The impersonator hisses, "Bucky is alive"—and that's all it takes for Steve to loosen his grip and get a hard knock to the head.
He wakes up with a group of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents standing over him, staring at him with various expressions of confusion and concern. "Fellas," says Steve, hiding a groan as he wobbles to a standing position. "What's going on?"
"Cap," says one of them warily. His badge reads "Brock Rumlow." "Hey. You feeling all right?"
"Just fine," says Steve, looking around. “Sitrep?”
Rumlow exchanges uneasy glances with the rest of the agents. Another agent—Jasper Sitwell—steps forward. “The Tesseract’s been lost, sir.”
"How?” Steve asks in a flat tone.
“Stark had a heart attack in the lobby,” says Rumlow, and at Steve’s wide-eyed expression, he says quickly, “He’s fine, Cap, Thor de-fibbed his arc reactor with the hammer.”
Steve swallows down a hysterical laugh. “All right. And then?”
“While the crisis was happening, Loki disappeared with the Tesseract.”
“You're kidding me.” Steve closes his eyes and breathes in slowly. “And the Scepter?”
Rumlow blinks, and he says cautiously, “Cap? The elevator?”
Elevator? What elevator?
“You, uh, you said over the comms that you’d run into the suspect,” says Sitwell, equally cautious.
"That's right, I did.” He’d run into himself—Loki disguised as him, anyway. It had been jarring to see himself in full, and even more jarring to fight himself. He didn’t think that Loki’s disguises extended to fighting skills, but then again, Thor hadn’t had much of a chance to explain Asgardian magic before the alien army had arrived in the sky.
So, the impersonator must have met with the agents in the elevator, and they probably handed over the Scepter thinking that it was actually Steve, and then Steve must have caught Loki on the way out.
Bucky’s still alive.
His own voice echoes back at him.
It had to have been a lie. A ruse to get him to let go. Right? Loki’s a master manipulator – he practically mind-controlled Barton – and he’ll do anything to further his own agenda.
But what if...?
“Cap?” says Rumlow, bringing Steve back to the present. “Where is the Scepter?”
“Gone,” says Steve absently.
The agents all exchange wide-eyed looks.
“Gone,” says Rumlow, “Or ‘gone’?”
“It's gone,” repeats Steve more slowly, after he processes Rumlow's finger gestures. Those must be what Stark so helpfully described as air quotes.
The agents stare at him. Steve stares back.
“If you’ll excuse me,” says Steve, “I need to debrief with the rest of my team.”
He can feel the agents’ eyes on him as he strides over to the stairwell. It makes him uneasy in a way he hasn’t felt since the war, and he’s glad that his shield’s resting on his back.
The lobby is in chaos. Fury's barking out orders, and S.H.I.E.L.D. agents are scrambling to send out teams and set up tech to surveil the city for Loki. Stark’s shaking hands various men in suits, including a distinguished-looking man with a tight smile. In the corner, Thor’s trying to comfort Banner, who’s got his head in his hands and guilt written in every line of his body. Everyone’s giving them a wide radius except for Romanoff and Barton, who are sitting next to Thor and watching the proceedings with a resigned air.
Steve approaches them cautiously just as Stark breaks off from the cluster of suits and makes a beeline in the same direction.
“Cap,” says Stark, “And, uh, fellow Avengers. Team. You hungry? We still haven’t had that shawarma.”
“Shawarma sounds good,” says Barton, “but there’s a major problem. There’s a shapeshifting god from Asgard with a personal grudge against us running around in the vicinity somewhere.”
“I do not think Loki stayed on Earth,” says Thor thoughtfully. “He would not risk being caught with the Tesseract so soon after we captured him. No, I expect he is on another planet wreaking havoc. He might be pretending to be a snake. That’s a favorite pastime of his.”
There’s a beat of silence as everyone processes that statement and decides not to address it.
“Loki took the Scepter, too,” Steve says.
Banner groans and sends Steve an incredulous look. “Seriously?”
“I thought we had it,” says Romanoff with a frown. “We as in S.H.I.E.L.D.”
“The STRIKE team handed it over to him in an elevator when he was impersonating me,” says Steve. “At least, that’s what I can gather. Don’t know if they’ve reported it to anyone yet.”
Stark stands up abruptly. “I’m not going to talk about this anymore without getting some fuel. Come on, team. Let’s blow this popsicle stand.”
“I assume he’s not referring to explosives,” Steve says with a frown, looking at Thor, who shrugs. They follow the rest of the Avengers out the back door.
Steve waits to bring it up until after everyone’s had their fill. He checks to make sure all the employees of the restaurant are in the back, and then he leans forward and says quietly, “I ran into Loki when he was impersonating me, and he said something strange.”
Thor, who’s been lounging around eating enormous handfuls of fries, suddenly straightens up. So does the rest of the group.
Steve takes a deep breath and looks at Thor. “I don’t know if he was just trying to throw the fight or if it was true. But he said Bucky’s still alive.”
“Wait,” says Stark, “Bucky? James Buchanan Barnes? Your best friend who fell off a train in the Alps and has been dead since 1945? That Bucky?”
“Yeah,” says Steve. It still hurts to hear it laid out like that—more than he expected. “It—it was probably just a trick. Forget it.”
“My brother might very well try to undermine you with such a cruel statement,” says Thor with a sad smile.
“But you think he might have been telling the truth,” says Romanoff, tilting her head.
Steve swallows. “I don’t know. There’s no way anyone could have survived a fall like that. But...” Something niggles at the back of his mind. “Arnim Zola, a HYDRA scientist, had been experimenting on him. Trying to create a supersoldier serum, too. That’s how the Red Skull...anyway. I just thought...maybe...maybe if I could stay frozen for 70 years with the serum...”
“Maybe he lived too,” Romanoff finishes, nodding, and she exchanges a glance with Barton. “I wonder...”
“Where did Barnes fall?” Stark interrupts.
Steve exhales sharply and recites the coordinates burned into his mind. There had been no time to send a search party before Steve went on the Valkyrie, but he’d planned to go on his own after he came back from the mission so he could lay Bucky’s body to rest instead of leaving it to rot in a ravine. He never got the chance.
“We can start at the place Barnes fell," says Stark, lounging back in his chair. “I’ll see if I can dig up anything from Dad’s notes and from the S.H.I.E.L.D. databases, too.”
Romanoff raises an eyebrow at him. “Going to hack in again?”
Stark shrugs. “Sure, why not? S.H.I.E.L.D. kept their little Tesseract-powered weapons a secret. Who knows what else they’re hiding?”
Romanoff and Barton exchange another glance.
“Agents?” asks Steve, fixing them with his sternest Captain America stare. “Is there something you'd like to share?”
Romanoff leans forward. “Have any of you heard of the Winter Soldier?”
Steve reluctantly agrees to make weekly visits to S.H.I.E.L.D.'s New York headquarters to assist with the hunt for Loki, keep attention off the rest of the Avengers, and help with the aftermath of the battle.
He bumps into Brock Rumlow every time.
"Say, Cap," says Rumlow in the fifth week, when it's just the two of them in the elevator, "you want to get lunch sometime?"
"Are you asking me out on a date?" asks Steve, genuinely surprised.
Rumlow gapes at him and splutters. "No! I'm not like that, Cap."
Steve raises his eyebrows. "Not like that? There's nothing wrong with being ho—with being attracted to men."
Rumlow laughs nervously. "No, no! Of course not. That's not what I meant."
"So what did you mean?" asks Steve, crossing his arms over his chest.
The elevator dings, and Rumlow ducks out with obvious relief. "Catch you later, Cap," he says quickly. "Good chat."
"Right," Steve mutters under his breath, quashing his disappointment. Rumlow's a good-looking man. Steve would have said no to a long-term relationship, especially since he's still looking for Bucky, but a mutual fling might have been nice. And he could've sworn Rumlow was giving off signals that he was interested, especially since Rumlow kept staging chances for them to meet.
But then again, what does he know? He's twenty-six going on ninety-four, a walking, talking anachronism in the twenty-first century who doesn't have any friends with shared life experience—except for maybe Bucky, if he's even alive.
Steve sighs. There is no room for Steve Rogers in S.H.I.E.L.D. There is only room for Captain America. He straightens his shoulders and adjusts his shield as the elevator door opens, then strides down the hall to Nick Fury's office.
Steve spends the evening exploring Grindr on the burner phone he bought a few weeks after coming out of the ice. The concept of the site isn't new: Steve cruised a fair number of queer bars when he was younger, looking to release pent-up energy after yet another alleyway fight or long stint of illness, and the encounters were always anonymous. Bucky always came with him, keeping an eye out for both police, bullies, or both, but he never engaged in any relations despite receiving multiple offers.
Steve always assumed Bucky was only attracted to women, but on Steve's twenty-second birthday Bucky nervously confessed that he was into men, too, specifically one man, and that was Steve himself.
"You shouldn't tease like that, Buck," Steve scolded, his cheeks hot with embarrassment and anger. "It's not funny."
"It's not a joke, you punk," said Bucky, scowling, and then he'd leaned forward and kissed the living daylights out of Steve right there on the couch. Steve had responded in kind until his lungs seized up and he got an asthma attack.
Now, Steve swipes and swipes and swipes, restless and dissatisfied, but after the tenth message saying something along the lines of "ur so hot, wanna see ur face baby" accompanied by a private and unsolicited photo of someone's cock, he shuts the phone off with an exasperated sigh. He goes to sleep thinking of Bucky's soft smile golden-lit by the summer sun.
Rumlow still keeps running into Steve at the S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters, but he doesn't bring up the incident in the elevator. He also never approaches Steve alone anymore.
"Hey, Cap. Couple of us from STRIKE are going out for drinks tonight," says Rumlow, nodding at his field partner Jack Rollins and a young agent named Isaac Murphy who looks all of seventeen years old. "You wanna join?"
"It'll be fun, Captain America, sir," Murphy squeaks, looking absolutely terrified.
Rollins raps Murphy lightly on the head. "Shut up before you give yourself an aneurysm, young Padawan," he says.
"Technically, it's an aneurysm rupture," Murphy mumbles.
"Padawan?" Steve questions.
Murphy gasps. "You've never seen Star Wars?"
Steve shakes his head. "What is it?"
"Oh my God, Cap! It's a movie series. Luke Skywalker? Lightsabers? Jedi mind tricks?" Murphy's eyes bug out at Steve's increasingly puzzled look. "I've got the original VHS if you like, if DVDs are too modern for you, or I could host a movie marathon, though I've got a cat so if you're allergic but it's hypoallergenic—"
"Murphy," Rumlow cuts in, exasperated, "Shut your mouth before Cap decks you with his shield."
"Hey," says Steve, frowning. "Don't speak on my behalf. I'd be interested in a…marathon. I loved going to the cinema when I was younger."
"You had movies back then?" Murphy squeaks.
Steve rubs his forehead and sighs. "Never mind."
Steve borrows Star Wars from the library that weekend and watches it alone in his apartment. His heart aches as he thinks of how much Bucky would've liked to see a pulp fiction novel come to life on the big screen.
"Captain Rogers," Jasper Sitwell says politely, three months into the search for Loki (and Bucky), "do you have a moment?"
"Sure," says Steve, and he follows Sitwell to a quiet alcove with a potted plant. "How can I help you?"
"I was wondering if you'd be interested in attending a small political gathering at a restaurant tomorrow night," says Sitwell. "There won't be any press and we won't advertise that you're there. It's simply a dinner for like-minded people to get together and discuss the current state of our nation."
"Like-minded people?" asks Steve.
Sitwell nods and leans in conspiratorially. "I know you can't always say what you're thinking, Captain. You've got to put on a good face for everyone around you. But this is your chance to relax a little, let loose in a safe environment where no one will judge you for being honest."
Steve frowns. It does sound appealing. Steve identified as a Socialist before the ice. It was a dirty word then, and it's still a dirty word now, but he's not even sure it still applies to him anymore. The platforms of the Democrats and the Republicans are radically different than the ones Steve grew up hearing, and their parties are so polarized that compromise seems to be scorned instead of lauded. Steve's frustration and confusion have been bubbling up inside of him for so long, and the thought of finally having a space to vent feels like a breath of fresh air.
Unfortunately, he's got a covert mission scheduled with the Avengers. They're investigating an old base in Kyiv that Romanoff thinks may be connected to the Winter Soldier, who may or may not be Bucky. Steve wouldn't miss it regardless.
"I'm afraid I'll have to turn you down, Agent Sitwell," says Steve with an apologetic smile. "I've already got plans."
Sitwell blinks, surprised. "Plans?"
"Yeah," says Steve. "Bingo with the ladies who live at the complex around the corner."
"That nursing home?" Sitwell asks. He claps a hand to his mouth and looks aghast. "I'm sorry, sir, I didn't mean –"
"I think the term is assisted living," says Steve with a polite shrug. "And don't worry, I know S.H.I.E.L.D. knows where I'm living. You don't have to feel too embarrassed about revealing that."
Sitwell's forehead is shiny with sweat. "I apologize, Captain Rogers. That was inappropriate of me."
"Have a good dinner, Agent Sitwell," says Steve. "I'll see you next week."
"Thank you, Captain."
Steve comes back from the mission in Kyiv with a translated dossier detailing the Winter Soldier's conditioning in Russia and a photo of Bucky's frozen face. He stays up all night reading the files, pausing several times to wipe away the tears trickling down his cheeks or to dry heave over the toilet. When the sun peeks in through the blinds, he chugs a glass of water, pulls on a T-shirt and sweatpants, and runs to the nearest boxing gym, where he proceeds to punch the stuffing out of eight heavy-duty bags.
Jack Rollins hands Steve a cup of coffee when he walks into the S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters the next morning. "Thanks," says Steve.
Rollins shrugs one shoulder. His other one is in a cast. "You're welcome. You look like shit. Bad day yesterday?"
"Not as bad as yours," Steve responds, nodding toward Rollins' arm. "You get injured on a mission?"
"Something like that," says Rollins. "Perks of the job and all."
"Fuckin' New Jersey," Rollins mutters under his breath, shaking his head.
"Jersey, huh?" asks Steve. "You supposed to be telling me that information?"
Rollins grunts. "Probably not. But I trust you. You ever been there? To Jersey?"
Steve nods. "Yeah, Paramus. Camp Lehigh. It's where I went to basic."
"You ever been back there since you woke up?"
"No." He tries not to go to too many places he used to know. They all look so different now. It's disorienting.
Something must show on his face, because Rollins eyes him strangely. "You all right?"
"Yeah," says Steve, stirring the coffee half-heartedly. He still hasn't taken a sip. "You know, I'm not in the mood for coffee. I think I need a little fresh air and water instead. Do you want this?"
"Uh," says Rollins, a muscle in his jaw twitching. "Here, let me take that. I'll go dump it down the sink."
"Thanks," says Steve.
"You got it, Cap," says Rollins.
Steve spends half an hour wandering around the city, his feet tracing a familiar route toward the Brooklyn Bridge. He stares out over the water, at the bigger, taller skyline, and he closes his eyes as he tries to recall what it used to look like.
The burner phone he's now using for Avengers business buzzes against his thigh, startling him out of his melancholy. He pulls it out to find a coded text message from Natasha Romanoff.
Got a lead. Washington, D.C. Tomorrow 0800. Suit up.
The Avengers find the Winter Soldier hidden and frozen in the bottom of a D.C. bank vault like a particularly valuable cut of meat.
Steve brushes away the frost on the window of the cryostasis tube, sees Bucky’s face—so much more gruesome in person than in the photo—and cleaves the nearest table in half with his shield.
“Whoa," says Banner, taking half a step back.
“And here I thought we were going to have to worry about a Code Green, not a Code Cap," says Stark.
"That's not funny," Steve snaps.
“Is it your friend, Captain?” asks Thor.
“Yes,” Romanoff and Steve answer at the same time. They look at each other in surprise.
“It’s Bucky,” says Steve tightly.
“It’s the Winter Soldier,” says Romanoff, pulling a flash drive out of her pocket and starting to download the data on the computer attached to the tube.
“Probably a little of both,” says Barton.
"So," says Stark, "do we open the tube, or is that going to kill him?"
Romanoff looks grim as she scrolls through the files. "It won't kill him, but it'll be painful."
"Well," says Banner hesitantly, "It's either that or transport the whole tube back to the Tower."
"Now there's a thought," says Stark, looking at the tube with admiration.
"We're taking him out," says Steve, his jaw set. "Now."
"There's a procedure," says Romanoff, giving Steve a cool look. "We should follow it."
Steve forces himself to nod. "All right."
It takes an hour and a half to set up between the six of them. Steve tenses as the tube opens, releasing a blast of cold air that immediately drops the temperature of the room.
Bucky topples forward face-first toward the floor. Steve and Thor both rush to support him.
"I got you, Buck," says Steve, ignoring the chill of Bucky's metal arm seeping through his suit. "I got you."
Bucky groans as they set him down gently into a chair. His eyes track around the room slowly, pausing on Romanoff and Barton, who are both palming their weapons.
"Bucky," says Steve.
Bucky's eyes drift upward and land on Steve's face. "Who's…Bucky?" he rasps.
Steve feels like he's been punched in the gut. "That's you," says Steve in a hoarse voice. "You. You're Bucky."
A line appears in Bucky's brow. His eyes dart down to the floor.
"It's going to be all right," says Steve. "I've got you now."
"Who are y…" Bucky tenses and snaps his mouth shut.
"I'm Steve," says Steve, swallowing the lump in his throat. "And this is my team, the Avengers. Tony Stark – you remember Howard? That's his son. Bruce Banner. Natasha Romanoff. Clint Barton. And Thor, God of Thunder."
Natasha murmurs something quietly in Russian. Bucky's eyes widen, and fear flashes across his face before it's replaced by resignation. "Da."
"What did you say?" asks Steve, glaring at Natasha.
"I told him that he would be coming with us. That we, the Avengers, would be taking care of him now."
Steve blinks back tears. He says quietly, "That's right, Buck. We're going to take care of you."
Bucky is pliant as they lead him out of the base and onto the Quinjet. Steve sits next to him, placing his hands beneath his thighs so he doesn't give in to the temptation to touch him. Instead, he watches the microexpressions of wonder and fear and confusion flit across Bucky's face as Bucky stares out the window, and he lets himself hope for the best.
Steve wakes with a warm body wrapped around his own. He opens his eyes slowly, basking in the soft golden light that diffuses through the bedroom, and slowly wraps his hand around Bucky's, feeling along the tiny ridges of the metal plates.
"Good morning," says Bucky softly, kissing the top of Steve's head.
"Morning, Buck," Steve says through a yawn. "You sleep all right?"
Bucky nods. "That's eleven days in a row now for a full night's sleep."
"New record," Steve murmurs.
"What about you?"
Steve hums. "I had a weird dream."
"Want to tell me about it?"
"Hm," says Steve, closing his eyes. The afterimage of Peggy's smiling face fades away, as does gobbledygook conversation about timelines and quantum suits. He's definitely overheard too many of Bucky's Skype conversations with Tony and Bruce lately. Steve shifts and flips onto his back, looking up at Bucky's soft, fond smile, and he leans in for a kiss, morning breath be damned. Bucky smiles against his lips, and Steve loses himself to the press of their bodies.
Bucky rises first after they've finished, pulling up his hair into a bun and wandering ito the kitchen to make breakfast. Steve lounges a little longer, watching the play of light through the trees outside the window.
It's still hard to believe that Bucky's here with him. It's been a long, hard five years, filled with recovery, therapy, and a hell of a lot of setbacks, but they've made it through with the help of their friends. No, the Avengers are more than that. They're family.
Clint, Bruce, and Thor helped Bucky get his memories back after decades of brainwashing and electroshock treatment from a memory suppression machine called the Chair. When Bucky revealed that HYDRA had kept him captive the entire time, the team dug a little deeper and found out that HYDRA had infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D., along with several other national and international intelligence agencies.
A number of arrests followed, most notably that of Alexander Pierce, newly minted Secretary of the World Security Council. Fortunately, Tony pulled all his legal resources to make sure Bucky didn't end up on the list, despite finding gruesome, explicit footage of the Winter Soldier killing Stark's parents.
"It wasn't you," said Tony, standing at the door of Steve and Bucky's residential suite in the Tower after his initial three-day bender in response to the footage. "Okay, Barnes? It wasn’t you. You – you weren't in there. The video made it clear." Tony's mouth twisted. "I destroyed the footage. So let's just – forget about it."
"I'm sorry, Tony," Bucky said, and Tony backed away, holding his hands up in the air.
"No, no, no. We're not talking about this. I'm not talking about this with anyone except my therapist. You should talk to yours."
Tony reappeared a week later with a model for a new prosthetic arm. Bucky began to visit Tony's workshop regularly in the Tower, and the two gradually became friends.
"Hey, we got another gift from our pen pal," says Bucky when Steve joins him in the kitchen. "Look. The Lord of the Rings extended edition DVDs, along with a handwoven blanket. Oh, it's soft. The name on the package was I.M. Are we sure Tony isn't sending these as a joke?"
"He keeps denying it," says Steve, yawning. "I figure we can keep it going as long as he keeps sending us things we want."
Bucky shrugs. "Well, so far they've all been clean of poisons and booby traps, so even if it's not Tony, it's probably not someone from HYDRA either, or someone else trying to kill us." He sets two plates down onto the table, along with a handful of silverware.
Steve's stomach growls as he looks over the spread. "Full Irish breakfast, Buck? You spoil me."
"It's the least I can do for my best guy," says Bucky, swiping a tomato off Steve's plate.
"You know I can eat those now," says Steve.
"Oops," says Bucky, his lips twitching upward, "Force of habit. Sorry. I must have forgotten."
Steve's heart fills with warmth. "I love you, Buck," he says.
"I love you too, you sap," says Bucky. "Now hurry up and eat before your breakfast gets cold."
Steve complies happily, pressing his thigh against Bucky's as they finish their meal together.