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Despite everything, Steve was and remained an optimist. He wasn’t dead yet and the prisoners were all free. Things could have been going much worse. He did wish the Skull hadn’t set fire to the building on his way out, but that was something he could work with. This is gonna go fine, he thought just before a nearby explosion shook the walls. Nobody even flinched, which was saying a lot about the general atmosphere of things in the burning factory. It’s all gonna be just fine.

“Keep moving,” he called. “Don’t stop, everyone just keep moving!”

He hurried counter to the flow of hobbling men, all coughing and leaning on each other, bent in half to get out of the smoke. Heavy acrid clouds were overflowing the hallway; he could hear muffled explosions almost every minute now, and the terrible grind of faltering metal as parts of the factory started collapsing on themselves. Whenever he looked up, he could see the metallic roof structure overhead smoldering red, tracing a network of embers in the dark.

“Get them to the yard,” he kept saying to everyone he walked past. “Everyone get to the yard, outside in the open air, get out of the building! Climb into the trucks! Grab any weapons you see!” He was checking the cages one more time, looking down into every pit to make sure no man had been left behind. “Is that everyone, is everyone on his way out?”

“Not everyone,” someone mumbled—and Steve should not have been able to hear the comment, in the noise and the confusion, but these days he seemed to hear everything.

He quickly located the man, someone with a thick mustache and an incongruous bowler hat, supported by an Asian fellow much smaller than he was, but apparently no less sturdy. They were the ones he’d first freed. For them to still be there meant they had been making sure everyone left before they did, too. Steve liked that in people.

He crossed over to them and grabbed the man’s arm. “Hey—Dugan, was it? Morita? What do you mean, not everyone’s out?”

They looked briefly baffled—obviously wondering how he’d heard, but that kind of concern didn’t have a good life expectancy in their present circumstances. “There’s a lab upstairs,” Morita said. “But don’t waste your time. He’s gotta be dead.”

“Who?” Steve insisted.

“Sarge,” Morita said, croaky with the smoke. “James Barnes. Guys called ‘im Bucky.”

“They took people away,” Dugan added. “Did things to them. Barnes was the latest. Gone away the longest. Man’s dead.”

“How can you know?”

“We don’t know.” Dugan was slipping; Morita hoisted him further up. “We hope. For his sake.”

“I’ll go check one last time,” Steve said, stubborn. “Get those trucks moving if I’m not back out by the time everyone’s all set.”

He patted Morita’s shoulder, then took off running towards the stairs and climbed them in great big leaps, feeling their gaze in his back all the while.

 

*

 

Steve had glimpsed the upper floor back when he’d first swept the place, two hours ago: it all looked like office rooms, not a place where you’d keep a prisoner. But now that he knew he was looking for a lab, he walked down the hallway checking the doors more thoroughly.

Something about the place made him want to be quiet, like someone was still watching, waiting. This part of the factory, completely windowless, still looked mostly intact for now, but it was an illusion: the long, dark corridor smelled heavily of smoke, and some of the doors were outlined in fire. Veins of red were starting to glow in the walls. Steve knew the entire infrastructure was crumbling. He was risking his life with every second he spent still inside. Yet still he didn’t run.

No incandescence filtered through the door at the end of the hallway. Only darkness.

Steve put his hand flat on the panel to make sure; finding it cool enough, he turned the doorknob. It resisted under his grip, but with a quick twist of the wrist the lock crunched right through the wood. He pushed it open with a faint creak. Inside the room was lab equipment indeed—machines meant to measure various aspects of a human body, plus a table with heavy leather straps and stains of a peculiarly dark blood. The air was thick and dark and silent.

Steve felt his hackles rise. Now all his instincts were screaming at him to stay quiet. But they also told him someone was alive in here.

“Hello?” he called.

A muffled noise answered him; something scratching, scrabbling.

He walked around the surgery table and spotted a big square thing, which he’d mistaken for a cabinet in the dim gloom. It was actually a cloth thrown over something long and narrow like a coffin.

He stepped closer. The scrabbling sound started again, bringing to mind something wild and desperate, a rat in a malfunctioning trap, something which had failed to die.

Steve grabbed the heavy cloth, took a deep silent breath, and pulled it off in one go.

Dust swirled in the air. Underneath was a cage—like a coffin indeed, so narrow the man inside could not move an inch. His arms were awkwardly trapped along his body like he’d been shoved forcefully into his prison with no time to arrange his limbs. His face was entirely deformed. The hand that was twisted over his chest had black nails, long and sharp like claws. His eyes were blood red.

They snapped to look at Steve who took a sudden step back.

Inside the cage, the—creature—was now staring at him, chest heaving as much as it could against the constricting wire. After a moment of sheer clean fear, Steve’s brain started cranking again. The strangely shaped face, he realized, was just a result of a complex network of leather straps closed around the prisoner’s head, forcing a thick gag into his mouth. Aside from that contraption, he was naked; the thin bars of the cage were digging painfully into his pale flesh.

For a moment nothing moved. Then the man started his desperate struggle again, much harder, rattling the cage so loudly Steve jumped again. But his fear didn’t take this time, because the next second he realized the man was simply terrified of him.

“Hey,” Steve managed. He crouched on the floor to be level with the cage and pushed his hand through the bars to grab the black-nailed, twisted fingers. His skin felt clammy and cold; Steve squeezed it as if to push warmth into it. “Sergeant Barnes? Are you James Barnes?”

Barnes stopped when he heard his name—God, so it was him. His red eyes were still terribly wide, his constricted chest heaving. He was searching Steve’s face, fear and confusion clear behind the straps over his head. Steve pressed his hand again. “My name’s Steve. You’re Barnes, right? You’re Bucky,” he tried, remembering what Morita and Dugan had said. “Bucky. Calm down. I’m here to help. I’m here to get you out.”

Tears were leaking from the red eyes; Barnes started trembling and letting out choked-off breaths through his nose, but it actually seemed to mean some of his tension was trickling away, enough to allow him to cry.

“Hang on,” Steve said, pulling back his hand. He found the lock and snapped it like he’d broken through the door. He opened up the cage and reached inside to pull him out. “Okay. There you are. Let me—”

Poor Barnes was in a sorry state, his body deeply bruised by the tight confines of the cage. He clung to Steve’s upper arms as he was being lifted out, legs unfolding stiffly to find purchase. But as soon as he’d been freed, he pushed away from Steve and scrambled away again, huddling in the corner of the room, pulling up his knees and wrapping his arms around himself.

“It’s all right,” Steve said. Another muffled explosion boomed in the background as if to prove him wrong. A cloud of dust sprinkled down from the ceiling. He looked up, then quickly looked down again. “Bucky, I know you’re scared. Just listen to me. I’ve come to get everyone out. We’re the only ones left. The place is burning down.”

Barnes didn’t react. Of course he already knew. He had been alone, trapped in that cage, knowing his torturers had abandoned him there, left him to burn alive.

Steve forced his voice into steadiness. “We have to get out of here fast. Look, I’ll—here,” he said, suddenly remembering the cloth he’d pulled off the cage. He gathered it in his arms and brought it to Barnes, who pressed harder into the wall with a whimper.

“Put that on and let’s go,” Steve pleaded. “Come on. We don’t have much time.” He draped the cloth over Barnes’ lap, then slowly reached for the straps over his head, telegraphing his movements. “I’ll take that off you.”

Barnes screwed his eyes shut, but he couldn’t stop Steve from touching him. There were five straps, arranged to form some sort of star shape around his head. Steve unclipped the gag and pulled it out of Barnes’ mouth, finding it disturbingly long and thick, slick with drool. He thought that was the hardest part done, but as soon as he’d pulled off the straps off Barnes’ head, the man had a violent spasm and suddenly gathered the cloth against his chest.

“Sergeant Barnes?” Steve said. “Bucky?”

Another spasm sent him pressing into the wall again, desperately turning his head away from Steve, to no avail; Steve was horrified to see that Barnes’ back was grotesquely bubbling up like things inside were pushing to get out of him.

Jesus—”

“Put it back,” Barnes gasped hoarsely, “don’t look—don’t look at me. Put it back—”

Five straps in the shape of a star. Steve didn’t think anymore; he grabbed Barnes’ arm and wrapped the straps around his wrist. As soon as they were around his body again, however misaligned, Barnes slumped; his back stopped its transformation.

Huddled against the wall, gasping with relief, he was almost completely turning his back to Steve now. But his red eyes were straining back to look at him, streaming with tears. The fear was back—if it had ever left.

“Hey,” Steve said. His hands were still on Barnes’ forearm; he squeezed and got up. “Can you walk?”

Barnes turned towards him by a fraction. “You’re—” He swallowed convulsively and gasped almost for a minute before he could keep talking. “You’re not gonna kill me?”

“I told you. I’m here to help. Come on.”

“But,” he swallowed again. “You saw.”

“I’m getting you out of here.”

Barnes was so stunned he actually let Steve pull him to his feet, finally. Steve wanted nothing more than to lift him bodily into his arms and get the hell out of there, but he forced himself to be gentle, grabbing the cloth again and wrapping it around his shoulders. “Come on. Come on.”

He led him out of the room step by step, only to find that they’d been too slow. At the end of the hallway, a bright orange light was burning. Steve could feel the heat from here.

“Shit.” He looked at the door facing him; the map of the building was clear in his mind, and he knew there would be windows leading to the outside in the rooms across the hallway. “All right. New plan.”

Bucky balked when Steve pulled him forward, bare feet scrabbling on the wooden floor. “No—not in there—”

Steve opened the door and recoiled when a horrible smell assaulted his newly developed senses. Rotting meat and animal dejections. He peered into the room and saw row and rows of cages with dead goats inside. All black goats. There was a pentacle—yes, that was the word he’d been looking for in the back of his mind; the same shape the straps made around Bucky’s arm, a pentacle—drawn onto the floor, with a great pool of dried blood in the middle. On the wall were huge words in black paint that had dribbled down to the ground:

I NAME THEE SLAVE TO YOUR BODY

I NAME THY BODY SLAVE TO THE BEAST

I NAME THE BEAST SLAVE TO ITS MASTER

The windows had been bricked over. Steve couldn’t smash through the wall without bringing the whole building down.

He stepped back, closed the door; the smell remained. “Come on.”

Barnes was looking at him with those disturbing red eyes like he thought Steve must want to kill him now. When Steve kept dragging him to safety, he rasped, “You don’t know what you just saw.”

“I do know,” Steve said tightly. He’d heard about Nazi Satanic practices. He had assumed, like anyone would, that it was just a rumor. But HYDRA seemed to have a knack for most horrifying option. “Where’re you from?”

“What?” Barnes said weakly.

Steve found the stairs. If they couldn’t go down, they’d go up; at least when the building collapsed there wouldn’t be as much rubble piled on top of them. “I said, where are you from?”

“I… New York.” He coughed. “Brooklyn.”

“No shit? I’m from Vinegar Hill,” Steve said. Reaching the top floor, he caught a glimpse of the dark open night. For a moment his heart lifted—safety at last—but then he saw it was just that part of the far wall had crumbled. Before they could get there, though, they’d have to cross a single beam suspended over the fiery wreck of the factory, all that was left of the structure in that part of the building.

“Damn. You up for some acrobatics?”

Barnes looked at him with his red eyes like he still needed to check that Steve was in fact trying to save him. Then he swallowed. “Sure. Hell. Just like climbing up a fuckin’ fire escape at home.”

Steve gave him a little grin. “That’s the spirit. Go. I got your back.”

Barnes stepped up over the railing, then threw off the cloth all at once. Of course; he couldn’t keep that around him, he needed his arms outstretched for balance. His bare body flashed with the inferno beneath, pale skin shining with flames, like the sun off the moon. He was too skinny and battered and bruised, but the fire licked all imperfections off him.

Climbing onto the beam, Barnes spread his arms. Steve watched him go, though he knew if he fell down there was nothing he could do to help.

The flames kept splashing the sergeant’s stark naked body with a glorious, moving orange glow. Despite weeks of mistreatment, he stood upright and balanced on the beam, arms akimbo, gaining inch after steady inch. Steve absurdly felt the need to paint.

But then the beam screamed under the man’s weight; Barnes startled, then ran for his life and jumped over to catch the railing just as his support entirely crumbled into the fire. He climbed over then turned to look desperately at Steve. “Gotta be a rope or something!”

“It’s okay,” Steve called. “I’ll find another way out!”

“Fuck you, there isn’t another fucking way out!” Barnes shouted back.

The roof suddenly threw out a cloud of red and gold sparks; Steve heard the low and terrible groan of a building that couldn’t support its own weight anymore. The floor moved under his feet.

“Just go!” he shouted. “Get out of here!”

Barnes stared at him, helpless. Then the despair turned into anger; he took a deep breath, gritted his teeth, then ripped the leather straps off his arm.

Pain contorted his face at once. He fell to his knees, opened his mouth, maybe to scream, though the blazing growl was too loud now for even Steve to hear. Through the heat distortion, he saw Barnes’s back start bulging and bubbling again, just before a thick black cloud hid him from sight. When Steve could see again, coughing and tearing up with the smoke, Barnes was up on his feet again, panting.

His eyes were not red anymore; they were obsidian black. Something moved and snapped open behind him, and Steve realized it was—wings. White feathered wings.

Barnes shouted, “Name yourself as my—” An explosion kept Steve from catching his last words. He’d expected an otherworldly growl, but Barnes still sounded the same.

“What?”

The building started to collapse.

Name yourself as my goddamn master!” Barnes shouted. “Fuckin’ do it now!”

There was no time to think. “I am Steve Rogers,” Steve yelled over the heat and the smoke and the fire, “and I’m your master!”

Barnes stepped over the railing and straight into the pit. Steve shouted, but the flames didn’t hurt him—of course they didn’t; he just came back out, dashing straight up, fire trailing after his wingtips.

He had looked grotesque and monstrous before, but coming out through fire and gold, he was breathtakingly beautiful. He reached for Steve and grabbed his outstretched arms right before the ground gave way under his feet. Everything around them collapsed into inferno, and Steve closed his eyes as two walls of fire came down around him.

But then suddenly the heat was gone, and when he reopened his eyes they were flying out into the cool, forgiving night, and he could breathe all of the universe around him.

 

*

 

Barnes was perhaps too weak from weeks of torture, or maybe simply not designed to carry someone else. As soon as they’d gotten away from the knot of buildings, he started losing altitude. Steve felt the last powerful beats of his wings against the air, carving a little more time, like paddles fighting against the current; then finally the last of his strength gave out and they crashed through leaves and branches onto the forest floor.

Steve hit the ground hard and rolled a few paces away. He lay there stunned for a second. With his ear against the ground, he heard low vibrations that didn’t come from the fiery factory. The trucks, rolling away. Dugan and Morita had led the retreat. They hadn’t waited for him. Good men.

He coughed a few times—it was a good way to check that he didn’t have broken ribs—then turned back onto his side. “Bucky? You all right?”

No answer.

He got up despite his bones protesting that they would have liked a few days to knit back together some.

“Bucky?”

He heard a rustle. Bucky was there, crumpled in the bushes. Limping closer, Steve saw that one of his wings had caught onto an oak branch and torn horribly in the landing. It stretched all the way over his head, looking for all the world like the ripped parachute of a stranded fighter pilot.

Steve looked at the blood soaking his feathers. In the dark, it looked black. He thought maybe it would have in daylight too.

“God,” he said. “Are you…”

“S’good.” Bucky sounded strained with something else than pain. Strung up as he was, the muscles in his back stood out in sharp relief. “Half the work done.”

“What?”

“Tell me you got a knife or something.”

He opened his black eyes and saw the expression on Steve’s face.

“Shit. Not to kill me.” He moved his wings awkwardly and scowled with pain. “Cut them off.”

“What?”

“They won’t go back inside my body now. Need you to cut them off. Saw them up. With a knife, with a rock. Anything you got at hand. They have to come off.”

“There’s no need to—”

“Do it or kill me,” Bucky said. His ink-black eyes were shining with tears now. Fear and disgust had turned his face into a haunted mask. “I can’t be like this.”

Steve recovered. “All right,” he said. “All right. But—we need something. Tools. Just get up—”

Bucky got up like someone had pulled him to his feet by force; he screamed with pain when his wounded wing convulsed, shaking the entire tree above. Steve clapped a hand over his own mouth.

For a moment they just stood there, catching their breath.

“What,” Steve said finally. “What the fuck was that.”

“You’re my master now,” Bucky said. He sounded exhausted. “They kept trying to get me to say it. I had to say it so I could help you.”

“Your master—”

“Any order you give, I have to obey.” He tried to smile. “And I have to follow you everywhere. And there’s other fun features too.” He swallowed. “Not too late to kill me.”

“I’m not going to kill you.”

“Don’t even have to get your hands dirty. Just order me to—”

Shut up,” Steve said, then scowled when Bucky snapped his mouth shut. “Damn it. I didn’t mean to do that.”

“Feel like that’s gonna be happening a lot.” Bucky looked at him. His black eyes were hard to read, but he mostly just seemed exhausted. “Better you than a fuckin’ Nazi.”

“How… how long were you in there? How long were they trying to get you to…”

“I don’t know. Coupla days. I don’t know how much longer I could’ve resisted.” He shuddered, maybe with cold.

Steve zipped open his jacket to give to him on instinct, but stopped halfway through. Bucky, despite everything, smiled. “See? Gotta get rid of those fucking wings.”

Careful not to give him another order, Steve went to him instead and cautiously ducked under his arm, on his good side. Lifting Bucky up, he managed to give him enough support that he could unhook his torn wing from the branches. The blood loss and pain were obviously making him light-headed by the time he was free; he slumped into Steve, breathing hard.

“Hey, pal,” Steve said. “Hey. Stay with me. Hardest part’s done.”

Bucky blinked, then moved away with a wince, obviously trying to get a hold of his surroundings again. “We need to cut them off,” he repeated.

“All right. Well, there were lots of worker sheds near the factory. We can probably find something there.”

 

*

 

They found a rusty saw.

Cutting off Bucky’s wings was very unpleasant. At least there didn’t seem to be too many nerves connecting them to his body, which maybe made sense what with how much his weight would be pulling at them when he flew. Look at me, Steve thought, rationalizing this whole thing. He could feel the vibration into Bucky’s bones as he sawed away. Bucky was gritting his teeth, tears squeezing out of his screwed-shut eyes, his whole body trembling while Steve tried to somehow tear him apart in the gentlest way possible.

He screamed a few times but always bit it back and mumbled through his clenched jaw to keep going, just fucking keep going. Steve had to clench his own teeth when it was time to snap the bone at the end—the sharp crack and Bucky’s choked-off gasp of agony made his stomach roil.

“Done,” Steve said after the second one was over. “Here, just—here.” Now that he could bundle him up in his jacket, he didn’t want to waste another second. Bucky was shivering like mad with shock. Steve pulled him close and let him huddle against his chest.

The fantastical, gory wreck of his wings was spread behind him across the room. Steve felt sorry they’d done it. Bucky could fly for a moment. But then Steve remembered again how and why his body had changed, and understood the urge to cut them off as soon as possible, no matter how painful. This wasn’t the same thing as willingly stepping into Stark’s pod.

“Gotta rip out my nails now,” Bucky gasped against his shoulder. “Are there pliers in here?”

Do not rip out your nails,” Steve said, pulling him closer against him as he tried to stand up. The Voice had taken him by surprise again, but he couldn’t quite find it in himself to regret it this time. “Sorry. Just—there’s no need to hurt yourself like that. It’s not worth it. They’re just your nails.”

Look at them. They’re fucking—claws, I can’t—”

“You can clip ‘em and wear gloves,” Steve said firmly. “Or tell people you let your little sister play around with nail polish.”

“I can’t be like this.”

“Can’t exactly change your eyes anyway.”

Bucky looked up at him. “What?” he said in a broken voice. “What about my eyes?”

Steve felt cold. “Oh—I’m sorry,” he said. Of course Bucky didn’t know. How could he have known? “They’re not exactly normal.”

“No,” Bucky said in a strangled voice, quickly turning into panicked sobs, “oh no, no—I have to put them out, I have to—”

Calm downfuck,” Steve swore when Bucky slumped like someone had cut off his strings. “Didn’t mean—but I do want you to calm down. You’re okay. You’re still the same inside.”

Fuck you, that means nothing, you don’t fucking know,” Bucky said. Sobs were bubbling up again. “There are—voices—in my head—not voices but—instincts, like an animal—things I can’t do anymore—things I have to do now—what they made of me, I don’t—I can’t—”

“It’s okay,” Steve said, holding him tight. “It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay.”

Bucky was just sobbing now. Steve thought about him locked alone in that awful cage with the horror they’d made of his body. He tightened his embrace around him and kept mumbling reassurance well into the night.

 

*

 

Steve didn’t really sleep. At dawn, he poked his head out of the shed and walked out to the remains of the factory.

The fire was still crackling in some places, but most of it had collapsed and burned to ashes. Nothing moved. Spotting a corpse half-buried in the courtyard, Steve dug it out with grim determination and pulled off its clothes. They smelled strongly of smoke. They could have smelled of worse.

He went back to the worker’s shack and opened the door. Bucky was still sleeping, curled under a dirty cloth they’d found in a corner. Steve hated to wake him up, but they had to leave this wretched place.

“Hey,” he called. “Hey, James—”

Bucky’s black eyes snapped open at once. He sat up, keeping his alien gaze trained on Steve. Even without his wings, his naked body was so perfect—and his eyes so perfectly dark—that Steve briefly saw an angel of death again.

Master,” Bucky answered in the exact same freaky voice that had just come out of Steve’s mouth.

“No—no, hell. Didn’t mean…” Steve gave him an apologetic look. “So. It also works with your name.”

“Looks like it.” His voice had lost its creepy echo, and his sudden alertness had faded. He looked away in shame. “I… I don’t know all the rules.”

“I’ll just call you Bucky.” To his relief, the Voice didn’t rise for a nickname. He came closer. “I brought you some clothes. Ah, stole ‘em off a dead guy. Sorry.”

Bucky hesitantly looked up again. “No. That’s. Thank you.”

“Got some bandages, too.” Steve opened his bag; he’d grabbed a first aid kit before setting off into the Italian forest, and hadn’t had time to use it the day before. “I want to fix up your back. Can you lean forward for me?”

Bucky did, bunching his dirty blanket into his lap. Steve grimaced when he saw his back. He’d sawed off the wings as close to the skin as he could, but the stumps still looked miserable, and the skin around them was red and inflamed. He soaked a rag with water and set to work on cleaning them before he could bandage them.

It took him a minute to realize Bucky was breathing harshly. “Are you all right? Am I hurting you too much?”

“I’m fine.”

But it felt to Steve like his touch was burning him; the slightest brush of his fingers across his skin made him flinch and go still. He did his best to spare him while he finished up with the bandage. It was a relief for them both when he stepped away.

“I’ve got scissors,” he said, pulling them out of his bag. “If you want to clip your nails.”

“Oh—yes. Thanks.”

“After that, you can get dressed, and we’ll work on catching up with the others,” Steve said, careful not to give him any orders. “They’ve got a lot of men, most of ‘em wounded. I know where they’re going. So we should be able to reach them in a couple of days at most.”

Bucky looked up at him. “What about my eyes?”

“We’ll improvise.” Steve hesitated, glancing down at Bucky’s body despite himself. He had seen him nude all day before, but suddenly it felt intimate again, intrusive. When Bucky pushed the cloth away to get up and Steve caught a glimpse of his bare muscled thighs, he couldn’t stand it. “I’ll wait for you outside.”

 

*

 

Fully dressed in a black uniform—with the skull symbols ripped off—Bucky looked somehow even less human. Maybe because the color complimented his inky eyes. Or maybe because Steve was seeing him in full daylight now.

After a meager breakfast of half a ration each, they set out into the forest. They didn’t want to walk on the road since Nazi trucks had been using it, but they stayed close enough that they could keep an eye on it through the bushes.

Bucky was pale and seemed dazed. Every bird call, every cracking branch made him twitch. Sometimes he looked around in apparent panic like he’d forgotten where he was, only to calm down some when his eyes landed on Steve. Every time, Steve found them strange all over again; but every time he found them more beautiful, too.

“So,” Steve asked around noon. “What are you now?”

Bucky scowled. “What kind of fuckin’ question is that.”

“Feels like we’re dancing around the subject is all.” Steve stepped over a fallen tree. “And whatever twisted plan Hydra’s got brewing, I want to know about it.”

“You saw that room. You recognized the pentacle. I’m a goddamn demon.” He swallowed, throat moving up and down. “That what you wanted me to say? Wanted to hear it out loud? That get you going?”

“I don’t understand what they were hoping to achieve,” Steve said, without rising to the bait. “If you could tell me more…”

Bucky worked his jaw. “A demon’s the opposite of a human,” he said eventually. “No free will and no—no morals, no sense of right and wrong. It’s got a master and that’s it. Will do what Master fuckin’ says. But it has to pledge allegiance for the whole thing to cinch. They thought they could make me do it.” He looked down. “They were probably right, at that. Only they ran out of time.”

“Is that what you feel like now? Like you’ve lost your sense of right and wrong?”

“I have no fucking idea how I feel. Still trying to get used to the idea that I’m not fucking dead.” Bucky swallowed convulsively. “They killed me. Did you know? They dragged me into that circle on the floor and they nailed me into place through my hands and feet and then they slit my throat and they let me bleed. And when my life went out something else took its place.” His eyes were slightly too wide. “Now I’m there and I just. I don’t know.”

He snapped a branch off as he walked.

“And you, you just showed up and—shit,” he went on. “I don’t even know who you are.”

“My name’s Steve Rogers. I’m a chorus girl and a lab experiment and a fake captain.” Steve pointed at his helmet. “That’s tin.”

Bucky blinked at him. “What?”

Explaining took some time. A lot of time, actually. By the time they were done, Bucky seemed to have almost forgotten his own transformation in favor of poking and prodding at Steve’s.

“But so this isn’t your body,” he said for the third time as the sun started going down. “Doesn’t it bother you that this isn’t your body?”

“I mean. It feels like it’s the body I was meant to have,” Steve explained. “If I hadn’t always been so sick, y’know? So actually, it feels—pretty right. For maybe the first time.”

Bucky nodded. “Yeah,” he said quietly. “Must be nice.”

Steve remembered Bucky’s first impulse the night before had been to cut his wings off and put out his eyes. Obviously, his body didn’t feel right at all.

“Aren’t you hungry?” Steve asked suddenly. His own body had shifted into survival mode; instead of needing over three thousand calories a day, he felt like he could go the whole week without ingesting anything. He knew that there’d be hell to pay later, but for now he felt fine. Bucky was looking paler and paler, though. “We’re going to stop soon.”

“I’m fine,” Bucky mumbled, looking away.

“I still have some water left. Here,” Steve said, pulling out his bottle.

Bucky shook his head. “I don’t want it.”

“Are you sure? You look like you could use a bit of—something.”

Bucky said nothing at all.

 

*

 

By night time, Bucky’s health was clearly deteriorating fast. He kept stumbling over the uneven ground and catching himself over trees. In the pale moonlight, he looked even paler, and Steve could see sweat shine silver on his temples. His eyes were twin black voids.

“Bucky,” Steve said quietly.

Bucky flinched. “I’m fine.”

“You look…”

“Over there. Shelter.” He started off through the bushes, thorns snagging on his trousers. The faint shape of a derelict tile roof could be seen behind the tree line.

Steve followed him, confused and worried. To say that this was a new situation was an understatement; he wasn’t sure how to help. When Bucky tripped once again, Steve caught him under the arm and he let out a gasp that sounded very—

“Let me go—just—God, don’t touch me.” Bucky shuffled away from him, ducked under the last branch before the clearing, then scowled. “Fuck me sideways, it’s a goddamn fuckin’ church.”

He was sweating, shaking. It looked like—withdrawal? Steve stepped into the clearing next to him and looked up at the small brick building. “A chapel,” he said, as if the distinction mattered.

“Just my goddamn luck.”

“Do you think that’s going to be a problem?”

“What do you fuckin’ think,” Bucky bit out. “Do you not understand what I’m…”

Steve stepped closer to the building, then said, “It’s okay. It’s desacralized.”

Bucky blinked at him. “You mean desecrated?”

“I mean desacralized.” Steve pointed at the back of the church.

The choir had completely collapsed on itself. Probably not even because of the war, because the trees around were all intact. This was just an old building which had been swallowed up by nature over time.

“When a chapel or a church or something else collapses, all the sacred goes away. There’s also an actual procedure if you wanna desacralize a church that’s still standing, but—for one as damaged as this one it’s automatic.”

Bucky was staring at him now. “Why do you know so much about churches?”

“Catholic mom,” Steve said. He would’ve insulted Sarah Rogers by calling himself a Catholic. Bless her, but God had never been a fixture in his life, though Bucky’s existence was probably a testament to something existing beyond the veil. It didn’t bother him overmuch; he had enough to do on this plane of existence. “Let’s go inside. It’s getting dark.”

Bucky followed him until he reached the threshold, where he stopped cold.

Steve, who’d already gone inside, turned around. “Bucky?”

“What if I can’t go in.” He was shivering. “What if—what if I’m never—”

“Hey,” Steve said, stepping closer. “If you can’t go in I’ll stay out there with you.”

Bucky stepped inside the building. It did seem to have an effect on him—his breathing became more strained, his face even paler, but it was a far cry from bursting into flames. His black eyes flicked over Steve’s again.

“Bucky—”

Then Bucky shambled closer, grabbed his face in his hands and kissed him.

Steve was taken completely by surprise. He felt the rasp of Bucky’s stubble, the softness of his lips, the wet touch of his tongue all at once. It was all he could do to hold him up; Bucky’s strength seemed to have nearly abandoned him, but he held Steve’s face, and kissed him so ravenously Steve felt on the brink of understanding something.

Then Bucky ripped himself away from Steve with an obvious, immense effort. His eyes were so wide; he pressed the back of his wrist against his mouth. “Shit. Shit.”

He was stumbling away from Steve in fear again. Before he could trip on debris and fall on his wounded back, Steve caught his wrist and brought him close. “It’s all right.”

Bucky could hardly look at him. “It’s not all right—”

Look at me,” Steve said. “It’s fine.”

Bucky caught his breath for a second more. Even though he looked terrified, his fingers were curling around Steve’s hand and holding on white-knuckled. Shaking.

I name thee slave to your body, Steve thought, remembering the smears of paint on the wall. The understanding he’d brushed a moment before became clear in his mind.

“So this is what you’ve been needing all day,” he said quietly.

Bucky was trying to catch his breath. He pressed his wrist harder against his mouth as if not to throw up. “They—they turned me into—into a goddam fucking—”

“Hey. Careful which word you’re gonna use. Whatever you’re calling yourself, you’re calling me, too.”

Bucky stared at him in shock.

Then the realization passed, and he scowled. “Yeah—well—fuck you anyway,” he breathed, “we’re not the same, it’s not like you’ve got a goddamn compulsion to go around and suck cock.”

“First of all: yes, I do. Ever since I was fourteen. Never quite put it in practice.”

“It’s not the same—”

Steve was very calm, though his heart was pounding. “Second of all: keep saying fuck you and fuck me and I might just do something about it.”

Bucky kept staring at him. When he spoke again, eventually, he’d dropped the anger. He’d dropped the fear too. He just sounded calm.

“I’m not going to let you fuck me because some Nazis said so.”

“Bucky—”

“I would rather die.”

Steve hadn’t let go of his wrist. “Why would you have to die?”

“You still don’t understand. I need it to live. I didn’t expect the starving to be this fast.” His jaw was set. “Like I just said. Better than the alternative.”

“Bucky,” Steve said slowly, looking for the right words. “We’re so close to home.”

The anger trickled back. “I’m a goddamn demon. I can’t go home ever.”

“Of course you can. That’s why I’ve come all the way here. But now you’re telling me you’d rather die? What sort of fucking language is that? We all busted our asses to escape this goddamn nightmare factory—you fought to survive every single day you spent in that cage, you didn’t give them an inch, and now that you’re free you say you’d rather die?” Steve pulled him closer. “Why? People tell you to go out into the muck and get shot at and you say yes sir, but this, this is too much for you? This is the line you won’t cross? This is when you choose to fucking give up? Get a hold of yourself, dammit!”

Bucky flinched like Steve had hit him; terror filled his eyes.

“Please,” he stammered. “Please don’t make me do it.”

All his outrage left Steve at once.

“God—no. No, no, Bucky, no, that’s not what I—of course I wouldn’t. I would never.”

He just stood there, and watched him try to hold back his tears, and felt like the worst person in the world.

“I don’t know what to do,” Bucky said, wiping his eyes. “I don’t want to die. But I don’t want to—”

He trailed off, and neither of them said anything for a minute.

“Has to be me, right? Only me? Just making sure,” Steve said.

“Yeah,” Bucky rasped.

“Just—I’d just like to know. Have you ever gone for fellas before?”

It was nearly a whole minute of shivering before the answer came out. “S’all I ever went for.” He swallowed hard and said, low and miserable: “It’s why they picked me. They thought I’d be more—suited—”

“God,” Steve exhaled, and dragged him into a hug.

Bucky held on tight. He was still shaking but he wasn’t afraid this time. At least Steve hoped he wasn’t.

“Listen,” Steve said. “Listen. I’m not gonna make you do anything, ever. Least of all that.” He kept talking, lower. “But the fact is, Buck, I wouldn’t kick you outta bed. So we don’t have to be doing it because of them. Do you see? Just you and me. Nothing else. No fucking Nazis and no soul hunger either. Just you and me because we choose to. You staying alive would just be a bonus. You don’t want them to win and I get that. But I feel like letting yourself starve would be the worst way of letting them win.”

Bucky, face pressed into his shoulder, said nothing.

“Unless if you find me just too damn repulsive,” Steve went on. “I’d understand. You don’t even know where this body’s come from. I know I wouldn’t eat something like me.”

“Jesus,” Bucky murmured.

“You don’t have to decide anything right now. But I’d like that if you could—think about it.”

 

*

 

They slept pressed together under one of the mildewed pews. Bucky seemed to feed off Steve’s contact alone, if only at a trickle; he kept moving to nose into Steve’s neck and tangle their fingers together in his sleep. Steve didn’t say anything that might have him waking up and rolling away.

But even like that, it was obvious that those were just scrapes, only really enough to tease his hunger. Steve still remembered how hungrily, how absolutely Bucky had kissed him. Looking at the arched ceiling of the little church, he sent up what was probably the weirdest prayer of his life. Let me be enough to feed him. It wasn’t like he had a lot of experience with sex. Or any experience at all. But hopefully he could find the right gestures, figure out the way. If Bucky let him.

Steve ended up falling asleep too, shortly before dawn. They were both woken up a couple of hours later by the enthusiastic chirp of a bird perched on the collapsed wall. Before Europe, Steve hadn’t realized how fucking loud those small feathery bastards could be.

Bucky moved against him, opened his black liquid eyes. Their hands were still tangled together.

He worked his fingers free with a quiet, “God damn it.”

“I don’t mind, Buck.”

Bucky huffed but didn’t make any attempt to move further away from him. Maybe just because it was a damp, chilly morning. “You fucking should.”

“I’m a strange thing, too.”

Bucky huffed again. Then he said, reluctantly, “I guess you are, at that.”

They stayed side by side for a little while. Steve looked at the dark circles under his eyes, the pallor of his cheeks, the deep, unhealthy lines on his face. He had cuts and burns everywhere, too, dried blood crusted up in his ears, in his nostrils.

“Will you let me do it,” Steve asked quietly.

Bucky’s lips drew a weary smile. “Handsome guy like you begging me for a lay. I should be jumping at the chance.”

“Bucky.”

“It’s not gonna be just one time. If we both survive this, it’s gonna be all our lives.”

“I know.”

Bucky looked up at him. It was hard to tell with his ink-black eyes, but he seemed to be on the brink of tears again. “Do you?”

“I know,” Steve said again. Then he kissed him.

God, he didn’t know how to go about this. How much kissing was enough kissing? They just made out for a while, lying there on the cold ground; then, as Steve himself started to respond, he just popped the button of Bucky’s pants and pushed his hand down. For a second he worried about being ungraceful, overeager—but he found him hot and rock hard already, fitting into his hand like he’d only been waiting for it.

Bucky clung to him. “Master.

That was a cold shower, though in hindsight Steve should’ve been expecting it. “You don’t have to call me that, Buck. This is me. Just me and you—remember?”

“Shit. Shit.” Bucky arched against him, feverish. “I’ll try, but—God—”

Desire dried Steve’s throat with a sudden rush of intensity—it surprised him, but the velvet weight of Bucky’s cock in his hand was so real. Steve had never done this, and now there he was, in a tiny derelict chapel somewhere in Italy, saving the life of a man turned demon.

There had to be stranger ways of losing one’s virginity. But not that many.

“Is this good? You have to tell me what’s good.” Steve let go of him so he could inch back and sit up with his back against the pews; Bucky knelt astride his legs, bracing on his shoulders. Steve unbuckled his pants and took him out fully, feeling him harden even more in his hand. “Will that feed you?”

“I don’t know,” Bucky gasped, “just fucking keep it going before I—”

Steve kissed him again, and Bucky kissed back like the starving man he was. When Steve started moving his hand, he moaned raggedly and pushed his face into the crook of Steve’s neck. “Master, thank you, Master—”

“Stay with me,” Steve pleaded. “C’mon, Buck.” His other hand slipped into Bucky’s pants too, from the back. “Would that be—?”

“Yes, yes, yes, oh fuck, yes,” he gasped for air, “don’t stop, don’t stop or I’ll completely lose my mind—”

Steve pushed a finger into him, forcing the way a little. He knew how two men had sex—he’d thought about it enough, drawn a bunch of blue pictures, just never done it himself; he was worried he was being too rough, not watching out for the right signals, but when he pushed deeper, Bucky thrust up into his hand and bit his shoulder. “Fuck. Oh fuck. Oh thank you, thank you, please, more, please, Master, please—”

“Shh,” Steve said, “shh—hey,” and kissed him again so Bucky wouldn’t have a chance to talk nonsense. Somehow, they communicated better without talking anyway—it made it easier to focus on what got Bucky going. He kept pushing back on Steve’s finger, like it couldn’t go deep enough, and so Steve knew that was what he needed most—of course, what his torturers would have considered to be the most debasing, having to submit to penetration.

Steve realized he was painfully hard himself, straining against his fatigues. He didn’t want to just roll Bucky over in the rubble and skewer him, yet it was obviously what Bucky craved beyond everything else. Steve freed his mouth and let go of his cock to grab his neck, shake him, get his attention. “Bucky? Bucky, I need you to focus. Are you in there?”

With a shock, he realized Bucky was crying with want, gulping back every breath. “I—I’m—”

“Bucky, c’mon—”

“I’m here,” Bucky moaned, “please, just—I’m gonna go insane—”

“Can I fuck you? Can you take that?”

Bucky let out a groan and clung to his shoulders again, grinding over the bulge in Steve’s pants. “Is there another fucking choice—”

Steve felt very close to going insane, too. “There always is. Just tell me yes or no.”

“You won’t hurt me—and even if you do—still better than—fucking dying—”

“Yes or no,” Steve said, and cheated some by grabbing Bucky’s cock again, giving it a hard tug.

Yes, please, please,” Bucky sobbed, then, with a gasp, “yes—I said yes—”

Steve helped slip Bucky’s sweater and shirt off him, then haphazardly spread them on the floor so he wouldn’t just lay him down in the dirt; then he tugged off Bucky’s boots—he’d unlaced them for the night—and dragged off his pants entirely. His vivid nudity was shocking in the pale morning light; Steve’s brain was insistent he must be cold, though he was flushed pink, and he lied on top of him to kiss him more, with Bucky clutching at him like he was dangling over a precipice.

Steve let go for a second to open his own pants, get himself fully hard—though there was no need, really, he was so riled up. But it was nothing compared to Bucky; when Steve spread Bucky’s legs to line up, Bucky was gone, all discordant Voice begging as if for his life. Steve ignored it and focused on pushing in without slipping out; it was difficult for a minute, Bucky still very tight, unyielding; and then suddenly Steve pushed deep into him and Bucky arched and shouted.

Fucking him was unreal. He was speaking in tongues now—or in a language Steve didn’t know, anyway—babbling nonsense in his crazed Voice, gasping in time with Steve’s thrusts; but what really blew Steve’s mind was the way his battered body was replenishing itself, fast enough for the naked eye to see.

If Steve had had any doubts left, they shattered right then. The hollowness under Bucky’s ribs was filling, the dried, cracked skin at his elbows and knuckles was smoothing over, becoming soft and young again. The dark circles under his eyes were fading fast, just like the lines marking his face; within minutes, ten years had been taken off his entire self, and he was a young man, a young, beautiful man straining under Steve, chanting for more, taking him so deep inside him it was like he’d been made for it.

Steve abruptly realized he was too close—at risk of coming before Bucky, which probably shouldn’t happen; unless that would feed him, too? He cupped Bucky’s face and said, “Open—open your eyes, look at me—”

Bucky couldn’t help obeying the order, of course; his black-pool eyes made it hard to tell where he was looking, and how out of his mind he really was. He was wincing almost like he was in pain—and Steve suddenly understood why.

“You—you can touch yourself—”

Bucky’s hand shot down, fingers wrapping around his shaft, dragging another groan from his lips; Steve felt it go straight to his own cock and realized he was never supposed to last that long anyway. This was his goddamn first time and his body was as healthy as a goddamn racehorse.

He thrust, thrust, and came into Bucky—which felt shameful, in a way that made him come even harder—pulsing deep inside him, and seconds later Bucky choked and arched and began coming too, shooting up his chest, hitting up to his collarbone and even to his chin. Without thinking, Steve bent down to lick the white drops off his skin, and Bucky had a truly violent spasm, more come splattering over his skin—

—and his wings grew back, unfolding between him and the ground like a giant blooming flower, pushing him forcefully up until he was toppling Steve backwards; Steve slipped out of him and fell back onto his elbows, Bucky straddling his waist instead.

They stayed that way for nearly five long minutes, looking into each other’s eyes, baffled and gasping like they’d run a marathon. Bucky’s wings were gently falling around them, morning light shining through the feathers, like a canopy in white and gold.

“Well, shit,” Bucky breathed out eventually, and Steve burst out laughing.

He couldn’t stop; he had only barely got his breath back and there he was losing it again, trying and failing to get himself under control. Bucky, he distantly realized, was laughing too—and what a wonderful sound after so much utter misery. When they were done they were grinning, wiping tears and trying not to look at each other so they wouldn’t start giggling again.

“You look—so great,” Steve said. He let his eyes trail up Bucky’s soft cock, come-splattered abs and strong torso. He was bracing down onto Steve’s chest, muscles cording in his arms and shoulders. His dark hair was disheveled, glowing chestnut in the morning sun. And of course there were his ink-black eyes and his tremendous wings, but even those fit him well. This was what he was, now, for better and for worse.

“I feel great,” Bucky admitted. He still hadn’t quite caught his breath. “That was—I never had sex quite like that before. Even beyond the whole cursed thing, you know.”

“Well, thanks. I never had sex at all before.”

Bucky looked absolutely aghast. “What?”

“I didn’t want to say.” Steve couldn’t stop smiling. “Things were complicated enough already. Did I do all right?”

“Are you kidding me?” Bucky bellowed. “Are you fucking kidding me? Are you a complete fucking idiot? You can’t lose your goddamn virginity to a fucking demon!”

“See, I never really believed in virginity anyway. I don’t feel any different now.” That was a lie; Steve felt alight and energized, but he suspected that wouldn’t last forever. Unless it did, in which case he finally understood why people fought and died for sex. “I’d say I sacrificed it to a worthy cause.”

Bucky still looked appalled. “Steve, that was really—”

“Adequate? Please say at least adequate.”

“I was going to say stupid.” Bucky huffed and finally calmed down some. “But yes. Yes. It was good. I feel,” he sighed. “I haven’t felt so good in ages.” His wings twitched, and he scowled. “Except for those fucking things growing back—is that going to happen every time?”

“I’m not chopping them off again,” Steve warned him. “Once was quite enough. And you’re not even wounded this time.”

“Steve, I can’t go back like this. They’ll lock me in a lab.” Fear flickered across his face; his hands pressed harder into Steve’s chest. “I can’t go into another lab. Not ever.”

“I won’t let that happen,” Steve promised, grabbing his wrists. “I’ll kill a superior officer before I let that happen.”

That seemed to have a solid effect on Bucky. He looked down at Steve for a long minute. Then he asked, “Really?”

“Really.”

Bucky swallowed. After another little while, some of his usual tension crept back across his features. “So. Now what?”

“We’re going to go meet the others. They’ll have stopped for the night too, so they can’t be far now. I’ll explain everything to them.” His eyes flicked down Bucky’s naked body. “Maybe not everything.”

He was enchanted to see Bucky’s lips tug into a smile, as if despite himself.

We’re going to keep doing that,” he went on, gesturing between them. “On the down-low.”

“Oh, yeah, fucking a guy with giant wings who starts yodeling with a cock inside him, that’ll be straight-up discreet.”

“We’ll find a way,” Steve said stolidly. “And if we keep being that lucky, can’t imagine the war will last much longer.”

“Mmh.” Bucky leaned down over him, wings fanning out, almost to the point of their noses touching. “And then what, Steve? You’re bringing a Nazi demon home? How do you explain that to your future wife?”

Steve tried not to think of Peggy. “If I do have a wife, it’ll be someone who’s willing to marry something like me. I’m a freak too—you forget that a bit too easily.” He poked Bucky’s chest. “And you’re not a Nazi, idiot. As for being a demon, I don’t know. Sure, there’s the wings, but you’ve kept your head and your sanity. Far as I’m concerned, you’re a man. A good man, even. And that’s all that matters.”

“You make it sound too simple.”

“We’re at war, Buck. Things have to be simple.”

Bucky let out a shuddery breath. “You’re really not going to let me die, huh?”

“Afraid not, pal.” Steve reached up, dragged him down and kissed him. It was a good, solid kiss, without the fevered intensity of Bucky’s hunger. Once upon a time he must have been a heartthrob, killing all the ladies dead though he didn’t even want ‘em.

Steve felt protective instincts surge inside him. No way he was letting Bucky die, not after all this. Of course it was all going to be terribly difficult and probably mortifying and rife with more horrors and miseries they didn’t expect yet. But all they needed was a will to fight, and they both had that in droves.

“You’re just gonna have to get it together,” Steve said when they were done. “Chin up. There are people out there much worse off than you.”

“Oh yeah? Like who?”

“Well, one time this guy had been dating my cousin for a while, right? He proposed to her in public and she turned him down.”

Bucky barked out a loud, sudden laugh. “Oh yeah. Wouldn’t like to trade places with him for the world.” His grin turned softer and he leaned down for another kiss. Steve swallowed; underneath all the pain and anger and terror, he hadn’t expected Bucky to be so sweet.

“Thanks,” Bucky said under his breath, shaky and small.

Steve wasn’t a complete dumbass, so he didn’t acknowledge it, just gently pushed Bucky back and off him. Bucky sat there for another few moments, looking slightly dazed, then got up to slip on his black fatigues again, jamming his feet back into his boots.

“Goddammit,” he said. “Can’t put my fucking shirt back on.”

“Oh, I’ll help. Just gotta rip it some.”

 

*

 

Bucky was in extraordinary shape the entire rest of the day; they marched through the forest like it was a paved road and reached the guys by sundown. Steve left him behind in the bushes and came out alone. At first an alarm went through the camp, but then the guys realized who he was and three cheers went up.

“You colossal dick,” Dugan said cheerfully, reaching him after the accolades, thanks and congratulations had calmed down. “We thought you were dead!”

“You don’t even look tired,” Morita added.

“I’m not dead,” Steve took a breath, “and Barnes isn’t, either.”

They both froze. “What?”

“I brought him back with me. You guys should come with.”

Dugan and Morita trailed after him into the woods, trading worried glances but not asking any questions. It took them nearly five minutes to reach Bucky’s clearing; he was sitting on a stone, sunning his wings. When he saw them approach, he got up. He wasn’t hiding his terror very well, but Steve couldn’t help being impressed that he’d even try.

Dugan and Morita stepped slowly closer, stumped. Dugan, as if hypnotized, reached up to brush Bucky’s feathers, which reached so far out he only had to extend his arm.

The tip of Bucky’s wings snapped at his fingers. “Keep your goddamn hands to yourself, Dugan.”

Dugan snatched his hand back, then blinked. “Wow, Sarge. It is you.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Morita’s lips twitched. “Did they crossbreed you with a chicken or something?”

A scowl chased the fear off Bucky’s face. “Fuck all the way off.”

“And what the hell happened with your eyes?”

“Don’t know; haven’t found a mirror, and Rogers won’t fucking tell me.”

Steve blinked. “You didn’t ask—”

“Shut up,” Bucky said. He exhaled. “So what do you think, fellas? Should I follow you back there or run off in the other direction?”

“Wouldn’t run very well,” Morita pointed out. “Those wings, the branches, you’d be like a tit in a bramble bush.”

“Oh, thanks for that image.”

“Can you actually fly?” Dugan asked.

Bucky looked at Steve, who knew him well enough by now to tell he was frightened all over again. He took an executive decision. “Yeah, he can. Carried us out of the factory.”

“Huh,” Dugan said. “A flying sniper sounds like the most goddamned useful thing I ever heard of this side of the Atlantic.”

“Too right,” Steve approved.

Dugan chuckled. “Stark’s gonna have a field day.”

Bucky tensed, and Steve stepped close to him, grabbing his shoulder. “Except we’re not gonna let Stark within ten yards of him. All right? I’ll be heading my own unit, and Bucky here’s my sniper.” Philips didn’t know about it yet, but right now it felt like a minor detail. “Mine, no one else’s. Only I get a say what happens to him.”

Morita nodded. “Works for me.”

Dugan looked abashed. “Of course. You’re right. Say, Cap, can we join that freak unit of yours, by any chance?”

“Welcome aboard,” Steve said. “First order of business: anybody in a white coat gets close to the Sarge, I want you to tell me about it so I can kick him right in the diploma.”

Bucky wasn’t saying anything more, but he relaxed under Steve’s hand the more they bantered, and against all odds, Steve found himself thinking: This is fine. This is gonna go fine.

He hadn’t been wrong about that so far.