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Adventures in (sub)Contract Killing

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Bucky’s waiting for Nat at their regular table in their regular cafe, when an email notification pops up on his screen. He looks at it for a long time. The lunchtime din recedes and his body automatically goes motionless.

There hasn't been an email sent to that account in years, and if he was smart, he should've deleted it as soon as he left Florida. But then, curiosity was ever his curse, so he opens the email even though he's positive he'll regret it.

killer1992: Looking to take out a hit on a guy. Easy job, no security to get around. 5k.

Bucky looks around the cafe full of people, halfway convinced that the whole thing is a joke. But the only person who should have that email address is Nat, and even though that ridiculous username is exactly her kind of humor, she would never joke about something like this. He should delete the email, pretend he never saw it. But...

Bucky: Are you fucking kidding me with this? Five grand?

killer1992: I ’m not kidding. It’s an in and out job. The guy won’t know what hit him, lives in an apartment with no security. You could do it with one eye closed.

Bucky: So why don't you do it yourself?

killer1992: Okay here's the thing

Bucky's eyebrows shoot up. This should be interesting.

killer1992: I got the contract from another guy. And like the amount is pretty low and I'm not any kind of pro so the risk doesn't seem worth the price?

Bucky: So why would it be worth it for me?

killer1992: Well... I heard you were some kind of hot shit before you quit so I mean this should be a walk in the park for you. Easy money.

Bucky mouths the words 'hot shit' and barely holds back an amused snort at killer1992's very leaky logic.

Bucky: Before we get any further, you're gonna tell me how the fuck you got this email address. I'm retired.

It's a long shot, since most people in the business aren't big on sharing info, but killer1992 positively reeks of rank amateur so maybe he'll cough up something useful.

killer1992: Look I'm sorry okay? I'm a little desperate here. I asked around a few places on the darkweb and some weirdo gave me a bunch of email addresses. Yours was one of them.

Bucky: who's the weirdo

killer1992: Dunno but they seemed like a whackjob tinhat kinda guy ya know? Not a lot of cred if you know what I mean

Bucky pinches his brow. It's true—on the internet, nothing ever dies.

Bucky: Okay I'll bite. Why do you want him taken out

killer1992: Why do you need to know

Bucky: Call it insurance. For that price, I ’m gonna need to make sure all my bases are covered

killer1992: I ’m gonna have to get back to you on that

Bucky shakes his head. He can't believe he's invested now. He's going to have to see this through, the same way he can only abandon a book after he's read the ending.

“What’s put that look on your face,” Nat says, as she slides into the seat next to him. She's just come from her yoga class so she's dressed in her workout wear, complete with a yoga bag slung over her shoulder and a cup of chai, so she looks like every fifth person in the cafe. In his polo shirt and tan chinos, the same can be said of him. Anyone looking at them will probably assume they've got a medium-range apartment not too far away from the city center, with the possibility of 2.5 kids in the near future.

Bucky turns his phone screen around to show her, since he’s not really all that keen on talking about contract killing in his favorite cafe. They might not let him back in.

Nat curls her lip. “That offer is an insult.”

“Right?” He’s got a string of hits to his name, all of them clean and untraceable. His going rate before he retired was in the tens of thousands. “Subcontractor, too. I’m not even dealing with the client.”

"Why are you even looking at it?"

"Got time on my hands."

"Dangerous."

They share a smile.

Nat continues scrolling through the email thread until her attention catches on something. "Want me to track down that weirdo giving out your email?"

If Nat really puts her mind to it, she probably can track down a random weirdo on the darkweb. “Not worth the trouble," Bucky says, after thinking about it for a moment. "There's no way to link that address back to me."

The phone buzzes in his hand. Another email. He opens it because of course he's going to open it.

killer1992: Target's name is Steven Grant Rogers. He's a reporter investigating something he shouldn't be. It's making someone very nervous. That's all I got.

Bucky googles the name and clicks a link that brings him to the guy's bio.

Which is when his brain stops dead at the image on the screen. His face must be doing something complicated because Nat snatches the phone from him. It's okay though, he's already memorized the photo.

"James." Her voice is stern. "James, no."

"James yes," he murmurs, as a face floats in his vision—challenging blue eyes almost too big for the delicate bone structure of the face, yet perfectly matched by a crooked beak of a nose that looks like it's been broken at least once. All of it softened by pink lips that look plush and cushy, long eyelashes that people would pay good money to have stuck to their eyelids, and golden blond hair that looks silky to the touch.

"You're thinking with your dick," Nat snaps. She slaps the phone back into his hand, which is still held up in front of him because he was too sunstruck by the photo to put it down.

"Yes." He grins, wide and unrepentant as he sends an email to claim the contract. "But I'm not bored anymore."

"I hate you. And your dick."

"That's not what you used to s—"

"Finish that sentence and I will come out of retirement just for you."

Bucky snorts at the empty threat. They'd kill for each other, but never kill each other. No one else could ever really understand what it was like growing up as they did, and what it took to survive and escape to the relative normality of their current lives.

"Look at him, Nat. It's a crime to let someone that gorgeous get killed by an amateur—and that's the only thing you're gonna get for five grand."

"Are you seriously thinking of taking the contract?"

"Of course not," Bucky hisses, making sure to keep his voice low. "That guy doesn't deserve to die!"

Nat relaxes in her seat, twirling her cup and fidgeting to fit her regular Jane persona. Stillness in a crowded room is unsettling and tends to attract attention. "Plenty of people your dick loves deserve to die, James," she says.

"I'm not even talking about that, Nat. Look at his bio. Reporter. Uncovered corruption, collusion, insider trading—the list goes on. Steve Rogers is a certified Good Guy."

"So you're going to... what?"

"I'll think of something."

"Does that something involve a bed," Nat asks, in an arid tone.

"I don't even know if he's into guys. Come on."

"You bastard. I know you're going to try your best to find out."

Bucky gives a mournful sigh as he stares at the photo. Steve Rogers. A tiny avenging angel. Resolute purpose blazed out of that direct, challenging gaze. "Guy like that's not gonna want to have anything to do with me, Nat. Come on."

But at least he's not bored anymore.

*

After one week of research and observation, Bucky's ready to approach Rogers. Or at least as ready as he'll ever be, because he's actually pretty nervous about approaching the guy. Rogers seems almost stern, a tiny line permanently etched between his brows, like he's always thinking of weighty issues and how to solve them.

He also has a schedule—something that outrages every single one of Bucky's sensibilities. Rogers leaves his apartment at seven in the morning and heads over to the small coffeeshop at the corner that has really great sandwiches but abysmal coffee. He gets there about fifteen past seven, grabs a coffee to go and a packed sandwich, then onto the subway and into the city.

Of course the one day Bucky needs him to stick to his schedule, he doesn't. It's already a quarter to eight and there's still no sign of a floppy mop of pale blond hair bobbing along the river of pedestrians flowing along the sidewalk. Maybe Rogers has the day off, or he's gone on a trip. With a sigh, Bucky gets up from his table with a view of the coffeeshop door and goes to the counter. Might as well avail himself of that absolutely delicious BLT to console himself.

After giving his order to the barista, he turns around and barely has time to register Rogers heading right for him, head down and staring at the phone in his hands, fingers tapping away furiously. Before Bucky can step out of the way, Rogers slams right into him, his body feeling all hard, sharp angles.

Bucky's barely rocked on his feet but Rogers' much lighter body rebounds off him and Rogers lands on his ass on the floor. His phone slips out of his hand and skitters to a stop against Bucky's foot while his messenger bag lands on the floor with a solid thump. The top flips up to release about three tons of junk and paper to scatter across the floor.

"Fuck! I’m so sorry.” Bucky drops onto one knee to pick up everything within reach, face burning as people stop to see what's causing the commotion. He looks up and freezes when he sees Rogers staring at him.

It's like the whole fucking world just stops.

The light streaming in through the glass front windows illuminates Rogers’ narrow face and sharp cheekbones and makes his blue eyes glow behind his dark-rimmed glasses. His lips are parted in surprise and his soft blond hair is tousled across his brow. Christ, the guy’s gorgeous up close.

"Do you mind," an asshole says from somewhere behind Rogers, showing absolutely no fucking regard for the Moment Bucky is experiencing.

Bucky snaps his head up and gives the asshole a cold, flat stare that's filled with an encyclopedia's worth of knowledge on inflicting pain. The asshole blanches and backs up a step. "Sorry," he mumbles, and steps hurriedly around them to get to the counter.

"Are you okay?" Bucky asks Rogers, turning his attention back where it belongs. Rogers blinks at him a few times, still looking stunned. Bucky’s about to start really worrying when Rogers gives a tight little cough.

"Um. Yeah," Rogers says. He looks down at himself like he's checking his limbs are all still properly attached. "I'm okay."

Bucky picks up the phone that's resting against his boot and stands up. He holds out the hand not holding the phone. Rogers slips his small, bony hand into it and gives a tiny oof of surprise when Bucky tugs him up.

"Strong guy," Rogers says, with a nervous laugh, before bending down to pick up the bag at his feet.

In his writing, Rogers is confident and assured and goes for the jugular in a way that’s precise, relentless, and ruthless. Knowing a thing or two about going for the jugular, Bucky has, quite honestly, developed a hard-on for it. But in person, Rogers seems almost unsure of himself as he fumbles with the strap of his bag, almost knocking his glasses off as he loops it over his head bandolier-style

Bucky holds out the phone and pens and note pads he picked up from the floor. The initial contact is not going at all how it was supposed to. Bucky had everything planned out—he would be calm, clinical, and concise, just the facts, thank you ma’am. Because the more he learned about Rogers, the more his gut screamed that if Bucky is the Titanic, Rogers is a fucking huge ass ship-sinking iceberg.

Too bad all his careful planning gets scattered by Fate throwing Rogers practically into his lap. "Can I get you a cup of coffee?” he blurts out. Oh Jesus Christ he’s done it now. “As an apology,” he tacks on, trying to make it less weird. “I'm Bucky, by the way."

"You don't have to apologize." A faint blush creeps up Rogers' face as he brushes his fringe aside and takes his things back from Bucky. "It was my fault, I wasn't looking where I was going."

"So lemme just buy you that coffee anyway." Bucky gives his most winning smile, heart already beating way too fast as he ignores the perfect out Rogers gave him. It feels like a hard-won victory when the corner of Rogers' mouth tips up.

"Sure."

Nat is going to kill him.

*

"So, Rogers,” Bucky says, as they set their coffees down at a table in the corner. “What do you do for a living?" Bucky tries not to cringe at how old-fashioned he sounds—he’s thirty, not a hundred. But then, odd doesn't even begin to describe his childhood, so he always feels out of step with most people his age. At least Nat gets his jokes, but then again, she’s as weird as he is.

"I didn't tell you my name," Rogers says, gaze going sharp and suspicious.

"Uh." Think fast, Barnes! Maintain eye contact! His memory throws up a helpful image. "It's on your cup," Bucky says, pointing at it. 

Rogers glances down. "So it is. Sorry," he adds. “Occupational hazard.” He extends his hand with a rueful smile on his face. His eyes look enormous as he peeks at Bucky from under ridiculously long lashes. “Call me Steve," he says, the words sounding like an apology.

"Steve," Bucky says, savoring the feel of it on his tongue. "Suspicion is an occupational hazard?" That's something Bucky can relate to, first as a family hitman, and now as a former hitman hiding from the family. "That's some job." Bucky props his chin on his hand. "Now I really need to know."

Steve ducks his head, looking embarrassed but also pleased. "Journalist."

"I'm guessing not fluff pieces if suspicion is part of the job."

Steve laughs, a low, gravelly sound that brushes over Bucky's skin like a caress. "You've clearly never met a fluff journalist. They don't mess about."

"'They'! That's a clue. Gonna rule out fluff journalist then." Bucky's so enraptured seeing the way Steve seems to brighten with every passing moment of their conversation that he tries to squash the guilt that creeps through him at the way he's lying to Steve. "Investigative," he says with finality.

Steve nods.

"Damn.” Bucky doesn't have to fake his admiration. “Flipping up logs to see what crawls out from underneath?"

"Pretty much." Steve's narrow jaw looks rock solid with the strength of his conviction as he nods once.

"Doing good work." And Bucky remembers that he’s a big fat lying log that’s rotten right to the core, teeming with crawling things that fear the light.

"Just reporting what I see." Steve ducks his head as though the praise makes him uncomfortable. "What about you?" he asks, clearly trying to change the subject.

Bucky's guilt feels like the creeping feet of those crawling things even as his mouth speaks the lie by omission. "I'm kind of between jobs at the moment."

"I'm sorry," Steve says, and the sincerity in his voice burns Bucky like acid.

"It's alright. My old job really sucked anyway."

What the fuck are you doing, his conscience screams. He’s supposed to be trying to save Steve, not cozy up to him and feed him nice-sounding lies so Bucky can steal a few moments under false pretenses. He needs to end this right now.

He glances at his watch. "Ah, fuck." He pulls a face and downs the rest of his coffee, scalding his tongue in the process. He tries not to think of it as poetic justice. "I'm late to meet a friend."

"Oh."

Some of the glow has faded from Steve's face and Bucky already wants to say something—do something—to get it back, but he knows the bigger sin now is to keep pretending he's just a regular guy.

He doesn't have to try all that hard to look stressed as he tugs on his jacket hurriedly and stands up. Grabbing his cup, he says, "It was really nice meeting you, Steve."

And then he hurries off with shame nipping at his heels all the way.

*

It takes him two days to retrofit his original plan to take into account his incredibly stupid and impulsive decision to buy Steve coffee. He can’t just ‘accidentally’ bump into Steve again, so he sends Steve an anonymous email to tip him off to the contract on his life and to try and set up a face to face meeting. Steve responds almost straight away with a calm and professional email, like it’s business as usual to be told someone wants him dead. He also doesn’t seem very worried about meeting up with someone who’d have the inside track on hits and contracts. But then again, looking back over some of Steve's articles, he must’ve interviewed some pretty sketchy characters over the years, so maybe Bucky shouldn't have been surprised.

It takes them a bit of back and forth to fix a time to meet once Bucky’s got Steve’s promise to protect his identity, so it’s one week later that Bucky’s stepping back into the same coffeeshop to meet Steve. His stupidity in lying so he could have that coffee with Steve is really biting him in the ass because he’s going to start this meeting with one strike already against him. He just hopes they can get past that and Steve will hear him out even after he comes clean about his past.

Steve spots him almost right away from where he's sitting at a table near the back, nursing a huge cup of coffee. His face brightens into a smile that makes Bucky’s breath catch, blue eyes glowing behind black-rimmed glasses. "Bucky!" He glances at his watch then behind Bucky to the door. "Remember me? Steve?"

Bucky approaches the table, unable to pull up even a semblance of an answering smile. Steve's face flickers through a series of expressions almost too fast to catalog as Bucky walks towards him—embarrassment, confusion, and then self-mockery, before turning cold and hard and, even worse, disappointed.

"I should have known," Steve says, a bitter, biting edge to his voice.

"I'm sorry—"

"Save it." Steve crosses his arms and leans back in his chair, jaw tight and shoulders tense. "Let's get to the part where someone wants me dead."

Bucky feels like an absolute asshole as he sits down opposite Steve. He unlocks his phone, pulls up the email account and passes his phone to Steve. Nat already registered her extreme objection to this course of action in very short and very blunt sentences but Bucky trusts that Steve will keep his word to protect his sources. After all, Steve went to jail once already rather than name the source for his exposé on illegal surveillance, so Bucky’s hoping that courtesy will continue to be extended to him.

"The price on my head is five grand," Steve says.

Bucky nods. The air around them feels heavy and oppressive, like a storm about to break.

"Why do I feel like that's an insult?"

"It's certainly not a compliment.”

Bucky can see the moment the pieces slot into place.

"You're supposed to kill me."

Bucky grimaces, which is confirmation enough, judging by the way the last little glimmer of light goes out in Steve’s eyes. A little piece of Bucky’s soul dies along with it.

"Is that your usual going rate?"

"You're taking this quite well."

Steve shrugs, eyes flat and unfriendly. "I've had a few days to get used to the idea. It's not the first time someone's wanted me dead, but it is the first time they've wanted it bad enough to put a contract out for me. I guess it means I'm on the right track." He puts Bucky's phone down on the table and pushes it back with one finger like he's making the opening move in a chess game, his gaze sharp as a scalpel. "I'm curious why you came to me with this instead of just taking the job."

"First of all," Bucky says, not taking his eyes off Steve for a moment, "I'm retired." He waits for a reaction but Steve still looks as forbidding as ever and it makes Bucky want to squirm in his seat. "Second, that offer is a fucking insult. Third..."

"Third?" Steve prompts, after a moment.

Bucky scrubs a hand down his face. When he looks back over his life, some moments loom large in his memory, remaining crystal clear even after years have passed—when Semion walked in the door of his house instead of his father, and said Do you want to come with me, boy?, when he stepped in and took a punch from Monya meant for Nat rather than stand quietly at attention like the good child soldier he was supposed to be—moments where his next action would set his life down a drastically different course. He has that same suspended feeling now of another pivot point reached. He chooses his next words with care. "I've done a lot of bad things. You've done a lot of good." He makes himself look Steve in the eye. "Maybe I can balance out some of that bad by keeping you safe."

As Steve studies him while the normal sounds of the city hum in the background, Bucky feels like his soul is being weighed and judged in the prosaic setting of a slightly dingy coffee shop. After what feels like an eternity, Steve uncrosses his arms and his eyes soften. The tightness in Bucky's chest eases and he slumps back a little in his seat.

"I'm not some kind of saint, Bucky." Steve sounds almost embarrassed and that just makes Bucky even more sure he's doing the right thing. "So why'd you feed me that story about having a credible tip that someone wanted to kill me?"

"Because I didn't think you'd agree to meet with someone who's supposed to kill you?"

Steve rolls his eyes at the sarcasm in Bucky's answer, which Bucky takes as a good sign. Any kind of reaction is better than none at all. "But why did you want to meet at all? Why not just delete the email and move on now that I’ve been warned?"

"I know this is gonna sound nuts—”

"This whole thing is nuts," Steve says.

“—but I have a plan."

“A plan,” Steve says, eyebrows twitching up in surprise.

For the first time the whole afternoon, Bucky feels like he’s on solid ground. Curiosity has got to be a job requirement for a journalist, and if he’s gotten this far, he’s pretty sure Steve will let him finish just to hear the ending. He can work with that.

"So what's this plan?"

Bucky swallows the relieved grin that threatens to split his face. He’s got him. “Before we get to that, I really wasn’t kidding about needing you to protect my identity. I may have retired from the family business, but the family isn’t exactly pleased with that decision.”

“I made you a promise, Bucky. I’ll keep it no matter what.”

From anyone else, that would probably sound like a load of bullshit, but somehow, when Steve says it, Bucky believes him.

“Okay,” Bucky says. "The guy who offered me the job isn't the client and he's definitely inexperienced—he doesn't know much about the job and the price is ridiculous. It's a fucking insult! No professional would offer me a price like that." At Steve's amused look, Bucky gets himself back on track. "As I was saying, amateur. If I can find him, I can probably flip him for information."

"Okay," Steve says, looking doubtful. "I'm gonna come back to that 'flipping him' thing later, but how do you propose to find him?"

"That's where you come in."

Steve quirks a very sarcastic brow. "Me. The target. The person that's supposed to be killed."

"Yup."

Steve's face is completely unreadable as he stares at Bucky for several long seconds. He was probably a hell of poker player. "You got me," Steve says, finally. "I'm listening."

The poker face only cracks once while Bucky lays out the plan. When he’s done talking, Steve remains silent for two long, excruciating minutes while Bucky tries not to stress-pick a hole in the table. 

“I'm in," Steve says, finally.

“Really?” Bucky can't hide the surprise in his voice.

Steve's brows shoot up. “You came to me, and now you're surprised I said yes?"

"Well... yeah. I mean... It's kind of a lot."

Steve shrugs it off like he has coffee with contract killers every other Thursday. Hell, maybe he does. Who knows what kind of people investigative reporters hang out with. "I want to make one change to the plan, though."

"Of course you do."

*

“I didn't think bondage would be involved." Steve stares dubiously at the thick black zip ties that Bucky pulls out of his backpack.

"It'll make the scene more convincing," Bucky says apologetically after taking a moment to drag his brain out of the gutter. "And you can safeword out at any time." He pulls out a knife from the holster strapped to his ankle and cuts most of the way through each of them, letting Steve see what he's doing.

"Gotta be convincing," Steve mutters. After Bucky hands the cut zip ties over, Steve tugs experimentally at them to get an idea of how much strength it'll take to pull them apart. Satisfied, he returns them with a wary glance at the knife in Bucky's hand.

Right. Admitted killer with a knife in his hand. He unbuckles the holster, slips the knife in, and holds it out to Steve. "You'll feel better with it on."

Steve takes the knife and pulls it out to study it. The Gerber looks good in his hand, the slim blade looking like an extension of Steve's wiry arm. It's kind of a kick to Bucky's gut to see Steve handling his favorite knife, and he's not sure how he feels about it. He’s done a lot of damage with that knife.

Steve looks at Bucky from head to toe and back again. "I doubt a knife is going to make much difference if you really wanted to kill me."

Bucky shrugs. "You're right."

Steve hands the knife over, turns his back to Bucky and presents his hands with his wrists pressed together. He meets Bucky's eyes in the hallway mirror. "Let's do this."

The balls on this guy. Brass. Solid steel. Fucking titanium. Bucky’s gotta admit he’s more than a little in love and the electric eye contact they’ve got going on as he binds Steve's wrists is not helping in the least. Once that's done, Steve gets down onto his knees and then he throws Bucky a look like, Now what?

"I'm out of practice, okay." Bucky feels more than a little judged by that gimlet stare as he helps Steve to lie down on his side.

“That’s reassuring,” Steve mutters, which is objectively hilarious, since he's currently curled up on his side and letting himself get trussed up. "You don't seem like the kind of guy who kills for a living."

“Killed,” Bucky says, as he secures Steve's bony ankles. It's slow work because too-strong a tug might snap through the half-severed zip ties. "What makes you say that?"

"The fact that you're trying to save my life, for one."

Bucky can already picture the sarcastic lift to Steve's brow. "It was the only life I knew."

"Born into it?"

Somehow, addressing the back of Steve’s head makes it easier for the words to slip free. "My dad was on the losing end of a fight with the Bratva. I was six. They took me in and raised me. I fired my first gun when I was ten."

"I'm sorry," Steve says, quietly.

"It's fine." It’s not really, but there’s nothing Bucky can do to change his past. "A lot of the other kids had it worse. I had a hell of an aim." Nat's aim was nearly as good, but she had an aptitude for hand to hand that astounded their trainers—or Uncle Monya and Uncle Semion, as the kids called them. Petite and beautiful and easily underestimated, she was rarely given the luxury of clean, long-distance kills.

"Bratva." Steve tests the word out. A worried frown creases his brow. "That's... the Russian mob. Is it safe for you here in New York? Brighton Beach is pretty close."

"I wasn't based out of Little Odessa. Besides, I look pretty different now."

"Yeah I was wondering about that J.Crew catalog look you've got going on."

"Good disguise, right?" His long hair is gone, his tattoos are gone, he's lost most of his bulk. He keeps his hair neat and short and could pass for one of the multitudes of corporate drones in the city.  Nat's training continues to serve them well.

"It had me fooled."

There's a slight edge to Steve's voice that has Bucky stuffing a twinge of guilt deep, deep down. He's had plenty of practice at that. He finishes with Steve's ankles and then picks up the roll of duct tape.

Steve wriggles around until he faces front. He swallows and turns ever so slightly gray when he spots the roll of tape in Bucky's hands. Having his hands and feet bound had barely fazed him, but the prospect of getting his mouth taped shut finally seems to shake his resolve.

It makes a kind of sense since Steve fights with his words. Losing them must be terrifying. To help Steve feel less threatened, Bucky sits down on the floor before cutting off a strip of tape. He slaps it onto his shirt and pulls it off, repeating the motion until the sticky surface is covered in lint. He flips it around to show Steve.

"You could probably blow it off. And don't forget, you can tear through the zip ties if you need to."

Steve gives a nod, looking grateful.

"Say when," Bucky says, holding the strip of tape up.

After taking a deep breath, Steve says, "When."

Bucky presses the tape to Steve's lips. He can feel how plump and cushy they are even through the tape. And isn't that a weird fucking thought. "Alright." Bucky gets up, backs up a few feet, and pulls out his phone. "Try to look dead."

Steve rolls his eyes before closing them and going boneless. It's amazing how much sass the guy can project while bound and gagged. He's truly gifted—and Bucky means that in all sincerity. 

"Taking your picture now." Bucky snaps photos of a very convincingly dead Steve from a few angles. "All done."

Steve wastes no time in snapping through the restraints and ripping the tape off his mouth. He moves next to Bucky so he can look at the photos, not seeming to care at all that he's standing inches away from an admitted former hitman.

This close, Bucky can see the way Steve's long lashes fan out over his cheeks as he studies the photo. What would those lashes feel like if Bucky brushed their tips with his thumb? Would he get punched for being forward? Steve seems like the kind of guy who'd defend his honor with his fists.

"That's pretty fucking weird," Steve mutters. He looks up and catches Bucky staring. He stares right back with a hint of a question in his eyes.

Bucky wants to—he wants to—

He clears his throat and turns away to pick up the tape and the zip ties from the floor. He tucks them into his pocket. "You're sure this cop friend of yours can be trusted?"

He’d done his research on one Detective Sharon Carter after Steve outlined the one change to the plan that he wanted. "I'm not sure what it'll take to 'flip' the guy who contacted you,” Steve said, casual as you like in that coffee shop, “but I'd rather we keep it legal. You don't have to get more blood on your hands and I get a nice paper trail that will lead me right to the asshole who wants me dead." Steve grinned then, sharp and predatory as a shark, and Bucky was about ready to hand over his heart right then and there, thirty minutes into their second meeting.

"I'd trust her with my life," Steve says, solid and sure. And it's some kind of gift he's got because Bucky believes him, even though he's had precious little experience with trustworthy people in his life.

"Okay," Bucky says. “Because you're trusting her with mine."

"I protect my sources, Bucky."

Bucky nods and presses send on the email with the photos to confirm Steve's death. He texts Nat: Incoming.  

She'll work her magic and trace the money back to killer1992. Then they'll scrub all the information clean, package it up, and send it to Steve to bring to his friend in the NYPD.

“It’s done.” Bucky puts away his phone. No more reason to contact Steve after this. The cops will follow the trail back to its source and Steve will have a hell of a story. Bucky will go back to his quiet life of YouTube videos and picking away at the draft of what might eventually turn into a finished novel about a red-headed lady vigilante. In about ten years or so at the rate he’s going.

“Okay,” Steve says. He stuffs his hands into his pockets and bounces on the tips of his toes. “I guess that’s it then.”

“Yup.” Bucky picks up his backpack, slings it over his shoulder, and silently berates himself for not having an exit strategy in place. He really is out of practice. What kind of trained assassin doesn’t have an exit strategy in place? One who’s thinking with his dick. The answer comes in a voice that sounds a lot like Nat’s. He points at the door. “I guess I’ll be going then.”

“You know,” Steve says, but is cut off by the buzz of his phone. A chagrined look flickers across his face. “I have to take this call.”

Bucky snorts. “Lemme guess, or else there’ll be cops showing up here in ten minutes?”

“Five." Steve gives him an unapologetic grin as he puts the phone to his ear. “Hey Sharon,” he says, “Yes, I’m alive.”

Bucky points at the door and mouths, “I better go.” As he closes the door behind him, he hears something that could be Steve saying Wait, but it’s probably just wishful thinking on his part.

*

Bucky’s parked on the couch when Nat lets herself in to his apartment. It’s a small place even though he can afford something bigger and swankier, but a single guy living way outside his means would attract the kind of attention he really doesn’t want.

“Are you still moping?” She tosses his mail on the coffee table and drops down next to him. “It’s been a month.”

“No.” He shoves her feet off the table because he has some standards. “I’m not moping. I don’t mope.”

“Sure you do," she says, pulling the tub of strawberry gelato away from him and helping herself to a spoonful. “You’re moping right now.” She waves the spoon in his general direction. “This is like... Moping 101 from every sitcom we ever watched. Ice cream? Check. Ratty t-shirt? Check. Sweatpants? Check and check. Why don’t you just call him? Or stop by his apartment or something.”

Bucky liberates his premium gelato with real strawberries from his smirking so-called best friend and goes back to trying to melt back into the couch. “Sure. A nice guy like him is gonna appreciate an ex-hitman showing up unannounced at his front door. He’ll probably call the cops on me.” He spoons gelato into his mouth. “He has friends in the department,” he adds darkly.

“Bucky. You really like this guy.”

Bucky wants to stick his head in the giant tub on his lap. Nat sounds serious. He hates it when Nat is serious. He especially hates it when Nat is serious because of him.

“I’ve never seen you this hung up on someone. Don’t let this chance go. Besides,” Nat adds, “he let you tie him up and gag him. He doesn’t exactly seem faint of heart.”

“It’s not his lack of testicular fortitude I’m worried about.” No, it was that moral compass of Steve’s that pointed unerringly in the direction of Do The Right Thing. After the life he's led, Bucky was not, and would never be, The Right Thing To Do.

“I think you’re making a mistake.” She curls up next to him and lays her head on his shoulder. “But I have vodka ready if you need it.”

He rests his head on hers and hands over the gelato to show his gratitude.

There’s a significant dent in the contents of the tub when he gets an email notification on his phone. It’s an email notification from that account. Probably time to shut it down—one surprise like Steve Rogers dropping into his life is more than enough to last him a lifetime.

He opens the email and nearly chokes on his gelato.

So you ’re just gonna buy me a cup of coffee, save my life, and then disappear? I didn’t take you for a coward. If you want to prove me wrong, I’ll be at the coffee shop at 3 o’clock tomorrow. You know which one.

The email is unsigned, but then there was no need for it to be, was there. That little shit, Bucky thinks. Steve is actually daring him to show up. And fuck if it isn’t going to work.

*

At five to three, Bucky walks into the coffee shop with a pounding heart. He wipes his sweaty hands on his good jeans, the ones that Nat had thrown at him, proclaiming, "These make your ass look good." He scans the crowded interior for a tiny blond guy, not sure whether he's more afraid that Steve will be there or that he won't.

He finally spots Steve sitting at a corner table and the rush of relief when their eyes meet leaves him a little weak-kneed. Steve looks absolutely gorgeous in a dark blue button down that makes his blond hair gleam like ripe wheat in the sun, although he can't help smiling when he notices that said hair looks ruffled, like Steve's dragged his fingers through it more than once. His eyes are wide behind his glasses as he watches Bucky approach. For all the bravado in his email, his hand grips the handle of his coffee mug so tightly that Bucky can see his knuckles pressing white against skin.

“I didn’t think you’d come,” Steve says, in lieu of a greeting, voice soft and barely audible over the chatter of the weekend crowd.

“After an email like that?” Bucky takes a seat, Steve's visible nerves somehow helping him feel conversely less nervous. "Wild horses couldn’t keep me away."

"So you'll come to prove you’re not a coward, but not because you want to see me?"

Steve's tone is light but there's a shadow of hurt in his eyes that snags like a thorn at Bucky's heart. It makes him careful with his next words. "I'm not like you." He tugs at the collar of his shirt that suddenly feels too tight. “I'm not... good."

"You saved my life, Bucky. You seem pretty good from where I'm sitting."

And there Steve goes again, speaking with that rock solid belief that has Bucky almost half-convinced of his own goodness. “You do remember the part where I used to kill people for a living?”

“I also remember how you got into that line of business." Steve's eyes glow a deep and intense blue as he speaks. "Not everyone gets a good start in life. What matters to me is the choices you make and you chose to free yourself from that life and to try to atone.” He shrugs. “Like I said, you seem pretty good from where I’m sitting.”

Bucky stares at Steve for a good ten seconds in total silence, reeling from the impact of that little speech. Christ, but the guy could've made a killing as a televangelist if he had an ounce less integrity. But then, that was probably the source of Steve's ability to convince—his integrity. It shone through in everything he did and rather than wanting to hide from that light, Bucky wanted to bask in it like... like a cat in a sunbeam. Which was the most ridiculous thing in the world, but there it was.

“You’re not what I was expecting,” Bucky manages, finally.

Steve takes a careful sip of his coffee and sets it back down on the table with a quiet clink. “What were you expecting?”

“I thought a do-gooder crusader would be a little less loose about being law-abiding.”

"Laws." Steve rolls his eyes. It’s amazing how someone with an almost angelic face can project so much disgust. “Too many of them are made purely for the benefit of a privileged few. As long as you don’t step on the little guy, we’re good." He points a finger at Bucky. "If you make any jokes about me being a little guy, I’m walking out.”

Bucky holds up his hands. “Peace.” Because honestly, he would never. Steve may be small physically, but in Bucky's mind he was a titan and ever so slightly terrifying. Never boring, though. Oh no. Not that.

“So now that we’ve got that cleared up," Steve says, sobering, "why’d you just disappear on me?”

And once again, Bucky sees that flash of nervousness. It amazes him that for all Steve’s self-confidence in doing his job, he can’t tell how gone Bucky is on him. “I thought it was the right thing to do, that you wouldn't want to have anything to do with me."

"You could've asked."

He’d tried to do the right thing and stay away from him, but if Steve knew all about his past and still didn't want him to stay away...

A smile breaks out across his face.

“You know," Bucky says, leaning forward in his seat and slowly, carefully, taking Steve's hand in his, "that first day, I was supposed to tell you who I really was, give you the details and and go. But then you walked right into me and I…” Bucky gives a sheepish grin. “I couldn't resist."

A small half-smile curves up one corner of Steve's mouth and it's the most gorgeous thing Bucky's ever seen. "Couldn't resist?" Steve says, as he tangles his fingers with Bucky's. "I think I like the sound of that."

 

Epilogue

NEARLY 100 ARRESTED IN MASSIVE FLORIDA DRUG BUST

After months of investigation, police arrested nearly 100 members of a drug gang with suspected links to the Russian mob—

"Hey." Steve shuffles out of the bedroom looking soft around the edges in a T-shirt he stole from Bucky. Morning sunlight gleams softly off the edges of his collarbones left exposed by the too-big neckline, and gilds his tousled blond hair. After dropping a kiss on Bucky's lips, Steve takes a seat next to him at the breakfast counter.

Bucky leans in and a steals a longer kiss that tastes of minty toothpaste. "Morning."

Steve blinks owlishly at him, looking adorably dazed by the kiss. Bucky huffs a laugh and hands him a cup of coffee. "Here. You look like you need this."

"What're you reading," Steve mumbles, around his cup.

Bucky tilts his phone so Steve can see the news article. After a moment, Steve bumps Bucky's shoulder with his own and smiles. "Nat will be pleased." More seriously, he asks, "Anyone suspect you guys were the source of the anonymous tip?"

“Not so far,” Bucky says. “Most people think it came from a rival gang trying to reduce the competition."

"That's good."

When Steve rests his head on Bucky's shoulder, Bucky wraps an arm around him and tugs him close. "Yes it is."

The clock on the wall ticks quietly along as Bucky absorbs the feeling of Steve pressed close to him. He looks around the apartment, eyes coming to a rest on the patch of floor in front of the hallway mirror. Nearly a year since he first walked into Steve's apartment to take pictures of him pretending to be dead. Who'd have thought that Bucky would end up moving into the very same apartment just a few months later. And now, Nat and him are both helping Steve dig up dirt on people trying their very hardest to hide their dirt. They haven’t had this much fun in ages.

It almost makes Bucky regret helping to send killer1992 to prison since he owes the asshole more than he can ever express. But then again, the guy did accept a contract for Steve's life, so... he had it coming.