Three seconds. Four seconds. Five seconds. Six.
Steve comes back through the portal with the shield in his hand and a sad, strange look on his face. Jaw set, mouth tight. He hasn't aged a day.
The tension in Bucky's shoulders ebbs out in a rush. He pulls Steve in for a hug, sinks his real hand into Steve's hair like he's always wanted.
"Punk," he whispers, his mouth too close to Steve's ear. He'd been so sure. "You're late."
The ride back to the city is quiet. Static buzzes on the radio until they clear the Adirondacks, then pop songs that Bucky doesn't recognize, low and upbeat. Sam snores in the backseat, his mouth open and his head tipped against the window. Steve drums his fingers on the steering wheel: tap-taptap-tap-taptaptap.
Somewhere south of Albany, Bucky asks, "So, how long'd you stay?"
"About an hour."
"You get your dance?"
"No," Steve says, shaking his head. "She didn't see me. I just—I wasn't sure she'd understand."
Aliens. Time-travel. Alternate dimensions. Bucky just lived through it and he's not sure he understands. "Which part? You showing up there, or you leaving again?"
"Either." Steve shifts in his seat, reaches down to fiddle with the empty coffee cup in the cupholder. It rattles softly as he runs his thumb over the lid. "Both."
The radio cuts to a commercial—something fast-talking and bright. Steve leans on the gas to pass a semi decked out in white and yellow lights. Red trailer, Pennsylvania plates. The glare coming off it casts weird, blotchy shadows on Steve's face.
Bucky asks, "You're sure about this?" and jerks his thumb toward Sam. He's still snoring. The shield is tilting out of his lap, one strap caught on his knee.
"Yeah," Steve says. He fiddles with the empty coffee cup again. "He's the best man for the job. Unless—" His mouth quirks, almost a smile. "Unless you've changed your mind."
Bucky shrugs that off; there's nothing he wants less. "I meant about you stepping down."
They pass what might be a farm—a low-slung house set back from the highway, just peeking through the windbreak of trees along the shoulder. Steve says, "Yeah," again. "At least for now. I was fighting aliens two weeks after I came out of the ice. I never—" He waves his hand a little. "I never really found my feet."
"You think you can?"
"I think so," Steve says, nodding. "I didn't have you with me, before. Tony tried. Sam and Natasha too. But I—" he sighs. "It wasn't the same."
Bucky probably shouldn't push. But there's a vial of Pym's stuff left, and Stark's GPS band is in the trunk.
He asks, "What about Carter?"
Steve gives him a long, narrow look. Seventy-eight years ago, he could've read it like a book.
"She lived her life, Buck. I need to live mine."
When Steve says he's found them a place in Brooklyn, Bucky's mind jumps to a cold-water tenement with old sheets for curtains and a bathtub in the kitchen. He remembers narrow, smoky hallways and the sour smell of Mrs. Lowenstein's cabbage soup. A creaky fire escape and the constant clatter of the Navy Yard. What he gets is the top floor of a renovated brownstone. It has hardwood floors and stainless steel appliances and a window with a panoramic view of the river. The living room is bigger than the dump they shared the first year after Steve's mother died.
Bucky chooses the south-facing bedroom—closer to the front door, less sun in the mornings—but he ends up sharing with Steve more often than not. The night they move in, Steve shouts himself awake from a nightmare about crashing the Valkyrie and Bucky pads across the hall to curl up against the tense line of his back. A couple nights later, Bucky's back in Azzano, strapped to Zola's table and delirious with fever. This time, Red Skull shoots Steve in the head as soon as he walks in, blood spatter heavy and bright on the lab's dingy walls. Bucky comes back to himself with his heart beating in his throat and Steve murmuring, "Hey, hey," as he eases the sweat-soaked sheets out of his clenched fists.
Steve jogs every morning, usually a quadruple loop of Prospect Park or a few laps of Green-Wood Cemetery. Bucky figures he did enough running in the Army to last him both lifetimes, so when he wakes up restless he goes for walks. About a week in, he stops looking for their old haunts. The neighborhood Bucky remembers is gone, buried under a century of expensive condos and boutique bakeries and the kind of coffee shops that sell gluten-free muffins and six kinds of fake milk. The streets are broader than they used to be, and the alleys smell worse than they did back when Steve was getting beat up in them. The mailboxes are different. So are the streetlights. The butcher shop that paid Steve a nickel to paint their signs is now a yoga studio.
"You'll get used to it," Steve tells him.
Bucky isn't so sure; his brain's still full of holes, and it's been jerked around too many times. But then: he finds a diner that sells old-fashioned reubens. A bodega that stocks grape Nehi. A food truck that knows how much onion to put on a Polish dog. He tries a smoothie, once. He makes his peace with the stuff Starbucks calls coffee.
He doesn't settle, exactly, but he comes close. As close as he's been since leaving Wakanda.
Steve isn't a fugitive anymore—the result of a closed-door meeting with Ross that left both men white-lipped and furious—but the public is still obsessed with him. Opinion is deeply divided between Greatest American Hero and Fallen Son, but either way, people want to know what he's doing every minute of the day. Print magazines and online rags are constantly publishing candid photos: Steve going into the bank, Steve checking his phone at a crosswalk, Steve waiting in line at King David Tacos, Steve leaving the Foodtown on Vanderbilt with three canvas bags in each hand.
"You're on Access Hollywood again," Bucky calls out one night.
Steve leans out through the bathroom door, his toothbrush in his hand. "What I do this time? Jaywalk? Forget to tip my barista?"
"You bought a sandwich."
"Scandalous," Steve says, drier than dust.
Their second Saturday in the new place is windy and gray. Bucky almost skips his walk—cold weather sometimes makes his metal shoulder ache—but once he gets downstairs, he ends up wandering all the way to Fort Greene Park. There's some kind of street fair, and Bucky loses about three hours between the stalls, looking at all the weird shit people make: soybean candles, vegan bath soap, knitted animals, hand-painted t-shirts.
There's also a ton of food, stall after stall of beets and carrots and cabbages and peppers. Seeing that much of it just sitting there—watching people pick over it because they want a squash that's the perfect shape—is one of the strangest things about the twenty-first century. The Winter Soldier had eaten whatever he was given, and during his stint in the Army, Bucky mostly lived off mess hall slop and C-rations. But before that—before the war—he and Steve were lucky to get two meals a day. They ate potatoes sprouting eyes from every angle and turnips so wrinkled they looked like old socks. Sometimes—if they were really lucky—one of the widows on their block would invite them up for a bowl of soup.
They both nearly starved to death in the winter of 1938. Steve got bronchitis so bad he couldn't work for two months, and Bucky lost his job hauling crates at a fish market because he skipped three days to sit with him while he coughed and coughed and coughed. He brought a doctor in at the end, but all that crook did was take their last ten bucks and tell Bucky to keep Steve warm like he hadn't been doing that already.
A voice asking, "Can I help you?" yanks Bucky back to 2023. It's a pink-haired woman selling yellow stuff in the kind of jars his mother used for pickling. Closer inspection shows that it's mustard: classic, honey dijon, spicy brown, habanero. Bucky wouldn't even know what to do with it.
Four stalls down, he buys two apples the size of his fist. He doesn't have a bag and refuses to pay for one on principle, so he stuffs them in the pockets of his coat.
Steve's in the kitchen when Bucky gets back, lurking near the stove. Bucky sets the apples on the counter and asks, "Are you... cooking?"
Steve pauses guiltily. He's fresh from the shower, all damp hair and flushed cheeks. He's holding a jar of Prego and a box of rigatoni like he's not really sure what to do with them. "I—maybe?"
"Jesus." Bucky walks over and grabs the rigatoni. If his memory serves—and there's no telling if it does—the only things Steve ever cooked without starting a fire were mashed potatoes that looked like glue and navy bean soup that could've choked an Army mule. "You punched Hitler over two hundred times but you can't boil water."
Steve huffs. "Since when can you boil water?"
"Since Wakanda," Bucky says, because it's mostly true. He picked up a few things before then, while he was holed up in Bucharest, terrified that HYDRA would catch up with him but also unsure about what he was going to do with himself if they didn't. But that's not a conversation he wants to have, now or ever. "Remind me to get some good lamb one of these days. I'll make something that'll knock your socks off."
Steve huffs again, but he says, "Alright," and sets the jar of Prego on the counter.
He hovers as Bucky works, close enough to be underfoot, bumping Bucky with his shoulder and hip.
It rains the next morning, sheeting down so heavily that the windows rattle with the force of it. Steve takes one look outside and crawls back into bed. He even pulls the blanket up over his head. Bucky lies there for another half an hour, his eyes closed as he tries to match his breathing to Steve's. But something keeps him awake—the rain hitting the roof, or maybe the car alarm on the street, or maybe Steve's foot tucked against his shin.
Eventually, he gives up and ducks into the shower. He runs the water until it's steaming, then lets it beat against his metal shoulder until the scar tissue along the seam stops aching. His dick perks up at some point; he ends up jacking off with his back braced against the tiles and his wet hair dripping in his face. He doesn't really start thinking about Steve until his thighs are shaking and his balls are tight. He knows he should probably count that as a win, but a thread of shame tugs at his gut as he washes the come off his hand.
Steve's still sleeping when Bucky gets out, starfished across the bed with one foot peeking out of the blankets. He's snoring a little, probably because his face is buried in his pillow. Bucky leaves him where he is and heads into the kitchen. He perches on one of the barstools along the island and works his way through yesterday's newspaper and a family-size box of blueberry toaster waffles.
Sam, who's been crashing on their couch since they moved in, hauls himself up about fifteen minutes later. After helping himself to four of Bucky's toaster waffles, he starts grabbing his laundry off the living room floor and stuffing it into his Air Force duffel bag.
Bucky watches him for a minute, sipping a cup of coffee so hot it's making him sweat. Then: "Is this 'cuz Steve tried to cook?"
"Nah," Sam says, snorting. "You stopped him in time." Crouching, he fishes a pair of socks out from under the coffee table. "It's time I got my own place. Besides, I should—" He pauses and raps his knuckles on the shield. "I need to wrap my head around this. Before the next alien wormhole opens up."
"You'll do fine."
"I'm hoping." Sam shakes out his 58th Pararescue sweatshirt and folds it up small. "Not gonna lie, I'm surprised he didn't ask you."
"He did," Bucky admits, shrugging. "And I told him to get lost. I picked the damn thing up once, and that was more than enough."
Bucky sips his coffee before saying, "I stopped Steve from getting blasted by a HYDRA death-ray. Then I fell off a train."
"You—" Sam just stares at him for a second. "That's—thanks, Barnes. That's just what I needed."
"I'm here to help," Bucky says brightly. He grabs a t-shirt that's caught between the couch cushions and tosses it at Sam's head. "You're always welcome, here." You watched Steve's six when I couldn't. You helped him bring me home. "You know that, right?"
"Yeah, yeah." Sam rolls up the t-shirt and shoves it in the bag. "If I do end up back here, I'm taking your bedroom. It's not like you ever use it."
Bucky shrugs again and hides behind his coffee. He doesn't want to have that conversation either.
"You still having nightmares?" Sam presses, like he doesn't have a deathwish. "Or did you two finally—"
"That's—no. We—it ain't like that."
Sam's an asshole, so he laughs right in Bucky's face.
Bucky wakes up shaking, his pulse pounding in his ears. He can't tell what time it is, but it's still dark out—the kind of dark that says it's late enough to be early. Three o'clock, maybe four. His mouth is dry. He's trying to count his breaths when Steve stirs beside him.
"Buck?" Steve asks. His voice is quiet, rough. "Are you alright?"
"I—" Bucky has to swallow a couple of times before his throat's willing to work. "Nightmare."
Steve rolls over and carefully—carefully—touches Bucky's shoulder. "Do you want to talk about it?"
Bucky doesn't really remember it, except that he'd been cold. He'd been cold, and there might've been snow. That could be a lot of things: the train, Siberia, cryo. One of a dozen missions that are only bits and pieces in his head, just gunshots and sprays of blood or his metal hand around a trembling throat.
When he doesn't say anything, Steve murmurs, "Hey," and gives his shoulder as squeeze. "Whatever it was, you're here now. You're okay." He slides his hand up, and his thumb brushes Bucky's throat. "Do you need to breathe with me for a little bit?"
"No," Bucky mumbles. As far as his nightmares tend to go, this one was pretty tame. His pulse is already returning to normal. But he—he's fucking freezing. "You—c'mere."
Instead of answering, Bucky just burrows in. He wraps his arm around Steve's waist and tucks his head under Steve's chin. Steve makes a soft, surprised noise that curls up at the end like a question. It's been a long time since they've slept this close, nearly a century ago: crammed into a single bed, unable to afford heat in the winter and Steve too sickly to keep himself warm. Steve's better than a furnace now, his souped-up metabolism always running hot. Bucky presses closer, tangling their legs. Steve makes that noise again, twists his fingers in the collar of Bucky's shirt. Something nudges Bucky's hip, and—oh. Oh.
"Sorry," Steve whispers.
Bucky's pulse is pounding again. There's a joke in here somewhere; this morning, he told Sam that he and Steve weren't—that they didn't. But he wants it. He has wanted it. He says, "It's fine," and fists his hand in Steve's shirt, right at the small of his back. "C'mere."
Huffing, Bucky shifts until his dick is right up against Steve's. "I thought the serum fixed your bad ear, Rogers. Come here."
Steve says, "Buck," again, soft. He slides his hand to the back of Bucky's neck, and then they're kissing, finally, and it's so, so good. Steve hums into it, curling his fingers into Bucky's hair. Bucky nudges his thigh between Steve's and sucks Steve's tongue into his mouth.
They stay like that for awhile, just kissing and rocking against each other, slow, slow. Then Steve rolls onto his back, pulling Bucky on top of him. He yanks their sweats down enough to get his hand on their dicks, then strokes them together, skimming his other hand over the scar tissue on Bucky's shoulder, right where metal meets skin. Bucky shivers, hisses Steve's name. He fucks into Steve's fist, his metal hand clenched in the sheets so he doesn't dig bruises into Steve's shoulder, his hip.
Bucky's at his favorite hotdog cart, spooning extra onions on a chili-cheese dog, when a guy in a leather trenchcoat jostles his metal shoulder, hard. He's been expecting it, so he doesn't bother looking up. The guy had been very, very careful about tailing him, but Bucky used to be the best in the business. He spotted him eleven blocks ago.
The guy bumps him again—once, twice. Since he's not taking the hint, Bucky grunts, "Fury," and steps away from the condiment rack.
"Barnes'll do," Bucky says, licking chili off his fingers. Sergeant. Barnes. James Buchanan. 32557038. "This ain't your usual stomping ground. You take a wrong turn somewhere?"
A woman walks by, herding a poodle on a silver leash and a pair of toddlers covered in ketchup and relish. Fury waits until she's out of earshot before saying, "I'm just taking in the sights."
Bucky says, "Good for you," and bites into his hotdog. He's still chewing when he adds, "Before you ask, the answer's no."
Fury flashes something that could be a smile. He's lost weight since Stark's funeral, looks like he hasn't slept much. "Don't be like that, Barnes. You don't even know what I want."
"Yeah, I do," Bucky says sharply. "You wanna know if I feel like renting out my metal arm." He shoves that hand in his pocket so Fury doesn't see it clenching into a fist. "And I don't. I'm done. Find another idiot for your new supergroup."
"I don't need another Avenger," Fury says. His trenchcoat rustles as he folds his arms across his chest. "With Romanov dead, I need someone who knows a little something about stealth."
Romanov makes Bucky think of salt-dry air and red hair flashing in the sun. Of shooting his target through a human shield. He says, "Still not interested," and dumps his half-eaten hotdog in the trash. He walks away without looking back.
Steve tucks his hand under Bucky's shirt, palms the curve of Bucky's ribs. Quietly, he asks, "Are we really going to do this?"
The couch isn't big enough for the both of them, not when Steve has sprawled himself along Bucky's side. Bucky says, "Yeah," and threads his metal fingers into Steve's hair. "Why?" He tugs a little when Steve doesn't answer right away. "You having second thoughts already?"
Steve just looks at him. "Buck. I've been in love with you since I was thirteen."
Hearing it like that leaves Bucky blindsided for a second. That's Steve, though; always all or nothing. Bucky's voice dips as he admits, "I—fourteen. I was fourteen." He runs his other hand down Steve's arm. "I guess we waited long enough, yeah? You're going to be a hundred and five soon."
Steve huffs out, "Shut up," and pinches Bucky's side. "If we're counting like that, you're already a hundred and six." The kiss he presses to Bucky's jaw has a hint of teeth behind it. Then: "It's not second thoughts. I'm just—I've never really done this."
"Done what?" Bucky asks. "Date?" Steve answers that with half a shrug and Bucky snorts into his shoulder. "It's been eleven years, Rogers. I know you've been busy saving the world and everything, but—"
"I've dated," Steve says tartly. "I just haven't had anything serious."
"What about the blonde?"
Bucky arches an eyebrow. "You telling me there was more than one blonde?"
"Jerk," Steve mutters. He pinches Bucky's side again. "Are you talking about Sharon?"
"I don't remember her name. The dame you slobbered all over in Germany." The one I almost killed. "I figure she risked a lot, bringing you your shield like that."
Steve says, "She did, yeah," and shifts until he's lying between Bucky's legs. The couch really isn't big enough for that, but Bucky likes the weight of him, the heat. He braces one foot on the floor to hold them steady as Steve adds, "I liked her, but we—it just never worked out." He taps his fingers on the curve of Bucky's metal shoulder. "What about you?"
Bucky snorts again. "What about me? I was busy being brainwashed, remember?"
"T'Challa told me—"
"T'Challa's a fucking gossip," Bucky grouses, but there's no heat behind it. He owes T'Challa and Shuri more than he can ever repay. "I—yeah. I met a guy in Wakanda. But it wasn't—we were just passing the time. Then—" Bucky sighs and palms the back of Steve's neck, strokes his thumb behind Steve's ear. He doesn't want to think about Thanos—or the strange, suspended moment before he started fading—so he asks, "You want this, yeah?"
"Then we'll figure it out."
It rains again a couple of days later, lighter, almost a drizzle. Steve heads for his volunteer shift at the VA in a plastic slicker the color of a school bus. Bucky still takes his walk, slouched under a blue and red umbrella as he dodges wet litter and oil-streaked puddles. The streets are emptier than usual, but the Dunkin' on 5th and Prospect is packed. He waits way too long for a hot chocolate, drinks most of it on his way back.
When he gets upstairs, Fury is sitting on his couch. So is Sam, so Bucky points at him and complains, "When I said you could crash here, this wasn't what I had in mind."
Fury says, "Can it, Barnes," and pulls a mission folder out of the satchel at his feet. "I let you steamroll me the other day because my intel wasn't solid. But it is now."
"And, you have a very unique skill set. One the intel suggests I'm going to need."
"I told you, I ain't—"
"Bucky," Sam says, his voice tight. "It's HYDRA."
A cold weight twists into Bucky's gut. For a split-second he feels electricity jolting through his body, hears the lid of his cryo tank clicking into place. "Christ." He figured they weren't all dead, but he—he's not—fuck. "HYDRA?"
Fury says, "Yes, HYDRA," and tosses the folder on the coffee table. Its 'top secret' stamp is crooked, cutting a red diagonal toward the top-right corner. "They're scattered and still fairly disorganized. But they've got plenty of numbers. They'll be a pain in my ass five years down the road if we don't do something sooner rather than later."
A police siren wails down on the street. Bucky asks, "And you think I wanna be part of that something?"
Fury sighs and stretches his arms across the back of the couch. He gives Bucky a long, flat look before saying, "I'm sure you don't. But you're one of the best snipers this country's ever seen, and you learned a few other useful tricks after you fell off that train. I get that you want to hang up your guns and play house with Rogers, but—"
"But it's HYDRA," Bucky mutters. He thinks he might be sick. "What's the job?"
"It's a safehouse," Sam explains, leaning his elbows on his knees. "Ten or twelve guys inside. Looks like they're setting it up as some kind of rendezvous point. They've been sending out feelers for people who want to come in from the cold."
"I got shot in Marseille," Bucky says irritably. He touches the spot on his hip, smooth now after decades of the serum. "Dum-Dum dug the bullet outta me with a pocketknife. In the attic of a whorehouse."
"And then Morita—"
"Sounds like I missed a good time," Fury snaps. "Too bad I was busy not being born yet." He straightens his jacket lapels before continuing, "You and Rogers crashed my last helicarrier, so we're going to have to improvise. I've arranged for a quinjet to meet you on the roof of New York-Presbyterian. I want both of you on it."
Sam says, "I'm in," and looks over at Bucky. "You?"
After a pause, Bucky nods. "Yeah."
"Great," Fury says, standing. "Wheels up in five hours."
"Are you sure about this?" Steve asks.
Bucky isn't, exactly. But he can't admit that; giving Steve an inch is just inviting him to take a mile. Right now, he has Bucky pinned against the bathroom counter, one hand holding his hip and the other tangled in the straps of his tac vest. Bucky sighs and tugs him closer by the belt-loops. His hair and t-shirt are rain-damp. He smells like wet pavement and the cheap, instant coffee served at the VA.
"It'll be fine," Bucky says mildly.
"Buck," Steve burrs. "That's not what I asked."
Steve means well, but Bucky can't help bristling a little. He nudges Steve away and folds his arms across his chest. "Look, I know I got Swiss cheese for brains these days, but I'm capable of making my own decisions."
"You—that's not—" Steve reaches out, stops just shy of touching Bucky's metal elbow. "I just mean, you don't have to do this. You fought a war, and you went through Hell, and then you came out of it and fought again. You helped save the world." His fingers skim Bucky's flesh-and-bone wrist. "You don't owe anyone anything."
Bucky can't really quantify the blood on his hands—at least, not in a way Steve will understand—so he faces the mirror and starts tying up his hair. He tells Steve's reflection, "I got the skills. Might as well put 'em to good use."
Steve huffs. "That's Fury talking."
"He ain't wrong just 'cuz you don't want to hear it."
The sink drips, and a horn honks down on the street. Steve watches Bucky in the mirror, a frustrated flush heating his jaw. His hair as dried flat and limp, drooping over his forehead in a ridiculous wave. Slowly, he leans in and wraps his arms around Bucky's waist.
He says, "Okay," and kisses the back of Bucky's neck. "Be safe."
Bucky makes a dubious noise and turns in Steve's arms so he can look at his face. "Alright. What's the catch?"
"There's no catch."
"C'mon, Rogers. You've never given up that easily in your life. What are you gonna do? Hide my rifle? Pour water in my boots?"
Steve shakes his head. "I'm going to miss you. And I'm going to worry. But you're right: you can make your own decisions. Taking a break was my idea. I shouldn't expect you to stand down just because I need some time off."
"Steve," Bucky starts, soft. He doesn't really know where he's going with it, but Steve saves him from having to figure it out by leaning in and slotting their mouths together.
They kiss until they're half-hard and breathless, until Bucky has his real hand in Steve's hair and his metal hand down the back of Steve's jeans. Steve hooks his fingers in the collar of the tac vest, his knuckles brushing the hollow of Bucky's throat. He drags his mouth down Bucky's jaw and bites at a spot below Bucky's ear.
Then: "When do you leave?"
"I got about two hours," Bucky says.
Steve cocks an eyebrow. "Why are we wasting it in the bathroom?"
Steve rides Bucky slow, just rocking his hips, one hand flat on Bucky's chest and the other clawing at the pillow beside Bucky's head. The bed creaks; Bucky's foot slips in the sheets. He thrusts up, up, up: chasing the heat of Steve's body, the way Steve feels clutched around him. He slides his hands up Steve's legs, feels the flex and pull of Steve's thighs. Steve murmurs Bucky's name, breathless and low. He leans down and bites a kiss just below Bucky's ear.
"Steve," Bucky hisses, still thrusting up, up. He's so close he can feel it everywhere—the dip of his throat, the center of his chest, the base of his spine. "Fuck."
Steve lifts up, sinks down. Up, down. Bucky wraps his metal hand around Steve's dick, skims his thumb over the head. Steve's already come once—shaking through it while Bucky opened him up—but Bucky wants him to come again, wants it all over him. He twists his wrist a little, thrusts up harder, harder. Steve gasps, tightens. Fuck. He comes between them with a low, dark noise, and Bucky's right behind him, thighs shaking, heart pounding.
"Nice hickey," Sam says, as Bucky climbs into the quinjet.
Bucky touches the spot with his metal fingers, remembers the hot-wet slide of Steve's mouth. Smirking, he says, "You should see the other guy."
"Yeah, I'll bet."
The quinjet starts to rumble. Bucky settles into one of the seats lining the fuselage, his rifle case caged between his feet. As the pilot hooks east over Long Island, Sam adjusts something on the EXO-7 with the longest, thinnest screwdriver Bucky's ever seen. His suit is similar to the one Steve wore in Wakanda, dark blue with heavy leather straps and a handful of red accents. Seeing it on someone else isn't nearly as strange as Bucky expects.
He says, "Cute outfit."
"Sweet, isn't it?" Sam looks up long enough to wink. "The ladies at SHIELD sure seemed to like it."
"That who we're working for?"
Sam shrugs and swaps the screwdriver for a hex key with a bright orange t-handle. He spins it between his fingers before saying, "I got the impression we don't really work for anybody. We just go where Fury points us."
"Figures," Bucky mutters. He's not sure how he feels about that—about being a secret weapon again, rather than part of a chain of command—so he asks, "Any new intel?"
"Yeah," Sam says. The hex key clangs as he tosses it into the toolbox on the seat beside him. "A retcon squad cruised the place again this morning. Warehouse, no outbuildings. Ten guys inside."
"So, twelve guys and a secret basement?"
Sam huffs out a laugh. "Yeah, probably."
Sam says, "Yeah," and hands Bucky a Starkpad that's larger and slimmer than the one on his kitchen island—the one that's almost always dead because Steve never remembers to charge it. "They're old, though."
"Uh—" Sam winces slightly. "1994 old." Before Bucky has a chance to complain he continues, "That's the year it was built. Officially, it's never been renovated."
"So, two secret basements and a weapons cache in the walls."
"Man," Sam gripes. "Stop trying to jinx us."
Bucky flips him off without looking up from the blueprints. He studies the entrances, the windows, the ventilation shafts, the loading bays. He notes the blind spots in the room most likely to be the central hub. As he works, he stretches his neck and rolls his metal shoulder. His new arm isn't nearly as heavy as the old one, but it's heavy enough. Some days, it feels like a deadweight dragging on his collarbone.
He's debating their three best entry points when his phone buzzes. He sets the Starkpad aside and rubs his eyes. He thumbs his phone awake to a message from Steve: miss you already :)
"That your other half?" Sam asks.
They're over open water now; the sky is blue and afternoon-bright, curving straight into the Atlantic Ocean. Bucky replies, "How'd you guess?"
Sam laughs low in his throat. "You serious? I can feel him fretting from here. Honestly, I'm surprised he didn't invite himself along."
"I would've told him to fuck off," Bucky says. "I can't watch his idiot six and your idiot six at the same time."
A shot rings out and Sam shouts, "Get down," and pain explodes in Bucky's thigh.
Debrief is long; the flight home is longer. By the time Bucky gets back to Brooklyn, his bullet wound has almost healed. Even so, his leg is stiff enough that he limps his way up the stairs.
The apartment is dark except for the rippling gray-yellow-green light coming from the TV. It's some kind of nature show: a guy in khakis wading into a murky, tropical river. Steve is sprawled out on the couch, shirtless and dozing. A container of what smells like pad thai is open on the coffee table, a pair of chopsticks speared into the noodles.
Bucky eases down into the sliver of space beside Steve's hip. He rests his hand on Steve's chest, feels it rise and fall, rise and fall. In the old days, watching Steve sleep meant listening to him wheeze, a rattle with each inhale and a long, low whistle with each exhale. Sometimes, it meant watching him seize up, gasp, cough himself awake.
"Steve," Bucky says, sliding his hand up to Steve's neck. "Wake up."
Steve's eyes flutter open. "Buck—? That you?"
"Yeah, it's me." It looks like Steve's been camping out; there's a pizza box on the armchair, two more take-out containers on the coffee table, and a cluster of mugs and water bottles on the floor. Bucky thumbs the hollow of his throat and asks, "You been waiting up?"
Steve says, "No," but it's such an obvious lie that he winces a little once it's out there in the open. Still, he tries to save it by pointing at the TV. The khaki guy is back on the bank now, poking a wet clump of reeds with a stick. "I was—" He makes a rough, dry-mouth sound. "I was watching—uh."
"Sure you were," Bucky says, laughing. He grabs Steve's arm and tugs. "C'mon, big guy. Time for bed."
Steve lets himself be sat up; the couch dips and creaks as he goes. He yawns loudly and rubs his face, then gives Bucky a bleary once-over. He immediately zeroes in on the bandage wrapped around Bucky's thigh. A dark noise catches in his throat.
"Did you get shot?" he demands, reaching out.
Red light flickers over them—the nature show cutting to a commercial. Bucky says, "I'm alright," and bats Steve's hand away. "It was through and through, and it's already healed."
Steve just looks at him, his eyes wide and a tremor in his jaw. Bucky almost tells him to stop fussing, but he then thinks of the one time Steve got shot during the war, storming a HYDRA supply station outside Gmunden. He remembers the blood, the sweat beading on Steve's sheet-white face, the panic squeezing his chest and throat as he held a dirty rag to Steve's red, feverish shoulder. He remembers Steve's skin healing over on the march back to the safehouse. Steve's fingers digging bruises into his wrist as a surgeon at HQ London cut the bullet out.
"I'm alright," Bucky says again, gentler. "Could use a shower though."
Steve touches his thigh, just below the bandage. "Do you need help?"
"I don't need it, but—" Bucky smiles at him. "I ain't gonna say no."
Bucky spends a week in South Bend, Indiana, scouting someone Fury thinks is helping bankroll HYDRA's resurrection. Drake Tanner is thirty-nine and divorced. A defense attorney with a mediocre batting average but enough family money to keep him in fancy suits. Bucky shadows him on his daily routine: Caribou Coffee, his marble and mahogany office, Primal Fitness, his Topsfield Road home. He tails him to a business meeting at Cafe Navarre and a date at Kankakee Grille. He plants bugs in Tanner's home and office and a tracking device on his car. He lifts his laptop long enough to mirror the hard drive just like Maria Hill showed him.
While he's gone, some kind of angry, mutant sea creature oozes out of the East River and into Lenox Hill, and the Avengers assemble for the first time since defeating Thanos. They get everything mopped up with zero casualties and minimal property damage, and Ross—cornered at an unrelated press conference—bites out a "thank you" statement so grudging that Bucky's surprised the microphones don't pick up the sound of his teeth grinding. The media barely notices that, or the creature itself, or the mad scientist who created it. All they care about is Sam showing up to the fight holding the shield and wearing the stars and stripes.
Bucky isn't all that surprised when he comes home to Sam sitting on his couch, nursing a beer and watching one of those ridiculous ghost hunting shows. He's dressed like he just got back from a run. A dark, uneven bruise is healing on his jaw.
"You living here again?" Bucky asks.
"Just until the Paparazzi get the hell off my lawn."
Bucky stows his rifle case in the hall closet and strips off the dusty flannel he's been wearing for the last four days. He asks, "That bad?"
The ghost hunters start shouting. Sam mutes the TV and takes a long pull from his beer. Then: "What've you seen?"
"Not much," Bucky admits. He doesn't really do the internet unless he has to. "Just a couple of headlines. I didn't read the comments." He perches on the arm of the couch and unzips his boots. "Steve specifically told me never to read the comments."
Sam snorts. "I guess he isn't as dumb as he looks."
"Where is he, anyway?"
"He wanted pizza," Sam explains. He tips his head back for another swallow of beer, flashing a scrape that runs down the side of his neck and under the collar of his sweatshirt. "I wasn't waiting in line at Giuseppina's on a Saturday. Not when I'm being stalked."
Sighing, Sam looks back at the TV. A motorcycle screams down the street, its engine running high. Bucky's jeans are so dirty they could probably stand on their own power, so he ducks into the bedroom long enough to change. He swaps them for a pair of Steve's sweats, then comes back out and sits on the couch. The ghost hunters are still at it; one of them is creeping down a cluttered hallway in the dull green glow of an infrared camera.
"You want a beer?" Sam asks.
It won't do anything for him, but Bucky's not going to make him drink alone. He pops the cap as he says, "I don't get what the fuss is about. Half the country thinks Steve's a traitor anyway."
"It's not about Steve," Sam says, low. "Not really. It's about me being too black to represent the good old U-S-of-A."
Bucky hadn't thought about that. He—Christ. "That's—"
Sam waves him off. "Don't. It's not the first time I've heard something like that. Probably won't be the last."
Jones said the same thing once, during a forty-eight-hour leave in London. They were standing in a damp alley behind a pub, had just been eighty-sixed because Steve clocked an American sailor who'd stumbled over to their table and slurred insults at Jones and Morita both. The alley had smelled like wet garbage and piss, and Dernier had been yelling his head off in French, and Jones—Jones had looked Steve dead in the eye and said it happened all the time.
Bucky grabs the remote and unmutes the TV. He says, "C'mon. Let's see if these idiots get their asses kicked by a ghost."
Bucky gets in from Helsinki a little after six. It's Thursday, and Steve usually volunteers at the homeless shelter on Church Avenue on Thursday nights; Bucky isn't expecting him to be home at all, never mind in the kitchen, looming over what smells like a pot of beef stew. He just looks at him for a moment—at the line of his shoulders, the curve of his back, the hint of skin between the hem of his t-shirt and the low-slung waist of his sweats.
When the floor gives Bucky away with a creak, Steve looks over and smiles. He says, "Hey, Buck," and puts the lid on the pot. "You're home early."
"Maria Hill brought over a mission packet this afternoon," Steve explains. He has a yellow gingham apron tied around his waist; Bucky didn't even know they owned one. "She said you guys were on your way back, but she didn't think you'd be in 'til eight or nine."
Bucky says, "Guess our pilot had a lead foot," and shrugs out of his tac vest. He dumps it on the island, along with a couple of knives. Steve frowns at him—he doesn't like combat gear in the kitchen—but Bucky pulls him in close before he can complain. He points at the stove and asks, "What's all this?"
"What's it look like?"
"Like you're trying to set the house on fire."
Steve bites the spot where Bucky's neck curves into his shoulder, hard. Then: "I've been learning to cook."
"YouTube," Bucky repeats, huffing. He slips his hand under Steve's shirt, palms the dip of Steve's spine. "You that bored without me?"
"I've got plenty to keep me busy," Steve says mildly, and it's true. He's taking art classes at Kingsborough, and he volunteers at two homeless shelters and the VA. He's been thinking about enrolling in the fire academy. "I just—I know you live on MREs when you're out in the field. You shouldn't have to come home after that and eat take-out."
Bucky doesn't know what to say to that, so he pulls Steve in for a kiss. Steve makes a slow, soft noise in the back of his throat, which Bucky figures deserves a second kiss, and a third. On the fourth, his jaw twinges and he yawns right into Steve's mouth.
"Sorry," he says, resting his head on Steve's shoulder. "My brain's still in another time zone."
"Go lie down. This won't be ready for another hour."
Bucky winks at him. "You coming with me?"
"No," Steve says firmly. "If I do I'll forget it, and then I will burn the house down."
Sam and Bucky spend five days in Düsseldorf, four days in Edinburgh, and over a week in Valladolid. Bucky gets shot again, this time in the flank. He sprains both ankles jumping from a second-story window, and he breaks three fingers on his real hand when a HYDRA goon slams it into a wall. Sam dislocates his shoulder. He gets stabbed in the thigh, twice. An EMP knocks out the EXO-7's wrist display; the wings lose power and Sam bruises his ribs crash-landing into a tree.
Drake Tanner ends up being a bust, but Bucky scouts another guy in Birmingham who turns out to be the real deal. He and Sam spend five days tailing him out of Alabama, across the southwest corner of Georgia, and into Florida. He dodges them all the way to Marco Island, where Bucky finally snipes him as he's boarding a ferry for the Keys.
They nearly die in Shreveport. Sharon—the blonde from Germany—goes undercover there for what should be a month. But three weeks in, she calls them for backup because she thinks she's been made. The firefight starts in the street; Sam, Bucky, and Sharon are so badly outnumbered that they have to take cover in an abandoned warehouse by the river. The building catches fire, and Sharon saves Bucky's skin by shoving him through a collapsing doorway. Smoke inhalation knocks Sam on his ass, and Bucky drags him out by the arm, firing his rifle from his hip.
It's shitty work. Bucky's always hurt, always tired. Some nights—when he's huddled in his bedroll or in the back of a van or on a lumpy, safehouse cot—he misses Steve like breathing. But they clear out three weapons caches, several safehouses, and two labs that remind Bucky of Zola's set-up in Azzano. They capture or kill dozens of HYDRA agents—enough that Bucky starts feeling like it's worth it.
They track an arms dealer named Flores to southern Spain, to a rented blue and white villa outside Málaga. Something spooks her as they close in—maybe them, maybe the HYDRA agents trying to recruit her. Either way, she rabbits across the Strait of Gibraltar, and that earns them a long, hot week in Morocco. They nab her in Marrakesh, then drive her three hours north to Casablanca, where Sharon is fronting as a low-level Consulate employee.
On the flight back—just as New York is cresting on the horizon—Fury tells them that crazed robots are swarming Prospect Park.
"A portal opened up behind the Brooklyn Museum," he explains, his voice buzzing on the quinjet's comms. "They've been coming through for an hour."
"How many?" Sam asks.
"Two hundred and counting. They look like some kind of humanoid drone." Over a burst of static Fury continues, "Strange is working on the portal now. Rhodes is on the ground with Parker and Maximoff, but—"
"Yeah, yeah," Sam says tiredly. "We're on our way."
It's the last thing Bucky wants. He's exhausted and sunburnt, and he has sand everywhere—in his boots, in his hair, under his fingernails. Flores jammed a rifle butt into his ribs earlier, and the bruising there still has him breathing a little tight. But the quinjet banks hard over Jamaica Bay, starts a quick but shallow dive that follows Flatbush Avenue into the park. The robots are science-fiction nightmares, tall and thin with grasping, gunmetal hands. People are panicked, running in every direction. Fires are burning at the Botanic Garden and Meadowport Arch.
The quinjet touches down at Grand Army Plaza, just inside the loop. The ground rumbles and shakes as the hatch opens, spurred by a distant burst of red magic. Sam jogs down the gangway and immediately feeds his shield to one robot, then two. Bucky turns the other direction, right into—
Steve says, "Hey, Buck," and dodges a jerky, robot punch. He's wearing jeans and sneakers, and he's using a trashcan lid for a shield like it's 1935. "You—watch out!"
A robot rushes Bucky, coming in too fast and close for a clean shot with his rifle. He shifts it to his back and pulls his Sig. He asks Steve, "What the hell are you doing here?" and fires: pop-pop-pop-pop-pop.
"I was at the library," Steve replies, like that makes any sense at all. He blocks another punch with the trashcan lid, then grabs a loose chunk of concrete and smashes the robot in the face. "Shooting them just makes them angry. You've got to take off their heads."
Another robot steps up. Bucky holsters his Sig and swings his metal arm at its throat.
They're on each other as soon as they get home, end up sprawled out on the living room floor: Steve on his back, Bucky tumbled across his legs. Bucky's adrenaline is high; his hands shake as he tugs at Steve's belt. His metal fingers ping against the buckle, slip-slide over the leather. His foot bumps the couch as he kneels up to pull Steve's jeans past his hips.
He gets his flesh-and-bone hand around Steve's dick, and Steve arches up, a noise hitching in his throat. Bucky gives him a few quick jerks, then runs his palm up over the head, catching some precome to ease the way. Steve shoves his hand under Bucky's tac vest, spurs his nails into Bucky's side and mumbles, "Buck, please." Bucky sits up on his heels so he can watch Steve gasp and shake, so he can watch Steve thrust up, fuck into his fist.
Steve's beautiful like this: a flush in his cheeks, still keyed up from the fight. He comes easy, his mouth falling open, shuddering all over. Bucky touches him through it, touches him until his thighs tremble and his heels skid on the hardwood.
Steve's barely caught his breath before he flips them—sliding down Bucky's body, yanking at Bucky's pants. He swallows Bucky's dick all at once, keeps one hand pinned at Bucky's hip. It's incredible: the heat of it, the pressure, the curl of Steve's tongue, Steve. Bucky rocks into it as much as he can, twists his metal hand in the straps of his tac vest so he doesn't bruise Steve's shoulder, tear at his hair.
Two spit-wet fingers push into him, and everything goes white.
"Mission tomorrow," Bucky says, leaning over the back of the couch. He dips his head and noses behind Steve's ear. "I'm outta here at oh-eight-hundred."
Steve burrs, "I know," and reaches up to grab at Bucky's shoulders. "Do you want to watch something with me? There's still about twenty Disney movies you haven't seen."
"We could. Or—" Bucky kisses the bolt of Steve's jaw. He says, "We could go out," with his mouth against Steve's skin.
"Yeah, out." Bucky straightens up and runs his metal hand through Steve's hair. "Some vintage joint in Greenwich Village is playing that Clark Gable picture you used to like. The one with the bus."
Steve tips his head back and cocks an upside-down eyebrow. "You want to go to Greenwich Village?"
"I wouldn't wanna go just to walk around. But to see a picture—?" Bucky shrugs. "Might not be so bad."
"Alright," Steve says slowly. He shifts so that he's kneeling on the couch, his folded arms resting on the back. "If you're sure."
Bucky doesn't like his tone. Or the suspiciously blank look on his face. "Hey, if you don't wanna—"
"I didn't say that. I just—the last time we went out—"
"Really, Rogers? You're gonna bring that up?"
"You pulled a knife—"
"Once," Bucky grouses. "And we were being followed. I didn't know it was a Goddamned reporter."
Steve says, "I know," and kisses Bucky's throat. He runs his hand up Bucky's flesh-and-blood arm, tucks it into the sleeve of his t-shirt. "I'd love to go out. As long as you—"
"I want to," Bucky insists, although really, he wants Steve to. He's going to be in Brno at least five days; Steve should go out and do something fun before he plants himself on the couch, eating cold Chinese and waiting for Bucky to come home. "I promise not to stab anyone."
"Well," Steve says, laughing. "When you put it like that..."
"You're a punk."
"I know," Steve says. He kisses Bucky's throat again, his mouth open and wet. "What time does the movie start?"
"Nine. If you hurry up and put some pants on, we can probably get dinner too."
The HYDRA facility's rear exit opens to a blind alley. The guy guarding it is plainclothes; right now, he's crouched in front of the door, smoking a cigarette. By Bucky's count, he's carrying at least three guns—one at his back, one at his hip, one in his left boot. He also has a knife up each sleeve.
Once his cigarette is spent, the guy stands and flicks the butt at a puddle across the alley. Then he pulls a two-way transceiver from his back pocket and checks in with someone inside. He's done that every fifteen minutes since Bucky started watching him an hour ago. Bucky's Czech isn't great, but he recognizes jasné—all clear.
Silently, Bucky touches Sam's arm. A beat passes, then another, then the Redwing zips down the alley, headed for the dead-end. The guard startles, takes a couple steps after it. He reaches for his transceiver, but Bucky comes up behind him, wraps his metal arm around his neck, and yanks him into a chokehold.
The guy twists against him, kicks. He claws at Bucky's arm, then drops one hand and unsheaths a knife. Bucky knocks it away; it skids across the pavement with a wet scrape. Another beat, and another. The guard passes out, and Bucky drops him in the shadows beside a dumpster.
He checks his weapons while he waits for Sam to join him. The building in an abandoned apartment complex, built in the early twentieth-century, the hallways too narrow for a rifle. But he has a Skorpion, a pair of Sigs, a garrote, and several knives.
Sam steps out of the shadows, his wings folded against his back. He asks, "You alright?" like he's been reading Bucky's file again.
Bucky looks down the mouth of the alley, toward a vaguely familiar skyline. The Winter Soldier had a mission in Brno in the mid-eighties, a low-level politician that he sniped from the roof of a hotel. Bucky remembers it, but he also remembers the four days he spent here in the winter of 1944, waiting out a rainstorm with Falsworth and Dum-Dum in the damp basement of a church.
"Yeah," he says honestly, and punches the door open with his metal hand.
Bucky wakes up from something that isn't exactly a nightmare, just the impression of being somewhere cold and dark and unsafe. The other side of the bed is empty, which isn't all that unusual, even though it's late. Neither of them have great sleeping habits. Steve doesn't need much, and Bucky tends to crash hard after missions, then get by on naps until his internal clock resets itself.
But tonight, he can't seem to get warm alone. He wastes about fifteen minutes tossing and turning and curling himself in the blankets, but he eventually gets up to see if Steve is reading or drawing or watching infomercials on the couch. He pokes at the clothes on the floor until he finds a shirt—one of Steve's henleys. He still isn't warm enough, so he wraps a blanket around his shoulders, lets the end of it drag behind him like a cape.
The TV is on—Showtime Rotisserie! Set it and Forget it!—but Steve isn't watching it. He's sitting at the kitchen island, hunched over one of his sketchbooks. A cup of coffee is waiting by his wrist. So is Stark's GPS band.
A lump builds in Bucky's throat. He can't—he thought—fuck.
He must make a noise, because Steve looks up. He says, "Hey, Buck," in a dull voice and rubs his eyes like he's been staring at the sketchbook too long. "I didn't wake you, did I?"
"No," Bucky says. His chest feels tight, but he—he loves Steve. Loves him enough to let him go back, if that's what he wants. Tell Carter I said hello. "What are you doing?"
A horrible look clouds Steve's face. He rubs his eyes again and says, "Nothing. I'm just—" He heaves out a sigh. "Remember what my ma used to say? If wishes were horses—"
"Beggars would ride," Bucky finishes. "Yeah, I remember." He moves closer, letting the blanket drop when it snags on something in the doorway. "What's wrong?"
Steve opens his mouth, closes it. Bucky leans into his side and looks at the sketchbook. It's open to a drawing of the Avengers eating together: somewhere informal, like a kebab joint or a sub shop. It must be post-mission; Banner's human and Stark's out of his armor, but everyone else is dressed to fight. Thor is thinner and beardless, and Romanov's hair is chin-length, curling just above her shoulders. Barton has one leg resting on Romanov's chair.
The next page is Romanov in profile, her upturned nose and full mouth, the tiny mole on her cheek. The page after is Stark in the Iron Man helmet with the face-plate flipped up—one eyebrow quirked, half his face in shadow.
"Steve," Bucky says carefully. He strokes his hand up Steve's back, rests it at the top of Steve's spine. "You can't. You know that, right?"
After a long pause, Steve nods. He says, "I know, I know," like he's been fighting with himself all night. He swallows hard before continuing, "Natasha was a good friend. She stuck by me when I didn't have anyone else. And Tony... Tony—"
"I heard you two argued a lot," Bucky says.
Steve huffs out a watery laugh. "We argued all the time. About everything. But he was a friend too. I trusted him with my life. And he had—has—a daughter. He—"
"Steve." Bucky brushes his hand through Steve's hair. "You can't do this to yourself."
Steve wraps his arm around Bucky's waist, hides his face against Bucky's neck. "I know, Buck. I know." He heaves out another sigh, then straightens up and gives Bucky a tight-lipped smile. He asks, "Do you feel like watching some infomercials?"
"Yeah," Bucky says, soft. "Of course."
Bucky isn't a superhero. He isn't. But Sam called twenty minutes ago, yelling about aliens roaming the Upper East Side, so now he's standing on the roof of his brownstone in full tac gear, waiting for a quinjet. He does a quick weapons check: rifle, Skorpion, Sigs, knives, grenades. He ties his hair up, unties it, ties it up again. Aliens. Jesus hopscotching Christ.
Just as the quinjet comes into view, he hears a creak and a scrape to his left—Steve hauling himself up the access ladder. He's wearing one of his older suits and carrying the Wakandan shield he didn't lose to Thanos. The beard he's growing looks gold in the afternoon sun.
He's supposed to be at the VA, so Bucky points at him and says, "You're supposed to be at the VA."
"I was there 'til I saw the aliens on TV." Steve moves closer, gravel crunching under his boots. "When I got back here I saw your note, so I—" He looks down at himself and shrugs.
The quinjet touches down. Bucky asks, "You sure? I thought you said you were done."
"I never said done," Steve counters. "I said I needed a break. And I can't sit out something like this." Smiling, he elbows Bucky's side. "Come on. Our ride's here."
Five minutes later, they're on Lexington and 79th. The aliens are everywhere, formless and a lurid shade of orange. A few blocks up, Antman is eight feet tall and grappling with two of them at once. The Parker kid wheels by, springboarding off an overturned bus as he slings a pair of webs at the closest building. An alien bursts through the window of Eisler Chemists, and red magic flares behind the spire of the Unitarian Church.
"Jesus," Bucky mutters. "Why doesn't this crap ever happen in Los Angeles?"
"Don't ask me," Sam says, coming up behind them. He has a bruise on his jaw and blood at the corner of his mouth. "Took you guys long enough."
"Captain," Steve says brightly. He flashes Sam a smile. "What's the plan?"
Sam hesitates for a split-second. Then: "They're coming through a portal near 81st. Strange is working on it, and let me tell you how thrilled he is about us calling him again. Until he closes it, Rhodes and Wanda are gonna push them this way. We're taking them out."
"Got it," Bucky says.
Shield in hand, Sam heads up the street.
Steve and Bucky are right behind him.