitizes and speeds up healing at the same time. Bucky’s had solvent used on him before, during non-lethal injuries while in battle. It hurts like an absolute bitch.
Sam hisses, gripping the sides of the ship as he tries to keep from writhing in pain.
“He needs--” he pants out. “--energy. Can do it without a port. More dangerous, but--effective.”
Bucky nods and tries to assess the ship. There has to be something that can give Steve the jolt of energy he needs to come out of his zero coma.
There are no built in Android ports, of course, but the ship runs by burning fuel and electricity. Their cannons and rifles are charged that way. The photon blasters are primarily--oh.
Oh, motherfucking shit, this is a bad idea.
Bucky looks at how pale Steve is and curls his fingers into fists. There’s no other way.
He steps over the ledge separating the pilot’s pit from the rest of the small ship.
“Thor,” he says. “I need your photon blaster.”
Thor looks up from where he’s watching the coordinates and frowns.
“For what purpose?”
“I gotta shoot the love of my life back to life,” Bucky says.
“That sounds like a terrible idea,” Thor says, golden eyebrow raised. “But for love, I will allow it.”
“You’re a real weird guy,” Bucky says, but he’s grateful.
Thor nods toward behind him.
“There is a weapons compartment next to the emergency hatch. Press your palm against it,” he says.
Bucky finds a long rectangle built into the wall of the ship next to a bright red emergency lever. He presses his palm against the scanner and something clicks inside as the rectangle swings open. Inside is a deep recess stocked with weapons--nearly half a dozen rifles, a few hand grenades, some stunners and disrupters, and couple of photon blasters. Bucky takes one, carefully pressing his thumb against the safety button. Another click and it unlocks. The blaster grows warm under his hand. He can feel the energy thrumming inside.
“Fuck,” Sam says from the ground, looking up at him. “He’s going to hate you when he wakes up.”
“Least he’ll be awake,” Bucky says. He braces the photon blaster between his hands. “Clint, a little help?”
“You gonna be okay?” Clint asks Sam and Sam nods. He still looks a little green with pain and sweat, but his leg is entirely bandaged now.
“Landing time ten minutes,” Thor calls from the front.
“Just gotta keep you alive for ten more minutes, bud,” Bucky says. “Okay, I need you to hold him up and steady.”
Clint nods and bends down to pick Steve up. He grunts because Steve’s nothing but dead weight right now, but he shifts his own weight and manages to heave him up anyway. Clint positions one arm around Steve’s lower back and holds the other hand at the back of Steve’s head.
“Don’t shoot me, Barnes,” he says.
Bucky nods. He tries not to think about everything that could go wrong here. But he was the best sniper the Force had ever seen. He’s not known to miss, from most distances.
“Thor,” Bucky calls out. “Do me a favor and don’t rock the ship.”
Bucky takes in a quick breath to ease his nerves. When he breathes them out, the blaster’s weight in his palm, something clicks into place. His anxiety drains out of him. What’s left is Bucky Barnes as he was trained--former Force sniper, cool and detached with only the mission in front of him in mind.
“All right, Rogers,” he says. “One shot to the back of the head. Never say I did nothin’ for you.”
He presses the mouth of the photon blaster against the back of Steve’s neck, where the little circular disk embedded into his skin usually hooks up to the charging port wires. Then he takes one large step back.
Bucky looks at his target and flexes his hand.
Then, one hand around the grip of the blaster, the other stabilizing his own wrist, he takes a breath and shoots.
A surge of electric current hits the back of Steve’s neck, slamming into the disk and firing through his every synapse. The skin around the disk chars a little, but Bucky’s aim is true and Steve’s body slams against Clint with the impact. They both hit the wall with a pained thud.
For a second nothing happens.
Then Steve gasps, coming to life in Clint’s arms. He scrabbles, fingers digging painfully into Clint’s shoulders, his body jerking from the force of being forcibly brought back online.
Bucky lets the blaster clatter to the ground and reaches Steve just as he’s scrambling back from Clint, wired and panicked.
“Steve,” Bucky says. He grasps him by the shoulders and pulls him back. He holds his face. “Steve. Stevie. Hey it’s me. It’s Bucky. Steve, calm down. It’s okay. You’re back. Hey.”
Steve makes some sort of awful, wordless sound and for a heart-seizing moment, Bucky thinks maybe something’s gone terribly, horribly wrong. Maybe he hit the wrong nerves. Maybe he’s permanently damaged Steve somehow.
“Steve?” Bucky tries again. “Stop. Please, listen to me. It’s Bucky. Remember me?”
Steve gasps again, trying to jerk away, but Bucky doesn’t let him go. Steve struggles against him, clearly confused, until Bucky wraps his arms around him. He pulls him close and absorbs the struggle, overpowers Steve’s panic until it finally drains from his limbs.
A little whirring sound breaks the silence and Bucky sees Steve’s arm cylinders glow a healthy cyan again.
“Bucky?” Steve’s wrecked voice comes a moment later. “You’re--alive.”
“Yeah,” Bucky says. “Thor came for us. Tony sent him. Clint’s here too. You nearly took his eye out.”
Steve shakes his head and then presses closer to Bucky. His arms tighten around Bucky’s back, as though Bucky’s the only thing keeping him grounded. Bucky runs a hand up and down his back, trying to get him to calm down. He can feel Steve’s heart racing against his own chest. It’s going too, too fast.
“I thought you’d-- I thought I’d lost--” Steve tries after a moment of catching his breath. “What happened?”
“You zeroed, you crazy bastard,” Bucky laughs shakily. “I give up. You win. You did the stupidest thing.”
“Fuck,” Steve says. “Sam, is he?”
“Hey, right here,” Sam says from behind them.
This finally makes Steve peel away. His eyes are still a little crazed, a little electric, but he seems better now, slightly more stable. At least, he’s breathing more steadily.
“Hey,” he says, with a little, shaky laugh. “Thought you’d died.”
“Right back at you,” Sam says. “I really thought you’d done it this time. When I can stand again I’m going to strangle you.”
Steve shakes his head and looks unsteady enough on his feet that Bucky braces an arm around his back.
“How am I still alive?” Steve asks.
“Well, Rogers,” Clint says from behind him. He’s finally gotten himself straightened up. “You might be crazy, but your boy here is crazier. Shot you straight in the head with a photon blaster.”
“You did what?” he looks at Bucky incredulously.
Bucky kind of just helplessly shrugs.
“Ah,” comes Thor’s dulcet rumbling from the pilot’s pit. “Young love. Please hold that thought, we are about to land.”
“Land?” Steve looks like he’s still getting his bearings. He leans against Bucky, which Bucky has no problem with. He keeps an arm tightly around Steve’s shoulder. “Where?”
“The meeting point,” Bucky says as the craft pulls in above a familiar-looking body of water. “The docks. You’re finally going to meet my batshit crazy boss.”
Thor pulls the craft up behind the shop. Through the windows, Steve can see a white spacejet waiting just out front. Next to it, there’s a brunette inspecting a gun, a black woman in leather leaning against the hull, and a familiar looking man with a goatee.
Steve’s heart is beating erratically again, although this time it’s not from lack of fuel. He remembers what Tony said over the communication cube. He thinks he knows what all of this means.
Bucky comes up next to him, to look out the massive window as they land. Steve can feel his warmth beside him and it takes willpower he didn’t know he had to keep him from leaning into him. Bucky doesn’t know, and it’s not fair to him to offer him something that he can’t have.
“Buck--” Steve starts to say and then stops short. He doesn’t know how to say what he needs to. He runs a hand through his hair in exhaustion and tries again. He only gets his mouth open before Bucky presses a hand against his elbow.
“My mom called,” he says softly. “Before we came and got you. I almost didn’t pick up, but I was shooting everything to hell anyway, so I thought why not?”
Steve turns to look at him.
“She said that she was sorry,” Bucky says. He sounds a little askew, maybe with disbelief. “That they had wanted me alive above all, but they hadn’t known what that would mean for me. To be kept alive like this.”
Steve doesn’t know what to say. He’s been an Android so long, he doesn’t really remember how to be anything else. He doesn’t know how to hate who he is.
“She apologized for treating me the same when I’m not,” Bucky says. When he turns to Steve, he’s--oh, he’s smiling. It takes Steve aback. Bucky smiles. “She told me they loved me. And that my choices are mine to make now.”
“Buck, that’s--that’s great,” Steve says. “Really. Things will be so much better from now on. It’ll be okay--I’ll tell them I made you all do it, you’re gonna be fine. You’re gonna lead the life you deserve.”
Bucky’s smile falters.
“Steve--” he says. He looks like he’s going to say something, but decides against it. Then, in another twist, he decides to say it anyway. “No. Steve, I love you. I meant it when I said it earlier and I mean it when I say it now. I love you. You don’t have to feel the same way about me, but--”
“What?” Steve interrupts him. “No, Bucky, are you crazy, you’re--”
“--you’re the best thing that has happened to this fucked in the head robot,” Bucky ignores him.
“Before I met you I didn’t--I didn’t know who I was. I didn’t know how to fucking be this Bucky and that Bucky at the same time. Didn’t know how to be an Android when I still missed being human. I thought I had to be one or the other. But you--you were so different. You’ve been one, you’ve been the other, and you’ve been both. You are both. You are unapologetically both.”
“Buck,” Steve breathes.
“It was killing me, Steve. I was dying before I met you,” Bucky’s voice is thick with emotion. He’s saying the words so fast Steve can’t get a word in edgewise. “You changed everything. You changed me and what I thought about me. I can never--I will never be able to give you back anything close to that. But I’m gonna try. I want to try. So I choose you. I’m gonna continue choosing you. And if you don’t like it--”
“I didn’t say that,” Steve says. “Bucky, I just don’t want you to think--”
“--then I don’t care,” Bucky grits out. His eyes are glassy and steely at the same time. “I get to choose who I get to choose and if that means falling off this fucking planet with you, well then, buddy, I’m going to fucking do that--”
“Bucky,” Steve tries again, but Bucky barrels over him one more time.
“No one gets to decide that for me but me,” Bucky says, clenching his teeth and crossing his arms. “Not even you. You don’t get to decide that for me.”
“Holy shit, Buck, shut the hell up,” Steve says, a little stunned and a little overwhelmed and--god, it’s fucked up because they’re about to go to their dooms or whatever, but he has some weird thing on his face that he distantly recognizes as a smile. A disbelieving, breathless smile.
Bucky looks at him, unimpressed, eerily similar to every look Natasha has ever given him.
“Buck.” Steve steps forward. He feels dizzy with--something. He’s drowning under the weight of his feeling. He takes a shaky breath and takes Bucky’s face between his hands. “Bucky, I would be crazy not to love you. Are you kidding me? I would have had to lose what little grip I have left on reality to look at you and not think this guy is the best thing I’ve ever seen. The single best guy I have ever met, in my entire crazy, long life.”
Bucky’s stubborn, stern features soften.
“I love you. God, I really fucking love you,” Steve says and he’s a little giddy with it. He’s nearly tripping over his words, he’s so bursting with it. But then he takes a breath to bring himself back down from this false high. Bucky loves him, but this doesn’t change anything. “But I can’t do this to you. I can’t stay here and I can’t make you come with me. Your family’s here. Your entire life is here.”
“My entire life is wherever the fuck I want it to be, Steve,” Bucky says, a warning in his voice. “No one gets to decide that but me.”
“You’re not thinking clearly,” Steve insists, but Bucky glares daggers at him.
“Fuck your patronizing, self-sacrificial bullshit, Rogers,” Bucky nearly growls. “If you don’t want me to go with you, then say so, but don’t condescend to me.”
“Wait,” Steve says, paling. “That’s not what I--”
Bucky grabs Steve by the collar and drags him forward.
“You’re an absolute pain in my ass, Rogers,” he says. “And if I wanna follow your sorry pain in the ass to another planet, then I’m gonna need you to try to stop me.”
Steve stares at the two inches of space between the two of them and what really strikes him isn’t that Bucky looks so comically enraged or that he knows just by the creased line between his eyes that he will be unrelenting, but that there are two freckles on the bridge of his nose that Steve’s never noticed before. It strikes him, in that suspended, charged moment, that Bucky Barnes has two freckles on the bridge of his nose and he, Steve Rogers, has no desire to be on any planet where he can’t explore whether Bucky has more. He knows he’s being dead selfish, but somehow, it doesn’t matter to him anymore. He wants this one thing for himself. He wants Bucky, for himself.
And maybe it’s because he’s tired or maybe it’s because he’s nearly just died or maybe it’s just because he’s so fucking old and Bucky’s so fucking, amazingly annoyed with him, but Steve finally, finally feels him give in.
“I won’t go anywhere you can’t follow,” he says and it’s like a weight off his shoulders.
Bucky’s piqued expression looks even more suspicious before finally, he relents.
“Yeah,” Steve says. “Come with me. Let’s get outta here.”
Bucky’s ire completely melts away into delight and Steve takes this opportunity to kiss him. He’s thought about nothing else for months and the reality does not disappoint. It’s not panicked this time, no frantic kiss while death awaits on the other side of the sealed doors. Bucky’s mouth slots into his perfectly and Steve only just manages to keep his hands to himself. Bucky doesn’t even bother trying that, just reaches up and tugs on Steve’s hair while making a little pleased oh into his mouth. Steve’s heart just about beats out of his chest.
“Can you believe the nerve of these two?” Clint comments, somewhere behind them and Bucky and Steve break apart, a little pink and a lot breathless and laughing.
“Like this is a fucking romcom and not a fight to our deaths,” Sam says in disbelief.
“Nat’s going to be so pissed she missed it,” Clint says.
“While I am beyond pleased for you both,” Thor rumbles at them. “If we do not get you onto the spacejet before the police find us, the only romance you will find will be at the bottom of a cell.”
“Way morbid, man,” Clint says from next to the weapons recess. He straps a rifle onto his back and picks up another one. “But respect. Let’s go, Cap.”
Clint tosses a rifle at Bucky and a photon blaster at Steve. They catch them both neatly and follow Sam and Thor down the rampart onto the docks.
“Well, well, well,” a familiar and annoying voice greets them. “If it isn’t my wayward employee and his merry band of fugitives. You missed a shift, Barnes.”
“Kiss my ass, Tony,” Bucky says and flips him off.
Steve steps forward and offers a hand.
“Steve Rogers,” he says. “Thank you, for your help. I don’t know how I can ever repay your kindness.”
Tony takes Steve’s hand to shake, while simultaneously raising his sunglasses to get a better look at him.
“So you’re the reason my delinquent little robot has been whistling at work?”
“Tony--” Bucky glares at him.
“What? I can put two and two together, Barnes,” Tony says. “I’m a genius. He’s hot. I can see why you want him under your sweet, sweet--”
Bucky trods on Tony’s foot, which makes the other man yelp in pain.
“Whoops,” Bucky looks entirely unapologetic.
Tony glares back at him and runs a hand through his hair. There’s something about that movement that makes Steve stop in his tracks. It’s been bothering him for hours now, that strange tickle of recognition at the back of his mind. But that gesture--well, he’s seen that gesture before, like a nervous tick on the most arrogant man he’s ever met. A man who speaks like Tony and has the same cocky, smug grin as Tony and--holy shit. It slides into place, that realization just beyond his grasp.
“Stark,” Steve says slowly. “You’re a Stark.”
Everyone in the yard stills, including the brunette by the spacejet.
“What?” Clint blinks.
“You’re--” and that’s when it clicks, all of it. It hits Steve like a photon blaster to the head. “You’re Howard Stark’s son. The rogue one.”
Tony’s expression, which had been smirking a moment before, washes away into something serious.
“You’re Tony Stark?” Clint’s mouth has dropped open.
“The one and only,” Tony says, with something like a grimace. “What, Dear Old Dad didn’t keep my picture around the place after I left? I’m hurt.”
“Did he send you?” Steve demands. “Is this all a trap?”
“Easy, Mr. Robot,” Tony says, holding up both of his hands. “You’ve probably seen D.O.D. more recently than I have. How do I know he hasn’t sent you after me?”
“I’m not a spy for Howard Stark,” Steve says through grit teeth.
“Yeah and I definitely am,” Tony shoots back, “what with my very discreet fifty year career as a mechanic. How long do you think I’ve been playing the long game waiting for you?”
“You’re a genius and I’m supposed to think you can’t see five steps ahead of all of us?” Steve starts and Bucky grabs his arm to hold him back.
“Steve, whoa,” Bucky’s grip tightens. “Come on, let’s take a step back.”
“If you’re going to accuse me of something, then do it, buddy,” Tony snaps. “I didn’t have to save your neck out there--”
“Enough,” the brunette next to the spacejet says sharply as she approaches them. “Tony, we don’t have time for your drama.”
Beside her, the black woman in leather just watches all of them with a look of pure amusement. She blows a large, pink piece of bubblegum and then pops it with a loud smack.
“Maria Hill,” Bucky says and then he looks at the woman. He nearly falls over into Steve. “Val?”
“Hey handsome,” Valkyrie says and moves both of her eyebrows suggestively.
The brunette ignores both of them.
“Steve, my name is Maria Hill. I’m Ship Captain on The Avenger,” she says, extending her hand. Steve, whose blood is still boiling at Stark--unshockingly this must be a family trait--tears his eyes away from Tony to pay attention to her. He takes her hand.
“This baby over here,” Valkyrie says. “Half the size of a normal transport, twice as much firepower. Not to mention all of the people we can hide.”
“People--” Steve says. He’s so confused and in over his head that he almost doesn’t recognize the person who steps out from behind the transport ship until he’s nearly in front of Steve.
“They’re smugglers, Rogers,” the man with dark hair and glittering green eyes says. “Although my dear brother does like to call them--what is it, freedom warriors?”
“One man’s smuggler is another man’s freedom warrior,” Thor says behind Steve. He’s smiling.
Loki tilts his head at him.
“Loki,” Steve says, staring. “What the hell are you doing here?”
“Romanoff wasn’t paying me enough,” Loki says with a slight shrug to his shoulders. “I had to find a new career.”
“Hey, fuck you, Laufeyson,” another familiar voice says.
Steve hears it and nearly stumbles with relief.
Natasha emerges from inside the hangar. She has cuts on her face and her clothes are a little more charred than usual, but she’s okay. God, she’s okay.
“Nat,” Steve breathes out. He folds his arms around her the moment she’s within reaching distance. “You’re okay. You’re okay. God, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to involve you in this.”
Natasha allows the hug for another second before pulling away. She reaches up and cups Steve’s face with a small hand.
“I was getting too old to be a fancy barista anyway,” she says with a smile. “Freedom warriors? Count me in.”
“See?” Thor’s voice comes from next to Loki. “I told you others would like it.”
“Oh shut up,” Loki snarks at him. “That is a stupid name and everyone who uses it is stupid.”
Thor just beams at the crowd and leans down and presses a kiss to the top of Loki’s head, which only makes the other man glower more.
“What about the rest?” Steve asks Natasha urgently. “Wanda? Pietro? What happened to my team?”
“All safe,” Natasha says. “Wanda and Pietro are in hiding. Your team’s all scattered, but safe. Well, Parker tried to fight the police and ended up with a bruised cheek, but Watson has him hidden somewhere. He’s pure human, he’ll be fine.”
“God,” Steve says tiredly. “What a mess.”
“We’re scheduled for flight in twenty minutes,” Maria says. She’s checking some schedule on her simwatch projection. “Any time before then and our clearance won’t let us through. So take the twenty and get what you need to in order. Then we’re leaving.”
“For where?” Steve asks.
Maria gives him a look, which is not unkind, but does make him think better of his question.
“You’ll know when we get there,” she says. She pats Steve’s shoulder and turns away. “Tony, stop causing drama and follow me.”
“I wasn’t causing drama, he was causing drama!” Tony protests, but, surprising to everyone, he follows her immediately.
“She’s best friends with his girlfriend,” Valkyrie says to the bemused audience left in their wake. She pops another loud bubble.
“Have you been running an illegal human smuggling operation this entire time?” Bucky asks her incredulously.
“It is my god-given bisexual talent to multitask,” Valkyrie says in reply.
“You’re so hot,” Bucky says, mouth dropping open. “I can’t believe you didn’t tell me. I thought gay bar buddies were sacred.”
Steve leaves Bucky and Valkyrie to catch up. Natasha’s hand is on his elbow and she doesn’t have to say anything for him to follow her into the hangar.
“Stark has this charger he’s been working on,” Natasha says as they come inside. There are still two crafts waiting to be repaired, but other than that, the space is wide, open, and full of gadgets.
“Did you know?” Steve asks. “That he was Howard’s son.”
“I suspected,” Natasha says. “Then I came here to confirm, right before everything went to shit.”
“Nat,” Steve says. He feels so guilty, he’s about to brim over with it. “I’m sorry. God, I’m so sorry for Automata, I never wanted you to get caught in the crossfire.”
“Steve,” Natasha says. She crosses her arms and looks at him in the way she has for years, both critically assessing and inexplicably tender. “Would you do the same for any of one of us?”
“Yes,” Steve says immediately. “In a heartbeat.”
“Then allow us the courtesy of doing the same for you,” Natasha says. Her tone makes it clear this is not negotiable. “Let people care about you. God, how many years have I been telling you the same thing, Rogers? You drive me crazy.”
Steve laughs, lowly. He feels the usual swell of affection toward Natasha, a warmth deep in his stomach, a love he would kill for.
“You’ve been putting up with me for too long,” he says.
“Damn right I have,” Natasha replies, but her features soften into something resembling a smile. “And as someone who’s been putting up with your sorry ass for all of these years, I don’t want to hear another apology out of you about this for the rest of our lives. I have earned that peace.”
“Yeah. I guess you have,” Steve says. He sighs and runs a hand through his hair. Then, ruefully, because he knows Natasha would rather murder him than hear it—“I love you, Nat.”
Natasha considers looking at him with disgust, but ends up just sighing lightly instead.
“Yeah, yeah,” is Natasha’s reply, which in Natasha Romanoff is as close to an I love you too as those four words themselves. “Now let me jab this thing into you and get you charged up.”
“Why do people keep jabbing me with things?” Steve mutters. “Bucky shot me in the back of the head.”
Natasha pauses, halfway to thumbing the portable charger open, and stares at him. Then, seeing that he’s being dead serious, she throws back her head and laughs.
“Everyone I know’s an asshole,” Steve grumbles.
“Yeah,” Natasha says, wiping a fake tear from her eye. “Like attracts like.”
Then she sweeps a hand over the back of Steve’s neck and jabs him in the port disk.
Bucky leaves Val to go in search of Steve when he finds Loki inspecting one of Tony’s navigation innovations. The younger man has it in his hand, some metal ball that looks like it has grooves notched into it, like some kind of puzzle.
“Tony’s going to kill you if you break anything,” Bucky says, pulling up next to him.
“I should like to see him try,” Loki says. He turns the ball over in his hand and presses a groove. The entire thing lights up blue. “He might be a genius, but I have been training in the Asgardian combat arts my entire life.”
“That’s—that’s supposed to be the most difficult form of combat technique,” Bucky says. His mouth is slightly agape. Loki’s roughly about the size of one of his thighs.
“I could kill you with a fork and have tines to spare,” Loki grins, all teeth bared.
“I preferred you when you were baking croissants,” Bucky mutters. He watches Loki press another groove. This time, the hologram of a star system casts out, bathing both of them in a map of stars. “You were working with the underground this entire time?”
Loki sighs and swings a hand through a constellation cluster.
“Don’t look at me like that,” he says. “I’m not so magnanimous. I owed a debt. And I think it’s stupid to kill that which makes you strongest.”
“Debt to who?” Bucky asks.
“Thor,” Loki says. He doesn’t offer an explanation.
“You called him your brother?” Bucky asks. He remembers Thor and Loki together outside of Automata. His gut had told him there was something more there and it had been right. But what, he still really couldn’t say.
“In a manner,” Loki answers after a moment. He presses another groove and the stars scatter. In its place is a green and blue planet. “Ah, do you know what this is?”
“No,” Bucky says. “Should I?”
“It’s Earth. The original.” Loki turns the large globe with a simple nudge of his hand. “Before it was set on fire. This one isn’t doing too much better.”
“Humans are doomed to repeat the sins of their fathers,” Bucky says.
“Yes, if you believe in predestination,” Loki says. He turns the globe one more time and then stops it on a particular spot. “It’s really ego and arrogance that sets humans on the same course, time and time again. And inertia.”
“You’re not human?” Bucky asks, surprised. He didn’t think Loki was chipped or an Android. He’s always seemed like a weird purist.
“Thor and I are—something else entirely,” Loki says. He zooms in on the Earth. “Our planets were destroyed long ago. So we live where we wish to live now, when we wish to live there. Sometimes together, sometimes apart. Sometimes deeply in love, sometimes so bitter and angry all we do is fight. It’s no real matter. We’re both very old. We come back together in the end.”
Bucky doesn’t really know what to say to this pronouncement. This isn’t the same Loki he knows. Knew. This one’s somehow older and more indefinably foreign.
“Here,” Loki says. He gestures for Bucky’s hand and when Bucky offers it, he puts the little metal ball into his hand. “This is Brooklyn. Or what it was. Where Rogers grew up.”
Bucky stares in wonder at the image around him. When he moves he sees streets, almost like he’s in it. There are trees and a paved road, little brown stone houses all nestled against each other. This is Steve’s home, or what it was before humans took everything from Earth.
“You’ll leave this planet,” Loki says. “But everyone else will be left behind. It’s up to you to do something about that. Or not. All regimes and planets fail, at the end of the day. Life goes on, or it doesn’t. It’s a fact of existence.”
Loki tucks his hands into his pockets and moves to turn away.
“Loki,” Bucky says, suddenly.
Loki looks back questioningly.
“How did Thor know how to find us?” he asks. “How did Nat know TerraPol were coming for Automata?”
Loki considers this question. Then he gives Bucky a thin, conspiratorial smile, and walks away.
Steve gasps, his every circuit and nerve alight with energy. There’s no shock this time, no hangover from memory and charge. Natasha zaps his disk and the electrical current runs clean into his system, powering every inch of him so thoroughly that his toes curl.
He takes a deep breath and nearly buzzes. God, he hasn’t felt this good in—decades.
“I’m keeping that,” Steve says and Natasha smirks and hands the charger over. “Don’t tell Stark. His head’s already twice the size of a normal one.”
Natasha crosses her arms and looks at the space around them.
“He really is a mad scientist, huh?” she says. She looks small and out of place here somehow. Natasha is familiar with technology. She’s even good at it. But she doesn’t need it to exist; she could just as easily live in another era, one that requires building a life out of nothing but her hands.
“Who knew he’d be in cahoots with a do-gooder smuggling ring?” Steve says. He sees a gun that Tony’s taken apart on one table and a fully intact one next to it. He picks the intact one up and checks its charge to make sure it’s fully loaded.
“I think love might be a good influence on him,” Natasha observes. She approaches some kind of spiked orb and almost touches it but thinks against it at the last moment. She turns on her heels to face the back of the hangar, where Sam’s being treated by the mad scientist himself. They can both hear his protests and loud, annoyed commentary.
“What about you?” she asks, almost passingly.
“What about me?” Steve makes sure the safety is on and pockets the gun.
“You and Barnes,” she says. “Did you finally get your heads out of your asses?”
“I don’t have to answer that.”
“You don’t have to do anything,” Natasha agrees. “But humor me, your friend who just gave up her livelihood for you.”
“Hey!” Steve protests guiltily and Natasha flashes him a grin. “Jerk.”
“I just want to know,” she says. She comes up close to him, puts a hand on an arm cylinder. “Is this all going to be worth it? Will I get to see my friend happy?”
Steve is a little stupid when it comes to Bucky. Every time he thinks about him, something light and breezy flutters in his chest. He can’t help but color a little around his small smile.
“Ah,” Natasha says. “Now there’s something I haven’t seen in years.”
“I think,” Steve says. “We might be in love.”
“Ew, Steve,” Natasha teases and pinches him. “That’s gross.”
“Shut up,” Steve replies, pink and warm. “What about you and Clint?”
“What about me and Clint?” Natasha pretends to study the spiked ball very closely.
“Don’t give me that bullshit,” Steve says. “I know what you’re like when you meet someone new. You didn’t even take your claws out for him.”
“I forgot them at home,” Natasha sniffs.
“Yeah? Along with Clint?” Steve grins, like he’s said something great and witty and not something completely nonsensical.
He’s rewarded an eye roll for his efforts.
“Not even close to your best try,” Natasha says. But she leans close to his ear as she walks around him. “But as a matter of fact, yes. And he was well worth the effort.”
Steve coughs a little and Natasha grins like the cat she is before slinking away.
“Come on, Rogers,” she says. “It’s time to get the hell outta dodge.”
The ragtag group of misfits and fugitives gathers around Tony’s workshop bench. Maria’s scrolling through an unmarked tablet that looks like it could be StarkTech, if StarkTech was sleeker and centuries more modern.
“Val’s set it up for clearance,” she instructs the group. “She’ll radio us clear and signal us out. We have two minutes if we’re detected. Thor, you hit full throttle if we go code red, ignore the physics, slam us out.”
“Like Thor knows anything about physics,” Loki drawls and Thor pinches his side, hard. Loki yelps and scowls.
Bucky feels the energy move through him, restlessly. He keeps tipping up onto his toes and rocking back onto the balls of his feet. His arms hang by his sides, fingers drumming on his thighs. He’s pure anxiety and pure adrenaline and he would just about fly away if Steve didn’t appear and place a hand on his lower back.
“Are you okay?” he leans over and whispers.
Bucky nods. This happens, sometimes. He doesn’t like the anticipation of waiting. He likes movement, he craves action. The waiting makes him batty. It makes it feel like something’s wrong.
He doesn’t have a bad feeling, he tries to convince himself. He’s just ready to go. He’s ready to be up there, in space, where no one can follow them, where he and Steve can just be him and Steve, not human, not Android, just two idiots spending their lives together.
He wants that, he knows. He wants to spend his life with Steve, if Steve will have him.
Steve must read his mind, or at least be thinking something similar, because he removes his hand from Bucky’s back. Bucky’s about to protest when he offers it to him instead.
Bucky sighs and threads their fingers together.
“Great,” Maria says. “Load her up.”
The group shifts, tense but relaxed. Loki and Thor are bickering. Clint leans over and says something to Natasha that makes her smile. Tony’s trying to convince Sam to donate his leg to science.
Bucky leans over and kisses Steve.
“This is it,” he says. “Time for an adventure.”
Steve smiles into the kiss. He opens his mouth to say something.
That’s when the Iron Man sign explodes.
The sound of metal being torn screeches through the air, hauntingly silent for but a beat. Then everything seems to happen at once. The dock sirens blare through the air and more metal screeches resound as blasts hit the hangar roof and explode. There’s the sound of shouting inside and the sound of TerraPol hoverjets, armed with cannons, descending upon the area surrounding the shop. TerraPol start flooding the area outside of the hangar, officers pouring in.
Tony curses and aims something attached to his arm. It looks like a mechanic glove. When he opens his fist, something bright white blasts out of it. Three officers go down. The others advance.
“Rogers, Barnes, to the jet. Now!” Maria shouts as she runs sideways to avoid a direct gunshot. An officer comes at her from under the spare aircraft and she sweeps his feet out from under him to disarm him.
Bucky curses under his breath and grabs a spare aircraft slat and flings it at the nearest TerraPol officer. The man puts his arms up to shield himself and gets clobbered by the metal. Next to him, Steve unearths a gun and starts shooting.
“Fuck you,” Sam spits out somewhere to their side. He’s hobbling backward while three officers are inching closer to him. They seem to have him pinned to a corner when he slides a hand out from behind his back. The disrupter sits between his index finger and thumb. He presses down on the top button and an electrical charge blasts out in a fifteen foot radius. Every photon-based rifle goes blank.
The TerraPol officers shout out curses.
Sam flips off the three closest to him and Clint shoots them in the back of the heads.
“Are you really shooting with a bow and arrow set now?” Sam asks him incredulously. “The hell’d that come from anyway?”
“I’ve never taken a shot I haven’t made,” Clint says with a wink. He whirls on the balls of his feet and shoots an officer halfway across the hangar.
“Man, that ain’t no answer,” Sam complains. He steps over the three prone officers and follows Clint, the two of them back-to-back, shooting and disarming TerraPol in tandem.
Natasha finds herself facing the barrel of a gun that didn’t get caught in Sam’s sphere of disruption.
“Now that’s not very nice,” she says dryly. “You with a gun and little old me with nothing. Didn’t your mother teach you to be respectful to women?”
She kicks up with her knee, dislodging the gun and sweeping back with her elbow until the officer grunts in pain. She grasps his wrist and wrests the gun from him and into him. She shoots him in the chest and he crumples.
“In this case that means don’t underestimate them,” she smirks and walks over his body.
“Barnes! Rogers!” Hill barks out. “That wasn’t a request!”
She and Valkyrie easily take out the TerraPol blocking the front of the hangar, clearing a path for Steve and Bucky to barrel through.
Steve is almost out in the open when two officers appear from above one of the aircrafts awaiting repairs. Sniper shots ring out. One slices through the top of Steve’s shoulder and he hisses in pain and shoots out blindly in return.
His shots miss and more sniper shots blast the ground around their feet. One ricochets and explodes Tony’s workbench.
“Hey! Not your stuff!” Tony shouts and blasts the offending officer off the craft with his arm gadget. “No respect for a man’s creation anymore, what is this world coming to?”
The officer left on top tries to take Tony out, but not before he gets something thrown at him. It looks something like a round shield. It bounces off his head and the officer clatters backwards.
“Nice aim,” Tony blinks.
“Thanks,” Steve grunts. “Don’t make me regret it.”
Tony’s face breaks into a smile.
“Wow, Rogers, you like me. You really, really like me.”
Steve groans and Bucky grabs his elbow and drags him away.
Steve and Bucky pound into the clearing outside of the hangar. Bucky blinks, trying to process their surroundings. The Iron Man sign is blown to pieces. The shop’s metal roof is riddled with holes, one side caving in. Windows are smashed, trees uprooted, TerraPol flyers are coming in from the distance, little flying specks surrounding them in a neat and chaotic circle. The air smells like corroding, burnt metal and sulfur. It looks and smells and feels like death.
Everything inside him grinds slowly to a halt. He’s unsteady on his feet. It looks like they’re in a war zone. He feels like they’re in a war zone.
All this destruction to catch one Android.
He’s off kilter, a disconnect inside him detaching him from the reality they’re facing.
“Bucky?” Steve says quietly. “Bucky, look at me.”
Bucky turns to Steve and it’s only in the quietly contained panic on Steve’s face that he realizes he must look terrifying. Distantly, he hears the hum of his arm.
“You’re okay, Buck,” Steve says. “You’re not on Taurus. You’re here, with me. We have to get to the jet. Can you do that? Are you here with me?”
Bucky takes a shaky breath.
“Breathe with me. Come on. In and out.” Steve places a hand on Bucky’s chest. That’s the only reason he realizes he’s stopped breathing altogether. He’s having a panic attack. He’s shutting down.
Something loud explodes behind him and he jerks violently, raises his humming arm instinctively.
“Hey, no. Thor’s taking care of it. To me. Look at me.” Steve puts a hand on Bucky’s face and guides him to look at him. “Can you mimic my breathing? In and out. That’s right. Once in, once out.”
Bucky, on autopilot, listens to the only instructions he’s given. He takes a breath in. He forces a breath out. He follows Steve. Once in, once out.
Every blast behind them makes him shake, but Steve doesn’t let him go. Bucky’s eyes lock on those cautious, bright blue eyes. With the world falling down around them, Steve talks to him through it. He talks him down. He’s the only one who would be able to.
“Not. At war,” Bucky manages to grind out. “Here. With you.”
“That’s right,” Steve looks relieved. “You’re here with me.”
Bucky shudders as he comes back into himself.
“Any day now,” a voice that sounds an awful lot like Loki’s comes through the spacejet’s speakers.
Steve squeezes Bucky’s shoulder.
“Let’s go, bud,” he says, fondly. And then, gently, “I love you.”
I love you, Bucky’s about to say.
But he doesn’t get a chance to.
Because just as he opens his mouth, the hangar explodes.
And Steve goes down.
He doesn’t remember anything after that. Bucky sees flames from his periphery and the force of the blast throws him back. It overcomes Steve, the gaseous red and black plumes of fire eating him where he stands. He’s there one moment, looking at Bucky, and the next he’s gone.
After, Bucky will remember screaming.
After, he’ll remember turning on the balls of his feet, his arm on, and slamming it into every TerraPol officer he sees, the plates shifting, the red light burning bright and electric and chaotic inside. Everything he touches gets blown back by the sheer destructive force of his arm. Every flyer he grabs from the sky and spins ends up in a wrecked heap. Everything turns to death in his hands and he screams.
All he’ll remember is violence, turning back into the killing machine they made him. If they keep taking from him, then he’ll take from them too and he’ll make sure it fucking hurts.
Eventually, he’ll remember someone screaming back at him. He’ll remember them pulling him back and then shooting him in the back of the head, but not before his arm explodes away entirely.
[ the avenger, space ]
Bucky wakes up with a gasp. He had the worst fucking dream. His throat is so dry it feels like kindling. His head is trying to cleave itself in two. His shoulder feels like it’s been set on fire. His entire body feels like it’s going to fucking fall apart. He’s going to throw up. He feels like murdering somebody.
“Down, Barnes,” a rough, familiar voice says. He feels a small hand on his chest and he looks up wildly. Red curls and guarded green eyes greet him. “You’re safe. Breathe.”
“Steve,” he says, ignoring Natasha. He grasps her arm, harder than he means to. She winces slightly, but doesn’t comment otherwise. Somewhere, in the haze of his panic, all he registers is this—this one person. “Where is he, Nat?”
“James,” she warns.
“Where the fuck is he?” he nearly snarls. He ignores the screaming protests of his body and drags himself up. He’s hooked up to some wires and they tear off him in his anger, but he doesn’t have a single fuck to give. “He was there. In the fucking fire. Did you leave him? Did you fucking leave him?”
Natasha moves back. She looks absolutely pissed, barely contained herself. She seems smaller than usual, which makes Bucky nearly go out of his mind.
“You will calm the fuck down and you will sit the fuck down,” she growls. It’s the coldest and angriest he’s ever heard her.
He doesn’t care. He doesn’t care about a single thing except the person he’s lost, about the person he saw, in front of him, a foot away, barely even that. He had been looking at him, touching him, and then he was being swallowed by fire like some kind of night horror and—
Bucky collapses back onto the bed, face gripped between his hands--hand. He briefly registers he only has the one, but he can’t focus on that now.
He can’t breathe.
He’s shutting down again, his systems protecting him from this living nightmare.
He’s catatonic for nearly a minute before Natasha comes and squats in front of him.
She puts her hands over his own, frames his face between them.
“James Buchanan Barnes, look at me.” Her voice is less angry this time. She’s pulled herself down. She’s almost gentle, or as gentle as Natasha gets.
“He was in front of me,” Bucky says and something in him is jarred to hear how devastated he sounds. “I had him, Nat, he was in front of me and then—I saw him, before my eyes—”
Natasha’s hand covers his mouth.
He looks up at her, looking as wrecked as he feels.
“Will you listen to me?” she asks. “I need you to listen to me. Get out of that anxious head of yours for one minute. Sixty seconds. Can you give me that?”
Bucky stares at her blankly, nearly unseeing.
Then he nods.
She lets go if his mouth and face and then gets up. She offers him a hand.
“Come with me.”
The spacejet isn’t particularly big, but it’s larger than it looks from the outside. Bucky’s mostly spent his time working on the engine, shoring up the weapons, fixing the nearly destroyed hull. He hasn’t been inside and now that he has, it all seems pointless to him. Everything seems pointless without Steve.
Natasha leads him down a small hallway. On one side is the opening to the pilot’s pit. Loki is at the controls, with Thor sitting down next to him. Thor has a cut across his forehead and what looks like a nasty burn on his shoulder. The skin around one of his eyes is darker, almost charred.
“You came back for me,” Thor is saying softly to Loki, a tired smile on his face. “You saved me.”
“Not your eye,” Loki is saying. “You couldn’t have held on for one minute longer? Idiot.”
Thor seems to ignore this.
“You saved me,” he says fondly.
“Don’t,” Loki replies.
“You love me,” Thor says.
“Stop that,” Loki says.
“You wish for me to stay alive.”
“That is a stretch,” Loki says. “I did not want to have to explain to Frigga why her only son has turned into barbecue. It is too much effort.”
“No. Admit it,” Thor grins.
“No,” Loki says sourly.
“You love me.”
“I love you.”
“N—” Loki starts and then stops himself. He rolls his eyes, but his lines visibly soften. “Idiot. Come make yourself useful. I cannot navigate this all the way to—”
Bucky doesn’t get to hear where they’re navigating to. He doesn’t care anyway.
They pass by another room. Inside, Sam and Clint are sitting on a bench built into the wall. Sam’s leg is propped up on the rest of the seat and he too has burn on his neck. Clint taps his ear and frowns, shaking his head. He signs something to Sam.
“—sure Stark can fix it,” Sam says. Then he looks up and sees Bucky. He gives him a strained nod.
Bucky registers relief somewhere deep inside him, but it’s far removed, on distant shores. It’s not enough. Nothing is enough. He nods back, blankly.
Thirty seconds are up. Natasha has thirty more seconds before he shuts down again.
There’s some muttering and some buzzing and some tinkering sounds coming from the last room in the small corridor. If Bucky were properly functioning, he would recognize the sounds as exceptionally familiar.
Natasha steps forward and to the side and Bucky follows.
It’s a small, well-lit room. In the middle is some kind of a makeshift examination board and hovering over it, mumbling like a mad genius, is a tired and wired looking Tony Stark, looking a little worse for the wear.
“Tony,” he says. Even in his zombie state his boss manages to be annoying as hell.
Tony looks up from his table, his red-rimmed eyes wide and a little manic looking.
“Oh, good, you’re awake,” he says. “Good, good, that’s good. It’s good you haven’t died. That’s good.”
“Are you short-circuiting?” Bucky asks.
“Me? No. Him? A little.”
Bucky finally looks down at what Tony’s hovering over and—it’s like everything in his head starts screaming at once. Every noise that exists inside shrieks into higher and higher pitches until, suddenly, everything blanks into a total and all-encompassing tonal silence. His heart both thuds rapidly in his ears and grows absolutely still. He exists inside and outside his body.
He doesn’t realize he’s moved or that he’s clutching at Steve’s charred body until Tony grips his shoulders.
“Don’t do that,” he says. “Shoo! Get away. I’m trying to. Fix him. I haven’t slept in four days. I need more coffee. Do colors have sounds?”
“God, it’s a madhouse in here,” Natasha says from the side.
“Fix him,” Bucky says. He won’t let go of Steve. He can feel him, cold and nearly scorched under his touch. He smells like electricity and burned skin. Everywhere Bucky touches, there’s ash. His arm cylinders are heavily cracked.
Bucky hasn’t cried in fucking years, but he can feel it hot in his throat. His breath struggles heavily through his chest.
“Fix him, Tony,” he says. And his voice cracks on this—“Please. Fix him.”
Tony takes a step back at that and runs a hand through his hair. He looks bone tired and a little frenetic, like he’s either going to collapse or vibrate into a million pieces. He really might not have slept in four days.
“He has first degree burns everywhere. Half of his chips are fried. Probably more. His circuitry? Not good. Arm cylinders as good as they look. He has a pulse, but barely. It’s the facsimile of a heartbeat. It would take a miracle,” he says.
Bucky’s never believed in miracles. But his parents had, once.
“A miracle?” Bucky asks with a low, hollow laugh. “Or a Stark?”
That makes Tony pause.
He considers something and takes a breath, steeling himself.
Then he gives Bucky the most annoying Tony Stark smile he’s capable of giving.
“Now that you mention it,” he says. “No miracle is half as good as a Stark.”
Bucky carefully--so, very carefully, lets go of Steve. He feels like shattered glass.
“I’ll bring more coffee.”
Bucky mostly sleeps for the next two days, or whatever can be constituted as days in space. He avoids the others and tries to avoid himself. He mostly stays close to Steve, watching as Stark works on him, refusing to get his hopes up and refusing to let hope die. Two hours into his first day of hovering, Tony grouses that if he’s going to hover, he might as well help.
So he does that too.
He puts his mind to this task, to bringing back Steve. He puts his love to it too, and hopes that will prove enough.
Tony nearly collapses two days later. He’s had so little sleep since they escaped Earth 2.0 that he’s started speaking in tongues. He’s about to reach for another cup of coffee when Natasha forcibly removes him from Steve’s room.
“Enough,” she says. “You’ve done all that you can do. Go to bed, Stark. And you’re banned from coffee until I decide you’re not.”
Bucky wants to be angry at her for it, but he can’t muster the energy. He can’t muster the energy to do anything.
It doesn’t matter anyway. Tony really has done everything that there is to be done. He’s repaired Steve’s arm cylinders to the best of his abilities, replaced most of his burned chips, rewired the pieces of him that short circuited and melted together. He has him connected both to a liquid drip for his human parts and electricity for his robot parts. This is more than a software malfunction, more critical than zeroing or even deactivation.
“A total system collapse,” Bucky says quietly. He sits beside Steve and holds his hands in his one hand. “That’s what Tony said. Or I guess, in human terms, you shut down, Steve. It’s funny in the stupidest fucking way. All this time they were after you because you were an Android and you’re gonna die because you’re just too human not to. Fuck.”
Every time Bucky thinks it can’t hurt more, it does. His entire chest hurts. His body aches with the weight of grief.
He kisses Steve’s fingers and sits there, waiting.
More days pass and Steve remains relatively unchanged. His skin eventually starts healing. He seems more hydrated. He absorbs as much electricity and energy as they give him. But his eyes remain closed. His heart continue beating steadily, faintly, just below the surface, and that’s where he remains too, just below the surface.
Bucky wonders where Steve goes when he’s not with them. If he’s not here, then he must be somewhere else. Selfishly, he hopes it’s not somewhere better. Selfishly, he hopes Steve has no choice but to come back.
He rests his head on Steve’s shoulder one particularly wary day. He’s snapped at every single person who’s tried to comfort him or care for him in any capacity. Even Natasha’s given up on him. She refuses to speak with him in this state and he knows that he should apologize, but he can’t bring himself to do so.
“I know you’re probably with your Ma somewhere, Steve,” he says. “And she’s treatin’ you to some ice cream or you’re walking and talking and just being together. And I don’t begrudge you it, I don’t. You deserve that kinda happiness, you do. It’s just that.”
He picks his head back up and takes Steve’s cold hand in his own. He presses his mouth against his knuckles, just to feel him.
“I’m kinda wrecking everything without you. You gotta come save me from myself, you know?”
Bucky imagines Steve answering him. What the hell am I supposed to save if you’re wrecking everything, dumbass? Fix it.
“I don’t know how,” he says, inconsolable. “I miss you. I can’t get outta my head. I’m a mess.”
You’re allowed that, Buck, Steve would say. You’re allowed to be a mess. But don’t be one for too long. You deserve better than that. Our friends deserve better than that. You need each other right now. So be a mess, but stop being an asshole. And I miss you too.
Bucky thinks about that the next time he comes back. No one comes to the room anymore, not when he’s there visiting Steve, which is almost every waking hour. He’s allowed to be a mess. And he’s allowed to grieve. He’s allowed to be angry and to be heartbroken and most of all, he’s allowed to miss Steve.
But what he’s not allowed to do is act like he’s the only one who gave up everything for this person, like he’s the only one who was hurt by this. If he loses Steve, so does everyone else. They all lose him together.
So when Steve still doesn’t respond, Bucky leans over and presses a kiss to his cool, clammy forehead.
“Don’t go where I can’t follow, Rogers. Promise me you won’t.”
Steve doesn’t answer, of course, but Bucky counts it as a promise anyway.
The next day, Bucky takes a breath and shaves. It’s a challenge, with only one hand, but he manages. He takes a shower, struggles into fresh clothes, and shows up in the room they’ve turned into a kitchen.
“Hi,” he says, uncertainly.
Sam and Clint look up at him. He feels nerves pool in his stomach. He’s really been an ass.
“Hey,” Sam says after a minute, making room for him on the bench. “Saved you a muffin.”
Bucky nods and gratefully takes it.
“I’m sorry for being a dick,” he says.
“It’s okay,” Sam replies. “Glad to see you’re back.”
“What have I missed?” Bucky asks and bites into the muffin.
Sam and Clint fill him in.
The day after that, he apologizes to Natasha.
“You didn’t deserve that,” he says.
“I know,” Natasha replies. She looks like she’s struggling to decide whether she’s still pissed or forgiven him. But then her anger breaks. She cups Bucky’s cheek with a hand. “Neither do you.”
And it’s only then, when Natasha leans in, when she, small as she is, circles her arms around his shoulders, like an anchor keeping him grounded, it’s only when she whispers quietly, devastation clear in her voice, I miss him too, that Bucky finally can’t hold it together anymore.
He holds onto her and shakes with heartsickness and Natasha lets him.
He dreams he’s back in Brooklyn. It’s a different kind of Brooklyn than he knew, all bright greens and red bricks and a sun shining that is bright and not at all toxic. The sky is blue--not red or sepia, but the deepest, clearest blue he’s ever seen. The air is clean and the streets are clean and he--he’s clean too. He’s whole. For some reason, he had dreamt he was a robot, but that wasn’t the case at all.
Steve’s been in a science fiction horror movie and it makes him laugh to think about it now.
Next to him, his Ma, all small and golden, takes his arm and beams at him.
“You took the long way to get here,” she says with a laugh.
“Not like you left me instructions, Ma,” Steve says. He sounds amused. He is amused. He feels lighter and more wholehearted than he has in longer than he can remember.
“Don’t you sass your mother,” Sarah Rogers says.
They stroll down the Brooklyn street. There’s a park he doesn’t recognize a few blocks down. It’s strange that he wouldn’t know the name, since he lives here, but maybe it’s just one of those things.
“You look good, my darling,” she says after they pass moments in silence. “I thought--well I wasn’t sure. You were so young when it happened.”
Steve, frankly, doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Sometimes his Ma’s like this. She’ll start rambling about whatever’s in her head, nevermind that no one can read her mind.
There are kids racing up and down the streets on bicycles. Steve frowns. He could have sworn that bicycles hovered, although that doesn’t seem right either.
“Are you listening to me, Steven?” Sarah chastises.
“Yeah, Ma,” Steve says. “I was young when it happened.”
He pauses. He frowns, staring at the trees. They’re all one color and he could have sworn that trees were multicolored. It was a really vivid dream.
“Wait--” Steve says and turns back to Sarah. “Young when what happened?”
Sarah’s face blurs a little bit. It’s weird. It’s not that she tears up and gets blurry, it’s more that she blurs, as though someone took a tissue and wiped her away at the corners. He blinks and she reappears.
They walk closer to the park. Steve really doesn’t know what the name is. He tries desperately to think about it, but he can’t remember.
“Have I been here before?” he asks his mother.
“Of course you have, sweetling,” Sarah says. “Many times.”
“I don’t remember it,” Steve says.
“A marsh by any other name,” Sarah replies.
Well that makes no sense at all. Steve kind of slows to a halt.
His head’s starting to hurt. It’s been hurting like this for days.
It doesn’t make sense, really. He feels like he’s been having this same headache over and over again, like some kind of nightmare loop he’s stuck in.
“What’s the park’s name, Ma?” Steve asks when he can blink away the pain. He can’t stop thinking about it.
Sarah says something, but the words blur. Some bird caws extremely loudly from the tree above their head.
“Were you saying something?” he blinks at her. “I think you said something, but I can’t--” He swallows, nervous all of a sudden. “I can’t remember.”
“Oh, Steven,” Sarah says. She slows to a stop.
The two of them watch a mother and daughter ahead of them, fussing. Everyone is always fussing. They never did, though. Steve and Sarah never fussed, because they never got the chance to.
The chance to what?
His headache worsens.
“What were you saying?” he asks.
“Did you do it?” Sarah asks suddenly, her fingers digging into Steve’s arm cylinders. Wait, no, arms. Digging into his arms. “Did you take the world in your hands?”
That’s a strange question. Steve doesn’t know how to answer it.
“I’ve been alone,” Steve says, although he doesn’t know why. “I’ve missed you so much.”
“I have missed you, my darling,” Sarah says. “Every single day I have been gone. I have loved and missed you entire worlds away. I gave you all I had left to give and I would give it to you again. Do you understand that, Steven?”
That makes Steve nervous.
Sarah shakes her head.
“Do you want to stay here with me?” Sarah asks. It seems sudden, almost devastated.
Steve frowns. He looks up at the blue, blue sky. It’s so beautiful, it’s nearly breathtaking. It feels right here. It feels peaceful. He’s been searching for peace, for so very long.
“Where else would I go?” he asks.
“Anywhere, darling,” she says. “The moon. The stars.”
“Wouldn’t that be funny?” Steve smiles at her. “If we could go to other planets? What if we could get on a ship and just go somewhere in space? Where would you go?”
“To a planet, somewhere,” Sarah says. She tilts her head back and feels the sun shine down on her face. She glows, Sarah Rogers. Her blonde hair, her pink lips, her small frame, every part of her glows. She’s the most beautiful person he’s ever known. He doesn’t know why he misses her when she’s right there. He wants to hold her close to him, in case she disappears.
“What’s your favorite planet, Steven?”
Something about that. Steve stops, his heart hammering.
Sarah turns to look at him.
“Your favorite planet. What is it?”
There it is again, a shift within him, something that jars him so subtly and so painfully that it’s like he’s climbed stairs only to miss a step. He feels the ground shift out from beneath his feet. He would gasp, but it feels like there’s no air.
“Let me guess,” Sarah says with a smile. “Leo.”
“Yes,” Steve gasps out. “I’m such a cliché.”
Steve has to let go of his mother, his head hurts so terribly much. Everything around him seems to darken; the sky, the trees, even the children playing. He crouches down, finding it difficult to breathe and Sarah follows him.
“No,” she says. She sounds terrified. “No, no, no. Not again. Please, not again.”
Steve shakes his head. There’s something here, something he can’t remember, but desperately wants to.
“You said. It happened when I was so young,” Steve says. “What happened, Ma?”
Sarah Rogers looks heartbroken. She takes Steve’s face between her own.
“I died, my love,” she says. “I died and left you all alone. And you never really recovered.”
It comes back to him then, everything, like the sickening crack of a bone breaking.
“Do you want to stay with me?” Sarah Rogers asks again. She smooths back his hair, presses kisses onto his forehead. “Or do you have someone else waiting for you?”
Steve thinks about Bucky’s face, across from him, happy, for a brief moment, in thinking they could make it out of this, that they could make it out of this alive, together. And then that same face, struck blank with horror, as flames came between them.
He feels him, somehow, his fingers warm, a mouth pressed against his forehead. A whisper in his ears. Don’t go where I can’t follow.
“He’s been waiting for me,” Steve says quietly. “I think he’s been waiting a while.”
“Is he good to you?” Sarah asks.
“Yes,” Steve says.
“Does he make you feel less alone?”
“Do you love him?” Sarah asks.
“Yes,” Steve says.
“Oh,” his Ma breathes out.
Sarah takes his hands in her own.
“Will you miss him terribly if you stay here?” she asks.
Steve doesn’t have to think about it. He knows it like the pulse in his body.
“Yeah. I think I would miss him every single day I was gone. I would miss and love him worlds away.”
This makes Sarah Rogers smile. She settles then, in a way she wasn’t settled before. She takes Steve’s face between her hands and kisses him, gently, on the forehead, with only the love a mother can give.
“Then that is no choice at all,” Sarah says.
Steve gasps as he comes awake. He’s aware of two things. First, that he’s laying on a table, hooked up to wires and plastic tubes. Second, that there’s someone next to him, a head nestled onto his shoulder.
Steve doesn’t have to check to know who he is.
He lifts a hand and strokes his hair.
Bucky comes alive under him with a small, disbelieving gasp of his own. He lifts his head, eyes still sleep heavy, wondering if this is a dream.
“Hi, Buck,” Steve says.
Bucky looks overcome, positively wrecked with emotion. His wide, cool blue eyes fill, despite himself.
“Steve,” he breathes out. It comes out soft, like a yearned after wish or a dream he doesn’t want to wake from.
“You told me I couldn’t go where you couldn’t follow,” Steve says. He laughs a little, dense with emotion, watery. “So I didn’t. I came back.”
Bucky shakes as he gets up and Steve does too. He manages to sit up. He’s weak from lack of movement. Weak from being where souls go when they’ve left, worlds away, or somewhere in between.
“Steve,” Bucky says again. He reaches out slowly, heartbreakingly carefully. He touches Steve’s face, cups it with his one hand.
Then he pulls him close and Steve wraps his arms around him.
They don’t cry, but they don’t let go either. Steve breathes in Bucky and Bucky shakes beneath him, whispering things like god, Stevie and I missed you and don’t ever do that to me again, you asshole. Steve laughs, shakily, and touches the space where Bucky’s arm should be. Bucky runs a hand through Steve’s hair and kisses his forehead. He kisses his nose. He kisses his cheek. He kisses his mouth.
He kisses his mouth.
“You came back,” Bucky whispers.
“You told me to,” Steve says.
“You’re alive,” Bucky says.
“I’m alive,” Steve agrees.
It has new meaning, now.
Bucky moves his hand into Steve’s hair, gently sweeps back blond hair.
“You plan to stay that way?” Bucky asks, wry even in the most emotional moment.
Steve laughs softly.
“Yeah. That’s the plan.”
He’s going to stay alive, he decides, and, importantly, be alive, for as long as it’s his choice to stay this way. As long as Bucky is here with him, by his side, ready to embrace the stars together, Steve will live.
And he will do so happily.
Bucky braces his only arm behind Steve’s back and they hobble to the window to look out, to watch as the spacejet slowly lowers itself into the atmosphere of a new, vibrant planet.
“Is that--?” Steve breathes out and Bucky laughs softly.
“Yeah,” he says and presses a kiss to Steve’s shoulder. “Yeah, it is.”
They stand, side by side, pressed close, and watch their ship descend, here, into this new planet, their new home; and they exist, hearts beating together, two vast, oft-broken, incandescently vibrant, and alive, and beautiful, human, electric hearts.
Chapter 9: [ epilogue: reawakening ]
Lucky barks, because dogs have no sense of royalty, only loyalty. Clint bends down to him, runs a hand over his soft, blond fur and whispers soothingly into his ears.
Steve, nervous, steps out after them, down the rampart and into the sunlight. Next to him, Bucky squeezes his hand.
Of all of them, Natasha is the only one who isn’t fazed, because it would take a lot more than actual, literal royalty to surprise Natasha Romanoff.
“Welcome.” The King steps out in front of them. He isn’t wearing a crown and would look unassuming, but for the entourage surrounding him, women dressed in red, with silver bands adorning their necks, and weighted, electronic spears balanced in their hands.
Behind him, a younger girl, dark-skinned and dressed in beautifully vibrant colors, beads at her neck, and her hair twisted into braids, bends down.
“Come here!” she calls. “Come on, little one!”
The King, pauses.
“Shuri,” the King hisses and the girl--Shuri, ignores him.
“Come here,” she insists again and this time, Lucky listens. He bounds away from Clint, crosses over to the princess and, to her delight and Clint’s horror, starts licking at her hand.
“Good dog!” Shuri laughs with delight.
The King rolls his eyes.
“As I was saying,” he says. He smiles at them. He has a regal smile, a kind one. A trustworthy one. It’s a smile that makes Steve’s shoulders relax. “Welcome to Leo. You will not be harmed here, I promise you.”
Leo is the planet Steve has always dreamed of living on. The people are as vibrant as the planet itself, dressed in all manners of colors and beading and jewelry, which comes only second to the trees and the water and the sky in terms of brightness. There are more species of trees than Steve can identify and they’re the colors of the setting sun, all violets and magentas, peaches, and oranges. The sky itself is almost constantly the clearest, deepest blue his eyes have seen and the waters shimmer blues and greens and, sometimes, depending on how warm it is, a royal purple befitting a royal kingdom.
There are humans here and there are chipped humans and there are Androids too and, remarkably, none can tell the difference between any. Even more remarkably, no one really cares.
“What do you mean Androids are being deactivated?” Shuri had asked Steve and Bucky that first night. The King had had more important engagements than entertaining the refugees, but Shuri had found them endlessly fascinating. “What is the shame in being a robot? Is technology not to be celebrated? Tsk. Why not go live in a cave and pretend to discover fire instead?”
“Some people don’t get that,” Bucky had said. “Some people got their heads so far up their asses they think they’re the only ones that matter.”
“Bucky!” Steve had hissed and jabbed his side. He wasn’t sure about royal etiquette, but he was pretty sure cursing in front of a princess was considered to be in poor form.
Shuri, on the other hand, seemed delighted by Bucky’s lack of filter. She took to him immediately and he took to her and the entire friendship was regarded with an understandably high degree of suspicion by all observing.
The next day, Shuri drags Bucky into what can only be considered her underground lab. It’s bright and colorful, like Shuri herself, and buzzing with advanced technology.
“Let me design you a new arm,” she says, eyes bright. She’s inching toward the stump of his shoulder.
“Am I going to become one of your science experiments?” Bucky asks. He looks around the lab with nothing short of awe. He looks like he’s itching to touch something too.
“Yes,” she says. “In a way. But I’m a good scientist, not like the talkative one you brought with you.”
Bucky turns to look at her and for a moment Steve thinks he’s going to go off on her, a literal princess. He’s ready to step in.
Then Bucky beams.
The two hobble together over a table of gadgets and schematics, talking quickly, one interrupting the other, one making fun of the other, and jabbing each other with elbows when the other isn’t paying attention.
“Should we be concerned?” King T’Challa asks, observing the unnerving camaraderie.
Next to him, Steve stands, arms crossed at his chest, watching the unfolding scene with multiple red flags unfurling inside his head.
“Without a single doubt,” he replies.
Steve and Bucky are given an apartment across the river from the palace. Bucky almost negotiates for a hut, but Steve insists that he’ll miss running water and electricity and Bucky snickers that he supposes he can’t shoot Steve in the back of the neck every time he gets close to zeroing.
Each of the refugees are given rations, which are hearty and generous. Natasha, Sam, and Clint are settled into apartments nearby. They meet for meals in the morning and meals in the evening and try to figure out what to do, who to be here. Their slates are clean for each and every one of them and it’s invigorating, but it’s hard too.
“Maybe I’ll be a ballerina,” Natasha says. She stretches her limbs languorously, like a cat on vacation. “Or a poet.”
“Words aren’t your strong suit, babe,” Clint laughs next to her. She settles and leans into him. His arm is around her back. It’s both unexpected and completely expected, but regardless, it’s nice.
“What are you talking about?” Natasha says. “I could kill with my words.”
“Not the only thing you could kill with, believe that,” Sam mutters over his bowl of fruit.
As for Sam, well he’s charming and compassionate and skilled and it takes almost no time at all before King T’Challa offers him a job.
“You’re a therapist?” he asks.
“Yeah,” Sam says. “In a way.”
“I have a cousin,” King T’Challa says. “He’s an Android and he’s a handful and he needs a therapist, in a way.”
“I could be in for a job,” Sam admits. He takes a mouthful of wine with a grin. “For the right price.”
“It will have to be a high price,” King T’Challa says solemnly. “He is...challenging.”
“I’m used to challenging,” Sam smirks.
“I’m right the fuck here,” King T’Challa’s cousin, Erik, scowls at them both.
Cousin Erik is kind of crazy, but also kind of crazy hot.
“Don’t you dare fucking sleep with him, Rogers,” Bucky warns.
“Jealous, Buck?” Steve asks with a grin.
“No,” Bucky snorts. “You’re both so fucking self-righteous, if you fucked, we’d all have to read the manifesto the next morning and Tony’s already trying to get me to read the draft of his memoir. I cannot and will not fucking do it, so help me God.”
Steve laughs heartily and kisses him.
“No, really, I’m right the fuck here,” Erik grumbles, crosses his hot arms across his hot chest, and then spends the rest of dinner heckling the King.
It’s a peaceful, lazy, calm dream and Steve can’t help but be grateful for every waking moment of it. It’s different from the last time he started over. He’s not alone and heartbroken this time. He’s surrounded by the love and laughter of the people he cares for the most and this, more than anything, settles warmly in his bones. They don’t have anything to their names, but they don’t need much anyway. They have one another and for now, that’s enough to make do.
Steve pushes the curtain to their balcony open that night. Under, outside the railing, the purple river spreads out, inking a curved line that separates the palace from the rest of the city. The sky is turning quietly to dark, the bright, vivid day bleeding slowly into the cool tones of the evening. It never gets fully black on Leo. Instead, the sky maintains something between a dark, navy blue and a deep, unrelenting purple. Steve can still see the stars though and the swirls of galaxies and the clusters of planets.
He puts his hands on the railing and sighs.
Two arms snake around his waist and he feels a warm mouth press a kiss to the skin just above his neck disk.
“Hey,” Bucky breathes into his neck.
Steve barely suppresses a shiver. They haven’t had many chances like this, a moment to be quiet and intimate with one another. A moment to regather, to have something other than sheer survival hanging over their shoulders.
“How’s the arm?” Steve asks. To his left he sees shifting silver metal plates with gold underlay, glimmering brightly under the moonlight.
“It feels so much better,” Bucky says. “Shuri’s a genius. I can feel it, Steve. I can feel you.”
Steve’s heart hammers in his chest. He hasn’t had a chance to get used to this, to Bucky, to them. He’s been alone for so long that it still comes as a surprise to him that there’s this person who wants to be with him. A person who easily touches him and asks about him. A person he can wake up to. A person who loves him, in no uncertain, unconditional terms. He’s in awe of it, every time.
Steve shifts, turning around in Bucky’s arms.
“I can feel you,” Bucky says happily. He’s smiling. He’s always, magnificently smiling these days.
“What was it like before?” Steve asks.
“Pressure, mostly,” Bucky says. “Heat too. But Shuri did--I don’t know, some magic with my nerve endings. It’s like a real arm.”
“You’re like a real boy,” Steve says, softly laughing.
Bucky leans forward and kisses him gently, once.
“Are you okay?” he asks. “You seem quiet.”
“Yeah,” Steve says.
Bucky keeps his flesh arm around Steve’s back and lifts his new robotic arm to cradle his face. Steve turns his cheek into it and lets Bucky feel it. Bucky uses his new fingers to etch across the curves of Steve’s face, to trace him, from his temple down his cheeks, across his jaw, until a single thumb rests on Steve’s lower lip.
“How do I feel?” Steve asks quietly.
“Warm,” Bucky says in wonder.
Steve feels warm.
“If you tell me, I won’t tell,” Bucky whispers. “It’ll be our little secret.”
Steve laughs, a little dizzy from Bucky’s proximity. He presses a kiss against the metal thumb.
“I’ve lived on three worlds now,” he says. “Every time I make a home, something terrible happens. I guess I was just thinking maybe it’s not the worlds’ faults. Maybe it’s just me.”
Bucky seems to consider this. He resumes his tracing. His fingers find their way around Steve’s mouth and up the bridge of his nose.
“Let me get this straight,” Bucky says. “You think you, Steve Rogers, are responsible for two Earths going to shit?”
“No,” Steve says, warming around the neck. “Not exactly. But you can’t deny facts.”
Bucky snorts at that.
“Facts, he says,” Bucky says. “Steve, you’ve lived on two worlds so far. And those places betrayed you. But they were no less your home. You gave them both pieces of yourself and they’re both better off for it.”
“Minus the whole destruction thing,” Steve gives him a wry smile.
“Yeah, semantics,” Bucky puffs out a laugh. Then he softens. “If you want to stay here and make this your home, you can do that. If you want to be in a spaceship in the middle of galaxies, you can do that. And if you want to make a home on every single planet, you can do that too, Steve. Home is where the heart is, or whatever fucking cliché.”
That makes something tight loosen in Steve’s chest.
“What are you saying about my heart, Barnes?” Steve teases.
Bucky smiles and trails his hand down to the spot just above where Steve’s heart is. Then he takes his other hand, finds Steve’s hand and puts it on his chest, above the spot where his own heart is.
“It’s here,” Bucky says. “And mine is here.”
Steve’s heart flutters under the press of Bucky’s hand.
“God, that’s cheesy,” he laughs.
“So is the concept of home,” Bucky says. “And love. And happiness. The whole entire fucking world is a cheese wheel, Rogers.”
“You’re a cheese wheel, Buck,” Steve says.
“I’m a fucking cheese wheel, Steve,” Bucky agrees.
Steve leans forward and kisses him.
Bucky’s breath comes out softly and his eyes flutter closed.
Steve leaves their mouths together, lips sealed, bodies still, the two of them just breathing one another in.
Then, heart stammering, he moves his hand into Bucky’s hair. Bucky opens his mouth and Steve moves closer, tasting him as he deepens the kiss.
They bump into each other, kisses slow and langurious at first. They explore each other’s mouths, fingertips in hair, hips shifting together and apart. Steve feels the railing bite into his back and he chuckles into Bucky’s mouth as Bucky’s hands start crawling up under his shirt.
“Think you’re some kinda clever, huh?” Steve says and Bucky grins.
Steve lets Bucky manhandle his shirt up and over his shoulders. In a moment of loose fingers, the t-shirt slips out of Bucky’s grasp and goes fluttering over the edge of the balcony, somewhere down into the cool river waters.
They both of them stop and blink and look over. They turn back to one another and they can’t help it, they start laughing.
They’re still laughing as Steve shoves at Bucky’s shoulders. He stumbles backwards, catching his fingers on Steve’s sides. They move back, across the balcony threshold, through the living room, into the bedroom.
They’re still laughing as Steve starts trailing kisses down Bucky’s neck and they’re still laughing as Bucky’s laughter gets breathier and breathier and he has to cover his soft moans with a kiss.
Their laughter eventually fades to something a little softer, something a little hungrier as Steve moves down Bucky’s body, taking in the planes of his muscles with his mouth and the salt of his skin with his tongue. Bucky’s breathing picks up, his body arching up into Steve’s touch, but Steve has him pinned, delights in mapping this body it his honor and privilege to explore. He swallows every sound Bucky makes. He kisses every freckle he finds.
Steve dips further and further and eventually takes Bucky apart and when Bucky manages to catch his breath, he puts his hands on Steve’s shoulder, pushes him onto his back, and puts him back together.
They face one another after, bodies cooling and curled into each other, like two perfect apostrophes, Steve smiling and Bucky tracing him again.
And if Steve was touch-starved once, well, now he can’t so much remember anymore.
They treat themselves to a lazy morning after, Bucky’s head on Steve’s shoulder, Steve’s arm around his bare back. They try to figure out the wrist communicator that Shuri has given them and it is so far beyond the technology they’re used to that they’re sure Tony must be rolling in his grave. Or his bed, whatever.
“That’s not it, Rogers!” Bucky’s laughing. He reaches across Steve’s body for the communicator, but Steve holds it away.
“I can get this! I worked in design for seventy five years!” he exclaims.
“Yeah, that look like a rooftop shingle to you, hot stuff?” Bucky says and stretches his hand further.
Steve smacks his shoulder away.
“Hey, fuck you! The people need a roof!” he says, but can’t help but laughing.
“Steve,” Bucky says, moving his arm away. “Gimme that watch.”
“No,” Steve says.
But Steve’s protestations are cut off because the communicator starts buzzing loudly.
Both of them blink cautiously at the thing and Steve brings it back close. They both sit up, bringing the covers back up, just in case. Bucky leans forward and presses his index finger to one of the beads.
After a beep, a young woman with dark hair and Bucky’s mouth appears cast above the watch.
Eleanor’s face, hesitant at first, broadens into a smile. It’s the same smile Bucky wears when he’s pleased.
“There you are,” she says. “Do you know the trouble I had to go through to get this line to you, you asshole? Were you gonna tell me you turned fugitive and fled the entire goddamn planet?”
Bucky almost cringes into Steve.
“Oh yeah, about that,” he says. “The postcard’s in the mail.”
“You brat,” Eleanor laughs. Then her expression softens. “You’re okay.”
“I’m okay,” Bucky says. “Are you? How’s--” he swallows. “How’s Mom and dad? Louise?”
“They’re fine,” Eleanor says. “They’re them.”
She pauses and then says, “Mom told me what she said to you, Bucky. I told her it was about time.”
“El--” Bucky starts, but his sister puts a hands up.
“God, you and Louise never let me talk. Let me talk, jerk.”
Bucky nods. He leans into Steve and Steve rubs his thumb in circles across his lower back.
“I know it wasn’t always happy here for you, after,” Eleanor says. “I always felt it, but I never knew what to say. I thought that if I stayed quiet and learned and listened, that would be enough. It wasn’t and I knew that. I should have said something, a long time ago. Becca would have said something.”
“Eleanor--” Bucky says, stricken, but Steve pinches him to quiet.
“I want you to know,” Eleanor says and her voice grows louder and then quieter. “I know we weren’t perfect, but we were your family. Are your family. We should have been better, but we never meant to intentionally hurt you, Bucky. We would never do that.” A pause. “I would never do that. But I’m sorry we did.”
Bucky feels his throat constrict, a hot feeling coiled in his chest that’s making it difficult for him to form words. Steve presses a kiss to his shoulder.
“We love you, Buck,” Eleanor says and she looks like she’s struggling to talk too. “We should have told you more. We love all of you. I love and miss you so much.”
Bucky untangles from Steve, reaches forward and takes the communicator from him. He touches Eleanor’s cheek, as though she can feel him.
“I love you too,” he whispers to her. “I miss you too.”
Eleanor’s image looks up at him, teary-eyed, but otherwise happy.
“I know you can’t, but--if you can. One day,” she says. “Come back.”
“If I can’t, you’ll just have to come to me, you punk,” Bucky says. “It’s beautiful here. It's unreal. You’d love it.”
Eleanor smiles and nods. She wipes at her face and they both collect themselves. Then her eyes shift over to Steve.
“So are you gonna introduce me to your boyfriend? Or are you both gonna awkwardly ignore the fact that we’re having this heart-to-heart while you’re in bed together?”
Both Bucky and Steve turn a bright red and Eleanor laughs out loud.
“Eleanor, this is Steve,” Bucky says. “Steve, this is my baby sister.”
“So you’re Mr. Late Night Rooftop,” Eleanor says.
“I didn’t know that’s what I was going by these days,” Steve says with a smile. “But I’m open to negotiations.”
Eleanor grins and looks at Bucky.
“Buck, he’s cute!”
“What, you’re banging him and you think he doesn’t think you think he’s cute?” his little sister grins evilly and Bucky groans and buries his face in Steve’s shoulder. He makes a mental note to never let Eleanor and Natasha meet.
Beside him, Steve huffs out laughter.
They spend an hour catching up. Eleanor tells Bucky about their parents and about Louise, Bucky tells Eleanor about Leo and about Shuri. The two siblings start talking and then they can’t seem to stop. Steve smiles as he watches, interjecting every so often to defend his honor or to answer Eleanor when she asks him something that makes Bucky groan.
“I should go,” Eleanor says eventually. “Quincy’s favorite walker left the planet, so now it’s up to me. I always have to be the responsible one around here.”
Bucky laughs because his baby sister has turned into a sass monster. She reminds him so much of Becca it makes his heart ache for the both of them.
Eleanor stretches as she says goodbye to Steve and it’s only when she shifts and her arm comes into view that Bucky sees it.
“El,” he says slowly. “What’s that?”
His sister looks just confused enough for Bucky to know she knows exactly what he’s talking about.
“Show me your arm,” Bucky demands.
“Buck--” Eleanor says, but Bucky says “Now” and apparently his big brother voice still works from three galaxies away, because she sighs and offers her right arm to him.
There, just above the fold between her lower and upper arm is a tattoo. It’s small enough to be innocuous, but distinct enough for Bucky to see exactly what it is. A small data chip with a thick white circular border around it.
“Eleanor Marie Barnes,” Bucky says. “What have you done?”
Eleanor, for her part, just smiles and tucks a piece of loose hair behind her ear.
“I met someone named Wanda,” she says. “Steve, you might know her.”
It gets them thinking.
Leo is the planet of Steve’s dreams and it’s his home now, surrounded as he is by people he loves and people who care for him, both old and new. He’s able to tangle his fingers with Bucky’s as they walk down the river or through the marketplace. He’s able to watch Clint teach Shuri about hacking and to watch Shuri teach Tony about refined tinkering methods. He and Natasha meet for lunch, every day, her with a notebook and him with a tablet that Shuri designed herself, which makes Steve’s own designs come to life in a way they never have before. He sketches the trees, the moons in the sky. He draws T’Challa’s outline and argues with Erik about politics over a dinner table that’s rich with food and company.
For the first time in three hundred years, Steve has the world in his hands. He’s unbelievably, incomprehensibly happy.
And it’s somehow, still, not completely enough.
“Loki said something to me, before we escaped,” Bucky says one day. They’re sitting on a rock outcropping, watching the sun set into the brilliant pink sky. Bucky’s head is nestled on Steve’s shoulder. Steve feels calm, well rested, and completely out-of-his-mind restless at the same time.
“What’s that?” Steve asks. “Where did he and Thor go anyway?”
“He said you’ll leave this planet. But everyone else will be left behind,” Bucky says quietly.
Steve’s breath, soft and slow, comes up short.
“It’s up to you to do something about that,” Bucky goes on. “Or not. But either way, those people will still be there. The others, just like us.”
He’s quiet a minute, hand on Steve’s knee, thumb rubbing a circle onto it.
“I haven’t been able to get those words out of my head since,” he admits.
Steve knows, then, if he didn’t know before.
“I love it here,” Bucky lifts his head and looks Steve in the eyes. “I could spend my entire life here, with you and be so fucking happy.”
“But it’s not enough,” Steve fills in for him.
“How do we leave the rest of them behind?” Bucky asks, eyes downcast “The others they’re killing. The others who are fighting for their own existence. How do we live with ourselves here when they’re fighting to survive like that?”
It takes Steve only a moment to answer. In truth, he thinks he’s known almost all along, since the moment his feet touched the soil on this gorgeous, beautiful, dream of a planet.
“We can’t,” Steve says.
He takes Bucky’s hand in his own and kisses the back of it.
[ two months later ]
There’s a spacejet waiting for them, its color a bright white set against the violets and pinks of Leo’s trees.
“Steve Rogers,” Thor says with a broad grin and a strong clap to Steve’s shoulder. “Bucky Barnes. It is a privilege and an honor to see you both again.”
“Rogers,” Loki drawls. “Barnes. I can’t say the same.”
Steve and Bucky stand in the mouth of the spacejet. Behind them, the Leo sun rises, bright and beautiful on a clear, electrifying, terribly hopeful new day.
“Loki,” Natasha’s voice comes from behind Steve. “Where the fuck are my meringues?”
“Fuck you!” Loki says, almost immediately reverting to who he was back then, a lifetime ago.
Steve’s shoulders, which have been hunched with tension, relax. Natasha and Sam smirk and walk past them into the interior of the jet.
Clint’s already inside, doing a complete systems check. Apparently he’s kicked Loki out of the pilot’s pit, which is why the other man is currently grumbling by Thor’s side.
“Hill and Valkyrie are ready for us on the ground,” Thor says. “The network is ready for us.”
The network, Steve thinks. A conglomeration of humans, Alts, and Androids, waiting on the ground, harboring, protecting, working together to systematically destroy an oppressive institution. It’s a thriving, living creature with new, passionate bodies joining nearly every day. Steve knows some of them. Some of them, he had worked with in another life and found in them some of the best people he’s ever met.
Peter keeps sending him coded messages about the slow destruction of StarkCorps and how many cool Androids he’s met and harbored on any given day. America’s less communicative, but she does send some choice quips back through the line for Clint. Wanda, Steve suspects, is the ringleader and may or may not be dating Eleanor. He hasn’t told Bucky his suspicions quite yet.
Each of these people he’s known and continues to know risk their lives, every day, for the greater good, for the hope that the future will not recreate the past, that love will overcome whatever stupid, insignificant, constructed differences exist between each and every one of them.
Steve has never known or experienced a greater love in his life. It gives him purpose and, after all, was that not what he had been missing all along?
Thor joins the others inside, until it’s just Steve and Bucky, still on the rampart, still watching the sunrise.
“You nervous?” Bucky asks.
“Kind of,” Steve admits. It’s hard not to be. He’s a wanted man, a fugitive, going back to the very planet that hated him so much it tried to kill him.
“That’s okay,” Bucky says. “You’re allowed to be. You’re allowed to feel that way.”
Steve’s a little overcome by that. He turns toward Bucky.
“You ready to follow me into the jaws of hell, Barnes?” he says.
Bucky looks like he’s going to laugh for a second, but then his mouth evens out into a smooth, sweet smile.
“You look too stupid to run away from a fight,” he says. “So I guess I gotta. To make sure you don’t do something stupid again, like zero out on me--”
“Or hide a death warrant from me--”
“Or get eaten by fire--”
Steve covers Bucky’s mouth with his hand and Bucky ends up laughing into his palm. When Steve’s certain that Bucky’s done laughing at him, he removes it.
“Where you go, I go,” Bucky says.
“Sounds pretty fucking stupid to me,” Steve says.
“I’m pretty fucking stupid for you,” Bucky agrees.
Steve tips his head forward and Bucky tilts his head up and their mouths meet with a quiet, warm sigh.
“I love you,” Steve says. “I would love you from entire worlds away.”
“Ugh. You fucking cheese wheel.”
Steve kisses him again, before a beeping and whirring noise tell them that the rampart is retracting.
A thrill runs through Steve’s stomach as they finally pull apart.
“All right, lovebirds,” Natasha’s face pokes out from inside the spacejet. “Let’s go blow some fascists up.”
“I don’t think that’s--” Bucky says.
“Yeah!” Steve brightens. “Let’s blow them up!”
“Blow them up!”
“I love fire,” Steve says happily.
“Oh my fucking god.” Bucky follows them inside, griping at Steve as he goes.
The spacejet takes a moment to calibrate, both inside and out, a low hum as it extracts itself from gravity and hovers just above the ground.
Inside the ship is a group of mismatched misfits, armed to the teeth, laughing, teasing, ready, individually and together, to go against the tide, to fight not for what’s popular or for what’s easy, but for what’s right. They will fight for every last bit of it--the right to love one another, in every shape and form, and to be with one another, in every shape and form, and to have the choice to do so and to keep doing so, until time runs its course, whenever that may be.
Until then, The Avenger braces itself, for a single, unending, still moment, and then shoots into space.