If SHIELD kept the details of something from an agent, it usually meant the details involved some combination of an unacceptably high body count, actions that even SHIELD thought were immoral, and the result of SHIELD screwing up. Bucky guessed that how he'd got to SHIELD definitely involved the first two, and probably the third as well. But he knew the basics—the Winter Soldier had been in cryostasis when the USSR had broken up, and in the confusion that followed, a lot of Red Room assets had been stolen and sold off, including him. SHIELD had acquired him sometime in the late 90s, then kept him in storage, too wary of the programming they didn't fully understand to risk waking him. What they did know was that there was a fail-safe for him being captured while in cryo—if the Winter Soldier was not woken correctly, the Winter Soldier would kill everyone in the building. Brutal, but simple and effective.
There were three people he had to thank for the fact that he was not still in cryo. First was Coulson. Bucky always found the rare occasions Coulson showed his 'Captain America's Number One Fan' side creepy, but it had been Coulson who recognised him and had quietly done his research to prove that the Winter Soldier was almost certainly James Buchanan Barnes, then presented this information to Fury. Information that showed that there might be something—someone—under the programming: someone who had the potential to be very loyal and very useful.
The second person he didn't find out about until over a year after coming back. Lakshmi, a meek and quietly-spoken SHIELD archivist who had helped Coulson find information about Bucky, had come across something in a very old text about the Tesseract restoring someone to themselves. Bucky had been introduced to her by Coulson, and couldn't square the shy woman in front of him with the person who had apparently gone directly to Fury with this information and virtually demanded that he try and use the tesseract to restore Bucky's memories. So he asked her why she'd done it.
"Because you didn't deserve for any of that to happen to you. We couldn't make it right, but we could do better for you than keeping you in a freezer forever."
And she was the first person he'd met this century whose sense of justice, whose instinct to stand up for what was right even when they were outgunned reminded him of Steve. He'd hugged her, completely on impulse, and she'd been so surprised she actually squeaked.
The third person was Natasha, the person who proved that operatives could reliably change sides, who proved that the programming could be overcome. The woman he'd maybe loved, a long time ago, the woman who was just about the only good thing to happen to him while he was under the control of the Soviets. They'd brought out the good in each other. And that was why they had been separated, why he'd had his memory wiped again, hadn't even recognised her the next time he'd seen her.
Three people who were the reason why, in 2008, the Winter Soldier had opened his eyes to find himself in six-point restraints. He found himself looking back into the fiercest one-eyed stare he'd ever received; then he saw a blue glowing cube, heard the words, "Remember who you are." (Much later he wondered if the Tesseract had even been necessary. There was part of him that thought that Fury could probably intimidate his way through any programming the Red Room could put into a person.)
The time after that was hazy. He remembered thinking in five or six tracks at once, all the facets of his different recollections of himself running separately. He remembered asking where Steve was, even as other parts of him knew that Captain America was dead. He wasn't sure how long it took him to think coherently. It could have been days. Then, knowing what he'd done, the overwhelming guilt. Disgust at himself. Grief. Despair. There had been times when he could barely move from the weight of the guilt and loss.
It was Natasha who helped him out of the blackness. They'd been prevented from meeting for the first couple of weeks, as SHIELD were concerned that either of them might trigger some deep programming in the other. But when she'd found out how bad he was, she'd demanded to see him.
He'd been sitting on the floor, shoulder and head leaning against the wall. He'd probably been like that for hours.
She had sat down in front of him and said, "Who are you?"
The question hadn't made any sense to him. She knew he was the Winter Soldier; so he’d just stared at her.
She said, "In all those memories, under all the things you were made to do, there is a person. He was always there, even if he wasn't able to act. Who are you?"
And he'd known all along. "Bucky. Bucky Barnes."
She'd half-smiled and said, "Pleased to meet you, Bucky."
He'd licked his lips, as he found talking difficult after spending weeks silent, "But I still did things—"
"If there had been a way not to, would you have done them?"
"We both have a lot of red in our ledgers, Bucky. A lot to atone for. But you don't get to make up for what you did by sitting here."
That was the turning point. It would have been nice if he'd just snapped out of it, a good stern talking-to and everything was ok. But life wasn't like that. Natasha had made him want to get better, but actually getting better—that was where the hard work started. Making himself get up, making himself move, making himself interact. Making himself talk to the SHIELD shrinks and therapists about things he'd rather have never even thought about ever again.
It was tough. It took months before SHIELD decided that he was safe to move out of medical and into his own apartment (even though he was thinking of himself as one person he thought that SHIELD still saw him as two: the Winter Soldier, a danger to the world, and Bucky Barnes, a danger to himself). They gave him a cover for his arm so it would pass as a standard false arm as long as he remembered to move it less fluidly.
The only thing that had made him smile in those months was that it had taken the doctors and therapists weeks to figure out that he was a queer, something the Commandos had taken about five minutes to notice. And as soon as they'd found out, he could see them desperate to ask about him and Steve. He wasn’t going to indulge their curiosity; if they asked, Steve was his best friend (Steve was his everything). They didn’t need to know.
Getting used to being twenty years in the future was the easy part. He'd always had to update when they took him out of cryo; an assassin who looked years out of place was far too obvious to be effective. Learning about anything from technology to recent history was a welcome distraction from the inside of his own head.
Being in his own apartment wasn’t that different from being in SHIELD medical. He didn't own anything beyond what SHIELD had given him, was given just enough money for essentials, and had to spend all day at SHIELD anyway. He spent a couple of nights staring at the walls, then decided that he was going to go out, go dancing, and get laid. He'd turned up somewhere where being queer wasn't just legal, but almost accepted, and he wasn't going to pass up this opportunity. He'd had enough training with the internet to be able to look up some likely places, so it wasn't as if finding que—sorry, gay clubs was a problem.
They didn't disappoint. He barely had to make an effort to pick up guys; his first night out, he ended up screwing three different guys, rolling home as dawn broke. He knew SHIELD must have had him under surveillance, and he mildly wondered how intense it was—whether they now had video of him being sucked off in some alley, whether they'd followed him back to some guy's apartment. Not that he particularly cared.
So he filled up his nights with clubs and dancing and screwing, an easy way to ignore the loneliness, to ignore the grief that welled up when he was on his own. The distraction worked until one night he'd headed back with a guy; he was a college kid, all tight pants and tight shirt and runner's muscles. They'd been making out in the elevator, then in the corridor, almost fell into the guy's apartment. The guy (Bucky was sure he'd got his name at some point but had forgotten it; wasn't important, he never gave his real name anyway) had pulled back for a moment.
"You're ex-Army, yeah? I can totally tell."
"Yeah." He knew he oozed Army, and admitting he was a vet meant that he could then avoid other questions. The army was busy enough fucking up the lives of guys who looked his age (but could be his grandsons) that "I don't want to talk about it" was readily accepted in answer to almost anything.
"I kinda got a thing for military guys. Like, can you, dunno, be all drill sergeant in bed?"
Bucky groaned. Stuff like this was why he generally avoided younger guys, but he'd let his dick do the thinking that night.
"Aw, c'mon, please." The guy was holding his hands, pulling him through a door and into a bedroom.
Bucky stopped dead as soon as he saw it. There, dominating one wall of the bedroom was a huge black-and-white poster of Steve. He was looking down and away from the camera, in the combat suit, smiling, a slight smear of dirt on his face. There wasn't much to see on the poster apart from Steve, so Bucky couldn't place exactly when it would have been taken. It must have been one of the times when they'd been filmed or photographed by news crews, probably just before a mission. He knew that whenever it had been taken, he'd have been there, Steve's right arm.
And Steve was dead. Dead and a poster on some kid's wall.
"Hey, you ok? You got a problem with Captain America or something?"
Bucky came back to himself, said, "Yeah, yeah I do," and got out of the apartment as fast as possible.
He made it back to his own apartment before breaking down. His memories hadn't just come back—they'd come back vivid and immediate. He knew that he'd experienced at least ten years awake between falling off the train and the present but it felt like last week. Steve had died sixty years ago, but he'd only lost Steve when Fury had told him to remember.
And not just Steve. He was the rawest, the most gaping wound. But he'd lost almost everyone. Peggy and Dernier were still alive, but they'd lived sixty years, and they weren't the same people. And even if he wanted to go visiting, SHIELD wouldn't let him; they were still intending to get him back into the field as a covert agent, couldn't risk anyone unexpectedly connecting the dots. Natasha was the closest he had to a friend, and all they'd had was a relationship of a few months before being separated. She'd come to see him a couple of times, but he wasn't going to put all this on her.
So he talked to his therapist about grief and loss and belonging. It seemed to work, at least a little.
And he resolved that if he was out to pick up guys, any guy who showed the slightest possibility of a military kink was right out. He knew that didn't mean that he'd never get any nasty surprises again, but at least he was managing his odds.
He also looked up what the modern world thought about Steve. It wouldn't help if he found himself face to face with another poster, but he was genuinely curious. And of course Steve was a gay icon. How could he be anything else? But he found out that 'mainstream academic opinion' had Steve pinned as straight, which must have meant that Peggy and the Commandos had kept their secret, even over all those years. It made him miss them all the more.
Then he had a routine physical. He'd taken two minutes to count up the number of guys he'd screwed over the past three months, then admitted he hadn't particularly cared whether it was safe sex. That had gotten him a lecture on SHIELD operatives being expected to protect their health in their private lives as well as on missions (which was when he realised that he'd been put on the operatives roster), and sent right back to his therapist to talk about it. Talk about 'risky sexual behaviour' as an avoidance tactic.
Worst of it was, they were basically right. He did need to get more comfortable being alone with his thoughts, especially if he was going to be out on missions. The sort of work he was good at meant a lot of time alone, silent, waiting. So he started spacing his nights out, more and more evenings in with some pulp novel he'd picked up in a thrift store.
As for the unsafe sex, the results eventually came back that he was clean, but the doctor said, "We don't know if you're resistant because of the experiments you underwent, or if you were just born lucky. But neither of those can be relied on, so wise up."
He ended up settled into a routine, nine to five at SHIELD, training and testing and therapy. Evenings in, except for one night a week, when he allowed himself to go out, drink, dance, get laid (safely), forget who he was.
It was just shy of eleven months after he'd been woken when they sent him on his first mission: Afghanistan. He'd smiled. The more things changed, the more things stayed the same. He'd walked those mountains before, killed men who were too dangerous and too clever for the army to handle. He wondered if his targets this time were the sons of the men he'd killed back then. But some things were different; he was given more information, more background, more justification. Not just "do this," but "do this, because the world will be safer if you do, and this is why." Enough to perhaps convince him that he was removing some of that red from his ledger, even though he was still killing.
The mission brought things into focus. Out alone, in the freezing wilderness, there was space to really think. He realised that underneath his grief and guilt he still had a powerful desire to live, and not just to live, but to enjoy life. He remembered, so long ago, telling Steve that if he died Steve shouldn't mope. He could almost hear Steve saying, "Same goes for you, jerk, stop moping, start living."
Living meant being sociable. He kept his nights out, but tried to actually enjoy them, rather than just using them as a distraction or an anaesthetic. He wasn't out for a relationship—too soon, perhaps it would always be too soon; casual fucks were fun and scratched the itch, and that was all he needed. Sociable meant trying to make friends too, and it was easier to be friends with people who understood the job. But the majority of agents at SHIELD were career agents and were wary of him, didn't know what to make of a defector and a man out of time. The rest, though, the flotsam and jetsam who washed up at SHIELD, exceptional people who could be useful, people who'd had screwed-up lives too, they were people he could make friends with. People who understood that talking about the past could hurt, people who didn't ask questions. Natasha ended up as his best friend; perhaps that had been inevitable, as they were the only ones who could really understand what the other had been through. Clint ended up a good friend too, after he'd been reassured that Bucky had no designs on Natasha—and after they'd agreed to disagree about weapon choices.
Clint, however, did have a single issue which he wouldn't budge on. "You need a boyfriend."
Bucky and Clint had been watching a movie, Clint's turn to choose, so it was Lord of the Rings. Again. Bucky wasn't ready to tell Clint about Steve, so he just took a swig of his beer and said, "Nope. I like being a free agent."
"You do. Any time you end up sharing a bed with someone, you snuggle. You need someone to snuggle with."
"Relationships are a pain in this job."
"You've never even tried."
He tipped his beer towards Clint and said, "I, Agent Barton, am a strong independent woman who don't need no man. And you ain't changing that."
"Not even if it's true that Agent Wu is single—"
"What part of 'don't need no man' ain't you understanding?"
Clint grinned. "If you're turning straight, I'm going to veto your nights in with Natasha—"
Bucky hit him with a cushion.
So. He had a life. Had friends. Had a job that he was damn good at, that some of the time he even enjoyed. But it never stopped hurting. It dimmed—became more manageable—but it still hurt. Hurt more at Christmas, Thanksgiving, hurt almost unbearably at Steve's birthday. If possible he tried to be out of the U.S. at those times, preferring to be on a mission. It was easy to ignore that it was July 4th if he was up to his chest in some swamp in a remote part of China.
It was 2011 and Bucky arrived at SHIELD HQ in New York after a nasty mission in Russia, bone tired and just looking to do the minimum mandatory check-in before heading home. But an agent intercepted him at the door, told him it was urgent, and led him to one of the surveillance rooms. When he walked into the room he had a moment when he thought that perhaps it was all some sort of cruel joke. Because Steve was dead, so that couldn't be Steve he was seeing on all the monitors in the room.
"Agent Barnes? A military survey team found Captain Rogers in the Arctic a little over 24 hours ago. They initially thought he was dead, but it seems like he was in some sort of hibernation state. Our medical team have worked on him and now his vitals are steady, probably normal for him. The doctors think he's currently deeply asleep."
He could barely process this. "Asleep. So, he’s gonna wake up."
"As far as we can tell, yes."
Bucky kept staring at the monitors, could hear what was being played on the radio. "What's with the movie set?"
"There is concern that the shock of being over sixty years in the future may be too much, so they intend to gently introduce—"
"That baseball game is from 1941. Jesus, you’re all morons. But he isn't." Bucky pointed at the screen. "Steve is gonna wake up, and he’s gonna know it's a set-up. And he ain't gonna think he's in the future; he's gonna think Hydra got him."
Bucky turned on his heel and walked out of the room, ignoring the consternation of the agents. He knew the area the surveillance room covered and headed straight there, walked right past the agent in some pseudo-40s clothes who sat outside the room, watching another monitor.
"You can't go in there, not without clearance and changing clothes—"
He ignored her and went in, closing the door quietly behind him. Steve was lying there breathing, alive. He turned the radio off (at least they'd remembered to make the switch functional) and walked over to the bed.
He put a hand on Steve's arm. Jesus, he'd forgotten how warm the guy was. "Steve?"
No response. Bucky poked him a couple of times in the ribs. "Wake up, ya lazy bum, you're late for work!"
That made Steve shift a little, but he gave no signs of awakening. It did look like he was asleep, but apparently waking up on his own schedule. Bucky pulled a chair up, slung his jacket over the back, and sat down, putting his feet up on the bed. He'd guess that there was an argument going on in the surveillance room about whether leaving him or hauling him out of there was least disruptive. He watched Steve, couldn't quite get his head around him being there. But it didn't take long for the warmth of the room, the rhythm of Steve's breathing, and the tiredness from his mission to overtake him, and he was falling asleep.
Steve opened his eyes, took a second to take in where he was. Bed. Ceiling fan. Someone quietly snoring. This was all wrong, he'd hit the ice, remembered being thrown forward by the impact then- this. He sat up and—
Bucky woke up, grinned at him dopily, and all Steve could think to say was, "You'll wreck your neck sleeping like that."
"And here I was gonna put money on the first thing you said being 'aren't you supposed to be dead?'"
"By rights I should be. Turns out I'm almost as difficult to kill as you are."
Steve noticed it then; Bucky didn't just have longer hair and strange clothes but— "Your arm."
"Yeah. I did say almost, didn't I?"
"Bucky, what happened?"
"That is gonna be a long story." Bucky stood up and sat on the bed next to Steve, shoulder to shoulder. "They said this is gonna shock you, so I’d best be somewhere I can catch you if you can pass out, right?"
Bucky grinned and Steve grinned back, because of all the paper-thin reasons to get close to someone, that had to rate as one of the worst.
Bucky gestured at the room with the false arm, and it was good, almost natural in how he used it. "First off, all this is fake. The idea was to break things to you gently." Bucky took a deep breath. "Steve, when you crashed into the ice they looked for you for months and months, but they couldn't find you. Eventually, they gave up. They found you by accident yesterday. It's 2011, Steve. You've been out for over sixty years."
"But you're not sixty years older—"
"Said this was a long story. So, I fell off that train. Got picked up by a bunch of Soviets out looking to get as much Hydra tech as they could. I was hurt pretty bad, lost the arm—lost most of my memories. They tested me, found out that Hydra had been testing their own supersoldier serum on me, which is probably why I didn't die, so they thought they could use me." Bucky looked away from him. "Turned me into pretty much the world's most efficient assassin. Made me a weapon and nothing else. I ended up one of the bad guys. I killed a lot of people. A lot. Between missions, they kept me frozen, so I ain't sixty years older." Bucky suddenly looked at him, wide-eyed. "I ain't one of the bad guys now, you're ok, this ain't some Soviet base, ok? Jesus, I should have worked out what I was gonna say before I started talking."
"So where are we?"
"New York. SHIELD headquarters. SHIELD's basically what SSR turned into after the war. Jeez, I even missed out on that. Steve, we won, ok? Then we spent the next forty or so years in a cold war with the USSR, and yeah, I was working for the Soviets during that time. SHIELD found me frozen a few years ago. I've been awake and working for them for a couple of years."
He tried to make sense of it. Sixty years. So everyone his age would be in their eighties or nineties, impossibly old.
"She's alive. I ain't allowed to go see her, case someone recognises me. So I don't know much more than what I've read, but sounds like just as you'd imagine it. She pretty much founded SHIELD, ran agents and commando units, the works."
"All dead. But after pretty good lives, it seems. Dernier was the last, died last year. I wanted to go to his funeral, but SHIELD said no."
Steve tried to take it all in, couldn't; it was all a bit too unreal. Everyone was dead, or so old he couldn’t even imagine it. Not everyone. The one person who he thought was dead was alive, sat next to him. Was it all unreal? Was he dreaming Bucky back, as he lay dying in the ice?
"I don't know how to make this any easier. Maybe they were right to want to ease you in gently-"
"No. You know how much I hate being lied to."
"Yeah. That's kinda why I busted into their little movie set. That and I wanted to see you really were alive. I—I missed you." Bucky flicked his gaze up to his right as he talked.
Steve knew that look, knew what it meant: be careful, we're being watched. So he didn't hug Bucky, didn't kiss him, didn't say any of the things he really wanted to say. "Missed you too. I'm sorry."
"I knew what I was getting into. I volunteered, remember?"
"You know what? I'm hungry, and you ain't eaten since last century. I'll show you the future and buy you something to eat, ok?"
"They'll let us just walk out of here—?"
"Element of surprise. C'mon." Bucky gave him the grin he remembered from childhood scrapes (and if he was going to be honest, some teenage and adult scrapes too). He knew he shouldn't go along with this; he had no idea what SHIELD was like, but if it was anything like the SSR, they wouldn't be impressed with Captain America just waltzing out of the building because he felt like going out for dinner. But he wanted to see the future, perhaps then it would seem real, perhaps then he'd stop expecting to wake up. And he'd never been good at saying no to Bucky.
Bucky put on his jacket, and threw Steve the jacket which had been hanging on the door. Then Bucky paused and said, "You should know, there's no flying cars. Still disappoints me."
And they walked out of the room together, only to be confronted by a flustered-looking woman who said "You can't—"
"Yes, we can. C'mon, Steve."
Steve let Bucky steer him through the building, staring at the acres of glass and concrete, the screens with constantly changing images on them. People were staring, but seemed wary of actually approaching them. It was only when they came to a door that led onto the street that they were challenged again.
"Agent Barnes, what do you think you're doing?"
Bucky kept walking as he said, "Dinner. Then I'll bring him back. Tell Fury that Captain Rogers' fairy godmother promises they'll be back before midnight, ok?"
Then they were out in the street, and Bucky was pulling him along, hailing a cab and bundling him in, then giving an address to the driver.
"Sorry for hustling you out like that. I just wanted some space."
"It's fine." Steve was staring out of the window of the cab. If he'd been asked to picture the future, it wouldn't have been this. Buildings he recognised stood next to huge new ones, buildings that seemed to be almost entirely made of glass, and others that were drab square concrete. And so many cars. He hadn't thought there was room for any more cars in the city, but he'd been wrong. But it felt real, the mix of old and new, the dirt and smells; it wasn't something he'd have come up with on his own. So he probably was in the future, not dying on an ice floe.
Which meant Bucky was real too. He looked over at Bucky, who didn't seem to have stopped grinning at all, and it was infectious; he ended up grinning like an idiot too.
The cab stopped and Bucky paid the driver what seemed to Steve a fortune. They walked together, almost bumping shoulders, like they always had.
"We're a couple of blocks away. I wanted to talk. SHIELD likes listening in; hell, they might have a bug in here." Bucky tapped his arm. "SHIELD are the good guys, leastways the best you can be when you're trying to do what they're doing. They just don't believe in privacy. Are you ok?"
"I don't know. I'm not taking it all in."
"An hour ago I thought you'd been dead sixty years. I ain't exactly taking it in, and I've only got one thing to deal with. I'm kinda hoping everything makes more sense the other side of food."
The diner that Bucky brought them to felt familiar, even though they were in a neighborhood Steve didn't think he'd ever been to before. He guessed familiar was what Bucky was aiming for. They slid into a booth, and it was only when he opened up the menu that he realised he really was starving.
"Bucky, these prices—"
"This is a cheap joint, Steve. Money's just worth less these days."
A smiling girl with a ring in her nose that Steve couldn't stop staring at took their order and winked at him as she left. Bucky was grinning at him again; then there was a buzzing sound, and he pulled a small flat rectangular thing out of his jacket pocket. He looked at it, then looked up at Steve. "Oh, I am gonna have to spend so long explaining technology to you." Bucky slid out of his side of the booth and slid in to sit next to Steve, pressed against him from knee to shoulder.
Bucky spoke softly, the tone they'd always used when they didn't want to be overheard. "They call ‘em phones, but calling people ain't even half of it. There's text messages, guess you could call that instant telegrams. I just got one, thing buzzes when you get a message. Then there's the internet. Jeez, where do I even start with that?"
"I think I can live without knowing for a bit. What was your message?"
"From a friend, another agent. Ignore the messages at the top." Bucky showed him the screen. There was a name at the top of the screen: 'Clint'—he'd guess that was who it was from. Different-coloured bubbles had text aligned at opposite sides of the screen, the top few all reading, "Beer? Movie?" or "Beer. Movie," and then a time. The text at the bottom read. "Rumor is you've gone rogue and kidnapped Captain America. True?"
"What are you going to tell him?"
"Not gone rogue, gone for a burger. Not kidnapping if he wanted to come and I'm paying."
Steve smiled and watched with fascination as Bucky's fingers tapped around the screen.
The girl came back with their drinks. "Guess that Sharleen wins again. She says the hot ones are always gay."
Bucky smiled at her. "Sorry, hon."
Steve looked at Bucky in confusion as she left. "What—"
"Another thing I don't know where to start with. You know how some people used gay to mean queer? Everyone does now. Practically the only meaning of the word gay." Bucky must have sensed Steve's tension, his fear, and gave his knee a reassuring squeeze. "But it's ok. Not illegal. Hasn't been for years. Still a lot of people ain't happy with that. Some places two guys can kiss in the street and no one cares, but some places, they'd get beaten up. Three months ago the state of New York made it legal for two guys to get married. Or two girls."
"We could get married?"
"Did you just propose to me, Steve?"
Bucky was grinning, and Steve's question had been said out of sheer incredulity, but he'd marry Bucky in a heartbeat and wasn't going to back down now. "Guess I did. So what's your answer?"
"You know it's yes. But I don't know if you're asking the guy you think you are. For me it's been years. I've done some terrible things, spent the last couple of years trying to make up for them. I get nightmares. You can't sneak up on me without risking me killing you. That's not the guy you know."
"But the guy I know would definitely bust me out of someplace just to take me for a burger. And if he knew he'd done something wrong he'd do anything he could to make up for it."
Bucky shook his head. "I forgot just how good you were. Most honourable man on the planet."
Their food arrived. It tasted strange to Steve, odd flavors he wasn't expecting, and a little too salty. Bucky saw his expression and said, "You get used to it."
He was so hungry that he didn't really care. Bucky caught the waitress and ordered another bunch of sides, grinning again. "This is the first time I've ever been able to properly treat you to a meal out. First time I've had the money and there hasn’t been rationing."
Bucky's happiness was infectious, almost but not quite enough to keep Steve anchored in the face of the weirdness around him. Everything was familiar but unfamiliar. Like the waitress. Pretty, flirty waitresses in diners he understood, but ones with rings through their noses who guessed their customers were queers, he didn't know how to deal with.
Of course, Bucky could read him like a book. Bucky sighed. "Sorry, Steve. I know everything's wrong. Wish I'd had time to think up some kinda plan, to introduce everything to you in some sort of order so it'd all made sense. I'm kinda winging it here."
Steve shrugged. "Would anything have worked? And I thought you said SHIELD had a plan."
"SHIELD had a dumb plan."
"And you winging it is better."
"My version has fries. ‘Course it's better."
"Isn’t SHIELD going to come looking for us?"
"Already have. Don't look, but there's three agents covering the front doors, and a sniper at one of the windows of the brownstone. There'll be agents covering the back exits too."
"You never were very good at realising what a big deal you were, were you? You coming back is like—I guess if they found Lincoln alive. ‘Course they have a sniper. Probably more than one, it’s just I've only worked out where one is."
"You gonna repeat everything I say?"
Steve rubbed his face with his hand. "I...Sorry—"
"Too much? Yeah, gonna take you home. Don't know if they'll try and take you back when we leave. They might, depends whether they want to risk making a scene in public. Think we'll have to go with it if they do."
Bucky paid and they walked out. No one approached them, and Steve felt too confused to even start trying to work out which people were the agents watching them. Bucky at his side was just about the only thing he could focus on, felt like it was the only thing that kept him moving.
"You know what I said about SHIELD listening in? My apartment's almost certainly bugged to hell. Probably got audio and video. Just so you know."
Steve just nodded, head still swirling.
They walked for a few blocks, then Bucky led him to a door, then up to a top-floor apartment outfitted with triple locks and number pads to disable before they got through the door.
Once the door was shut and locked behind them, he pulled Bucky into an all-enveloping hug. Bucky squeezed him back, and when Steve felt dampness on his neck, he realised Bucky was crying. And realised that he was crying too. Then he wasn't crying—he was sobbing, and not hugging Bucky but clinging to him. He didn't know how long they were like that, how long it took them to cry themselves out.
Without really thinking about it, he slid a hand around the back of Bucky's neck, pulled back, and kissed him. He'd never doubted Bucky was really Bucky, but now he was so sure. Even if the arm around his waist was mechanical, even if the hair between his fingers was longer.
It was Bucky who broke the kiss, just enough to talk. "You remember I said they might be watching."
Steve couldn't make that seem real, the idea that their superiors would watch an agent in their own apartment. "You said it wasn't illegal."
"You got all exhibitionist with being frozen?"
"I thought I'd seen you die. I got you back. I want...I just—"
Bucky kissed him again, started walking him backwards as they kissed, and suddenly broke off, as if remembering something. "Uh, Steve, while I thought you were dead, I wasn't exactly, uh, faithful to your memory—"
"I'm not splitting up some relationship—"
"Jeez, no, just, uh, I've kinda been with a lot of guys."
"More like a baseball league."
"Wow." Bucky was looking down, so Steve put a finger under his chin to look at him. "It's ok. Remember, I told you to get laid when you went to Europe—"
"But you didn't!"
"How long did you say it's been for you? Years? I might have managed it in that time."
"Nah. You're lousy at getting dates without me."
"Yeah, but I don't mind when you're around."
Bucky smiled and pulled Steve by the wrist to the bedroom, kicking the door shut behind them. "Always promised myself that one day we'd screw in a real bed, and not care about the neighbors. And there's nothing the other side of that wall."
Steve kissed Bucky, started pulling up Bucky's t-shirt, pushed his leg between Bucky's thighs, could feel Bucky was already hard. Steve sucked on his earlobe, then whispered in his ear. "You promised me. Promised next time there was a bolt on the door you'd screw me so hard I couldn't remember my name."
Bucky gripped Steve's arm. "Jesus, that's the closest I've come to coming my pants since I was fifteen. Get naked, or this is gonna be over before it starts."
They'd had practice undressing fast, and then Bucky was pushing him onto the bed, kissing him all the while. Then Bucky drew back again. "Uh, there's no good way of saying this, but uh, I reckon any supersoldier serum worth a damn has gotta work on VD, right?"
Steve gave Bucky a look. "You got the clap."
"Not last time they checked. Just there's VD out there that's real serious, nasty. I keep getting lectures on safe sex."
Steve pulled Bucky down into a kiss. "Cured everything else. Can we stop talking about VD now?"
Bucky kissed him hard, kissed and licked down his torso. Then Bucky took Steve's dick in his mouth, and, wow, that was new, the way Bucky's tongue flicked and curled, just the barest threads of self-control stopping Steve coming there and then, and that wasn't what he wanted, so Steve pulled Bucky's head back.
Bucky looked up and gave a very smug grin. "Been practicing."
Bucky leaned over to grab a bottle of something from the nightstand, then slicked up his fingers (the real arm, not the mechanical one) as Steve spread his legs. Bucky kissed him again as he slid his fingers into Steve's ass, stretching him, fast and impatient, then sliding his fingers out and sliding his dick in. Steve could barely remember the last time they'd screwed like this, filled and stretched with Bucky over him. Bucky thrust and it was almost tentative.
"Buck, you're not going to hurt me."
Bucky gave an "I'm an idiot, aren't I" look and the next thrust was harder, the next harder still, the head of the bed thumping into the wall. Steve couldn't tell if he'd just forgotten this or if Bucky really was stronger; it almost felt like back when he was small, when Bucky could screw him so hard he'd be on the verge of blacking out. And Steve was between the two pleasure points of Bucky's dick and Bucky's hand, listing baseball scores in his head like he always did to try and make it last, but Bucky was alive and Bucky was screwing him and Steve came with a suppressed gasp. Bucky followed a few moments later.
Bucky shuffled to lie with his head resting on Steve's shoulder, Steve's hand in his hair.
"Missed you. So bad."
"Missed you too." And because Steve couldn't resist, "Baseball league didn't make up for it?"
"Not the same. Not you."
Steve squeezed him a little tighter.
Then there was the quiet buzz again. Bucky said, "Sorry," and half-slid off the bed to retrieve the thing (phone?) from his jacket. He sat up with it in his hands, said "Oh. Natasha, another agent, and, ah, ex-girlfriend, is next door. Been told to keep an eye on me."
"Just a sec, I'll talk to her."
Steve pulled the covers over himself as Bucky stuck his head around the door, still naked, keeping the rest of him behind the door. He knew he should be more embarrassed than he was, but everything was so strange that he wasn't quite keeping up with the reality of the situation.
"How much trouble am I in?"
Steve heard a woman's voice, the barest hint of amusement in it. "Not sure. Not a variable they'd calculated for."
"But they haven't told you to bring us back?"
"So you really want to stay there and watch TV. Loudly. Right?"
The woman's voice was all steel now. "You owe me, Barnes."
Bucky closed the door and slid under the covers with Steve, cuddling up close again. He heard the sounds of some show from the other room.
"Baseball league and a girlfriend too."
"Not at the same time. We both worked for the Soviets. I was assigned to train her. She was—she was the best thing that happened to me, back then. So they made me forget her."
Steve brushed his lips across Bucky's forehead. "When...when I thought—" The words stuck in his throat, still difficult to say. "When I thought you were dead, I swore I'd take Hydra apart. I feel like I need to start over with those guys."
"For half of them, it was so long ago they're all dead anyway, Steve. For the rest, I've taken some of them down myself. The others, if they're still dangerous, SHIELD'll get around to them sometime."
"So you don't need me."
"I need you like I need breathing, Steve. But not for killing people. That's one thing I'm good at."
"You're good at lots of things."
"Yeah, I can suck cock like a champ as well."
They lay there in comfortable silence for a while, until Bucky said, "You should see the arm. Properly." He sat up and peeled the flesh-colored covering away from the shoulder, down the arm, revealing a gleaming metal arm with a large red star prominent on the shoulder. "The arm's very identifiable, so I keep it covered when I'm out. But it works better without the cover."
And the way Bucky said that, the way that he was looking at Steve, it was pretty obvious what was coming next. "You want to give a demonstration?"
Bucky grinned, ran the index finger of the arm down the center of Steve's chest. It was strange, hard but warm, looked brutal and dangerous. Then the metal fingers were around his dick, gentle and delicate but unyielding, and still with that brutal edge. Steve was having a hard time not pushing up. He shouldn't have been liking this as much as he was.
Bucky leaned down and kissed him again, then said, "Much as I'm enjoying the show, I really want you to fuck me."
Steve had never needed much encouragement, and Bucky was already pressing the bottle of lube into his hand. And they could still sync with each other, still with almost no need to say anything. It was much easier to make it last longer with the edge of his need taken off, so Steve took delight in going slowly, pinning Bucky in place any time he tried to increase the pace, until he couldn't do it anymore, Bucky underneath him was too much, and he needed just to screw him hard and fast. Then Bucky was coming all over his hand and Steve was burying himself deep and coming.
They lay draped boneless around each other. Steve rested his hand gently over Bucky's ribs, needing to feel him breathing, proof that Bucky was alive. He could tell that Bucky was falling asleep, and he suddenly realised that he didn't even know what time of day it was. Bucky had told him the year, but not the date or time, and he didn't remember seeing any clocks. Not that it mattered. Everything was wrong, apart from Bucky, and Bucky was here and safe.
He tried to go through things again. 2011. Bucky hadn't died, had worked for the Soviets, who'd ended up the enemy, had, what—lost his memories? Had his memories removed? Both? Must have got them back at some point. Worked for SHIELD, which was the SSR. The Commandos were dead. Peggy was old. Two guys could get married in New York. New York was different, food was different, phones were different.
He wasn't sure how long they lay like that, Bucky sleeping while Steve tried to get his thoughts in some sort of order.
Then there was a banging on the bedroom door, and yelled from the other room. "Bucky! Fury is on his way up right now. You want to be dressed for this."
Bucky was awake and up in an instant, and Steve followed his lead. Fortunately, they had a lot of practice in getting dressed in a hurry, and were out of the bedroom, fully dressed in under a minute. While dressing, Bucky had managed to rattle out, "Fury's the director of SHIELD, do not cross him, he's a black guy, don't think of using any words beginning with n to describe black guys, don't mention the eye."
The woman who must have been Natasha was leaning against the back of the couch with a smile of wry amusement. Before he could think of saying anything to her, the door opened. From Bucky's reaction and earlier description, Fury was pretty much as Steve would have imagined him. Bucky hadn't really needed to say not to cross him—that much was written all over the man.
"Captain Rogers. I was going to say welcome to the 21st century, but it seems Agent Barnes has beaten me to it."
"Agent Barnes, I would like to know what you were thinking when you left SHIELD with Captain Rogers."
"That he looked hungry, sir."
"Is that all?"
"They were playing a baseball game on the radio in his room. A game from 1941."
"Your point, Agent?"
"The point is, the whole setup was obviously a fake." Bucky looked at Steve. "You wake up in a room and realised it was a fake, what would your first thought be?"
There was only one thing he could have thought. "Captured by the enemy."
"So I saved a bunch of agents from being taken down by Captain Rogers, sir."
"You could have done that without leaving, Agent."
"You endangered a valuable asset. Overrode a plan formulated and approved by more senior agents and medical staff. Potentially compromised your own cover. Do you have anything to say for yourself?"
Steve wasn't going to let Bucky take the rap for this. "I do. I realise things have changed, but last I checked, I was Sergeant Barnes' senior officer, and I could have stopped this at any point. I knew he was disobeying orders and did nothing to prevent it. So I should be taking responsibility. Sir."
Fury paused. Colonel Phillips' stares had nothing on this guy, but Steve had no intention of backing down. Finally, Fury said, "Captain Rogers, Agent Barnes, you will report to SHIELD at 0800 tomorrow." With that he turned on his heel and left.
Once the door had shut, Bucky's shoulders slumped. "Don't even think that we've gotten away with it. He's just thinking of some more inventive way to punish us. Mostly me. Oh, yeah, sorry. Natasha, Steve. Steve, Natasha."
Steve reached out, and there was a pause before she reached back so he could shake her hand. "Pleasure to meet you, ma'am."
"Just Natasha. And you don't need me, so I'm leaving."
And then they were alone again. Bucky double locked the door, tapped on the number pads, and then flopped onto the couch. Steve sat next to him, then slid down to lean against Bucky, resting his head on his shoulder. Bucky sighed, rested his hand on Steve's neck and gently stroked his thumb up and down his pulse point.
They stayed like that for a long while. Eventually Bucky said, "Sorry for getting you in trouble."
"I meant what I said, that was as much my fault as yours."
Bucky made a disbelieving noise. There was a long pause before Bucky spoke again. "I don't know what you're going through right now, Steve. But I've had my head messed with often enough to guess. Anything I can do, you just ask, ok? And I know you don't like asking for help. Perhaps you should learn."
Bucky knew him too well. "I'll try."
When they went to bed that night, Steve held Bucky so tight that Bucky had to tell him to ease off, otherwise he couldn't sleep. He could never say it out loud, but he was scared that he'd wake up and Bucky would be gone again. But Bucky was there in the morning, cuddled into him, like always. Not quite like always. The metal arm was digging into his ribs, not as uncomfortable as he'd have guessed, as Bucky had often managed to stick his elbows into Steve anyway. But it was enough to remind him that things had changed.
All he had to wear were the clothes he'd woken up in the previous day, and he was going to put them on again when Bucky intervened. "At least take one of my t-shirts, try not to look like SHIELD owns you."
Bucky looked through his drawers, threw Steve a white t-shirt with an abstract swirling black pattern which he actually rather liked. Steve wondered if everyone would know he was wearing Bucky's clothes. But it didn't seem to matter, did it?
At SHIELD they were obviously the centre of attention as they walked through the building, but at the same time, no one was seeming to pay them any attention at all. He guessed that was the covert training at work.
He spent the day in briefings, allowed to meet Bucky for lunch in the canteen. The briefings were much more linear than what he'd gotten from Bucky, allowing him to make more sense of things. But at the same time, what Bucky had told him had been what he needed to know right there and then. Bucky was apparently on the receiving end of multiple warnings, meetings with various seniors, even having to talk to psychologists about his motivations.
"I told you, it's like Lincoln coming back from the dead. I kidnapped Lincoln. That's the trouble I'm in."
"Why are they ignoring that it was me who went along with it?"
"Because you're Captain America, idiot. Captain America doesn't go AWOL.”
"I should be offended that they think I'm so easy to kidnap."
That made Bucky smile. "Nope, I should be proud that I'm so good at kidnapping."
When they left that evening, Bucky seemed to have something on his mind, but Steve knew not to ask questions until they got home. Once the door was shut behind them, Bucky handed him a cardboard folder.
"I need you to read this. It's a summary of SHIELD's files on the Winter Soldier. On me. I need— I need you to know what I did. I'm gonna go out, walk some, buy some groceries. I'll be back in a couple of hours. If you don't want to be here after you've read that, go back to SHIELD; they'll find somewhere for you stay—"
"You have no idea what I did, Steve. Don't judge before you know. And you don't owe me anything. Don't stick around if you can't look me in the eye. Just—if you leave, leave a note so I know you're ok."
With that Bucky was out of the door. Steve looked at the folder. He'd guess that Bucky taking it out of SHIELD was against all regs. Given how SHIELD seemed to do everything on computers, he wondered where Bucky had even got the paper file from.
Steve sat at the kitchen counter and read.
He thought he was prepared. He wasn't. Bucky hadn't been exaggerating when he'd said he was one of the bad guys. Not all of it, he could see the justification, the strategy behind a lot of it, even if he would have been on the opposing side. But some of it was brutality for the sake of brutality, deliberately horrific to make people fear even the name of the Winter Soldier.
There was a little in there that made him realise that Bucky had been on the receiving end of the brutality, too. About the methods the Red Room used to train their agents.
The file ended with a note giving the date that SHIELD acquired Bucky in 'cryostasis'. It hadn't taken Steve long to read everything, as the file was just a bare-bones summary. It took much longer to process it.
Bucky had killed those people, done those things. But it was a Bucky who had no idea who he was, a Bucky who had been systematically brutalised by an organisation with the single purpose of turning him into a ruthless killer. If their positions had been reversed, if he'd been the one thrown off the train, would he have been any different? And Bucky could easily have kept this from him, told him virtually anything. But Bucky had said he needed Steve to know.
When Bucky came back, Steve waited until he'd dropped the bags of groceries on the floor before hugging him and saying, "I'm sorry."
Bucky twisted out of the hug. "I tell you I'm a fucking war criminal and you're sorry."
"That wasn't you."
"My finger on the trigger."
"I'll bet you've been through all this with SHIELD. You wouldn't be walking the streets of New York if they thought you were still that guy. And you're trying to make up for it, even if it wasn't your fault."
"That's enough for you?"
"And if I'd killed Peggy—"
"But you didn't—"
"She was exactly the sort of target I took out. What if I'd killed her? Would you still forgive and forget?"
"It still wouldn't have been you. Do you want me to be angry? Walk out the door?"
Bucky looked at the floor. "Don't want you to go. Don't know what I want."
Steve had never seen Bucky like this, and wasn't sure what he should do, so he just waited. Eventually Bucky sighed and said, "I was getting better at this. But explaining it again. Reminding me of what I did. You just got the summary, I got the full memories. I was a monster."
"You were turned into one."
"Not much better from where I'm standing."
"It's not what you are now."
"No. No, it's not. But you needed to know what I was, Steve, because that's changed who I am."
"Not changed everything." He could see that Bucky was going to contradict him, kept talking. "When we were kids you'd break into the sick bay when I was in quarantine because you thought I'd be bored. Breaking me out of SHIELD, well." He smiled at Bucky, managed to get a smile back. "Not the important stuff."
"And you can tell all that in 24 hours."
"Thought Captain America could do anything."
That earned him another smile. "Jerk."
After that Steve found himself paying more attention to the ways that Bucky had changed. He thought he'd been right; while Bucky had changed, it wasn't the important things. Not who he was, deep down. But he was more cautious, verging on the paranoid, though probably with good reason. They travelled to SHIELD together every morning, but never the same route, never leaving at quite the same time. He could sense Bucky's vigilance when they were out anywhere, vigilance he'd previously only ever seen when they were sneaking into Hydra bases. He’d only seen one of Bucky’s nightmares, but that was enough. He woke up to Bucky lashing out blindly in his sleep, eyes open but unseeing, managed to pin him pretty easily but still took too long to wake him up. Bucky didn’t want to talk, didn’t want to try and sleep again, so Steve sat with Bucky in his arms by the open window, wrapped in blankets, cold air washing over them. Bucky said the nightmares didn’t come often. Steve hoped that was true. He wasn’t sure he could deal with being so helpless in the face of Bucky’s terror.
Hearing Bucky speak other languages was difficult to get used to. He'd known that he must have spoken Russian if he'd worked for the Soviets, but actually hearing him having a conversation with Natasha in Russian, completely easy and fluent, was strange. Back home he'd asked Bucky how many languages he spoke.
"Seven, fluently." Bucky hooked his fingers into Steve's belt loops and pulled him close. "Can talk dirty to you in all of them, but I'd understand if you wanted to skip out German."
"You can talk dirty in German?"
"Natürlich. Ich will ihre—"
"Yeah, skip that."
But Bucky never did talk dirty to him in any language. There was so much time spent being quiet together, Steve wasn't sure if he could be noisy in bed. They'd always whispered to each other, told each other what they wanted. Anything more than that seemed almost unnecessary to him. The only new noises as they screwed were the creaks and bangs of the bed.
SHIELD had spent the first couple of days just briefing him. Part of the briefings were on how to keep a low profile, which made sense. Surprise was always a powerful weapon, so it was logical to keep the fact that he was back secret until he was needed. Then they moved on more to testing him—medical and physical tests, obviously cross-referenced with his old files. Testing him as well on what he'd learned. Psychological tests, having to talk to therapists. Even as they smiled professionally, he could tell that his natural polite reticence was not what they wanted from him.
He was still allowed to meet Bucky in the canteen for lunch. He knew that this wasn't pleasantness on SHIELD's part, but rather part of the psychological testing, observed and recorded.
They'd agreed against any 'public displays of affection,' as Bucky called them. Steve wasn't sure if he was comfortable with them yet anyway, but calling attention to Bucky was not a good idea. And Bucky had said, "People find out you're alive and find out you're gay the same time, it might give half the nation a heart attack." They did have some disagreements about it. Steve's discomfort said that SHIELD canteen was a public space, Bucky's main concern of not blowing cover said it wasn't. So every lunchtime Bucky asked to kiss him, and Steve said no. He had a suspicion that Bucky was only asking to see his reaction.
Private displays of affection though, he'd never had any problems with those. Like being naked on the bed with Bucky on top of him, kissing him senseless, grinding down almost agonisingly slowly. It was great to be able to take things slow, but right then he was getting impatient, so he hooked a leg around Bucky and flipped them over—at which point there was a resounding crack, and the bed collapsed.
Bucky burst out laughing, but Steve was too mortified to join in.
"We actually did it, we fucked so hard we broke the bed."
"Tell me no one needs to know—"
Bucky laughed harder, then eventually controlled himself and said, "Sorry, Steve. SHIELD apartment, SHIELD furniture, SHIELD has to be notified of all breakages."
Steve groaned and buried his face in Bucky's neck.
Bucky kissed him on the shoulder and said, "Seems the world wants us to fuck on the floor. C'mon, we'll move the bedframe, put the mattress on the floor, and we can start again where we left off."
Mattress on the floor was comfortable enough. And he'd be worried enough about breaking another bed that he was happy just never to replace it. He spent the next morning looking at people in SHIELD and wondering if they knew, until at lunchtime Bucky saw the guilty looks he was casting about and threatened to stand on the table and announce it, "’cause I'm damn proud that my boyfriend's sexual athletics are too much for a SHIELD bed."
Steve could feel himself blush and said, "Bucky, please."
Bucky rested his chin in his hand and leaned a little further across the table. "I ever mention how gorgeous you are when you blush?"
"You do this deliberately."
"Sometimes. Sometimes it's accidental."
Steve realised that he'd leaned in too, so they could talk quietly, and their faces were only a couple of inches apart. Bucky flicked his gaze to Steve's lips, then back to his eyes; he didn't have to say anything. But Steve couldn't stop being aware of the people around them, couldn't bring himself to kiss a guy in front of a huge bunch of strangers.
Bucky gave a slight smile. "Perhaps it's a good thing not to kiss you. Might not know when to stop, and I don't think SHIELD tables are built any better than SHIELD beds—"
Steve blushed again, hissed "Bucky!"
Bucky grinned. "You got me, that was deliberate."
After a fortnight the SHIELD handlers said they'd see him weekly to "see how he was settling in" (which Steve knew was simply to see how he'd function on his own, still evaluating him). Bucky was still in every day; he claimed that it was dull paperwork, but a slight pinched look behind his eyes had Steve guessing that it was something nastier, something he couldn't talk about. So Steve went out around New York, felt like a tourist in his own town. Tried to get used to all the changes.
The reality of it would hit him every so often, out of the blue. He'd walked past a store claiming it sold twenty flavors of vodka, and had thought about going in and buying the Commandos a couple of bottles, before remembering that no, they were all dead. He hadn't cried in the street, but it had been a close thing. There were other jolts like that, about Peggy (SHIELD hadn't told him he couldn't call her, but he didn't dare), about people from his old neighborhood.
At least Bucky understood. He wished that Bucky hadn't had to go through that on his own. It hurt bad enough when there was someone there for him that Steve couldn't imagine doing this alone.
It hadn't been much more than a couple of weeks when Bucky came home to tell Steve that SHIELD was sending him away on a mission the next morning. He'd be out of communication, couldn't even call, didn't know when he'd be back. And Steve had known that it was inevitable, but that still didn't leave him prepared for the reality of it. He'd smiled, tried to put a brave face on it, and failed completely.
"I can look after myself, Steve."
"You'd better. Rescuing your sorry ass was a one-time deal."
The joke fell totally flat, and Bucky just hugged him, saying into his ear, "I got a lot of practice at this, remember?"
"What I remember is every time I let you out of my sight, something terrible happens to you."
Bucky pulled back a little and looked into Steve's eyes. "Third time's the charm?"
"Say that when you come back."
That night they made love just like they had back in Brooklyn, when Bucky was being sent to Europe, a lifetime ago. This time he held back not because he was afraid of them being found out, but because he feared any bruise, any bit of rough handling, might just slow Bucky down that tiny, tiny fraction that was the difference between life and death. He didn't say this to Bucky, but he reckoned that Bucky guessed.
The first thing he did after Bucky left was to buy a motorbike. Perhaps not the most obvious reaction, but he'd been talking over it with Bucky for a few days. SHIELD had given him a driver’s licence as part of having a functional identity in the 21st century, so why not use it? He'd felt a little bad about spending Bucky's money, but Bucky had said that there wasn't much he'd spend it on, and he'd probably drunk a motorbike's worth of Steve's money during the war anyway. As soon as he first rode out of the city, heading upstate, he knew it had been a good idea. Out on country roads there wasn't too much about modernity to bother him, peace and wind in his hair to help clear his head.
A few days after that Steve was at the gym, taking out his worries on a punchbag when Fury walked in and told him he was needed.
"I want Barnes with me." He didn't even bother justifying it.
"Agent Barnes has already been recalled. He'll meet you on the carrier."
So that was that. Steve and Bucky against the forces of evil again.
Bucky was waiting for Steve on the deck of the helicarrier, but Natasha arrived first with Dr. Banner. Banner seemed pleasant enough, but Bucky still hadn't worked out a way to kill the guy, which bothered him. You had to be able to take people out, because you never knew if they could be turned—turned like Clint. He introduced himself, watched as Banner was distracted by something, turned to Natasha and said in Russian. "You holding up ok?"
Bucky didn't even need to say that he knew she was lying. "If we need to kill Barton, I'll do it." There was a lot unspoken there. The promise of a clean kill, an easy death, blood on his hands and not hers.
"Let me try my way first."
Then Steve was there, walking off a jet with Coulson, all gleaming politeness. Natasha told Coulson that he was needed elsewhere, leaving the three of them together.
"I should have warned you about Coulson."
Natasha said, "Has he asked you to sign his Captain America trading cards yet?"
That was news to Bucky. "You never told me about the trading cards."
"Lot of things I don't tell you, Bucky."
Bucky ignored this and said to Steve. "Don't underestimate Coulson. The fact that he's Captain America's Number One Fan is pretty much his only weakness."
Steve smiled. "Noted."
Then Steve was introducing himself to Banner, making small talk. Bucky couldn't help but smile at Steve's expression when the carrier's flight engines started up. But Steve was in mission-mode, not distracted for long. As they walked inside Steve held back, softly said to Bucky, "I've read the briefing. How bad do you think it is?"
"Hell in a handbasket. An alien who might be unkillable, a thing that's both the source of possibly unlimited power and the gate to another part of the universe, and a guy who knows us inside out. They can take us apart, take the world apart, and we've got zero intel."
"So we're left reacting."
"Yeah. So while you're on the bridge, I'm gonna be checking my guns. Tell me when you need me."
He realised as soon as he turned to walk away that he'd slipped instinctively into his old role. He was Steve's sergeant, Steve's sniper, the guy who watched Steve's back, and so he needed to check his equipment. If Steve hadn't been there, he'd have automatically gone to the bridge. Perhaps someone else would see it as a demotion, but he knew he was damn good at what he did, and right now he didn't care much about things beyond that.
The next time Bucky saw Steve, he was in the new Captain America suit. And, yeah, damn, Bucky's thing for the suit definitely carried over to the new one. Steve gave him a look that was half "get your mind back on the job" and half checking him out as well. Bucky realised this was the first time Steve had seen him in his combat gear too, and Bucky knew he looked pretty good suited up. His and Natasha's outfits were basically male and female versions of the same gear, and they'd spent one dull mission arguing who made it look better.
Natasha and Bucky flew Steve to Germany, where they faced off with Loki and met Tony Stark for the first time, who was pretty much everything that Bucky expected—but very focussed on Steve, when Bucky had been sure that Stark would be focussed on Natasha, for obvious reasons. He made a mental note of that; could be something there, some weakness that he might need later.
And then, there was Thor.
Bucky was very edgy by the time they got back to the helicarrier. There were now three people on board he wasn't sure if he could kill, and that was three too many. Sure, one of them was in containment, but he was too damn clever for Bucky's liking. If Loki was on the carrier, Loki wanted to be on the carrier, and that made Bucky nervous. So he went to check over the containment for probably the tenth time, review all the cameras just in case, and doing that, saw Steve breaking into one of the weapon storage areas.
Of course he trusted Steve's judgement. So instead of putting out the alert as he should have done, he intercepted Steve as he came out of the storage area.
"You gonna do something sneaky, you’d best not do it in the suit."
"There's something wrong here. Why didn't they get Stark involved if they were working on clean energy? They've got crates of Hydra weapons back there—why?"
"I got nothing. Those weapons should be in R&D or the archive, not in the active locker."
He followed Steve back to the lab, turning over possibilities in his head. When he saw the plans that Stark had hacked into, that made sense. If he could build a weapon so he knew he could kill Asgardians, or the Hulk, he'd build it without hesitation. He was at Steve's elbow when the arguments started, quietly seething at Stark until—
"You're a laboratory experiment, Rogers. Everything special about you came out of a bottle."
"You don't know nothing about Cap, Stark."
That made Stark turn to him. "The assassin speaks. Worked out whose side you're on yet?"
Bucky jerked his head at Steve. "His."
"Cute. You should know as well as anyone that Cap is so much a product of Stark Industries he should have our logo stamped on his ass."
If this had been some alley in Brooklyn, he'd have swung at Stark there and then (if it had been some alley in Moscow, Stark would likely have already been dead). But it was Steve who stepped in. "Put on the suit. Let's go a few rounds."
Then Banner interrupted. He'd known that the Hulk had spat out the bullets Banner had tried to kill himself with; Bucky had reviewed the files often enough, looking for a way to neutralise the Hulk if it came to it. Looked like that was a surprise to some of the others, though.
Then everything went to hell. He followed Steve, then got half a signal from Natasha: Banner had Hulked. "You handle the engine, taking people down is my job, ok?"
Steve just nodded as Bucky turned to run in the opposite direction.
It wasn't his finest hour. He took half a jet to the head about thirty seconds after engaging, woke up, and picked himself out of the wreckage to find that Coulson was dead. Went to Steve, because that was what he did, and realised that there wasn't anything useful Steve needed him for. So he checked in with Natasha, saw Clint unconscious and tied down but still alive. He had no idea what the tesseract's mind control was like, but since it had given him back his memories, he guessed that it could be pretty powerful. So he waited outside Clint's locked infirmary room, ready to give Natasha any help she needed.
He was still there when Steve arrived. "We know where they are." Steve nodded towards the room. "Them?"
"They're good. Natasha rearranged his head."
Steve opened the door, Bucky saw the look he gave Natasha, checking that Clint really was back. "Time to go. You got a suit?"
"Then suit up."
Bucky lost rock-paper-scissors to Clint, so he was relegated to passenger for the trip to New York. A few minutes into the flight, Steve pulled him to the back of the jet, not really private but the best they could do.
Steve said very quietly. "What do you think of our odds?"
Bucky couldn't even put it into words, so he just gave Steve a look. Steve gave a humorless smile. If the portal opened, if the army came through, it could be the most hopeless fight they'd ever gotten into, and they both knew it.
Steve looked down, then looked at him, speaking even softer, so Bucky could barely hear it. "Marry me?"
"Yes. I already said yes."
"You said I didn't know who I was asking. I do now." Steve kissed him, quick and gentle, then was entirely back to mission focus.
The rhythm of fighting at Steve's side was so natural to get back into, even though they'd never fought anything like this before. He'd gone for close-quarter weapons, happy for Clint to take the sniper post, so that he could watch Steve's back from ground level, because this was going to get messy. Follow Steve's lead, clear the path, cover his blind spots. Try and keep up, because whatever the Red Room had pumped into him to make him stronger and faster, he still wasn't nearly a match for Steve.
A lull, and as he caught his breath he said, "I take back everything I ever bitched about Hydra goons."
Steve had smiled, but any reply was overtaken by the next attack wave.
Finally, Tony proved that he would lay down on the wire—proved he was the better man than his father by a mile. And then he had to go and say, "Tell me nobody kissed me," and Bucky was sorely tempted to kiss the bastard.
SHIELD picked them up from the shawarma joint and took them back to the helicarrier. Steve had been all for helping with the rescue and clear-up (of course he had), but Fury vetoed that. The Avengers were there for threats to the world. Having them around for anything else diluted their impact.
Bucky was exhausted but still wired from the adrenaline from the fight, and he could see the others were in the same state too. He had a good idea what he wanted to do with that excess adrenaline, but there was no way he was going to even suggest that to Steve. Screwing on the helicarrier would be pushing even his own boundaries a little far. So when they were all sent to shower and change, that's all he did, quickly and efficiently. He and Steve were the first to the briefing room.
As they sat down he said, "We should go to Paris."
Steve looked at him. "Paris."
"SHIELD owes us downtime after this. Don't think I've forgotten, I promised you Paris, snooty hotel, huge bed—"
"And leave New York just after it’s been invaded?"
"You know what Fury said. There's nothing we could do if we stayed. And we don't even know if our apartment's ok—"
"It was outside the perimeter, it should be fine."
"Even if it is, we should still go to Paris."
"If you're going to Paris I can tell you the name of a great crêperie." That was Clint, walking in with Natasha.
"See? Crêpes, we missed crêpes last time." Bucky could tell by Steve's expression that Steve really wanted to go along with this, but his sense of duty was saying otherwise. Bucky nudged him in the ribs. "The Louvre."
"My French is terrible—"
"Mon français est parfait. You're running out of reasons not to."
Clint and Natasha had sat down on the opposite side of the conference table, neither of them trying very hard to hide their amusement at the exchange.
"It just seems disloyal, ok?"
"SHIELD doesn't just owe you downtime, I'm pretty sure the U.S. Army owes you leave too. It's not disloyal to take a holiday once a century."
"Steve." They just looked at each other for a moment, then Bucky said, "We're going to Paris."
"Ever tell you about a great party at the Musée d'Orsay?" And that was the sound of Tony arriving, with Bruce following him. "The girl who reenacted the Birth of Venus was just one of the high points."
Steve did the only sensible thing, which was to ignore him. "We are not going to Paris."
Bruce smiled and said, "You should you know, it's a great city."
Bucky said, "Team's outvoting you, Steve."
"I vote Paris," said Tony. "City of lovers. Which means that Capsicle's completely out of place, but I'm sure he'll manage."
Both Natasha and Clint were looking increasingly amused.
"And I'm sure Thor would too, if someone explained what Paris was first." continued Tony. "So, Cap, you should let your, what, sidekick? Bodyguard? Take you to Paris."
"Not sidekick. Fiancé."
"They invented trolling in the 40s, I am impressed—"
Steve turned to Bucky, "Trolling?"
"Saying something just to get a rise out of someone. He thinks you're lying."
"Oh." Steve leaned over and kissed Bucky, and not just some peck on the lips, properly kissed him. Bucky could almost feel the adrenaline still buzzing through Steve, and it was taking a lot of self-control to just kiss him back and not jump into Steve's lap and really start going for it. As soon as they parted, Bucky was grinning so hard his face hurt, because of all the times and places for Steve to decide that PDAs were a good thing, this was the best. Steve was smiling, but Bucky could see that he was surprised at his own action.
"Wow. I. Seriously. Wow." Tony looked genuinely stunned. Bruce, Natasha and Clint were on the verge of laughing.
"Tony lost for words. Not something you see every day," said Natasha.
Tony rounded on her. "You knew."
"Everyone at SHIELD knows," said Clint. "Bucky is practically a legend, less than an hour between Cap waking up and Bucky getting him into bed, including dinner, and—"
"Stop talking right now, Clint." Bucky was prepared to embarrass Steve a little, but only a little.
Clint decisively shut his mouth.
"Keep talking, Clint, you can name your price."
"Sorry, Tony, but he can kill me in my sleep."
Bucky smiled beatifically.
That was the point that Thor strode in.
"Thor! You got gay people in Asgard, right? ‘Course you do, nowhere with that much leather is entirely heterosexual."
"Because I just found out that Captain America is fucking the Winter Soldier, which has a nice post-Cold War feel to it, don't you think?"
"You did not know?"
"No, no, you are not telling me that the guy who had to have the concept of chilli sauce explained to him worked that out before me."
Thor gave Tony a look that said he wasn't sure if Tony was mocking him or not. "But it is obvious. Can you not see how they look at each other? How they fight as if they are but one man?" Thor beamed widely. "I wager they are fine bedmates who give each other much pleasure, is that not right?"
Steve had gone pink, and even Bucky was not sure how to deal with aliens asking about his sex life. Clint was sniggering, and Natasha and Bruce looked on the verge of joining in. He considered demanding a change of subject, but he knew why they were all focusing on this—it was something that wasn't the death and destruction they'd all gone through. So instead he kissed Steve on the cheek and grinned at Thor.
"So, you a very fast mover, or is this a love in the trenches thing?"
Bucky and Steve looked at each other. He was generally wary of giving away any sort of personal information, doubly so to a motormouth like Stark. But then again, Tony might hack into SHIELD files to find out anyway. And if SHIELD had as much surveillance on their apartment as Bucky feared they did, he'd find out a lot more than if they just told him and slaked his curiosity. He could see that Steve was having the same sort of thoughts, gave him a one-shoulder shrug.
Steve said, "Since the 30s."
Tony looked at Bucky. "So, not after him for his body then?"
"Tony." Bucky hadn't meant for that to come out quite as threatening as it did, but it was practically a growl. He was not going to stand for Tony insulting Steve again.
"Hey, no, not judging, totally not judging the assassin's life choices. But kind of interesting what my dad missed out when he talked about Captain America."
"Bucky." Steve must have caught Bucky's tone of voice, guessing the sort of things he was about to say.
"Yeah. Well. I ain't speaking ill of the dead. So I'll just say your dad wasn't the most perceptive."
"Figures." And that was so reserved from Tony, which let Bucky put the pieces together. Tony was focussed on Steve because Howard had been. Steve had been nothing more to Howard than a particularly successful experiment, but perhaps that was how he judged his son, as a less successful experiment than Steve? He glanced at Steve, thinking that Steve was coming to the same conclusions.
Steve looked at the table, then at Tony. "I'm sorry, Tony. For what I said about you."
Tony gave a mirthless little laugh. "We all screwed up today, Cap."
"You certainly did." That was Fury, entering with his usual timing. The debrief was long and painful. But life had turned Bucky into something of a selfish bastard, and Steve was alive, none of the agents killed had been his friends, and New York was mostly still standing. He'd take that as a reasonable day. He knew he'd be spending the next months dealing with Steve's what-ifs, the ways he thought he should have been better, but he was used to that.
Thor was going to take the Tesseract back to Asgard. Bucky would just have to hope that SHIELD's other research projects would come up with weapons that could kill Asgardians—or the Hulk.
Eventually it was over. It was Bruce who asked the question that Bucky really wanted to ask: "So, can we go home now?"
"Forty-eight hours. Then you will escort the tesseract and Loki to the departure point for Asgard. After that ladies and gentlemen, you'll know when we need you."
Bucky guessed that SHIELD being SHIELD, this meant his phone would ring in 49 hours' time. But he meant everything he said to Steve about downtime. He was not going to spend the entirety of his miraculous second chance with Steve at work. And yes, as a dutiful covert agent he probably shouldn't be seen out with Captain America, risking blowing his cover. But he'd already pretty much done that on the streets of New York. So that was SHIELD's problem, not his. As they walked up to the flight deck he slid his hand into Steve's. Steve didn't pull away, held his hand, and yes, this was great.
He knew he wasn't going to override Steve's guilt for not being out there helping, but Steve was basically convinced by Fury's arguments about how to use the Avengers, and so he wasn't going to disobey orders. This meant it was Bucky's job, no, Bucky's duty to make sure that Steve spent the next 48 hours distracted. Really distracted. Too distracted to get dressed, for example.
Bucky gave himself 7 out of 10 for his distraction. Steve's sense of duty would always win in a straight fight between it and his libido, so they did end up spending quite a while watching of rolling news coverage and rehashing some tactical errors. It wasn’t that Bucky was unaffected (he remembered what Dernier had said about not being able to put into words his feelings about your city being invaded), and he was happy to talk things over, at least for a while. But when things got too repetitive, circled round the same things too much, wore down on their own mistakes, Bucky would play dirty, turn the TV off and kiss and lick and touch until Steve stopped thinking.
He was impressed by how thoroughly SHIELD could empty one corner of Central Park. He said his goodbyes to the others, sure he'd see Natasha and Clint soon. He was still on edge around people he couldn't kill, however much Bruce and Thor seemed to be fairly pleasant people, so he hoped he didn't have to meet them again anytime soon. Tony, he thought he could deal with small doses of Tony, as long as they were widely spaced.
He swung onto the bike behind Steve, said, "So where're we going?"
"To buy some plane tickets and book a snooty hotel."
"We're going to Paris?"
"I was outvoted, remember?"
And the park was still empty, so he could squeeze Steve tight, and awkwardly lean round to kiss him. He had no idea how he'd managed to get a second chance like this, but he was going to enjoy every damn minute of it.