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Choices We're Given

Chapter Text

 

 

"Have you seen this place?" Steve asks, looking up at the house before him.

The building is two stories tall, all the walls on the main floor made out of glass, big enough to house a family of at least ten despite the fact that the owner, Markus Parrish, lives alone. He can see straight through the living room into the backyard, where a pool sparkles in the dark, lit up from the inside, built to look like it drops off the edge of the cliff. The property spans out wide on either side of it, no one else around for miles.

"I'm seeing it right now," Natasha says in his ear, her voice surprisingly clear, almost as if she's standing right beside him, "through each of his security cameras. Your fly is down, by the way."

Steve grits his teeth and forces out a, "Ha, ha," absolutely refusing to check.

"I'm serious," Natasha says. "Aren't you at least going to look?"

"I'm not falling for that," Steve says, continuing his walk of the perimeter.

Technically this is what he's been hired to do— or so Markus Parrish believes. In reality, Parrish is currently holding onto a large amount of very important information in the form of a small, innocuous external hard drive. Until they find out what he plans to do with it, Steve is stuck posing as his security guard.

This isn't the type of thing Steve thought he was signing up for, when this all started, but it's just part of the job— even if this is his least favorite part. Steve wants to protect people. That's all he's ever wanted. Sometimes that means physically throwing himself in front of a bullet for another person; other times it means keeping an eye on information that could threaten lives, if it falls into the wrong hands.

Honestly, Steve would rather the bullet right now. The sneaking around, secret identities, it's just not Steve. S.H.I.E.L.D. had attempted to give this job straight to Natasha, forgoing Steve completely, but Parrish—shockingly, for a man with so much wealth and power— happens to have misogynistic tendencies. When he'd met Natasha he'd damn near laughed in her face as she applied for the security job. Steve got it instead. Apparently he looks more the part but, then again, Parrish has never witnessed Natasha knocking a man unconscious with a crowbar.

He still doesn't see why it couldn't've gone to someone else, but Fury had been pretty adamant that the fewer agents who know about this, the better. And while Steve knows that Fury doesn't trust him, either, he does trust Steve slightly more than he trusts most people.

Usually that's a good thing. Right now he isn't so sure; at least he has Natasha to keep things from getting to monotonous.

"Steve," she says seriously.

Steve rolls his eyes. "I'm rolling my eyes, I hope you can see that," he tells her. "I know my fly's not down, and I'm not gonna check."

"One of the cameras has gone out," Natasha says urgently, and Steve pauses, missing a step. "I have no visual on the front gate."

"What? The front gates should be guard—"

There's something about the sound of gunshots that sticks with you, once you've heard them up close and personal. The nightly silence is shattered by the crack of a gun going off once, twice, so loud that once the sound dies out everything feels almost eerily quiet. There's no way that sound could be anything else. He wants to tell himself it was a car backfiring, someone setting off fireworks nearby, but he knows that's not what it was. Not even close.

Steve closes his eyes and holds his breath as two faces flash in his mind: Robert Goodman, barely thirty, two kids and an ex-wife. Jeremy Dunn, ex-policeman, owns two rottweilers. Bella and Simon. He keeps pictures of them in his wallet. He'd shown Steve them the first day he started working here, like a proud father showing off his kids.

Damn it. Steve runs for the gate, pulling out his gun as he goes. He knows the entire estate off the back of his hand already, knows exactly how long it'll take him to get to the front gate, and he's not surprised to find two bodies on the ground and the shooter nowhere in sight by the time that he has. He might've caught them, if he hadn't hesitated.

"I need an ambulance," Steve says to Natasha, bending down to check Jeremy's pulse. "They're both alive. Unconscious. One's been shot in the thigh and the shoulder. Shooter nowhere in sight."

"Sending backup," Natasha informs him. "Two minutes. You need to—"

"On it," Steve says, leaving the bodies behind, sprinting for the house.

"No kill-shots," she warns unnecessarily. "We need to know who wants that storage device."

If his lungs weren't so busy burning from the run, Steve would scoff. He doesn't eliminate, he apprehends. They both know this.

And that's probably why he's been put on this mission, he realizes. It's not just about keeping Parrish's intel away from the wrong people. They need to know exactly who those wrong people are, and they can't do that if a stray agent puts a bullet in the head of anyone who tries to go after it. Steve won't do that. Steve has a reputation for getting his job done with as little blood spilled as necessary, and now he has no doubt that that's why he's here right now.

"Understood," he says.

No matter how many times he does things like this, it never feels routine. The pounding of his heart feels new all over again. The way everything narrows down feels unfamiliar. The hesitation in each step, pausing to listen for someone coming up behind him, never gets any easier. Steve is good at his job, even he can admit that, but sometimes he wonders what kind of person that makes him.

The day it does get easy is the day Steve quits. The day he doesn't hesitate before shooting his gun is the day he puts that gun away for good, he promises himself.

Inside Parrish's house, he can't hear a thing. There's nothing but the soft, muffled sound of his heavy boots on plush carpet, the muted huffs of his breath, and, in the distance, some kind of fan blowing cold air into the building. His skin prickles with goosebumps, the hair on the back of his neck standing up, but one quick, sweeping look of the main floor tells him he's alone.

He heads for the stairs.

Despite how it looks from the outside, the entire house is not as transparent as it seems. The moment Steve reaches the top floor it becomes obvious how easily someone could be hiding in the shadows. None of the lights are on and it's too dark to see much, but Steve is used to relying on his other senses just as often as his eyesight. If someone comes up behind him, he should hear it.

They don't. Instead, the third gunshot of the night echoes through the air and Steve makes a run for the third door on the left.

When Steve had first taken this job he'd requested a tour of the house, in case something happened and he needed to know his way around. Parrish hadn't done it himself, but his assistant had been more than friendly as she showed Steve where each of the seven bedrooms, three bathrooms, and two offices were located. Steve made a mental note of each, and, when he was done, drew a rough sketch of the layout for future reference.

The last time he'd gotten a glance into Parrish's room the only thing that had really caught his attention was was a third door in the room, not leading to a bathroom or closet. Office, Steve had guessed, but he never got a chance to check it out. The ridiculously large bed, the pristine white comforter, the rest of the dark-wood furniture, it had all faded into the background, unimportant.

This time it's the blood that captivates him.

For a second, just a split second, Steve lets himself stop and take in the scene around him. Markus Parrish's face is nearly unrecognizable with the hole in his skull and the blood coating everything else. The once elegant-looking bed spread looks like the scene of a horror movie, the red of the blood so fucking stark compared to the sea of white it stains.

That's all he allows himself. He can't afford to be caught standing here gaping, and Parrish is already dead. Steve's not helping anyone by standing around staring at his body.

That third door that had caught his eyes days ago is now standing wide open. Steve lifts his gun, his hands steady as he creeps towards it, no idea what he's going to find inside. Natasha hadn't gotten a glimpse at who came in through the gates. There could be one, there could be a dozen. Steve could be grievously outnumbered and he has no way of knowing.

Surprisingly, that doesn't scare him as much as it should.

He was right about the room being an office, he finds when he steps through the door. It's small, discreet, no access to the outside except for through Parrish's bedroom. There's a desk on the far side of the room, the top littered with a messy assortment of papers, pens, a computer screen and not a single picture frame in sight. The only piece of decoration in the room is the painting lying on the floor near Steve's feet, no doubt carelessly tossed away from where it had probably hung behind the desk, used to cover the now-exposed safe.

The man standing in front of the safe doesn't even turn when Steve steps into the room, lowering his gun so it's aimed at the man's leg, not the back of his neck. If he hears Steve at all, he doesn't show it. He's too busy reaching up, fiddling with the dial on the lock for a moment before, with the loud groan of twisting metal, he yanks the front of the safe clean off and sends it flying through the air at Steve.

Steve moves on instinct. He ducks, barely sparing the front of the safe a glance as it lodge itself in the doorframe, and manages to get a single shot off. The sound of it in the small room makes his ears ring, but he doesn't even get a chance to check if it hit its mark before the gun is being yanked forcefully out of his hand as something tight, cold and metal wraps around his wrist.

"Should've taken the shot while my back was turned," a gruff voice says, too close to comfort.

"Not really my style," Steve says, knowing, without a doubt, that he can't break the hold on him. Any attempts to will result in a broken wrist, and he's not willing to risk that.

Without warning, Steve's back hits the ground hard enough that all the breath is stolen from his lungs.

"Maybe it should be."

His head swims from the impact, vision taken a moment to focus. When it does, he finds himself looking up into steely blue eyes nearly obscured by the long, lanky strands of brown hair falling over the man's face. His lips are pressed into a firm line, looking almost pale compared to the dark stubble shadowing his jaw. He seems taller from this vantage point, but Steve guesses somewhere near 5'10, give or take. Well built. Wide shouldered, strong thighs smothered in tight black fabric and— a metal hand? That's what it looks like, from here. Like a glove of metal wrapped around each finger and up to his wrist, disappearing beneath more black fabric.

Steve shakes his head and moves, kicking out at the guy's legs, jumping to his feet when he misses. This guy's fast, as fast as Steve, maybe even faster. In the time it takes Steve to get to his feet he's already moved across the room, retrieving the drive from the open safe and slipping it into his pocket. Steve rushes him. It's the only thing he can think to do.

The man swings his arm back, elbow cracking into Steve's jaw, but it doesn't feel like flesh and bone. It feels harder, more solid. Steve doesn't let the pain register, is too busy swinging a blow for the man's left arm, hitting him closer to the shoulder.

The metal doesn't stop at his wrist, Steve realizes. It goes all the way up his arm.

He pays for his curiosity. This time those cold, unyielding fingers wrap around his throat, picking him up off the ground like he weighs nothing. He struggles, clawing at everything he can reach, kicking out, but he's tossed at the nearest wall before he can do any damage, head cracking a hole in the plaster.

The man gives Steve a single look as he gasps for breath and snorts, striding easily across the room, heading for the door. Steve can't let him leave, though. He has strict orders not to kill, sure, but he also has unspoken orders not to let him leave, especially with that hard drive in his pocket.

Throwing knives is not Steve's specialty. With that in mind, he tugs the blade from his holster anyway and it feels like his heart stops beating as it soars through the air and lodges itself in the man's thigh, the angle too off to have hit anything fatal. The sound the man lets out is more bloodthirsty than pained, and he yanks the knife out of his thigh as he whirls around, eyes sharp and focused on Steve.

"Can't let you leave with that," Steve says, struggling to stand steadily as the man comes at him, blade poised easily in his hand.

"I was trying," the man bellows as he stomps forward, "to let you live!"

Steve refuses to be caught off guard again. He meets the man halfway, ducking as the blade in his hand swings for Steve's throat, landing a blow to the man's stomach that has him stumbling back, wheezing, but coming right back for Steve in seconds like that blow, one that would've taken out most men, hardly fazed him.

The knife catches Steve on the arm in the next swing, but Steve manages to get a kick to the back of the man's thigh, right over the knife wound. He groans, leg giving out, and Steve takes advantage of his stumble to snap a kick to his wrist, adrenaline pumping through him as the knife clatters to the ground too far away for either of them to grab it.

If he thinks it's that easy, that all he has to do is disarm this guy and he's got the upper hand, Steve is mistaken. Even without the knife the guy grits his teeth as he stands on his wounded leg, and he manages to get a punch to Steve's ribs, a kick to his hip, another blow to his jaw. It takes Steve seconds, maybe, to register that the blows coming from the metal limb hurt a hell of a lot more than the ones coming from the rest, and in that time he already makes an unconscious decision to avoid being hit by it at all costs, even if that means stepping into a blow from the man's right hand.

He fights well, Steve notes. The style almost, absurdly, reminds him of Natasha in the way it's dirty, no holding back, but that's a good thing. If there's one person Steve has experience fighting, it's Nat. And while he doesn't always win, while sometimes he walks away from the mat bloody and bruised and rolling his eyes at her smug grin, he knows how to predict the kind of moves she makes and, subsequently, the kind of moves this guy is making.

Steve doesn't let himself forget about the room just outside of this one, the blood splattered mess, the dead body. The man he's fighting is a killer; Steve has to remember that. Steve himself might not be fighting to kill but there's nothing stopping this guy from crushing Steve's skull with that metal fist, and he seems pretty determined to do it.

They're almost evenly matched. It boils down to advantages, and Steve's not sure who has the better one. His adversary has the strength of his arm, but Steve wounded him badly when his knife stuck into the back of his thigh. Just as his opponent uses every opportunity to strike Steve with his left hand, Steve dives at every chance to land a blow on the wound until they're both gasping, bloody, groaning and weakening.

And then, with a shockingly easy grin, the guy steps back and pulls the drive from his pocket. "This what you want?" he asks.

Steve lifts his chin, smearing his hand through the bloody mess of his nose and mouth, finding his nasal passages clogged when he tries to breathe through his nose.

"Take it, then," the guy spits, tossing the thing in Steve's direction.

Steve doesn't think; he reaches out, snatching the drive out of the air, and when he looks back he finds himself alone in the room amongst the wreckage that used to be the desk, the painting, the safe. Shit. He bolts from the room, slipping the drive into his pocket as he moves, and makes it into Parrish's bedroom only to find the window open, letting in a cool breeze, and no one alive in sight.

That window hadn't been open when Steve came in here. He sticks his head out it, looking around, but if the guy he was fighting is out there, Steve can't see him. He's become just another shadow in the night, and Steve knows, deep in his gut, that he won't be able to find him even if he goes on pursuit.

"Damn it," Steve says to himself, just as he hears a chorus of footsteps coming up the stairs, no doubt his back-up sent a little too late.

 

-o-

 

"You weren't supposed to let him leave," Natasha says, without a hint of disappointment in her tone. She keeps looking at him sideways when she thinks he won't notice, attempting to catalogue any possible wounds he has that he hasn't let any of the medics look over yet.

"I'm aware of that," Steve says.

"Did you at least get a name?"

"You know, between stabbing him and him elbowing me in the face, it never really came up."

Natasha snorts a laugh, smothering it quickly. "Can you—?"

"Give me a sketchbook and half an hour."

"He did a number on you," Natasha comments, sounding more casual than the look in her eyes suggests.

"And Parrish," Steve says hollowly, unable to get the image of Parrish's bed out of his mind. Steve has a white comforter, too. He's going to have to change that as soon as they clear him to leave and go home. "Didn't manage to get this, though," he says, holding the drive out to her.

Natasha's eyes widen. She quickly takes it out of Steve's hand, somehow concealing it on her person despite the fact that the outfit she's wearing doesn't look like the type to have pockets, and even if it did, it's tight enough that he should be able to see the bulge of it somewhere. Somehow, he can't.

"Someone finally going to tell me what's on that thing?" Steve asks as they walk.

"Not here."

Before Steve can ask her where, then, he's shoved unceremoniously through a door to his left, Natasha hurrying in behind him, door locking and lights coming on automatically. Steve looks around, not as startled as he would've been years ago when he'd first met Natasha, and frowns at the small bed and the lack of any other furniture in the room, aside from a nightstand.

"Is this your room?" he asks as Natasha heads for the closet set into the wall, pulling it open and tugging out a t-shirt, a sweater, and a pair of jeans.

"At the moment," she says. Steve turns around, giving her privacy. "There should be something to draw with in the bottom drawer. I'm taking the drive to Fury. I'll be back."

Unlike Natasha, Steve has never spent extended periods of time at S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters. He has his own apartment, his own life outside of this, and he needs that. If he didn't have that, he's not sure who he' be anymore. This job has a way of becoming everything, and Steve can't handle that.

Just as promised, Steve finds a notepad and a dull pencil in the bottom drawer. He feels wrong going through Natasha's things but he needs to get this done while everything's still fresh in his mind, before he forgets important details and they have no way of figuring out who the hell it was that kicked Steve's ass back there.

Because he did, Steve can admit to himself. His ass feels thoroughly kicked. He might've gotten out of there with the drive, but if the fight had continued, if the other guy hadn't given up, Steve's not sure if he would've been the one coming out on top. He can't remember the last time he fought someone who actually had a chance to beat him, and he feels shaken from it and more than a little caught off guard.

Drawing is like fighting, for Steve. It comes easily, almost automatic. He doesn't have to think when he does it, he just… does it. Cold eyes, heavy brows, dark stubble, lanky hair, soft mouth pressed into a hard line. Steve loses himself in it, so caught up in dragging the pencil across the paper that he almost doesn't notice Natasha's return until she clears her throat.

"The two guards are alive," she tells him. "They're both being taken care of. Either the shooter missed, or it wasn't his intention to kill them."

"It was intentional," Steve says without looking up. "He let them live. When we were fighting he said he was trying to do the same for me. Until I stabbed him, that is."

"That does tend to piss people off, doesn't it?"

Steve sighs and lowers the pencil. "He gave me the drive back. He just— he threw it at me."

Natasha frowns, sinking down next to him on the tiny bed, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear as she says, "That doesn't make sense. Why would he give you it back, unless—?"

"Unless he didn't come for the drive at all," Steve says, looking down at his drawing. "He came for Parrish. The drive was an afterthought. It wasn't the priority." He smudges his thumb against the man's jaw, lightening the dark of the stubble a bit. "What was on that drive?"

"We don't know."

Steve looks up sharply. "What?"

"We let the drive fall into Parrish's hands," Natasha admits. "Everything on it's in code. We can access everything on it but no one can decipher what any of it means. Even our technology can't crack it without the cipher key. We were hoping that whoever was trying to get it would be able to give us the answers. Only problem is, we still don't know who they are."

"What if they knew that?"

Natasha tilts her head to the side. "I'm not following."

"Whoever that drive originally belonged to," Steve says. "What if they knew that we were trying to figure out how to unlock it, and that's why they killed Parrish? They don't care if we have the drive because they know we can't access the information inside, but Parrish might've been able to tell us who could."

"So they put him down before he had a chance to slip up."

"Exactly."

"Or," Natasha muses, "whoever they sent to get the drive wasn't very good at their job. Either way, the only lead we have is—" Natasha leans over, chin digging into Steve's shoulder as she looks at the sketch. She pulls back almost instantly, taking the notebook with her. "Is this him?"

"Well, it's not actually finished yet," Steve says, attempting to take it back, but Natasha stands up, moving away from him, back turned and head ducked as she looks closer at it. "Natasha?"

"Profile," Natasha orders, back still turned.

Steve sighs. "5'10, maybe. Somewhere around there. Blue eyes. Brown hair. And his left arm was…"

"It was what, Steve?"

"Metal, I think? I'm not— I'm not sure, but that's what it looked like. What it felt like."

Natasha finally turns back to him, holding out the notepad. "That confirms the theory that he was there for Parrish, not the drive," she says. "You don't send people like him to retrieve things. You send them to kill."

"You know who he is?"

Scratching absently at her stomach through her sweater, Natasha lifts a shoulder and says, "He's works for Hydra."

All of Steve's breath seems to come out at once. He leans back on the bed, hands splayed across the soft brown comforter, and lets that sink in.

What they know about Hydra is limited. Even with S.H.I.E.L.D. having the kind of technology and power it does, Hydra's managed to elude them for years. What they do know, however, is more than enough: Hydra breeds assassins. The number of deaths in the last ten years alone credited to one of their members is so high they're considered an international threat. S.H.I.E.L.D. has been trying to take them down for as long as it's been around, but it's just not possible. Take out one agent and another one crops up. Somehow none of them stay alive long enough to question.

Their agents are like shadows. They come out of the dark when they're needed, and they retreat back into it when they're finished. When you have someone you need killing, you don't contact them; they contact you, and anyone who's worked with them refuses to open their mouths. They know that even S.H.I.E.L.D. might not be able to protect them from the repercussions of talking out against Hydra.

"Aren't they supposed to be ruthless?" Steve asks, eyebrows drawing together. "Why leave me alive?"

"Maybe he didn't think he could beat you," Natasha says kindly, but they both know that's not it. "I don't know, Steve. All I do know is that drive just became a lot more important than we thought."

"And we're still not any closer to figuring out what's on it."

"Always the voice of optimism," she snorts, lips tugging up. "Don't you have a few days off?"

"Yeah," Steve admits, standing up with a groan. He tries to stretch out the aches in his body but they're not from stiffness. He has a feeling that once he gets home and showered, he's going to find a masterpiece of bruises covering his body like paint on a canvas. "What about you? You know you promised Sam we'd do another movie night. He hasn't forgotten about that."

"I'll make you a deal," Nat offers. "I'll come if you promise to stop by the infirmary first."

"I'm not asking you to do it for me, I'm asking for Sam," Steve says, as his vision starts to blur a bit, the room spinning when he takes too long between blinks. "But I think that might be a good idea."

There's a fondness to the way she rolls her eyes, just like there is with most people in his life. His mom used to say he has a way of making people worry about him. He doesn't mean to, but she definitely had a point. He thinks Natasha would agree, too, but he doubts she'd say so out loud.

"Take care of yourself," he says as he leaves.

"Take your own advice for once, Rogers."

Steve laughs, waiting until the door is shut to let the sound die out. He leans against the wall beside her door, closing his eyes, and hopes the walls are thick enough that she doesn't hear the way he groans in pain at the aching in his ribs.

He definitely needs to be looked over before he leaves.

Chapter Text

 

The thing about downtime is that Steve has too much and too little of it. It's never long enough for him to take up a hobby, get a part-time job, invest in a TV show that needs to be watched once a week at a scheduled time. There's never any room in his life to fit new things in and he's long since stopped trying, with the exception of Sam Wilson, but it's also too damn long for him to sit around doing nothing.

He's supposed to be resting, technically. When he'd left headquarters, it was with a bandaged wrist, raw knuckles, bruised ribs but, surprisingly, no concussion. He was told to take it easy for a few days, let himself heal up before he's needed again. Taking it easy are three words Steve's never fully understood.

"Maybe you need a real vacation," Sam says as they run, not mentioning the fact that Steve's slower than usual because Sam's a good man and an even better friend, and he's kinder to Steve than Steve will ever be able to deserve, no matter what Sam seems to think about that. "A permanent one. I hear Starbucks down the street has a position opening up."

Steve grins at him, wiping the sweat from his brow. "You thinking of putting in an application?"

"We could do it together. Or even better, we could pool together what cash we have, open our own coffee shop. Wilson and Rogers, best cup of joe in town. None of that venti shit. Normal sized. Pumpkin spice all year round because we're not heathens."

"Price that out and get back to me. I'll think about it."

Sam laughs, the sound carried away behind them by the wind, but his smile slips away faster than it came, a look of concern plain on his face. "For real, Steve," he says lowly.

"I love my job," Steve argues, because he does. "I love saving people. I love helping people. I can't see myself doing anything else. And if I takes its toll sometimes, well. What job doesn't, right?"

"Seems like it's taking more than its usual toll lately," Sam says pointedly.

Steve slows, bending down with his hands on his thighs and his lungs burning something fierce. "That's physical, not emotional, I promise."

"Did you get shot again?" Sam demands. "You better not be out here running with a damn bullet wound, Rogers."

"Not shot," Steve says, waving a placating hand in Sam's direction. "Bruised ribs. Nothing too bad. I'm fine."

"No, you're an idiot," Sam corrects. "You good? Need me to carry you home?"

"If you're offering."

Sam rolls his eyes, creepily similar to Natasha. "Honestly, though. Why aren't you at home, sitting on your couch and stuffing your face? This? What you're doing right now? This isn't what I'd call resting after an injury."

"Speaking of sitting on couches and stuffing faces," Steve says, reaching for a change of subject, "Natasha said she'd be up for movie night soon."

Sam's eyes widen, just a bit, but then they narrow to slits and he says, "No. You are not distracting me with promises of hanging out with hot people. Not again. That only works once and you already used yours up."

"So I shouldn't ask her to bring Clint along, too?" Steve teases, straightening up and slowly walking backwards, ready to start running again.

"No," Sam warns, just as Steve turns on his heels and jogs away, running before Sam can knock some actual sense into him. "You can't use your hot friends against me, Steve! I'm stronger than that! I don't care how hot they are, you're still a dumbass!"

Steve hopes Sam can hear the sound of his laughter trailing behind him; he doesn't get a chance to turn around and check. His phone starts vibrating in his pocket, and then a familiar ringtone echoes around him, and Steve heaves out a sigh that has nothing to do with the run and fishes into the pocket of his running sweats.

"Hello?"

"Rogers," Fury says, more friendly than usual. "You enjoying your time off?"

"I caught up on a few episodes of my soaps, finally, so I'm doing alright."

Fury barks a laugh, which, paired with the light tone, is more than enough to set off Steve's internal alarms. "Good, good," he says. "I'm actually calling to ask a favor."

Steve pinches the bridge of his nose. "Okay," he says.

"How do you feel about the Caribbean islands?"

Oh. Steve lowers his hand, grinning, and says, "Haven't had a chance to make up my mind yet."

"Would you like to?"

"Undercover again?"

"Not exactly," Fury says slowly. Steve's hopes rise. "Mary Houston. Recognize the name?"

"The, uh— philanthropist?" Steve guesses, wracking his brain. The image of an older woman with dark, curly hair fills his mind. He can't remember much about what she does. All he knows it involves her smiling a lot and publicly donating money to charity. "Right?"

"That'd be the one," Fury confirms. "We've had her in protective custody for a few weeks. We think someone might be looking for her, and she's accepted our suggestion to leave the country for a little while. Needs a bit of muscle to take with her. You in?"

Steve doesn't ask why someone would want to hurt someone like Mary Houston. He learned a long time ago that people can come up with reasons to want just about anyone dead, if they try hard enough. Steve's job is to make sure that doesn't happen.

"Yes, sir."

"Good. You leave in two days. I'll see you at HQ for briefing tomorrow at nine."

Fury never says goodbye, so Steve is less than surprised when he hangs up without another word. He slips his phone back in his pocket, rocking back on his heels as Sam jogs up to him, and can't keep the grin off his face because this is what he's good at. Not putting on a mask and sneaking behind enemy lines. Steve is good at protecting people. At keeping them alive. He's good at taking out threats, too, but he'd rather do it as himself, not posing as someone else.

The gig might not be anything more than a glorified bodyguard position; Steve doesn't care. It's better than the alternative.

"When do you leave?" Sam asks, reading his face like an open book.

"Tomorrow."

"We're scheduling that movie night for the day you get back," Sam says firmly. "If you cancel on me again, I'll find someone else to open a coffee shop with. Just you watch."

"Will I at least get free coffee?"

Sam crosses his arms over his chest, and Steve slings his over Sam's shoulders. "I'll be there," he promises. And he will. He can't put everything else on hold for the job. Some things aren't worth jeopardizing, and this is definitely one of them. "I'll even bring popcorn."

"I'm holding you to that."

"Unless I make it home first," Steve says, letting his arm drop. "In that case, you'll be the one bringing the popcorn."

"Wait, I never—" Steve is already running again. "I didn't agree to that!"

 

-o-

 

Not that he's had a lot of time to travel, but the resort in St. Lucia has to be the most beautiful place Steve has ever been. It's secluded, not very big, but it's extravagant. He doesn't really see the point of the large, glimmering pool in the center, considering the beautiful beach a short walk from the resort itself, but it sure is something to look at it.

And it's a lot warmer than it had been back home, too.

For someone claiming to be hiding out, Mary Houston seems to be on vacation more than anything. Steve has strict orders to keep his eye on her and assess any possible dangers anywhere she goes, but he's also been told to keep his distance and not disturb her unless absolutely necessary. Which turns out to mean he gets to spend all his time sitting at the pool in too many clothes, or at the bar as she downs cocktail after cocktail, or at the spa, watching as a serene-looking man digs his elbow into her back.

It's still not horrible. She calls him by his name, is polite, and he gets to enjoy the perks, too, when he's not on the clock. It's not like he's the only guard they sent with her, and he gets breaks. To sleep.

Really, he's resting more here than he had back home, and he's getting a tan while doing it. All in all, he has no complaints. If he's bored, well. It's not all action all the time. Sometimes everything slowing down can be nice, especially if it means actually letting his ribs heal and the rest of his body recover. Sam would be proud, if he could see Steve now. Natasha's probably jealous. She loves jobs like this, can fit in seamlessly with the high-class resort goers in ways Steve almost envies.

There aren't many around, at the moment. Mary is sitting at a wicker table with a high stool, sipping on a cocktail, and Steve is a respectable distance away at the bar, a drink of his own—non-alcoholic, while he's on the job— with slowly melting ice cubes held loosely in his hand. The bar itself is uncomfortably open, a little shack on the edge of the resort looking out over the beach, but Steve can see everyone who comes in and leaves from where he's sitting and Mary is far enough in that someone couldn't get a clear shot on her from the beach, if they tried.

Steve doubts anyone is going to try. And if they do, he's heavily armed underneath his laidback khaki shorts and the printed, loose shirt he's wearing.

"Can I get a Manhattan? And one for my friend here, too."

Steve looks over, surprised to find the stool next to his suddenly occupied, and his heart stops beating in his chest. A pair of pale blue eyes meet his, set underneath thick, raised eyebrows. There's a lack of stubble today, and the limp, long strands of hair have been cut away into something sleeker and shorter. He's wearing a long sleeved shirt, a single leather glove concealing the metal, but Steve doesn't need to see it to know it's him.

There are certain faces that stick with you. This man has one of them, and the fact that he's managed to get in here, into the bar and close enough to touch Steve, without Steve noticing, unsettles him to the point where he nearly lets his condensation-slicked glass slip from his fingers.

For a moment Steve almost thinks he's conjured him up with his mind. Then the bartender says, "Coming right up, sir," with a polite smile and Steve realizes that, no, this isn't his imagination running wild.

He gapes. He honestly doesn't know what else do to.

"You know," the guy says, drumming gloved fingers over the bar, the sound of it soft and muffled, "it's not polite to stare."

Steve jolts to life, shooting a glance at Mary and attempting to stand up. A firm hand on his shoulder stops him, and the man's lips tug down in a frown before he says, "Not really the kind of place you want to start something, is it?"

No, it's not. The bar might not be crowded, exactly, but it's populated. There're too many people around to risk it coming to a fight here, and Steve can't protect Mary if he's too busy trying to save everyone else, too. Steve has gotten accustomed to telling when someone's armed, and this guy has at least one gun on him, probably a knife, and who knows what else. If a gun goes off in this small area, there's too high of a chance of it hitting a civilian.

"Bucky," the guy says, holding out his hand. "That's a nickname, by the way. You won't find that in any databases."

"What do you want?" Steve demands, sounding colder than he's used to hearing himself. He sounds more like Nat, actually. No one can put ice in their voice the way she does, and he's almost proud of himself for it.

"I want you to drink with me, Steve Rogers," Bucky says, letting his hand fall back to his side.

There's a knot of unease in Steve's stomach, knowing that this guy knows his name, but he refuses to show it. He schools his face into a blank look, twisting around easily in his seat so they're both facing the bar instead of outward, setting his glass down because he doesn't trust himself to hold it.

"Anyone ever tell you you've got a terrible poker face?" Bucky asks, actually smirking at him. "Yeah, I know your name. I know where you work. I know where you live."

Steve bites the inside of his lip, trying to keep his cool. "And what do you plan on doing with that information?"

Bucky shrugs at him. "Nothing," he says, "until someone orders me to."

Steve does not tense at that. "Do you always do what you're ordered?"

"Why?" Bucky challenges. "You wanna try bossing me around?"

Before Steve can figure out what that even means, let alone a response, the bartender slides two glasses onto the bar, pushing one towards Steve and one towards Bucky, who picks it up immediately and swings back a mouthful before lowering it again. Steve watches him, wondering how this is the same man he fought not two weeks ago.

Last time, he'd seemed like exactly what he is: a cold, trained killer. Everything about him, from the clothes he'd been wearing to the look in his eyes and the way he moved, had been dangerous. Now, he looks like he could be any other person at this resort, in his white button-down with so many buttons undone it's practically obscene, the pushed back hair and the easy way he holds himself. He could just as easily be some millionaire's son taking a vacation before returning to university instead of an assassin.

That's another thing Steve hates about undercover missions: they remind him that it's just as easy for someone else to put on a mask and pretend to be a different person, too.

"What do you want?" Steve repeats. He's never been good at playing games, or playing along with other people's.

"I want you to drink," Bucky says, same answer to the same question.

"Why?"

"Because if you're not going to," Bucky says, downing the rest of his glass and reaching for Steve's, "then I will."

Steve watches him drink without comment, too busy thinking of how to handle this without getting anyone hurt. He let Bucky get away last time; he's not going to make that mistake again. He just needs to find a way to apprehend him that doesn't involve other people becoming casualties. He needs to get Bucky away from all the people before he draws his weapon, and hope he can take him out this time without Bucky getting the upper hand. He doesn't have anyone to back him up, out here. If things go south, no one's going to show up and get Steve out of trouble.

He needs to be careful, yet he has no idea how to do that, in this situation. Steve is used to fighting. He isn't used to something like this, an adversary casually conversing with him, and he can think of dozens of other agents who would do a hundred times better in this situation, who would know exactly what to say to twist Bucky into doing what they want. Unfortunately none of them are here. It's just Steve, and Bucky, the woman Steve's been hired to keep save, and a dozen rich people looking to relax and have a drink.

Maybe he should've taken the one offered to him.

"I'm not gonna hurt you," Bucky sighs after a moment. "You can stop looking at me like I'm about to draw a gun and blow your brains out."

"Why wouldn't you? It's not like I'd be the first."

Bucky swirls around the last bit of drink in his glass, closing his eyes as he brings it to his lips and finishes it off. "I don't do casualties," he says.

"What does that mean?"

"Means you're not on my damn list, so unless you force me to, I'm not gonna kill you."

Steve thinks back to the last time they met, how he'd heard the gunshots and assumed he'd find the two guards dead. They'd been unconscious, but still alive, and through Natasha Steve knows that they're both recovering quickly. "Is that what happened before?" he asks, because he has a feeling Bucky could've easily killed those guards, if he'd wanted to.

Bucky gives him a look, lips curled in a way that's somehow still attractive, as unflattering as it is. "Do you want to know what I'm doing here?" he asks, changing the subject abruptly.

"Wouldn't ask twice if I didn't."

"I need that drive that I gave you. I'm in a lot of shit for leaving without it— though, in my defense, something like that's not usually part of my job description."

Steve's sound of surprise slips out before he can stop it. "I— I don't have it," he says, shaking his head. "If you know where I work then you know I wouldn't get to hold onto something like that for long."

"I know," Bucky says with a nod of consideration. "I also know that you could get it, if you really wanted to."

"And I bet you know I'm not going to."

"Yeah," Bucky admits, staring unseeingly at the bar. "Had a feeling you'd say that. You look the type. Too noble to save your own skin and probably too stubborn to be persuaded. But her?" he nods towards Mary and Steve bristles. "She's on my list." He stands up, sliding a few bills onto the bar. "Don't get in my way again, Steve."

Steve watches him go, enraptured by the way he seems to disappear. No one else looks up at him. No one tries to catch his eye. It's like Steve's the only one who sees him, and that's only because Bucky wants him to. It's impressive, when it comes down to it, because it's not as if he's average looking or overlookable. From an unbiased standpoint, he's attractive. More than attractive. He looks like the type of guy that's probably used to being stared at, so the fact that he still manages to slip into the shadows is disconcerting, to say the least.

The moment he's out of sight, Steve stands up, calling for the other two guards here with him as he approaches Mary's table.

"Ma'am," he says, polite but urgent. "I hate to bother you, but I'm going to have to ask you to go back to your room."

The look he gets is equal parts terrified and startled. "Has something happened?" Mary asks.

"Nothing to worry about," Steve promises. It's not a lie. Steve will make sure it's nothing to worry about. "For the time being I'd just feel a lot better if you were in your room until it's dealt with."

She nods, downing the last of her cocktail before she hurries out of her seat and follows him out of the bar. "Everyone thought I was paranoid," she says, her voice shrill with fear. "I knew I wasn't."

"Better to be safe than sorry."

"Exactly! I'd rather be paranoid and alive than— than—"

"I promise you that anyone who wants to get to you will have to go through me," Steve assures her, trying his best to be placating. "And I'm not an easy person to go through, ma'am."

When they get to her room, Steve advises her to watch a movie on her TV and not to order anything from room service until he gets back. He also pulls the other two guards aside, ordering them to stay with her and not to open the door until he gets back.

"And don't open it to anyone but me," Steve says lowly, too quiet for Mary to hear. He doesn't want her to be more afraid than she already is. "If something happens, I'll be close by. Call me and I'll be here."

The door to the room locks behind him but that won't hold against anyone that really wants to get in. Steve's watched Bucky rip the front off of a safe like it was nothing. The door won't stand a chance, but Steve has faith in the men guarding it. And he's betting on Bucky biding his time, anyway. He hopes he's right.

"I'm need your help," Steve says into his phone as he makes his way downstairs, patting himself down to make sure his gun is where it's supposed to be. "Can you give me the guest list of everyone staying at this resort?"

"Sure," Natasha says easily. "What resort are you at?"

Steve gives her the name, adding, "It's in St. Lucia. Is that going to be a problem?"

"Mm," Natasha hums, considering. In the background he can hear her hitting keys loudly. "No. But the guest list is long. That might be."

"Narrow it down to anyone with a single. Males."

"Do you have a name?"

"Not exactly. Read me the list."

"It's still long," Natasha warns. "J. Aaronson; D. Alfred; J. Antonellis; L. Aronov; C. Baker; C. Benson; R. Bockman; A. Buchanan; P. Byer—"

"Give me the room number for Buchanan."

"103," Natasha reads off to him. "He checked in this morning."

"Shouldn't S.H.I.E.L.D. be doing a background check on everyone in the resort?" Steve grumbles, pushing open the door to the main lobby. "Thanks, Nat."

"Anytime," she says smoothly. "Should I be sending you backup?"

"How fast can they get here?"

"Hour and a half."

"Too long. I gotta deal with this now."

"I'm still sending them." She pauses. "Be careful."

"Always am," Steve says. He hears her snort of disbelief before he hangs up and pockets his phone.

The man behind the front desk, when Steve approaches him, is all too willing to hand over the keycard he needs when he flashes his S.H.I.E.L.D. badge. When this is over, Steve makes a mental note to tell Fury that they need to be more selective with which resorts are used as getaways for potentially in danger clients, but right now Steve is grateful for it. He would've gotten into Bucky's room either way, but now he can do so as inconspicuously as possible.

He pauses outside the door when he finds it, realizing that he's already not being careful. He's dressed in clothes he can fight in, obviously, but he feels exposed walking into the room of a Hydra agent in khakis. It's not like there's anything he can do for it now, though. Bucky could easily get away or get to Mary if Steve doesn't deal with this right this moment, so he draws his gun, steadies himself, and sticks the keycard into the door.

Honestly, he's expecting a little more resistance than he gets. The door swings open easily, hardly even making a sound, and instead of finding a dark, dungeon-like room, he finds a room nearly identical to the one he's been staying in, curtains closed but all the lights on. Everything is clean and neat, the comforter pulled tight over the bed, nothing to suggest what kind of person is staying here. It's nothing more than an innocent, empty hotel room, no hint of a threat in sight. That's what puts Steve on edge the most.

Anything that looks too good to be true tends to be. He isn't about to put his guard down just because there isn't an AK on the bed or a bomb stuck to the door.

Steve steps farther into the room, kicking the door shut behind him. There's a click when it sticks in place, too loud for his comfort, but nothing jumps out at him and attacks. Gunshots don't ring through the air. That should calm him a little, Steve recognizes, but it doesn't. Instead it makes him panic more because Bucky should be here. And if Bucky isn't here, how many people are currently getting hurt because Steve made a bad call?

He checks the bathroom, just to be sure, and finds it just as empty as the rest of the room. When he turns around, gun raised, he nearly steps right into Bucky's solid body as Bucky grins at him and says, "Anyone ever tell you you're predictable, Steve?"

He jerks back before they can collide, raising his gun higher, but Bucky disarms him so quickly it's like Steve's a rookie. So he uses a rookie move, bringing his knee up into Bucky's groin, wrestling his gun back as Bucky groans and fights not to double over.

"Can't say that they have," Steve says around a grin.

Bucky isn't so quickly put down. He kicks out at Steve's legs, trying to swipe them out from under him. Steve struggles to get a hold on the gun and lift it, but Bucky's metal hand comes down hard on his wrist and Steve swears he can almost hear the bones cracking as he drops the gun to the floor, wincing when it hits.

Before Bucky can grab for it, Steve kicks it under the bed. The move takes the gun out of the equation, something that makes Steve breathe easier, but it also makes him vulnerable to the kick Bucky lands right in the center of his chest. His arms pinwheel behind him as he stumbles back, trying to brace his fall, and Bucky keeps coming at him, moving in a slow, deliberate way that's more terrifying than it would be if he were rushing for Steve. He looks casual. He looks confident. He looks even more comfortable moving towards Steve with a fire in his eyes than he had back at the bar, lounging on the stool.

Steve lets him come and, when he's close enough, feigns a punch and knees him in the groin again. Bucky isn't expecting that and it shows in the way he grunts and actually does double over this time, face red. From there, it's almost too easy to twist Bucky's hand behind his back and force him up against the wall.

"Fighting with you always feel like foreplay?" Bucky mocks as Steve pats him down, removing the three blades he can find hidden away on Bucky's body, dropping them and kicking the under the bed to join the gun. "Or am I just lucky?"

"Why don't you save the snark for when I take you in to S.H.I.E.L.D.?"

At that, Bucky's shoulders slump and his hands relax, his breathing coming in shallower. Steve should feel smug at finally hitting a nerve; he doesn't.

"You're not taking me in," Bucky says quietly.

Steve uses the toe of his foot to bunch up the leg of Bucky's pants. When he finds another knife, he swiftly bends down, removes it and adds it to the pile, all the while saying, "I know who you work for, too. I'm not about to let a Hydra agent walk."

"You don't know shit, Steve," Bucky says, but it's not angry. "You're not bringing me in. I can break this hold."

Yeah. Steve knows he can. The thing is, he hasn't. He hasn't even tried, not really, which is confusing, definitely, but Steve's taking advantage of for as long as he can, ridding Bucky of as many weapons as he can manage. He knows that the only way this ends is with one of them dead or unconscious; he's just trying to sway that in his own favor.

"Why don't you, then?" he challenges as he kicks what he believes is the last of Bucky's weaponry under the bed.

"I'd have to break your wrist to do it," Bucky says. "Or your kneecap. Or your nose."

"What's stopping you?"

All of Bucky's weight drops so suddenly that Steve can't even react. It's so unexpected, not at all the move he was anticipating, and his wrist is still aching enough from earlier that the way Bucky's weight jerks it has him crying out and releasing his hold.

For his size, Bucky is fast. Steve needs to stop underestimating that, especially now that Bucky has him pinned to the floor, left hand— the metal one—wrapped around his throat, holding him down as Bucky straddles his waist.

"I was trying to think of a way to do it without screwing up your pretty face," Bucky explains.

Steve doesn't let himself panic. If he does he'll be trapped here. Instead he throws all his weight around, as hard as he can, and can't help but revel in the way Bucky's eyes widen when his back hits the ground and Steve sits atop him, pinning him there.

Steve might underestimate how fast Bucky is, but Bucky seems to underestimate Steve in general.

They're on the floor close enough to the bed that Steve can see the gun kicked underneath it, close enough to grab if he can just stretch his arm out far enough. He won't shoot Bucky with it, doesn't think he can, but the solid weight of the gun is a weapon in itself, even without firing it. Steve can use that, but if Buck figures out he's going for it he'll do everything in his power to stop Steve from getting it. He only has seconds, maybe, to make a move and grab it before Bucky catches on or gets the upper hand again. He just needs to keep Bucky preoccupied for long enough to do it. Somehow.

And then Bucky's gaze dips to Steve's lips, so quick he almost doesn't see it, and— oh.

Steve doesn't give himself time to hesitate. If he overthinks this it'll be too obvious and there's no way Bucky will buy it, so he just moves, leaning down to press his lips to Bucky's while he reaches over Bucky's head for the gun, fingers helplessly brushing nothing but carpet, just this shy of too far away.

It doesn't work. Bucky stiffens beneath him the moment their lips touch, both hands on Steve's shoulders, the metal one digging in painfully. The world flips over before Steve can come up with another idea, his head hitting the soft carpet with less force than he's expecting as Bucky's body blankets his, holding him down.

The metal hand comes up, getting bigger and bigger in his vision the closer it gets, and Steve knows he's screwed. He's felt the strength of it enough to know that once it curls around his throat, he's done. He doesn't have time to think of a new plan, has no one to call for help, and that hand is going to crush his windpipe and he can't do a damn thing about it but close his eyes and wait.

Natasha is going to kill him for getting himself killed. Sam will probably help her.

It's not as smooth as it looks, the metal of Bucky's hand. When it curls around his jaw Steve can feel the ridges of it, how cool it is to the touch. Bucky tilts Steve's chin up, his head digging into the carpet, and Steve waits for Bucky's hand to move down to his neck and finish this.

Until Bucky's lips brush his own and he realizes that's not going to happen.

Steve makes a surprised sound, eyes flying open, and Bucky groans against him, his other hand moving up to fist lightly in Steve's hair.

Kissing him. Bucky is— Bucky is kissing him, like his life depends on it. His eyes are the ones that are closed now, brow furrowed like it's taking all of his concentration, and he's still cupping Steve's jaw with a surprisingly gentle hand. Steve has no idea what to do.

When Bucky had flipped them over again a moment ago, they moved closer to the bed. Now the angle is more awkward than it had been, but Bucky's distracted enough that Steve can reach behind him, hand finally landing on the gun just as Bucky's teeth scrape against his bottom lip and Steve's brain just— short circuits. Shuts down. Stops working. That's really the only explanation he has for the heat that suddenly floods through him, or why he leans up afterwards, pushing himself closer to Bucky, kissing him back.

Steve's fingers slip off the gun as his lips part and Bucky licks into his mouth, still cradling Steve's jaw in his hand. It's almost dizzying, how rough and urgently Bucky kisses him compared to how carefully he's brushing his thumb along the underside of Steve's jaw. It disarms Steve frighteningly quickly. Bucky could attack any moment and Steve isn't making a single move to stop him. He's not even reaching for the gun anymore, too busy bringing his hand up to slide into Bucky's hair.

He doesn't even notice Bucky tugging at his shirt until he feels the buttons give way, putting up even less of a fight than Steve himself. A calloused thumb brushes his nipple, Bucky's teeth catch on his bottom lip again, and when Bucky pulls back to drag his hand down Steve's stomach, a look of awe on his face that should feel out of place but doesn't, Steve lets out a sound that seems to echo through the whole room, loud and embarrassingly desperate.

"Fuck," Bucky says, shaking his head slowly. "Look at you."

Logically, Steve knows he should be doing something. Being kissed by an adversary wasn't really covered in his training but he's pretty sure rolling around on the floor with his tongue in their mouth is not the proper way to respond. He's just… having a difficult time figuring out what is the proper way to respond with Bucky's mouth looking the way it does and being close enough to kiss again.

Steve has no idea what the hell he's doing. Bucky's looking down at him like he doesn't, either, and for some reason that makes Steve feel a bit better about the whole thing. If this is a weak moment for him, it's one for Bucky too.

"You're unreal," Bucky says, nails leaving red lines on Steve's pale stomach. He keeps shaking his head slowly like he's just as aware as Steve of how insane this all is, he just doesn't care.

Steve bites the inside of his cheek, the barely-there pain of it almost welcome, and leans up on one hand, reaching for the buttons on Bucky's shirt, wanting his off too. Only Bucky catches his wrist before he can, his eyes looking dangerous again for a split second before he laughs it off and says, "Let's not kill the mood."

"But—"

Bucky kisses him again before he can finish, his tongue distracting Steve from his goal of getting them both chest to naked chest. "Trust me," he adds against Steve's lips.

Steve can't remember the last time he was this turned on. It's making his head feel fuzzy but he's not stupid. "Probably not the best idea," he points out.

Bucky laughs. "True," he says. "But if you want to keep going, we keep the shirt on."

"Is there a reason or do you just like having one over one me?"

The smirk on Bucky's face is answer enough and Steve isn't going to push him for more if he doesn't want to give it. When Bucky leans down, lips pressed to Steve's chest like a brand, he doesn't think he could even if he wanted to. He's too busy closing his eyes and biting his tongue, trying not to make a sound. There's enough self-preservation left in him to stay quiet, at least. For the most part. Or there would be if Bucky wasn't apparently trying his best to make Steve break.

There's too much material between them, when Bucky's hips move down against his, but it's more than enough for Steve's fingers to claw at the carpet in an attempt not to grab Bucky's hips and hold him still for Steve to grind against.

Bucky's mouth makes a path up Steve's neck. He bites, hard enough that it's definitely going to leave a mark, but it's hard to care when his hand is moving between their bodies, fumbling almost endearingly with the button on Steve's pants. He threads his fingers in Bucky's hair anyway, not sure if he's trying to pull him off or hold him where he is, fingers tightening their grip the harder Bucky sucks against his skin.

"Yeah, come on," Bucky murmurs into his neck. "Push back, Steve. How're you gonna explain that mark tomorrow, huh? What're you gonna say if someone asks you where you got that?"

"Do you always talk this much, or am I just lucky?" Steve asks, twisting Bucky's words from earlier while he moves Bucky's hand away from where it's still struggling to undo his pants, doing it himself and reaching for the buttons on Bucky's jeans afterwards. "This okay?"

Bucky snorts like he finds the question stupid. "Yeah, fuck. Does it look like I'm gonna stop you right now?"

"Had to ask," Steve says.

"Of course you did," Bucky says, but he doesn't look so smug when Steve undoes his jeans and tugs them down his hips, pulling his boxers down just far enough to get a hand around him.

The moment Steve's fingers curl around Bucky's cock, Bucky lets out a whine that sounds almost pained. Before Steve can check to make sure he's okay, Bucky bats his hand away and replaces it with his own, using the other to tug Steve's khakis down as far as he can manage with Steve lifting his hips up to help. He wastes no time taking them both in hand, like all the urgency from before is back tenfold, and it's all Steve can do to lie there and let him, head tipped back, wondering if he's losing his damn mind.

"I would fuck you right here, if I could," Bucky tells him, leaning down as close as he can get to Steve's lips while still jerking them off, breath warm and damp on Steve's mouth. "Right into the carpet." Steve groans as Bucky's thumb slides over the head, the sound ending on a whine. "Yeah? You'd let me? Bet you've never fucked anywhere but a bed before."

"You'd be surprised," Steve gasps out, bluffing. He's not a blushing virgin, far from it, but he doesn't think any of the women he's been with (exactly two, admittedly) or the single guy would've been interested in the floor. Steve himself would never have thought he'd be into it, either, and yet.

"Already am," Bucky says, looking down at Steve with heavily lidded eyes. "Fuck, you're gorgeous."

Bucky looks better. There's a flush in his cheeks. His mouth is so red and wet. His hair is a mess from Steve's hands, sweat is coating his brow, and Steve is hard pressed to remember ever seeing anything so enticing in his entire life. Later he'll think about how much trouble that thought is; right now he's too caught up in the way it feels when Bucky thrusts into his own hand, cock sliding against Steve's, their bodies sticking together with sweat where they're both naked.

Steve grabs a handful of Bucky's shirt and pulls him down, wanting that mouth against his again. Bucky is all too willing, releasing them both and just as content to grind against Steve as he was to jerk them off. It's almost better, even if there isn't the same kind of pressure. It feels messier like this, Bucky's tongue sloppily curling against his, his hands trying to grip Bucky's back through his shirt, the carpet burning against his skin where his own shirt has hiked up.

Neither of them is trying to draw it out. This isn't the type of thing where you want to last as long as possible. They're both just getting off, that's all it is, so it's no surprise when Bucky tenses above him almost too soon, head ducked into Steve's shoulder to muffle the words he groans out as he comes, Steve catching nothing more than fuck and Christ and Steve.

Steve keeps moving against him, unable to help himself, and they both groan when Bucky's come slicks the way, makes everything wetter, better. Steve is so close but it isn't until Bucky says, "Come on, Steve," that the tension in his stomach that's been tightening since Bucky flipped him over and kissed him finally peaks.

Afterwards, Bucky rolls off him with one last kiss to Steve's shoulder and a smug grin on his face. Steve can't move, everything in his body feeling lax and content. His head is still spinning and his heart is still pounding.

"Kinda glad I didn't kill you the other day," Bucky says, his voice interrupting the calm inside of Steve.

"You need to work on your pillow talk," Steve says, throwing an arm over his face.

Bucky laughs and Steve feels a hand curl around his and lift it up, Bucky's lips brushing against the inside of his wrist before he says, "And you need a towel. I'll be right back."

Steve lowers his arm again, watching as Bucky stands up, buttoning his jeans quickly on his way to the bathroom. The door shuts, the sound loud in the quiet of the room, and Steve sits up, looking down at himself.

Slowly, like a fog lifting, it dawns on Steve that all of that actually happened. That— that actually just happened. All of it. He did that. He could've gotten himself killed a hundred times in the last fifteen minutes and he hadn't even put up much of a fight. He would've gone willing from the second kiss onwards and he has no idea why.

And then it also hits him, when he doesn't hear any sound coming from the bathroom, that he's made yet another mistake amidst the thousand he's made since he stepped into this hotel room. He hurries to his feet, barely pausing to do up his own pants, and knocks twice, sharply, on the door. He waits. And waits. Knocks again. By the third try, when Bucky doesn't respond, Steve forces the door open, the wood groaning as he throws his weight at it.

Bucky is gone. Of course he is. Steve is an idiot and there's a window in the bathroom, left wide open, just big enough for Bucky to fit through.

So not only has Steve slept with Bucky, he's also allowed Bucky to get away. Again.

He presses his palms to his eyes, wondering what the hell is wrong with him, and when he opens them again he spots the piece of paper stuck to the sink, folded neatly in half. He grabs it, opening it and quickly reading over the sharp, small handwriting.

Contracts don't disappear just because an agent fails to finish the job. Someone else will be coming after her. If you want to keep her alive, I'd take her somewhere a lot more secluded than here.

It's signed, beneath that, with a simple Bucky. Steve reads it over twice before it sinks in and he realizes what it means: Bucky isn't going to kill Mary. Which— which is a relief, but it's also confusing. All of this is confusing. He's been trained to handle a million different scenarios, but nothing he's been taught ever could've prepared him for any of this.

Carefully, Steve refolds the note and tells himself to get his head together.

He pulls out his phone and calls in to S.H.I.E.L.D.

 

Chapter Text

 

"Did you bring every low-budget horror movie you could find?" Natasha asks, looking over the pile of DVD cases Sam's brought over with disdain wrinkling her nose.

"I figured you get enough action at work," Sam says, "and it was either this or Love Actually but I assume everyone's already watched that movie."

"I haven't," Steve says from the kitchen, waiting for the popcorn to pop.

"Neither have I," Natasha says.

Sam gapes at both of them. "Who the hell are you people? We're watching that next time. I don't even care if it's a Christmas themed movie."

"It'll probably be Christmas before you rope me into this again," Natasha mutters to herself, loud enough for them both to hear her. The smile on her face says she doesn't mean it, though.

There's something comforting about them getting together and watching movies all night, ignoring the rest of their lives and acting like they're just normal, average people. Like they don't risk their lives several times a week. Like they've never watched someone die right before their eyes, or been the one to pull the trigger.

He knows, without a doubt, that Natasha feels the same way. And she knows that he knows.

"What're our options?" Steve asks, as the microwave beeps and he pulls the scalding hot bag of popcorn out of it.

"Hockey mask and machete, or Freddy Krueger," Natasha says, holding up the cases for both movies.

Steve makes a face. "Not Nightmare on Elm Street."

"Why?" Natasha teases. "Afraid it'll give you… nightmares?"

"Ha, ha," Steve says. "If you want to watch it, fine."

Natasha puts it down both movies and holds up another. "Freddy vs. Jason," she says. "Compromise."

"Or," Sam interjects, "we could watch Batman."

"Since when are the Batman movies considered horror movies?"

"Since I don't like bats."

"You guys know I do own movies, right?" Steve points out. He digs a bowl out of the cupboard, rips open the popcorn bag, and gestures vaguely behind him to the entertainment stand. "Why don't you check in there? Bottom drawer."

"I don't trust your collection," Natasha says. "You still own a VHS player."

"Seriously?" Sam gets up before Steve can finish pouring the popcorn, opening the bottom drawer of the entertainment stand. "No way. We're watching Jurassic Park. It's settled. I won't accept anything else now that I know it's an option."

Steve grins at Natasha, eyebrows lifted. "See? Don't mock the VHS player."

"I won't mock anything if you get that popcorn over here," she tells him.

Steve shakes the bowl, tosses a handful of pieces in his mouth, and makes his way over to the couch as Sam puts in the movie. There's a single seat left for him, right between where Natasha has her feet tucked up under her and where Sam will be once the movie is in the player. He could take the recliner instead, the way Natasha had the first time they'd had a movie night, but they've long since come to realize that it makes a lot more sense to just squeeze them all onto Steve's couch. There's not a lot of room, sure, but the bowl of popcorn stays in Steve's lap so he's not complaining.

"How old is this movie?" Natasha asks. On screen, a trailer for a movie that came out nearly twenty years ago plays.

"Early nineties?" Sam says, reaching over to grab a bit of popcorn. "They just don't make dinosaur movies like this anymore."

"Aren't they making a new one?"

Steve can feel Sam's body go rigid with excitement beside him. "What?"

"I heard they're making a new one," Natasha says. And, changing the subject so swiftly Steve doesn't even realize it's happening, she adds, "I also heard you got in a bit of trouble at work with the Mary Houston case."

Miraculously, Steve doesn't choke on his popcorn. The only reason for that is because he's been expecting this since he got home a few days ago, and he's honestly more surprised that it's taken her this long to ask about it than he is about her asking in general. If there's one person on the planet you can't keep a secret from, it's Natasha. Usually she's pretty respectful with that particular superpower, never bringing up anything he hasn't mentioned to her yet unless she's genuinely concerned or angry.

He can't tell which one she is now. He doesn't know what she's been told or what she figured out on her own. As soon as he'd come to his senses, he'd arranged for a relocation for Mary and himself and had asked to be taken off the mission as soon as possible. That had led to questions, just as Steve knew it would, and he'd tried his best to answer them honestly to Maria Hill when he'd gotten back to headquarters. He'd admitted to letting Bucky escape, though he hadn't exactly gone into detail, and he'd told Hill that he couldn't be counted on where Bucky is involved, clearly, which is why he'd asked to be removed from the situation.

Steve isn't used to failing at his job, or the look of mild disappointment on Hill's face when he told her the abridged version of what happened. He's been given a minimum of two weeks leave and he's not sure what to do with any of it. Not for the first time, his time off seems daunting in its longevity.

(The marks on his neck are faded, now, but Steve can still pick them out when he looks in the mirror.)

"Fury tell you?" Steve asks, keeping his tone neutral.

"No. Considering our line of work, S.H.I.E.L.D. agents do love their gossip. When the golden boy screws up for the first time, everyone talks about it."

Steve lets out a self-deprecating huff of breath, looking down at his hands. "I guess I shouldn't be surprised."

"Who cares what any of them say," Natasha says sharply, sounding offended on his behalf. "You should be glad that you're still alive, Steve. Two run ins with the same Hydra agent? It's a miracle you're still sitting here. That's not how they operate. They kill. End of story."

"Maybe he's got a thing for you," Sam jokes, trying to lighten the tension that seems to suck the air out of the room at her words.

This time Steve does choke, on nothing but thin air. Or maybe it's his guilt. It's probably his guilt.

"Maybe," Natasha says dubiously. "He can't just back out of a hit, though. That's not how they work. Hydra agents blindly do as they're told, that's why they're so dangerous. When they're on a mission they're hardly more than self-operating weapons. They aren't given the option of backing out. When they fail to complete their orders, they're killed. When they make a mistake, they're killed. There isn't room for fumbles in their line of work. "

"Why would anyone want to be in it, then?" Sam asks, looking less disturbed than he should be, but that's because Sam's seen things in his life too. And it's a testament of how trustworthy he is that they're even discussing this in front of him, but Steve hasn't tried to keep secrets from Sam in a long time. While Sam might not be able to pick them out of him with a single glance, like Natasha, he's just not the kind of person you want to lie to.

"Most aren't given a choice in the first place," Natasha says, "and it's too late to back out once they realize for the ones that are."

"How do you know all that?" Steve asks.

"I've interrogated one once. That's about all I got out of her. You can't threaten or bribe them into giving you information. They know that once they talk, they're dead. Not even S.H.I.E.L.D. can guarantee safety from Hydra. Their agents can assimilate into society so seamlessly that you won't even notice they're coming after you until they've already drawn the gun, and we have no idea how many of them there are, or what they look like. The only thing Hydra does better than killing is hiding until the time is right."

She gives Steve an unreadable look. "If you're not dead right now, there has to be a reason for it."

"He wasn't there for me. He said he doesn't do casualties."

"So you've got an assassin with a conscious," Sam surmises.

"That explains quite a bit," Natasha admits with a frown, "but it doesn't explain why he didn't kill Mary Houston. They'll kill him for that. Walking away from his mission says he's not following Hydra's orders anymore. That makes him a liability. They won't let him live for long after doing that."

Bucky hadn't mentioned that part to Steve but he must've known. And why would he do it, if he had? Steve isn't naive enough to think that the throes of passion persuaded Bucky to make a choice that would put his life in danger, so why did he do it? And why does it feel like someone's punched Steve in the stomach all of a sudden?

"I forgot to get drinks," Steve says loudly, passing the bowl of popcorn to Sam as he gets up, looking for an excuse out of this conversation.

He feels Natasha watching him as he heads to the kitchen and figures, if he asks her, she'll be able to give him the answer to that last question. So he's not going to give her the chance.

 

-o-

 

"I need to stop running with you," Sam pants as they climb the stairs to their floor of the apartment building. "Look at me, I'm a mess. And then look at you. It's terrible. I smell like a men's locker room and I bet you still smell good, don't you?"

"I could use a shower," Steve says, pulling the collar of his shirt away from his sweaty skin. It sticks a bit. He pushed himself harder today than usual, knowing he isn't going to be working for a while and trying to make that up to himself.

"And lunch?"

"Are you buying?"

"I bought last time."

"We split the bill."

"Oh, right. I forgot. We're still at the point in our relationship where we both insist on buying and then split the bill. Can we just skip that and go to the part where you buy me food instead?"

"I don't know," Steve says. "If we take that step, next thing I know we'll be exchanging keys to each other's apartments and you'll be leaving all your clothes at my place."

"We've already done both of those things. But you can keep that shirt I left because it's not gonna fit my chest anymore anyway."

Steve makes a face of mock offense. "What's that supposed to mean?"

Sam grins over his shoulder. "You know exactly what it means."

The last few stairs pleasantly remind him of the burn of the run, something he'd been looking for when he woke up this morning feeling restless. He didn't have to ask Sam first. He'd been ready when Steve knocked on his door, laces already tied and dressed appropriately, and Steve is grateful for that. Grateful enough that, when they reach their floor, he says, "Alright, I'll buy lunch."

"You're a good man, Steve Rogers," Sam says reverently.

"But we're not going back to that burger place. Their fries were terrible."

"I take back what I just said. Those fries are great. You just don't have the proper appreciation for crinkle cut. You think shoestring is the only way to go, but you gotta get outside that biased state of mind."

"Do you want to pay?"

Sam raises his hands defensively. "Okay, okay. Shoestring is still an acceptable form of potato."

"What's an unacceptable form of potato?"

"Those creepy smiley-face fries."

Laughing, Steve pulls out his keys and unlocks his door, saying, "I'll come over after my shower," on his way inside. He tosses his keys onto the stand inside the door, hears Sam's door open and close down the hall through the thin walls, and then freezes, his internal alarms going off.

Someone is in his apartment. The air is too cool, like there's been a window open, and Steve knows for a fact he left them all closed. There's a list of possible people who would break into his apartment just to screw with him, so he doesn't panic, but there's also a list who would break into his apartment to do much worse. As far as friends go, Tony probably knows Steve would end up punching him (accidentally, of course…) and if it's Clint, he'd get impatient waiting for Steve and put on coffee; the pot hasn't been touched, and Bruce wouldn't ever attempt to break into Steve's apartment. It's definitely not Sam.

It could be Natasha.

Knowing this, Steve still steps into the kitchen, careful to keep his back to the door and not the rest of the apartment, and opens a drawer to pull out a knife. He'd rather have to ask for her forgiveness for pulling a knife on her than not ever ask her anything again because it's someone else and he's no longer alive.

Shirt still sticking to his skin from his run, hair matted to his forehead, heart pounding— either from adrenaline or the exercise, he can't tell— Steve creeps through his own apartment, knife at the ready. His living room is empty, as expected, and all the doors down the hallway are left open. There isn't any carpeting to muffle his footsteps and he winces when the bottoms of his trainers squeak against the floor, but no one flies out at him.

The guest bedroom is, as he left it, empty. He can't see all the way into the bathroom at the end of the hall but he doesn't think there's anyone in there, either. The linen closet is too small for anyone over the age of ten.

His bedroom door is cracked open, as it always is. Steve steels himself when he reaches it, using his toe to push it open wider and wider, sweaty fingers wrapped tightly around the knife, knowing exactly where to plunge it if someone jumps out at him that will wound and incapacitate but most likely won't kill them.

He finds Bucky sitting on his bed, back to the pillows, legs spread out in front of him, with one of Steve's books in his hands. He looks so engrossed in it, eyebrows furrowed and lips pursed, that he doesn't even notice Steve until the door is all the way open.

(For no reason Steve can understand, the knot of worry that's been growing in his stomach since his talk with Natasha the other day on his couch finally loosens, relief waving over him at the sight of Bucky alive on his bed, even though Steve knows he shouldn't be relieved at all.)

"What the hell are you doing?" Bucky demands, slamming the book shut as his eyes move quickly from the knife in Steve's hand to his face.

"You're the one who broke into my apartment," Steve feels obligated to point out.

He lowers the knife as he speaks, not giving himself time to wonder why. Why he's not just as on guard now that he knows it's Bucky as he had been when he'd been expecting an intruder, since Bucky is an intruder. A dangerous one. An incredibly dangerous one, at that, and yet Steve lowers his weapon anyway, the way he would if it'd been Natasha that he found sitting on his bed reading one of his books.

Bucky looks angry at him for it. "Yeah, with a gun," he hisses, standing up. "What the hell is a knife going to do for you, huh? Obviously you knew someone was here or you wouldn't be creeping around with that thing, but, what? You thought you'd take on an intruder with a knife? You telling me you don't own a single gun?"

"I was out," Steve says, taken aback. "I don't arm myself every time I leave the house."

If that was an attempt to appease Bucky, it definitely doesn't work.

"You should be," he snaps, looking genuinely upset. "S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn't hide the identity of its agents as well as you think. You should have a gun on you at all times, Steve, because anyone coming after you sure will and they're not gonna wait for you to get close enough to stab them."

"Are you one of them?"

Bucky snorts at him, sliding off Steve's bed and pulling out a gun in one swift, controlled move. He aims it right at Steve's head, eyes narrowed, and Steve forces himself not to react in any way because he knows it's a test and he's not about to be intimidated in his own home.

"You'd be dead if I was," Bucky says, placing the thing on Steve's bedside table.

"That's not all you're armed with," Steve says, nodding to the knife he can see at Bucky's belt. "I know you've got more. Get rid of them too."

"Now you're being cautious?" Bucky scoffs, but he does as he's told. Steve watches as he pulls weapons off of his body that most people would overlook, leaving Steve's nightstand looking like an armory by the time he's finished, with two guns and several knives and what looks like a very small, very concerning explosive device. "Can't exactly take the arm off, but that's everything else."

For some reason Steve believes him. That doesn't mean he trusts him, though, so he stays in the doorway, knife still in hand when he asks, "What do you want?"

Instead of answering, Bucky pulls out a piece of lined paper with torn edges, folded into a small square.

"You brought me your grocery list?"

Bucky huffs a laugh before he can stop himself and undoes one of the folds on the paper. "Not exactly," he says. "This is a list of six people who'll be dead by the end of the week."

This is why Steve is still holding the knife.

"What do you want?" he repeats.

"I need that hard drive back," Bucky says. Before Steve can open his mouth, he barrels on: "I know you can get it. And I know that you're not gonna let these people die, Steve. If I give you this list, you can save them. Or try, at least. In exchange I want you to agree that you'll get me that drive."

It's unnerving that Bucky knows him well enough already to know that Steve can't refuse this offer, but Steve also knows Bucky enough to know that there's more to this than what he's just said.

"What's stopping me from lying and taking the list?" Steve asks, knowing there's a catch.

Bucky rips the list in half and holds it out. "Insurance," he says. "I could just as easily be giving you a list of made up names. This way, you can have your buddies at S.H.I.E.L.D. prove that these are legit and I can hold the other names over your head."

"Lives," Steve corrects, anger flaring up. "You're holding three lives over my head."

Jaw clenching, Bucky asks, "Accept or decline?"

Steve stomps forward, tossing his knife into the pile and snatching the ripped piece of paper out of Bucky's hand. "Accept," he says. "Like you knew I would."

"You're an open book, and I like to read."

That is such a line that Steve almost smiles. He fights it down, asks instead, "Is that why you went through my bookshelf?"

"I don't get a lot of downtime."

"Not even to read?"

Bucky shrugs, looking guarded all of a sudden. "I'll see you in three days," he says, moving to grab his things. "That'll give you enough time to track down the people on my half of the list before another agent takes them out. If you don't have the drive, you don't get the other names."

Biting the inside of his cheek, Steve watches as Bucky picks up one of his knives, about to put it away, and grabs his wrist to stop him. He has to at least try to get the other half of that list now. There's a chance that Steve won't be able to get that drive, and he can't have the lives of three people hanging over his head like this. If he doesn't at least make an attempt, and those people end up dead, Steve won't be able to look at himself.

"Three days isn't enough time," Steve says, holding tightly.

Bucky's hand clenches around the knife and, for a moment, Steve can see how this plays out. In his mind he watches as Bucky whirls around, the knife going into his throat faster than Steve can react. In reality, Bucky takes a heaving breath, his face turned away from Steve's, and then the knife tumbles from his fingers and Bucky turns around, close enough that Steve can feel their chests touch every time they both inhale.

"This the part where you try to persuade me?" Bucky asks, looking up at Steve with one eyebrow raised in mocking. "Even if you could, I can't give you more time. I don't control when the people on that list are killed. I can't stop it from happening, but I can give you the names and you can try to get to them before it's too late."

"Or you could just give me the rest of the list now," Steve says, still holding onto Bucky. "You could save their lives."

"And why do you think I'd want to do that?" Bucky wonders.

Unconsciously, Steve's thumb brushes the soft skin of Bucky's wrist. "I don't," he admits. "I'm just hoping you do. Natasha said you don't get much of a choice with most things, but you have one right now. I'm hoping you'll make the right one."

"You think there's a better side of me to appeal to."

"I'd be dead right now if there wasn't, wouldn't I?"

"You're an idiot," Bucky informs him with a shove that has him backed against a wall. "I could change my mind at any moment. Right now you're useful to me. What do you think happens when you're not?"

"I guess I'll have to keep finding ways to be useful to you," Steve says, pulse racing despite the lack of fear.

Bucky leans into him, lips close enough to Steve's but not close enough. Anticipation swoops in his stomach and he waits, eyes open, but all Bucky does is press the rest of the list into one of Steve's hands and say, "You're not the only one that's been given a deadline. You have a week."

Swallowing, Steve curls his hand tightly around the list and tries not to think about Bucky's lips, or his disappointment, or how weak and wrong he is for wanting Bucky again. Because he does. No matter his conscious determination not to think about it, he can't help where his dreams wander and, more often than not, they wander right back to the floor of that hotel room. Steve knows it's screwed up. He knows he shouldn't want it. Somehow, that doesn't make much of a difference.

"I'm not gonna kiss you when you feel like you owe me something," Bucky says firmly, pulling away from him. He grabs one of his guns. "And don't do anything stupid. If you're not the only one here when I come back— if you let S.H.I.E.L.D. know I'm coming—"

"I'm not going to do that," Steve says, though, admittedly, the thought hadn't even occurred to him until now.

"Course you're not," Bucky mutters, shaking his head. "That'd be the smart thing to do."

Steve watches him for a moment, silent, but there's a question nagging at him that he can't hold in. "What happens if you don't get the drive?"

"What do you think, Steve?"

"They'll kill you."

Bucky laughs so hard he has to grab the edge of Steve's nightstand, shoulders shaking, the sound almost disturbing as it fills the air like a noxious gas. It hurts just hearing it. Steve can't help but drop the two ripped piece of the list onto his nightstand and reach out to put a hand on Bucky's back, trying to think of some way to comfort someone who probably doesn't want to be comforted by him at all.

When Bucky whips around at the contact, his eyes are angry and glazed over. He shoves Steve again, this time harder, letting him know that last time had been playful. This isn't. But last time Steve had just stood there, and this time he doesn't. He pushes back, grabbing both of Bucky's wrists when he tries to shove Steve again, turning him, backing him up against that same wall, pinning him there with his hands and the rest of his body.

"Don't," Steve warns when Bucky starts to struggle. "You can be better than this. You don't have to fight me."

Bucky is seething, head tipped back, hands curling into fists in Steve's grasp. "And what if I do, huh?" he spits. "What're you gonna do, Steve? Kill me? Like that's the worst thing someone can do to a person."

Steve blinks, grip loosening. There's a story behind what Bucky's just said, Steve can see it in his eyes, but he knows that if he tries to get it now Bucky will lash out again. "What do you want me to do?" he asks instead. Instead of pushing for more, asking for something he hasn't earned, he's offering.

That gives Bucky pause. He stops struggling, almost slumping between Steve and the wall, but he looks more guarded now than he had a moment ago.

"What do you want?" Steve repeats, getting the sense that Bucky doesn't get asked that question very often. He releases Bucky's wrists, backing up just enough to give him space to move away.

Bucky's struggling again, this time with himself instead of Steve. He moves forward, until they're touching again, and Steve decides that he's not going to sit here and take it if Bucky really does want to fight him, but he really hopes that's not the case. From the beginning, Bucky keeps doing things that prove he doesn't want to hurt people he doesn't have to. With the guard's at Parrish's house, with the people at the bar in St. Lucia, with Mary Houston and every single person on the list he just handed over. And maybe Steve's wrong, or naïve for thinking Bucky won't hurt him, but he hopes he's not.

"Damn it," Bucky grunts, grabbing a fistful of Steve's shirt and dragging him into a messy kiss. "I want you to push me away if you don't want this," he says, and then he kisses Steve again, just as hard as the first time, and Steve lets him.

This time they make it to the bed instead of going for the floor. Steve falls onto his back, bringing Bucky down with him, and holds him as close as he can manage without crushing their bodies into one. Steve's still sweaty from the run, probably doesn't smell the greatest, but if Bucky cares he doesn't show it.

He feels the tension in Bucky give way the longer they kiss, his body relaxing into Steve's seamlessly. In turn, Steve feels himself get tenser, more worked up the longer Bucky's mouth is on him, to the point where he has to pull away and breathe to get his thoughts in order. Bucky doesn't help at all, changing tactics as he makes his way down Steve's neck, remaking marks there that've since faded.

"Couldn't get last time outta my head," Bucky says, pausing to pant into Steve's shoulder. "I don't know what the hell you're doing to me."

"I'm not really doing anything," Steve says. "Yet." Because he has a few ideas of what he'd like to do to Bucky, ideas that have been flitting through his mind since the other day, ones that involve a lot less clothing and a lot less of Bucky ducking to hide his expression from Steve.

Bucky groans, hair tickling Steve's neck as he shakes his head, and then he goes back to kissing him like can't help himself.

"Your hair is… different every time I see you, you know," Steve says between gasps as Bucky sucks at his collarbone and tries to get up under Steve's shirt with his hand, the cool metal of it making Steve shiver.

Bucky pulls back, lips parted in surprised. "What?"

"Your hair," Steve says, waving awkwardly at it. Today it's not styled at all, falling over his forehead a bit in thin strands, not slicked back the way it had been last time, and not long and unkempt the way it'd been that first day. "It was long, before."

"Had to cut it," Bucky says distractedly, pulling back to shove a hand through his hair self-consciously. "I was supposed to do an undercover job and it draws too much attention, apparently."

"Yeah, I'm sure it's the hair that draws attention."

Bucky grins at him, dragging a hand over Steve's chest. "Yeah? What about you, running around in this thing? Do you not know what size shirt you wear, or are just doing the rest of the world a service?"

"This shirt fits," Steve argues.

"I'm not buying that," Bucky says with a shake of his head. "You should take it off so I can check the tag."

"Smooth," Steve teases, wondering how they managed to get from nearly fighting five minutes ago to this. To this oddly easy banter and the comfortable way they touch each other, like they've been doing this for years. It makes no sense, Steve knows it doesn't, but it feels like it could, maybe. One day.

Steve sits up and, with one hand on the small of Bucky's back to keep him from moving away, tugs the shirt up over his head and discards it without a thought for where it goes. Bucky stares down at him, head tilted, his grin slowly fading away as he looks Steve over in the bright light of his room.

"Thought maybe I was exaggerating how good you look in my mind," Bucky says quietly, "but I definitely wasn't."

"Gonna even the playfield?" Steve asks, tugging halfheartedly at the hem of Bucky's long-sleeved shirt. It's black, tight— though looser than Steve's own had been— and hinting enough at what it's hiding to make Steve desperately need to feel what's underneath.

"I'd rather get you naked instead," Bucky says, a finger slipping under the waistband of Steve's shorts. He drags his nails over the sensitive skin there, biting his lip when Steve groans and arches against him like he's surprised by how easy Steve is for him. "You're gonna kill me, I swear."

Under normal circumstances, Steve would think of something smart to say to that. As it is, he's busy trying to get Bucky's lips back on him, or Bucky's hand where he needs it. He's too transparent, though, his desperation too obvious, and Bucky uses it against him. He keeps one hand on Steve's chest to hold him down, the other skimming over his ribs, tracing the contours of his abs, brushing the waistband of his shorts with every chance he gets, never going any farther.

And then he brushes a hand up Steve's leg, slipping beneath the loose edge of fabric, and Steve has to force himself not to beg and groans, "Do you plan on doing that all day?"

"I definitely could," Bucky says. "How long do you think you'd last before you lost it?"

"Five more minutes and I'm flipping you over."

"Come on, give yourself some credit. You're stronger than that, Steve," Bucky chuckles as he scratches the inside of Steve's thigh. "I give you at least ten minutes. Maybe twenty."

"Bucky—"

"Saying my name like that just makes me wanna do it more," Bucky tells him, "but if you wanna beg, go ahead."

"I'm not gonna beg."

"You sure?" His fingers curl around Steve's hip from underneath his shorts, wrist just barely brushing the length of Steve's cock, already hard from hardly anything. "Bet you would, if I kept this up."

"But you're not going to," Steve says, sounding more confident than he feels.

"Why is that?"

Steve raises his eyebrows and pointedly looks down at where Bucky's straining against his jeans. "I'm not the only one who wants this," he says.

Bucky opens his mouth and then closes it again, looking caught. Steve feels victorious, for a second, until Bucky smirks and his eyes light up wickedly and he says, "Maybe I'll just get myself off while you lay there and watch."

Oh. That prospect does even more for Steve than the way Bucky is touching him. The thought of Bucky undoing his jeans and wrapping a hand around his cock, looking down at Steve with his eyes as intense and focused as they are now, lip between his teeth, flushed and groaning out Steve's name and Steve unable to do anything but watch.

"I could, if you want," Bucky says, looking less teasing now, more serious.

"What do you want?"

Bucky's lips tug up at one side and his thumb rubs circles into Steve's hip as he says, "You."

Steve snorts. "I meant specifically."

"I want you like this, on your back with your legs around me," Bucky says slowly. "Or on your knees. I bet you look good on your knees." Steve starts to sit up but Bucky pushes him back down. "Kinda wanna blow you, just to see if you'll let me do whatever I want or if you'll grab my hair and feed it to me."

"Bucky," Steve moans, either because of Bucky's words or the fact that he has a hand around Steve's cock, now, slowly stroking him as he speaks.

"Kind of want to fuck you in every way imaginable," Bucky concludes, "so I guess it's your choice."

"If you keep doing that you're going to make it for me," Steve warns, torn between wanting to push Bucky's hand away so this doesn't end so quickly, and the burning need to get off like this. "Could you just—?" Steve tries to pull Bucky down into a kiss, and finally Bucky actually lets him.

Honestly, Steve is content to just kiss him, despite how worked up he already is. Bucky seems to feel the same way, his tongue lazily moving against Steve's, slow and careless, his hands gentle in Steve's hair. He's just as happy for anything else, though, so when Bucky's hand starts drifting between their bodies again, over Steve's stomach like he can't get enough of it, Steve doesn't complain. Steve is far from complaining.

When Bucky's hand tugs the side of his shorts down, Steve kicks them the rest of the way off, barely pausing before doing the same with his briefs. The rough denim of Bucky's pants rubs at his skin everywhere, it feels like, until Bucky laughs and pulls them off, adding them to the pile of forgotten clothes along with everything Steve had been wearing.

Steve finds that he likes the way Bucky fits between his legs a lot more than he should, and he doesn't give a damn. As long as Bucky keeps kissing him, Steve's not sure he's going to give a damn about anything.

"In the drawer," Steve says when Bucky moves against him just right, wanting to get to it if they're going to get to it because if they don't soon he's going to come from just this, this friction between their bodies.

"Yeah, I know," Bucky says, leaning over and pulling open the bottom drawer. The slide of his body against Steve's as he moves feels almost good enough for those words not to register. Almost.

"Am I that predictable?" Steve asks, cheeks flushed.

"Yes," Bucky answer, dropping the bottle of lube (nearly empty) and the box of condoms (completely untouched) onto the bed. "But I also went through your stuff earlier."

Steve sits up, eyes narrowed. "You what?"

"I had to make sure your room wasn't bugged," Bucky says defensively.

"So you went through my drawers?"

"Necessary precaution."

"That doesn't happen again. For any reason."

Surprisingly, Bucky actually looks scolded. "Sorry," he says with a kiss to Steve's temple. "Make it up to you?"

Bucky works his way down Steve's body before he can reply. He's got a thing for leaving marks, Steve is starting to realize. There's a new one on his hip by the time Bucky is done, Steve clawing at the blankets as he works the skin there thoroughly, pulling back to look at his masterpiece before he gazes up at Steve again, an oddly clouded look in his eyes.

"I can talk a lot but there isn't really much room in my schedule for—" He swallows down the rest of the sentence. "It's been a while," he emphasizes, watching as he presses his thumb into the mark he's left on Steve's hip instead of meeting Steve's eyes. "So if I do something that doesn't feel good, you let me know, alright?"

"You're doing pretty good so far," Steve assures him.

Bucky smirks, that moment of vulnerability passing as soon as it had come. "Pretty good," Bucky repeats, quirking an eyebrow.

"A solid B-plus, I think," Steve says with a grin. "Maybe an A-minus. Always room for improvement."

"Funny," he says dryly. "Your file didn't mention you were a comedian on the side."

"You read my file?"

Bucky shrugs, almost sheepish. "Had to," he says. "Does that bother you?"

"No," Steve admits. "I would've read yours, if I had access to one."

"Even if you did, you wouldn't find much," Bucky says, expression darkening. "You can say a lot about Hydra, but they sure know how to erase a person's entire identity. Hydra assassins exist to follow orders. Your life before you join is considered a liability and is erased."

"What do you mean?"

Bucky shakes his head. "I don't want to think about that when I'm with you. Not like this." He grins openly even as he closes off to Steve completely. "'Besides, d'you really wanna talk about that," he says, lips hovering over Steve's skin again, "or do you want to see me turn that pretty good into a really good?"

He poses it as a question but it really isn't one. He's not actually giving Steve the option to continue this conversation, Steve can tell. He's saying drop it or I leave so Steve does. Maybe another agent would press for more, would take advantage of their vulnerable state to get information that could be highly useful to S.H.I.E.L.D. on a group that's been nothing more than a shadow for years, but Steve isn't going to. That's not how he operates. Steve has never been the interrogator. He's the enforcer. Natasha has always been much better at manipulation and getting information than he has, which is why they work well as a team, most of the time. Steve doesn't feel right trying to use Bucky while they're in bed together.

"Well," Steve says, shifting a little under Bucky's ministrations, "if you think you can."

And he does. God, he does. He has his mouth around Steve's cock before Steve can blink, red lips stretched wide. Despite what he's just said, it definitely feels like Bucky knows what's he's doing, even if he never takes Steve down too far. Steve has kissed him enough times to know just what his tongue can do, but somehow it still catches him off guard, the way it licks at the head as Bucky's hand slowly, torturously slowly, makes up for what he doesn't have in his mouth.

Steve can't help his gasp of surprise when the warm, calloused fingers of Bucky's right hand are switched for the cooler, smoother ones of the left. It's not a bad gasp, just a little caught off guard, but he sees the question in Bucky's eyes, the hesitance, can feel how loosely that hand is wrapped around him in comparison to the other and moans to let him know that it's okay, more than okay.

Bucky's eyes close when Steve threads his fingers through his hair, nails scraping lightly at his scalp. When he groans, Steve feels it go straight through him, making his hand tighten in Bucky's hair and his body bow forward without his volition. Bucky just groans louder.

"Hair pulling?" Steve asks.

Bucky doesn't answer, verbally, but Steve guesses that the way he speeds up, more enthusiasm than finesse, and the way he tilts his head into Steve's hand is probably a yes.

"If you plan for this to go somewhere else, you might want— you might want to stop that," Steve warns, making no effort to pull Bucky off of him.

He doesn't have to. Bucky leans up, lips coming away shinning and slick with spit and— Christ he's going to kill Steve, he really is. Just like this. Not even with a blade or a bullet but with that damn mouth.

"Do you want this to go somewhere else?" Bucky asks, flesh-and-blood hand inching up Steve's thigh.

"I sort of thought, you know," Steve says, eying the box of condoms on the bed where Bucky left them.

"You sure?"

The hand on his thigh moves higher, over the crease where his thigh meets his ass, and Steve unconsciously spreads his legs wider. "Whatever you want, Buck," he says, breathless enough that it's pretty obvious what he wants.

Either Steve's distracted or Bucky's just sneaky (both very valid possibilities) but Steve misses Bucky reaching for the lube and doesn't realize he has until he feels slick fingers brushing against him, blunt and a little too cold and not nearly hard enough to breach him just yet.

Bucky has a thing for teasing, Steve is starting to get. He bites his tongue, as quiet as he can be, waiting, but it isn't until he breaks, snapping, "Bucky," that Bucky finally pushing one long, thick finger into him with enough hesitation for Steve to groan and try to push back on it.

"Don't rush me," Bucky scolds, frowning with concentration.

"I can— god, I can take more than that," Steve says, frustration bubbling up inside of him. Bucky's being so careful, and Steve is grateful for that, really, but Steve has never been great with patience, when it comes down to it. "I'll let you know if I can't. Trust me."

Bucky's lips twitch and, just as Steve had when Buck said those words to him, he replies, "Probably not the best idea."

Steve starts to laugh, head thrown back against the pillows. That laugh dies in his throat a moment later, cutting off abruptly when Bucky pushes another finger into him sooner than he's expecting, the burn of it making Steve's toes curl.

"I'm good," Steve says before Bucky can ask. "I told you I can take it."

"Yeah," Bucky agrees, eyes downcast, watching the drag of his fingers in and out of Steve's body. "You sure can. Fucking beautifully, too."

Still, Bucky seems determined to take his time, either to let Steve adjust or because he just likes watching Steve squirm (for some reason Steve bets it's the latter). The room seems to get hotter with each passing minute, or maybe that's just Steve's body, and Bucky's forearm sticks to the inside of his thigh with sweat. He reaches down, pushing Bucky's hair off his forehead, and Bucky rewards him with a grin and a quirk of his fingers, and Steve forgets about the heat and the time and turns to bury his face in his pillow to smother a moan.

"Think you're good?" Bucky asks when he has three fingers in Steve, still moving just as slowly as he has been since the start.

"Yes," Steve all but hisses.

He's expecting a teasing reply to that, a smug grin and a lift of Bucky's eyebrows. He gets a kiss instead, Bucky moving up his body, and this time he notices when Bucky reaches for the box of condoms, his hand shaking just enough that Steve knows he's still nervous despite how he tried to play it off earlier. He fumbles with the condom wrapper, eyes narrowing, daring Steve to say something about it. Steve just kisses his jaw, waiting as patiently as he can.

Everything narrows down when Bucky finally pushes into him. It's been long enough since he's done something like this that the fullness almost catches him off guard, the way it feels to have someone inside of him, but it's hard to focus on that with Bucky panting into his neck like he can't quite get a steady breath, tense and still aside from the rapid rising and falling of his chest.

"Okay?"

"Are you?" Steve asks, tracing the length of Bucky's spine with a fingertip.

Bucky laughs at that, strangled and rough. "Haven't been this okay in a long time, but don't be surprised if this ends in about five seconds."

"Five seconds?"

"You have no idea how damn good you feel, Steve."

"Maybe I would if you'd move," Steve says, wrapping his legs around Bucky's waist, drawing him in closer. It's hard to tell who groans louder when that move has Bucky sliding even deeper into him, but it's probably Steve.

"Impatient," Bucky comments, but he leans up, one hand gripping the back of Steve's thigh, and does as he's told.

It's almost torturous, how slow and deliberately Bucky moves. His forehead is resting against Steve's, his eyes closed, lips twitching into a lazy smile every time he thrusts in just right and Steve sucks in a breath too fast. It's good, it's great, and it's terrible because it feels like everything in Steve is tightening each time Bucky languidly pushes into him, but it's just shy of not enough to get him off and Steve has been so close since Bucky had his mouth around him what feels like hours ago.

Bucky has been all words since this started, but now he's almost silent. He kisses Steve as often as he can without breaking his rhythm, not speaking until Steve groans, nails scraping against the cotton of his shirt, and says, "I need you to—" and he nods, mumbling, "Sorry, sorry," against Steve's lips as he reaches between them, wrapping a hand around Steve's cock like he can read Steve's mind.

Steve comes first, but only barely. Bucky's hands grip both of his thighs tight, keeping them from falling down, and even through the blissed out post-orgasm haze, Steve doesn't miss the way Bucky tenses, the way he groans Steve's name, how his fingers dig even harder into Steve's thighs as he comes.

Afterwards, Steve sprawls out and Bucky lays back, head on Steve's pillow, looking up at the ceiling. He's not sure if he grabbed Bucky's hand or if Bucky grabbed his, but their fingers are woven together in the space between their bodies and it's— it's almost nice. It is nice. It's weirdly intimate, somehow even more so than what they just did, so Steve rolls with it, not saying a word to disturb the quiet of their collective breathing and the cars driving by on the road outside.

He doesn't have to. The knock on his door does it for him.

Steve sits up, eyes wide. Bucky is slower, moving leisurely as he untangles their fingers and swings his legs out of bed. His back is to Steve.

"That's Sam," Steve realizes. How he'd forgotten about their plans, he isn't sure. Well, okay, maybe he is. "We were supposed to go to lunch after my shower."

"I should go anyway," Bucky says, finding his clothes on Steve's floor. "Shouldn't've stayed this long in the first place."

"You don't have to," Steve blurts before he can stop himself.

Bucky gives him a sardonic look over his shoulder. "Yeah," he says, "I do. What? You want to invite me out for lunch with your friends? I'm sure that would go over great." He rolls his eyes, standing up to pull on his boxers. "I'm not some guy you picked up at a bar and feel obligated to be nice to. That's not what this is, Steve, so don't act like it."

"I wasn't trying to."

"Yeah, you were. But don't worry about it, alright? You don't gotta make me breakfast and pay my cab home. The only thing I want from you is that drive."

"Do you even know what's on it?"

"Not my job to know. My job is to retrieve it, and if I don't—" Bucky shakes his head, hands fisted. "Just 'cause I haven't killed you yet, doesn't mean I won't. I need that hard drive and I'll do whatever it takes to get it. Don't fool yourself into thinking I won't."

"And then what?"

Bucky frowns at him. "Huh?"

"After you get the drive," Steve says, pulling his blankets over himself because he suddenly feels too naked to talk about this. "Then what?"

"Then I hand it over to the people who keep asking for it," Bucky says, looking puzzled.

"I meant with us," Steve clarifies.

Bucky looks at him as if he's lost his mind. "Then nothing, and that's exactly what you should be hoping for."

"Maybe it's not," Steve says, lifting his chin a bit.

"Then you're an idiot," Bucky says, tossing Steve's shirt at his face as he walks around the bed, grabbing the last of his things from the bedside table. "The only reason we'll cross paths again after this is over is because you're getting in the way of my job again, or because you'll be the job. And if that's the case, you better be prepared to run or put a bullet in my head before I put one in yours."

"You know I won't."

"Then you better hope we don't see each other again," Bucky says, and, with a softness that doesn't fit with his tone, he leans down and kisses Steve. "I don't want to hurt you," he says when the kiss breaks, "but I do as I'm ordered."

"Not always," Steve argues. If he always did what he was told, they wouldn't be having this conversation in the first place.

If those words register within Bucky at all, he doesn't show it. He gives Steve one last look, entirely unreadable, and walks out of the room, shutting the door behind him. It isn't until he hears the front door open and closed, too, that Steve thinks to check and make sure he didn't take the ripped pieces of the list with him.

He didn't, but the book he'd been reading when Steve got here, left on the bedside table when he'd spotted Steve in the doorway, is now gone. Steve hadn't even noticed him taking it.

All Steve wants, right this minute, is to take an hour long shower and think over everything that's happened. Either that or stay in bed until he's sorted through his thoughts and emotions and figured out what the hell is wrong with him and why he keeps letting this happen.

He can't do either of those things. He showers, only because he absolutely has to and as quick as he possibly can, and then he grabs the list and his phone. When the people whose names are on the list in his hand are safe, then Steve will take a moment to figure out what he's going to do. Until then, he's already selfishly wasted enough time. He's not going to waste another minute.

And when that's done he's going to do something he probably should've done a long time ago: Ask Natasha for help.

 

-o-

 

Steve isn't sure what he's expecting Natasha to say or do when he tells her everything that's happened. He's expecting her to surprised, definitely. Anyone would be, given the circumstances. Horrified, maybe, because Natasha's seen a lot of things in her life but he knows she'd never in a hundred years expect something like this of Steve. Disgust— he's afraid of that one. Distrust. Revulsion. Hatred. She'd be valid in any of those, but Steve is praying she doesn't hate him for this. If she does then maybe Steve should hate himself too.

He doesn't expect her to rub a hand over her face and say, "I'm making coffee."

"What?" Steve sits up straighter, dumbfounded. "That's your response to what I just told you? You're going to make coffee?"

"It's either coffee or vodka," she says as she gets up, heading for the kitchen of her spacious, open-concept apartment, "and I think that from here on out we need to be making smart, sober decisions, so. Coffee. Until we fix this, at least. Then we're going out and you're buying me a drink."

"You're going to help me fix it?" Steve doesn't mean to sound so hopeful, he just can't help it. She's not yelling at him, or kicking him out and telling him to never show his face again, and Steve is so grateful he doesn't know what to do with himself.

"You'd help me, wouldn't you?"

"Well, yes, but I don't think you'd ever get yourself into a situation like this."

"That's true," she acknowledges, the sound of water running drowning out the possibility of further conversation for a moment. "I'm not going to make you deal with this alone," she says once she'd filled her coffee pot, dumping the water into the back of the machine. "And I doubt you could, even if you want to."

"I don't even know what I'm going to do yet," Steve admits, feeling helpless as he leans back against the smooth leather of her couch. "I can't give him that drive. Not when we still have no idea what's on it."

"But they'll kill him if you don't," Natasha says, speaking the words Steve can't.

"Or worse," Steve says, remembering how Bucky had laughed earlier when Steve had said nearly the same thing to him. What're you gonna do, Steve? Kill me? Like that's the worst thing someone can do to a person.

"So we need a duplicate."

Steve cranes his neck, looking at her over the back of the couch. "A duplicate?"

"S.H.I.E.L.D. wants the drive. Hydra wants the drive. You'll lose your job if it goes missing and Fury realizes who's taken it. Loverboy loses a lot more if he doesn't bring it in. It's like two siblings fighting over the same toy. The only way to get them to stop is by giving them both one."

"Can we do that?"

"No," Natasha admits with a smirk. "But I know someone who might be able to."

When Steve realizes who she means, he shakes his head, nose wrinkling. "No," he says.

"Can you think of anyone else capable of doing this that we can trust enough not to let the hard drive fall into the wrong hands or get us fired and arrested?"

"No," Steve sighs, "but he's going to hold this over our heads for the rest of our lives."

"So this guy better be worth it," Natasha says, arms crossing over her chest. "I trust your judgment. If you think there's something in him to be saved, I'll help you with this, but you better be sure, Steve. I'm not saving the life of a Hydra agent so he can continue killing people. I've been on the wrong side before and I swore I'd never do it again, indirectly or not. If we do this, every person he kills afterwards is on our hands. You better be sure there won't be any."

"You want me to tell him to get out," Steve states.

"If you want my help."

"They won't just let him walk away, even if he wants to."

"You're right, they won't. They'll try to kill him. S.H.I.E.L.D. won't be able to guarantee his safety. He'll spend the rest of his life looking over his shoulder, waiting for someone to put a gun to his head. And if he doesn't think that risk is worth is getting out, then he's not worth either of us risking everything to help."

Steve blinks at her. There's a cold harshness in her words and it's exactly what Steve needs to hear. Everything she just said is right. Steve doesn't want Bucky to get hurt, but is he willing to help someone that's going to hurt other people?

Yes, Steve himself has killed people, and he lives with that because he knows he had to. Because he knows that if he didn't, a lot more people would've died. Bucky— Bucky follows orders, regardless of whether the person he's killing is innocent or not. If he continues to follow those orders, who knows how many people will be dead because of him? No matter how many he tries to spare, no casualties or not, I don't want to hurt you aside, he's still killing people.

As much as Steve wants to help Bucky, he isn't willing to push aside his morals to do it. He's not going to let Bucky kill another innocent person. Either Bucky will make that choice himself, or Steve will make it for him.

"The drive will buy him time," Natasha says, interrupting his thoughts. "Get Hydra off his back long enough for him to find somewhere to hide out." She pushes away from the counter, opening a cupboard to pull out two mugs. "How long did he give you to retrieve it?"

"A week."

"Are we doing this?"

Steve takes a moment, considering everything she's said. "Yes," he decides, sounding more sure than he could've hoped for, and feeling it too.

"Guess we better get that drive now, then."

 

-o-

 

Three hours later they step into an elevator in Stark Tower, the hard drive—hardly even a the size of Steve's palm— tucked safely into the pocket of Natasha's jeans. Steve doesn't ask how she got it. Natasha doesn't offer an explanation. They both agreed that retrieving the drive was a job best left to her, and she didn't disappoint. Stealing from S.H.I.E.L.D. is nearly impossible, but if there's one person who can manage to, it's Natasha.

"I replaced it with a replica," she says as the elevator starts to move almost completely undetectably. "It's not identical. If anyone takes a good look at it they'll know it's not the real one. It'll buy us a bit of time, though."

"How long is 'a bit'?"

"A few days, tops. Possibly less. They could already know it's gone. Let's just hope they don't."

"Seems like we're doing a lot of hoping," Steve says, ignoring the ball of worry in his stomach. "Hoping Bucky walks away from Hydra. Hoping we don't get caught. Hoping Tony will help."

"Tony will help."

"He might not."

"He will," Natasha says confidently. "I can be persuasive."

"I've seen what your persuasive looks like. We might not be the best of friends, but I'd rather you not shoot him."

"Oh, trust me," Natasha says wickedly, "I've got something better than the threat of violence."

"It better be good," Tony says, his voice echoing around them, coming from seemingly nowhere and everywhere all at once. "I can stop this elevator and have it bring you back downstairs immediately." Natasha rolls her eyes. "I saw that."

"We need your help, Tony," Natasha says, sounding exasperated.

"Why didn't you say so?" The doors to the elevator open to a large, high-ceilinged room with windows from the floor to the ceiling, a TV bigger than Steve's bathtub, a plush, dark carpet that seems to sink under Steve when he steps onto it, and Tony Stark himself, looking less than welcoming with his arms crossed over his chest and his feet bare. "No one ever comes to visit just for my company."

"Can't imagine why," Natasha says smoothly, watching out of the corner of her eye as the elevator slides back closed, the only exit in the room now cut off.

"Go on," Tony prompts. "Pitch me your sob story so I can decide whether I'm going to help you or not. I have things to do that I don't need S.H.I.E.L.D. standing over my shoulder watching."

"We're not here with S.H.I.E.L.D.," Natasha says, pulling the drive out of her pocket. "We're here with this."

"Yeah, see, that? Belongs to S.H.I.E.L.D., and I already told your buddies that I can't do anything with that. Whatever's on it someone really doesn't want anyone to access. I ran it through everything I own. Without the password, I can't help you."

"We don't need it decoded," Steve says. "We need it duplicated."

Tony's eyebrows rise at that. "For what?" he asks, looking curious, now.

"Not important," Natasha says crisply. "Can you do it?"

"Obviously. If you tell me why."

Natasha gives Steve a suffering look. Steve sighs and says, "Someone is going to get hurt if they don't deliver that drive to someone else. I don't want that to happen."

"Someone that's not with S.H.I.E.L.D.," Tony guesses. "Which means S.H.I.E.L.D. probably has no idea you have that. Which means you stole it, and now you're involving me in your law breaking."

"Essentially," Natasha acquiesces.

Tony tilts his head to the side, considering. "No," he says. "Sorry. As much as I'd like to help you, it's not worth it." It looks like he means it, too. "Come back to me with something that won't land me in jail or on S.H.I.E.L.D.'s shitlist and I'll be happy to do it, but I'm not touching that thing."

"Fair enough," Natasha says as she pulls out her phone.

"Who are you calling?" Tony demands.

Natasha smiles. "Pepper."

"Seriously? That's what you're using? Pepper? You're going to use my girlfriend against me? We both know I have about eleven illegal, experimental weapons upstairs and that's what you're blackmailing me with?"

"We're supposed to have lunch on Thursdays but I'm sure she won't mind a call from me now to tell her about the experimental weaponry you have upstairs in the building that she lives in."

Tony's eyes narrow. Natasha keeps smiling. In the quiet of the room, Steve can hear the ringing on Natasha's phone as she presses call on Pepper's number.

"Alright, fine," Tony snaps. "I'll help you, but if I go down for this you're going down with me."

"We need it to be identical," Natasha says, stepping forward to place the drive on the coffee table. "Not just the information but the drive itself."

Tony picks it up, examining it closely. "I'm going to need at least two days, then. I might have to order this online, and even I can't have something delivered to my door in five minutes. I'll call you when it's done."

"You have less than a week," Natasha says.

"I'm doing you a favor and you're giving me a deadline?"

"Six days. At the latest."

"I'll have it done in three, as long as I can find a replica of drive used," he says, slipping it into his pocket. He rocks back on his heels afterwards, looking between Steve and Natasha, and asks, with a look of almost-concern that feels out of place, "Are you sure you two want to be screwing around with something like this? I'm not exactly an expert on these things, but I'm pretty sure you'll both be in a lot more trouble than I will if we get caught."

"So we won't get caught."

"Yeah, you say that, and yet I'm still not comforted in any way."

Steve snorts a reluctant laugh. "Thank you, Tony," he adds, both expressing gratitude and putting an end to this conversation.

Tony waves him off. "Anytime. That's what I'm here for." He pauses. "Wait, actually, it's not. Next time ask some else."

"We had to start with the best first," Natasha says, falsely sweet.

"Flattery. If you'd have started with that I might've agreed right away, but no. It's always blackmail and threats with you people. Is that all? Or would you like me to erase someone's criminal record and forge a passport to get them safely out of the country, too?"

"We'll get back to you on that last one," Steve says, "but really. Thank you."

"You realize that the longer you stand here the longer it's going to take for me to duplicate this thing, right?"

"We're leaving," Steve says, a hand on Natasha's arm. "Let us know when it's done."

Tony's back is to them as they step back into the elevator, the drive once again in his hands. Whether they see eye to eye at all times or not, Steve trusts Tony with this, even if they had to threaten him with Pepper Potts to get him to agree to help. He could've just as easily threatened them right back, but he didn't, and Steve knows he'll do what they've asked of him and he'll do it well.

"That went easier than expected," Natasha says, sounding pleased.

"And you didn't even have to punch him."

"Shame."

"I can still hear you, you know," Tony says, voice surrounding them again.

Chapter Text

 

"Bed and breakfast?"

"Too much cleaning."

"Restaurant?"

"Can you cook anything but breakfast?"

"I'm offended by that question. Alright, candy shop."

Steve takes a sip of his coffee, contemplating that, and taps the eraser of his pencil against the page of his sketchbook. "No," he finally says.

"Bookstore?"

"Dying out."

"Jewelry?"

"What do either of us know about jewelry?"

"I know that usually I'm giving it away," Sam admits, propping his chin on his palm. "We keep coming back to coffee shop, and I'm just saying, you can't work for S.H.I.E.L.D. forever. Eventually you're gonna be too old to punch things, and then what? Does S.H.I.E.L.D. even have a retirement plan? You gotta think about your future, Steve."

"My future in the coffee shop business," Steve says, looking down at his book. He's been sketching for the last half hour, aimlessly, not really trying to draw anything specific. When he finds a pair of eyes looking up at him, closed, long lashes brushing beautiful bone structure, he isn't all that surprised. Embarrassed, sure, because drawing Bucky unconsciously is probably not the most normal thing, but not surprised.

"Co-owned coffee shop business. Think about it."

Steve shuts his notebook. "I will."

"Seriously?" Sam chokes out, looking startled.

"Do I get to design the logo?"

"Sure, yeah, definitely. If I get to choose what kind of music we play."

"Now hold on a minute," Steve says. "I'm not sure if I can agree to—" Steve's phone rings, interrupting them. "That's probably Natasha."

"Go on," Sam says. "That is one person who's phone call you do not want to miss."

"Sorry," Steve says, even as he pulls his phone out.

It's not Natasha. Steve's heart lodges itself in his throat when he realizes who it is, Sam eying him with concern as he slowly lifts it to his ear. His palms are sweating.

"Rogers." It's Maria Hill, not Fury, but that doesn't comfort Steve much. He's on leave right now, still. If they're calling him— they know he and Natasha stole the drive. They know that it's been given to Tony to duplicate. After what Steve has told them about his relationship with Bucky, despite leaving out almost all of the details, it's not a stretch to assume that they know what he's planning on doing with it, too.

Everything in his life is about to unfold and he can't do a damn thing about it but say, "Yes?"

"We need you to come in."

"Can I ask why?"

"I think that's a question better left answered in person."

Steve swallows. "Okay. I'll be there soon."

Steve rubs a hand over his face when she hangs up, wondering what the chances are of him getting a slap on the wrist for this. Slim, but he's done a lot of good work for S.H.I.E.L.D. over the years. Hell, he's dedicated his entire life to his job, can't afford to do anything but most of the time, and he hopes that maybe that'll make a difference. Maybe someone will understand if he tries to explain, but, then again, Steve doesn't really understand himself why he's done a damn thing that he's done since he met Bucky.

"Is someone hurt?" Sam hedges, the concern in his tone as personal as it is sympathetic. Sam knows enough of the people Steve cares about to care about them, too, and if anyone if them are hurt it'll affect him just as much as Steve.

"No," Steve assures him. "No one's hurt, just— possibly in a lot of trouble."

"What kind of trouble?" Sam's eyes narrow a little.

"It's kind of a long story," Steve says, downing the rest of his drink in one go and standing up abruptly. "I'll tell it to you when I get back, I promise."

"You sure you're okay, Steve?" Sam asks as he follows Steve to the door. "You know I'll help if you're in trouble."

He does. He'd trust Sam with his life without a second's hesitation. "I know," he says, a hand on Sam's arm.

"Good. I'm glad that you do."

"I'll be back," Steve says, pulling the door open. "And I'll call you if I'm not, so you don't need to worry."

"You're a worrisome person, Steve, so I'm probably gonna worry anyway, but you definitely call me if you're leaving the country and not coming back for a month and a half."

"That was one time."

"One time too many."

"You never will let that go, will you?"

"Not a chance."

Steve rolls his eyes amicably, but as much as he'd like to stay here with Sam and not have to deal with whatever's waiting for him at headquarters, he doesn't have much of a choice. Sam waves him off anyway, practically pushing Steve out the door, and Steve waits until he's halfway there to let it hit him that he truly might be walking into something he can't fight his way out of. Whatever happens, all he can do is hope he hasn't dragged Natasha down with him.

 

-o-

 

Steve walks into Maria Hill's office with the collar of his shirt feeling too tight, his tongue dry enough to stick to the roof of his mouth, the thighs of his jeans almost damp from wiping his sweaty palms on them during the entire ride over, to find Hill sitting behind her desk and Natasha lounging in the large, plush chair across from it with a grim smile on her face.

"Hiya, Steve," she says easily when he steps into the room, the door shutting loudly behind him.

There's nothing in her expression that alerts him to what kind of situation he's just walked into. He can't tell if he should relax or tense, so he settles for taking the seat next to her and waiting for more information.

"We have a situation," Hill says to him, but that still doesn't really give him much to go on.

"What type of situation?" he asks carefully.

Natasha digs her phone out of her pocket and hands it to him. On screen there's a text open, the sender's name listed asHawkeye. Dealing with assholes on Butler. Gonna need someone to buy me coffee after, is the last message from them, following a collection of replies from Natasha that start with buy your own coffee and fine I'll bring coffee and end with if you're ignoring me over coffee I'm kicking your ass.

The last one was sent two hours ago.

"That kind of situation," Natasha says.

"He's not answering to anyone," Hill adds. "We've all tried."

Steve pulls out his phone, knowing it's not going to work but having to try anyway, and calls Clint. The phone rings, and rings, and finally Clint's voice crackles in his ears, distant and indistinct: "Leave a message after the bee— wait, does this thing beep? Where's the manual for this piece of—"

"Good news," Hill says as Steve ends the call and pockets his phone, "is that we have a vague location. Bad news is that he's not on official S.H.I.E.L.D. business so I'm technically unauthorized to send a group of agents out to find him."

Outrage boils in Steve's stomach. "He's an agent," Steve says loudly. "That makes him S.H.I.E.L.D. business."

Natasha lets out a derisive snort. "Apparently everyone else doesn't see it that way."

"We're going to look for him," Steve says, "whether we're authorized to or not."

"I figured you'd say that," Hill says, dragging her keyboard closer to her, long, thin fingers blurring over the keys, "and I'm looking into a way around this so that I can send a team along with you, but every second we waste is a second—" She flicks a look between Steve and Natasha. "It might be best if the two of you leave sooner rather than later. Just… try not to make a mess. We're the ones who'll have to clean it up."

"I bet you look good in a maid's uniform," Natasha tells him, her eyes sparking with a challenge. "What do you say?"

Steve lifts a shoulder. "Always thought I had the legs for it."

 

-o-

 

"If you were Clint Barton," Natasha says twenty minutes later, "and you were somewhere in this area, where would you be?"

"Hmm." Steve looks around, cupping a hand over his eyes to shield them from the sun just beginning to set in the clouded sky. "Abandoned-looking building with the smashed out windows and the vans in the alley?"

"Predictable. Give me a second." She types something quickly on her phone and, a moment later, Steve's vibrates in his pockets. "Maria just sent you the layout of the building. Two floors, plus the basement. Apparently the owner is in the process of selling it to a prospective buyer. They're negotiating price. It should be empty.

'Should be' is very different from 'definitely is'. Steve has worked this job long enough to know that they could very well be walking into an empty building, or they could be walking into a room of armed men. Either way he's be prepared. He and Natasha both suited up before they left. If they're walking into a fight, they can handle it. Probably. Steve is optimistic.

"How're we doing this?" he asks, eying the darkened alley. He can't see much inside, apart from the front of a van, but if there're people there, they'll need a better vantage point to watch them from.

"We could go in together," Natasha offers, "or we could split up to move faster. One goes in from the basement, one comes from the roof."

"I'll take roof," Steve says, already heading for the building, going for the side that faces the road, not the alley. He can see a dumpster from here, and if there's a fire escape somewhere he can use that to climb. "Be careful."

"Same goes to you," Natasha says, her voice coming from inside of his ear instead of across the street. "It'll take me longer to get inside. If something's up, let me know."

"Will do."

He has no idea how Natasha is planning on getting access to the basement but he figures she's having help from Maria Hill. Steve has to find his own way in, trying to look as casual as he can as he circles the building, noting, with growing suspicion, that most of the people walking down the street seem to stay clear of it, going so far as to cross to the other side. It's like an unspoken rule between them all, an invisible sign painted on the brick that tells the locals not to come too close.

The dumpster, unfortunately, is too low, the nearest window higher up than Steve can jump. He circles around, coming back to the alley, and spots a fire escape on the other side of the empty van blocking the entrance. There's a door, too, but no windows. Steve decides it's worth the risk.

The bars of the fire escape are rusted and groan under his weight. They still hold, though, and Steve manages to get onto the roof just as the door below opens and three men stream out, two of them carrying a large box, the third opening the back door to the van.

"Only a few of these left," one of them says. "Boss says to leave the rest. The next guy can deal with them."

"Wish he'd deal with these ones too," one of the men carrying the box grunts. "The fuck do you think is actually in these things?"

"None of your business."

"Feels like my business. I'm the one hauling this shit. It's heavy."

"Not as heavy as the weights we'll attach to your ankles before we throw you off the Brooklyn bridge if you don't keep your damn questions to yourself."

Wisely, no one replies to that. Steve keeps watching as the box is lifted with a marginal amount of struggle into the back of the van, and waits for them to head back inside before saying, "Building's definitely not abandoned. They're loading up the van."

"With what? Could you tell?"

"Probably not stuffed animals," Steve says dryly. "I'm looking for a way in now. Where are you?"

"You don't really want to know. Let's just say I'm burning these shoes when we're done. And everything else I'm wearing."

Steve makes a sympathetic face, even if she can't see it.

The door on the roof isn't even locked. Steve snorts, pulling it open, and takes the stairs as quietly as he can, one hand on his gun, ready to draw it if he needs to.

He has a feeling he's not going to. These guys don't strike him as criminal masterminds. Flunkies. The guys who do the grunt work. Not the kind that Steve is usually sent to deal with. Then again, if Clint is here that means they managed to get the best of him, so Steve stays on edge, listening carefully with every step he takes to make sure he's not about to be rushed in the stairwell.

The door at the bottom of the stairs is left open, hanging off its hinges, and Steve sees exactly what the guys outside meant when they said they'd leave it for the next people to deal with. This entire floor of the building is bleak, paint peeling off the walls, holes every few inches like someone decide the wall was a punching bag. And there're boxes. Filled with what, Steve has no idea, but they create a maze, piled to below the knee in some spots and towering high above his head in others. He can't see across the room. He can't even see more than five feet in front of him, with the boxes blocking his way and the lack of lighting.

"What exactly did this place used to be?" Steve asks quietly as he makes his way around the first wall of boxes, concern rising. He might not even be alone right now. He has no way of knowing.

"Three guesses."

"Storage?"

"Ding, ding, ding. Some big corporate clothing company. They went out of business two years ago, apparently, and—" She cuts off with a grunt, a huff, and then says, "This is the last building they own. The owner's facing life in prison for fraud and two accounts of manslaughter. I guess this is where they sent the last of the stuff that no one was willing to buy after what happened with the guy who owned the place."

"Yeah, well," Steve says as he squints his eyes, contemplating the risk of pulling out a flashlight, "be careful. Paying the electricity bill doesn't seem to be high on their list of importance."

"I'm getting that," Natasha says, a loud creaking filling Steve's ear. "Shit."

"Nat?" Steve asks, just as he bumps into one of the boxes.

Steve freezes, eyes wide, and watches as the box wobbles, the eight or so other boxes on top of it also starting move, and reaches for it a moment too late. The box on top falls, and then the next, and then the next, each one hitting the ground and splitting open with a sound that seems to reverberate through the lofty room, clothes spilling out onto the floor.

On Natasha's end, Steve hears gunshots.

"Where are you?" Steve demands, moving faster than he dares, shoulders hitting boxes on either side of him. More of them crash to the ground, no doubt alerting anyone below him, and that's exactly what Steve wants. He wants them to come up here. He wants them to come after him. "Natasha!"

"Basement." Natasha grunts. "Find Clint. I'm fine."

More gunshots.

"That doesn't sound fine!"

Another gunshot, louder than the others. It takes Steve longer than it should for him to realize why, whirling around just as the next goes off, hitting the box next to his head.

"Doesn't sound fine on your end either," Natasha chirps breathlessly. "I think we should find Clint and get out of here."

Steve ducks around a corner of boxes just as more men stream into the room, moving too fast to count them, and says, heart racing, "Probably a good idea."

"There should be a room—"

Steve waits. And waits. She doesn't finish.

"A room where? Natasha?" Steve keeps moving, frantically repeating her name. "Natasha!" She doesn't answer. A moment later all sound from her end cuts off abruptly. "Damn it."

And then Steve rounds a wall of boxes and steps right into the barrel of a gun.

"You know this is private property, right?"

Steve looks down the barrel of the gun, then at the greasy-faced guy holding it, finger curled around the trigger. He swallows and refuses to allow the fear coiling in his stomach to overcome him because that's the fastest way to get himself killed, focuses instead on thinking of a way to get out of this without getting a bullet in the chest.

"Trespassing," he says, holding up his left hand. "Kidnapping." He lifts the right one, too, like two sides of a scale. "Which do you think gets you into more trouble?"

"Kidnapping?" More people come up behind Steve, their footsteps heavy enough to count. One. Two. Three. Four. Five— they just keep coming. Steve counts to eight before the one with the gun pressed to Steve's chest says, "You here for Barton? You should've—"

Steve never does learn what he should've done, but he does learn the unpleasant feeling of someone's blood and possibly brain tissue splattering his face. He doesn't have the time to spare the body slumping to the ground a single look or to figure out who exactly put the bullet through his skull, is too busy wiping one hand over his face and rushing at the man nearest him, his quick reactions taking the guy by surprise as they both crash to the ground and someone else shoots their gun.

There goes hoping they'll be careful not to shoot with Steve so close to one of their own. Friendly fire tends not to be a big concern for bad guys, for some reason.

The guy in his arms gets a blow to Steve's nose that leaves it aching; Steve knocks him out before he can land another, pushing himself away from the unconscious body and rolling behind the nearest stack of boxes. He climbs to his feet, moving as quickly as he can, given the lack of light or direction, and braces his hands when he comes to a wall faster than expected.

He can hear them following him, the loud, pounding footsteps and the shouts that carry easily through the room. Steve stops, breathing heavily, and thinks. And then he reaches into his pocket, fingers moving as quickly as they can over the letters of the text, and sends anyone who texts you after this isn't me and then throws it.

His phone hits a box far enough away that, when those boxes tumble over, the footsteps change their course, someone shouting, "To the left!" as Steve backtracks, coming up behind a group of three. They all have guns drawn, moving as quickly as they can while keeping their hands steady. They're too focused on finding Steve in front of them that they don't hear him come up behind them, grabbing the nearest one with a hand over the guy's mouth and his forearm wrapped around the man's throat.

Steve leaves the unconscious body behind a stack of boxes and thinks six to go. And that's only if they don't call for backup.

Six and Five are easy enough, Steve catching them both off guard. Four fights back with more vigor than Steve's expecting. His gun catches Steve in the corner of his jaw before Steve disarms him while the room gets a little darker around the edges. He stumbles over the body afterwards, trying to catch himself on a tower of boxes without thinking, and realizes that Three and Two are on the other side as the boxes rain down on them.

One of them goes down with the boxes. Steve grabs the other one, twisting his arm until he hears the sickening sound of bone breaking and the guy's bloodcurdling scream as the gun falls from his limp fingers. Steve shoves him away, kicking his gun in the opposite direction, and he runs off before Steve can do anything else

Smart move, Steve thinks as he looks down at the one on the ground. He's barely taken in the gun in the man's hands, not even registered the threat yet, as a bullet grazes his shoulder. It hits so close to his throat that Steve's entire world sort of narrows down, everything inside of him stilling, the burn of it lost in the numbness that waves over his whole body as he realizes how close that shot just came to being fatal.

Steve is not a stranger to pain. Steve isn't even a stranger to being shot, unfortunately, having a gun being drawn on him something he's learned to accept as part of the job. But he's never had someone get so close to actually killing him before in his life. An inch. An inch and he would be dead, nothing more than another body on the floor of this crumbling down building. His ears fill with the sound of his blood rushing, fear sitting sickeningly in his stomach. Natasha is downstairs; Clint is somewhere in this building; if Steve dies, he can't get them out safely.

That thought puts the world back into focus, gives Steve the burst of adrenaline he needs to move, but someone gets to the man on the ground before Steve does. Someone adorned in black: black cargo pants hugging tightly to toned thighs, black leather protective gear clinging to the man's chest, black mask covering the lower part of his face and his eyes, leaving nothing but forehead and the man's hair uncovered. Steve watches one heavy-booted foot connect with the jaw of the guy on the floor just as he shoots again, the bullet going wide this time, and knows from the force of the kick that he's not unconscious when he collapses against the cement floor.

The gun hits the ground with a softer thud than the man's head.

The one in the black walks over the body carelessly, striding towards Steve in deliberate, purposeful steps that are more intimidating than any single person has any right to be. Steve stays where he is, noting the gun in the man's hand, carried there easily like an extension of his body. It's fully automatic. Running, at this point, isn't an option. He could tear this entire room apart with a clip or two and the boxes aren't going to do anything to stop the bullets from getting to Steve.

Thankfully the gun stays at his side as he moves. The mask covering his face hides whatever it is that he's feeling, but there's something furious in the forward jut of his shoulders, in the precise way he walks like he's seconds away from going off like a bomb and if he moves too quickly he won't be able to stop himself. His presence alone makes the room feel colder, like a winter breeze is pressing in around them from an opened window.

Steve should probably move.

Steve stays exactly where he is.

A gentle hand grips Steve's jaw, tilting it sideways. There's a bruise there, one he hadn't even noticed himself getting, that throbs to life the moment he turns his head. He winces and the hand releases him, moving down his arm instead, over where the blood from the bullet that grazed him has stuck his shirt to his flesh. It pauses the moment Steve sucks in a breath, backtracking to pull the collar of his shirt down. Metal fingers are cool on Steve's heated skin.

"Just a graze," Steve says, feeling the question in the touch. "Nothing to worry about, I promise."

Though he can't see it, Steve somehow gets the sense that Bucky's glaring at him behind that mask as he releases Steve's shirt and pulls Steve's gun from its holster. He shoves it into Steve's hand, giving him no choice but to take it or let it fall, and then cuffs Steve on the back of the head lightly. At the same time, somewhere below them, Natasha bellow his name.

Shit.

"I have to go," Steve says, jerking his thumb over his shoulder in what he thinks is the direction of the stairwell that the men had poured into the room from, "but we're— we're going to talk about this later. About why you're here right now."

Through the mask, Bucky lets out a huff of air that sounds exasperated. "Go," he says, pushing Steve away from him."

It hits Steve, as he watches Bucky move in the opposite direction, that it must've been Bucky who killed the man pressing the gun against his chest not ten minutes ago. And he's just saved Steve again now, taking out the man on the floor with the gun before he could re-aim his shot and hit something vital instead of just Steve's shoulder. He's saved Steve's life. That's different than sparing it, or handing Steve a list of names. Twice, in the last ten minutes, he's saved Steve.

And Steve didn't even thank him.

He doesn't have time to think about it, about what any of this even means. Natasha needs his help and they need to find Clint and get out of here. Until they do, Steve can't let himself be distracted by the dozens of questions flicking through his mind, rapid fire. Nothing screws up Steve's focus like Bucky, and he knows this, but it's not just Steve's life in danger right now, and that's enough to push Bucky and everything he's done to the back of his mind. For now, at least.

Steve passes too many bodies on his way to the stairwell and tries not to think about how many of them are unconscious and how many of them are dead. He picks his way over one, moving quickly, just as Natasha runs up the stairs, looking a mess. There's a gash on her forehead, her hair stuck in it, and her outfit is ripped in more spots than one. She's favoring her left leg, too, and she's… wet?

"Sewers?" Steve asks, wrinkling his nose.

"Next time I'm taking the roof."

 

-o-

 

Steve winces in sympathy when they find Clint handcuffed to a metal table that seems to be built into the wall it leans against. If Natasha looks like she's just finished a fight, Clint looks like he's just lost one: his right eye is swollen entirely shut, the skin stretched over it pink and inflamed; his lip is puffy and split and blood is crusted all around his mouth, from his nose and maybe the lip itself; his wrists are bloodied and raw. He barely even lifts his head when they walk in.

"Trust me," he says, voice cracking, "it actually feels worse than it looks."

"Let's get you out of here," Steve says, bending down to examine the handcuffs without hurting Clint's wrists more than they already are.

"Or we could stay and have a picnic," Clint suggests. "Good atmosphere in here. I like it."

"I've got it," Natasha says, moving Steve out of the way as she pulls something from her pocket that doesn't look like a pair of keys, but the handcuffs come undone anyway and Clint slumps forward, head lolling, his wrists lifted at his sides as if he's too afraid to let them touch anything. "Can you walk?"

"Probably," Clint says, "but why don't you stay right there just in case I can't?"

They both do, but in the end it's not needed. Aside from bruised ribs, Clint seems to be alright. Good enough to walk without help in any case, though Steve hovers by his side the entire way through the building to the side door where the van had been.

"Everyone fled," Natasha explains as she sends off a text to someone. "Everyone who could, anyway. We were fighting one minute and then they were all running the next. Since this wasn't technically a S.H.I.E.L.D. related operation, I figured we'd leave the chase to someone else." The bitter anger in his tone matches Steve's.

"I can't believe they were going to just leave him to fend for himself," Steve says lowly, eying Clint where he's leaning against the wall. All jokes aside, he's is playing it off, acting like he's fine, but he doesn't look it. He doesn't look it at all. "What do you think they were going to do with him?"

"I was kind of trying to figure that out myself, before you two showed up," Clint interrupts. "I didn't come here to get the shit kicked out of me for fun."

"Do you know what was in the boxes they took?" Steve asks.

"Surveillance equipment, from what I could tell before they found me snooping through the boxes and decided to handcuff me to a table and punch me a few times."

"Do you know what it was for?" Clint shrugs. "Great. And we let them get away with that to do God knows what."

"Not all of it," Natasha points out. "They were still loading things into the van when we got here. We put a dent in their plans, at least. A good amount of their men are dead. I left a few alive but incapacitated. If S.H.I.E.L.D. decides to make this their business I'm sure they can figure out where the rest of the equipment went."

The problem is, it should've been S.H.I.E.L.D. business from the start. If they had backup they could've kept everyone from getting away in the first place, and now they're going to have to clean up a mess that could've been completely avoided. Steve's trying not to be angry because it's not Natasha or Clint's fault, but he is anyway. None of this should've happened. He and Natasha could've died. Clint would have, if they hadn't shown up. S.H.I.E.L.D. is supposed to be the good guys, but last time Steve checked, the good guys take care of their own. They don't leave them to fend for themselves.

Suddenly, most of the guilt that's been clogging Steve's lungs since they stole the hard drive dissolves.

"Go home, Steve," Natasha says, her eyes on his shoulder. "Clean that up. I can handle everything from here. Hill's sending a car to pick us up."

Steve shakes his head. "I'm not going anywhere until you're both safely in the car. If those guys come back with backup, you're going to have a tough time protecting yourself and him."

"Why don't we all just go back to Steve's?" Clint suggests. "Or, even better, why don't we go visit Steve's hot neighbor?"

"You're covered in blood, Clint," Natasha reminds him.

"Some people are into that."

Natasha rolls her eyes. Clint might not see her smile when she turns away from him, but Steve does.

 

-o-

 

Steve doesn't get home until late. For something that S.H.I.E.L.D. didn't seem to care much about, he's briefed afterwards for what feels like hours, trying to keep his anger in check as he reminds the agent interrogating him over and over that they should've been given backup before they went, not questioned afterwards. It doesn't help that his jaw is aching and his shoulder is stinging, and he's not exactly happy that they let the bad guys get away, either, but he sticks it out, being as polite and cooperative as he possibly can be until he's given the clearance to leave.

He stops at Sam's apartment before heading to his own, letting him know that Steve lost his phone after throwing it across a storage room full of boxes to distract a group of men with guns trying to find him— and to grab the sketchbook he'd left when he'd hurried out of Sam's apartment earlier.

If he could, Steve would head straight to bed when he walks into his apartment. Instead, he's stuck dropping his sketchbook onto the table and dragging out his first aid kit, the wound on his shoulder not something he can leave until later, no matter how badly he wants to.

Cleaning it hurts. The distraction of the pain is almost welcomed, though, the burning sting clearing his head enough for earlier questions to rise back to the surface. If Bucky hadn't been there, what would've happened to Steve? And why the hell was Bucky there? And where did he go? Steve doesn't like not having the answers to those questions. It leaves him feeling suspended, the ground under his feet unsteady. It's dangerous, letting Bucky catch him off guard like this. He's lethal and Steve would feel a lot more comfortable having some idea of what he's going to do next, but he doesn't. He doesn't at all.

Until Bucky returns to get the drive, Steve isn't going to get the answers to those questions, and he resigns himself to that as he pulls his shirt on over his bandaged arm.

At least he can just go to sleep and let his thoughts shut off for a while. Sam won't be stopping by tonight, not after Steve told him he was going to sleep when he got in. Steve can climb into bed, let himself relax, and not have to deal with assassins that won't get out of his mind— or, apparently, his life— until he wakes up. In the morning, maybe those answers won't be as important to him.

The moment Steve pulls back the covers on his bed, someone knocks at his door. He groans, considering leaving it, but if it's Sam something might be wrong, and if it's not Sam it's probably Mrs. Lynch from the apartment above his and she'll just keep knocking and knocking until he answers.

"Coming," Steve calls, giving his bed a longing, sad look before he pads down the hall, nearly running into Natasha when he rounds the corner.

"Spare key," she explains, holding it up for evidence. Not that she couldn't just pick the lock, if she wanted to. "Were you in bed?"

"Almost," Steve sighs, heading past her, aiming for the coffee pot. "Coffee?"

"I'll take one of those bottles of water you keep in your fridge."

Steve takes a detour to the fridge, grabbing her a bottle and tossing it in her direction. "You went through my fridge?" he asks as he puts on coffee.

"You're a single man, mid-twenties, and your job requires you to be in peak physical condition. I don't have to go through your fridge to know you have bottles of water." She unscrews the cap, taking a long sip. "Clint's fine, by the way."

"I'm glad," Steve says. "Is that why you came over here? To tell me that?"

"No, actually. I came to tell you that Tony Stark says hi."

Steve frowns at her over his shoulder. "You came all the way over here to tell me that?"

"And give you this."

It's instinctual, moving to catch whatever it is she's thrown at him. The drive is smooth and just large enough that he almost drops it. Steve stares blankly down at it once it's safely in his hand, wondering how this thing has managed to cause as much trouble as it has.

"I'm bringing the original back to HQ tomorrow. Figured I'd get this one off my hands as quickly as possible, unless you're having second thoughts." Her eyes narrow the slightest bit and Steve gets the feeling that she sees everything when she looks at him like this. "Are you sure you want to do this?"

Steve turns the thing over and over, flipping it between his hands and not really seeing the thing at all. "He saved my life today," he says quietly, still turning the drive over in his hand. "Twice."

"He— what?"

"Today, upstairs," Steve says, looking up to find her expression wiped clean, only the tense set of her shoulders giving anything away. "Someone had a gun pressed to my chest. Bucky killed him before he could pull the trigger. And then later, the one who gave me this?" Steve gestures to the bandage peeking out from under his sleeve. "He got off another shot. Probably would've hit something a lot more worse if Bucky hadn't been there."

"You didn't mention he was there."

"Because I still don't know why he was. I didn't tell him to be. Either he's following me or he had his own reasons to be there. I'd rather wait until I know which before I mention any of this to anyone else."

Natasha's lips twitch. "Maybe he was looking to make a booty call."

"He was carrying an assault rifle."

"I don't know about you, but I always take assault rifles with me when I—"

They both notice it at the same time, the sound of Steve's window being creaked open. The one in his bedroom is rarely used, this time of year, what with the building's central air, and it always makes a grating, scraping when he finally opens it. It's not that loud, and maybe two normal people wouldn't notice, but his and Natasha's lives depend on noticing things like this.

And then there's a thump, a groan, and Natasha is darting down his hallway, gun already drawn before Steve's even taken a step. With a burst of inspiration, Steve drops the drive into the container of Folgers coffee, shoves the lid on and then races after her, coming to a skidding halt just before they collide.

"A gun," Bucky says from where he's sprawled out on on Steve's floor, his head tipped back to look up at the two of them. He's pale, his shirt is soaked through with blood, and he's struggling to keep his eyes open. "See, that's the proper way to respond to someone breaking into your god damn house, Steve. Not a knife," he finishes, and then his eyes close and they don't open again.

"Bucky," Steve says, moving into the room as Natasha reluctantly puts away her gun. He kneels down, taking in the extent of the blood, and gives Natasha a panicked look. "He's been shot. He's— he's covered in blood. We need to take him—"

"Nowhere," Bucky says, gravelly enough that he could have a mouth full of marbles. "I'm fine; I just hit the fucking floor a lot harder than I thought I would. Most of that blood's not mine."

"Can you move?" Natasha asks, striding briskly into the room.

Bucky opens his eyes to give look at her warily. "I could still kill you right now, if that's what you're asking."

"Get him into the bathroom," Natasha orders, ignoring Bucky entirely, "and bring me your first aid kit."

"I'm not letting her touch me," Bucky says, pushing himself up into a sitting position, not turning his back on Natasha for a moment.

"Or I could knock him unconscious until I've dressed the wound," Natasha offers.

Steve fists his hands, letting the nails bite into his palms, and eyes the blood on his floor, smeared, thick and dark, and the rest of it staining Bucky's clothes. Maybe he's not as bad as he looks, maybe it really is just the pain of the fall making him so white, maybe it really is someone else's blood that makes him look like the scene of a horror movie. But either way, Steve isn't chancing it.

"You came here for a reason," he says quietly. "Let her help you."

"I came here to make sure you hadn't gotten yourself killed," Bucky murmurs, talking for Steve's ears only. He uses Steve's bed to help himself to his feet, swaying a little as they stare each other down. "You didn't. I'm leaving."

"Bucky."

"You gonna stop me, Steve?" he challenges, nothing intimidating about it when it looks like he's about to collapse.

"No, I'm not."

"Then I'm leaving," Bucky says with a careless lift of his shoulder that has him wincing. He hides the pain quickly, a weakness he isn't willing to show to the two of them, and turns to the window as if he plans to go back out the way he came in. Steve reaches for him before he can, hoping that he isn't making Bucky's pain worse as he grabs Bucky's hand in his own. "What? Gonna tell me to at least use the door?"

Steve tightens his grip on Bucky's hand and simply says, "Trust me."

Something about the way Bucky reacts to those words has Steve thinking that he would've preferred a physical attack instead. For a moment he looks so trapped that Steve regrets opening his mouth, his left hand, the shine of the metal dulled by a coating of dried blood, curling into a fist while the other one hangs limply in Steve's, only the pulse beating erratically against his thumb indicating any life at all.

Steve watches Bucky shut down like a machine that's been unplugged. "Fine," he says.

When Steve releases his hand, Bucky heads straight for the bathroom. Steve wonders if his concern for how sluggish Bucky moves is written on his face, and, with one glance at Natasha, figures it probably is.

"'Trust me,'" she mocks, looking more amused than the situation calls for. "That's adorable."

"Just be careful with him," Steve says, rubbing a hand tiredly over his face. "Please."

Natasha straightens up, looking serious again. "Get me the first aid kit," she says, "but if he tries something I'm not going easy on him."

Steve nods, a hand brushing her shoulder as he passes her, and for the second time in too few hours he finds himself pulling out his first aid kit. He carries it to the bathroom, wondering if he should grab something else and feeling a little helpless. Steve can patch himself up just fine, knows basic first aid, but something about Bucky on his floor like that when he'd first walked in shook Steve. Froze him. He's not sure what he would've done without Natasha's help. (Admittedly, that's true about a lot of things.)

The bathroom door is open, the bright light making Bucky's skin look even paler when Steve finds him sitting on the lid of the toilet, Natasha pocketing a knife as he walks in. She's cut Bucky's shirt right down the middle, the two sides hanging off his shoulders, and Steve isn't sure where to look first. The gunshot wound, the spread of dark blood, or the— or the scarring.

It makes sense, now, why Bucky's refused to take his shirt off every time they've been… intimate together. The prosthesis curves up over his shoulder, higher than Steve had been expecting. The area around it is an angry map of scarring where the metal has been fused to his body. It's not a pleasant sight. Steve doesn't want to look at it but he can't stop.

All he can think, when he sees it, is that whoever attached that arm didn't have much of a care for Bucky at all while they were doing it. Even if he'd been sedated at the time, the extent of the scarring is extreme to the point of carelessness. It's sickening, not the sight of it but the thought of someone doing that to him.

"Get him out," he hears Bucky say, the sides of his shirt brought together in a tight fist, hiding his body from Steve. He has his head ducked.

"I'll take that coffee now," Natasha prompts when Steve hands over the kit. "Something for him, too. He's lost a good amount of blood. Probably not enough to be fatal, but he needs fluids."

"Right, I'll—"

"And something to eat," Natasha adds before she shoves Steve the rest of the way out of the room, shutting the door between them.

Steve blinks at it, stunned. Natasha is willingly locking herself in a room with Bucky. That— that doesn't even— Steve can't process that. It's the farthest thing from something he'd expect from her that he can't do anything but stand there for a moment. And then he hears her muttering something lowly, too quiet for him to understand, and Bucky's even softer response. He retreats. If they want privacy, Steve isn't going to interfere with that. Even if he doesn't really understand it.

It's difficult not to knock on the door or even barge in to make sure things are okay, but Steve trusts Natasha and he thinks he trusts Bucky, too, enough not to do something that will make Natasha hurt him (and she can. Steve has not a shred of doubt inside him that Natasha can and will kill Bucky if he forces her hand). They don't need his help, obviously, no matter how badly Steve wants to offer it. All he can do, for the time being, is watch the coffee pot slowly fill up and root around in his fridge for something to eat.

He needs to go grocery shopping, Steve notes as the time ticks by. He grabs a notepad and a pen, scribbling down whatever comes to mind, and sticks it to the fridge with a magnet. The coffee pot is full by the time he's done and, according to the clock set into the stove, eleven minutes have passed. Steve wonders how long this is going to take and adds 'eggs' to the list as he worries his lip between his teeth.

It's a miracle there isn't a path woven into his floor by the time Natasha emerges from the bathroom, what with Steve's endless pacing. She takes one look at him, her eyebrows arched high, and takes the coffee he holds out to her, wrapping both hands around it to keep Steve's unsteady ones from spilling any of it.

"He's fine," she says as she sips. "Clean entry and exit. Didn't hit anything important. I bandaged him up as best as I could but he's going to have to have a professional look at it eventually in case it gets infected. He'll be alright for the night, though."

If she weren't holding the cup, Steve would hug her. "Thank you," he settles for, cutting off his pacing. "Really, Natasha. You didn't have to do any of this. I wouldn't've held it against you if you didn't."

She rolls her eyes at him, finishing the rest of her coffee in one long sip. "Just promise me you'll be smart about this," she says as she puts her cup in the sin. "Don't let your feelings for him cloud your judgment. He's vulnerable right now and that makes him more dangerous, not less. People are capable of terrible things when they feel threatened. He might care about you enough to come to you when he's hurt, but that could change without a moment's notice. You need to be prepared for that, if it comes."

Steve nods. "I am."

"Are you?" Natasha wonders. "Are you prepared to kill him if you have to? If it's you or him, are you prepared to do what you have to in order to keep yourself alive?"

"You think I'm not?"

"I think he broke into your house covered in blood and your first instinct was to run to him," Natasha says, quiet but fierce. "I think that, for right now at least, you have something over him and that's keeping you alive. But the second you hand over that drive, things might change. Keep that in mind, Steve. Right now you have something he wants. What happens when you don't?"

Right now you're useful to me. What do you think happens when you're not?

"I'll keep that in mind," Steve says. "I swear."

She doesn't look all that assured. "I'm calling you in the morning. If you don't answer I'm going to assume something's happened to you and I'll shoot first and ask questions second. Got it?"

"Got it."

Unexpectedly, she leans up and presses her lips to his cheek. "Don't get yourself killed, alright?"

"I always try not to."

"Sure you do."

"What does that mean?"

Mutely, Natasha pointedly looks down the hallway towards the bathroom. Steve gets what she's not saying. "I'll see you in the morning," she adds.

"In the morning," Steve agrees.

"And if you change your mind about giving him the drive, destroy it. We don't need two of those things floating around."

Steve nods his agreement, following her to the door. She hesitates just outside it, as if unsure of whether or not she's actually going to leave, but then she squares her shoulders and turns her back to him, disappearing down the hall in a handful of quick steps, not looking back once.

With her gone, the apartment feels oddly small and quiet. Steve heads to the fridge, getting a glass of juice, and snags an apple off the counter. The clanking of the glass against the counter, the fridge closing, and every breath he takes sounding so loud. He can't hear Bucky at all, though. Maybe, in the time he spent talking with Natasha, Bucky's snuck out. Steve wouldn't put it past him.

The bathroom door is once again wide open, the room empty. Steve pushes open the door to his bedroom, expecting much of the same, and instead finds Bucky sitting on his bed, looking down at his hands and wearing a soft blue shirt that he definitely hadn't come here in.

"Is that mine?" Steve asks, resting his shoulder against the doorway.

"Figured you'd rather me steal your shirt than sit here without one."

"Well," Steve says, stepping into the room and leaving the cup and apple on the bedside table when Bucky doesn't look up or make any move to take them, "it looks good on you, but I wouldn't've minded the other way around either."

Bucky makes a rude sound, glaring up at Steve with a storm of anger in his eyes. "You know, acting like it doesn't exist makes you more of an asshole than just admitting it bothers you."

"Alright," Steve says. If that's how Bucky wants to play this, fine. "It does bother me. The fact that someone did that to you bothers me. The thought of someone hurting you? Yeah. That bothers me too. And if you think that a few scars and a prosthetic arm are gonna be the thing to make me not want you, you haven't been paying attention. There're a lot of good reasons for me to tell you to get the hell out right now, but this? This isn't on the list."

Bucky stares at him steadily, passive, nothing in his expression changing until he lowers his gaze to the floor and says, "You probably should tell me to get out."

"Too late for that. Drink your juice."

"What?"

Steve tries to stand a little taller, crossing his arms sternly over his chest. "Natasha said you need fluids."

"Natasha also said she'd personally lower me into my grave if I lay a single, non-consensual finger on you," Bucky mutters, a smile fighting its way onto his face as he grabs the drink. "I like her. She's good for you."

"Too good for me," Steve admits. He sits himself on the bed, far enough away from Bucky to not intrude on his personal space. "How're you feeling?"

Bucky shrugs at him, the apple in his hand now instead of the juice. "Not my first time being shot," he says. "I can handle it."

"You hadn't been shot when I saw you in the warehouse," Steve says, puzzled. He folds his hands in his lap to keep from touching without having permission. "What happened, Bucky?"

"You," Bucky sighs, turning the apple over and over in his hand. "The guy running the operation at the warehouse has a pretty big bounty on his head right now. He was supposed to come pick up the shipment, and I was across the street on the roof. I'm good with a sniper. It should've been an easy job. He shows up, I take him out, I walk away. But then you show up, just stride in there and screw the whole mission." He glares at Steve, suddenly ferocious. "What the fuck was that, Steve? Do you know how many guys were in there? The fuck were you thinking?"

"I was thinking my friend was inside and I had to get him out," Steve says slowly, "and I'm not as helpless as you seem to think I am, you know. I'm good at my job. I can defend myself."

"I've fought you. I know that. But even the best out there can't go up against ten armed guys with nothing but his fists, dumbass. You— God, do you know what it was like to walk in there and see you with a gun pressed to your chest and know that every time I blinked I might open my eyes again to find you dead?"

Is it wrong that a part of Steve focuses more on Bucky caring about him than the fact that he could've died? Probably. Good thing it's only a small part.

"I didn't complete my mission because of you. Again. If I went back to my boss and they realized that, they'd look into why. If they figure it out— I had to finish the mission, Steve, so I did. Things got a little complicated. It wasn't the clean job it was supposed to be and I got hurt."

"I'm sorry, if it's any consolation."

"Don't apologize," he says. "It's not your fault I'm an idiot."

"For getting yourself shot?"

"For getting myself shot and still caring more about whether or not you were alright." His fingers brush up Steve's arm, coming to a stop just below the bandage there. "That okay?"

"Just a graze."

"Shouldn't of fucking hit you in the first place," Bucky growls, but for the first time his anger isn't directed at Steve. "I killed him for it. You know that, right?"

"I know."

"That bother you?"

"You're not the only one who's killed people. If it had been Natasha and the guy was still aiming his gun at her, I would've done the same. Sometimes you have to. Maybe you don't want to, but you're not always given a choice."

Bucky scoffs, hand sliding down to hold Steve's tightly, and says, "I should go."

"You should stay."

"Can't exactly fuck you tonight," Bucky points out with a smirk. "Getting shot sorta makes my dick soft."

"As unfortunate as that is," Steve says flatly, "that's not what I meant."

"Then what did you mean?"

"I meant you should stay. For the night."

Bucky eyes him warily, suspicious, as if he thinks Steve is playing a trick on him and he's waiting for Steve to laugh and take it back. "I'm not sleeping on the couch," he says finally.

"I wasn't asking you to." Steve extracts his hand from Bucky's and stands up. "Do you need anything before bed?"

"Wait, you want to sleep now?"

Steve has seen many emotions on Bucky's face; panic has never been one of them. Even when he's looked trapped, like he can't find a way out, he shuts down and resigns himself. This is— this is different. He's rubbing both palms on his thighs, not that the left can actually produce sweat, can it? And when he swallows, Steve can see the way his throat works, over and over again like there's something caught in there.

"I was planning on going to bed before Natasha showed up and you fell through my window," Steve says, a yawn punctuating his words. "If that's alright with you."

"Are you sleeping on the couch?"

Steve raises his eyebrows. "Not unless you want me to."

"Nah, no. No. I'm just— I'm not gonna cuddle you and shit, if that's what you're looking for."

"Whatever you want, Bucky."

Steve sort of hates how those words startle Bucky but he doesn't say so. He just takes Bucky's jerky nod as a yes, strips off his shirt, and shuts off the light. There's enough left from the moon and the streetlamps outside that he can still see what he's doing, walking around to the empty side of the bed as he pops the button on his jeans and tugs down the zipper. He slides out of them, kicking them off at random, too tired, now that the lights are off, to care where they go, and then he pulls back the blankets and climbs in.

The bed creaks as Bucky stands up. His side of the room is cast in too much shadow for Steve to make much of him out, but he hears the groan of laces being roughly untied, the soft sound of cloth brushing together, knows that Bucky's taking off his shoes and his pants, too, before he climbs into bed beside Steve.

Steve's bed is a double. It's not exactly what he would consider small, though he could afford better. Risking his life every day for his job does have benefits, and enough money to buy a bigger bed is definitely one of them. Hell, Steve could buy a new bed and a new house to keep it in and he'd still be doing alright, financially, but he comes from the kind of childhood where having a bed that doesn't reside on the floor is a luxury. His double has always worked fine for him.

It doesn't work so well with him and Bucky. Neither of them is exactly tiny, and there isn't much room to move between the two of them. Bucky's warmth creeps across the inch of space separating their bodies, his foot brushing the bare skin of Steve's ankle when he moves to get comfortable. He tenses, breathing slowing, and relaxes minutely until it no longer feels like Steve's lying in bed with a board.

There's no way they can sleep like this, Steve decides fifteen minutes later. Bucky is so uncomfortable that Steve almost wants to kick him out just so Bucky has an excuse to get out of this, but he's too weak to actually do it.

He turns his head, trying to see Bucky's face in the moonlight, and almost jumps when Bucky says, "You can put your arm around me, if you want."

Steve grins, knowing Bucky can't see it. "Thought you said you weren't going to cuddle me."

"That was before I realized how fucking small your bed is. There's no room in this thing."

"It's not that small," Steve says as he turns onto his side, laying his arm over Bucky's waist. "This okay?"

"Yeah," Bucky breathes.

There's a small patch of warm skin left uncovered where his shirt has ridden up a bit. Steve's fingers brush it unconsciously before Bucky sucks in sharply and he realizes what he's doing. "What about this?" he asks, frozen, ready to pull away the second Bucky tells him to.

"'s fine."

With the go-ahead, Steve's fingers inch up over the taught strain of skin stretched over Bucky's stomach muscles. "Still—?"

"Ask me one more time, Steve," Bucky warns, shifting a little under Steve's touch.

Steve explores Bucky's stomach with hesitance, at first. He's enamored in the way Bucky moves under his touch, not quite pulling away, not quite pushing closer. He scratches his nails against the thin, coarse hair that slips under the waistband of Bucky's boxers, hears the hitch of Bucky's breath, and wonders what he would say if Steve asked to draw him. And, if Bucky were to say yes, whether he'd rather Bucky like this, in a mess of his blankets, or if he'd rather capture the deadly beauty of Bucky dressed in his gear and staring him down.

He's careful. He pauses every time his hand moves farther up, gauging Bucky's reaction, giving Bucky time to push him away. He sticks to the left side, mindful of the bandaged wound on Bucky's right, and is a little glad that it's dark in the room. He thinks his face is probably red; Bucky burns so warm that it takes effort not to curl into him completely, and he's a little embarrassed by how badly he wants to.

When his fingers brush Bucky's nipple, the chest under his hand stops moving, Bucky's breath held. Steve stops moving, too, thinking he's pushed too far until Bucky gasps in and says, "When I want you to stop, I'll tell you to stop," on his exhale.

Bucky's shirt is rucked up now and it's an accident when Steve's fingers drag over the rough area of scarring where the metal arm meets Bucky's body. He refuses to make any moves that could be interpreted badly, doesn't want Bucky to think that it bothers him because it doesn't, not in the way he thinks Bucky is expecting. He skims his fingers over it, hoping Bucky will tell him if it hurts, and then brushes his thumb along the cool metal.

Finally Bucky moves, Steve's hand getting momentarily caught between his chest and his shirt, and wraps a hand around Steve's wrist to drag it away. Steve can't tell what he's feeling when he says,"You gonna ask or what?"

"Only if you want to tell me."

Bucky keeps Steve hand in his own, doesn't bother to straighten out his shirt. He moves their hands slowly, skidding over his stomach, back and forth, over and over until Bucky finally twines their fingers together and says, "I liked school, probably would've went on to college if someone ever told me I could, but I wasn't— I wasn't getting a scholarship, I didn't have parents to put away money for my future, I had a job but never enough money to put into savings. My school was shitty enough that I mostly slipped through the cracks, you know? Didn't drop out, but I wasn't graduating at the top of my class, either, so it's not like someone was pulling me aside and telling me I could be whatever I wanted if I worked hard enough. Figured the military was the best thing for me. I had to do something, right, and I had a friend that graduated the year before me join up and thought I'd do the same.

"I was good at it, too. Maybe it wasn't what I'd dreamed of doing with my life, but put a gun in my hands and I was useful." He snorts, self-deprecating. "Not so useful when I've only got one hand to put a gun in."

"How did—?" Steve doesn't finish. He doesn't have to.

"After I was deployed, there was this one mission and— it was supposed to be easy. There was a little climbing involved but it wasn't anything I hadn't done before. Simple as anything. And I remember I was so fucking close to the top, Steve. I could almost reach it, I was so close. Something must've been wrong with my equipment, though. I fell and there was nothing to stop it from happening. Woke up in a hospital, doctors telling me it's a miracle I'm alive, what with the head trauma and everything else. Didn't feel much like a miracle when the drug haze wore off enough to realize that, yeah, I survived, but not all of me did."

Steve has never heard Bucky say so much at once. There's something about the blanket of darkness that urges you to confess things you can't in the light of day, and he thinks Bucky is a victim of that right now. His voice is hushed but calm, steady. Detached. He's holding Steve's hand hard enough to hurt.

"I'm not even sure it was an accident, Steve."

There are so many things Steve wants to say, consoling words, comforting words, but none of them will form into sentences and Bucky— Steve has a feeling Bucky doesn't want them anyway. "Why not?" he asks, because that, he thinks, is what Bucky wants right now. A reason to keep talking, or else he's going to stop and he might not start again.

"Are you loyal to S.H.I.E.L.D.?" Bucky asks instead of answering.

Steve only barely hesitates. "I am."

"What about your friend Natasha? If they told you to take her out or take in her, would you do it?"

He doesn't hesitate at all this time. "No."

"Exactly," Bucky says. "Your loyalties are always divided between the people you care about, whether it's conscious or not. The only way to ever be completely, entirely loyal to something is if that thing is the only thing you have. When I woke up in that hospital, I didn't have anything. No family. No friends that stayed in touch after school. No girlfriend or boyfriend weeping over my hospital bed. No life to go back to. I had nothing, and if you add that to my combat skills you have exactly what Hydra wants: someone who can kill for them, and only them, if given a shove in the right direction."

"They give you a shove, then?" Steve asks. "Or did they give you no choice?"

Bucky yawns, says, "Roll over," and offers nothing else. Steve waits, though he knows he isn't going to get a better answer than that, and can't help pondering if Bucky's avoiding the question because he doesn't want to talk about it, or if it's because he knows there's no good answer.

Don't turn your back on the enemy, Steve thinks when Bucky nudges his hip, urging him to do as he's been told. It's basic training. It's, like, one of the top rules of fighting. You turn your back, you're vulnerable. Your enemy has the element of surprise. If you can't see the attack coming, it's harder to fight it off.

Steve turns over. Bucky settles in behind him, not too close, arm loosely draped over Steve like a second thought. A moment passes, and another, and then lips send shivers up Steve's spine when they ghost over the back of his neck, warm and soft.

"If things were different," Bucky says quietly, "I would've taken you out on a date before I stayed the night in your bed."

"You could make that up to me," Steve says, trying not to arch back into Bucky's mouth.

"Thought about it, after— after last time. What this woulda been like if things weren't the way they are." He sighs, breath splaying over Steve's neck. "I keep trying to figure out what the hell you're getting out of this but I can't."

"Why do I have to be getting something?"

"Because no one ever does anything without getting something out of it."

"The only thing I want," Steve says, pausing to yawn, "is to sleep."

Bucky chokes back a laugh, says, "That's a little high-maintenance there, don't you think? Christ, Steve. What next? The moon?"

"If you think you can get it, sure. Always wanted one."

He feels Bucky's nose nudging against him as he shakes his head. The room falls quiet after that, for so long that Steve thinks the conversation is over. He almost startles when Bucky speaks again, not expecting his, "I could make you breakfast in the morning. Used to be good at that, if you've got the stuff."

Honestly, Steve has no idea how this has become his life. If someone told him months ago that he'd have an assassin in his bed, offering to make him breakfast, he wouldn't believe them. And the thought definitely wouldn't make him smile tiredly into his pillow the way it is now.

"Might have eggs," he says softly. "Maybe some turkey bacon."

"That's disgusting."

"'s healthy."

"At what cost, though?"

Steve snorts, overlapping Bucky's hand on him with his own. "Go to bed."

"Alright, alright." Bucky kisses his neck one last time. "G'night, Steve."

At first, after Steve's settled back against Bucky and closed his eyes, he doubts either of them is going to fall asleep. Soon enough, though, Bucky's breathing evens out, he moves closer to Steve, chest pressed to Steve's back, and before he knows it Bucky is falling asleep with one hand tightly gripping the fabric of his boxers like he's falling all over again and he needs something to hold onto.

Steve closes his eyes, letting Bucky's words play over and over in his mind, like lyrics to the song of their breathing, cursing himself for not saying something after everything Bucky's just told him. He wishes he had, but maybe… maybe sometimes words aren't the best way to let someone know you feel for them. Sometimes words aren't enough. Words get stuck and jumbled and sometimes only make things worse.

Maybe this is enough.

 

-o-

 

It's still dark out when Steve wakes up, faint moonlight illuminating Bucky beside him, eyes wide open, breathing so heavy it sounds panicked. He jumps when Steve moves, roughly grabbing Steve's wrist and twisting, pinning it to the mattress until Steve hisses in a breath of pain and he lets go completely.

Bucky rolls over fast, draping his body over Steve's, and for one absurd moment Steve thinks he's being attacked. Then Bucky tucks his head into the crook of Steve's neck and mutters, "Sorry, sorry, I thought you were— I sleep alone, I didn't know where I was, I'm sorry," quickly, over and over again, still panting like he's on the verge of hyperventilating, and Steve knows Bucky isn't about to hurt him.

Steve has no idea what to do but rub his back and say, "It's okay, it's fine," because it is. Steve understands this, more than almost anything else Bucky has done. Steve understands that having your guard up all the time is a hard thing to shut off. He's seen it enough times with his friends. Had Natasha's knife pressed to his throat after touching her arm from behind without warning her he was there first; had Sam pass out on his couch and sit up in a fit of terror, chilling Steve to the bone with the sounds he made before he fully woke up.

How many people are there in Bucky's life that he feels safe around? Probably zero, Steve realizes, so it really isn't shocking that he'd assume he was being attacked when he woke up with someone beside him.

"Sorry," he mumbles again, slower, slurred with sleep. "Sorry."

Steve kisses the top of Bucky's head; Bucky is asleep before Steve's lips have broken contact. His weight is a heavy, crushing thing on Steve's chest and Steve makes no move to dislodge him at all.

Chapter Text

 

If Steve's bed had felt too small with the two of them, it feels enormous when Steve wakes up alone, rolling over into the seemingly endless stretch of empty space where Bucky and the warmth of his body should be. It's not there, and Steve is colder than he should be under the blankets at this time of year, but he'd fallen asleep with a furnace beside him and the contrast is startling in its extremity.

It takes him a minute to fully realize what makes that cold, empty space so weird, and then he bolts upright, looking around and sort of expecting to find Bucky standing in the doorway or something, soothing Steve's confusion with a smirk and a teasing, "What, did you think I took my walk of shame before you could wake up?"

He's not. He's not in the apartment, either. Steve climbs out of bed, somehow knowing in his gut that he's the only one here.

One quick sweep of the apartment tells him he's right, but it isn't until he sighs, trying not to feel disappointed, and goes to make coffee that he notices the note taped to the machine. It's a torn piece from his notepad, the words scribbled and tiny enough that he has to rip it off before he can read it, his heart already somewhere in his gut.

Thought I'd make you coffee for when you got up. Bet you can guess what I found in the container. How long have you had that? We had a deal, remember? I gave you the list, you were supposed to give me the drive, it reads, and, underneath that, scribbled out but still legible: Were you even going to give it to me at all? You know what they were going to do me without. It cuts off abruptly and Steve pictures Bucky shaking his head, furiously scribbling those words out before he could finish the whole sentence, but then he added, Trust you, right? Guess that really was a stupid thing to dohuh? and scratched that out, too.

Guess we're even now, is beneath the scribbled out words, written so dark he must've been pressing the pencil as hard to the paper as he could without breaking it.

Steve's sleep-lagged brain doesn't want to process the words written on the page. He doesn't want to understand what they mean, or what Bucky must've been thinking when he wrote them. He wishes he were more tired, or maybe that Bucky's writing was messier, because this is not what he was supposed to wake up to. He was supposed to wake up to Bucky in his bed, beside him, smiling tiredly, maybe a little flushed and still as uncertain as he'd been when Steve asked him to stay. He was supposed to make breakfast, and Steve would tell him that he has the drive, but he thinks Bucky should walk away from Hydra. He was supposed to give Bucky a good argument, a reason to walk away. And Bucky was supposed to say yes.

Instead, Bucky's found the drive and he thinks—what? That Steve's had it this whole time and wasn't planning on giving it to him? Is that what he thinks? That Steve's been stringing him along, saying he's going to get it but he wasn't actually trying? Steve doesn't really know. All he knows is Bucky was angry when he wrote that note, he's gone now, and he's taken the drive with him. That, and Steve has absolutely no way to fix this. No fucking way. He has no number to call and S.H.I.E.L.D. couldn't find Bucky for him even if Steve was willing to ask.

And, when he thinks about it, what is there to fix? What did Steve expect to happen here? He can't delude himself, not even hypothetically, into thinking that their screwed up relationship has been anything more than two people getting carried away. Even if Bucky had let Steve pitch him the idea of walking away from Hydra, even if he'd agreed to it, their story still would've ended the moment Steve gave him the drive. Steve can't exactly run away with him, and he doesn't believe Bucky would ask him to anyway.

When it comes down to it, they've reached their expiration date. Steve should've prepared himself for this, but he hadn't and it aches in a way he never could've anticipated.

He rests his elbows on the counter, putting his head in his hands, and wishes he was still asleep. When he opens them again, he's still in his kitchen and this is all still happening, and the only thing he can think to do is to push away from the counter, unlock his door and cross the hall to knock on Sam's.

"Do you know what time it is?" Sam asks when he answers, rubbing blurrily at his eyes. He blinks rapidly at Steve, still half-asleep, but when his eyes focus they widen and his expression softens into something that's bordering on concern but not overbearingly. "Alright. You get dressed. I'm buying breakfast."

Steve has no idea how he ever survived without Sam Wilson.

 

-o-

 

"So you like the guy."

Steve pushes his fried potatoes around on his plate without looking up. "It's complicated," he says as one rolls right off and he does nothing to stop it.

"No," Sam corrects, "the situation's complicated. How you feel about him doesn't have to be. Either you like him or you don't, but I'm gonna go with you probably liking him, given the circumstances."

Staring forlornly at the lost, abandoned potato lying beside his plate, Steve sighs and says, "Does it really matter either way?"

"Yeah, it does. You're a good judge of character, Steve. If you like the guy there's gotta be a reason for it. And I don't know if you realize this, but you're sort of a catch, man. If this guy has anything between his ears, he'll be back."

"I don't even know if that's what I want," Steve confesses, crushing the potato under his fork until it's nothing but a pile of mush that he quickly cleans up because he's not going to leave it for the nice woman serving their table to deal with afterwards. "I definitely shouldn't want that."

"Last time I checked, Steve Rogers doesn't always do what other people think he should," Sam points out with a wide grin. "You gonna start now?"

He's got a point. "Probably not."

"And you know what they say, Steve. If you love something—" Steve chokes on nothing and Sam ignores him. "— set it free. If it comes back to you, it's meant to be."

"Oh my god," Steve says, pushing his plate away from him. "There goes my appetite."

Sam laughs and doesn't comment when Steve leaves his plate where it is, sipping his water instead. He does ask, "Really, though. You're okay?" but it's in an easy way. He's not forcing Steve to talk about it if he doesn't want to, but he's giving Steve the option to open up if that's what he needs.

Steve nods. "I'll be fine."

"I know you will be. You can be fine later and still be not fine right now. That's okay. You don't have to have it together all the time. When shit happens it's alright to let it affect you."

Steve ducks his head a little to hide a smile that's not as happy as the gesture is supposed to be. "I know."

"Good. So are you gonna eat those potatoes or are you going to keep mashing them on the table?"

With a snort, Steve tugs his plate back to him, forking up a bite of food and eating it just to make Sam happy. "Thanks," he adds when he swallows. "For the talk. For the food. For— everything."

"No problem," Sam says, "but I still can't believe you waited this long to tell me."

"Next time I decide to have an illicit affair with an assassin, I'll be sure to let you know first."

"See? That's what friends do. We don't hide our illicit affairs behind each other's backs."

"Speaking of illicit affairs, or at least the people someone wants to have them with, we should probably pick up something for Clint to eat. I have a feeling he's not getting out of the house today. Natasha, too, if you want to text her."

"I guess," Sam sighs, phone already in hand and grin so wide you'd think Steve offered him a million dollars to do it. "If I have to."

"You ever gonna do something about that, Sam?"

"This is a delicate situation, Steve," Sam says, looking down at his phone as he talks. "What am I supposed to do? Ask them both out at the same time and hope for the best?" He pauses. "You think that might work?"

Steve laughs with a shake his head. "Don't ask me. In case you haven't notice, I'm in no position to give relationship advice right now."

"True."

"Hey."

"You said it, not me."

Steve shakes his head and finishes his breakfast. And, because Sam is paying, he orders a slice of pie, too. By the time they leave, he feels marginally better.

 

-o-

 

Telling Natasha what happened is harder than it was with Sam, but she takes it surprisingly well. Instead of lecturing him for letting his guard down and subsequently handing over the drive without ensuring Bucky is going to walk away from Hydra afterwards, she tells him to hide things better next time ("That drive came from Tony Stark's workshop. I hope you threw the coffee out afterwards. Who knows what residue was on that thing.") and that she'll keep an eye out for anything related to Bucky in S.H.I.E.L.D.'s databases in the future for him.

Steve isn't sure what he's done to deserve the people he has in his life.

 

-o-

 

The first job Steve goes on after returning to work is easy. He leaves with a team, set to infiltrate a building and bring in a man named Robert Wesley— alive, unless that is made impossible. Everything goes according to plan. The team Steve's sent with is a selection of good, smart agents that work with him exactly how he needs them to. There's a certain level of distrust, in this business, but Steve trusts the women and men that come with him, and for good reason.

All in all, not including planning and getting to the building itself, the entire mission is completed to specifications within an hour. Steve returns to headquarters without a scratch on him and each of his team members alive and, for the most part, aside from a single injured man, well.

He's barely given a rest before he's put on a plane to head out for another mission. He has hardly any time to think about anything, outside of work, can't afford for his attention to be divided because he's not working alone right now and it's not just himself he's risking if he gets distracted.

It's almost nice, in a sort of screwed up, dysfunctional way. Sometimes keeping busy is the best way to keep together.

When he gets back, three days later, he has the weekend off. It's just long enough to pick up a new phone and catch up with Sam and check in with Natasha and Clint, and get some much needed sleep. At the end of it, Steve is actually looking forward to getting back to work, if only to have a purpose. His job may be taxing, and it's not always what he thought it'd be, but he does good work. He makes the world a little safer, a little better, and that's all Steve really wants, at the end of the day.

 

-o-

 

"Good work out there, Rogers."

Steve looks over his shoulder, still stripping off his equipment, and smiles a thank you at Agent Garth as he hangs up his belt. "Not too bad yourself," he says with none of the teasing he'd use if Garth were, say, Natasha or Clint. They've not worked together enough for there to be that bond there yet, but Steve would like there to one day be in case they work together again.

"There was talk of you going soft after that stint with the Hydra agent a few months back," Garth continues, hanging his body armor beside Steve's, "but I guess they were wrong, huh?" He slaps Steve on the back. "Nice to see that the man lives up to the legend."

The words hit Steve harder than the hand on his back, jolting him more than any blow because he's not expecting it at all. Garth doesn't seem to notice at all, too caught up in the remnants of adrenaline from the mission, still hyped up the way some agents are after a job goes well. He walks off before Steve can respond, not that he can think of anything anyways.

It's been over a month since anyone's brought any of that up, even Natasha and Sam. Steve himself tries not to think about it much, because— really, what's the point? It's like longing after the ghost of a person he never really knew. There's been no sightings, no mention of Bucky in a long damn time, and Steve has a life. Maybe if things had been different, he wouldn't be standing here, frowning down at the boots he should be unlacing and removing, but they're not. They are what they are, and Steve refused to let himself put his life on hold because of someone who he hasn't seen or spoken to in almost half a year. It's been working out so far.

He's been working so much that the time has practically flown by. Bucky hasn't tried to contact Steve in the months since he stayed the night, and Steve has no way to find him. He's gotten over it. Just last week he went on a date with that girl from Natasha's building, and that had been fine. Absolutely fine. Good, even. Steve might ask her out again, possibly. He's not hung up on someone who doesn't care enough to show his face. He's not.

Unless something's happened to him. Steve tries not to think about that, and it's mostly only late at night, during those times he has trouble falling asleep, when he's too tired to control the path his thoughts wander down that he considers the very real possibility that Bucky isn't even alive to try and contact him. That he easily could've been hurt on a mission of his own, or Hydra could've decided they're done with him. Not seeing Steve may be something that's completely out of Bucky's control, so Steve doesn't even have the comfort of being angry with him.

It's all tiring, is what it is, and knowing there's nothing to be done to fix any of it is what incenses Steve to just… forget about it. What else is he supposed to do? Bucky chose to walk away from Steve and Steve has come to accept that and move on.

It's kind of hard not to think about it when he's slapped in the face with it by someone who doesn't even know what he's talking about it, though. Steve bends down and tugs his laces out until his boots are loose enough to take off, feeling the heavy furrow of his brow the entire time and unable to smooth it out. It's still there when Natasha corners him as he goes through his locker, searching for his phone so he can leave.

"You got a call while you were out," she says, holding Steve's phone in her hand.

Steve's frown deepens. He was gone for two days and had told Sam as much. His mind quickly supplies him with the short list of people who have his new number and aren't also aware of this fact, but he can't think of a single one who would bother calling him or put that look on Natasha's face.

"Who was it?" he asks.

"They didn't say."

"You answered?"

"It was private caller. I was curious."

"Okay, crossing lines aside," Steve says, not as bothered by this invasion of privacy as he should be, probably because he's used to it at this point, "what did they say?"

Natasha shrugs. "Nothing. I answered; they hung up."

"So it was a prank call."

"What if it wasn't?"

Steve takes the proffered phone from her, unlocking it— there is a password and of course she knows it— and investigating the call log for himself. Just as she's said, there's a call from about six hours ago, early morning. Steve wakes up at the crack of dawn, most days, so if he had been home he would've answered it.

"You didn't try to track the number?" Steve asks, disbelieving.

"Of course I did," Natasha says, looking almost offended. "I couldn't get a location on it and there isn't a name listed. So the question is, who would call you and hang up when it wasn't you who answered? You've been working overtime lately. I'm sure you've pissed off a few powerful people, Steve. This could be dangerous."

"Or it could've been an accident," Steve counters. "A coincidence. Someone gave a fake number to someone they weren't interested in and it just happened to be mine. Someone accidentally hit a wrong number when dialing and didn't realize until you answered and they hung up out of embarrassment. It could be anything."

"There aren't coincidences," Natasha says. "Not in our lives."

"It's probably nothing," Steve says with confidence, "but I'll be careful. They call back, I'll let you know. Okay?"

Natasha nods, but there's something else wrong. She looks almost— guilty, meeting Steve's eyes steadily in a way that says she has to force herself to do it to avoid suspicion. Steve knows all of her tells too well. There was a time he didn't, when he wouldn't notice the way the pendant on her necklace is slightly out of place from her nervously moving it back and forth the way she does when she's thinking too hard about something, or the way her body is leaning casually, familiarly towards his, laying on the act of ease and comfort a bit too heavy, urging her to trust him with the way she curves towards him.

"What happened?" Steve demands.

Natasha blinks and leans back, knowing she's caught. "Security camera from the building across the street from yours caught someone on tape going into your building."

"You've been hacking into the security system for the building across the street from mine?" Steve snorts. "That's a little paranoid, you know."

"Someone who could easily have been Bucky."

Oh. With the taste of blood from the teeth sinking into his cheek filling his mouth, Steve says, "So that's why you answered my phone. You thought it might be him."

"I was looking at the tape yesterday. It's from days ago and his face was hidden, but he was wearing a glove on his left hand. I was waiting for you to get back to tell you, but then the call came in. It's—" Natasha shakes her head. "Steve, the two of you didn't leave on the best of terms and he hasn't tried to contact you in months. For all we know, everything the two of you did together could've been nothing more than him manipulating you to get the hard-drive."

"You really believe that?"

"I'm saying it's a possibility we need to consider," Natasha says bluntly, "and the fact that he's come back could me he's looking for reconciliation, or he could be a threat."

It's funny, almost, because Steve is only just now noticing the way relief has made his knees weak, and it's cut off again as Natasha's words sink in.

Natasha is a good agent. Natasha looks at things from all angles. Natasha has a damn point. It kills Steve— and god, how stupid is he that it does?— but she's right. Seeing Bucky again could be something straight out of Steve's wayward, unconscious dreams, or it could be… not. One thing Bucky's always been good at is surprising Steve. He never knows what he's going to get, and it could be good or bad.

But he's alive. That's enough to keep the relief burning low in Steve's gut, even if the rest of him fights to look at this from the most logical standpoint.

"I'll keep that in mind," he swears, "but we both know that if he wants to see me there's not much I can do to avoid him. I'm not into hiding. I'd rather face him."

"I thought you'd say that," Natasha admits, "I just want you to be ready for whatever might happen."

Steve slips his phone into his pocket and says, "I am."

 

-o-

 

Three days. Three days Steve spends jumping each time his phone rings, to the point where Sam stops looking at him funny and starts watching Steve's phone like a hawk, too, just as invested in that call coming in as Steve is. Three days is all he's got before he has to get back to work, and if Bucky doesn't call before then (if it even was Bucky, and at this point Steve isn't fully convinced) Steve might miss him again.

He goes out with Sam on Thursday, spending most of the afternoon until just after eight volunteering at the soup kitchen down the block, something Steve hasn't done in months and feels more than a little guilty about. It's the only time his phone is far from his mind. He's busy enjoying himself, distracted in a different way than he is when he's at work. It's not the keep-yourself-alive adrenaline stopping him from getting lost in his thoughts; it's the easy joy of cutting vegetables with Sam ribbing him about his knife skills and smiling at the woman who runs the kitchen when she whacks Sam with a wooden spoon. It's different. It's good. Steve needs to do it more often.

When they're done, the first thing he does is check his phone. No new missed calls. Sam sighs almost as loud as Steve does and says, "Maybe it really was a prank call or something."

Maybe it was.

 

-o-

 

Steve wakes up at four in the morning, which isn't exactly unprecedented but it's not typical. His alarm is set to go off in exactly an hour so he has time to run before showering and heading in to work, but he usually sleeps right up until then, especially lately with how hard he's been working himself and how infrequently he's given the entire night to rest.

It takes him nearly a minute to realize why he is up and when he does he scrambles for his phone, knocking it to the floor and banging his elbow against his nightstand in his haste to grab it. He accepts the call, fumbling as he brings it up to his ear, and is out of breath and still groggy with sleep when he says, "Hello?"

He doesn't get an immediate answer. The other side of the line is completely silent, not even the soft sound of someone breathing. Steve sits up, turning on the light, and waits. He waits. He keeps waiting, until he can't anymore. He's been waiting for months now, and if all he's going to get is a silent phone line? Steve is too tired to deal with it right now. The relief has blown over, morphing into something hot and angry.

"It's four in the morning," Steve says, none of the hopefulness that had been in his tone when he answered left. "If you've got something to say, say it. Or let me go back to sleep."

Either it's Steve's anger or the threat of hanging up that urges him on; regardless of the reason, Steve's ear is suddenly filled with Bucky's low, rough voice, the sound of it scraping painfully against the inside of Steve's ribs. "Were you even gonna give me the damn thing?"

Steve startles; it's not the fact that it's Bucky that catches him by surprise, it's how— wrecked he sounds. The phone distorts his voice but, more than that, he doesn't sound good at all. There's a strain I his voice, a thin, grating quality to it that makes Steve grimace. It sounds like he's been swallowing razor blades and it's just starting to heal.

"Of course I was," Steve says when the concern dies down enough for the question to register. "Bucky, I swear—"

"Were you gonna tell me it's a duplicate, too, or were you gonna keep that information to yourself?"

Steve swallows despite how dry his mouth suddenly feels. "You know about that, huh?"

"S.H.I.E.L.D. isn't as top secret as it seems to think it." If he's happy to be talking to Steve, he doesn't sound it. If he's not, he doesn't sound it either. Everything about the clipped, straightforward way he's speaking screams detached, giving Steve nothing to pick up on but the painful sound of his rasp. "You think we've never had an agent on the inside?"

If Bucky isn't going to give anything away, neither is Steve. He refuses to be shocked by what Bucky's just told him, to react in any way. "Is that how you got my number?" he asks, trying to steer the conversation somewhere else.

It's almost an art, how Bucky makes his laugh sound like the farthest thing for genuine laughter. "Collecting a mark's personal information is part of the routine. Makes the job easier."

Steve closes his eyes. "So that's what I am now? A mark?"

"That's what you've been since the beginning, Rogers," Bucky says flatly. "Since Parrish's house when you fucked up my mission. I was in shit for that and they put you on my list. I covered my ass by telling my bosses I could convince you to get the hard-drive, and I bought you a little time. They thought you could be useful in the future after I got the drive back from you, but when they realized S.H.I.E.L.D. still has the original they decided you've been too much of a nuisance to keep around. Hydra doesn't appreciate being tricked."

"I wasn't tricking you," Steve snaps. "I was trying to help you."

"Yeah, well. Lapse of judgment on your part, then."

"Bucky."

"What? You telling me you didn't see this coming? Come on, you're smarter than that."

"Smart enough to know you're not going to hurt me."

Finally, finally there's something in Bucky's voice, and it's ice. "You don't know shit, Steve. I told you: I follow my orders."

"Yeah," Steve snorts. "I'm sure everything we did was on your orders."

Bucky sucks in a breath; Steve hears it, though he knows he isn't supposed to. "Maybe it was," he says anyway.

"Or maybe you're trying to convince yourself you can go through with this," Steve counters, "when we both know you can't. Why else would you call, Bucky? You don't want to hurt me. I know you don't."

"No, you don't," Bucky spits. "You don't even know me."

"I know you saved my life. I know you helped save others."

"I've killed more."

"That number doesn't have to get any higher," Steve says. "You don't have to do this."

Once again, Bucky is just as quiet as he had been when Steve answered the phone. This time, Steve doesn't try to interrupt that. He holds the phone to his ear, tugging at the frayed thread in his bedspread, more of it coming lose with each pull, letting Bucky sort through whatever he's sorting through right now.

"I called to give you a warning," eventually rings in Steve's ear. "I told you that if we see each other again after I have the drive, you better be prepared to run or kill me. I'm giving you a chance to run."

The thread snaps. Steve looks down at it, a smile on his lips that doesn't really feel like a smile at all. "Not really my style," he says quietly.

Bucky hesitates before parroting his words from their first meeting at Steve again. "Maybe it should be."

"Maybe it should." Steve looks to his window, the sun rising slowly into the sky, streaking navy blue with orange and pink. It's a cloudy morning, a wet feel to the air breezing in, a warning for rain, maybe even a storm. Steve steels himself as he breathes it in. "If you want to go through with this, fine, but we're not doing it in town."

"What?" All of Bucky's act has slipped away with his surprise.

"I'm not risking someone else getting hurt," Steve says. "If you want to do this, we'll do this. There's an old farm a few miles outside of town. One side of it's caved in, you can't miss it. It's all open space around it, no place for anyone to hide or ambush you, so you'll know I'm alone. I'll be there in an hour."

Holding his breath, Steve waits for Bucky to accept or decline. Bucky hangs up on him instead. Steve takes that for the angry yes that it is.

He pulls the phone away from his ear and tosses it down beside him as he swings his legs out of bed, setting out for the shower, treating this the way he would any normal, slightly-too-early morning. He's not going into this scared of what's going to happen. His hands aren't shaking when he turns on the water. When he towels off his hair and looks in the mirror afterwards, his gaze is steady.

If Steve honestly thought Bucky capable of hurting him, he wouldn't be going. But he doesn't. It's stupid, sure. Foolish. Risky. Thing is, Steve trusts his gut. If he can't trust himself, what can he trust? And his gut trusts that Bucky won't be able to go through with it. That every single thing he said over the phone was nothing more than him trying to be more detached than he actually is. The fact that he called at all gives him away.

This way, Steve has a chance to see him. To talk to him. To try and fix this. It's a risk, sure, but compared to the possible reward, it's worth it.

Not that Bucky's the reward. That isn't what Steve is looking for here. The only thing Steve wants is to give Bucky a choice. Show him that he can be better than this, he can walk away from this, and if he does—that's worth it. That's worth it, for Steve, giving Bucky the chance to claim himself again. No more orders. No more hurting people. If Bucky never wants to see him again, Steve won't hold it against him.

He doesn't really give himself time to second guess it. He throws on clothes, hardly paying attention to what he's buttoning up as he goes. He considers his gun, almost leaves without it, and doubles back to grab it. Bucky'll probably be more mad if Steve doesn't bring the damn thing.

The moment he steps into the hallway he has to stumble out of the way to avoid hitting Sam, because Sam definitely isn't going to be the one to move out of Steve's way. He's moving slowly, eyes barely open, and yawns instead of giving Steve a greeting.

"What are you doing up this early?" Steve asks, trying not to sound like he's up to something as he locks his door.

"Mrs. Lynch," Sam grumbles, coming as close as Sam ever gets to sneering. "Apparently someone slipped a piece of her mail into my mailbox and she needed it at four in the damn morning. That woman knocked for twenty minutes, Steve."

Steve tries not to laugh, giving Sam a gentle little shove in the direction of his door. "Go back to bed," he says. "You look like you're about to pass out."

"And you look like you're about to go out," Sam says, waking up enough to get suspicious. "You running this early?"

"Called into work," Steve lies. It tastes bitter on his tongue but he doesn't confess to it. Sam will insist on coming with him. Steve trusts Bucky not to hurt him, but not enough to risk Sam.

"Right, right," Sam sighs. "When you getting back again?"

"I'm… not sure," Steve admits, this time honest. "I'll call and let you know."

"Good," Sam says, nodding sleepily. "I need to get back to bed. I've got plans today. Later, Steve."

Steve almost asks him what plans, but he doesn't have the time. "Later," he says, to both Sam and himself.

Sam slumps on, pressing his face against his door as he unlocks it, muttering, "Four in the morning. What in the damn hell does anyone need their mail at four in the morning for? Pay some bills? Bills aren't open. Nothing's open. It's four in the damn morning," under his breath as he lets himself inside.

 

-o-

 

Steve's bike spends more time in the garage than it does on the road, mostly because it's just not worth it to try and weave the thing through traffic, most days, and Steve prefers to walk, if it's possible. It's early enough now that there isn't much traffic out, though, and there's a reason he got the thing in the first place. Driving it clears his head in ways many other things can't, and there's something freeing about it that he just can't get when he's in a car.

The drive outside of town takes longer than Steve had been anticipating; he knows he's late by the time the old farm comes into view, the endless stretches of land on either side truly leaving it impossible to sneak up on the thing. He told Bucky an hour and it's almost been an hour and a half, but maybe that's good. Maybe it'll put Bucky at ease if he sees that Steve's come alone.

Normally the large, metal gate at the end of the road stops anyone from turning onto the property; it's pushed open now, for the first time in Steve's memory, and he can see the compact, dark car with tinted windows at the other end, parked at an odd angle. Steve doesn't hesitate before turning into the driveway and coming up behind the car, shutting off the bike and dismounting at a slow, leisurely pace, pulling off his helmet as the front door of the car opens.

There's a large enough distance between the two vehicles that Steve can't see his face, but he sees enough. Bucky's hair has grown out a bit, not as long as it had been during their first meetings but not the shorter cut from every instance afterwards. It hangs limp, a stray handful of it curving towards cheekbones that are sharper than Steve remembers, like he hasn't been eating as well, though the rest of him looks just as in shape as it always does.

Bucky has dangerous thighs, Steve thinks. He's a little in love with them.

Bucky's also dressed to kill. Steve can tell the difference. He's not wearing jeans and a t-shirt, the kind of casual clothes that let you blend into a crowd. He's dressed for a fight. He's dressed for a war. He's dressed for something Steve has no intention of giving him.

He pulls out a gun and Steve stops moving. Bucky doesn't, so Steve lifts his chin and crosses his arms over his chest, unimpressed and unintimidated. Wordlessly, Bucky switches the safety off his gun and keeps coming, getting close enough to shove Steve with his shoulder with enough for that it actually unbalances him and he has to make a conscious effort to stay on his feet.

"Take out your gun," Bucky orders, his own held tightly in his hand.

"Why don't you put yours away instead?" Steve suggests.

Bucky's jaw tenses. "Fight back," he hisses.

"No."

Bucky shoves him again. "Fight back."

Steve doesn't stumble this time. He holds steady, feet planted firmly on the ground, and says, "Put. Away. The gun," through clenched teeth. "You're not going to do this."

"You think I won't?" Bucky crowds into Steve's personal space, close enough to kiss, if Steve dared. He doesn't, not really in the mood, given gun digging into his temple now, Bucky's hand shaking enough for Steve to feel it. "Huh? Is that what you really think, Steve?"

Eyes closed, Steve leans forward, resting his forehead against Bucky's. "Guess it is," he says.

This property has been abandoned for a long time; before that, whoever owned it wasn't taking the greatest care with it. The road they're standing on now has so many potholes it's a miracle Steve had managed to drive down it with his bike; when Bucky pushes him again, he doesn't fare so well. He loses his balance, one foot sinking down into a hole, and his ankle twists as he falls and hits the packed dirt road with an oof.

"No," Bucky says, looking down at him, face red. "You don't get to do that. You're supposed to fight back. Fight back."

A rock digs into Steve's palm as he climbs back to his feet, the gun following his movements. His left ankle feels sprained now, every pound of his weight put on it sending sparks of pain through him that he ignores in favor of saying, "I'm not fighting you. Keep pushing all you want, I'm not doing it."

Bucky does just that. Steve goes down easier this time, with his ankle injured, but he picks himself back up and steadies himself until Bucky lets out an angry, animalistic sound and charges him.

Steve has a split second before Bucky comes into contact, and in that tiny fragment of time he gets an idea. A dangerous idea that might not even work, unless executed properly, but it's something. If he can pull it off.

The rotted fence bordering the road cracks and gives way to the weight and force of their bodies when Bucky tackles him into it. Steve doesn't even try to block it, his hand scrambling at his belt for his gun as he falls backwards, Bucky's elbow catching him in the gut. The overgrown grass on this side of the fence does nothing to cushion his fall, not with over two hundred pounds of Bucky bringing him down harder than he would by himself. Steve is too caught up in getting the safety off his gun to notice the pain, and then he uses every ounce of strength he has, scrambling to get on top of Bucky.

He times it carefully, finger over the trigger, waiting. When he feels Bucky buck up, the world starting to turn once more, in the chaotic moments when they're flipping over and he can't tell down from up, his limbs from Bucky's, he shoots. He shoots and hopes that Bucky is just as disoriented as he is.

The sound of the shot rings through the air, echoing in Steve's head as it hits the ground. The gun falls from his fingers, the recoil of the shot aching in his bones, and Bucky goes deathly still on top of him. Still enough that, for a moment, Steve thinks he's screwed up and the shot actually hit him and the world just… stops.

And then Bucky shakes his head, throwing his own gun away so he can take Steve's face in his hands. "No," he says thickly, still shaking his head. His hands move down to Steve's neck, over his shoulders. "I didn't mean to, I didn't—" He hurries off Steve, giving himself more room to run his hands over Steve's chest, looking for blood, or a hole, or anything to indicate Steve's been hurt.

He's shaking. He's shaking something terrible and he makes a wounded sound when Steve grabs his wrists, stilling them. "I'm fine," Steve says calmly, tightening his grip. "Bucky, I'm fine."

It looks like Bucky knows this, too, but he's still shuddering, looking horrified. "I didn't mean to," he says. "It was my left hand, it doesn't always feel the same, I shouldn't've tackled you with the gun in that hand. I could've killed you, Steve. I could've killed you."

"Isn't that what you came to do?"

"I'm supposed to," Bucky says between heaving breaths. "I should. I can't, but I should. This doesn't end here, don't you understand that? I told you: an agent failing to complete the mission doesn't erase the hit. Someone else'll come after you. If you live through that, they'll send another. It won't end until you're dead."

"So you decided you'd be the one to do it?"

"I'm fucked if I don't," Bucky says without looking him in the eyes, still pawing at Steve like he's not yet convinced Steve is still alive, "and you're dead either way. Figured I'd be able to do it. Shoulda been able to do it. I've killed a lot of people, Steve, but I kept thinking about— I kept remembering you asking me what I want, and I don't. I don't want to kill you." He pulls his hands off Steve, breaking all contact. "And then I nearly did."

Steve sits up a bit, hands planted flat on the grass. The guns are on one side of him, Bucky on the other, and Steve doesn't think about the symbolism there. His legs are spread out in front of him and, aside from the sprained ankle and the tenderness of his backside, Steve is unharmed. Bucky hadn't even thrown a single punch. Despite what he says he came to do, what he thinks he should've done, Bucky hasn't even hurt him. Really, Bucky didn't even try. Compared to that first, brutal fight between the two of them, this was like a playground brawl.

"It was my gun that went off," Steve admits.

Bucky looks up, hair falling into his eyes. "What do you mean it was your gun that went off?"

"It was my gun," Steve repeats. "I knew that you didn't want to hurt me, I just had to prove it. I thought if I convinced you that you had you might finally admit it, so I shot and hoped in the confusion you'd think you had."

Slowly, Bucky's eyes begin to narrow as his mouth opens and closes, fish out of water style. "You—" He closes his eyes and his mouths the numbers one through ten before they open again. "Do you realize what could've happened?" he demands, his calming mantra apparently failing in the calming department. "You could've shot either one of us by accident!"

"But I didn't," Steve reminds him.

"Fucking lucky," Bucky snaps. "Do you have a death wish, Steve? Because if you do, let me know and I can stop fighting with myself over whether or not to kill you and do you a damn favor."

"We're still pretending that you can kill me, then?" Bucky glares at him. "Just checking."

"God." Bucky flops down onto the grass beside him, throwing an arm over his eyes. "Of all the idiots I could decide to care about, I had to choose you."

Steve grins, feeling warm despite the clouds blocking the sun and the cool air all around them. "At least I brought a gun this time," he points out. "Wasn't it you that yelled at me once for not having it on me?"

Bucky lowers his arm. He's not grinning like Steve. "Is that supposed to buy you brownie points? Because I saw that deathtrap you drove in on. A fucking motorcycle? Are you serious? Do you know how dangerous those things are, Steve, or do you just not give a damn?"

Steve tips his head towards cloudy sky with a groan. "First time I see you in months," he says, "and you pull a gun on me and lecture me about my bike."

"That thing is not a bike," Bucky angrily insists. "That thing is a one way ticket to you being scraped off the road and served with syrup at an IHOP."

Steve snorts a laugh and almost sneezes. He's forgotten, in his distraction, that he doesn't fare well with grass. His skin is starting to itch a little but he makes no move to get up yet, not when he has Bucky's lips twitching into an almost-smile, not when they've come this far since the moment Steve pulled off his helmet. Steve wants this to stay, this little bubble of near-happiness. He doesn't want to be the one to pop it.

Cautiously, he brushes his fingertips over Bucky's forearm, getting bolder when Bucky doesn't pull away. He lies down, holding Bucky's hand loosely, and then looks back up, content to lay here for however long Bucky wants to.

A car drives by on the road, then another. He's not sure how much time has passed since Bucky called him earlier; the clouds give nothing away, keeping everything in a sort of gray, soft light that could easily be early morning or late afternoon.

Eventually Bucky brings their hands up, his lips grazing Steve's knuckles. "We can't stay here forever," he says. "I'm supposed to check in by twelve. Confirm the kill."

"What are you going to do?" Steve asks, giving their hands a squeeze.

"I don't know." Bucky lets out a huff of air, blowing a strand of hair off his face. "I've tried running away before. It doesn't work."

That admission confuses Steve. "I thought Hydra killed wayward agents."

"Usually they do."

Steve feels a chill that has nothing to do with the cool air. "So why are you different?" he asks, though the nausea in his gut says he really doesn't want to know. Or he does, he's just not sure if he's ready to hear the answer.

"I'm too much of an asset. They literally built me to be what they needed." Bucky holds up his left arm, turning it this way and that. "I told you I was alone when I woke up in that hospital. I was in a really bad place, Steve. I didn't know what the hell I was gonna do. I had nothing to go home to, but I couldn't serve anymore. Without my arm I was fucking useless to the only people who ever found a use for me. I think I would've agreed to anything, at that point."

"So they gave you a choice."

Steve isn't sure how he feels about this, this answer to a question he's been wanting for a while. That Bucky went into this willing makes a difference, maybe, but it doesn't change the outcome. People make choices they regret. People stumble down the wrong path before they find the right one. It happens. But maybe the path Bucky's been walking down isn't the kind you get to return from. Steve doesn't know. Steve made his choice, too, and he doesn't regret it.

"Yeah," Bucky says bitterly, "I had a choice. I was still in the hospital when they came in and offered me the prosthesis. They told me it was a prototype, that they'd been looking for someone willing to take the risk of trying it out for them and I'd been recommended. The procedure was a dangerous one, and they couldn't make any guarantees, but if it worked I'd have a fully functioning arm that would be almost identical to the one I lost."

A car driving by makes Bucky pause, just long enough to catch his breath.

"It was free," Bucky continues. "They promised it wouldn't cost me a damn dime, and I was— I was wary of that, course I was, nothing's ever really free. But I figured they needed a lab rat, I needed a new arm. If it went right, I'd get a chance at getting my life back and they'd probably make millions off the damn thing. If it didn't work, if something went wrong, I didn't care. Why would I? I had nothing to lose and everything to gain, so I said yes."

"Wait," Steve says, hating to interrupt but unable to help himself, "that's the choice they gave you?"

"One of the last ones they gave me," Bucky mutters, sounding almost resigned. "When something sounds too good to be true, Steve, it is. When someone tries to give you something for free, it's not. There's always a price; it's just not always money that you're paying with. They gave me a new arm and they took everything else." He sighs, releasing Steve's hand to shove it through his hair. Steve thinks it might be to hide the way it shakes. "You work with S.H.I.E.L.D.. How much have you guys learned about how Hydra trains their agents?"

"We haven't," Steve says as Bucky finds his hand again. "They're too hard to catch and the ones that we do won't talk."

"Yeah, because it's all about control and loyalty. They start by cutting you off from the rest of the world. Then they cut you off from yourself. You're not a person anymore, not to them, and it's easy to forget that you ever were. Some agents, older ones, the ones that've proven themselves, some of the ones that want to be there, they're given a bit more freedom. Most of us, though? They control everything. When you wake up. When you eat. Who you speak to. When you speak to them. When you shower. When you sleep. You get used to following orders, after a while, because the people who don't are disposed of. Usually that threat is enough to keep people in line, but sometimes it isn't."

Bucky's eyes are glazed over now, his hand limp enough in Steve's that it feels like he's holding the hand of someone who's no longer awake. No longer alive. Steve wants to tell him to stop, that he doesn't have to share this, but he keeps talking before Steve can open his mouth.

"You ever scream for so long that sound doesn't come out anymore?" he asks. "Have you ever been in so much pain that you don't remember your own name?" He doesn't wait for an answer. "After something like that, for most people, you'd do anything to keep it from happening again. Or maybe I'm weak. I don't know. All I know is that, after what they did to me, I did what they wanted. What they wanted was a killing machine." He meets Steve's eyes, digging around in the grass until he finds a rock. Steve watches as he holds it between the thumb and middle finger of his left hand, and then watches as it turns to nothing but dust with the slightest of pressure. "That's exactly what they made. Just so happens they attached a person to it, but if they could work around that, it's invaluable.

"That's why they won't kill me. I walked away from my orders once, tried to run. Another agent found me, brought me back in, and they broke me until I was ready to follow orders again. And then the next time they did the same thing. And the time after that. Like a fucking bird stuck in a house, flying into the window to try and get out, crashing into it over and over again until it's dead. Only eventually I realized it was pointless. I stopped flying into the window."

It's ridiculous, the way Steve wants to blanket Bucky with his body once he's done speaking, wants to protect him from anything that could ever want to hurt him. Bucky is fully capable of protecting himself just as well as Steve ever could, but, god, he wants to stand between Bucky and anything that threatens him. He wants to— he wants them to pay for it. He wants to make them pay for it. He wants to go back and keep them from ever getting their hands on Bucky in the first place, and maybe that would remove the haunted look from his eyes right now.

It scares him a little, the force of his fury. There's empathy, the kind of pain that only comes from seeing someone you care about being hurt, a protectiveness that is startling in its intensity, but mostly— mostly there's just anger. Steve doesn't consider himself to be an angry person, but right now the burn of it consumes him until he feels Bucky's hand come back to life in his, thumb brushing the back of Steve's wrist like Steve is the one who needs someone to console him, not the other way around.

That's what breaks the anger, the awareness of how selfish it is. That for a moment all he could think about was how it affected him, how it made him feel to know what's been done to Bucky, when all that really matters is that Bucky knows he can get out of this.

"Let's not give them a chance to do that again, then," Steve says, pushing himself up on his freehand.

Bucky sits up, too, brushing the grass from Steve's hair with his freehand. "You wanna run away with me, Steve Rogers?" he asks, only half of his mouth pulling up in a smile.

"Is that what you want to do?"

Bucky shrugs, leaning in to rest his forehead on Steve's shoulder. "We could get away with it for a while before they caught up with us. A few months, maybe a year. They'll still find us, but it'll be nice while it lasts. Until they kill you and drag me back."

Gently, hands on Bucky's shoulders, Steve pushes him away. "If you want to walk away, they're not taking you back."

"You can't stop them," Bucky says passively. "A lot of people have tried, and you're only one person."

"And sometimes that's all it takes," Steve insists. "Just— come home with me. Come home with me, and we'll figure something out."

"They'll kill you," Bucky says. "They already want you dead, this'll just give them another reason."

"I'm not going to let that happen."

Bucky raises an eyebrow. "You always this stubborn and determined?"

"Sort of," Steve admits, "but that doesn't mean I'm wrong."

Bucky looks away, mouth twisting downwards. "D'you want me to come home with you because you feel responsible for me, or because you actually want me there?"

"I want you there," Steve promises. "Unless you don't want to. I can find something else, somewhere else for you to stay. I'm not expecting anything of you, Bucky, anything at all. If you want to get away from this, we'll figure out a way to do it and I'll still help, even if you don't want me—"

His words are cut off with a press of Bucky's lips against his, and then the feeling of Bucky's laughter ghosting over them. "Now who talks too much, huh?" he teases, their foreheads touching, noses bumping, Bucky's slight stubble sending Steve's skin afire. "I'd ask what the hell I did to deserve someone like you but we both know I don't."

Steve huffs. "You don't earn people. They care about you because they do. They just do."

"That right there is exactly why I don't deserve you. Christ, Steve. I'd think I made you up in my head if it weren't for that glaring character flaw of yours."

"And what flaw is that, exactly?"

"The one where you make reckless, dumbass decisions, like driving a motorcycle and caring about an assassin."

"I take it you don't want a ride, then?"

"Not on the bike."

Steve flushes and says, "Why don't we—" as his phone rings in his pocket. He pauses, tilting his head to the side, as a bolt of alarm goes through him at the ringtone. "That's work," he says, hurrying to pull his phone out. "That's my emergency line. I'm sorry, I need to take this."

Bucky leans back, waving a hand lazily as if to say, "Go ahead. Whatever."

Steve kisses him quickly and stands up, answering as he brings the phone to his ear. "Hello?" he asks.

"Rogers," Fury barks. "I need you here now. Actually, forget that. I need you here five damn minutes ago."

"What's going on?"

"You'll figure that out when you get here."

Fury hangs up without any farther explanation. Steve lets out a long breath, lowering the phone, and looks down at Bucky still sprawled in the overgrown grass, his knees wet and dirty. Steve can't walk away from this, not right now, but he has to. Something could be wrong. Someone could be hurt.

"I have to go," Steve says, but he doesn't want to. He offers Bucky a hand that Bucky ignores, pushing himself up instead. "I wouldn't if it wasn't an emergency, but—"

"I get it," Bucky says.

Steve doesn't think he does, not with how closed off he's already gotten in the short period of time since Steve's phone rang, but he doesn't have the time to do proper damage control right now. "Just—wait for me, please? Back at my place. I'm sure you can find a way in. I'll be back as soon as I can and we'll figure this out, okay? Please."

Bucky hesitates, considering, but in the end he nods and says, "Okay."

Steve grins. "There's food in the fridge, the cupboards, help yourself to whatever you want. Or a shower. Towels are in the closet; it's the door between my bedroom and the bathroom. Anything you need, just stay out of my drawers this time."

"Gonna hold that against me forever, aren't you?"

"Probably." Steve kisses him. "I'll be as fast as I can."

"Not usually what I look for in a guy."

"Ha, ha," Steve says dryly, bending down to grab his gun. "You're really going to be there when I get back?"

"As long as nothing comes up."

That's not exactly a yes but Steve takes it. He resists the urge to kiss Bucky again, knowing he won't be able to drag himself away if he does, and hurries to his bike as Bucky picks his way along behind him, moving in that slow, purposeful way he has that Steve— Steve likes it. More than he should. Steve likes a lot of Bucky-related things more than he should, Bucky himself at the top of that list.

Just before Steve drives off, he catches Bucky's twisted, displeased look. "I hate that you look hot sitting on that thing," he shouts over the rumbling of the engine.

Steve's laugh is muffled by the helmet.

 

-o-

 

When Steve gets to HQ his bout of happiness comes to an abrupt end. Chaotic isn't exactly a word he would ever use to describe S.H.I.E.l.D. or its agents, but right now it's coming close. Everyone is moving briskly, more than half the people he passes in full gear, too distracted to give the usual friendly nod, and there's an air of urgency hanging over everything that has Steve walking faster. He heads straight for Fury's office.

His heart falls into his stomach when he steps into the room.

"It's about time, Rogers," Fury snaps. "Did you stop for a cronut on your way here?"

"I wasn't in the city," Steve says, eying the other three people in the room. Natasha looks calm as anything, expectedly. Clint looks almost bored, leaning back in his seat, one hand resting on the arm of Natasha's. And Tony Stark looks pissed. "What's going on?"

"I cracked the code on that drive," Tony says testily, "and now they won't let me leave."

"You cracked it? How?" Steve rolls his eyes at himself, getting it as soon as the words are out of his mouth. "You made a duplicate for yourself, didn't you?"

"I don't like things I can't crack," Tony says with a shrug, "because they technically don't exist. Thus far. I've been going over that thing for weeks, when I had free-time, and finally managed to break it this morning. I figured you people might be interested it what's on it, and now Dictator Fury is keeping me hostage."

"It's director," Fury snaps.

"Isn't that what I said?"

"What I'm interested in," Fury says, ignoring him, "is how Mr. Stark acquired the drive in the first place, because, to my knowledge, it's been locked in my office." He gives Steve a hard look. "I'm sure by the time we have a spare minute for you to explain, you'll have a sufficient excuse for doing what you did."

Steve swallows and nods. "Yes, sir," he says, though he has a feeling Fury isn't going to be very sympathetic when Steve admits to convincing Natasha to steal the drive for him in order to duplicate it so the assassin he's beginning to fall for could give it to Hydra in order to keep them from possibly killing him.

Hell, Steve isn't sure if he would be sympathetic, if the roles were reversed.

"But for right now," Fury continues as he strides out from behind his desk, a remote in one hand, "I'm sure you're all wondering what, exactly, is on that damn thing."

"I'm actually not," Tony says, "so if I could just…"

"You can leave when I say you can leave."

"I'm sure that's legal."

"I'm sure I don't care." Fury turns his back slightly to them and presses a button on the controller, a screen descending swiftly from the ceiling at his command. "Since you went through the effort of stealing it, I assume you did your research and figured out where we got the hard drive in the first place."

"No," Steve says.

"Yes," Natasha says.

"Mary Houston," Fury says, shooting Steve an exasperated look. "You worked with her last summer, if you remember that. Her husband was killed a few weeks previous to that incident, and after his death she went through his things and got a little suspicious. Thought some of them seemed a little suspect. She brought them to us; in exchange for that, we promised her safety at any cost necessary. The external hard drive was amongst the things she brought."

"So that's why someone wanted her dead," Steve realizes. He'd wondered, at the time, why someone like her would be on Hydra's radar.

"That," Fury says, "or the fact that her husband was a member of Hydra."

The screen is suddenly filled with the picture of a woman, her eyes focused intently on the camera that must've taken it, her mouth a hard line. Her height, weight, name, eye colour— everything about her is listed in neat, precise order beside the photo. Before Steve can read it all, it changes to another woman. And then a man.

"Now that we've discovered the contents of the drive, it's safe to assume that Hydra him killed for accessing the information we have here. Before his death, Mrs. Houston admitted to her husband being nervous and secretive, staying locked in office and arguing over the phone with Markus Parrish at all hours of the night. We believe he was planning on selling the drive to Parrish, though we've yet to figure out what Parrish planned to do with it before he was murdered. That's not important right now. What's important is that what we have here? This may finally be enough to take Hydra down."

Steve moves forward, getting closer to the screen. "How many?" he asks, what he's looking at finally hitting him. Hydra agent after Hydra agents flickers before him, changing with the press of Fury's finger.

"Hundreds," Fury says. "Maybe all of them, maybe not, but it's enough. Each one is accompanied by the location of the base where they currently reside. There are nine of them so far, that we've zeroed in on, and we're preparing to send out teams as we speak. We want this to be an ambush. Once every team is in place, they'll all attack at the same time."

"Not giving them time to alert each other," Steve guesses.

"Exactly."

Steve thinks back to everything Bucky's said to him today. "Not everyone in those buildings is there willingly. You could be slaughtering innocent people."

"I think your definition of innocent is a little lax, Rogers."

"Hydra forces people to kill for them and that makes them victims, no matter how much blood is on their hands. You're about to send in a horde of agents to kill them when they could be waiting for nothing but the opportunity to get out."

"What do you suggest I do, then?"

"Lethal and non-lethal weapons, and an opportunity to surrender," Natasha speaks up. "Instruct your agents to only shoot at those shooting first, and give those willing to come peacefully a chance to plead their case, at least."

"That could be potentially dangerous."

"If you don't think your agents can handle that then you probably shouldn't be sending them out into the field."

Fury lets out an annoyed sound and asks, "Any other requests?"

Steve nods. "I want in."

"So do I," Natasha says.

"If she's going, I'm going," Clint says, "but for the record, I had nothing to do with the drive thing."

"I assumed if Mrs. Romanoff was involved, you were involved," Fury says.

"Fair enough assumption, but surprisingly wrong."

With a click of the remote, the screen disappears. "Hill will assign the three of you to a team. I suggest you hurry up unless you want to be left behind. When you get back I want you up here so we can discuss what the hell you were thinking when you broke into my office. And how you managed to do it so I can prevent it from happening again in the future."

Natasha smirks a little, reading the compliment between the lines She managed to do something Fury probably thought was impossible, and Steve can tell he's as impressed as he is pissed off about it.

Steve waits until they're dismissed and then, when he's sure no one's around but Clint, he pulls Natasha aside and, as quietly as he can, asks her, "Is there any way we could access what Fury just showed us?"

"You want to look up your ex?"

"I wouldn't call him my ex, exactly."

Natasha raises an eyebrow. "Where were you before this? You said you weren't in the city."

"I'll explain after?"

"You'll explain now while I break into this room," Natasha says, pushing Steve so he's blocking her from view. She squares her shoulders, ready to kick down the door, but Clint steps in front of her, turns the handle, and it swings open without protest.

"Sometimes the easy way is the best way," Clint says with a grin.

They shut the door behind them just as a group of agents passes by, their voices loud enough to hear through the barrier between them. Natasha goes straight for the computer at the desk— Steve didn't read the name on the door before they'd walked in, but he recognizes the room and the single, lone picture from on the desk as belonging to Melanie Perkins— and sits herself in the chair while Steve leans against the wall behind her and Clint flops into the chair across from them.

"So why wasn't I involved in the 'stealing the thing' thing?" Clint asks as Natasha works on the computer.

"I didn't want to get more people in trouble," Steve says.

"But you were willing to get Stark in trouble?"

Steve and Natasha exchange a look and, simultaneously, shrug.

It takes Natasha less than a minute to bring up the same first profile that Fury had back in his office. She slides the chair over, giving Steve room, and says, "There're hundreds of names here. It might take a while to find his and we don't have much time."

"Can you get me just the B's?"

With Natasha in control, Steve watches name after name, face after face, agent after agent pass by on the screen. With each new one that passes, Steve wonders if they were given the same treatment as Bucky or if they walked into it willingly. Bucky had said— he said some of them wanted to be there, hadn't he? But how are they supposed to know the difference?

"Wait, stop," Steve says, leaning with one hand on the desk.

It's Bucky's arm that catches his eye, not the name. There's a full shot of Bucky, looking the way he had when they'd first met, minus the shirt. His hair is long enough to completely shadow his face, the main focus of the picture being, according to the caption below, the cybernetic arm. There is barely anything on Bucky himself, aside from a smaller photo in the bottom corner of a younger man wearing a military uniform and a confident smile, and the name James Buchanan Barnes. Even Bucky's height, weight, and body descriptions, the mention of three and a half years in the military, are smaller and less important details in the profile. A second thought.

What they wanted was a killing machine. That's exactly what they made. Just so happens they attached a person to it.

Steve forces himself to swallow around the bile that threatens to climb up his throat, the acidic taste burning his mouth. He thought he wanted to see this, maybe to— to even the playing field, or something, because Bucky's already seen Steve's profile, already knows all there is to know about Steve that can be found on paper, but he regrets it now. This has nothing to do with Bucky. All this is, all that's on the screen, is what's been done to him, and Steve has absolutely no right to be looking at it.

"Close it," Steve says, looking away. "We have work to do."

Natasha doesn't question the abrupt change in his demeanor. She clicks out of the page, shutting down the computer, and leads the way out of the room with Clint right beside her and Steve a few steps behind them, trying to process the turmoil roiling through him.

He's going to have to tell Bucky what he's done. The guilt is already eating away at him, and that anger from earlier is back full-force. To Hydra, Bucky is nothing but the piece of machinery they attached to his body. Steve is grateful for the chance to aid in their possible destruction.

Chapter Text

"How long do you think this is going to take?" Natasha asks an hour later as they wait outside the nearest known Hydra facility. They're not alone, the rest of their team spread out in the woods around the secluded, almost abandoned looking building, but there isn't anyone close enough to hear them. "I have a date tonight."

Steve raises his eyebrows. "With who?"

"Clint."

"About time."

"And Sam."

"Wait— really?"

"Does that bother you?"

"No," Steve says honestly. "I'm happy for you. All of you. I mean, I approve. Or— you have my blessing. Not that you need it, obviously, you're all grown adults, but—" Steve shakes his head, cutting off his rambling. "Did you ask, or did one of them?"

"What do you think?"

Steve laughs. "I kind of wish I'd been with Sam when you asked. I would've loved to see his face."

"He was smoother than Clint, at least."

"I can imagine," Steve says. "Did he—?"

A beeping interrupts his words and Natasha's face smooths over into one of complete concentration. "Counting down," she says. "You ready, Rogers?"

Steve doesn't hesitate to pull out his pistol. "Ready."

And he is.

The thing about those who manage to elude authorities for long periods of time is that, eventually, they get cocky. They start to believe they're untouchable. They get sloppy. S.H.I.E.L.D. has been attempting to take down Hydra for years but, until now, has never gotten close, something Hydra is no doubt aware of. And when they burst into the building, agent after agent streaming in through every available entrance, it's obvious that they're not expecting it. It's almost easy.

Clint is somewhere else in the building, likely looking for a better vantage point. He does better with long distance, whereas Steve's strengths lie in close combat and Natasha adapts to whichever situation she needs to. Their orders are to leave Hydra's agents to the rest of their team; what was on that drive might not be everything, and the two of them are supposed to make sure that they've saved any necessary data before Hydra has a chance to destroy any of it.

They just have to find it.

As easy as it was to get into the building, the rest of the mission doesn't go as smoothly. Hydra agents are trained to kill; S.H.I.E.L.D. agents are trained to do a lot of things, fighting one of them, but Steve still watches as one of his team members goes hand-to-hand with a Hydra agent and starts to go down fast. He loses Natasha when he moves forward to help, swooping in before the Hydra agent can land a fatal blow, knocking him unconscious as shots ring out all around them.

It's hard to tell who belongs to which side. Dark clothing, unfortunately, is favored by both assassins and S.H.I.E.L.D. agents alike. Thankfully Steve pays enough attention to the agents on his team to recognize them, and he throws himself into the fight, helping out where it's needed, pulling agents out of the way of stray bullets, trying to evacuate anyone who's gotten too hurt to fight. Steve flinches as a bullet lodges itself in the wall close to his head, turning around just in time to watch Natasha kill the shooter.

"Second floor," she says, walking briskly past him. "There's nothing up here. We need to move."

Second floor obviously means down, not up. "Have I ever mentioned how much I hate going below ground?" he asks as they move.

"So that's why you always take the roof."

"Heights aren't much of a problem."

"That explains your penchant for sky-diving."

Steve grins and kicks down the door to the stairwell.

 

-o-

 

"I need three minutes," Natasha says, looking up at the plethora of screens before her and ignoring the room full of bodies around them.

Steve can account for three of the dead men on the floor. Two of them are Natasha's. He reloads his gun methodically, watching the door with his back to her, and says, "Got it," the words coming out calmer than expected. He always feels rattled after a kill, and that feeling will likely never go away, but right now it's not sinking in as quickly as it usually does. His hands aren't even shaking yet, and it's because he's still furiously angry.

He shouldn't be letting that emotion carry him right now, not when there are actual people to take it out on instead of a punching bag or a long stretch of pavement for him to pound his feet against, but he'd walked into this room, taken one look at the person manning the screens and yelling orders to someone through a mic, and all he'd been able to think about was whether or not that man was responsible for the file on Bucky. For erasing who he is as a person and reducing him to nothing more than the piece of machinery they attached to his body. And when one of them had drawn their weapon, Steve had only barely hesitated before he reacted.

"Two minutes," Natasha says. Steve makes sure neither of them is directly in line with the door, that way he'll be able to see anyone who tries to come in before they'll see him or Natasha.

Outside the door Steve hears gunshots, so continuously it twists his stomach and, finally, his even breathing starts becoming slightly erratic. There were so many Hydra agents, more than Steve had thought, each one having more life than they had on the screens back at HQ. The fight from the top floor to where they are now had been a bloody, dangerous one. Hydra agents kill without mercy. He'd be regretting the request to have his team give them a chance to surrender if it hadn't been for the agent he'd watched hand over their gun ten minutes ago and turn their back to be cuffed.

"One minute," Natasha says, and then the room explodes.

It's not actual bomb, Steve realizes distantly, but it might as well be. He's blinded, deafened, and his equilibrium is off enough that he feels himself tipping sideways and can't do a thing to stop it. The ringing in his ears that keeps him from hearing anything else has his head pounding so hard he wants to throw up, and all he can do is put his hands out to brace his fall as he sinks to his knees.

By the time the world focuses again he has his hands pinned behind his back, a gun to his head, and with each blink of his eyes Natasha comes into focus, in a similar position to the one he's in.

Steve really fucking hates stun grenades.

The man pinning Steve down underestimates him, thankfully. Steve waits until sounds start registering again and his head is no longer spinning, and then he jerks up, the gun glancing off his cheek as he cracks his skull into the face of the person behind him. There's a groan of pain and a curse, the gun clattering to the ground, but knocking the agent unconscious is a small victory.

On the other side of the room, face down on the floor, Natasha's head is bleeding from where she fell, matting her hair to her forehead and dripping into one eye. The man keeping her pinned isn't stupid enough to get close to her, keeping his gun trained on her head from a far enough distance that she has no chance of attacking him before he'd managed to shoot her. Or maybe, if Steve wasn't here, she would have a chance, but the room is small enough that a wayward bullet has just as likely to hit Steve as it is her, and she's not willing to risk that.

(Absurdly, Steve can't help but think of what Bucky said about Hydra only wanting people who are alone in the world, and how that makes a strange kind of sense. If it weren't for Steve, Natasha could be more reckless; if it weren't for Natasha, Steve would just go for it, without pausing to worry about the consequences. But, then again, having someone to fight for puts a fire in his veins that isn't there when he's only got himself to protect.)

"Another move and I pull the trigger," the man warns as Steve eyes the gun on the ground and inches his hand towards the extra one he has on him. This guy looks more like the other bodies on the floor than the man Steve's just knocked out: he's older, not an agent. There's an air of power and money to him and he's not dressed in the same dark, protective gear as the other agents they've encountered today.

Not every member of Hydra can be an agent. Someone has to pull the strings, and Steve has a feeling this guy pulls a lot of them.

Without drawing the man's attention away from Steve, Natasha grits her teeth and rolls her eyes. If there's one thing she hates, it's older men believing they've gotten the better of her when, really, she's just biding her time until she figures out where to strike.

Steve decides to give her a hand, just this once, though if he weren't here she probably would've figured something else out.

It happens fast, Steve kicking the gun at his feet towards her with such force that he thinks it's going to hit her in the face before she reaches out and stops it, rolling onto her back as she gets a grip on it and aims it at the man in front of her. She presses down on the trigger, Steve thinks this is over, but nothing happens. The quiet of the room remains undisturbed. The man's aim on Natasha doesn't waver. There isn't another body added to the collection on the floor.

"It seems you're out of bullets," the man says, smiling smugly down at her.

Steve points his gun at the man's head and says, "I'm not."

"Do you think you can shoot me before I shoot her?"

"Maybe not," Steve says, "but you can't shoot us both at once. If you shoot her, I kill you. If you shoot me, she kills you. If you think she needs a gun to do it, you have no idea who you're up against."

"It seems we're at a stalemate. I guess all that's left to do is wait to see whose backup comes first, and, last I checked, your side seemed to be losing."

Despite the fact that she's too good to react openly to those words, Steve notices the slight tensing of Natasha's shoulders. Clint is still out there, somewhere, and if things are going badly…. Steve can't see how they are, but suddenly the fact that they're not out there helping weighs down on him, the guilt of knowing that members of his team could be dying right now while he's standing in a room squaring off with one man makes him sick.

The door opens. Steve holds his breath, only daring a flickering glance away from the man with his gun trained at Natasha's head, and his steady grip on his own nearly falters.

Bucky strides into the room, looking every bit as dangerous as he always does when he's armed, his gaze quickly sliding over Steve as he assesses the situation. His gun is drawn, there's a gash on his cheek, and he looks the way Steve thinks he was trying to appear earlier when they'd met up at the farm: blank and emotionless. Robotic, almost. There isn't a flicker of recognition in his eyes for anyone in the room.

"What are you waiting for?" the main aiming at Natasha demands. "Shoot him!" he orders.

Steve feels the need for air clawing at his lungs, begging him to breathe, but he doesn't dare. Natasha stiffens, looking between Bucky and the man with the gun, uncertain of what's about to happen and poised to make whatever move she has to after it's done. Right now, more than ever, Bucky is being given a choice: work with Hydra, or against them. Follow their orders, or don't.

Bucky's finger presses down on the trigger.

The breath held in Steve's throat comes out in a whoosh while Natasha rolls out of the way of the falling body. She's on her feet instantly, shooting Steve a look as she hurries back towards the computers, her back never fully turned to Bucky. She doesn't give herself a moment to recover before she's back to her job.

Steve lowers his gun, finally, and says to her, "You're bleeding."

"I'm fine," Natasha dismisses. "Watch the door." And Bucky goes unsaid, but Steve still hears it.

Steve gives Bucky a look, so many questions running through him, but Bucky is staring down at the body of the man he's just killed, unreadable aside from the clench of his jaw. His chest expands, breathing slowly, and he lowers his weapon, putting his gun away with careful, methodical movements. When he's done, he meets Steve's eyes and comes back to life.

"Seriously?" he snaps. "You told me to wait at your place while you take on an organization of assassins?"

Steve blinks, fast. Of all the things he expected, he probably should've seen this coming. "In my defense," he says, "I didn't realize that's what I was going to be doing when I left."

Bucky kicks the door shut behind him; Natasha looks over her shoulder as he gets closer to Steve, a different gun in her hand now, one that likely has bullets in it, and Steve doesn't doubt that she'll shoot if she thinks Bucky is going to attack. He tries to give her a reassuring look; she's not buying it.

"You should've come to get me before you came here," Bucky says lowly, his eyes raking slowly over Steve's body, checking to make sure he's okay. "Do you know how many agents are in this building?"

"Why are you here?" Steve asks. "I thought—"

"You think S.H.I.E.L.D. can attack a Hydra base without them calling in all of their agents? The second I got the alert I realized you must be involved because you just don't quit, do you? How many times a day do you gotta risk your life before you're satisfied, huh?"

"Seven," Natasha says. "That's his record, but he always gets the job done. You don't get to be a level seven agent without being exceptionally good at what you do."

Proudly, Steve lifts his chin a little and rubs at the back of his neck. "I can take care of myself," he says, resisting the urge to take Bucky's face in his hands and examine the wound there. "You're the one who's hurt."

Bucky smears the back of his hand across his face and wrinkles his nose when it comes away with blood. "Didn't even notice it," he says carelessly. "You sure you're okay?"

"Not a scratch."

Bucky looks down at Steve's leg. His left ankle is still hurt, something he's been ignoring, but Bucky must notice the way he's leaning heavier on his right leg because he says, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to hurt you. I just thought— I thought if only one of us could've walked away from that, I wanted you to fight back. I wanted it to be you."

He never mentioned that before. Steve would definitely remember if he had, and— God. "Bucky…"

"As adorable as this is," Natasha interrupts before Steve can articulate the pressurized emotions making his chest feel tight, "we need to figure a way out of here without him being see, unless he feels like spending the next week in an interrogation room. And I need to get this—" She holds up a memory stick. "—out of here before someone realizes I have it."

"You're right," Steve agrees, drawing back from Bucky, only far enough to clear his thoughts. "Do you know a good way out of here?"

"There's an emergency exit a few floor down from here, below the living quarters," Bucky says. "It leads to a tunnel. Comes out behind the property."

"Right. You go with Natasha and I'll—"

"Come with us."

"I can't," Steve says. "My team's still fighting. I need to help and you need to leave with Natasha, unless you want to wind up in a cell after this."

"I'm not leaving without you. Either you come with me or I go with you. Your pick."

"Bucky," Steve sighs, gripping his forearms and resisting the urge to shake. "Trust me. I'll be fine, I promise you. Just worry about getting out and getting away from here before someone realizes who you are and tries to stop you, and we'll meet up at my place afterwards, alright?""

"You forgetting what happened the last time you told me to wait at your place for you?" Bucky wonders.

"This is cute," Natasha says. "We definitely have time for the two of you to hash this out. No rush, keep going. It's not like there's a team of assassin and S.H.I.E.L.D. agents outside that door that could come in at any moment."

Steve gives her a 'you're not helping' look that's mostly lost on her; they both know she's got a point.

"Please," he says, one last try.

Bucky groans, pulling Steve into a quick, dirty kiss before gently pushing him away. "You better not get yourself killed, Rogers, I swear."

"Same goes to you. Both of you."

"Don't worry," Natasha says with a smirk. "I'll get your boyfriend out of here in one piece."

Bucky glares at her and, matching her wicked smile with one of his own, asks, "You ever consider doing promotional advertisement for Wendy's?"

"Unless I decide to shoot him myself," she corrects.

"Be nice," Steve says to them both. Then, before Bucky can change his mind, he pulls open the door and slips out into the hallway to join the fight again, gun already out.

 

-o-

 

It's hard to tell who's zoning out more right now: Steve, Natasha, or Clint. Then again, Clint discreetly brought his hand up to his ear twenty minutes ago and Steve is pretty sure he turned his hearing aids down, so probably Clint, though Steve is giving him a run for his money. Natasha looks like she's paying attention, nodding at the right moment, but her eyes are glazed over and she keeps looking at her watch whenever she has the chance.

"I ought to suspend you all," Fury concludes, his rant finally coming to an end.

Natasha kicks Clint's ankle and he jerks up, blurting, "I wasn't actually involved," a little too loudly.

"He wasn't," Steve says. "Neither was Natasha. I broke into your office. I needed the drive."

"For what, exactly?"

"So Tony Stark could duplicate it."

"And that's the only reason?"

"No," Natasha says. "And he wasn't the one who took it. I did. Hydra wanted the drive badly enough that they wouldn't've been against sending an agent in here to retrieve it. I thought that it would be smart for us to have a backup, and the less people who knew about it, the better. I didn't need Hydra coming after me for it so I only told Steve and Tony, and Steve was only involved because I asked him to keep it at his apartment."

Fury looks dubious. "And where is the duplicated drive now?" he asks.

"I have it hidden," Steve bluffs. If he has to, he thinks he can convince Tony to make him another drive so he can bring it in to Fury to prove their story, but it'll probably involve more groveling at Tony's feet than Steve wants to do. He'd like to avoid that becoming necessary.

"Destroy it," Fury orders. "And the next time either of you decides you want to break into my office, don't. I don't care how well intentioned you are. The only reason I'm letting you off the hook right now is because, thanks to the two of you, Tony Stark was able to decipher the code. If it weren't for that, you two would be losing yours jobs right now and I'd be seriously considering further punishment. Do you understand?"

"Yes, sir," Natasha and Steve intone.

"Good." Fury rubs a hand over his face. "Now get the hell out of my office before I change my mind."

They don't need to be told twice. Steve follows Natasha out of the room, Clint right behind them. He isn't stupid enough to say anything incriminating in the hallway, not here, not when there are ears and eyes everywhere. He waits until they've had a chance to change back into the civilian clothes and gotten outside to pull her to a stop, Clint continuing on past them with a short, "Gotta shower. See you later?" that Natasha nods at.

"You didn't have to do that," Steve says when he's gone.

Natasha shrugs at him, her lips tilted up in a half-smile. "You would've done it for me. And besides, if we came out with the truth they would've wanted to take a statement from both of us, and who knows how long that would've taken? I have a date tonight, remember? I don't plan on spending all my time in a stuffy room answering the same question over and over again."

"Thank you," Steve says, though the words aren't enough to encompass how grateful he is to have her in his life. He doesn't think any are.

Natasha is rolling her at him when she says, "Never again, Steve."

"Never again," Steve promises. "Probably."

"Funny."

"That wasn't a joke."

"Don't you have somewhere to be?"

Steve's eyes widen. "Crap." He kisses her cheek. "I'll see you later? Or— wait, you have a date. Have fun. Don't do anything I wouldn't do."

"A world of possibilities has just been opened to me."

Steve laughs at that; he has to. "Really, though. I hope you enjoy yourselves."

"I always do."

"And, uh— that place a few blocks down from your apartment, Gordon's? Sam loves that place. Or anywhere that's not too fancy or busy. If he has to wear a tie, he'll hate it. Just a suggestion."

"I'll keep that in mind," Natasha promises.

 

-o-

 

It's always odd, coming home and realizing someone's inside his apartment. Steve's been on his own for so long that he's not accustomed to someone else being in his space, and all it takes is stepping through the doorway and shutting it behind him to know that he's not alone. He can't see Bucky, yet, but he can feel the presence of another person in the room prickling his skin, an upset of the still air that instinctually puts him on edge until Bucky steps out of the hallway, cautiously moving into Steve's line of sight.

"Hey," Steve says.

"Guess you made it in one piece, huh?"

"Promised I would, didn't I?" He lets his gaze travel the length of Bucky's body, taking in the familiar pair of worn sweatpants in place of the dark pants Bucky had been wearing earlier. "Is that— do I smell food?"

Awkwardly, Bucky nods towards the kitchen and says, "Sam stopped by. He knocked on the door for ten minutes before yelling that Natasha sent him. I thought it'd be safe to answer the door to him and he said Natasha told him to get us something to eat for when you got home."

Steve's eyes catch on the bag on the counter, focusing in on the familiar logo with the red-haired girl on the front. "Wendy's?"

"Your friends are hilarious," Bucky deadpans.

Steve grins, shrugging off his coat and tossing his keys onto the counter. He opens the bag, inhaling the smell of greasy, bad-for-you food that's as enticing as it is disgusting (Steve has a soft spot for unhealthy food, he's weak) and gives Bucky a questioning look.

"Hungry?" he asks as he snags a fry and pops it in his mouth.

Bucky shakes his head, leaning back against the kitchen island. His chin juts out, his arms cross over his chest, and Steve can almost feel the waves of anxiety wafting across the short distance between them despite the almost cocky way he's holding himself. Some people wither when they're uncomfortable or nervous, while others overcompensate. Steve is starting to get which Bucky prefers.

"I don't know what to do with myself when I'm not working for Hydra," he admits, ducking his head after a moment. "It's— It's been a while since I've been able to make my own choices, Steve, and I don't know what the hell I'm gonna do."

"You don't need to decide right now," Steve says, forcing himself to stay planted where he is, to not stop this conversation in order his get his lips on Bucky the way he's desperate to. "I think you've earned a few days off to clear your head and figure out what you want to do from there."

"I can't stay here. They'll come after me and I'm not putting you in danger."

Screw it. Steve crosses the space between them, both hands curling around the counter on either side of Bucky's body. "S.H.I.E.L.D. has them shaken, Bucky. Hydra has bigger things to worry about right now than you, and if S.H.I.E.L.D. has it their way, there won't be a Hydra left to come after you. And if S.H.I.E.L.D. fails they do start looking for you, and you're still here, we'll deal with it. I'm not afraid."

"Course you're not," Bucky huffs, gripping Steve's hip in one hand, the other sliding up the back of his t-shirt. Cold fingers drag over Steve's spine and he tries not to give Bucky the satisfaction of feeling him shudder, knowing that's exactly what he wants. "You don't have the sense to be, do you?"

"I mean it."

Bucky laughs into Steve's shoulder, his touch warming the longer it lasts. "I know you are," he says. "I'm just not sure if I want to put you through this. They erased everything, Steve. My entire identity. Without them, I don't even exist. They took it all and left nothing but a big fucking mess."

"So take it back."

"It's not that easy."

"You're right, it won't be easy," Steve admits, "but most things that're worth it aren't."

"Spy, comedian and a motivational speaker. I'd love to see your resume, Steve. Bet it's impressive."

"Bucky."

"Sorry. I'm kind of an asshole. Guess you better know that now if you want me to stick around."

"I do."

"You sure?"

"On second thought," Steve says, pulling back a bit, "maybe not." Bucky pinches his hip playfully. "Seriously, we can figure this out. I know people who can help, if you want it. We can do something about this, get you your life back. It just doesn't have to be tonight, is all I'm saying. Tonight— I'd kind of like to just relax, tonight. If you want."

Bucky looks up at the ceiling, sighing heavily. "Alright," he concedes. "So what do we do for now, then?"

Steve jerks his head in the direction of the Wendy's bag. "We eat. And then we sleep. Possibly shower in between, but that's not mandatory."

Before Steve can get more than a step away from him, Bucky draws him back in, lips brushing his jaw. "Food can wait," he says. "I think we should make that shower mandatory."

He pictures Bucky in his shower, water slicking down his hair, running over the planes of his back, and suddenly the smell of food isn't half as tempting as it was a moment ago. "If that's what you want," he breathes.

"I want you," Bucky says. "Not too fussed on where."

Steve flushes at that, more happy than embarrassed or anything else, and starts walking backwards, guiding Bucky along with him. He fingers the string of Bucky's— his owns, technically— sweatpants as they move, considering, and then tugs until the knot comes undone and asks, "How good would you say you are at making coffee?"

Bucky falters in a step, nearly tripping. "What?"

"I've been thinking about getting into the coffee shop business. There might be an opening, you know, in the future. That's definitely a career option to consider, when all of this is sorted out."

The sound of Bucky's laughter only dies out when he manages to back Steve up against the bathroom wall and kiss him breathless.