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History Has Its Eyes On You

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*** June 30, 1768 ***

It was neither an auspicious day nor a day that promised destruction that Alexander Pierce came to collect the eldest son and sole heir to the Barnes’ fortune.

Steven Grant Rogers, reclining in the bay window of his family’s townhome, watched the box-like coach trundle past, his head heavy and weary from yet another of his summertime colds. Pale and weak for his sixteen - soon to be seventeen years - he thought nothing of the coach’s appearance until he heard raised voices in the foyer of their home.

Joseph Rogers grew quiet upon a soft admonishment from Sarah Rogers, but now Steve strained to listen, through the muddiness that had plagued him since a nasty infection in his infancy robbed him of most of his hearing. His efforts did not go unnoticed by the doctor who was attending to him at the moment; a kindly German by the name of Abraham Erksine, the professional was the first of his kind whom Steve could stomach in any respect.

Doctor Erksine merely raised his eyebrows with a charming lift of his lips, but did not scold Steve for attempting to eavesdrop. All the same, he felt a thorough shame for trying to listen in on his parents’ conversation, and sank back against the cushions with a groan.

“Do you know what they speak of?” Steve asked Erksine with genuine curiosity, and the old man thought for a moment before answering.

In the meantime, he slid a wide needle into the crook of Steve’s elbow and began to administer the cold, almost blue mixture he had concocted to combat the various maladies Steve suffered from. Whatever he had invented, it was working -- while Steve suffered from a cold, it did not diminish the fact that he had grown nearly four inches since Doctor Erksine began working with him, nor the fact that he had gained twenty pounds. Sarah Rogers had fairly wept when Steve passed an entire month without one of his famous fainting spells.

“I think I may,” Erksine allowed after a long moment, “But the tragedy of the situation begs that I do not share it with you. Perhaps if you asked your mother or father, they would be more forthcoming?”

“How diplomatic of you.” Steve smiled at Erksine and then tilted his head back to study the sky, waiting for the eerily cold sensation of the medicine drifting sluggishly through his veins to dwindle and fade. It was a dusty blue sky, the humidity that hovered over New York dampening the usual brightness of the sun; on the horizon, clouds gathered, promising a brutal rainfall in the evening.

After Erksine withdrew the needle, Steve sat upright and rolled the sleeve of his shirt down, re-buttoning the cuff. He forewent his coat, given the heat of the day -- his own father was stalking around the house in nought but his shirt and pants, so Steve had a decent excuse for his state of undress. At the very moment he decided to ask Erksine if he would allow Steve to accompany him back to his office, so that he might watch some of the proceedings and then report back to his friend Samuel, who had an interest in medicine, a horrible scream rent the air of the sleepy city street.

No!

Steve planted his feet on the floor before twisting to stare out the window, his back not aching the way it would have but four months ago. From his new position, he could see the coach at rest, some fifty feet up the road, waiting outside the residence of the late Mr. George Barnes, and his wife, God rest her soul, Winifred.

He frowned and reached for his coat, now intending to put it on to investigate the scream of panic. James Barnes, the surviving member of the Barnes family, all of whom -- father, mother, daughters -- had been killed in a tragic accident two weeks ago.

Separated as they were by age and circumstance -- James was nearly four years Steve’s junior, was the son of old money, was healthy, handsome, and popular -- they had never formed a full friendship, but Steve still flushed with the memory of James whispering to him at last year’s Yuletide celebration that out of all of these painted ponies, Steven, I find that I prefer your company most of all.

Steve, with his poor health and bad temper, had never been anyone’s favorite; James, or Bucky as some called him, was everyone’s favorite. It had been the acutest pleasure to be singled out for James’s kindness, and while the boy had never hesitated to show anyone kindness, gentle where Steve was coarse, warm where so many were cold, it had felt like something undeniably special. Steve had nothing, not health, nor friend, nor reputation, but at least he had Bucky’s approval.

So, hearing a panicked scream in the general vicinity of his grieving companion’s residence, Steve felt it necessary to investigate, and, if possible, put a stop to it.

“No! I won’t go --

He could see now what was happening, and he rose to his feet with an unexaggerated shout of surprise.

James Barnes was being forcefully led from his home, his arm caught up in the tight grip of Alexander Pierce, an attorney with a reputation for winning his cases through any means necessary.

Without thinking, Steve strode to the door, passing his parents, who were gathered with oddly somber expressions in the front hall.

“Steven.” A word from his mother had even his feet slowing. “Where are you going, my love?”

“To help James.” He straightened out his coat and scowled in preparation. “That monster is manhandling him, and I will not stand for it.”

“Son.” Joseph spoke this time, a hand coming to rest on Steve’s shoulder. “Let it be.”

“Let it--” Steve was agape at his father’s calm expression, only his eyes belying that he felt anything at all. “--Father, look -- Pierce is, is dragging Buck- I mean, James - away, like he was some unruly horse to be broken in--”

“It is his right.” Joseph looked down now, and Steve could see more clearly the grief written in the controlled features of his face. “He was named as his guardian.”

“His --” Steve could not believe his ears. “At the funeral, we were told that Mr. and Mrs. William Barnes of Virginia were to be James’s guardians. Not Alexander Pierce. ” He spat the name with all the venom a sixteen-year-old boy could muster.

“There was a change to the will before Mr. George Barnes died,” Joseph explained, his hand now gripping Steve’s coat as though he understood his son was moments away from bursting out the front door and shouting his protests for the entire neighborhood to hear. “It named Alexander Pierce as James Barnes’s legal guardian.”

“There was some mistake then,” Steve snapped, brushing his father’s hand from his shoulder, a rudeness he could not bring himself to regret. “There was a mistake!”

He shoved the front door open, ignoring Sarah’s call of distress, and marched into the street, dust swirling around his stockinged feet. In his haste, he had forgotten his shoes.

It would be the talk of the neighborhood tomorrow, Steve realized distantly, even as he swept towards the coach that James was now being hurried onto. But it was no matter. The same gossip that declared Steven Rogers to be every inch as wild and dishonorable as they had ever imagined would also declare surprise that James Barnes had been saved from a life of misery with a man so cruel his wife had left him and their marriage to return to England.

“James!” Steve called, running now even though his lungs were still weak, his arm still sore from Erksine’s injection. “ Bucky !”

“Steve?” James appeared at the window of the coach, his face bright red, eyes terrified. “Steve, help--”

Someone inside the coach ordered the driver forward, and the coach lurched as it set into motion.

“Bucky!” Steve slapped a hand against the side of the coach and shouted at the driver while trying to keep pace. “Sir! Stop your vehicle at once, this is unlawful --”

“I don’t know what is happening, Steve, please--”

James reached out of the window to Steve desperately, and for just a moment, their fingers brushed, and Steve’s resolve was set. He ran as hard as he could, but the coach picked up speed in a way no human could match, and soon Steve trailed behind, coughing at the cloud of dust kicked up by the broad wheels.

“James!” He screamed one last time, the word burning his throat.

In the growing distance between them, he could still make out Bucky’s thin, panicked voice calling back to him. “Steve!”

And then silence.

The coach disappeared from view, and Steve coughed so hard he was nearly ill over his feet, over the socks he wore now stained yellow-brown by the road. He was dizzy with exertion, with fear, with anger, and from his inability to catch his breath.

“Breathe.” Erksine was there, inexplicably, instructing him through his breaths until he recovered. “There is nothing you can do for your friend now, Mr. Rogers, so I suggest you breathe .” Steve gasped but obeyed, breathing in and out at the doctor’s command.

Eventually, Doctor Erksine was able to lead Steve back to his home, where his parents waited; he expected a grim scolding or even a mention of disappointment, but to his surprise, he was met with his mother’s tears and his father’s stern grief.

“Oh, Steven.” Sarah held her arms out to him, and he accepted the embrace with a neediness he had not felt since he was a child. “Oh, my sweet boy.”

“What happened?” Steve asked dully, disbelief and shock winning out over the other emotions at war inside of himself.

“There was a change to the will,” Sarah explained for the second time, and Steve nodded, still not quite understanding.

He stood up tall and lifted his eyes to his father’s, summoning a dignity he did not truly possess while standing on his mother’s finest rug in filthy stockings. “What will happen to James?”

Joseph sighed heavily. “He is to be Mr. Pierce’s ward until he is one and twenty, at which point he can inherit the estate promised to him. But not until he is married.”

“Married--” Steve’s jaw dropped, and his scowl deepened; his mother sighed audibly, in recognition of the expression, and the storm it almost always preceded. “Fine. I’ll marry him. The moment he’s of age, I will marry him, and our family will protect him, and then there will be no reason for him to--”

“He will not inherit until he is twenty-one,” Sarah repeated, her eyebrows only barely lifting at Steve’s declaration. “Not a moment before. The will is very clear.”

“But - that is almost eight years from now,” Steve protested weakly, his shoulders sagging, chest still burning from his untenable sprint down the street. “Eight years with that man, Mama - how shall he bear it?”

“I do not know.” Sarah held his hands tightly, and Joseph placed a hand on both their shoulders, their small family standing together in the hall. “But perhaps, with good friends, he shall make it through with strength and grace.”

***

Sarah’s hope for James would not come to fruition, however. When Steve and his father called upon Mr. Pierce a week later, the head servant informed them coldly that Pierce and his ward had left New York to spend the rest of the summer in Philadelphia. Upon severe interrogation, Steve procured the address they would stay at in the city.

His letters would never be responded to, however, and Steve soon grew even more anxious for the younger boy.

When the autumn came, another rejection followed it; this time, Steve and his father did not get past the first step of the stairs leading to Pierce’s front door.

From the ground, though, Steve was able to tilt his head back and study the second story windows; his breath caught in his throat when, like a phantom, the figure of James Barnes appeared and lifted a hand to the window.

He was thinner, his hair unkempt, and through the panes of glass, he appeared almost grey somehow, a living ghost that Steve wanted nothing more than to save. He and his father were turned away though, and instructed not to come back.

Joseph had to grip Steve by the shoulder and pull him away, walking backwards as long as he could to keep his eyes on James Barnes, whose hand never lowered from the glass until he startled, as though summoned by an unseen figure, and disappeared from sight, the curtains swinging back to obscure sight into the home.

It was as though he had never been there at all.

***

The tragedy of James Barnes haunted Steve throughout the years, but the years did pass, and Steve Grant Rogers found himself endlessly confronted with the multifarious ills of the world around him, ones not limited to warm-hearted boys with grey eyes and a sad past. Injustice stacked upon injustice in the colonies, wrongs were compounded by even more terrible wrongs -- until there came a time where there was but one logical occupation for a man with such fire to avenge burning in his blood:

Rebellion.

*** June 30, 1776 ***

“Does nothing in this room inspire your amusement, Steven?” Samuel Wilson leaned over the makeshift table, a flagon of ale in his hand, and a broad grin on his handsome face. “Or are you still feeling the keen sting of Margaret’s rejection?”

“Peggy did not reject me, Sam.” Steve rolled his eyes fondly. “She is six months pregnant, and it is perfectly within reason for her not to dance this evening.”

“What lies we tell ourselves to soothe the burns we receive from pretty ladies.”

“You are an impossibility, Wilson.”

“An impossibility whom you adore, Rogers, and do not forget it. But, if you’ll excuse me, I see a pretty lady who I would not mind being burned by.” Sam bowed and walked to where Sharon, Peggy’s cousin, waited near the band of musicians hired for the evening.

Steve shook his head with a smirk and straightened out his shirt, missing the weight of his sword at his side. The ornamental military weapon would have drawn attention that evening, however, and discretion on the way to the Carter’s family home was of utmost importance.

The gathered members of the Revolution spent the night in merriment, as they prepared for the difficult months ahead. This was not their first revel, nor would it be their last, and with their recent arrival in Philadelphia, the next step was to vote as a congressional body, with delegates from the colonies present and ready for action.

Stephen Strange was deep in discussion with Anthony Stark in the corner, the pair of brilliant minds squabbling over some fine point of their goals that bordered on the philosophical, meaning Steve stayed far away from it. Peter, a friend of Stark’s from France, spoke animatedly with Scott Lang, a tiny and charismatic man with a wife who was twice as charismatic. Peggy held court on her side of the room, often pausing to sip water and dab at her forehead, the sweltering heat of the ballroom clearly affecting her typically cool demeanor; even Natasha Romanov, a woman who spoke with a French accent but bore a name that was certainly not French, had made an appearance at the festivities, her silent and muscular husband standing at her shoulder, often leaning forward and whispering things that had his petite, beautiful, terrifying wife smiling in response.

It was a busy night, and a noisy one; Steve, with his experience on the battlefield and intimate understanding of the British army, the strength and power lent to him by Erksine's formula nearly a decade ago, understood that he was here to assist in fighting, and he held back from the amusements as a result. Frolic and play had never been his strong suits; he reached most often for charcoal and pencils in his rare moments of rest, a man of introversion and reflection, not pomp and dazzle. Let that business stay with Anthony , he thought to himself as he contemplated abandoning the party and showing up to the meeting the following morning merely pretending the after-effects of drink that all his companions would certainly be feeling in earnest.

When he pushed away from the table, however, intending to pursue an escape from the party, he became aware of someone sizing him up, at the edge of his periphery. Steve set his glass down before turning to return the person’s gaze; later, he would be grateful for the odd moment of foresight -- if he had still been holding the glass, he would have dropped it.

There, across from him as time slowed and the dancers themselves seemed to rotate one last time before freezing, stood a ghost from his past that he had never quite shaken.

Eight years to the day of his removal from Steve’s life, his ghost had reappeared; dark hair now long and tied back from an aristocratic, handsome face, lips full and parted in shock, the color high on his sharp cheekbones -- James Barnes was here, and Steve Rogers’s world screeched to a halt on the eve of the most important day in the history of the colonies.

Chapter Text

The world, despite Steve’s suddenly shifted perspective, continued to spin, and couples continued to flow past him, towards the dance floor. He cleared his throat as if it would clear his heart of the nerves that suddenly seized it, and, hands tightened compulsively, Steve strode across the now vacated space.

A thousand and one thoughts crossed his mind as he crossed the room towards the boy, or rather, man who had haunted his dreams for the better part of a decade, and for a moment, in the shimmer of candlelight, Steve swore he saw a flicker of doubt in the younger man’s eyes. It was only a trick of the light, however, as a small smile met Steve’s own inquisitive expression.

When he had neared James, Steve forgot any of the clever or interesting or flattering items he could have said, and instead bowed deeply. “Mr. Barnes? Of New York?”

The man bowed in response. “Philadelphia, these days.” The voice that answered Steve’s question was deeper than in memory, and deeply attractive at that. Steve found it a pleasant voice, and wished to hear it again. “I understand that I am to call you Colonel now.”

“Aye.” Steve shifted and stood up straight, offering his first smile of the evening to James. “Although, I do not find myself needing such formalities in present company.”

“All the same,” James fidgeted with something in his pocket, eyes flickering to the floor. “Colonel Rogers has a nice ring to it.”

“It’s been eight years,” Steve blurted out, unable to stop the words any longer, disbelief still coursing through his veins in a sweet and painful way. “Eight years since…”

“To the day.” His old neighbor’s smile seemed more bitter now, and Steve nodded.

“I know.” James lifted his eyebrows, and Steve hastened to explain. “I only mean - I also marked the day, and have thought back to it ... at times, here and there, over the years.”

Here and there. An expression roughly translatable to ‘often’ or ‘ every day’ or ‘ at least once every six hours, or when I encounter a shade of blue that nearly matches the fine color of your eyes .’

Luckily, Steve had learned discipline as a military man, and stopped the words from escaping his mind by biting the side of his tongue just so.

“I see.”

Amusement briefly reigned in James’s handsome face, revealed by a quirk of his full lips as he smirked for only a second. The flare of emotion was smoothed out once more into polite neutrality before Steve could comment on it.

In the adjacent room, the next number was called, as well as an invitation for couples to join the floor. Before he could stop himself, Steve held his hand out to James.

“Do you dance?”

“I--”

James looked flabbergasted that Steve would offer, and still the hand remained suspended between them; Steve felt a deep-seated need for James to accept the offered hand, as though it were James, and not Steve, holding out a hand to pull him from some great tragedy. If James were to accept his hand, Steve would be saved; if he were to be rejected…

“I should very much like to dance with you,” Steve said, his voice made soft with hope. “If it pleases you, Mr. Barnes.”

Any of his soldiers within earshot would not be able to tell this gentle-voiced man was the same who barked orders at them from the saddle of his beloved half-Arabian.

Color rose on James’s cheekbones to a higher degree than before, and with a curious glance over his shoulder, he returned his gaze to Steve’s face and nodded, accepting the offered hand with a strange and controlled look of excitement.

“It would please me greatly, Colonel.”

Steve walked at James’s side towards the gathered assembly of dancers, and they took their places on either side of the floor. Steve bowed deeply to James, who returned the gesture as ladies and gentlemen on either side of him also bowed to their respective partners. The musicians began to play a slow melody, one that allowed for intimate conversation between partners, a luxury Steve had not hoped for when he requested James’s presence.

With one arm around James’s middle as he led him through a passage of the dance (which left Steve scowling at his feet, trying to count the steps with as unstudied an air as possible), Steve almost did not catch the other man’s thoughtful expression. However, when he looked over to ascertain if James had discovered Steve’s minor error in turning left for a half a second before he correctly turned right, he saw that something had arrested his dancing partner’s countenance, leaving him taciturn, his eyes hooded by some intangible thing that caused him great discomfort.

“I had a question for you.”

They turned the opposite direction as Steve spoke, and he had to release James on their third step, so they could trade places with the couple next to them. A few beats later, and James was returned to Steve’s arms.

“A question?” James lifted his eyebrows while Steve took his hand once more, and they fell into the previous ease of movement between them; oddly, Steve found it quite simple to dance with James, although he had always found more comfort in the middle of battle than the middle of a dance floor. “Why would you hesitate in asking me a question, Colonel?”

“You might find it an impertinent one,” Steve allowed, and James seemed to fight the desire to smile again.

“You might find that I appreciate impertinence.” A warmth blossomed in Steve’s chest at the tone of familiarity in James’s voice.

“Would it still be appropriate to call you Bucky, or do you prefer James now?”

The steps of his partner, which had been the smoothest of all the dancers present until that moment, faltered severely, and Steve had to catch him before he stumbled, bracing James’s weight on his chest.

“I apologize,” he said hastily, “I meant no offense--”

“There is none taken, sir.” James offered him a weak smile, looking slightly lost, grey eyes wide and blinking slowly. “Only - no soul has called me Bucky since...since that day, eight years ago.”

“So you would prefer if I only called you by your Christian name?”

“No.” The lost expression didn’t quite leave his eyes. “I would prefer if you called me by the name given to me by those who loved me, even if they loved me a lifetime ago.”

A barely concealed rage lurked behind James’s words, and grief tugged Steve’s heart to hear it, to think of how it would have been created. He had hoped that James would have eventually found happiness in his new life, but if this was the statement he could make regarding the last eight years, then Steve knew his hope had been for naught.

“Bucky, then?”

Another smile met his question, and James nodded, looking shy and pleased in such delectable combination that Steve was met with an urge to whisk his partner off the dance floor and away from the crowds, to see what else caused him to blush in such a fashion. The warmth that still hovered between them deepened into something nearly tangible, filling the space around their dancing forms, and leaving Steve with the undeniable hope that the song would never come to its natural end.

‘Seeing you here was wholly unexpected,” Steve said to prolong this moment between them. “An unexpected joy.”

“Was it?” James - Bucky - smiled bashfully, and then looked up at him with his eyes twinkling. ““There have been many unexpected situations I have recently come to discover, however.”

“Is that so?”

Bucky eyed him with no small amount of humor. “You provided the most unexpected development of all -- Steven Rogers, become a military man.”

Steve had to huff a laugh at the comment, despite the underlying sting. “Yes. I know, it must be strange, to think that I of all people had joined the military.”

“It is strange,” Bucky agreed warmly, his teasing not burning the way others’ would. Still, old wounds had left deep scars, and Steve felt the need to defend himself if only slightly.

“I was much smaller when we were children, but as you can see, the last few years have been kind--”

Bucky laughed. “Very kind.” The look he cast on Steve’s form was an appreciative one, no matter how brief, and the warmth Steve felt previously ignited into something more closely resembling a fire. “But no - I meant no offense to your previous size with my commentary, so please sir, do not take it so. It was made more in reference to your absolute disregard for the rules, or for the opinion of any other man with which you did not agree fully. That streak of stubborness is the cause for my surprise at your career.”

“Ah.” Steve ducked his head as they turned into their final rotation of the dance, his cheeks aching from his attempt to control his smile at Bucky’s teasing speech, heart fairly throbbing at all the fondness it implied. “I suppose you would not have followed me into battle when we were children, then.”

“Quite the opposite, I assure you.” Bucky did not, or could not, meet his eyes, his hand tucked in Steve’s as they returned to their initial positions on the floor. “To be perfectly honest, I would have followed you into battle at any height, Colonel.”

“Perhaps the military for you then?” Steve offered in mild jest, his mind certainly not wandering to the thought of Bucky in a blue coat at his side.

Bucky looked askance. “I am afraid that will not be my lot.”

“What will, then?”

The song ended, the two men facing each other, and Bucky bowed slightly, his eyes still distant. “I could not say.”

They applauded politely for the musicians, and the other couples before Steve could no longer stop himself from crossing the floor to stand in front of Bucky, wanting to ask if he could have his next, and the one after, and the one after that.

Before the words could leave his mouth, Bucky sighed heavily, his eyes on the grandfather clock that kept time in the corner of the Carter’s western parlor. “Regretfully, I cannot stay another moment. I must go.”

“Surely you can have another dance.” Steve prayed it did not sound like the plea it was; he knew that he did not want to quit Bucky Barnes’s presence for some time. “I had hoped to have the honor of the next reel with you --”

“I have already stayed too long.” Bucky sank his teeth into his bottom lip with clear anxiety; Steve found his eyes drifting to it with, perhaps, more interest than he should have shown. “I should not have come at all.”

“Why ever not?”

“I heard you were in attendance,” Bucky said, not quite answering Steve’s question, not quite meeting his eyes. The small space between them seemed to stretch infinitely, a cruel notion that Steve abhorred. “And I wanted to see you, one last time, and not through a window pane this time. It … it was a childish fancy, nothing more. I apologize.”

An odd feeling passed over Steve, one of being watched, a skill that had often benefited him on the battlefield; he turned to glance over his shoulder and found that Anthony Stark was staring at him, and his companion, with intense interest. Steve chose to ignore it for the time being and returned to the fragile bubble constructed around himself and his dancing partner.

“Allow me to be the one to indulge your childish fancies...You’ll find that I don’t mind. Quite the opposite, in fact.”

A small, shy smile lighted Bucky’s features, and he ducked his head, blushing becomingly. Steve stared, entranced, at the undeniable beauty of the smaller man before Bucky shook his head. “You flatter me. But all the same, I must take my leave.”

“Another time then, Mr. Barnes.” Steve bowed deeply at the waist, his neck heating up from the way Tony’s eyes continued to linger on himself and Bucky.

“Good evening,” Regret dripped from his every syllable as Bucky bowed to match Steve, “...Colonel Rogers.”

And like that, he was gone once more, disappearing through the crowd exiting the parlor towards the front rooms of the house, returning to his previous status as nothing more than a ghost in Steve Rogers’s life.

A moment later, Steve found himself hounded by Tony, who appeared like an overbearing gnat at his elbow, tugging at his sleeve with all the impatience of a toddler seeking a treat.

“Stark.” Steve acknowledged him with the barest of nods, still staring in the direction Bucky had disappeared in.

“Do you know who that was?” Tony demanded, and Steve turned to him with a frown, having given up on even a glance of Bucky’s back through the crowd.

“James Barnes,” Steve answered, not bothering to hide his confusion. “He’s an old family friend, from New York.”

“James Barnes,” Tony repeated, eyebrows flying towards his hairline with alarming speed. “You’re friends with Alexander Pierce’s ward?”

“I was friends with the son of George and Winifred Barnes,” Steve explained slowly, trying to maintain his composed countenance - it was almost too much, given the sudden reappearance and then disappearance of Bucky, combined with Stark’s heightened anxiety and energy. “And friends would be a generous description, as I was too ill to have friends as a child. Still, James Barnes was kind when I knew him, and he seems to have maintained that easy disposition into adulthood--”

It was seemingly too much for Stark to bear, and he broke in with an angry tsk of disbelief.

“I cannot speak for what he was like as a child, but I know him to be connected to the man solely responsible for my own misery and torment. His guardian, Alexander Pierce, was the man who exposed the documents that revealed my father’s hatred of the crown, and his plans to start a little revolution of his own twenty years ago.”

The most poorly kept secret in the colonies was Howard Stark’s execution for treason: a secret, as he had been a high-ranking member of society; poorly kept, as the crown wanted everyone to remember what happened when it was betrayed.

“Bucky would have had nothing to do with that,” Steve said firmly, his brow settling low as he frowned.

Tony’s eyebrows achieved even greater heights. “Bucky--?”

Before his blush could be noted, there was a quiet clearing of the throat next to them, and they both looked to see Natasha Romanov standing there, the very picture of demure grace, hands folded in front of her, head bowed, stunning red hair gathered at the nape of her neck.

“If you boys are done holding up the dance floor, I believe we could continue this conversation elsewhere?” She tilted her head to the side, a twinkle in her eyes, and she walked away, clearly expecting them to follow. Her husband, Clint Barton of Virginia, followed at her heels, smirking at Tony and Steve for only a moment before returning his gaze to his tiny wife.

When they were settled a decent distance away from any potential eavesdroppers, Natasha smoothed out her skirts and held a hand out to Clint, who took it silently and stood at her side like a sentinel.

“Alexander Pierce is a monster, Anthony, but it is no reason to hate his ward.”

“Natasha--”

“No.” She shook her head calmly, and Tony grew silent; it seemed that only Natasha and the indomitable Pepper Potts were able to control his outbursts. “If you knew the things I did about that household, you would not question the young man’s character.”

“What things?” Steve asked, nerves flashing through him at the cold anger in Natasha’s eyes.

“I am not sure it would benefit you to know,” Natasha said, turning her gaze to Steve’s face. He refused to flinch from it, and met it steadily, a choice that had her nodding in an appraising way. “Very well. James Barnes was taken in by Alexander Pierce eight years ago.”

“To the day,” Steve broke in, growing silent when Natasha stared at him.

“To the day,” she repeated, with a brief nod of recognition. “But he did not care for his new guardian, so he grew rebellious, outspoken, and high-spirited, causing a number of rumors and scandals to erupt around Pierce’s name.”

“I cannot imagine that James would--”

Natasha stared at him again, and he bit his tongue, reminding himself that he wished to hear the information that only she seemed to have.

“As I was saying. James attracted unwanted attention, so Pierce summoned a doctor that myself and a number of people have a powerful interest in: Arnim Zola, a doctor for the wealthy and corrupt.”

The name was oddly familiar to Steve, but he forced himself not to interrupt again, lest he inspire more wrath in his diminutive friend.

“Zola specializes in controlling the troublesome children of high society, of breaking them in” -- her voice rose only slightly when Steve made a noise of anger, and even Tony looked properly disturbed -- “Through intense treatments and the application of his own brand of laudanum.”

Laudanum ?” Tony repeated, now thoroughly disgusted. “When they are not ill?”

“James Barnes was not introduced to society until he was one and twenty,” Natasha said, barely acknowledging Tony’s question by lifting her eyebrows in confirmation. “It was said that every time they attempted to do so, they would have to summon Zola for an emergency … treatment, as he grew too rebellious. Eventually, he stopped rebelling. He was introduced in March, and has had many interested suitors since, all of whom he receives with the same placid smile and bored acceptance.”

“What is your interest in James Barnes?” Steve asked, unable to stop the question from forming. “What interest could you have had in knowing the details of his life before this point?”

“A fortune as large as his, and a past as mysterious, I made it my business to know. And as Tony said, he’s the ward of one of the most unpleasant men in the colonies.” Natasha tilted her head with another of her famous sighs and turned her face up to her husband. “Clint, would you call for the carriage? I’m growing weary.”

Clint brushed his lips over his wife’s hand and disappeared with a murmur of farewell to Tony and Steve. Natasha and Tony began to converse in quiet tones over the next day’s meeting, leaving Steve to simmer in his unpleasant thoughts -

If what Natasha said was true, then Bucky had suffered even more terribly that Steve had feared in the house of Alexander Pierce. Controlled by laudanum, forced into a half-awake existence to yield a semblance of obedience to a cruel, awful man and his cruel, awful whims: it was a fate Steve would not wish on his worst enemy, let alone the handsome, enchanting young man with whom he’d just passed the happiest quarter of an hour he could recollect.

His jaw set before he realized it, something stirring to life in his chest, a feeling as familiar to him as happiness or sadness. It was a need to protect, to defend, to avenge. As if his change of thought had caught the attention of the rebels’ finest spy, Natasha sighed dramatically.

“Dear Lord above, he has his knight in shining armor face on. Do you mark it, Anthony?”

“I mark it, Natasha.” Tony clapped Steve on the shoulder and offered him a sympathetic smile. “You cannot save everyone, Steven.”

“No, I cannot,” Steve agreed, his jaw still tight, his eyes still glaring into the distance. “But I swear on my mother’s grave, I will die trying.”