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Take Me Home

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Steve Rogers had had worse days.

Being thrown over 600 miles out of New York and onto some desolate dirt road in another state wasn’t the worst thing that could’ve happen to him on a mission; especially one that involved five out of the nine Avengers, so Steve decided to count his blessings rather than his shortcomings.

As of now, his shortcomings were in the forms of three broken ribs, a dislocated shoulder and some horrible bruises that made moving his legs near impossible. He tried to roll over onto his side and get himself out of the road but the pain that shot up his spine was so crippling he was on his back again in a puff of dirt in seconds.

His com was completely busted, it buzzed dull with wires in his ear. He picked out the shards with wincing fingers. In times like this he didn’t like to focus on what was broken, or whether or not he’d finally sustained too much damage for his super-serum body to heal. Instead, he took his time getting to his knees, and even though the world was upside down and blacked out and blurred he managed, after God knows how long, to stand upright.

Now, if he weren’t as hurt as he was, he would’ve heard the car coming from three miles down the road. As it was, he didn’t, and turned just in time for his pelvis to collide with the front bend of a rusted red pickup truck. And he was on his back again except this time he was sure he had one more bruised–if not broken–rib. The sun was hot and intense and blocking out all form of sight and coordination but he heard the door to the vehicle open and heavyset feet tumble to kneel beside his head.

“Fuck, oh fuck, I’m so sorry, shit fuck shit–,” A man babbled, his hand holding Steve’s head up and setting it in his lap, trying to keep his blood flow elevate, probably hoping to eliminate the possibility of a seizure. Despite the stranger’s frantic tone his hand was steady. Steve felt him pull out his cellphone from his pants pocket, dialing an ambulance no doubt, and he tried to blink open his eyes and fight the wave of nauseous that overwhelmed him upon doing so. The man’s face came into view in pieces: grey eyes, dark long hair, flushed cheeks and tan skin.

Steve stared.

“I’m so sorry, I’m gonna help you I promise, just don’t move, fuck, I ran over Captain America–” The man apologized, over and over, and all Steve managed to say was, “You’re really attractive,” before passing out on the guy’s lap in the middle of the road.

//

Two months earlier Steve had learned (from Wanda, while they were watching TV) that being homosexual and partaking in “homosexual acts” was no longer illegal and even encouraged within the younger generations demographic.

He didn’t believe Wanda at first. She had said it so offhandedly, when a same sex couple on the show they were watching shared a kiss that Steve was blind sighted. He had known many men in the army, those of which were gay, but in those days in that time it wasn’t spoken of and no one asked after it. Steve had been lucky, or so he thought, in finding that he was attracted to both men and women. He could settle with Peggy Carter and be happy. That couldn’t be said for everyone.

He almost had a panic attack on the couch, Wanda coaching him through it, because that was so big, bigger than the new lights and skyscrapers and fancy clothes. Bigger than aliens and unlimited food and polyamourous relationships because how could the world change that much?

It felt like Steve had blinked and here he was with all these new things and all this new knowledge and he didn’t know what to do with it all. He didn’t know where to even start sifting through all of it.

He had a therapist that helped and he had Tony and Natasha and Bruce, who all made it easier, but it was still a huge amount to take in and he felt like he had been robbed of the smooth transition. He’d been robbed seventy years. But after finding out about the progressive movement of the LGBTQ (because there were more names for all sexual orientations now besides just gay and straight) Steve decided to take part, in little ways, at first. Donations that he made with the help of Pepper Potts, starting fundraisers, partaking in Pride Parades and going to speak at safe houses. He didn’t run it by his publicist first. She was just as shocked as Steve was when she called him at seven in the morning demanding to know if he was gay. And now, a week later, that’s all the news was covering: “Captain America, Turning America GAY” and “Captain America: The Truth Behind the Tights”.

So when Steve woke up to with the sound of his name and sexual status being buzzed over the news it didn’t come as a surprise.

What did were the three girls that were sitting by his feet watching the program and sharing a bag of microwavable popcorn (another new food that Steve had taken quite a convenient liking to).

A sharp pain in his abdomen had him keeling over, which caused another hot slice of feeling across his chest, and he barely registered the gentle hand that moved to resettle him back in a position that didn’t pull at any of his wounds. His outburst had the girls turning to stare at him over their shoulders, expressions curious. Steve groaned, letting his head fall back against the pillows. A damp washcloth was placed over his forehead and he let out a sigh of relief. It helped lessen the dull throbbing in his head.

“Do you need some water?” A man’s voice asked and Steve blinked, squinted to his left to see the man who had run him over hovering near his bed. Wordlessly, because his tongue felt like it was swollen and his mouth was as dry as cotton, Steve nodded. The man reached over to the bedside table and retrieved a cool glass, which he held up to Steve’s lips. Steve reached to take it but the pain returned, full force along his sides and it had him sucking in a sharp breath.

“I can hold it,” the man said, pressing the water into Steve’s mouth and down his throat. “The least I can do for running you over with my car.” Steve wanted to tell him not to worry about it, he’d had worse and the truck barely hurt compared to what the monster invading New York had done, but the water was refreshing and good and he wasn’t about to stop drinking it yet.

“I can’t believe you ran over Captain America,” the oldest girl closest to Steve’s hip said, her eyes flicking to the TV screen then back to Steve. “I mean, I know you’re a shitty driver and all but honestly, hitting a national treasure–”

“Becca, I swear to god–” The man began before Steve pushed the glass away and tried to sit himself up. The man seemed flustered, trying to help but not wanting to hurt any of Steve’s injuries further.

“It’s okay,” Steve rasped, and even he flinched at the gravel in his voice, “I’ve had worse.” The oldest girl, Becca, considered this.

“Doesn’t getting hit by a truck hurt?” the second oldest child asked, leaning over Steve’s knees. Maybe she thought he was lying.

“Oh, of course, but my injuries didn’t really come from getting hit,” Steve assured, hoping that he was easing some of the guilt out of the man’s blue eyes.

He didn’t look convinced.

“We painted your toes,” the second oldest said, leaning even closer, “We only have pink. I hope that’s okay.” The man paled about ten shades, eyes widening, and his reaction was so comical that Steve couldn’t help the placating smile that crossed his lips. Say what you will about Captain America, but he loved children.

“You didn’t get my fingernails,” he said, and now he had all three of the girls’ attention.

Oh my god, you’ll let us paint your nails?” Becca asked, excitement making her eyes shine. The other two crawled over Steve’s knees to sit on either side of him. The youngest had to be around seven, and she regarded Steve with open adoration. So much so that the pain in his sides could be easily ignored. When Becca made to grab Steve’s hand, however, the man spoke up.

“Whoa! Wait, girls, c’mon, you can’t just–” he began before Becca was cutting him off.

“Bucky, will you relax? He said it was okay, stop freaking out,” the man, Bucky, blushed, a cute shade of pink that kissed the top of his ears. He shot Steve a helpless look.

“It’s really okay,” Steve assured as Becca situated herself and the other two girls so they could all huddle in close to paint the nails of his right hand first. “It’s a good distraction. And I really don’t mind.” Bucky sighed, resigned, before he pulled up a wooden chair from the corner of the room and sat himself down. He looked tired as he surveyed the scene, dark circles Steve hadn’t noticed before present under his eyes. His long hair was pulled up into a loose bun, but a few strands had fallen out and he tucked them absentmindedly behind his ears. Steve didn’t mean to stare.

But Bucky really was attractive, and it was only now that Steve realized he was missing his left arm. The flannel he wore was pinned up, but he had moved so confidently and self-assured that Steve didn’t even notice he was an amputee.

And now he was staring even more.

Which had to be embarrassing for Bucky, Steve imagined he hated having people stare, so instead he tried to deflect the fact that he was staring at all.

“What’s your name?” Steve asked and found himself relaxing against the pillows as he felt the cool nail polish being applied. The girls’, for all their brash excitement, were gentle. Bucky sent him a wry grin.

“James Barnes. But everyone calls me Bucky,” he said.

“Steven Rogers,” Steve said needlessly, but Bucky nodded to him politely nonetheless. Now, Steve turned his attention to the girls.

“I’m Becca,” Becca said without looking up from her task, “Second oldest is Sophie, youngest is Win. Bucky’s our brother, if you were wondering about relations.”

“I can introduce myself,” Sophie huffed, obviously in the stages of puberty. Becca didn’t even spare her a glance when she said, “Yeah, but you didn’t.” Sophie bristled.

“You didn’t give me a chance!” she snapped.

“So talk faster next time Bucky runs over a superhero,” Becca snapped back. Steve couldn’t help it: he laughed. It made his ribs hurt and his sides’ ache, but it was nice. And then Win was laughing because he was and the sound was so sweet and contagious that it chased whatever leftover awkwardness came with first meetings right out the door.

“Just so you know,” Bucky said once the laughter had died down and Becca had begrudgingly passed Sophia the polish so she could paint Steve’s left hand, “You have two broken ribs and one cracked. Pretty sure you have some internal bruising. Also you dislocated your shoulder but the swelling has gone down and you seem to be moving it just fine, so either you heal freakishly fast or my medical training is failing me.”

“I heal fast,” Steve said, rolling his shoulders just to see Bucky raise an impressed eyebrow. “Part of the serum.”

“Right,” Bucky said, like he had forgotten that Steve was hyped up on genetically modify medicine, “That makes more sense then.”

“Thank you,” Steve said, shifting when Win plopped herself between his knees so she could continue watching TV. “For patching me up. And not taking me to a hospital.”

“I’m the one who hit you,” Bucky argued, shooting Steve a baffled look, “And you’re thanking me?”

“You didn’t hit and run,” Steve pointed out and Bucky snorted, rolling his eyes heavenwards.

“Of course I didn’t hit and run,” he said, seemingly insulted at the very insinuation, “What kind of person would I be to leave a senior citizen bleeding in the middle of the road?”

“Hey–” Steve began before Becca snorted and cut him off.

“That’s right,” she said, narrowing her eyes at him, “You’re like, a hundred.” Steve floundered.

“I’m–no! I’m ninety-five, I’m not dead,” he huffed, and he would have crossed his arms if his right hand wasn’t being painted pink. Bucky looked overly amused.

“You can leave whenever you want,” he said, sobering up, “But I’d recommend staying for the night, at least. Just until you heal up.” And he was blushing, just a little, and for some reason that made Steve delighted.

“I don’t want to intrude,” Steve said, although he was very comfortable and very charmed by Bucky’s sisters, “I can leave–,”

“Not until your nails dry,” Sophie declared, and Win turned to nod to show Steve she agreed. Bucky regarded him.

“At least stay for dinner,” he said, “Please. Ease my conscious a little.” Every eye in the room turned to him and Steve was suddenly very overwhelmed. He wasn’t used to this. He hadn’t been in a familial setting since he was a teen in 1936. He hadn’t had anyone offer him a home cooked meal since his mother passed. He hadn’t had this. This–whatever this was it felt nostalgic.

It felt familiar.

Besides for the TV and the strangers it felt a bit like coming home to his shitty New York apartment when he was still thin and sick and struggling to pay rent. Looking around the room, with the ratty television and bundled up bed, Steve was struck with the feeling that Bucky lived like he used to. And he should feel bad for eating their food and taking up their space, especially since there seemed to be so little of it, but he wasn’t. Because when he was thawed from the ice it was white walls and medical rooms and sleek towers and nicely pressed sheets. It was the grandest of grand, courtesy of Tony Stark, and it was luxurious and everything Steve had dreamed of but nothing he ever really wanted.

Coming out of the 40s with nothing into the twenty-first century with everything was a shock.

He didn’t realize he had missed this.

This humble part of himself that he had left behind in Brooklyn… that he’d left behind under layers of ice and snow. He realized that he hadn’t spoken in some time, and was brought out of his head when Bucky moved suddenly and turned off the TV, despite Win’s small whine of protest.

“Sorry, that shouldn’t have been on, shit–” Bucky began but Steve simply shot him a soft smile. It had Bucky’s mouth snapping shut.

“Dinner sounds perfect, thank you,” Steve said. Maybe, in hindsight, he should have asked Bucky what the media was saying about him.

But he didn’t.

Because his nails were being painted pink and his head hurt less and a very attractive man (he could think that freely now) was offering to make him dinner.

Everything else could wait; at least for a little while.

Chapter Text

Watching the Barnes family cook was quite a spectacle.

Steve couldn’t just lie in bed (“you literally have two broken ribs and keep passing out and you feel bad that you’re not helping?”) and let Bucky and his sisters cook so with their help he had placed himself at their small kitchen table and helped Win shuck the corn.

“Be careful because your nails are a little wet,” Win told him seriously before scooting up onto her booster seat, which was pink just like Steve’s nails, and picked up a corn in her small hands.

“Watch,” She said and began to peel away the corn’s rough skin before tossing it with enthusiasm into the paper bag Bucky had placed on the table, “Do it like that.”

“I’ll try my best,” Steve said seriously and began to follow her motions with his own piece.

Granted he couldn’t move much, and it took him almost fifteen minutes to clear one, but Win nodded at him approvingly, giving him a little salute that made his heart swell.

Becca and Sophie seemed to be handling making garlic potatoes and fighting over who should start sautéing the onions and garlic in a pan while Bucky handled the roasted chicken and adding in seasonings where he could.

He was limited, and at times he’d move like he had two arms, only to be reminded that he didn’t. In those quiet moments he’d go still, staring blankly, and Becca would move indiscreetly over to finish whatever job he’d originally set out to do.

It didn’t get Bucky in his head for long, and if he was bothered by it he hid it well.

Sophie seemed to enjoy cooking, and while the sisters did argue back and forth, Bucky joining in occasionally to remind them that hey, they had a guest and to watch their language, the girls didn’t seem to mind helping. It was obvious that Bucky and his sisters had to adapt after Bucky had lost a limb, but it was something they seemed to want to fall into–a way to accommodate their brother without making him feel inadequate.

“It smells great,” Steve praised, leaning back a bit in his chair. Win had announced that the corn had been shucked and Becca gathered it up to drop them into the pot boiling on the stove.

“We’ve gotten pretty good at potatoes,” Bucky said proudly, tossing a crooked grin in Steve’s direction, “Well, the girl’s have anyway.”

“Don’t jinx us,” Sophie muttered, bending down so she could check on the potatoes' progress in the oven. “Becca may have fu–messed up the chicken.”

“Okay, first of all you were in charge of the timer. Second–” Becca began before Bucky reached out and pinched her ear.

“Second that’s enough,” he said, although his tone was still light and not at all mad and he laughed when Becca reached up and pulled at his hair in return.

“How are you feeling?” he asked, setting a plate down in front of Steve, “Think your stomach can handle some food?” Steve smiled up at him gratefully, trying really hard to ignore the guilt at putting Bucky out like this. Even though he knew, technically, he wasn’t because Bucky had hit him with his car, but after living in the Avengers tower it was hard to be in Bucky’s house without comparing. The house, from what Steve had seen of it, was small.

The kitchen was adjoined to a dining room, yellow floral wallpaper and white painted windows; the place was airy but old. It felt like a childhood home. Steve assumed that it was. There was a large bedroom that branched off of the kitchen (Bucky’s, based off of the men’s clothing and scarce amount of decoration), and a set of stairs that led to a second floor off in the far corner across from Bucky’s bed.

Steve knew that the girls shared a room upstairs. Win had told him.

“Okay!” Bucky announced, slipping on a hot mit to take the chicken from the oven before reaching after the potatoes, “Dinner is ready!” Win kept her seat and Sophie slid in next to her. Becca slumped in the chair by the large window and Bucky pulled the armchair from his room to sit by Steve.

He served Steve first, then the girls’, then himself, and Steve couldn’t help the swell of admiration he had for the man who ran him over. It was clear that Bucky loved his sisters’, in a way that didn’t feel put upon or a chore.

He was a caretaker. He fused over Win spilling her juice, he told Sophie to sit up and not hunch over her phone, and he passed over some chicken from his plate to Becca who shot him a belligerent glare.

“You need to eat too,” she said and Bucky sent her a look as he poured Win a new glass.

“So do you. You’re still growing,” he said and Becca didn’t say anything though it was obvious she wanted to. This was an old argument. One she didn’t want to hash out in front of a stranger.

“Everything okay?” Bucky asked, leaning over into Steve’s field of vision. Steve jolted out of his thoughts, and turned to give Bucky his full attention.

“Yeah, more than, thank you all so much. It’s very good,” he said and Sophie rested her cheek in her hand and batted her eyelashes at him.

“Aw, look, Captain America does lie!” she cooed and both her and Becca erupted in a fit of giggles that had Bucky rolling his eyes to the ceiling.

“Please don’t start,” he begged and Win patted his hand with hers (which was covered in chicken and corn and butter but Bucky hardly flinched).

The rest of dinner consisted of Steve talking to Bucky’s sisters, which was somewhat exhausting because the longer they sat the more comfortable became, and he was answering questions at a rapid fire pace that even SHIELD interrogators would be impressed by.

They acted their age when they were all gathered like this, and it was fascinating to witness how much older they seemed when, instead of letting Bucky stand up, Sophie and Becca began washing the dishes without a single break in conversation.

“I can help with those,” Steve said and Bucky shot him a completely unbelieving look from where he was taking Win’s dish over to the sink.

“You almost passed out walking into the kitchen,” he said, leaning back against the counter in a way that elongated his legs and showed off the jut of his hips. But Steve wasn’t staring.

Because that was rude.

“Let me at least try,” Steve argued, sucking in a sharp breath and standing, swaying to his feet. He used the top of the kitchen table to brace himself, mindful of how much weight he exerted on it.

“Look, Steve, you’re helping me not feel guilty here, let us feed you and do the dishes, you don’t have to–” Bucky began but Steve tilted up his head, a challenging glint in his eyes.

“Girls,” he said, nodding at them as they turned, “Let me do the rest.” Sophie snorted and Becca looked between him and Bucky with such an exasperated expression Steve almost began to wonder if maybe he’d insulted her.

“God, Soph, whaddya know, there’s someone in this world whose just as stubborn as Buck,” she sighed and Sophie simply shrugged, placing the last glass on the drying rack.

“Fine by me, we don’t have to do the dishes,” she said, scooping up Win and tossing the giggling child over her shoulder. “We're gonna watch TV!” she announced and Becca shot Steve one last, unreadable look before nodding and following her sisters out. The television was on a minute later, the show muffled through the wall, but Steve could only imagine that the girls were piled together in Bucky’s bed.

This seemed like a nightly routine.

“I can’t catch you if you fall,” Bucky said, nodding to where his left arm would be, “And if you break my table you have to buy me a new one.” Steve grinned, big and whole and earnest.

“Deal,” he said, making his way slowly over to the sink. It hurt, a lot more than he was expecting it to, every step sending a new stab of pain up his sides and settling in his ribs. Breathing through it seemed to help. He was almost positive his ribs weren’t broken anymore, but that didn’t mean the pain was going to let up anytime soon.

He’d worry about that later. Tony had really great pain meds made for him, he’d get them when he returned to the tower. Which, speaking of, he had no idea where he was.

“Hey,” Steve said, looking over at Bucky.

“What? You push yourself too far?” Bucky asked, stepping forward, eyes assessing.

“I’m okay,” Steve said, a bit prickly, before he softened his tone, “I just–um, where am I?” Bucky blinked.

“What?” He asked.

“I mean, I don’t know where I am. I was in New York and then I was punched over here–”

“You were punched over here–?”

“And now I don’t know where here is,” he concluded. Bucky stared at him for a long time.

“You’re kind of unbelievable,” he said. Steve didn’t know what to say to that. He wasn’t sure if it was a compliment or not.

“Thanks?” he tried. Bucky sighed.

“You’re in Connecticut. We’re about thirty minutes from Boston. Not too far from New York. If you need to get back there I can drive you once I put Win to bed.”

“No!” Steve said, a bit too abrupt because Bucky widened his eyes and held up his hand.

“Whoa, sorry, I–”

“No, sorry, I just meant, um no? I–You made me dinner and patched me up, I can get a ride,” Steve amended and Bucky’s stance relaxed.

“I don’t mind,” he insisted but Steve shook his head, reached into the sink and began washing one of the last dishes. He knew he was slower than Becca and Sophie but he had to help somehow and if this was all his body would allow for him to do than he was going to at least do this.

“I’d feel worse,” Steve said. Bucky tossed his head back and let out a loud groan. Steve thought he was being overdramatic.

“Captain America, let me drive you to your swanky penthouse in New York City,” Bucky said, and Steve opened his mouth to protest but Bucky cut him off. “It’s two and a half hours, it’s not a bad drive, besides, I need things from the city anyway and you’ll be keeping me company on the way up.”

Steve considered this.

“No,” he said. Bucky looked like he wanted to strangle him. Steve gave him a fond smile, turning so he could lean his weight on the counter.

“In total it’ll be around a six hour drive for you. That’s ridiculous, especially since I dented your car and you made me dinner–”

“I ran you over–”

“And my friend can pick me up and get me back home probably within an hour. It’s easier for everyone.” Bucky relented but he pouted all through helping Steve with the remaining dishes, and by the time nine had rolled around Steve had called Tony and Bucky had gotten Win ready for bed.

“It was nice meeting you Captain,” she said, doing that little salute that had Steve smiling.

“It was nice meeting you too, General,” he tossed back but Win shook her head.

“I’m a Sergeant like Bucky,” she said.

“Oh,” Steve said, turning to throw a quick glance at Bucky over his shoulder, “Well, then. Until next time, Sergeant.” He saluted her back and Sophie picked her up and together they made their way upstairs.

“Can I tell my friends I met you?” Sophie called down and Steve shrugged.

“I don’t see why not,” he said. Sophie shot him a genuine smile before she ducked and was out of his sight. The only ones left were Becca, Bucky and he, and Becca was taking her time in leaving. It felt like she didn’t want Bucky to be alone, like she thought Steve might hurt him if she left. It was an interesting role-reversal between the two of them, but it made Steve respect her all the more.

“Don’t tell anyone where we live,” she said, and Steve thought she was kidding but when she didn’t smile or try to make light of her comment he could tell she was deadly serious.

“The only person whose going to know is Tony Stark,” Steve placated, “Is that okay?” Becca chewed on her lip in thought before she nodded silently and without another word turned on her heel and went upstairs as well. Bucky sighed and Steve turned to face him. The man rubbed a hand down his face, walking over to the fridge and procuring two bottles of beer. He held one up to Steve, who nodded and joined him at the table.

“We could go sit out on the porch if you’d like,” Bucky said, eyeing Steve’s dirtied uniform, “I could also lend you some clothes that aren’t covered in blood.” He must have sensed that Steve was getting ready to politely decline because he scoffed before pushing his chair back and standing, popping open his beer and taking a long swig as he made his way into his bedroom.

When he returned he was carrying a pair of sweats and a large T-shirt, and he laid the clothing down on the table in front of Steve.

“You didn’t let me drive you,” he said. Steve couldn’t help his smile.

“You didn’t let me cook,” he shot back. Bucky was smiling too.

“Because I ran you over.”

“Then bandaged me up.”

“I let you wash a plate and shuck corn.”

“Touché,” Steve sighed, picking up the clothes and standing. This close, with Bucky about three feet away, Steve realized he was a taller. He wasn’t sure why this small detail was something he found so important. For some reason it was.

“Where can I…?” he asked and Bucky pointing with his beer over his shoulder.

“My room. The girls know not to come down without alerting me first,” Bucky said.

“Thanks,” Steve made his way into Bucky’s room, and couldn’t help but look up the stairs that led to the where his sisters slept. The door leading to the second floor was closed, stickers and posters covering the outside of the wood.

He could hear them moving around upstairs, Win wasn’t at all close to going to bed, and he felt a little strange and on edge as he went into Bucky’s bathroom to change. It was small, a toilet and a sink and a single person shower. Steve took note of the yellow towels, the almost compulsive tidiness of the bathroom.

Bucky was military clean.

It didn’t come as a surprise, realizing this. He had to have lost his arm in battle. And Win said he had been a Sergeant.

He hissed as the Captain America uniform pulled at the hairs on his arms. The blood had dried into the inside seams and it pricked like little needles against his skin as he peeled it off and tossed it to the floor. Bucky had removed his boots when he’d been in the bed, and Steve felt bad to realize that he had probably stained Bucky’s comforter with blood. Maybe he should draw Bucky and his sisters a thank you card? Did people still do that?

Steve decided he didn’t care and that he was going to do it anyway. He had a feeling Win and Bucky would appreciate it. He wasn’t sure about Becca and Sophie. Becca seemed very protective, which Steve understood, and he didn’t want to overstep his bounds with her. He wasn’t sure if she’d find the card suspicious, like he was trying too hard for something.

Maybe just a note. He’d write them a thank you note.

…He’d ask Wanda.

Steve wondered, as he pulled on Bucky’s sweats (which were a little snug but the waist was drawstring and that helped matters greatly), when Bucky had enlisted. Minus the seventy years Steve had missed him and Bucky were around the same age. The shirt was tight but he wasn’t too surprised by that and when he entered the kitchen again, his uniform folded neat and his boots tucked under his arm, he didn’t miss the way Bucky’s eyes took him in, his gaze lingering on Steve’s chest.

And when he realized he’d been caught staring he blushed that cute shade of pink and Steve couldn’t help the stupid cocky smile that graced his lips.

“Do you still wanna sit outside?” Steve asked, and just to be a shit (and because knowing that Bucky was checking him out was really making him giddy) he flexed his arms as subtly as he could.

Which wasn’t too subtle because it hurt his sides and the cuts along his pecs and he ended up flinching and making Bucky snort-laugh.

Which made it worth it, really.

“You’re an idiot,” Bucky giggled but he got up and led Steve out the door by the kitchen table, leading them out onto a wide porch with a swing and two wood chairs. There were toys scattered all over the steps and the front yard, chalk drawings littered the walls and the sidewalk, and Steve was struck by how quiet it was. He had never been anywhere in Connecticut, and it looked like the countryside, with how little there was around them.

He couldn’t see a neighboring house. Instead, he saw Bucky’s large yard, his sister’s things, and the red bent pickup truck that had left a bruise that had long since faded. The crickets were loud and the porch light buzzed along with them. It wasn’t dark yet; the sky still had a nice backlight that allowed for Steve to make out the small details.

The two of them sat in companionable silence for a while, sipping their beer and listening to the crickets. It was Bucky who spoke first.

“What were you fighting in New York?” he asked, expression carefully schooled to not give away what he was thinking.

“Some science experiment gone wrong,” Steve said, which wasn’t all the details but the jist of it. Bucky hummed thoughtfully, taking a careful sip.

“Nothing like what happened four years ago, right?” he asked, voice a bit tense. Steve tried to meet his eyes but Bucky was looking off down the dirt road. Steve turned his attention to the vast green fields in front of them when it became apparent Bucky wasn’t going to make eye-contact.

“You would’ve heard if it was, don’t worry,” Steve replied, keeping his own tone completely benign. He forgot, sometimes, that people were still recovering from the events Loki initiated in 2012. It was easier for him, for all of the Avengers; to not think about the destruction and deaths that battle took. Steve could keep himself busy with new missions, with new twenty-first century things. He didn’t have anyone else left to lose. When New York was under attack he didn’t have any personal ties.

He didn’t have a certain person he was fighting for. He wondered if Bucky had witnessed it, or if he had just heard about it on the news. He had a feeling, though, that now wasn’t the time to ask.

“Is it hard?” Bucky asked and now when Steve looked up he was met with the full intensity of Bucky’s stare. It left him a bit flustered. He felt clumsy in his answer.

“Is what hard?” Steve responded, licking his lips because Bucky was watching him like he could see right through him and it was a bit nerve-wracking.

“Waking up in a world you didn’t recognize.” Steve should be used to that phantom feeling of sadness at the mention of his waking up, but he wasn’t. He never let himself process his depression over it. He swallowed and wished, not for the first time, that he could get drunk. Bucky must have seen him withdraw, because he held his beer between his knees and reached out a reassuring hand to grasp Steve’s shoulder. Physical contact that wasn’t associated with pain was foreign to Steve.

He couldn’t help himself from tensing.

“Sorry,” Bucky said, voice earnest, “We shouldn’t talk about all that. Tell me your favorite movie instead.” Steve was immensely grateful for the change in topic.

“Snow White,” he said, without hesitation. Bucky grinned.

“You and Win have a lot in common,” he said.

“She has good taste,” Steve nodded, relaxing as Bucky released his shoulder and took up his drink again.

“That’s debatable,” Bucky muttered, “Tangled is better.”

“I’ve heard of that one!” Steve exclaimed, excited that he understood what Bucky was referencing. Bucky’s smile was soft.

“Man, you’ve got to watch–” Bucky began but there was the loud humming of a jets engine and a blinding white light and suddenly Bucky’s entire house was flooded under its intensity.

Steve squinted against it and he heard Bucky yell, “What the fuck?” before the floodlight dimmed and Tony Stark stood with his hands on his hips in the middle of Bucky’s yard underneath a hovering quinjet that was completely unnecessary. He was in the full suit, and its eyes shown an eerie blue in the fading light.

The jets guns were even out and focused on Bucky, who had, understandably, jumped to his feet in surprise. Becca’s head poked out of the second floor window, her eyes wide and mouth hanging open. She had a gun in her hands.

“Bucky, what the fuck?” she yelled down and Bucky seemed to subconsciously fall back into a sniper stance, one that Steve was well familiar with from his time serving. Of course, Tony couldn’t just arrive subtly. Steve was hoping this sort of melodramatic meeting would have been avoided. He stood, moving so that he stood between Bucky and the multi-millionaire in the front yard.

“Is there a threat, Stark?” Natasha’s voice echoed from the jets speakers, her voice distorted through the layers of radio overlay. Tony’s faceplate slid up and his brown eyes took in the sight of Bucky and Steve on the porch. His eyebrows shot up when he seemed to notice that Steve wasn’t wearing his own clothes.

“Ya know, Cap, you could have told us you were off canoodling with your secret boyfriend in some countryside farmhouse while we were saving the day. I would’ve only been a little bit offended.” Tony called out and Bucky stiffened, his fingers clenching for a trigger that wasn’t there. He shot Steve a baffled look.

“I’m sorry about this,” Steve said, turning to give Bucky an apologetic smile, “He’s very dramatic.”

“You don’t say,” Bucky breathed, relaxing slightly now that he became more aware of the situation, “And to think I could have just driven you.” The light was still really bright, though. Tony had made his way up to the porch, the suit whirring all the while, and he regarded Bucky with a careful eye.

“You look familiar,” he said in that very brash, direct way of his and Bucky’s expression was unreadable.

“We’ve never met,” he answered, tone clipped and Steve had a strong urge to place himself between Tony and Bucky. Even if Tony wasn’t a threat he didn’t like the idea of Bucky being uncomfortable, especially in his own home with his younger sisters watching from their bedroom window. Steve had just about overstayed his welcome. He sighed, turned, and gathered up his uniform.

His wounds were still tender but breathing and moving was all around easier so when he stepped the three feet down off Bucky’s porch it only ached instead of paralyzed.

“Bucky why the hell is Iron Man spotlighting our house?” Becca shouted down and Bucky ran an exasperated hand through his hair. Tony looked up, caught Becca’s attention, noticed the gun, and made matters worse.

“I wasn’t expecting this,” he purred, shooting Steve a suggestive wink, which the latter blatantly ignored in favor of reaching out to shake Bucky’s hand.

“Thanks again. For dinner and the clothes,” Steve said and it took a moment for Bucky’s attention to snap away from Tony eyeing his younger sister.

“No problem, I kinda owed you one,” Bucky laughed, still a little rattled but slowly coming back to himself. He gave Steve’s hand a squeeze.

“Be careful out there, okay?” he said and Steve nodded, smiling gently.

“I’ll try.”

“You’ll try? Really? Because if all it takes to take you down is a beat up 1970s Ford–”

“The science monster got me first–”

“Then you’re not trying at all,” Bucky finished with that crooked grin of his. It made him look a lot younger than he was.

“I promise I’ll be careful,” Steve said, releasing Bucky’s hand and promptly ignoring Tony’s show of looking bored, “And I’ll return your clothes.”

“Keep the shirt,” Bucky said, “You’ve stretched it out.” Steve couldn’t help blushing at that.

Oh my god, Apple Pie, did you call me hear to listen to you flirt or give you a ride home?” Tony called out and the moment, whatever was happening to it, was successfully broken. Steve sighed and began to make his way to Tony and Natasha, Steve was assuming she was the one piloting, lowered the jet enough so that stepping in through the sliding side doors was easy. Steve looked over his shoulder, saw Bucky still watching and did a little wave.

He felt like an idiot for doing it.

“Wow, c’mon,” Tony groaned, shoving him inside and slamming the doors behind him (it wasn't necessary, they closed on their own,) and Steve had just gotten himself situated before Tony was turning to him.

“You disappear out of nowhere, no word, no nothing, we thought you were bleeding out, but turns out you were off with some hot one armed farm boy–” Steve threw his soiled uniform down with enough force that it had Tony shutting up and Natasha turning in her seat to regard them.

“He found me in the middle of the road and took me here to fix me up,” Steve said, annoyed and tired and frankly just wanting a nice shower.

“He fixed you up?” Natasha asked, piloting the jet up into the air before she turned on the autopilot and slinked out of her seat. “How hurt were you?”

“I was punched over 600 miles, Natasha, I wasn’t in mint condition.” Steve snapped and instantly felt bad. They had been worried. It was obvious, Tony was always more brazen when he had been scared. Steve sat himself down with a heavy sigh.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to snap. I’m just–” He began but Tony cut him off.

“Tired because you’ve been off the grid for a day and now the world thinks their newest gay icon is dead?” Steve was trying to not get angry. Really, he was trying. But Tony had a talent for pushing his buttons.

“I’m not dead,” he said needlessly. Natasha was still staring, taking in the sweats and the t-shirt that were not his.

“Are your wounds healed?” she asked as Tony clanked his way over to the bench on the far wall and sat down, dismantling his armor and tucking it into his thin metal briefcase.

“More or less,” Steve said, leaning his head back against the cold metal of the plane.

“How about you give us a straight answer?” Tony said, and Steve shot him a look.

“No more broken ribs. Everything’s just tender,” Steve amended and Natasha nodded wordlessly, "How's everyone?"

"Sam broke his arm," Natasha said, "And Wanda has a sprained ankle. Nothing fatal, they're fine." She looked like she wanted to say something more. Steve had the feeling something else had happened since he’d been away.

He'd been off the map for less than a day, less than a day and the world was in more hysterics over this than the monster that had been attacking New York not eight hours ago.

“Did something else happen?” Steve asked, looking between her and Tony. The two of them shifted. Well, Tony shifted, Natasha’s lip twitched. Both were enough of an answer.

“Just–the media thinks you and Sam are dating,” Natasha said. Steve closed his eyes, pinched the bridge of his nose.

“I thought they assumed me and Tony were dating,” Steve mumbled. Tony picked at his nails.

“Still are, sweetheart,” he said and Steve shot him a dry look. He held up his hands.

“You’re dating both of them, apparently,” Natasha said. Steve didn’t think this was enough of a report to get his two teammates nervous. The media pinned Steve with every man he was seen with ever since he'd been openly supportive of the LGBT community.

This wasn’t all.

“Anything else?” he asked. The two of them fell silent. Natasha spoke first, her voice quiet.

“There’s talk, that Captain America shouldn’t be a gay man. They're thinking about replacing you. Or having you step down until this all blows over,” she said, meeting Steve’s eyes but looking like she wanted to be staring at anything else. Even Tony’s eyes were downcast.

“It’s from the Council, and the United Nations,” Natasha continued, “We have no control over it.” Steve nodded numbly.

“What’s being done about it?” he asked feeling oddly calm.

“Nothing now,” Tony said, and for the first time since this topic was brought up he looked angry, “There’s just been petitions, and fucking protestors outside of the tower. Nothing official. Just noise.”

“Noise,” Steve repeated, feeling the ache in his ribs, the exhaustion settling in to his bones, “Noise is how movements get started.” Natasha didn’t say anything.

There was a long stretch of time, during which no one spoke and Steve could feel himself passing in and out of sleep, when Tony tapped his knee and asked, “I know you’re going through a lot right now but why are your nails pink? And can you do mine?”

Chapter Text

The fingernail polish started to chip after two days.

According to Natasha, it wasn’t the best brand, so when Steve happened to pass by a nail salon on 46th street he decided to go inside and buy a variety of pinks and purple nail polishes.

Just in case.

Because he hadn’t gotten Bucky’s number, getting it would be so easy, but he didn’t want to intrude any more on their lives than he already had, so he bought the nail polish for a “just in case he happened to run into Bucky by fate” later down the road.

It took two days for his nails to chip and two days for all his wounds to heal completely and it took two days for the press to turn him from superhero/government agent into this month’s hottest gossip tabloid. He had this level of attention when he was with the UO girls on tour, but it had never been this publicized, nothing but the war had back then, and it was strange to see his face on the cover of People Magazine and for news anchors to be discussing his sexuality like it was the newest line of Dior winter boots.

He hated it.

He hated that his work, that what he had joined the Avengers and the army for in the first place, was being completely overshadowed by something as fluid and trivial as sexual identification. Who cared who he was sleeping with? Who cared if he liked men and women?

Who were these people that were buying the magazines and watching the talk shows and being so immersed in his life that they were so wholly unconcerned for all the violence, for all the attacks, that were happening around them in the world every day? That they cared more about whom he was attracted to rather than the fact that he had saved their lives five times over? Was this what he had sacrificed himself for in 1945? Was this really it?

Was he really becoming a dancing monkey again? He could feel himself on the tight rope, thin, teetering, hundreds of feet above nameless faces who just wanted to see if he would fall.

//

“I’m not speaking to anyone,” Steve said, for what felt like the fifteenth time in the past hour.

General Ross looked like he wanted to smash his head against the nearest wall just so this publicity meeting would be over faster. Steve wouldn’t stop him if he tried. In fact, he’d probably want to get a few hits in as well. The three lawyers they had brought in had mentally clocked out after hour two.

His publicist, (why the fuck he had one was beyond him but Tony had recommended her a month after he’d been thawed and Steve was certain she’d never worked so hard in her life as she was having to right now), Jenna, sighed.

“Steven, look–” She began but Steve cut her off.

“I’m not going to be this weeks hottest new trend. That isn’t what I joined the Avengers for. This isn’t what I joined SHIELD for. And this certainly isn’t what I’m going to be giving speeches for. I will talk about my support for the LGBT community. I will speak out against the violence and prejudice of our society. I will talk about the crimes happening in Munich, in Iraq, in France. But I will not talk about whether or not I like to suck cock.” Ross made a noncommittal noise in the back of his throat and Steve shot him a daring glare.

“Steven…you–” Jenna began but she must have sensed that he was done with this discourse and she let her face fall in her hands. “I’ll take care of it.”

“You do realize that you could be kicked off the team if you do not release a statement,” Ross said slowly, in that patronizing way of his.

“If the government thinks that I should give up the shield because of my sexuality then frankly sir, I don’t want to be fighting for it.” Steve said, and from the corner of his eye he could see Jenna take an aspirin from her purse and swallow it dry.

//

Natasha was waiting for him outside the conference room.

She was in jeans and a large hoodie, one that Steve thought he’d seen Sam wear during their many movie nights. He didn’t ask about it. Last week she was wearing his running shorts. He still doesn’t know how she got ahold of them. But she’s Natasha; she can do anything…like find out someone’s phone number. He shut that thought down real fast.

“How’d it go?” she asked falling into stride with him easily even though he knew he was angry and when he was angry he tended to walk at an inhuman pace. But, Natasha had been keeping up with superhumans and their abilities for four years, maybe longer. She could match his pace easily.

“I’m not talking to the press,” Steve said petulantly and Natasha merely hummed.

“Yeah, I knew you wouldn’t,” she said. Steve looked at her as they ducked through into the nearest elevator.

“Do you think I should?” he asked, trying to focus on reining in his frustration. He wished Sam were in the meeting with him. He always seemed to know what Steve should be doing better than Steve did. Natasha simply shrugged.

“I think it’s best to stay out of it. Let it die down.”

“What if it doesn’t?” Steve pressed, crossing his arms and looking down at his boots. “What if this just adds fuel to the fire?” Natasha looked at him long and hard.

“Then it’ll be like you said,” she waited until he met her gaze to finish her thought, “If the Government cares this much about one of the worlds greatest defender’s sexuality perhaps they’re not the people we should be taking orders from.” Steve felt a swell of gratitude towards her, hot and warm and pleasant in his chest.

“We?” he asked and it was her turn to smile. She leaned against the far wall, crossing her ankles.

“What? You think I’m going to still be an Avenger without a Captain?”

//

Steve didn’t go back to his apartment in New York.

The paparazzi were insane so instead he and Sam flew to DC to lay low for a few weeks. During that time they kept their runs early in the morning, stayed in at nights and got Steve caught up on all the movies he had missed (not all of them, but most of the important ones).

Steve thought about Bucky from time to time. It was hard no to. He’d thought of Sam too, after meeting him. And Peggy. There were those people in the world that you have a connection with, and Steve felt that with Peggy and he felt it with Sam and now he was feeling it towards Bucky.

He kept going back and forth on calling Natasha and asking her if she could get his number for him but that felt like an invasion of privacy and he didn’t want that. He knew all too well what that felt like. Bucky had his sisters to take care of. He had himself to take care of, the last thing he needed was some media hyped superhero ringing him up and asking if he wanted to dive headlong into all this madness with him.

That wouldn’t be fair.

Becca had seemed pretty adamant about keeping her family’s privacy and now Steve realized why.

Wanda flew over to join them the last four days they were there. Steve gave her his bed and slept on the couch, and he’d always wake up with an extra pillow tucked under his head. He wondered if he should just give the nail polish he’d bought to her if he wasn’t going to see Win again.

It was a disappointing thought, but one he had to consider. And he did consider it…for five minutes before he decided that he would probably run into the Barnes family at some point in their lives and that if he did he needed to have the nail polish. Besides, Wanda had a whole drawer of the polish; she didn’t have much use for his amateur brands.

Win probably painted Bucky’s nails too. He’d look good with a light purple, Steve decided. Purple or red, although red was a bit more daring. Bucky could pull it off. He’d look good in red. It’d bring out the blue in his eyes and make his lips more–

“Steve?” Sam snapped, flicking him hard in the temple and Steve jumped, almost toppled over his seat in surprise. Wanda and Sam were staring at him with mixed expressions of amusement and concern. Well, Wanda looked concerned Sam just looked annoyed.

“Man, I’ve been trying to get your attention for five minutes,” he complained and Steve rubbed at his head, a slight pout on his lips.

“Sorry,” he griped, situating himself again and picking up his coffee.

“I asked if you’re gonna be okay going back tomorrow,” Sam repeated, crossing his arms and legs and leaning back in his chair. Steve sipped his coffee.

“Can’t run from it forever,” he said.

“That doesn’t answer my question,” Sam sighed.

“I’ll be fine, Sam,” Steve said, sending him a smile he hoped was convincing but was probably anything but.

“You know,” Wanda said, leaning forward over her eggs, “It might be good to release a statement.” Steve wrinkled his nose. Wanda barked a laugh before reaching out and gripping his bicep.

“I’m serious,” she said, expression earnest, “Shut them up. You’re always good with words.”

“Yeah, until he gets all self-righteous and digs himself into an even deeper hole,” Sam said, clicking his tongue, “I would wait.”

“Wait for what?” Wanda asked, “For them to make the official decision?”

“You can’t forget that most of this is just rumors and petitions now,” Sam said, “This may never make it to the Supreme Court. It may never make it to a UN meeting. Everything now is pretty much rumors. I’m saying to wait for some concrete stuff. Not new US Weekly headlines.” Steve let out a dramatic sigh and rubbed a hand over his eyes, pinching the bridge of his nose.

“You’re right. I just want it to be over with,” he admitted quietly. Wanda wrapped her arm around his shoulders and pulled him into a one armed hug that was made a bit awkward because of the table and her eggs and Steve’s coffee.

“It will be. Soon,” she promised and even though there was no possible way for her to be certain it was still reassuring that the most powerful being Steve knew had enough hope left to reassure him.

//

They flew back to New York on a Thursday and Tony had pissed off some big name crime lord on Saturday so Steve found himself spending his Sunday night ducked below fallen debris with three hostages by his hip and his shield dirty and worn in his hands.

He wanted to say that he wasn’t surprised that this would be happening, (who was he to have a month free of fighting), but he kind of was.

Between everything happening in the media he’d lost track of what else was happening around him and so when Tony had grabbed him and Sam from their floors late Sunday night and said he needed their help on a clear and rescue Steve hadn’t really been expecting this.

In hindsight, they should have brought Wanda and Natasha. Of course, Tony wasn’t exactly prepared for the crime lord to have killed himself so he could blow up fifty pounds of coke and disintegrate the codes to five hidden bombs in Boston rail-lines.

“Cap, you good?” Sam buzzed in his ear. Steve took stock. No severe injuries, and the three men sitting by him covered in dust and smelling like gunpowder and piss didn’t seem to be too damaged either. With a groan he pushed the remaining chunks of cement and wood off of them, a cloud of dust obstructing his view of the night sky. The warehouse had been old and it fell easily. Steve had done his part. Tony was off with Sam; the two who could fly were in charge of finding the bombs.

“All good. I’m taking the hostages to the nearest hospital,” Steve reported, rolling his shoulders and reaching out his hand to begin helping the men to their feet.

“Great. There’s an ambulance coming your way. Oh, and the traffic is terrible, heads up.” Tony blitzed in his ear and Steve took a deep breath as he began to wade through the wreckage, clearing as much of a path as he could.

“You owe me dinner for this,” Steve grumbled and Sam laughed over his line.

“Oh, I’m sorry, do I not give you free housing? Do I not provide you with new and improved gear each month, free of charge that would normally cost millions? I’m sensing some bitterness on your end, America, not liking your tone.” Tony hummed and there was a click and then a shout of victory and then he was reporting, “Also two bombs down. Sam?”

“Found one. Come dismantle it.”

“On my way. Free of charge.”

“Shut up, Tony,” Steve sighed as he sat with the three saved men on the corner of the street. It was always a bit awkward, these moments, after the adrenaline had died and the smoke had cleared.

“Are you okay?” Steve asked the youngest man and he looked at him sort of blankly for a moment, not really processing, and then he nodded.

“Yeah,” he said.

“That’s good,” Steve said. There wasn’t much else to say.

They lapsed into silence until the sirens of an ambulance blasted down the street, the red and white lights shining through, clearing way and lighting the whole ruined warehouse underneath the stars. Steve had never accompanied civilians to the hospital before. But that’s where Tony was closest too and honestly the youngest man couldn’t be more than Becca’s age and for some reason Steve found it important that he saw that the man got proper care.

They were helped faster because he was there. He knew that. They were met at the door by the head doctor, who surveyed Steve critically for a moment before holding out his hand.

“Captain,” he said in a thick Boston drawl and Steve felt his lips twitch up.

“Doctor. Just came to make sure they made it in okay,” Steve said and the balding man in the white scrubs nodded.

“It’s appreciated. Can we get you anything?”

“No, I’ll be on my way. But they’re okay?” Steve asked gesturing behind the doctor.

“I’m going to test their blood, level their breathing. I’m sure they inhaled a lot of dust. I want their lungs to be clear before we send them out again,” the doctor said and Steve remembered what asthma felt like and he bid the doctor good night.

“Cap, we’re coming to get you, ETA about fifteen minutes,” Sam said in his ear.

“I’ll be outside,” Steve said, tired and covered in soot and dirt and gunpowder. He sat himself down on one of the cement benches by the front entrance of the hospital, feeling a bit ridiculous in his uniform as people passed by. It was late enough that it was just the medical staff, and Steve desperately longed for his sketchbook to fill the time. It was a bit chilly, September was rolling in and the leaves had begun to change. It was the first night that Steve had been able to feel a difference.

“Steve?” a familiar voice said. He looked up. Bucky was standing there; blue scrubs and white Adidas, his long hair tied back. He was holding a coffee. His nails were blue.

“Bucky?” Steve asked, jumping to his feet, “You–you’re a–you work here?” Steve stammered out and Bucky grinned, cocking his hip as he eyed Steve up and down.

“Yeah man, I’m a nurse. I was a doctor, in um, in the army, after I was in the field, but after I lost my arm I couldn’t perform the surgeries I used to so…” He trailed off, shrugging and giving a self-deprecating laugh. Steve stepped forward.

“No, that’s great. It’s great that you’re still in the medical field. I…I wasn’t expecting to run into you is all. I didn’t know you were a nurse,” Steve explained, trying to hopefully mend whatever tension he’d made.

Or whatever wrong impression he’d given Bucky.

“You didn’t wonder how I set your shoulder? Or stopped the bleeding?” Bucky asked, caught between amused and skeptical. Steve blushed.

“Honestly I didn’t find it that strange,” he admitted. Bucky’s eyebrows rose.

“You’re too trusting,” Bucky concluded and Steve tilted his head.

“I’m too trusting? You let a stranger into your home!”

“You’re Captain America! I assumed you’d be a good guy!” Bucky said, smile still in place, and he kept eye contact as he took a drink from his coffee. Steve couldn’t help tracking the movement. Blue made Bucky’s lips look really red.

“So what’re you here for?” Bucky asked, breaking Steve’s stare, “You’re not hurt again are you?” Steve looked down at himself, realizing he probably looked like a building had fallen on him.

Which, technically, it had.

“I’m fine,” Steve said. “There was a hostage situation south. I just dropped the victims off.” Bucky nodded, looking thoughtful.

“Anything I should be aware about driving home?” he asked.

“I can give you a lift,” Steve said, without thinking. Bucky blinked.

“What?” he asked.

“I can give you a ride. We came here in a plane.”

“Whose we?”

“Sa–um, Falcon and Iron Man.” It felt weird saying their aliases, but there wasn’t much press coverage on Sam because of the color of his skin and even though Bucky knew Tony Stark the Iron Man bit seemed more appropriate. Bucky pursed his lips, considering.

“How would I get to work tomorrow morning if my car is here?” he asked, a playful glint in his eyes.

“Um, I’ll drive you?”

Really?” Bucky laughed, biting his lip, “You’ll wake up at 5am, fly to Connecticut to drive me to work, and then fly back to New York? And then how’ll I get home? Will you drive me then, too?” Steve didn’t know what to say.

“Yes?” he tried. Bucky tossed his head back and laughed.

“You know, you could just ask me,” Bucky said, voice light and cheeks pink.

“Ask you?” Steve parroted, heart beat kicking. Bucky looked really handsome with laughter in his eyes and color in his cheeks.

“For my number. You don’t have to be close to death or driving me to work twice a day to see me. I told you I needed to get some things from the city. I was gonna drive up next weekend.” Bucky said, playing with the lid of his to-go cup. Steve swallowed, suddenly nervous.

“Is this…um, what is this?” he asked. Bucky stilled.

“Is what…what?” Bucky asked, eyebrows furrowing. Steve felt his cheeks go hot. He had never felt this out of his depth in his life. He felt like he was standing in front of Peggy Carter again. Both her and Bucky had the same way of getting him tongue-tied. Bucky though…

“I don’t…are we friends?” Steve wondered wishing he could shut up or that the warehouse roof had actually crushed him so he wouldn’t be standing here making a fool of himself.

“Friends…” Bucky tried, and his mouth tilted up and oh, he was doing this on purpose. “Yeah. Um, did you think meeting me in the city was something else?”

“No! No, not…no,” Steve stammered and he felt a bit better to see that Bucky was flushed pink too. He hoped he hadn’t ruined this.

“So. I’ll give you my number and then we’ll meet. As friends,” Bucky said, walking forward until he was a comfortable distance from where Steve was standing.

“Yes,” Steve laughed, rubbing a hand through his hair and flinching when grains of dirt fell into his eyes. “Yeah, that sounds good.”

“Do you have a phone?” Bucky asked, eyes flickering over the uniform. Steve froze.

“Shit. No, not on me,” he admitted and Bucky bit down a smile as he nodded solemnly.

“Hm, okay. Here,” he said, pulling his phone out of his back pocket and handing it to Steve. “If you’re comfortable with giving me your number, that is.”

“Yeah! Yeah that’s…good idea,” Steve finished lamely as he added himself to Bucky’s contacts. Bucky took his phone back and shot Steve a disbelieving look.

“You put an American flag as your name. I hate you,” Bucky grumbled but his smile and the soft look in his eyes belayed his tone.

“I’ll be in the city on Saturday,” Bucky said, tucking his phone back into his scrubs, “So expect a call from me then.” Steve nodded.

“Right,” he said.

“Right,” Bucky said. They stood there not really saying anything but neither one wanting to leave. Bucky broke it first.

“I should go,” he said, nodding to the parking lot, “I gotta get the girls dinner.”

“I can–” Steve began but Bucky’s look cut him off.

“It’s okay, Superman, I can run by a McDonalds,” Bucky laughed, beginning his slow walk backward.

“M’not Superman,” Steve mumbled and Bucky’s smile grew.

“Yeah, I know,” he said, “You’re hotter,” And he spun on his heels and was gone before Steve could pick his jaw up off the floor. He didn’t know how long he stood there, feeling giddy and excited and nervous all at once. He felt rejuvenated. He hadn’t felt like this in seventy years.

“Hey, Steve, next time you try to flirt and/or befriend your nurse could you mute your line?” Sam asked and Tony nearly busted his eardrum from laughing so loud.

Chapter Text

It was raining on Saturday.

Bucky had texted Steve the night before, telling him he’d be in Manhattan around noon and asking where he wanted to meet.

Steve had absolutely no idea. The weather didn’t offer much except indoor talks, unless he wanted to take Bucky for a stroll in the rain and humidity. Which did not sound pleasant. Steve leaned back in his favorite chair he’d found at an old second hand vintage store in the Village.

He had placed it by the window so when it did rain he could look out at the city and watch, as the colors bled together like watercolor. Unfortunately, he could also see the neon signs of the protestors down below. There weren’t as many as there was yesterday thanks to the rain and scattering sounds of thunder, but there was enough that Steve didn’t even want to move.

He had taken his required dosage of Prozac that morning but now he was feeling sluggish and still a bit low and if he was honest he wasn’t even sure if he was up with talking to anyone.

There was a part of him that told him he was using the weather and his anxiety as an excuse to not meet Bucky and not have to deal with the nerves he was undoubtedly feeling because of that. But Bucky had drove around two hours to meet with him today (even if he did need to get some things from the city) and Steve would be such a dick if he canceled. He didn’t even want to cancel, not really, but he was feeling more overwhelmed with each passing second and he didn’t know what to do.

At noon, Bucky called.

“Hey,” Steve said and he could hear the rain and traffic muffled on Bucky’s end.

“Hi,” Bucky said, sounding happy and alert and Steve was the biggest fucking asshole, “I didn’t hear from you so I thought I’d call. Everything okay?” Steve scrubbed a hand over his face and tried to swallow down the fog that was clouding his head.

“Yeah, sorry, I…” And he trailed off, lost on words and distracted by the sounds outside.

“You’re not okay, are you?” Bucky asked and Steve blinked.

“What? No I’m fine, where are–?”

“Steve. We don’t have to do this today.” Bucky said and Steve could feel himself start to panic.

“No! No I want to, shit, I’m sorry, I want to see you.” Steve said, the fog gone from his head. Bucky was quiet for a moment.

“I really don’t mind re-scheduling–,” He began but Steve cut him off.

“I’m okay, Bucky, really. I want to see you. I’m just a bit out of it today.” Steve admitted, biting down on the guilt that was threatening to wrap around him like his mother’s cotton throws.

“It’s a good lazy day,” Bucky said, and Steve could hear the subway rattle in the background, “We don’t have to go anywhere. I can come to your apartment. We can have a day in, talk, watch some movies?” Steve didn’t realize how relieved he felt at hearing that. He could stay in! Bucky was okay with being inside. Steve wouldn’t have to deal with the paparazzi, or the protestors, or the cameras.

He didn’t know he was so terrified of that until it was no longer a possibility.

“That…that sounds perfect. Only if it’s okay with you, though, if you want to see the city we can still–,”

“Steve,” Bucky said, voice stern and borderline paternal, “I lived in Brooklyn until I was fifteen, trust me, I’ve seen enough of the city. I take care of three younger sisters, two who are going through puberty, and I work full time at the hospital. I need a lazy day too.” Steve wasn’t even aware he’d been smiling until his cheeks started to ache.

“Thank you,” He sighed.

“It’s really no problem. Where do you live?” Bucky asked and Steve told him the address.

“I can have someone pick you up,” Steve said as he heard another train rattle by, “You don’t have to take the subway.”

“I don’t mind,” Bucky said, and the noise on the platform grew louder, “How far do I need to walk once I’m at your stop?”

“A block. It’s the Avengers tower, I don’t think you’ll miss it.” Steve said, tucking his phone against his ear as he shrugged on his shoes. He could take the back entrance out. He wasn’t about to let Bucky walk up alone in the rain to face the crowd that had congregated down below. His nerves about-facing them had vanished, now that he thought of it more in the terms of Bucky’s comfort, and keeping Bucky safe. He didn’t know how well Bucky handled crowds, for him, after being thawed, they were too much.

He wasn’t sure what triggered Bucky, or if he did have PTSD and flashbacks like Steve did, but if Bucky’s episodes were existing and as bad as Steve’s own he was definitely going to walk him into the building. His anxiety could kiss his ass.

“Cool. I’ll see you in fifteen?” Bucky said and Steve was already out the door and shrugging on his cap and khaki jacket by the time Bucky had hung up.

//

His shoes were soaked through by the time he met Bucky.

It was worth it though to see the surprise in Bucky’s eyes and the smile on his lips.

“Well, aren’t you a gentleman?” Bucky laughed, ducking under the umbrella Steve had brought with him.

“Didn’t want you facing the mob on your own,” Steve said, steering them down the street. They were already getting some noticeable stares.

“Mob?” Bucky asked, tucking his hand into his pocket, “You piss off more people lately?” Steve grinned.

“A few,” Steve admitted, subconsciously leaning into the warmth of Bucky’s side against the cool rain.

“Thanks for picking me up,” Bucky said, looking up at Steve, “I appreciate it.” Bucky was so earnest, so genuine, that it took Steve a moment to find his voice. He coughed to distract himself from staring at Bucky for too long.

“You’re welcome.” He said. Their conversation was a bit stunted because of all the people they had to weave through, and Steve had to guide Bucky around the Starbucks so they could cut across the alley into the back lobby of the tower. Most of the protestors had gone home once the rain had picked up and Steve was suddenly immensely grateful for the shitty weather.

Leading Bucky through the wide white lobby where Tony’s newest security AI scanned Bucky’s fingerprints and asked for Steve’s recorded audio stating that Bucky was welcome onto his floor, was, frankly, a bit embarrassing. It felt weird to have to talk to security to bring a friend up to his room because all his other friends already have access–

Bucky was his first normal friend. If they even were friends, Steve wasn’t sure two meetings secured that relationship or not. He assumed that if Bucky still wanted anything to do with him after today then that would be the telling sign. A rock hit one of the glass walls from across the lobby and Steve felt Bucky tense beside him.

“What’s going on out there?” He asked and Steve turned to survey the small congregation that was pressed against the window. Security had no doubt already been dispatched. The crowd was screaming through the rain, their breaths fogging up the glass, and Steve could read lips and hoped Bucky couldn't. Now they’d seen him, and they’d seen him with Steve, and that information wouldn’t be used for anything good.

That’s the mob,” Steve affirmed as the elevator doors binged open and he ushered Bucky inside. He pressed his thumb to the keypad and the doors slid shut. Bucky’s eyes were wide as he stepped up to the glass walls, watched as New York City washed away with the grey of the rain.

“How often are they out there?” He asked, turning his blue eyes away from watercolor buildings. Steve studied the pale, grey light that highlighted Bucky’s face. It made his cheekbones cut against the soft skin around his nose. He wanted to draw him in that light.

“Everyday, now,” Steve said quietly, not taking his eyes off Bucky’s, “Ever since the campaigns began.” Bucky nodded, eyebrows furrowing in a way that Steve wished he didn’t find attractive.

“The campaign,” He said slowly, “To make you turn in your title. Because you’re gay?” For some reason, Steve felt defensive.

“I’m bisexual,” He corrected and waited for Bucky’s face to change. For him to look uncomfortable or disgusted, but Bucky’s expression didn’t shift and he kept eye contact with Steve like it was a challenge. Maybe it kind of was.

“I’m sorry,” Bucky said and Steve wasn’t expecting that, “I’m sorry that the world you gave up your life for is wanting you to give up your identity too.” Steve felt his throat tighten, tears pricking the corners of his eyes and he turned his gaze away to look out the window instead, hoping Bucky hadn’t noticed.

“It’ll blow over,” He said, and it sounded like he was trying to convince himself.

“Have any of your supervisors talked to you about it?” Bucky asked and Steve remembered Ross and his lips curling as he lectured Steve on what "being homosexual" in his position meant. Steve clenched his fists.

“Yes,” He whispered, his voice weaker than he wanted. Bucky didn’t say anything for a long moment but then he was reaching out and touching Steve’s knuckles with the tips of his fingers to get his attention. Steve looked up immediately and Bucky’s face was as soft as the light and colors outside.

“I think, and I know you’re not asking for my opinion so tell me to shut up whenever,” Bucky began but Steve shook his head and Bucky continued, “Representation matters. It may not seem like it, we both come from a position of privilege, but when Black Widow was announced as the only woman in the Avengers Becca started crying. Because there was finally a strong, superhero woman who could hold her own against aliens and monsters and men, and to Becs she’s a representation of female strength and empowerment. You coming out as being attracted to men…you have no idea how many young boys you’ve affected. The ones who are opposed are louder, that’s usually how it works, but I swear to you that you’re some boys, and girls, inspiration. You’re the symbol of America, right? America preaches in being a country of equality and unity. It’s ironic that the person they’ve chosen to embody that represents all those qualities and now they want nothing to do with them. But I’ll tell you a secret: you’re saving more lives by standing by your beliefs and your morals than you are fighting monsters every week.”

Steve was at a loss for words. Bucky didn’t seem like he was looking for an answer though, because his fingers traced Steve’s knuckles and he looked like he might cry, staring down at Steve’s hands.

“It means a lot to me too,” Bucky, admitted quietly, “That you’re fighting for us. In every way, now.” Steve wanted to hold Bucky’s hand but he was too slow and too full of every emotion he’d ever felt because Bucky pulled his hand away and tucked it back into his jean pocket.

“Sorry,” He said, swallowing, “I didn’t mean to get all preachy.”

“You…you didn’t. I mean, I didn’t–I needed to hear that,” Steve said in a fumbled rush and Bucky met his eyes with more vulnerability than Steve had seen in him, “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Bucky said. Slowly, he smiled, “Yeah. You’re welcome.” Steve, during the conversation with Bucky, besides forgetting that there was a world outside of the two of them, overlooked the fact that Friday was installed in the elevator.

“Is this not the floor you wished, Captain Rogers?” She asked in that monotone, robotic voice of hers and Steve jumped, “We have been stationary for ten minutes.” Steve thought, foolishly, that he wouldn’t blush so hard this time. Being around Bucky had him flustered.

“Oh,” Bucky said, shooting him a baffled look as he caught sight of Steve’s floor, “Is all this yours?” Steve nodded,and gestured Bucky out first. The elevator let them out into the living room, and Steve could understand Bucky’s initial reaction of awe. He had thought this all was a scam, originally.

Bucky stepped out onto the hardwood floor that Steve had requested and it was strange to have someone in his space that wasn’t part of his team, or security, or working for SHIELD. The clouds cast the room in that grey light from the elevator, reflecting off the floor and Bucky’s skin as he moved. Steve wasn’t sure if the sight of someone he hardly knew standing comfortably in a place that had felt so alien to him was supposed to make him feel this warm but it did.

Suddenly, strongly, he wanted Bucky’s sisters here as well. He wanted the color he had left behind in 1945 back. Bucky brought it with him. Steve could see it as he moved, his feet painted the floor in a brown that Steve hadn’t recognized before. The couch looked warmer, the walls didn’t seem as sterile. Steve became painfully aware that he had hardly made this space his own. And he’d been living here for years.

“It’s…wow,” Bucky whistled, turning back to see if Steve had followed him. Steve didn’t know what to do; his nerves were back full force under Bucky’s attention.

“I had the same reaction at first too,” Steve, admitted, placing the wet umbrella by the elevators now closed doors, “Big isn’t it?”

“Huge,” Bucky corrected, his grin crooked, “Beautiful though.”

“Yeah,” Steve agreed and watched as Bucky made his way up to the floor to ceiling windows, looking down on the great city below their feet. Steve couldn’t help his gaze from lingering in the space of Bucky's left arm, at the absence of it, before his eyes moved over the expanse of Bucky’s back, his shoulders, his neck–He looked so soft, standing there in that light. Steve wanted to protect him from everything.

“What did you wanna do?” Bucky asked suddenly, taking Steve out of his head, which, shit, he’d been in a lot.

“You mentioned something about Tangled before–,” Steve began and Bucky’s whole face lit up.

“Have you ever seen Star Trek?” Bucky interrupted and Steve floundered for a minute.

“I–no,” He began cautiously and Bucky’s smile grew impossibly large.

“Do you wanna?”

//

The rain was coming down in thick sheets of water that had blocked out New York and cast the whole of Steve’s expansive living room in a dim shadow.

He refrained from turning on the overhead lights and instead the small lamps he’d collected at second-hand stores were buzzing golden in the corners of the room. Bucky had wanted popcorn halfway through the first episode of the show, and Steve had popped it along with organizing some chips and a few sandwiches and Bucky had watched with his arm leaning against the counter looking pleasantly surprised.

“I didn’t know you could cook!” He exclaimed and Steve shot him an unimpressed glare.

“I’ll have you know I’m the best chef in all of New York,” He sniffed and Bucky bit his lip in that really distracting way of his.

“I’ll believe it if you can make box macaroni,” Bucky said, stifling a laugh as he met Steve’s smug look with his own, “Not many chefs around here can boil water.”

“I can boil more than water,” Steve shot back, unthinking, and Bucky laughed, a loud happy sound that Steve couldn’t help joining in. So they had their popcorn and their sandwiches and the rest of the root beer Sam had left in Steve’s fridge, and were on opposite ends of the couch eating all of it. Sometimes their toes would brush and it would make Steve’s heart jolt, and sometimes Bucky would point out to Steve that the beauty of Star Trek wasn’t all the science talk or how it was the first Television show to broadcast an interracial kiss, it was about how during the fight scenes you could tell when William Shatner’s stunt man took his place.

“Whose that?” Steve had asked the during Kirk’s first fight with Kahn and Bucky had laughed and said, like a child, pointing excitedly at the TV, “That, pal, is his stunt double. Production value isn't great.”

“They’re obviously two different people,” Steve complained, confused, which just made Bucky laugh harder.

“This episode is Win’s favorite,” Bucky said, drinking the rest of Steve’s root beer (which, hey, but Steve liked how red Bucky’s lips looked after he took a sip so he decided to let it go). Steve watched as balls of fluff turned the whole ship into chaos.

“I can see why,” Steve said, smiling, “They’re cute.”

“That’s why they’re so dangerous,” Bucky said, waggling his eyebrows and snuggling deeper into Steve’s couch, “Gotta watch out for Tribbles. Win wanted one after she saw this. So I got her the fattest gerbil I could.”

“Did she like it?” Steve asked, looking away from the screen. Bucky nodded.

“Oh, she loved it. Best $6 I ever spent.” After Star Trek Bucky asked if Steve had ever seen IRobot and Steve turned to look at where Bucky’s head was peeking out over the comforter. His hair was mussed and his eyes were light and he looked like Win when she painted Steve’s nails.

“You’re a nerd,” Steve said and Bucky’s eyebrows furrowed.

“You are literally every comic geek's wet dream come to life,” Bucky said, “You can’t be calling anyone here a nerd unless you include yourself.”

“Oh, I’ll own up to it,” Steve said, “I fight aliens for a living.” Bucky laughed so hard he spilled the popcorn.

Steve didn’t mind.

The rain slowed at around five, during which Bucky had fallen asleep and was slowly starting to wake back up. Steve had taken to brewing some coffee for him in the kitchen.

“Is that heaven I smell?” Bucky called, voice rough from sleep.

“It is. How do you like it?” Steve called back.

“Three sugars. No milk. Anyone ever tell you you’re an angel?” Bucky mumbled, burrowing his head deeper into Steve’s couch. Steve refused to think that it was cute.

“Recently it’s just been…” He trailed off and Bucky filled in the blanks. Steve focused on pouring the coffee into the mug so he wouldn’t have to acknowledge the frustrated hurt he felt bubbling in his chest.

“Hey,” Bucky said, and Steve looked up to see that he was sitting up now, hair sticking every which way and bare feet flat on the hardwood, “Do you need to talk?” Immediately Steve shook his head.

“I’m fine,” He lied. Bucky didn’t say anything as Steve walked over and handed him the coffee.

“Thanks,” Bucky whispered, taking a tentative sip.

Steve wanted to ask about Bucky’s time in Iraq. He wanted to ask about his time as a doctor, and what made him step down. He wanted to ask about his and his sister’s parents. He wanted to ask about his childhood, about his first kiss, about if he was gay. He didn’t ask Bucky any of these questions. It wasn’t time for them yet. Just like it wasn’t time to open up about his depression, and sense of longing for a world that was gone.

It wasn’t time to talk about nightmares and PTSD and crippling anxiety and breakdowns after missions. It wasn’t time to talk about the fact that he needed to take four showers after killing someone because he could still smell the blood on his skin and three showers only made it stronger. It wasn’t time for those conversations yet. Perhaps some day in the future it would be.

“Sophie told some girls at school that you ate dinner with us,” Bucky said, looking a bit sheepish, “I’ve had more teenage girls around the house than ever. Sometimes they’re not even Soph’s friends and they just stand around outside.”

“You don’t cook them dinner do you?” Steve asked, a smile spreading across his lips because if he knew Bucky then he knew his answer.

“Well, yeah,” Bucky said, taking another sip of his coffee, “They probably walked a long ways to come stalk my house.”

“I want to apologize in advance,” Steve said, taking his seat across from Bucky on the couch, “Some people probably saw us together. The way things are, you’re probably going to be on the 6 o’clock news.” Bucky shrugged, shifting so that his feet were tucked next to Steve’s ankles.

“I don’t care,” He said simply, “I’m having the perfect evening with Captain America cooking for me while they’re in drab office buildings being underpaid. I think I win.”

//

Seven rolled around and Steve ordered Chinese. They ate surrounded by take-out boxes in the middle of the living room floor with the rain-washing the world out around them.

//

“Oh, shit, I gotta go,” Bucky said, scrambling up from where he was sitting at Steve’s counter, “I’m going to miss the train. Again.”

Please let me give you a ride,” Steve tried but Bucky was pulling on his shoes and shaking his head.

“I like taking the Subway,” He admitted, “And besides, I still need to run by the grocery. I kinda forgot to do that before coming here.”

“I can come with you?” Steve said although it was more of a question, “If you want?” Bucky looked up from his shoes to study Steve.

“Do–you like spending time with me?” Bucky asked and for a second Steve was so thrown by the question he wasn’t sure what to say.

“Well…yeah? You’re really…um, cool,” Steve said and immediately felt incredibly lame but he had just spent a whole afternoon watching one and a half seasons of Star Trek…Bucky’s expression was unreadable but he slowly began to walk forward and stopped a few feet in front of Steve.

“Turn off superhero mode,” Bucky said; smiling softly at Steve’s confused expression, “I’m going to be fine getting home. I promise. I’m tough.”

“I don’t doubt that,” Steve admitted, feeling like Bucky was looking too close and seeing too much, “It’s just…I–After seeing the worst of people every week it’s easy to worry.” Bucky nodded, understanding washing over his face. Steve hadn’t even been aware that he was probably being neurotic or overprotective until now. He’d need to keep an eye on it.

“I’ll text you when I get home, how about that?” Bucky asked. Steve nodded.

“That…yeah, thank you. Sorry if I’m being weird, you can tell me to back off whenever I just…it’s just…”

“I get it,” Bucky said, saving Steve the trouble of trying to articulate his feelings, “I’m the same way towards the girls. If it’ll give you some peace of mind it’s the least I can do.”

“It was nice seeing you,” Steve said, and Bucky’s smile grew and they were both standing there like idiots smiling until Friday asked if Mr. Barnes really wanted to go down or if he had pressed the button on accident. Bucky flushed pink.

“Text me whenever you want a real dinner,” Bucky said, stepping into the elevator, “Or wanna watch more bad 60s sci-fi shows.”

“I’ll be texting you everyday, then,” Steve said and Bucky grinned.

“Not the worse thing that’s happened to me,” He said, and Steve nodded.

“Text me when you get home safe?”

“Yes, mom,” Bucky said, giving Steve a small genuine salute that had Steve’s heart fluttering.

“Goodnight, Bucky.”

“’Night, Steve.” The elevator doors slid soundlessly shut and Steve’s apartment felt grey and silent and neglected once more.

He sighed, running a hand through his hair as he made his way back into the living room. He gathered up the popcorn bowl and take-out boxes, (he had to fight to get Bucky to not clean them up), and put them away. The rain had slowed to a drizzle, and he was just about to start the shower and make himself some tea when the alarm throughout the tower turned the rooms red.

Chapter Text

The alarms were deafening, and the power cut out as soon as the red replaced them.

Steve’s first thought was that he hoped Bucky had gotten out of the elevator. Friday was too advanced to go offline, and it was the first thing Steve was asking over as he grabbed his spare silver shield from his bedroom and was making his way to the stairs.

“Mr. Barnes was let out on the 23rd floor, sir,” Friday reported as Steve took the steps five at a time, denting the wall when his shoulder collided too hard, “Shall I contact him for you?”

“Just make sure he’s someplace safe,” Steve ordered, trying to follow where the alarm seemed the loudest. “Which floor am I going to, Friday?”

“Forty-fifth,” Friday answered swiftly and Steve all but flew down the next flight of stairs, “Mr. Barton has already arrived.”

“Does he have it under control?” Steve asked, jumping down down down.

“It appears that they–”Friday’s voice cut off in an apparent electrical glitch and it was unusual enough that it had Steve slowing his progress, his heart racing, as he counted down the floors in his head. He was on the fiftieth now, and couldn’t hear any sounds of combat or distress from below. The only noise was the blaring of the alarms, louder now that he was closer to the initial source.

Friday had said Bucky was on the 23rd floor. Friday had also cut out.

It was entirely possible that he hadn’t been talking to the AI at all. He shifted his shield and tore through the remaining five flights, breaking into the offices and open- floored conference rooms of the 45th floor. The noise was almost deafening and Steve couldn’t think with the alarm screaming, so he strode over to the nearest conference room and pressed his thumb to the glass panel on the wall.

“Dismantle alarm,” he ordered and the system recognized his thumb and eye and voice and abruptly died down. He stood for a moment in the now quiet room, ears alert to every little sound he heard. There was a clock ticking on the far wall, there were voices and footsteps above and below. He thought of the quiet and he thought of how easily Bucky had taken it away. He rolled his shoulders and moved towards the elevators.

They should be working now. The doors opened and Clint stood from where he’d been sitting in the corner. Steve blinked.

“How long have you been in here?” Steve asked.

“There’s no intruder that we could find on the premises,” Clint said instead of answering and the doors slid closed as Steve stepped fully inside. The button to the 23rd floor had already been pushed. Steve shot Clint a look but the archer didn’t return it.

“What triggered the alarms then?” Steve snapped. Clint raised a brow at his clipped tone.

“That is what we’re working on,” he said, crossing his arms and leaning his weight against the rail as the elevator took them down.

“Nat isn’t here?” Steve asked.

“Not back yet,” Clint answered, picking at his fingernails. “Just you, me, and Wanda for the rest of the week. Oh, and your nurse war veteran.”

“How do you know about him?”

“Tony.”

“Of course,” Steve sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Friday cut off on me.”

Clint looked at him,“She what?”

“Malfunctioned. That hasn’t happened before.”

“You think someone set off the alarms?”

“Yeah. We need to scan the tower. They may be inside.”

“I’ll call Tony. He’s probably been alerted already but, just in case.”

“Let me know what he says.”

“Course, Cap,” Clint hummed as the doors swished open and Steve was stepping outside so quickly he hadn’t realized how concerned he’d actually been. The 23rd floor wasn’t used often–mainly for press conferences and it had a small waiting room with a TV and couches and a kitchen attached–but Bucky was sitting in one of the chairs tapping away on his phone. He looked up when Steve approached him.

“Are you okay?” Steve asked, dropping the shield to the nearest chair with a dull thud. Bucky stood to his feet.

“I’m fine. These guys came and got me out of the elevator as soon as the alarm went haywire,” Bucky said, pointing to the two security guards standing inconspicuously in the back corner of the room. A strange feeling crept up Steve’s neck and he had the strongest urge to place himself between Bucky and everyone else in the room.

“Let me walk you to your train,” Steve said, reaching out and taking Bucky’s elbow in a light grip. He wasn’t sure why he did it. Perhaps he needed an anchor more than he thought.

“Yeah,” Bucky said, nodding, “Yeah, okay.”

//

The night had a cold bite to it, the air smelling like fresh rain and watered down sewage.

Steve hadn’t been down in the subway this late before, at least not in this new century, and he stood beside Bucky on the mildew-smelling platform.

“Why would someone trigger the alarm, ” Bucky began, breaking the long silence that had accumulated between them, “if they weren’t going to take anything?” Steve’s brows furrowed.

“To see if they could?” Steve ventured and Bucky bit his lip in thought.

“Be careful, please,” Bucky said, turning so that he was facing Steve fully. “Someone wanted to test the tower’s security. They got something out of today. It wasn’t a fluke– Stark may be egotistic but he kind of has a reason to be. With everything going on recently….”

“I’ll be careful. I always am,” Steve promised and Bucky wrinkled his nose.

“Bullshit. Remember how we met?” Bucky said and Steve smiled despite the seriousness of the conversation.

“You care,” he said and Bucky blushed.

“Well–Yeah, I ….do,” he affirmed and Steve wasn’t expecting Bucky to be so upfront. “Who else’s nails are my sisters gonna paint?”

“Can I visit you?” Steve blurted and immediately regretted it. Sarah Rogers would be hitting him over the head for inviting himself over to someone’s home. Before Steve could begin to backtrack and apologize Bucky was smiling large and warm and entirely too good for the damp, dark subway tunnel.

“Yeah, Win keeps asking about you. And Sophie does too, in her own aloof way,” Bucky said. “Just give me a call when you wanna come over. I’m not inviting you by running you over again.”

“Eh, it was worth it,” Steve said and Bucky’s expression softened. The train rumbled loud and creaky onto the platform and the cars were surprisingly sparse due to the time. Steve hated the thought of Bucky riding back home alone in the sickly yellow light underground.

“Don’t do anything stupid until I see you again,” Bucky said, stepping back away from Steve as the train’s doors slid opened and the conductor’s voice blitzed in and out over the speakers.

“How can I?” Steve called back as Bucky walked inside. “You’re taking all the stupid with you.” Bucky laughed just as the doors closed and Steve kept the sound tucked away in his pocket all the way home.

//

Tony called Steve at 3:30 the following morning. Fortunately, Steve was already awake, sitting in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows and trying to sketch the lights reflecting off the road.
“There’s a new director,” he said in lieu of greeting and Steve had to think over what his friend had said to try and process his words.

“What?”

“This is a courtesy call. We never talked,” Tony, said before abruptly hanging up and leaving Steve with the white noise static of a dial tone and more questions than answers.

//

Steve never realized how stir crazy he became after spending a few uninterrupted weeks in the tower, but after having dinner at Bucky’s he began to become aware of how loud the city was.

How crowded, and overwhelming it all seemed now. He ran nineteen miles that morning and grew tired far faster than he normally did. His anxiety felt sharp and heavy afterwards. He tried meeting up with Sam but then he remembered he had accompanied Tony and Rhodes to DC.

Natasha hadn’t returned yet. Clint was off gallivanting around somewhere and Steve hadn’t seen or heard from him in two days. The only one he was able to catch sight of was Wanda. It was early morning, and Steve hadn’t gone back up to his floor to shower like he usually did after his runs. Instead he was sitting with a cup of tea two floors down in the common kitchen the team sometimes gathered in.

“Are you all right?” she asked immediately; her accent, Steve had noticed, was stronger in the mornings when she was still tired.

“I’m fine,” he answered on reflex. “How are you?”

“You haven’t been sleeping,” Wanda stated as she tied her hair up into a messy bun atop her head. Steve watched as she padded barefoot into kitchen.

“How can you tell?” Steve asked, glancing at the clock. It was 8:00am. Running had taken him a lot longer today than usual. Wanda was still in her pajamas, an oversized shirt and a pair of Clint’s boxers (he’d never worn them, and had bought them for her because he was convinced they were more comfortable than women’s underwear. Steve never asked for clarification).

“You never sleep well,” Wanda observed. “Not since I’ve known you. Sokovia was hard on everyone. I’m sure if you were sleeping before you’re not now after that.” Steve didn’t want to have this conversation. He hadn’t looked deep at his own emotions since he was found in the ice. Every day felt like he was riding on a wave, and he had to balance atop with no support. Some days it was easy and others he was swept under until he was drowning.

Today he was wobbling.

“Do you sleep?” he asked as Wanda popped two pieces of toast into the toaster.

“Sometimes,” she admitted. “It’s getting easier.” She turned to him, crossing her arms over her chest and leveling him with a look Steve remembered Becca pulling.

“You know what helps?” she prodded, raising a brow, and Steve held back from rolling his eyes.

“What?” He played along.

“Talking to people about my feelings.”

“Nice try,” Steve sighed, pushing away from the counter and up off the stool.

“I’m serious,” she said, clicking her tongue. “Fuckin’ talk to me.”

“You sound like Natasha,” Steve laughed, making his way to the elevator.

“Can you blame me?” she called after him. “You’re the most stubborn person I’ve ever met!”

//

He got a call from an unknown number later that evening.

He answered expecting to hear the voice of a male forty-year old billionaire playboy philanthropist. Instead, he got a seven-year-old girl.

“Are you coming to dinner?” Win asked in that blunt way little children had the brilliance of mastering.

“Is Bucky inviting me?” Steve wondered, a dopey grin spreading across his face. He had been sitting on the sofa flipping through channels on the television, not really listening to anything, just watching the people live out normal but hilariously enhanced lives on screen.

“I am,” Win said, in a surprisingly adult manner. “Bucky’s sad. And I can’t make dinner.” Steve sat up, eyebrows furrowing as his eyes scanned around the room for his shoes.

“Where are your sisters?” he asked.

“Friends. Becca is buying medicine.” Steve nodded. He could take one of Tony’s jets and be there in twenty, maybe thirty minutes.

“All right, Win, I’ll tell you what. I’m on my way over– why don’t you just hang tight and call me if anything happens, sound good?” He could picture her nodding.

“Sounds good,” she repeated before hanging up. It was easy to get in touch with a small single-person jet; there was one in the back garage, and although its wings folded up to store they elongated as Steve took it up out of the roof of the tower.

The clouds were grey and heavy and it made flying a little more difficult to maneuver than it would’ve been any other time, but if he focused and kept the radar on he could manage it. He landed haphazardly in the field behind Bucky’s house, and the noise must’ve alerted the Barnes household because Bucky was outside with a shotgun in less than a minute and Win was holding a small butter knife with her hand clasped in the back of Bucky’s sweats.

Steve opened the side doors and got out, a bit shaky on his feet, and held up his hands sheepishly at Bucky’s surprised expression. He hadn’t even considered the fact that Bucky might not have known he was coming.

“I’m sorry for just dropping by,” Steve began, taking a few tentative steps forward as Bucky lowered the gun, “but Win gave me a call.” The sun was setting but it hadn’t sunk low enough that Steve couldn’t make out the details of Bucky’s face.

He’d been crying, eyes swollen and the surrounding skin pink. The rest of him looked pale, his hand shaking where it held the gun, and he seemed so small and vulnerable standing there that Steve wanted to wrap him up and not let him go.

“I picked up some Chinese,” Steve continued, because Win was beginning to smile and it was making him feel a bit more bold. "And some pizzas. There in the uh…plane?” Win was grinning now, dropping the butter knife to the ground and making her way to stand between Steve and her brother. Bucky was uncharacteristically quiet, and Steve felt guilty for just dropping in like he had.

He met Bucky’s eyes over the distance, taking a deep breath as Bucky’s blank stare met his.

“I can leave,” Steve said, voice quiet. “Win called and told me you were upset. I just…I wanted to make sure you two were okay.” At first Bucky didn’t react. He simply stood there and stared, almost uncomprehending, and for one horrifying moment Steve was concerned that he had dissociated so much he had no idea where he was.

But then Bucky blinked and the tears came easily, without conscious thought, and Steve only had to take three large steps before he had Bucky gathered in his arms. Human contact didn’t seem to trigger any negative reaction, and Steve felt both grateful and also incredibly insensitive that he didn’t think to ask first. Bucky tucked his head under Steve’s chin, hunched in his shoulders, tried to made himself so small that Steve’s heart broke.

He cried like it was hurting him, his sobs shaking his body and making his bones tremble. Steve could feel Win’s eyes on them, big and scared and he held Bucky tighter.

“It’s okay,” he whispered into Bucky’s hair, barely registering that Bucky had dropped the gun and was clutching a fistful of Steve’s shirt in his hand. “It’s okay. You’re safe. You’re in Connecticut. You’re with me and Win. You’re safe. I got you, you’re safe.” He didn’t know how long they stood there with Steve repeating his phrase, over and over, until Bucky’s sobbing subsided and he was sniffling softly against the skin of Steve’s neck. When he finally pulled back Steve was reluctant to let him go. Bucky scrubbed a rough hand down his face; his cheeks wet and nose red.

He looked so disheveled standing in the fading orange light.

Fuck,” was the first word he said, followed by, “I’m so sorry–”

“Are you sad?” Win interrupted and Bucky’s face crumbled.

“I’m sorry, baby, I’ll be okay, I’m sorry–”

“Buck,” Steve whispered, reaching out and placing what he hoped was a reassuring hand on Bucky’s shoulder, “what do you need?” Bucky swallowed, looking entirely overwhelmed.

“I–a shower. I’m going to…I need a shower.” Steve nodded.

“How about I get dinner set up while you do that?” Steve prompted and Bucky nodded wordlessly.

“Are you gonna be okay alone?” Steve asked and Bucky laughed, a dark bitter sound.

“Christ, you sound like Becca,” he said, and Steve wished he could erase the pain that was making the tears come back into Bucky’s eyes. “Yeah, I’ll be fine.”

“Okay, Win, do you wanna help me with the food?” Steve asked and Win looked to Bucky for permission. He nodded and she reached up to take Steve’s hand. Bucky’s eyes followed the motion and he looked like he might start crying again.

He opened his mouth to say something but seemed to decide against it because he was turning around just as fast and making his way inside, posture tense and expression slightly embarrassed. Steve watched him go before shaking himself and turning to Win with a smile he hoped was more convincing.

“Whaddya say? You ready to eat?” he asked, upping his enthusiasm to chase the worry off Win’s face. It worked halfway, but she must have witnessed Bucky in similar states before, because even though she helped with the lighter bags and told Steve how to spread out the food on the small kitchen table, there was a subdued look in her eyes that was much older beyond her years. Steve kept one ear on Win as she talked and one ear on Bucky and the noises of the shower. Together, he and Win began to unpack the containers, grabbing forks and plates and water.

“You can fly,” Win said, and maybe she wanted it to be a question but she didn’t word it like one. Steve shot her a grin.

“I can fly a jet,” he corrected. “Iron Man can actually fly.”

“I like him,” Win said, pulling out her seat and plopping herself down. She didn’t have her booster, and her chin came up to the edge of the table. Really, she was too old for one, but her height limited her. Steve looked around the kitchen but couldn’t spot any pink plastic.

“Where’s your special seat?” he asked as Win reached with reckless fingers towards the noodles.

“Dunno,” she answered and Steve rushed over to help serve her.

“Do you want to try eating like this?” Steve asked as he looked down at where Win was picking apart her food.

“Yes.” She nodded decisively. Steve smiled, and bent down to tuck a thin lock of hair out from her face.

“Okay.” he said softly. He sat next to her, close enough that he could help with cutting chicken or scooping more rice without any spills or too sticky fingers. She was a messy eater regardless, and Steve opted to watch her instead of eat too much himself.

“Does your brother get like this a lot?” Steve asked as he took a big bite of his lo mein. Win watched and then reached over to take some pork off his plate.

“Sometimes. It depends on the day,” Win said casually. “But the TV upset him this time.” Steve stilled, leaning forward so that he could see Win’s face as she ate.

“What’d the TV say?” he asked and Win looked up at him. Her mouth was stuffed with noodles and her hands were covered in oil but somehow she managed to look serious.

“I don’t know….” she admitted and stole the rest of Steve’s eggroll. Steve perked up as he heard the shower turn off, and gathered up a plate for Bucky with a little bit of everything; in small portions, in case he wasn’t hungry or if too much food would be overwhelming if he was still coming back to the present.

But Bucky slunk into the kitchen with a fake smile and false enthusiasm that Steve recognized because he’d mastered this façade as well. It hurt to see that Bucky had too. His hair was wet but pushed away from his face, and the steam from the shower had brought some pink back into his cheeks. He still wore his sweats and large Army-issued tee, but at least he looked a little more awake and had enough energy for the false persona.

He went to Win and picked her up easily, holding her to his hip in a way that was so practiced it seemed effortless.

“Did Steve bring us all this?” he asked, kissing her cheek as she nuzzled into his neck. He shot Steve a soft look that had Steve’s stomach somersaulting. Win nodded and made more grabby hands towards the food. Bucky sat down in the chair across from Steve’s with her in his lap. Steve moved Win’s plate over in front of Bucky, who was taking stock of the filled tabletop.

“Wow. Pizza and Chinese?” He gave a low impressed whistle as he situated Win on his knees.

“Thought I’d go for both,” Steve admitted, suddenly feeling a bit too warm under Bucky’s gaze. “Just in case.”

“Thank you,” Bucky said, sincere in a way Steve wasn’t used to. Steve blushed all the way up to his hair. Bucky bit his lip, stifling his smile and focusing his attention on making sure Win had enough to eat. After thirty minutes she was falling asleep against Bucky’s chest, and he had nibbled kindly on the leftover food on her plate.

They had lulled themselves into a comfortable quiet, with the ticking clock above the stove and the muffled noise of crickets from outside the only sounds. Steve wanted to ask Bucky if he needed anything, because he obviously did, but before he could voice his concerns the front door was bursting open and heavy footsteps were making their fast approach to the kitchen.

Bucky looked up just as Becca stormed into the room, a small white paper bag in her hands. She was clutching it so tight the paper wrinkled, and the glare she was leveling Steve had him rising out of his chair. Bucky seemed to recognize her look because he was going a bit pale and trying to stand without jostling Win.

“Becs–,” he began but she was striding forward before he could finish and punching Steve straight across the jaw. It wasn’t a slap like he had been half prepared for and she had obviously had training in combat because the blow was sharp and precise and she hardly flinched away from it as Steve’s head snapped to the side.

“Becca!” Bucky shouted, rising to his feet and jolting Win awake.

“I told you not to draw any attention to us,” Becca cried, pointing a shaking finger up at Steve. “And now Bucky’s all over the fucking news and we’ve been getting calls nonstop from people who fucking ask about his sexuality and time in the Army and all that bullshit that no one else but family should know about and you brought it all here with no regard for any of us or Bucky’s feelings–!”

“Becca!” Bucky warned, coming around the table to place himself between her and Steve. “That’s enough–”

“Do you know how many people have called today asking him what being tortured feels like?” Becca screeched, face red and eyes teary and the room seemed to echo in stunned silence by the weight of her words. They hurt Steve more than the punch. Win was clutching at Bucky like he was a lifeline.

Steve understood. His wave had knocked him under.

“Do you know how many reporters we’ve had wandering around our front yard? All because people saw you two in New York and had to take a fucking photo at the height of all this homophobic Captain America bullshit!” Becca growled, lowering her hand but still looking like she wanted nothing more than to hit Steve again.

“Becca,” Bucky repeated, his voice low and strained, “please, it’s not his fault–”

“Like hell it isn’t!” she snapped, her voice full of a rage that struck Steve deep because he’d had that same anger in him when he was thin and beaten down. “If you hadn’t hit him this wouldn’t be happening!”

“Becs, you gotta listen to me–” Bucky started.

“I can’t watch you fall apart again!” Becca cried and Steve saw Bucky freeze. He made a choked sound in his throat that had Win shivering in his arm.

“I’m not–”

“You are! Fuck, Bucky, I can’t hold everyone on my back again! Do you know how fucking horrible it was for us? First you and then mom and dad? I can’t keep this up, I can’t watch you go through all that again and I can’t…I can’t–I’m not strong enough this time,” Becca’s voice trailed off into a series of cut-off sobs and she covered her face with her hands, shaking almost uncontrollably.

“I can’t go through all of that again,” she pleaded and Steve felt his heart shatter.

“Becs…” Bucky breathed, stepping close but she stepped back, scrubbing a rough hand over her face and making her skin red.

“I wanna be alone,” she said, but reached out and took Win from Bucky’s grasp. “I don’t wanna talk to him.” She clutched Win protectively to her chest before turning and heading to the stairs and Steve and Bucky stood in a tense silence until the door to the girls’ shared bedroom slammed shut. Bucky crumbled. Steve steadied him before he hit the ground and helped lower him into the nearest kitchen seat, pulling his own chair up to Bucky’s side so he could have his arm around his shoulders to keep him steady. Bucky let out a shaky breath, eyes downcast and tired.

“I’ll have her apologize,” Bucky whispered, voice dull. “She shouldn’t have hit you.”

“She was justified,” Steve, said, rubbing Bucky’s shoulder with his thumb.“I would’ve reacted the same way.” Bucky sighed, sinking down in the chair so that he could rest his head on Steve’s shoulder.

“I’m sorry tonight’s been a reality show,” Bucky mumbled. “I didn’t mean for two breakdowns to happen.”

“Please don’t feel bad about connecting with how you feel, or having a bad day,” Steve pleaded, pulling Bucky closer. “We all have them. And it sounds like you needed this.”

“I hate reporters,” Bucky admitted, shuffling closer. “Fucking vultures.” Steve felt the guilt, sharp and heady in his stomach.

“Becca’s right,” Steve whispered. “I dragged you and your family into this I’m so–”

“Stop,” Bucky said, pulling back so he could look at Steve. “Enough of that. The people to blame are the ones starting this. Not the victims of it.” Bucky’s eyes were swollen but clear and Steve wanted to tuck him into the warmest blankets and hold him close, keep him safe and cut off from the outside world.

“Do you want me to stay?” Steve asked, because if Bucky kept staring at him like that he was going to do something stupid. Like kiss his forehead and tell him how beautiful and strong and kind-hearted he was. Bucky nodded before swallowing and licking his lips.

“Yes, please,” he sighed, shoulders stooping with relief. “I don’t want to have another episode with the girls here alone. I don’t–I wouldn’t forgive myself if anything happened.” Steve felt a cold realization bloom in the pit of his stomach, in the prickling on the back of his neck.

Becca had a gun, could throw a punch. Win came outside armed with a butter knife and eyebrows furrowed. Bucky had his sisters trained. Or, he had trained them. Steve assumed it was paranoia left over from his time spent in the Army, for a precaution in case their house was broken into or if unwanted men approached the girls.

He couldn’t have thought it would be to defend themselves from their own brother.

“Has that happened before?” Steve asked, scared for the answer. Bucky’s eyes flickered with something unreadable.

“Almost.” He whispered it like a confession. “I just need you here.”

“Then I’ll stay,” Steve, said, like it was the easiest thing in the world. In a strange way, it was. “I’ll stay.” Bucky nodded, his eyes tearing up before he looked away, blinking rapidly.

“Good,” he sighed, regarding the leftover Chinese with an exhaustion that was so deep Steve felt it. “I feel sick.” Steve looped an arm around Bucky’s waist and helped him up.

“Lets set up camp near the toilet then,” he decided, and Bucky huffed a laugh as Steve steered them into his bedroom.

“I bet this is the kind of night you were wanting to have, huh? Holding back a disabled war veteran’s hair while he throws up?” Bucky said, eyes drooping and he rested most of his weight on Steve whether or not he was aware of it.

“I’m happy to take care of you, Buck,” Steve said earnestly, grabbing a towel and folding it so Bucky wouldn’t have to kneel on hard tiles. “And I’m happy to take care of the girls. Right now I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.” Bucky stared at him for a long moment before his face paled and he dry-heaved into the toilet bowel. Steve held his hair back from his face, rubbed soothing circles into his shoulder blades as Bucky’s body trembled.

“You’re full of shit,” Bucky panted, eyes watering as he coughed. Steve shook his head.

“Nah,” he said gently, tucking a stray lock of hair behind Bucky’s ear. “Just being honest.” Bucky never threw up, but dry-heaving hurt and took just as much energy. After fifteen minutes Bucky slumped against Steve’s legs like a wilting flower.

“I’m sorry,” he breathed, voice sour, “Fuck, I’m disgusting.”

“No you’re not,” Steve said, brushing his fingers through Bucky’s damp hair, “You’re having a bad night. Doesn’t make you disgusting.”

“I’m never eating Chinese again,” Bucky groaned, wrinkling his nose. “Or like, for five more days.” Steve laughed under his breath and took note of how Bucky’s breathing seemed to have evened out.

“Do you still feel nauseous?” he asked and Bucky shook his head, smashing his cheek into Steve’s knee.

“I’m going to help you into bed, okay?” Steve said and Bucky nodded sluggishly and allowed himself to be picked up and cradled in Steve’s arms. He was lighter than Steve thought he would be.

“I’m too tired to be embarrassed,” Bucky sighed, nuzzling his face into Steve’s shirt. Steve resisted pressing a kiss to Bucky’s forehead.

“Why would you be embarrassed?” Steve asked and Bucky’s answer was so slurred that Steve couldn’t understand it. Instead, he lowered Bucky down onto his bed, maneuvering him so that he lay comfortably on his side, his arm tucked under the pillow.

He pulled the blankets up to Bucky’s chin, hoping they would still the shakes he had developed. Steve got the trashcan from his bathroom and moved it over so that Bucky had easy access. He got him a glass of water from the kitchen cabinets and sat on the edge of the mattress and ran his fingers through Bucky’s hair.

Bucky arched into the touch, seemed to melt under the gentle attention, and his eyes kept fluttering in and out of falling asleep.

“I’ll keep them safe,” Steve whispered and Bucky let out a sigh before he was asleep, curled up around Steve, his knees pressing into the small of Steve’s lower back. Steve didn’t stop petting his hair aside.

“Are you staying?” Becca asked from the top of the steps across the room. Steve turned to look up at her, a bit surprised. He kept forgetting that the girls’ room was above Bucky’s, the only set of stairs in the house were located across from Bucky’s bed.

“Only if that’s okay with you,” Steve said, making to pull his hand away from Bucky.

“You got him into bed?” she asked. Steve nodded.

“I’m sorry I hit you,” she said after a lengthy pause and Steve sent her a soft smile.

“It’s okay,” he said. “I would’ve hit me too.”

“I’d rather hit a reporter,” Becca said, eyeing where Bucky was asleep on the bed.

“Me too,” Steve agreed and they fell into a silence as Bucky shifted slightly on his side.

“Is he okay?” Becca asked, voice quiet and small.

“He will be,” Steve promised, sparing Bucky a glance. “I’m sorry.” Becca nodded, looking like she was torn between going back inside her room or coming down. Steve made to stand so that if she wanted she could be alone with her brother but Bucky was reaching out his hand and grabbing the hem of Steve’s shirt with limp fingers. Steve looked up to see Becca give a quiet snort.

“If he wants you here you can stay,” she said reluctantly. “But you keep him safe. Try anything and I’ll cut your fingers off.” Steve believed her.

“I wouldn’t,” Steve said, aghast, and Becca nodded before turning on her heels and going back inside her room. Steve took Bucky’s hand and gently pried him off, sitting himself back down on the edge of the mattress.

“Becca okay?” Bucky asked, voice muffled into the pillows.

“She’s fine. Just checking on you,” Steve whispered and Bucky grumbled something unintelligible before passing out again. Steve stayed until the sun began to rise.

Bucky didn’t let go of his hand.

Steve didn’t want him to.

Chapter Text

In the morning Sophie knocked on the front door with donuts and a boy.

Steve didn’t know the appropriate response to this. Becca did.

“You got raspberry filled right?” she asked, nudging Steve aside as she reached for the pink box. Sophie gave it up easily, and Steve opened the door wider to give her and her maybe boyfriend some room to get inside. Bucky had slept through most of the night, only waking up twice to dry-heave into the trashcan Steve had placed by his side of the bed.

He was still asleep now, and Steve had half a mind to just leave the girls and boy to their pastries to go sit next to Bucky again. He felt strange not being by his side. Becca led everyone into the kitchen using the promise of fried dough as bait and Win struggled in Steve’s hold to be let down so she could begin to grab as many donuts as her small hands could manage.

Steve felt a bit wary being around Bucky’s sisters without him, and considering only hours ago Becca had punched him across the face, he hung back and let the girls and Sophie’s friend divvy out the donuts. He was a bit surprised when Sophie turned to him, an expectant look on her face.

“What kind do you want?” she asked, and Steve noticed Becca’s jaw tensing but she didn’t say anything so Steve tried not to take the action personally.

“I’m good, thanks though,” he said, trying a smile but it didn’t meet his eyes.

“You sure? We got you one with red, white, and blue sprinkles,” Sophie said, wagging her eyebrows. It forced a real laugh from Steve.

“They’re still making those?” he asked and Sophie grinned.

“You bet,” she said, reaching into the box and nodding to herself. “We’ll save it for you. I got Buck one too.”

“He likes custard,” Becca said around a mouthful of icing. “He’ll be mad if William eats it.” The boy who arrived with Sophie–William–at least had the moral ground for looking a bit sheepish.

“That was one time….” he muttered under his breath, shooting Steve a guilty look.

“And we learned our lesson from it!” Sophie cooed, ruffling his hair and laughing when he blushed harder. Steve was curious what their relationship was. It seemed just friends, now that he was seeing this side. He didn’t want to assume though, so he straightened from where he had been leaning on the doorjamb to make his way back to check on Bucky before Sophie called out to him.

“Steve?” she said and waited until he met her eyes to continue. “How’s he doing?”

“Good, I think. He slept through most of the night,” Steve said. Sophie’s eyebrows rose. She looked incredulous, and Steve didn’t miss the slight darkening of Becca’s eyes.

“Wow. Really? He didn’t sleepwalk or anything?” Sophie prodded and Steve shook his head, slightly alarmed.

“Does he usually?” he asked, but Becca was handing him a chocolate donut with a dollop of custard poking from its side on a paper towel.

“If he’s up he needs to eat,” she said. “Give that to him.” Steve took it, and cast one last glance to make sure that Win was comfortably situated with her many donuts at the table before shooting the girls a timid smile and heading back into Bucky’s room.

He wasn’t in his bed, the covers pushed aside, and for one second Steve felt himself begin to panic but then he registered the sounds coming from the bathroom and relaxed. He made his way over and placed the donut on Bucky’s side table.

He felt awkward now that his general task was completed, and since Bucky was in the bathroom he didn’t know whether he should sit on the bed and wait for him or head back into the kitchen. Bucky made the decision for him when he came out from the bathroom not two minutes later, his face washed and hair tied back.

He had changed his shirt too, but his sweats stayed the same, and now that Steve could take the time to notice he realized the ends were frayed. Bucky favored these pants. Steve didn’t know what he was going to do with this information, but for some reason he felt like it was an important detail to remember.

It struck him more, in some moments, that Bucky was missing an arm. Now especially, because Bucky looked so casual and comfortable and not at all like he was missing anything. But the left sleeve of his t-shirt was hanging limp and Steve didn’t know why his gaze was drawn to it so strongly today opposed to yesterday.

Maybe it was because he’d seen Bucky weaker the night before, and he was coming out of it the same but not physically whole, and it made something deep within Steve ache.

“Hey,” Bucky greeted, smiling softly and shuffling his feet on the hardwood floor of his room. “You stayed.”

“I told you I would,” Steve reminded him, moving aside in case Bucky wanted to get back into bed. The movement drew Bucky’s eyes to the bedside table, where he spotted the donut. His face lit up.

“Soph bring these?” he asked, walking forward and picking up the donut. Steve was expecting him to get back into bed but when he didn’t Steve felt a bit awkward being in his room, now that the episode of last night was over. He wasn’t sure if he was still welcome. Becca seemed to still be angry with him, and he couldn’t blame her, but he didn’t want to be in her home when she wasn’t comfortable with it. He had to respect that.

“Did you get one?” he asked, bringing Steve out from his thoughts.

“What?” Bucky gave him a look as he bit into the donut.

“A donut. Did you get one?” he repeated and Steve shook his head.

“I’m alright for now,” he said. Bucky didn’t look convinced but thankfully didn’t push the subject. Instead he yawned, licked a swipe of custard from his fingers–Steve wasn’t staring, he wasn’t he wasn’t he wasn’t–before turning his focus on Steve again.

“Thank you for putting up with me,” Bucky whispered, staring intently at the pastry in his hand. “You didn’t have to stay but you did. I really appreciate it.” Steve wanted to say, “of course I stayed.” He wanted to say, “Nothing would make me want to leave.” He wanted to say, “I’m going to protect you from everything, even yourself.”

The thoughts and the intensity of them scared him. He wasn’t used to their ferocity, but somehow over the night his protective nature over Bucky had doubled. It almost blindsided him , the sudden devotion he had to this man whom he had met only a month before. Steve didn’t get to voice any of these feelings.

The sound of a knock from the front door caught everyone’s attention. Bucky’s eyes widened and he lowered the donut from his mouth. There was chocolate icing on his chin.

“Do you want me to get it?” Steve asked carefully, not wanting to overshadow Bucky in his own home. Bucky shook his head.

“I will,” he said, stepping forward. “But…. can you come with me?”

“Of course.”

It was the second time that morning that there was a strange man on Bucky’s porch. This one, unfortunately, was a reporter. He at least didn’t have a camera man with him, but he did have a Canon on a red strap around his neck and a briefcase in one hand. Steve hadn’t seen anyone in the 21st century with a briefcase before.

It was strange. The man was short, balding, didn’t at all look like a threat but those were the most dangerous. Steve didn’t think before he planted himself between the man and Bucky in the doorway.

The girls and William watched from the kitchen. The man hadn’t been expecting this much out of the morning, it seemed. He looked positively thrilled as he looked between Bucky’s tussled hair and Steve’s day-old wrinkled clothes.

“It’s true then?” he asked, almost breathless in his excitement. “Captain America is dating ex-assassin Bucky Barnes?” Steve didn’t have to see Bucky to know that he had stiffened. He also didn’t let the surprise show on his face. Sergeant. Bucky was a Sergeant in the Army. That's what Win had said. Steve hadn't heard anything about Bucky being an ex-assassin. But, perhaps, from the tension palpable behind him, Bucky’s sisters weren’t aware either. Now wasn’t the time for that though.

Steve squared his shoulders, drew himself to his full height. He took a sick kind of satisfaction in the man’s now slightly nervous disposition.

“You’re trespassing on private property,” Steve began, “and you’ve hacked into confidential records, it seems, to have gotten your information on James Barnes. I could have you arrested just for that.”

The man stuttered. “I–You–”

“I’ll only ask once,” Steve, said. “What do you want?”

“An interview,” the man blurted. “Just for you or Barnes to confirm or deny the allegations between you two.”

“Allegations?” The reporter’s smile was like a snake, slimy and slithering across his pale features. Steve didn’t like him.

“Are you and James Barnes romantically involved?” Bucky slammed the door in his face. Steve turned wide eyes to him.

“I want him off my porch,” Bucky hissed, squaring his shoulders and leveling Steve with a look that brooked no room for negotiations. “I want him off my porch right fucking now. Either you do it or I’ll shoot him.”

Dumbly, Steve nodded.

“Okay,” he said.

Bucky was sitting on the couch when Steve returned.

“Did you finish your donut?” Steve asked.

“I need to tell you something,” Bucky said, eyes downcast and fingers massaging absentmindedly at his shoulder. Steve nodded but realized that Bucky wasn’t looking.

“Okay,” he said carefully, sitting himself down on the other end of the couch. Bucky looked visibly upset, his eyebrows furrowed he wasn’t able to make eye contact.

“Buck, are you okay?” Steve asked. Bucky bit his lip.

“How much do you know about me?” Bucky asked and Steve swallowed the nerves building like a wall in his throat.

“Only what you’ve told me,” Steve admitted. He didn’t mention how easy it would’ve been for him to know more. He had access to every file available on James Buchannan Barnes. He knew people who could scourge up every hidden thing about the man sitting next to him. Maybe Bucky was already aware of that, though. Maybe that’s why he was asking.

“I was a prisoner of war three years ago,” he said, voice breaking, face pale. Steve didn’t know what to say. It was obvious it was taking a lot for Bucky to tell him this. He wanted to tell Bucky that he didn’t have to. That Steve didn’t need to know. But it was also apparent that Bucky wanted to share this with someone. Steve was honored enough to be the one to hear it.

“They had me for fourteen months. I was in witness protection for two years after. When I met you, it had been only five months without an agent breathing down my neck.” Bucky took a deep shuddering breath, tears making his eyes glassy. “I know a lot of things I shouldn’t. I know a lot of things about a lot of dangerous people. I’ve been told I’m safe, but I don’t believe it. That’s why Becca hit you. She doesn’t want attention on me but I–” Bucky breathed deep, “I want to be able to live without the fear that any minute someone could break in and take my will from me again. I want to make choices for myself for the first time in three years. I…. you’re–I want to make the right choice in letting you into my life.”

He turned and looked at Steve with so much emotion that Steve was rendered speechless. There was too much to read in Bucky’s eyes.

“Am I making the right choice, here?” Bucky asked, voice barely above a whisper. Steve felt choked, he felt like he couldn’t breathe. Numbly, he nodded.

“Yes,” he said, “Yes. Bucky, I swear I’ll keep you safe.” But Bucky shook his head and reached out, fingers grabbing the hem of Steve’s wrinkled shirt.

“Promise me that you’ll take care of them,” Bucky said, “Take care of them when I can’t and you can stay.” Steve was overwhelmed. Blindly, he reached for Bucky’s hand, held it between both of his.

Bucky was trembling.

“I promise,” Steve, swore, “I’ll take care of all of you.” Bucky bit his lip to try and stop the tears but they fell anyway and Steve didn’t know what their relationship was, or how it had gotten so deep and intertwined so fast, but he was pulling Bucky to him like they had been practicing it for years.

“I have more I should tell you,” Bucky said, his words muffled against Steve’s chest. Steve brushed his hair from his face, pressed his cheek to Bucky’s head and breathed him in.

“We have time,” Steve, promised. “We have time.” Bucky stayed in his arms for an indefinite amount of time, but eventually they separated and even though Bucky was still shaky he looked a lot more confident in himself.

A movement drew Steve’s attention to the kitchen, and Becca slipped soundlessly back behind the wall. It was a bit strange, to know that Becca had seen. But, maybe, it was for the best. Maybe it would help. Bucky sighed, running a tired hand through his hair, getting his fingers tangled in the knots. Steve remembered the last time he had been low, and Bucky had been there for him.

It was time to return the favor.

“You know,” Steve, said, catching Bucky’s attention, “I still haven’t seen Star Wars.”

And that’s how Steve ended up sandwiched between Bucky and Sophie, Win on Bucky’s lap, Sophie’s feet on his, William on the end and Becca sprawled out with two bowls of popcorn in front of the TV watching the second installment of Star Wars and wondering how long it would take for his nails to dry.

//

“I like you with red.” Bucky’s voice snapped Steve’s attention from the TV show that he and Sophie had been watching, snuggled side by side on the couch.

The rain beat a steady drum against the windows, the wind whistled through the chimney, and even though it was early August Sophie had gathered a light knitted blanket over the two of them. Steve looked to his nails, which had finally dried, and stretched his fingers to observe Win’s messy paint job. He shot Bucky a lopsided grin.

“Next time I’ll do white,” Steve said, reveling in the bubbling warmth of contentment growing just beneath his ribs, “Then I’d have done all my colors.” Bucky smiled, the most relaxed that Steve had seen him since the reporter came knocking the day before. Bucky nodded to where he and his sister were taking up the entirety of the couch.

“All right, one of you has to move,” he said, and Sophie scooted down obediently for Bucky to take a spot next to Steve. The warmth of him had Steve’s skin prickling. He was hyper aware of how close Bucky was, of how his thigh felt pressed up tight against his own. He leaned into him, just a little. Just enough to not draw too much attention. Regardless, Bucky’s ears were pink.

“You know we start school this week?” Sophie spoke up and Bucky leaned over his knees to cock his head at her.

“I didn’t forget,” he chided and Sophie shot him an unimpressed look.

“Buck. You’ve forgotten three years in a row; don’t blame me for asking,” she said.

“I’ve written it on my calendar,” Bucky said, proud of himself. “Watch. I won’t forget this year.”

“Yeah? Wanna bet?” Sophie asked and Steve bit his lip to stop himself from laughing. Bucky and Sophie looked the same when they were challenging one another.

“If I win you do the dishes for a month,” Bucky said and it was the most sibling thing Steve had ever heard.

“If I win you have to take me shopping,” Sophie countered and Bucky held out his hand for his sister to shake.

“Stevie,” Bucky said, a smile in his voice and Steve felt warm with the new nickname Bucky was awarding him. “You’re our witness here. She can’t be cheatin’ or nothin’.”

“Hah! Like I’ll cheat,” she crowed. Bucky pouted.

“You and Becs, I swear–”

“Becca’s the one who cheats! I never cheat!”

“Wow. I’m so sorry, I’m allergic to bullshit?”

“You suck, you know that? You’re gonna lose this.”

“Yeah, if you cheat!”

“I’m not gonna cheat!”

“I don’t mean to interrupt,” Steve began, pointing to the TV, “But did the angel guy just blow up?” Sophie’s attention was immediately recaptured.

“What?” she screeched, scrabbling for the remote.

“God, I hope not,” Bucky muttered, leaning back against the couch once more, “He’s the second hottest one.”

“You obviously haven’t been watching the show,” Steve replied, “The angel’s the hottest.” Bucky shot him a positively delighted look.

“Oh yeah? What makes him hotter than Dean? I mean, you’ve seen him, right? I know you’re new to this show and everything….”

“C’mon,” Steve scoffed, shooting Bucky a look, “Dark hair and blue eyes? You can’t get better than that.” Bucky’s look turned into something that Steve couldn’t read.

“You like the scruffy homeless type then? Guy doesn’t shave throughout the entire show,” Bucky said, but his voice sounded tight, like he was holding his breath for Steve’s answer.

“I like it,” Steve breathed, the smile slowly fading from his face as he tried to read the look in Bucky’s eyes. Sophie groaned from the other end of the couch.

“Please stop flirting in front of me,” she pleaded, holding the remote out, “I need to re-watch this.” Bucky blushed all the way to his hair. But Steve was still staring. He couldn’t help it. His heart was beating so hard he thought it would burst.

He’d never talked so openly of his sexual preferences towards men before. He also didn’t realize he’d been describing Bucky. Blue eyes, dark hair, and a seemingly permanent 5 o’clock shadow…

 

Steve knew he was fucked.

Chapter Text

Steve was sitting on Bucky’s front porch when he got a call from Natasha.

He answered so fast it had Bucky jumping next to him.

“Nat!” he exclaimed, mouth breaking out into a relieved grin. “You’re alright?”

“I am,” she returned, and Steve could just picture the look on her face. “In other news, I’ve heard you’ve eloped.” Steve sputtered, heart skipping.

“What?”

“Well, according to the news you’re dating a man who was taken prisoner, tortured, did not great things under his captors’ control, was on witness protection, and has a medical record for severe disassociations and psychotic breakdowns.” Steve took a sharp breath.

“Nat–” he warned but she continued.

“Do you know what the fuck you’re doing?” she snapped, and when she was angry a bit of Russian seeped into her voice. “You’re putting him in more danger, you’re calling danger to yourself, the new director is fucking furious because you were supposed to meet with him two days ago but went gallivanting off into the countryside–”

“That’s enough,” Steve snapped, not bothering to hide his frustration. “You don’t–”

“Know the situation? You’re right, I have a completely unbiased stance in this situation.”

“Is this really why you called? To tell me things I already know?” Steve barked and the line went quiet. For a moment, Steve thought she had hung up.

“We have a new mission,” she said at length. “We ship out tomorrow night.” Steve sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. The fight left him slowly; he could feel Bucky’s gaze on him.

“Okay,” he breathed, defeated.

“Nine pm tomorrow. Don’t be late.” She hung up. The anger was still boiling like hot wax under his skin, but he could tell that Bucky was watching him and he took deep breaths to rein it in. He hadn’t realized he’d crushed the phone in his hand. He also wasn’t certain why he was so furious.

But then all he had to do was look at Bucky, at where his left arm should be, and put the pieces together. He hadn’t had a moment of peace since his capture. He hadn’t had a moment solely to himself, with no one dredging up his past, with no one trying to interview him, with no one invading his privacy.

Steve, of all people, should understand. He did. And he was angry at the circumstances for the both of them.

“Are you okay?” Bucky asked, eyes flicking to where Steve’s broken phone screen had cut small scratches into his palm. “Let me get you some Band-Aids–”

“It’s fine,” Steve assured, forcing a weak smile. “I’m sorry.” Bucky shook his head.

“What’s going on? Who did you talk to?”

“A friend,” Steve sighed, letting his mangled phone balance delicately on his knee. “I have a mission tomorrow night.”

“Oh,” Bucky said, still looking lost but obviously trying to understand where Steve’s anger had come from. “And that’s what made you upset?”

“No,” Steve admitted. “She told me what I already know.”

“Which is…?”

“That I’m putting you and myself in danger by being here,” Steve sighed, rubbing a rough hand over his eyes and seeing Peggy, seeing ice, seeing the disasters of ruined cities he had tried to save. “How I don’t know you, not really, and how I’m making things harder for everyone.” Bucky opened his mouth, to protest Steve’s claim no doubt, but Steve wouldn’t hear it.

“Becca was right to hit me. And Natasha was right to reprimand me,” Steve spoke slowly, the realization creeping in like the last dying embers of a late night fire. “I’m so sorry.”

“Please stop,” Bucky pleaded, and it was the desperation in his tone that had Steve’s head snapping up. “I want you here. I’ve made that choice. You can stay if you want. But if this is too
hard for you then–”

“I’ve lost a lot of people, Bucky,” Steve said, voice tired and shoulders slumping. “And now I care. I care about you and your sisters and I…. I don’t think I could make it through again, losing more.” He felt the tears; he felt their insistence, their desire to be shed.

He hadn’t cried since Peggy’s death last year. He had tried to not feel her loss, and the pain that had caused him. But Bucky was opening him up like a raw wound and Steve was weak under his hands.

“It’s okay to cry, Steve,” Bucky whispered, leaning forward and taking Steve’s hands in his (he should have two hands, he shouldn’t just have one–). “You’ve seen me do it enough for the both of us.” Steve wanted to laugh at Bucky’s attempt at humor but it just made him cry, and even though it was only a few tears it was enough to startle him.

“Are you sure?” Steve asked, desperate to know. “Are you sure you want to risk the life you’ve built, just for me?”

Bucky smiled a soft, broken smile. “I’m not risking anything. For the first time in my life I feel safe. And that’s because Steve Rogers is selfless and self-sacrificing and a complete idiot but…but he lets Win paint his nails and he watches Sophie’s favorite shit TV shows and he listens to Becca talk about the injustice of society and I…I don’t think that’s me losing anything, or risking anything. That sounds like my sisters and I are gaining something that’s good for us. So, yeah, if it comes to it, I’ll fight to keep that. I’ve gone to war for less.”

Steve was struck.

He didn’t know a person could be this overwhelming. He wanted to pull Bucky close again. He wanted to feel his skin, to feel that he was real. Solid.

What he had done to find him was baffling. He knew then, and it rushed over him like waves and broken shells: he would die for him.

He would protect this man until he could no longer move, until he was nothing but the particles that made him breathe. He’d never let Bucky be hurt. He’d never let the waves of society and the press takes him under. He’d never let that happen. Because in just under two months Bucky had given him a life he’d been searching ninety-seven years for.

“Thank you,” Steve whispered, at a loss for how he was supposed to vocalize everything he felt. “Do you want to come to the city tonight?” He didn’t know why he’d said that. The words just raced out of his mouth, tumbling over each other in their haste before he had a moment to think them through. Bucky blinked and shifted.

“I don’t know. You mean to visit or…? Cause I have the girls; I don’t want to leave them alone after everything that happened this weekend.”

“They can come too,” Steve said. “I want them to come.” Bucky still seemed hesitant. Steve was about to retract the offer before Sophie and Becca’s heads appeared in the doorway.

“Can we stay in the Avengers Tower?” Sophie asked, not at all sheepish that she had obviously been eavesdropping. Bucky twisted in his seat to shoot them a withering glare.

“How long have you two been there?” he asked.

“Doesn’t matter,” Becca dismissed and even though Steve couldn’t see Bucky’s face he knew his eyes were narrowing.

“It so does,” he said. “You two are the nosiest–”

“Can we go?” Sophie interrupted. “I haven’t been in the city in forever. And if it’s a free trip then that saves me money.”

“Saves you money? Were you gonna go?” Bucky asked.

“Yeah, with Will.”

“How come I didn’t know about this?” Bucky questioned.

“Well I hadn’t told you yet,” Sophie said. Bucky rubbed his temples.

“So are we going?” Becca pushed, and even though she was still a bit wary around Steve, still a little tense and rough around the edges, she was shooting him a hopeful look.

“It’s fine with me,” Steve said. “I have two spare rooms on my floor alone. You all can stay the night if you want.”

Bucky turned to him. “Are you sure? We’re messy and loud and really nosy.”

“Don’t be so hard on yourself, Buck.” Becca grinned.

“I was describing you,” Bucky shot back.

“I wouldn’t have offered if it wasn’t okay,” Steve interrupted and now all eyes were on Bucky and he knew it.

He sighed. “If you don’t mind playing host with all of us then we’d love to come.” Steve didn’t realize he’d been tense, waiting with bated breath for Bucky to turn him politely down.

He was flooded with warmth when he didn’t. “I don’t mind,” he said.

//

After realizing his feelings for Bucky (crush, it was a small crush and it didn’t have to be a big deal or mean anything except it was a big deal and it did mean something because this was the first time in his life that he was acknowledging the fact that he found men–found Bucky–very attractive and how was he supposed to deal with that) he felt like there was a live wire underneath his skin, buzzing imperceptibly and growing in its intensity whenever Bucky was near.

He noticed how he bit his lip when he was nervous or nipped at his cuticles when he was deep in thought. He saw the way Bucky would roll his shoulder, the one without an arm, whenever a heavy roll of thunder clapped overhead. He noticed that there was grey in Bucky’s eyes too and he noticed that he favored a purple hair elastic to tie up his locks.

He began to take in the way Bucky’s breaths fell, the way his eyes closed when he laughed, true and pure and genuine. Genuine. Bucky Barnes was honest in a way that Steve found he was not. He was captivating to watch.

He couldn’t take his eyes off him. Steve didn’t know what to do with it all. He felt like he was tripping over his own heart, cutting it open and watching it pour and thinking: what now?

What now?

//

The rain kept pelting down as he flew them back to New York, the girls and Bucky all pressed up to the glass, huge dorky grins on all their faces.

It was one of the sweetest things Steve had seen, and it was nice to see that Bucky’s enthusiasm for engineering (he spent an hour explaining to Steve the layout of the Enterprise from Star Trek) had passed in some way to his sisters.

“Holy shit,” Becca breathed, matching Bucky and pressing her face right up against the glass. “Holy shit.”

“Language,” Bucky chided absentmindedly.

“Shit,” Win repeated, a goofy grin on her face as she looked to Bucky to see his reaction. It showed how awed he was at the jet that he simply kissed her head and continued poking around the plane’s cabin.

“I’m gonna land, seatbelts on,” Steve said as he pulled them up above the Avenger’s Tower, its roof parting as he signaled their descent with the press of a button. Bucky kept Win in his lap as Steve lowered them inside, the garage lights buzzing on as soon as the jet’s wheels folded and set them gently on the cement floor.

Steve was surprised to see Natasha waiting for them, her sharp smile sharper under the shitty lighting of the garage. Seeing her filled Steve with a nameless dread. Had something happened? Was he not supposed to bring Bucky here?

“Nice to see you’re still alive,” she said in lieu of greeting and Steve was still wary after their last talk, but he was happy to see her unharmed from her recent mission. He disembarked from the aircraft first, holding out his hand to steady Bucky by his shoulder as he hopped down after.

Bucky held Win tight to his hip, eyes clear with recognition as he placed Natasha’s face. Becca and Sophie got down last, and Steve ushered them forward as the jet’s doors folded closed, the turning of the gears loud in the quiet.

“I could say the same to you,” Steve said, walking around Becca to stand before Natasha. She eyed him up and down, assessing every little detail no doubt, before turning her attention to Bucky. Her face betrayed nothing of what she and Steve had discussed.

She had worn the mask of polite host too many times for it to look fake. But Steve was interested to see what Bucky would think of her after tonight. There was a pride he felt towards the other man; he wanted to see if Bucky could see through her. For some reason, Steve thought he could.

“We didn’t meet properly last time,” Natasha said, addressing the Barnes family but letting her eyes linger on Bucky. “I’m–”

“You’re the Black Widow,” Becca blurted, cheeks flushing red when Natasha turned to look at her. A slow, cat smile curled Natasha’s lips.

“I am. And you?” she asked gently, in a voice Steve hadn’t heard her use before.

“Becca Barnes. I–uh, I wrote a paper on you,” Becca said. Steve had never seen Becca fumble so much with words. She was usually very poised, seeming older than she actually was, and she spoke in a way that portrayed her place–above you. Bucky was looking at her in bemusement, his eyes delighted, and Steve realized that he would no doubt tease her for this later.

“Did you now? What about, exactly?” Natasha asked.

“Sexism among superheroes and how you paved the way for more females to be treated equally in a male super-dominated world,” Becca said in a rush but she had grown but she grew a bit more confident when Natasha raised an impressed brow and she lifted her chin slightly when she was finished.

“I’d love to read it,” Natasha said, her words sincere. “Can I?” Becca lost her bravado in a rush.

“Of course! Yes! That would be great, I’d really love your feedback, if you’re willing to give it. I could email it to you? Oh! But, that’s stupid, you can’t give out your email, I’m sorry–oh God–I can print it out and have Steve give it to you? If that’s easiest? Honestly, whatever is easier for you, I can–”

“Becs,” Sophie whispered, gripping her sister’s shoulder. “Please shut up. You’re rambling.” Becca’s face flamed red.

“Have Steve give it to me,” Natasha said. “I’ll read it.” Becca looked close to tears. Bucky shifted, the strap of his overnight bag jostling Win a little and Steve reached out a hand, an offering without drawing attention to Bucky’s restrictions with one arm. Sheepishly, Bucky let Steve take the duffel from him.

“Thanks,” he whispered under his breath, self-conscious in the face of Natasha. Steve curled his hand around the canvas strap and tried to work through the fierce wave of emotion that swam through him. He couldn’t find the words to speak.

He nodded instead.

“Oh, a sleepover?” Natasha piped, eyes watching Bucky and Steve’s quiet exchange with interest. Steve bristled.

“First one,” Sophie said. “This place is huge.”

“And you’ve only seen the garage,” Steve said, shooting her a smile.

“I’ll let you settle in,” Natasha said, turning her gaze to Steve, “The Director wants to speak with you. Want to follow me?” She phrased it as a question but Steve knew an order when he heard one.

“Let me get them settled,” he said. His tone brooked no room for negotiations. Natasha must have sensed this because she went along easily.

“Eighty-third floor,” she said before sending a kind smile to Bucky’s sisters. “I can’t wait to read your paper.” Becca grinned, wide and happy and huge. Natasha tossed a wave over her shoulder before turning on her heels and clicking away. Bucky was staring at Steve, his eyes imploring but Steve gave him a reassuring nod and gestured ahead.

“Shall we?” he asked.

“Yeah!” Sophie exclaimed, excitement lighting up her eyes as they made their way to the elevator. The walls were glass, and as soon as they began to descend the cement walls of the garage opened up to the view of the looming skyscrapers of New York, looking small and growing larger as they went down. Bucky still held Win and she leveraged herself to see the city over his shoulder.

“Is this whole building glass?” Becca asked, angling her phone to take a picture.

“A lot of it is,” Steve said. Sophie raised her eyebrow.

“That doesn’t seem smart,” Sophie said. Steve couldn’t argue with that.

“Tony designed it,” was all he thought to say. It was the truth.

“Hm, so style before function,” Becca said. “I’m surprised no one’s tried to break in by now. Must be pretty tough glass.” It was unexpected, the feeling of unease that crowded the back of Steve’s neck like cold fog. He gave her a look, remembering all too well the alarms that screamed the rooms red last week.

Bucky shifted Win in his grip and Steve caught his eye, the knowing look in them. The unspoken question of, “Are my sisters going to be safe here?” Before Steve could answer, Friday was blitzing on overhead.

“Captain Rogers, we have arrived on your floor,” she said just as the doors swished open to reveal the open living room, floor to ceiling windows casting the couches and chairs in a cool grey glow. Steve found himself a bit embarrassed yet again by the size of it, still not quite used to it himself. Those feelings of self-consciousness were only amplified when Win turned to him with wide eyes.

“This is bigger than Hogwarts,” she told him seriously. Steve blinked.

“Next on the to-do list,” Bucky said, stepping out of the elevator behind his sisters, “Harry Potter. But that’s for Halloween; we gotta watch it with the right weather.”

“We need to have a movie night here,” Sophie said, hands on her hips as she spotted the flat screen mantled on the wall in front of her. “This thing is bigger than I am.”

“Where should I put all of our stuff?” Bucky asked, snapping Steve’s full attention to him and his and Sophie’s duffels.

“I’ll show you. It’s just down the hall,” Steve said, gesturing Bucky past the kitchen into the first bedroom off the hallway.

“The girls can have this one if they want,” Steve said, opening the door and showing Bucky the spare room. He’d never used it, hadn’t had any reason to, and the king-sized bed sat crisp and clean by the windows.

Like a lot of Steve’s apartment this room didn’t hold much character. it looked like a spread in a home magazine: professional and cold. But having Bucky and his sisters seemed to bring more life than Steve’s apartment had ever had. Bucky hummed low under his breath, a buzzing excitement in his eyes. Steve caught himself staring and looked away, thankfully before Bucky could notice.

“This is perfect, Steve, thank you,” Bucky said, placing their duffel on the floor. Win squealed in delight, going straight to jump onto the silk comforter, a playful smile huge and gap-toothed on her face.

“Win, no, take your shoes off first!” Bucky chided but Win shook her head and laughed, jumping all the higher. Bucky sighed, tossing his head back before he was untying his boots and placing them down beside the bags he’d just sat down.

“If I break your bed I’ll pay for it,” Bucky promised before he was beside Win instantly, tackling her onto the sheets and tickling under her arms. She laughed, loud and joyful, cheeks flushed and hair wild and Steve watched with a warmth and love he hadn’t ever felt. Bucky had flipped Win up, and she landed a light punch to his jaw, nose scrunched up but relaxing as she smiled when Bucky did an overdramatic fall back onto the mattress.

“Uh…no more,” Bucky groaned as Win jumped up and down by his hip.

“Where are the jewels?” she demanded, and it was the most adorable thing Steve had ever seen. Bucky lolled his head to the side in a parody of pain.

“They don’t tell me anything, man, I promise,” Bucky said but had wrapped his hand around Win’s ankle and tugged her down to tickle her until she was crying, cheeks red and smile so wide and happy Steve felt a similar one spreading across his face.

He took Bucky’s duffel into his room, setting it down on his bed (after he made sure that the sheets were clean and folded down just right). He spent longer than he intended, making sure the room was welcoming for Bucky before he wandered into the living room about twenty minutes later to see Becca and Sophie lounging on the couch under the large windows, the television playing one of Sophie’s TV shows as background noise.

Win was seated on the floor with some coloring books and crayons and Bucky looked up from his laptop as Steve entered. It was such a domestic scene that had become so familiar to Steve, and it filled him with contentment so strong it made him sway on his feet.

“I need to go,” Steve said lamely, nodding to the doors of the elevator. Bucky’s eyes widened some in understanding.

“You’re meeting the new director?” Bucky asked.

“Yeah. Wish me luck?” Steve prompted, trying to keep his tone light and nonchalant but Bucky’s eyes narrowed and he set his computer down to come stand in front of him. He looked Steve up and down, assessing before reaching forward and wrapping his arm around Steve’s neck, pulling him into a close, tight hug.

“It’ll be okay,” he whispered, low enough so only Steve could hear. “If he gives you any shit just call Becca. She’ll kick his ass for you.” Steve laughed, unexpected and surprised, wrapping his arms around Bucky and squeezing just for a second before they both pulled away. Steve hoped he wasn’t blushing. He didn’t want to meet the new director flustered.

“I’ll be back soon,” Steve promised. “Then maybe we could go into the city?” Bucky grinned just as Sophie shouted her assent from the chair.

“We’d like that, yeah,” Bucky said, straightening the wrinkles out of Steve’s shirt. “Take your time. Do your thing. And then we’ll go out.” Steve wished Bucky hadn’t worded it like that. All he could picture now was taking Bucky out on the town…on a date. Maybe…maybe that wouldn’t be so bad.

Maybe Bucky wouldn’t mind. Maybe Steve wouldn’t ruin this nice camaraderie that they had now. Maybe it would work out wonderfully with no stress and no confusion and no threat from outside worldly sources. Maybe it’d be fairy-tale happy and perfect. Maybe, for once in his life, Steve could have something easy. He would never know until he asked. For the first time since thawing into the twenty-first century Steve felt ready for a relationship.

The idea of having one with Bucky had enough of an effect that he was tripping over the words of his response.

“I’ll be back,” he finally managed to get out. Bucky nodded.

“See you soon.”

Steve stepped into the elevator with a fluttering heart and nerves that had nothing to do with meeting the new head of SHIELD and everything to do with James Buchannan Barnes.

//

Steve felt like he hadn’t seen Sam in months, so stepping into the conference room on the 45th floor and seeing his friend seated at the far end of the table had a huge smile blossoming on his face.

“Well well well, look who’s shit at answering his phone,” Sam chided, but he was smiling too, teeth white and flashing so Steve didn’t take it too seriously. “How’ve you been, man?”

“Good,” Steve said automatically, but for the first time he realized he was telling the truth. Sam pulled him into a hug, a tight squeeze before pulling back to regard him. Steve felt like Sam was trying to turn him inside out and that he’d find out everything that was going on inside of him. It was a little unnerving, especially since Steve had the sinking feeling that Sam really could read him inside and out.

“Nat says you brought your nurse friend,” Sam said, cocking his eyebrow. “Can I meet him?” For some reason that had Steve panicking and he wasn’t sure why. Sam seemed to pick up on it.

“Just to introduce myself,” Sam said gently. “I’m not going to psychoanalyze or interrogate him. But he’s important to you, right?” Steve’s throat felt tight; Sam’s understanding and generosity always brought Steve up short. He swallowed.

“Yeah,” he said softly, and Sam’s smile softened even more.

“That’s why I wanna meet him, man. Not because of how big his military file is. But because he’s your friend, and I’m your friend, and I wanna know your other friends ‘cause then when we all go out for beers sometime it won’t be awkward.” Sam shrugged and Steve could have hugged him again.

“I want you guys to meet,” Steve said honestly. “I think you’d really get along.”

“Great. So after this or should I come by tomorrow?”

“Okay,” Tony said, voice loud from where he’d just entered, “Birdman 2.0 is invited to the slumber party but I’m not?”

“There’s no slumber party,” Steve tried but Tony had already opened his mouth and he never let it shut for long after that.

“Is this nurse the same one you tried to put the moves on? And who ran you over?” Tony continued and Steve could feel his cheeks growing warm.

“I didn’t know he ran you over,” Wanda said and Steve nearly jumped out of his skin as she peeked out from over Tony’s shoulder.

“I did not know humans used cars as mating rituals,” Vision’s calm voice whispered from through the wall and not a minute later his body followed. Steve still wasn’t used to Vision’s abilities quite yet.

“Nope! No, just me tonight,” Sam said, holding out his arms. “You guys will all have your turns in the future.”

“Fuck that, it’s my tower,” Tony said. “If Capsicle gets to have sleepovers he can at least extend the invitation.”

“Ya know, I kind of like the guy, I don’t want him scared off the first time he brings his sisters over,” Steve interjected and immediately froze when everyone turned to look at him.

“You like him?” Natasha’s voice cut through him like a whip and he tensed further, cocking his head up as Natasha and Clint made their way inside the room.

“Like…like him?” Wanda tried, picking at her nails. Even Vision seemed curious in Steve’s answer.

“I–no–I meant, the guy I–um, he’s a friend, I didn’t mean it like–” Steve spluttered incoherently.

“He’s really red,” Clint whispered, loud enough for the whole room to hear. Steve would have shot him a glare but he didn’t want to look in Natasha’s direction.

“You have a crush?” Sam asked, crossing his arms and raising his eyebrows. Steve didn’t know how to answer any of this.

“I–what are all of you doing here anyway?” Steve demanded, hoping to distract them from the previous topic. Unfortunately his teammates were trained in reading people and picking up cues so just the fact that he couldn’t answer them was all the answer they needed.

“Mission debriefing,” Tony said flippantly, kicking out a chair and throwing himself into it.

“Mission…I thought that was tomorrow night?” Steve wondered and Sam shot him a look.

“No, we leave in, like, four hours,” Sam said, taking his seat. Steve felt cold. He turned to Natasha, who met his gaze coolly– unmoving and giving none of her thoughts away.

“You told me tomorrow,” he said, voice devoid of all the emotions that were bubbling into a deep anger in his chest. Her apathy made his frustration stronger.

“I lied,” she said honestly. “We needed to leave tonight. This way is easier.”

“How? Steve demanded, voice rising, and he could feel Tony shift. “How was lying to me easier? I would’ve come tonight if I had known.” Natasha’s eyes narrowed. Realization, cold and heavy, dripped its way down Steve’s neck. It pooled in his toes and rooted him to the spot.

“Did you know I would bring Bucky here?” he asked, voice catching in his throat. Natasha didn’t stir under everyone’s gaze. She hardly seemed affected.

“You wouldn’t have agreed to bring him in otherwise,” she said. Steve’s hands clenched, he needed to contain himself, and he could feel the rage building up.

Bring him in?” Steve repeated, teeth scraping, “Why–why would you want me to bring him in?”

“Background test,” Natasha said. “The new director thinks he may be connected to the alarm malfunction last week.”

Steve hadn’t felt this enraged since some bloke with greased back hair had called his mother “easy”. “You…you wanted me to trick him into coming here so you can interrogate him?” he snarled. Vaguely he registered Sam standing up behind him, reaching out to lay a reassuring hand on his arm but he hardly felt it.

“Not interrogate, Captain Rogers,” a cool voice said from the end of the conference room. “And he doesn’t have to come if he doesn’t wish it.” Steve tore his eyes away from Natasha to refocus on the man that had just entered the room. He was shorter than Steve but only by a few inches.

He was older, his hair dyed a dark brown, his suit grey and well pressed. He had an air about him that announced his presence, demanded attention and respect, even though he didn’t look anywhere near intimidating. His eyes, though, seemed out of time. Steve could tell because his were the same.

“I don’t want anyone approaching him unless I’m present,” Steve said, pleasantries be damned.

The man seemed to consider him, as one would a bug wedged between the grooves of their shoes. “I want to make one thing clear, Captain,” he said, voice light but his intentions sat heavy in Steve’s bones. “You will not give me orders, here. I am your superior. What I say goes. And if there is someone in this building whom I have deemed to be a possible threat then I will do what I see necessary to secure my employees’ safety. If you’re going to stand in my way then you may want to reconsider your position here.” He paused, as though considering his next words but Steve could tell he already knew what he was going to say. “Do we have a problem, Captain Rogers?” Steve’s fists trembled where he was clenching them, so tight that his knuckles were white. In that moment, he wanted nothing more than to smash this director’s head into the wall.

“If Bucky remains unharmed, and everything that is done is under his consent, then we don’t,” Steve said, low under his breath. He wasn’t about to bend over for some man he didn’t know, whose authority was still overshadowed by Nick Fury’s absence. The man smiled, fake and sharp and entirely too wide for his face.

“Good,” he said. “Then we have no problem here.” He sauntered forward, stopping three feet away but still far closer than Steve would want him.

“I’m Director Carson,” he said, holding out his hand. Steve didn’t shake it.

“Steve Rogers.”

Carson dropped his hand, tucking it into the pocket of his trousers. “Well,” he said, turning to address the room as a whole. “Let’s begin.”

Chapter Text

Steve left the meeting with his head feeling like fog and struggling with every breath to keep his body tied down.

Grounded.

He tried to remember to stay grounded. It was hard, seeing the red of Natasha’s hair and the gel highlighted in Carson’s. It was hard, having sat in front of a projection showcasing Bucky’s injuries sustained during his time as a prisoner of war.

It was hard knowing that what he was about to do would be inadvertently wedging himself into the past of a man who hadn’t given him permission to see it yet.

“Captain Rogers,” Carson’s voice called, “I would like to speak with you.”

Steve grit his teeth and turned, his teammates vacating down the hall. “I can’t say I feel the same, sir,” he said. Cason raised an eyebrow and Steve knew the polite thing would be to walk into the room so Carson wouldn’t have to raise his voice to be heard but he wasn’t all too concerned with being polite right now.

“I understand that you’re angry,” Carson said, tipping his head to the side like a bird. “But this is all professional. We will not treat your friend with any ill will. He will have a choice in all the matters that concern him. But you do realize the suspicion that surrounds him now, don’t you?” Steve didn’t answer. Carson didn’t seem to notice.

“There’s been quite a lot of fuss around your sexuality,” he went on and Steve felt his fists clenching; he had to dig his nails into his skin to remind himself not to break this man’s nose.

“And I care for none of it. It doesn’t matter to me if one of my people is a faggot. But you cannot let your feelings cloud your judgment or rationale here. I would be saying this to anyone.”

Steve felt his teeth scrape against each other.

“Is that all?” he asked. Carson studied him for a long while, dark eyes squinting. Steve liked it when Bucky looked at him like he could read the scars of his life in his bones. When Carson did it, he felt exposed.

“Good luck tonight,” Carson said at length. “Remember, you leave in one hour. Don’t be late.”

Steve knew a dismissal when he heard one. Still, a part of him wanted to linger just to make his point known that this new director had no respect from him. But that would be acting like a child, and he was eighty-seven years too late to be able to act like that.

So he turned on his heel without a farewell and headed for the stairs. He needed to get some form of exercise to cool down before seeing Bucky and his sisters, so he took each stair three at a time and ran the forty some-odd flights up.

There was a weight in his stomach, a dread that sank down to his toes and made his steps heavy and clumsy. When he closed his eyes, when he blinked, the images of Bucky without his left arm, bloodied, drugged, unconscious, were burned into his skin. It felt like a burn he couldn’t soothe, it felt like a tear that made him weak.

He was angry.

At Carson for showing those pictures, at Natasha for lying, at himself for falling into all of this.

He couldn’t help but feel guilty for dragging Bucky back into this fucked-up world of military and politics and secret assignments. He didn’t want Bucky to have to relive what he’d been trying so hard to move on from.

Hydra.

Steve remembered them from World War II. He remembered the ruthless leader with the red face and the experiments that were conducted with electricity behind closed doors.

That they had kept branching out, that they had gotten stronger while he was in the ice, that they had been the ones to capture Bucky’s unit and take a liking to him was…Steve stumbled on a step, fell the last four, his fist colliding with the wall and cracking through the drywall and reinforced cement.

He felt the pain in his knuckles, the shaking of the bones in his wrist. He wanted to tear the wall down.

He wanted to tear apart the organization that had ruled his life for years.

He wanted Bucky safe.

He wanted…fuck he wanted so much that he was drowning in the sensations of it all.

He was feeling so much that he was amazed he was still standing, still breathing, when it felt like every breath was gasoline and his blood was the fire lighting him up and burning him alive.

He arrived at his floor with throbbing knuckles and emotions that were crazed with fear and adrenaline and anger and when Bucky stood up and saw him exit the stairwell he couldn’t help himself.

He reached Bucky in three steps, long fast strides, and had Bucky’s face cupped in his hands before the sensation of Bucky’s skin had him coming back to himself.

He blinked the fog from his mind, realized how close he was, and couldn’t find the strength to pull away. Bucky was looking at him with eyes full of concern and anticipation, and all Steve could see was the blood from the pictures matting down Bucky’s hair and falling into his eyes.

His stomach twisted. He moved closer, felt the warmth of Bucky’s chest and hips on his own.

He tried to match their breathing because now that he felt more grounded he was aware that his was coming much too fast. Bucky’s hand was gripping his shirt, grey eyes tethering the last of Steve’s rationality to him.

“Steve?” he asked, voice concerned and a bit breathless. Steve’s vision tunneled; all he could see was Bucky, the only stable thing in a chaotic moment.

He felt like a live wire. He felt like he did after a kill, after a mission, after waking up to skyscrapers and aliens and everything he was never trained for. He felt alive in a dangerous way. In a way that made the rest of the world fade and the only person left, the only thing that was solid and real and good was Bucky. And it was an idea and an emotion and a line of thought that was so strong and so fast Steve felt like he was clinging to the side of a moving train.

He thought he saw Bucky there too.

And they were both holding on, both suspended in this air that was cold and this machine that was fast and he knew he was in danger but the only thing he could see, could care about, was Bucky. Having Bucky this close, his face in his hands, his lips only inches from his own, made Steve feel like he was losing his mind just as fast as he was losing his control. Steve wanted to kiss him. He really wanted to kiss him.

 

He kissed him.

 

Steve didn’t know he was still colorblind, but once he felt Bucky’s lips the world ripened and grew and was washed in gold and pink and everything that made him feel whole.

He breathed him in and the sweetness of Bucky’s lips poured like sugar onto his own.

It was a short kiss.

He pressed close enough that he could feel Bucky’s shock, feel him tense, feel his intake of breath and as soon as he was breathing it back out Steve was pulling away, pulling back.

Bucky’s lips were full and soft. His stubble pricked Steve’s chin.

Steve never wanted to let him go. But of course he had to. Slowly, he let his hands fall from Bucky’s face. Slowly, he took a step back. Slowly, he let the realization of what he’d done hit him. He was scared to meet Bucky’s eyes, fearful of what he’d see.

He looked anyway.

Bucky’s mouth was parted, his cheeks pink and his eyes a mixture of confusion and hurt and longing. He looked young, standing in the middle of Steve’s large living room with New York blinking into the night behind him. Steve didn’t know what to say to explain himself.

“You–” Bucky started, stopped. He seemed to be struggling to organize his thoughts. Steve couldn’t blame him. His were still trapped in the blender of his mind. “Did you do that because you like me? Or because you felt bad?”

Bucky looked vulnerable. He also looked fierce, and just a little lost, and Steve wished, desperately, that he could go back in time and prevent himself from storming up all those stairs. He felt so much. How could he explain it all?

He opened his mouth but no sound came out. He tried to remember how to form words but the only one he remembered was Bucky’s name. He tried to say sorry but then he remembered how Bucky tasted and realized that he wasn’t. But he needed to say something. He needed to explain himself. But how could he, when he wasn’t even sure why he’d done it? He swallowed and tried again.

“Not because I felt bad,” he whispered, voice breaking. He cleared it. “I didn’t kiss you because I felt bad.” Steve knew he wasn’t telling the complete truth. He knew there was a guilty part of him that was still seeing all those images of Bucky in Hydra’s care. But there was so much more to his feelings than just pity over Bucky’s past and it was important now for Bucky to know that.

Bucky’s shoulders relaxed but there was a still a wall between them, created by the cautious calculation in Bucky’s eyes. His hand twitched by his side.

“Then…why?” Bucky asked.

It was simple. This should have been simple. Steve should have waited until it was. He should have waited. But he was going far away. He was going into an enemy base. He was going into the cells under Siberian soil. He was going where Bucky would’ve been kept. He couldn’t have waited because he might not make it back. It was a risk with every mission. Before, if he had died, he wouldn’t have cared. Now, he had a lot to lose. He’d be leaving a lot behind.

And most of what he was leaving was Bucky. That was why he couldn’t fuck this up.

“Because you’re kind,” Steve said and Bucky’s eyebrows crinkled in confusion. Steve went on. “Because you’re handsome. Because you’re smart, loyal, sarcastic, brave. Because you’re strong, and you’re the greatest man I’ve ever met.” Bucky blinked, tears filling his eyes, and he clutched his left shoulder, swallowing when his fingers crunched up the fabric of the empty sleeve.

“Steve–” he began but Steve wasn’t done. He couldn’t stop now, scared that he wouldn’t have the courage to carry on.

“Because you’ve given me a home and a truth and a purpose and a reason to keep living in a world that I shouldn’t ever have been alive to see.” Steve felt calmer with each word, and now that he was almost done he felt relieved. “Because I didn’t used to care if I died but now I do because I know that I’d be leaving you. I don’t know anyone in my line of work that’s completely happy, Bucky. But with you in my life I can become the first.”

Bucky swallowed, and for a moment he just stood and stared. But then he moved forward and gripped the back of Steve’s neck and pulled him down so they were close enough to breathe the same air.

“Is that your way of saying you like me?” Bucky asked, and although his tone was teasing Steve could hear the small hitch in his breath as he spoke. Steve nodded, their foreheads bumping.

“A little,” he admitted. Bucky laughed, his eyelashes sweeping over his cheeks, his hair falling through Steve’s fingers.

“So you’ll come back,” Bucky said, “You’ll come back in one piece and we’ll go out.”

Steve’s heart skipped. “You want to go out with me?” he asked.

Bucky nodded. “Yeah, you idiot,” he said. Breathless. Nervous. Happy.

“We could go dancing,” Steve said. Bucky’s grip tightened.

“I’m a horrible dancer.”

“So am I,” Steve pressed close, one hand on the side of Bucky’s face, the other on his hip. “We’ll be horrible together.”

“Okay,” Bucky agreed, breathing deep like he was trying to anchor himself. “Okay. You come back safe and we’ll go dancing.” Steve could feel the warmth of Bucky’s skin through his shirt. Could feel the dip of his waist.

It was distracting. He wanted to kiss him again. Bucky must’ve sensed it, or maybe he wanted it too, because he pressed up and kissed the corner of Steve’s mouth.

“When you come back, I’ll kiss you for real,” Buck said, pulling back slightly. “That’s your incentive.”

“I already had incentive,” Steve argued, grip tightening. Bucky laughed.

“Yeah, well, now you have more,” he said. Steve nodded. Breathed. Pulled Bucky close, tucked his head into the space between Bucky’s neck and shoulder.

Breathed.

“I’ll be back soon,” he promised. Bucky’s nails dug into his skin. Steve didn’t care.

“I know,” Bucky said. They held each other.

A camera turned.

Snapped.

Disappeared.

//

The jet they were given was cold and narrow.

It had four small beds that folded into the walls, and no one had made use of them. There was one bathroom, which held a toilet and a sink. It was built for stealth and camouflage, and long missions out in temperamental terrain. Comfort and small luxuries were not priority.

The pilot was an agent Steve didn’t recognize, a young man with blond hair and a sharp nose. Natasha sat in the opposite chair, her headset on, and she seemed to be navigating them through the mess of grey clouds and overhanging rain.

Sam had his headphones in. He was asleep, head lolling on Wanda’s shoulder. Her eyes were closing briefly before she snapped herself awake, and it took Vision leaning forward and whispering that she was safe for her to fully relax and go under too.

Vision, Steve noted, didn’t sleep. Which wasn’t too surprising, and Steve felt like it was something he should’ve known before now, but it was still a bit odd to know that it was three a.m. and the being was still sitting just as he had been four hours previously with no change in his demeanor whatsoever.

Tony’s PTSD kept him up late into the night, but he grew less talkative as it wore at him, and only when Clint passed him a sleeping pill did he join Wanda and Sam in dreaming.

Steve couldn’t sleep.

He knew he probably should. While he could go twice the time without sleep than a normal person he still needed it, and it would be smart to do it now, when he was in a safe, confined area. Who knew when he’d be awarded a moment of silence on a mission? There was no guarantee.

Yet he couldn’t make himself. Instead he watched as the clouds parted and the light of the morning rays poured in, washed the grey in yellow and orange, colors too soft for a military jet. Still, Steve watched them come.

And he thought of Bucky. He knew that he had reacted purely on emotion. He knew, thinking back, that the anxiety he felt was because he should have waited. He didn’t know where Bucky stood, and truthfully he didn’t know where he stood either.

He liked Bucky. That’s all he thought of.

He never stopped to consider the fallback his actions will cause. Like putting Bucky more in the public eye, drawing him and his sisters out from a private life. He didn’t even know if Bucky was ready for a relationship, or if Bucky’s feelings toward Steve were as strong as Steve’s were for him.

His teammates stirred awake, gathered themselves together as the jet began its descent into the snowy mountains down below. Natasha’s voice buzzed over the loudspeaker, though it wasn’t necessary. They could all hear her well without it.

“We’re landing. Get your weapons, get into position.” She sounded tired. Steve wondered if she had been awarded the luxury of sleep that he had refused. Natasha could sleep in any position. Steve hoped she’d been able to fall asleep sitting up.

“All right,” Steve said, unbuckling from his seat and standing tall in the middle of the cabin. He waited until everyone’s eyes were on him. “We’re looking for one man. The objective is to not be seen, but since that seems highly unlikely for this facility we need the element of surprise to minimize the number of people who might see you. We want him unharmed. As soon as he’s acquired, we leave. I’ll go over strategy in a moment, but first,” and he reached down to the seat beside his own and held up a manila file, thick in his fingers, “let’s go over our target.”

The file opened and scientist Arnim Zola stared back.

Chapter Text

The Ural Mountains were jagged and wide, the snow blanketing the top like powdered sugar.

It was beautiful, but knowing that they’d have to fight their way through it lessened its initial effect.

“I hate snow,” Clint grumbled, lacing up his boots; the fur of his hood obscuring most of his face. “Gets everywhere. Melts down my pants. Hate it.”

“Well,” Steve said, using his teeth to hold the elastic of his hood as he struggled with his gloves. “If we do our jobs well we’ll be out of here within eight hours.” Clint laughed, and shot him an incredulous look.

“When do our missions together ever go as planned?” he asked. Steve cracked him a smile.

“First for everything,” he said and Clint’s eyes glittered in mirth.

“Whoever finds Zola first wins the next pick for movie night,” Tony butted in, his suit halfway up around his waist. “Who’s in?”

“I am,” Sam said, readjusting his wool hat. “I’m sick of all these action flicks Wanda keeps picking.”

“I like them,” Wanda grumbled, taking a delicate sip of water from her flask. Steve wanted to tell her to save it for when she really needed it but she was an adult and could handle her own self. Plus, they were surrounded by snow. It would melt in their flasks as soon as their body heat rose.

“They’re quite entertaining,” Vision stepped in, shooting Wanda a sideways smile. Steve wondered if anyone else was aware of Vision’s obvious crush or if he was the only one. No one had brought it up like he had expected them to.

Natasha was quiet, more so than she usually was from long flights, and Steve felt like he knew the reason from how she wasn’t meeting his gaze. She hung by Clint, signing to him when they both thought no one was looking. Steve could read the gestures if he tried but it was obvious they wanted a private conversation and he could respect that. The pilot landed them under the cover of thin spruce trees overlooking a horseshoe shaped lake that was crystal blue and deep.

The landing was smooth and the side doors opened with a familiar buzz and a blast of frigid cold air.

“Damn,” Clint muttered, fumbling to get his coat’s zipper up over the fake ID badge. “This better work or we’re going to turn into popsicles.”

“Clint, Natasha, you go down first. Call us if anything goes wrong. If you’re able to get inside undetected we can be out of here by nightfall,” Steve said, ignoring the snow and the phantom burn of ice on his skin.

Natasha and Clint nodded, both turning to go.

“Wait. Romanoff,” Steve said and Natasha looked over the fur of her coat at him. “If you lie to me again I’m reassigning you.” Surprise flickered across her eyes, her jaw tightened. Her face remained utterly impassive.

“You understand why I had to,” she said. Steve shook his head.

“No. I don’t. We’re a team. If we can’t trust each other we may as well call this off and head back home. Prove to me that I can trust you,” Steve said, voice level. Natasha nodded but didn’t respond. Instead she pulled up her hood, grabbed the briefcase, and walked out into the white of the wind. Clint shot Steve a calculating look before he gave a tiny salute and jumped the two feet onto the ground below to follow her.

“Vision,” Steve commanded next, the authority in his tone new and old all at once. “Make sure Natasha and Clint arrive without being apprehended.”

“Of course,” Vision said, gliding out after the two agents. Steve could feel Tony’s eyes on him and he sighed when he turned to address it. Tony looked pensive, his eyebrows furrowed.

When he didn’t say anything Steve began to feel like he was missing something.

“What?” he snapped, unable to keep his irritation from showing. Tony simply shrugged, squinting his eyes against the cold.

“Just…strange isn’t it? That all of us were called here,” he said, his words painfully nonchalant. “When we only really needed Clint and Natasha.”

“I know,” Steve sighed, signaling for the doors to be closed. “That’s all I’ve been thinking about.”

“If something goes wrong it’s good that we are here,” Wanda said, taking her seat against the far wall again.

“Maybe,” Sam said, “But it feels like overkill. I don’t like just sitting around here in the middle of winter wonderland.” Steve had been trying to bury his concern over leaving Bucky and his sisters, and it must have shown on his face, because Tony was reaching out and tapping his shoulder to get his attention.

“He’s safe,” Tony said, barely audible. “Your nurse friend. Barnes and his sisters; I got them somewhere safe.” Steve couldn’t recognize the emotion bubbling in his chest. It felt like relief but was stronger than gratitude.

“You–” he began before Tony interrupted with a wave of his hand.

“I don’t trust SHIELD. Period. My alarms don’t just malfunction, Steve. Just like a petition to get you disbanded doesn’t just take the world by storm in under four hours.” Tony eyed him, a look that told more than anything he had just said.

“Can I know where they are?” Steve asked. Tony was shaking his head before he had even finished the question.

“Just keep your cool until I figure out what’s really going on,” Tony whispered, imploring, “Don’t draw any more attention to yourself. I may have connections but if Carson locks you up cause he considers you a threat I can’t help you.”

“I understand,” Steve said.

Sam clicked his tongue. “You say that,” Sam mused, “but I’m afraid you don’t really get it.” Steve tried not to roll his eyes. He didn’t really succeed.

“I won’t throw him out the window. That’s the best I can offer,” Steve sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose and flinching when the cold metal of his shield rubbed against his neck.

“Great,” Tony scoffed, “that makes me feel a hell of a lot better.”

“Thank you,” Steve said, low and sincere, and Tony shifted, slightly uncomfortable by Steve’s show of appreciation. “You didn’t have to.”

“I know that,” Tony said, scratching the back of his head. It was always slightly gratifying, to see Tony squirm.

“Couldn’t have done it without you,” Steve continued and Tony shot him a withering glare.

“All right, Cap, I got it,” Tony grumbled. Steve felt a shit-eating grin creep across his face.

“You’re brilliant and kind-hearted–"

“Keep it up and I’m calling Carson and telling him where they are,” Tony threatened.

Steve shrugged. “Do that and I’ll leave you stranded here.”

Tony barked out a short laugh, shaking his head and flexing his metal fingers. “God…how are you the leader here?” he sighed, but he was smiling anyway so Steve didn’t take it seriously.

Time passed a lot slower when Steve was waiting to hear back from his team, and he hated the lack of action in it. He took scope of the land, through the trunks of the tall spruce trees, through the snow and ice, and found nothing that could explain their being there.

Tony, despite his act of acting aloof and uncaring, checked in with Natasha and Clint every hour over the COMS, and he’d look over Steve’s shoulder to see where their dots appeared on the map of the mountains.

“Are they even in?” he asked after the first hour.

“Yeah,” Steve said, eyes noting every shift in the terrain. He was distracted. He’d admit that. And he gave himself over to his thoughts as the time stretched from one hour into two into three.

“I’m calling in,” Tony said, suddenly, standing from where he’d been seated beside Wanda. Steve didn’t stop him, just watched as Tony spoke over the line.

“Romanoff?” he asked, eyes narrowing. “What’s your status?” He listened, his expression unchanging. The conversation didn’t last long. It was only after he’d pressed his side off that Vision’s head materialized through the jet’s wall.

“Shit!” Sam cried, jumping in his seat. Distantly, Steve heard alarms.

“Agent Romanoff was compromised,” Vision reported, gold eyes scanning the cabin. “Clint has apprehended the scientist.” Steve stood, throwing his shield over his shoulder and hit the button to have the sidewall slide up and let the cold air in again.

“Sam, Tony, take the air. Wanda, cover us when we get to the base. We can’t give away our position here, in case one of us can’t make it out. Get Clint, get Zola, and I’ll find Natasha. Vision,” Steve said, directing his gaze to the inhuman being still halfway through the metal. “You should know the layout of the facility by now. You’re in charge of getting Natasha and me out of there. Understand?”

“Yes,” he said, in that monotone way of his that made Steve doubt if he even heard him.

“All right,” Steve said, gesturing Wanda and Sam out first. “Let’s go get them.”

“Sir,” the young pilot called from the front. “What should I do?”

“Stay until I call you to pick us up. Don’t move until then,” Steve said, jumping down from the jet and into the snow below.

//

Arnim Zola was a small man who looked like a mouse and was shifty like a rat. Steve disliked him instantly.

The facility was sparse, and Steve had left his COM on and active as he raced down the halls to find Natasha. There was an alarm that Clint had long since disbanded, and now the only noise was Steve’s footsteps echoing off the metal walls.

The whole place felt like a long tunnel with sharp corners, multiple doors branching off in neat rows. Everything was very precise. Very predictable. He encountered six guards, all of whom he took down within five minutes.

A bullet had grazed his arm, but that was the worst of his injuries so he wasn’t complaining. Nat had buzzed through his COM after Steve had secured the first floor and was taking the elevator down.

“I have him,” Natasha said, voice tense. “I got him.”

“Where are you?” Steve demanded and now he was standing in the doorway, the metal door kicked down in the denting shape of Natasha’s boots. Her lab coat disguise was ripped and speckled with blood that Steve didn’t think was hers. Not with how profusely the small German scientist’s nose was bleeding. It had to be broken.

“Have you secured the perimeter?” Natasha asked him, not turning to check if it was Steve she was addressing.

Her lack of perception made Steve tense. Zola was on his knees, hands bound roughly behind his back with a clear zip tie. His wrists were already raw, hands purpling from where his circulation had been cut off. Steve took a careful step forward. Natasha was rigid, her muscles hard and taut in a way that made it look like she would snap at any moment. The hand holding her gun shook.

Just once.

But once was enough of a giveaway for Steve to know that she had a personal tie in all of this.

“Secure,” Steve agreed, activating his COM. “Vision, I’ve got her. Contact Tony; tell him to bring the jet over. We’re heading out.”

“Understood,” Vision said. Steve couldn’t see Natasha’s eyes, her red hair shielding them from his view. He took a step forward. Zola caught the movement, his head shooting up to regard Steve with a shrewd expression.

“Ah, Captain America.” He spoke with a heavy German accent made even more muddled by the blood coating the back of his throat. “Wonderful to see the serum has maintained its purpose.” Steve didn’t respond, simply took stock of the room around him.

“Does he have any files we–” he began.

“No,” Natasha interrupted, voice firm. “I’ve checked. He has nothing.” Her Russian accent was unmistakable. She was angry.

“We need to go,” Steve said, flexing his fingers around his shield. “Tony’s on his way.” Natasha nodded.

“Then let’s go,” she said, grabbing Zola by his collar and dragging him behind her. Steve noted with a sick feeling of disgust that she had shot out his knees. They left an uneven trail of blood in their wake.

//

Carson met them on the runway.

Behind him stood ten agents, covered in black and leather and large guns.

It was dark, New York lights illuminating the air around them in hazy polluted glows. The new director didn’t look happy to have the mission completed, or much of any emotion, really, and Steve found himself hovering near Tony’s side as they exited the jet, Bucky on his thoughts.

The prospect of getting to see him again made him anxious. He’d had time to come down from the adrenaline of their last encounter together, their last first kiss, and now his nerves were rushing back over him. He couldn’t dwell on it now though. Not with his hand wrapped tight around Zola’s bicep, Natasha’s sullen glower burning holes into the man’s head.

Carson regarded them coolly, his eyes unflinching when they landed on the busted scientist’s face.

“That was fast,” Carson said and Steve tried very very hard not to growl at him. Surprisingly, Tony was the mature one.

“We’re efficient,” he said amicably, stifling a large yawn behind his arm. Carson issued his armed guard forward and they took Zola from Steve’s hold, marching him off the landing pad and into a helicopter seated on the far end of the Tower’s roof. Natasha’s eyes followed him the entire way.

“Was he carrying anything?” Carson asked.

“Like what?” Steve asked, prickling. Natasha shifted beside him.

“No, he cleared out everything,” she said, voice hard. “Almost like he knew we were coming.” Steve shot her a look and she returned it, and suddenly, terrifyingly Carson’s presence was overwhelming.

“Shame,” Carson mused, not looking upset about the outcome at all. “And has Barnes left the building?” Steve squared his shoulders, delighting in the fact that he was finally bigger than his aggressor. He also felt angry, on edge, at the idea that maybe Carson had gone looking for Bucky after all. He was immensely grateful to Tony.

“I don’t know,” Steve said, “I haven’t been here.” Carson’s jaw twitched, eyes hardening, but then he was smiling wide and believably genuinely.

“We’ll have a debrief over tonight’s proceedings in the morning. As of now I want to make sure Zola gets where he needs to be. Avengers.” He addressed them all and then with a slight nod he turned on his heel and went with his entourage to the helicopter. Its propellers almost knocked Steve off his feet, the wind was so strong, but he didn’t budge, didn’t blink, until it was far up into the night sky and its motor was indistinguishable from the traffic.

“I’m going in,” Wanda said, stretching her arms over her head.

“Same,” Clint said, wrapping his arm around her shoulders and steering them casually to the stairs that led to the next floor. Tony’s hand, metallic and heavy, fell on Steve’s shoulder with a dull thud.

“Wanna see your boyfriend?” he asked, grin antagonizing and smug. Steve tried his absolute best to not blush red at Sam’s laugh.

“I do,” Sam interjected, crossing his arms and shooting Natasha a small goodnight as she walked passed. Steve watched her go, debating whether or not he should catch up with her. There seemed to be a lot unsaid between the two of them, information that she knew he needed, but now, seeing the sharp jut of her shoulders and the tension in her jaw, he let her go unheeded.

“Yeah,” Steve said, turning to Tony and finally letting the exhaustion weigh over him. “Please.” Tony whistled, dropping his hand from Steve before leading them to the stairs. It was a short flight, would take them down into the garage below where the smaller jets were stored.

Steve was still overwhelmed by the size and holding capacity of the building; two garages, one above for aircrafts, one below ground for cars and motorcycles. Tony had taken Bucky and the girls somewhere far then, if they weren’t driving.

“Must really like him if you’re being nice to me,” Tony grumbled and his suit began to fold up and away into a small sizable rectangle that he carried easily under his arm. Steve was always impressed by the ease and grace in which Tony was able to get out of the suit. It flowed off him like water, the motions practiced, nothing like the sharp movements it made while Tony wore it.

“He’s not here,” Steve observed as Tony led him and Sam to one of the smaller jets near the back of the garage. Tony shot him an unimpressed blank stare.

“Duh,” Tony said, voice echoing around them. Steve became hyper aware of the security cameras on the far walls, as did Sam, and Tony noticed the change in both of them.

“Disabled,” Tony said, swinging a set of keys out of the wrinkled pocket of his trousers. “Despite popular belief I do plan ahead.”

Sam relaxed, and Tony unlocked the jet. Compared to the one they just took it was very unassuming, small, big enough to hold, four, maybe five people. Tony had had it designed a year ago for stealth missions. And it was Natasha’s favorite. The three men sat themselves down in the seats; the cushions were comfortable and Steve felt another wave of exhaustion hit him as he settled in. His worries from earlier came back with it, and he was suddenly nervous.

He smelled his suit, cringing when his nose pricked with the copper scent of blood and sweat; He wished he had thought to bring a change of clothes. He rested his shield against his calf, the metal cool and making him shiver.

“Where are they?” Sam asked, buckling himself in. Tony turned up the air conditioning, and the radio started up with it, some new pop song that had Steve tapping his boot. It was catchy even if he still didn’t fully understand the lyrics.

“Safe house,” Tony answered, starting up the engine. He moved the jet forward, carefully, and hit a few buttons into the keypad to have the ceiling split down the middle, one half turning into a ramp so he could build up the momentum to get them into the air.

“Safe house,” Sam mused, settling back and Steve could feel his eyes on him. “Where is it?” Tony clicked his tongue, turning to look at Sam over his shoulder so he could wag his finger at him.

“Nuh-uh. I tell you and that defeats the whole purpose,” he said. Steve was aware that he was being quiet, but his insides felt like someone had shaken him up and he wasn’t sure if he could really breathe past the worry and anticipation that was currently bubbling up inside him.

“You alright, Steve?” Sam asked, reaching over and touching his arm to get his attention.

“Yeah,” Steve said. Unconvincingly, he was sure. “Yeah, I’m good.”

“You look nervous,” Sam said. Tony had navigated them into the air and New York became a design made up of colored lights and muddled emotions that Steve had no idea how he was supposed to wade through.

“I…I am,” Steve admitted, feeling strange to be telling the truth about his feelings.

“Why?” Tony called over the radio and the hum of the engine. Steve swallowed.

“I kind of like him,” Steve said, not meeting either one of his teammates’ eyes. Tony laughed.

“We know that,” he said. Sam was a bit more regarding.

“Did you do something?” he asked in a way that told Steve he had already began to piece the situation together. Steve played with the thick leather of his gloves.

“Um…I kissed him,” Steve admitted in a rush and waited with bated breath for their reactions.

“So he likes you?” Sam asked slowly, urging the conversation deeper; Steve shifted in his chair, not comfortable with this kind of open talk about his love life. No one really spoke to him like this in the 40s, no one really spoke about this at all in the 40s, and he had no one to speak of or to talk to, so it was a bit strange to be having this conversation now.

“I don’t know,” Steve muttered, dropping his head. “It was a spur of the moment kind of thing. I didn’t really think it through.”

“That last part’s not really a surprise,” Tony chided from his seat.

“You need to talk about it,” Sam said.

“I know,” Steve sighed, running a hand through his hair. “That’s what I’m nervous about.”

“He kiss you back?” Sam asked. Steve could feel the blush hot on his cheeks. He couldn’t help remembering the way Bucky’s mouth had parted under his; how he had relaxed into it once he had registered what was happening.

Steve had pulled back before Bucky had really had the chance to return it fully, and maybe that’s where the root of his nerves was coming from.

“I think so,” Steve said, feeling foolish for not really knowing. Sam hummed.

“Is he a good kisser?” Tony called over his shoulder and Steve gave him his best blank look.

“What?” Tony scoffed, holding up his hands in a pacifying gesture. “I can’t ask for details?”

“I kind of want to know now,” Sam said under his breath. Steve’s face was on fire.

“I’m not going into details,” Steve growled.

“Tongue?” Tony asked. Steve almost threw the shield at his head.

//

Tony landed them on the roof of a secluded modern house overlooking the ocean.

Steve wasn’t sure of their exact coordinates, and he had dozed restlessly during the three-hour flight. Tony had a cup of coffee in his hands and Steve tried not to think about the fact that he had probably brewed it while he was flying the jet. The coffee maker sat under Tony’s feet, so now Steve would smell like blood, sweat and stale coffee. If possible, he felt more self-conscious than he had previously.

“Okay,” Sam yawned, unbuckling himself and stretching. “Let’s go. I hope there’s a room for me in this mansion of yours.” Tony scoffed, offended.

“There’s a room for your wings,” he said, killing the engine and opening the side doors. The sound of waves lapping the shore was the first noise that greeted them, and the salt on the air was strong and oddly comforting. It was a nostalgic smell, and Steve remembered summer days with his mom on Coney Island.

He picked up his shield and exited the aircraft. It was hot, humid, and although there was a cool breeze coming off the water Steve could already feel the sweat beginning to form under his suit. He wanted nothing more than a cold shower.

A shower, and to make sure that Bucky was okay.

“You didn’t bring them here forcibly, right?” Steve asked Tony. The multi-millionaire rubbed his eyes as the jet’s doors folded closed behind him.

“No,” Tony hissed, “I’m not SHIELD.” The house was wide and airy; windows showcased the ocean and nearby beach, looked down over the rocky cliffs on which it sat. The furniture was simple and clean, the lights that were on golden. Steve wasn’t even aware of the time. They made their way into the living room; it spread out into the kitchen, and everything was polished and new in a way that Steve still wasn’t used to, the whole twenty-first century feel.

He wasn’t expecting to see Bucky bent over the counter in the kitchen, a mug in his hand that looked suspiciously handmade. He looked up when he heard the group approach, and Tony and Sam hung back as Steve walked forward. Bucky looked tired, but he seemed to come alive when he took Steve in, dirty uniform and all. Slowly, he put down his mug. Slowly, he straightened.

“Are you hurt?” Bucky asked, eyes raking over Steve, lingering on the spots of fabric that were stained with blood.

Dumbly, Steve shook his head. “No,” he rasped, voice lost in his nerves. Bucky nodded, hesitating only moments before his arm was around Steve’s neck and he was pulling him into a hard kiss. The shock of it had Steve shivering all the way to his toes, and he dropped his shield with a loud clang to wrap his arms around Bucky’s waist and move them closer. He knew he smelt disgusting, looked like hell, but Bucky didn’t seem to mind, seemed to want to get as close to him as he could.

When he pulled back Bucky’s eyes were wide, like he had surprised himself by his actions, but he didn’t move away or look anywhere near sheepish or regretful. Instead he smiled, slow and sharp, and it made Steve’s insides burn.

“Sorry I smell,” Steve said, his voice nothing more than a breath of air. His mind was still reeling.

“I don’t care,” Bucky said. His nails scraped along the nape of Steve’s neck.

“I do,” Tony called. “Your shield dented my floor!” Steve ignored him.

“No one hurt you, right?” Steve asked, fingers flexing against the soft fabric of Bucky’s t-shirt. Bucky bit his lip and it was unfairly distracting.

“No,” he said. “Stark got us out before anyone could approach us.” Again, Steve felt a wave of gratitude for the man. But he realized that he and Bucky were still pressed close, and that his two teammates were still watching, so reluctantly he dropped his grip from Bucky’s waist and stepped a decent way back.

Bucky looked regretful to let him go but he did, and then ran a nervous hand through his hair. His eyes looked really blue when he blushed. Steve found it hard to look away.

“Right,” Tony said, clapping his hands and shooting Steve’s shield a dirty look from where it was wedged in the kitchen floor. “Room assignments. You love birds can stay up all you want, but I’m exhausted and going to bed.”

“I’m right there with you,” Sam said, shooting Steve a wink disguised behind a large yawn. Tony stretched, and nodded, before pointing a lazy finger at Bucky.

“We need to talk when I wake up later today,” he said, eyes narrowing. There wasn’t a threat in his tone, but enough authority that Steve felt his guard go up. Bucky nodded.

“Yeah,” he agreed and didn’t elaborate further. Tony clapped his hands.

“Good. Well, you two can either be together or Bucky can go with his sisters, either one. You work it out. Sam your room is next to mine, other side of the house. Follow me. Friday?” Tony called and the AI’s voice was soft and purposefully soothing in the space of the living room.

“Sir?” she asked.

“Wake me up in three hours to get the lab prepped. Also, start getting the lab prepped.” Tony said, shuffling his way out of the living room with Sam following leisurely behind.

“I’m glad you’re okay,” Sam said to Bucky as he passed. “Sam Wilson.”

“Bucky Barnes,” Bucky introduced himself, shaking Sam’s outstretched hand. Sam was smiling.

“Goodnight!” Sam tossed over his shoulder and then it was just Steve and Bucky, standing close by Steve’s shield in the middle of Tony’s safe house’s kitchen. Bucky turned to him, looked him up and down.

“You need a shower,” he said, tone light and relieved. “And then sleep.”

“I’d rather just curl up on the floor and sleep now,” Steve said honestly, his earlier exhaustion weighing full force into his bones. Bucky hummed, reaching up and tracing light fingers along the slight stubble on Steve’s jaw. He smiled up at him, soft and private.

“Are you comfortable sharing a bed?” Bucky asked. Steve swallowed, cheeks pink.

Bucky hit his shoulder. “We’re not having sex, we’re sleeping.” Steve went pinker.

“I know that!” he sputtered and Bucky laughed, quiet and tired and perfect.

“We should talk tomorrow,” he said gently, taking Steve’s hand and leading him to their room. “When we’ve both slept.” A part of Steve wanted to talk now. Get everything out on the table; make sure they were on the same page. But keeping his eyes open was taxing enough, and Bucky deserved to have his full attention. Begrudgingly, he nodded, turning his palm so Bucky was holding his hand, not his wrist.

“Okay,” he said. Dopey. Happy. He smiled at the back of Bucky’s head. “You weren’t waiting up for me, were you?”

“Don’t flatter yourself–I was waiting for Stark,” Bucky said, stopping at a door at the very end of the hall. “We’re together.”

“Sure,” Steve said, not able to stop smiling. “Then what’re you doing here with me?” Bucky didn’t answer, just reached up and kissed him. It was gentle, reassuring, and just what Steve needed to feel utterly relaxed.

“We get our own bathroom,” Bucky said, opening the door and leading Steve inside. “And the best view. I got first dibs. Becs was mad.” Steve would’ve been upset too, to have lost this room. The windows stretched the span of the wall, leading out onto a narrow balcony that overlooked the sea. In the morning, when the sun came in, it would be breathtaking. As it was, Steve was drained. His muscles were sore, heavy.

His eyes hurt. He felt dirty and gross, standing in his ratty uniform in the middle of a posh polished room. Bucky gestured to a door to their left.

“Bathroom,” he said, letting go of Steve’s hand. “There are some spare clothes you can wear.” Steve faced him.

“Yours?” he asked. Bucky blushed and nodded.

“Thank you,” Steve said. He wanted to kiss him. He did. Bucky licked his lips as he pulled away. He looked a little affected, pupils dilated and cheeks flushed. Steve thought it suited him.

“I’ll be out here,” Bucky said, voice a little strained. Steve grinned.

“Okay,” he said. He made his way into the bathroom, feeling warm and happy despite the many zippers he had to undo to slide out of his uniform. It was a hassle, and it fell in a crumpled mess of thick fabric and holster belts on the tile floor. The water pressure was perfect, however Steve kept it cold, watched blankly as dirt and blood ran wet down the drain. He felt clean when he toweled himself down and comfortable and safe when he slipped into Bucky’s sweats and white tee. The shirt was tight but not hindering, and the sweats fit. Steve noticed the raw hems.

These were Bucky’s favorite.

He remembered them, and he didn’t try to stop the warm feeling of contentment that washed over him. Better than the shower.

When he exited the bathroom Bucky was curled up under the sheets, his shirt discarded on the floor. He was lying on his left side, his right arm curled over his chest protectively as he slept. Bucky had opened the balcony doors and the salty breeze from the sea drifted in, ruffled his hair. The moon cast him in a pale light, bathed his skin in an ethereal glow. Steve wanted to draw him. Instead, he pulled back the covers and got into bed beside him. He watched as Bucky breathed, deep, easy. He was sleeping peacefully, and the sound of waves hitting the shore lulled Steve’s eyes shut as well.

In the morning, the sun rose, and Bucky was painted in gold. Steve wanted to tell him he was beautiful.

He didn’t.

//

Sophie had her hair tied up, a mess atop of her head, and she was lathering herself with sunscreen when Steve and Bucky entered the kitchen around eight.

She looked up when they entered, and when she saw Steve she broke out into a grin.

“Hey!” she exclaimed, her voice loud for the early time. “You’re alive!”

“Yeah,” Steve said, smiling down at her. “Came back in one piece.”

“That’s good. Bucky was worrying,” Sophie said, squirting a generous amount of sunblock into her palm before she slathered it over her thighs.

“You’re going swimming?” Bucky asked and Sophie nodded, eyes sparkling with delight.

“Yeah, man. We’re at the beach, how could we not go swimming?”

“You know this isn’t a vacation?” Bucky wondered, eyes narrowing and Sophie looked at him like he had lobsters falling from his ears.

“Not with that attitude, it’s not,” she scoffed before grabbing a beach towel and a tote bag from off the counter.

“Where’d you get all this?” Bucky asked, pointing to her swimsuit and flip-flops. “Tony’s girlfriend bought us bags of clothes and left them on our beds before we got here. These were in them,” Sophie said.

“Girlfriend?” Bucky asked, but his question was directed to Steve.

“Pepper Potts,” Steve explained, scratching his head. “I have no idea how she knew you’d need them though.”

Sophie shrugged, walking past them to the elevator in the living room. “Becs, Win and Sam are already down there. If you guys join you should bring snacks and drinks.”

“Just get them now,” Bucky said, but Sophie was shaking her head, stepping into the elevator and pressing the doors closed.

“It’s too late I’m already leaving,” she said.

Bucky stared. “You can get them right–”

“It’s too late! Doors closing! Bye! Bring snacks!” The doors slid shut and the kitchen was quiet.

“I don’t think they’re taking this seriously,” Bucky muttered, turning to look at Steve like he would have the answer to his sisters’ carefree behavior.

“At least they’re having fun,” he reasoned, not thinking as he reached out to tuck a lock of hair behind Bucky’s ear. “Better than them being scared.”

“I guess,” Bucky said, trailing off as he stared at Steve. Steve felt powerless under Bucky’s gaze. He didn’t look away. Bucky had nice eyelashes, and the blue of his eyes looked darker today.

He looked good. Really good.

Steve leaned forward.

Nope! Not now, none of that,” Tony interrupted and both Steve and Bucky jumped. “Yeah, no, I need the nurse.”

Steve’s eyes narrowed. “Why?” he asked, not bothering to hide the suspicious lilt in his tone.

“Well, Capsicle,” Tony said, crossing his arms and looking absolutely ridiculous with his un-styled hair sticking up in every direction. “I want to give your boyfriend a new arm.”

//

“See, I knew you looked familiar,” Tony was saying as the elevator took them deep down under the house, into the rocky cliffs below. “You were part of that veterans program Stark Industries helped form.”

“Yeah,” Bucky said, quiet. His right hand had drifted to his left shoulder, where he rubbed absentmindedly. Steve wanted to reach out and comfort him. They hadn’t talked yet about where they stood, if they were involved romantically or not. It didn’t feel appropriate for Steve to comfort him like a boyfriend might. He kept his arms at his sides.

“You were chosen, weren’t you?” Tony continued, completely oblivious to Bucky’s growing discomfort. “I remember choosing you along with five others. You pulled out last minute.”

Bucky swallowed, face pale. “My appointment was after the New York attack,” he said. “I couldn’t make it.” Tony shrugged.

“Well,” he said, shooting Bucky a questioning glance, “do you want to reschedule?” Bucky looked like he was considering, his nails digging into his shirt. Steve wasn’t even sure if he was aware he was doing it.

“Maybe,” Bucky said. “Do you have prototypes?” Tony laughed. Steve wrinkled his nose at him as they exited the elevator.

“Of course,” he said, pompous and frilly. “Friday and I can even show you how each one will feel like on. Gotta call in some favors though, depending on which one you like.” Bucky’s eyes slowly lit up.

“I can test them out?” he asked.

“Sure,” Tony said, “If you want.”

“How are they made?” Bucky wondered, his face slowly looking youthful in his growing excitement. Steve felt his own unease begin to fade.

“A lot of ways,” Tony said absently, bending over one of the large computer monitors by his desk. This lab was smaller than the whole two floors he had at the Tower, and it was cooler too, had to be when it was under all this rock.

It had a wall dedicated to a variety of unique Iron Man suits, a small computer compound in the middle, littered with papers and empty glasses and straws. There was a small bundle of blankets in one corner, a pillow thrown carelessly on top. Tony tapped at the keypad, and on one of the transparent screens ten images of different prosthetic arms appeared, hovering, suspended in the air.

Bucky took an uneasy step forward.

“Can I see that one?” he asked, pointing to one on the top right. Tony nodded.

“Yeah,” he said, raising up his hand as if to grab the arm, and then did, dragging its hologram over to Bucky’s left shoulder and resting it in the empty space below. It looked in all aspects like an arm, besides the fact that when Bucky put his fingers to it the image buzzed.

Steve blinked, surprised, looking up at Tony in alarm. His face was impassive, but considerate. Bucky looked just as taken aback, but he studied it with severe concentration.

“Move your fingers,” Tony suggested, and Bucky did, letting out a loud gasp when he could.

“Shit,” he whispered, moving the fake arm through the air, eyes tearing up. “Shit.”

“Pretty cool, huh?” Tony asked, obviously growing excited when it became apparent Bucky wasn’t going to freak out. Steve hadn’t realized he’d been waiting for the same thing. “And it’ll be solid, and really connected, don’t worry.”

“I–” Bucky said, stopped. He had to take a moment to himself, and Steve willed him to breathe. “I can have this?”

“’Course,” Tony said, voice softer than Steve had ever heard. “We can make it look however you want. Ya know, normal or deck it out.”

“Can you make it metal?” Bucky asked, a shit-eating grin blooming across his face. Tony raised his eyebrows.

“You want a metal arm?” he asked, clearly a bit startled.

“This isn’t because of Star Wars is it?” Steve asked, trying to look annoyed but failing, as Bucky’s smile grew brighter.

“I can be like Luke fucking Skywalker,” he said. Now Tony was grinning, and he and Bucky were looking at each other like kids on fucking Christmas morning and Steve was beginning to regret ever introducing them.

“Oh no,” Steve sighed as he regarded the two of them. “You’re bad influences on each other.”

Tony rubbed his hands together in glee. “Sorry, Cap,” he said. “But you’re not cool enough for all this. Why don’t you head on down to the beach and we’ll make magic happen here?”

Steve hesitated, wanting to stay if Bucky needed him.

“I’ll be okay,” Bucky said. “As long as we’re not doing any surgeries.”

“Don’t have the equipment for all that here,” Tony sighed.

“Okay,” Steve said. “Come get me if you need anything.” Bucky smiled, nodded, and he looked so thrilled that Steve felt his heart melting, just a little. He left, ears ringing, as Tony blasted Helter Skelter from the loud speakers. He could hear it all the way down to the beach.

If SHIELD was looking for them The Beatles just gave away their location.

Chapter Text

The sun was hot.
Steve hadn’t been to the beach in, technically, seventy some-odd years.

It was a strange jolt into reality, dipping his feet into the salt water, the sand burrowing cool and a bit gritty between his toes. He used to burn, turn as red as a lobster, and his mother would joke about him being covered in salt because of the way his skin would peel.

Now, if there was a pinking spot on his shoulders, or cheekbones, it would fade within thirty minutes. He was even able to pick up a slight tan by noon. He realized he loved the sand more than the water. He had tried swimming out with Sophie and Becca, had tried diving underneath the waves, but his heart had raced and his chest had tightened at just the feeling of being submerged.

So he and Win set up shop underneath an umbrella that Steve had grabbed with Friday’s guidance from a supply cabinet in the front foyer. He’d also taken rafts, towels, food, and enough sunscreen to drown Win.

Win liked sandcastles.

Sophie liked reading.

Becca liked to float on her back and ride the waves, her head tilted up towards the sun.

There were moments when Steve would start to panic if he hadn’t seen her move in a while, but then she’d be knocked over by a wave and come up spluttering with laughter and he’d relax against the sand again.

Sophie had also dared him to carry her over his head.

She was unashamedly obsessed with his arms and pecs and although it did make Steve embarrassed she never pushed him into anything or said something that made him uncomfortable. She did want Sam to take a picture of the two of them posing, and asked if, after they returned home, if she could post it on her Instagram. That led to her showing Steve what the app was, and then promising to make him an account tonight.

Steve wasn’t sure if that was a smart idea, but he agreed to it nonetheless.

Sam was in the water with Becca. He loved it almost as much as she did, and they looked quite silly, floating like specks of pepper over oil. It was endearing to watch them.

Steve had never thought about having children of his own. Before the serum he was too sick, and women weren’t really fond of him. He had never really let himself think about the possibilities of a family and children. When he met Peggy he had entertained the idea, was even a little excited by it, but there was always a little part of that story missing. And then he’d gone into the ice and that was that.

But sitting on the beach with Bucky’s sisters, and making sure they were hydrated and fed and kept re-applying sunscreen, made a sad feeling of regret sit low in his stomach. Regret, that he might never have the opportunity for kids of his own, and also happiness. The latter was stronger.

He had Bucky, for now at least. He’d have Bucky for as long as Bucky wanted him. And he had a family for the first time in years; started with the Avengers, and now Bucky and his sisters. So as he called out to Becca that her shoulders were red, and fixed Win a small sandwich from the cooler, he felt a strange mixture of emotions that left a soft smile on his lips.

“Wanna build a sand castle?” Win asked him, her small palm hitting his bicep to get his attention. Steve looked over her head to the five they’d already built. He shot her a large smile.

“Of course,” he said, standing to his feet and ignoring the sand in his swimming trunks (Pepper had left him and Bucky bags too, labeled and on their closet floor. Bucky hadn’t even looked around the house last night, just sat with his coffee and waited for Steve. When Steve realized that he couldn’t keep the smile off his lips). The sand was hot now, and Steve felt the sweat bead down his back. He fixed Win’s hat so that it was more secure on her head.

“Do you want to watch Harry Potter tonight?” she asked. Steve raised an eyebrow.

“Sure. Sam also told me about a movie called Jaws,” Steve said conversationally as he helped her pack the sand.

“Bucky says I can’t see that until I’m older,” Win sighed, wrinkling her nose.

“Why’s that?” Steve asked.

“Cause a shark bites this guy in half and there’s blood all over everything. And a dog dies.” Win wiped the sand off the front of her strawberry print one-piece.

“Oh,” Steve said. They stacked the sand until it was up to Steve’s waist, and Win came over to stand beside them to evaluate. She nodded her approval.

“Okay,” she confirmed, looking up at Steve and squinting against the sun. “We gotta destroy them.”

Around one o’clock everyone had gathered around the two coolers Steve had carried down, set under the shade of the biggest yellow umbrella. Win was perched on Steve’s knee, and Becca sat by Sam. They seemed comfortable together, and Steve was both jealous and glad about this.

He probably needed to talk to Bucky’s oldest sister, and he made a mental note to do that tonight. Sophie had gotten out the pre-cut watermelon and they sat eating the red fruit, the juice sliding down their chins and making their fingers sticky. After lunch, they took turns burying each other in the sand.

There was time in the middle of the day where Becca and Sophie took turns running through the waves with Win on their backs and shoulders. Steve would also tense up when they fell, when Win’s small body disappeared underneath the surface. But Becca or Sophie would always be on her in an instant, pulling her up and whooping as she laughed. She could swim, Steve noted, but not well, and floundered when the waves rose too high.

“Don’t like water, huh?” Sam observed, taking a sip from one of their Tropical Punch juice boxes. Steve shot him a sidelong glance.

“Not the biggest fan,” Steve admitted, wiggling his toes in the sand. Sam hummed.

“Because of what happened?” he asked, cautious. Steve kept his gaze on the ocean, on Bucky’s sisters, knew he might be acting paranoid but not really caring.

“Yeah,” Steve sighed, dropping his head onto his knees. “I just–get flashbacks. Sometimes. And nightmares. I haven’t been in the ocean in years.”

“Decades,” Sam corrected, smiling gently and Steve laughed, quiet under his breath.

“Decades,” Steve repeated, shaking his head. “Damn.” Sam grinned around his straw, reached out a hand and gripped Steve companionably on the shoulder. They laughed.

When the sun started to go down the sky was soaked in pink and orange, tie-dye dripping onto the tips of the waves and coating the sand. The girls had tired themselves out, and Sophie had taken Win back up to the house. There were two ways up, the first winding steps cut into the cliff’s side, and an elevator that sat above a short wooden stand. The girls took the elevator.

Becca turned to Steve as soon as Win was out of earshot.

“Are you fucking my brother?” she asked. Sam choked on his juice. Steve couldn’t find the words to explain himself.

“Shit,” Sam gasped, hitting his chest and shooting Becca a grimacing smile. “Not really subtle, are you?” She looked unimpressed, her eyes serious. She didn’t look away from Steve. It was one of the most intimidating moments of Steve’s life. And he’d had arguments with Peggy Carter.

“I–um, no. No, we’re not–” Steve swallowed, “I’m not sleeping with your brother.”

“But you want to,” Becca pushed, eyes narrowing. Sam was looking wide-eyed between the two of them, torn between leaving or staying just in case Becca launched herself over the sand and beat Steve under sea level. He cleared his throat and stood.

“I’ll, uh, meet you guys at the house,” he said awkwardly, hesitating just a moment before turning and walking back up the beach.

Steve understood Becca being protective; he didn’t blame her for that. But he didn’t like the implications that he was only hanging around Bucky to sleep with him. He felt slightly offended that that’s what she thought of him. He had to step away from his initial feelings of anger and indignation to try and see her side with everything. There were always reasons for anger, it was a secondary emotion. It hid what you didn’t want to see, or deal with, and it made Steve fill with dread at the reasons for Becca’s anger.

If, maybe, this similar situation had happened to Bucky in the past, if someone had come into Bucky’s life and used him. Steve was hit with a wave of anger, yes, but also a heavy sadness. Bucky had been used when he was a POW, and now people like Carson and the media were coming back for him.

“I really like your brother,” Steve spoke carefully, leaning over so that he could look Becca directly in the eyes. “I really do. I think he’s funny, and smart, and selfless. He values family and loyalty and he’s very passionate. I would be happy with just being friends with him for the rest of my life, if that’s what he wanted.”

“And if he wanted you to leave?” Becca asked. “If he didn’t want you in his life anymore, what would you do?” Becca’s gaze was piercing. Steve’s mouth felt as dry as the sand they were sitting on.

“Then I would leave,” Steve said truthfully. “And if you, or any one of your sisters wanted me gone, I would leave then, too.” Becca blinked, eyes widening in surprise.

“I–I wasn’t trying to imply that,” she whispered, looking sheepish. “I’m just scared. And I want him safe.”

“I do too,” Steve, said, sincere. He hoped he had said the right things. This felt like a test with trick questions and double meanings and he hoped Becca was satisfied with his answers.

“You’ll protect him,” Becca began, a fear in her eyes that Steve didn’t know the origins of. “You’ll protect him, won’t you? If anyone tries to come for him?” Steve held Becca’s attention, his heart racing with a growing unease and panic in his chest. But he was a leader; he had been a Captain during World War II. He had maneuvered men through mines and guns and explosions. He had led the Avengers through New York, through side missions in between.

Yet these were the moments where he always felt most vulnerable.

“Yes,” Steve said. Simple. Honest. “With everything I have.” Becca considered him, the waves hitting the shore, rhythmic, reminded Steve of when he’d have asthma attacks and his mother would tell him to match his breathing with hers.

Tears filled Becca’s eyes, and her bottom lip quivered, her hands flexing on her knees.

“I’m really worried about him,” she confessed, voice cracking. “I’m sorry if I’ve been taking that out on you.” Steve wanted to reach out and hold her, try and show her any kind of comfort, but she was avoiding his eyes and her body was turned to the ocean. She didn’t want to be touched.

“I understand,” Steve said gently. “And I’m not mad, or offended.” Becca nodded, biting her bottom lip to stop it from shaking.

“I don’t like SHIELD,” Becca admitted, eyes resolutely avoiding Steve. “I think they only care about themselves. I don’t like how they operate. I don’t trust anyone who tries to speak for the voice of thousands, because more often than not they’re just trying to silence the loudest speaker. And that’s what you’re there for, I think.”

Steve blinked, eyebrows furrowing. “What do you mean?” he asked.

“You’re supposed to embody America, right? You were a symbol of hope and strength during the Nazi regime, and now again when our world is going through police brutality and ISIS and fucking Trump you’re supposed to be used to show people not to give up. Only, SHIELD won’t let you speak out if it’s not what they approve of. You’re like a puppet, Steve,” she said, turning to finally meet his gaze. Her cheeks were stained with tears, though no more fell. She looked resolute. “I hate that. I hate that so much. And I hate that when Bucky was taken prisoner under Hydra, SHIELD’s only concern was making sure he didn’t talk.”

Steve felt sick.

“They got him out, didn’t they?” he asked, voice weak and scared to hear her answer. Becca shook her head and Steve felt cold.

“No,” Becca said, devoid of any emotion. “Agent Romanoff did. That’s one of the reasons I wrote my paper on her.” Steve didn’t know what to say. He felt shocked, rooted still to the spot.

“Did…she save him from a scientist named Zola?” Steve asked. Becca’s shoulders hunched.

“I don’t know. Bucky doesn’t talk about his time in captivity. All I know is that when they found him, he wasn’t himself at all. He shot her, you know. Black Widow. I’m not even sure he remembers doing it.” Steve ran a hand over his eyes, tried to blink the ache in his temples away. It was too much for him to digest now.

“That’s why I don’t like SHIELD,” Becca continued, finally, standing to her feet with a small sigh. “That’s why I don’t fully trust you. But Steve.” She waited until he looked up for her to continue.

“You’re good for him. And he trusts you. You keep your promise to protect him and that’s enough for me.” She left, taking a few towels up with her; Steve stayed, staring blankly out over the sea.

He stirred when the water licked his toes.

The sun had gone down, the sky a nice indigo, but Steve didn’t have the energy to move. His limbs felt heavy under Becca’s words. They sat like stones over him, weighing him down. What was he doing at SHIELD? What was he accomplishing under them?

He didn’t know.

He used to think it was because he would be fighting for the good of humanity. That he’d be protecting people. But SHIELD had been the ones who had wanted to nuke New York, who had wanted to kill millions, when things became a little too complicated. Most of reason he was still at SHIELD was because Peggy had founded it. It no longer seemed to be the organization she had originally built.

According to Becca, they didn’t go after Bucky with the intention to save him but with the intention to keep him silent. Steve thought of Bucky’s left arm, thought of who really did who had really done that to him, SHIELD or Hydra?

He felt the sand and water in between his toes, still warm from the sun. He thought of Tony, inside, helping piece together what Bucky had given up. He thought of Sam, playing with Bucky’s sisters, having their backs, following without a doubt. He thought of Bucky. Bucky. Bucky.
He rose to his feet.

Overhead, a helicopter whirred, and Steve watched as it flew over the top of the safe house, landing and effectively disappearing from his view.

He sprinted to the elevator.

//

Steve wasn’t sure who he had expected to find standing in the living room with Sam and Becca but it certainly wasn’t Pepper Potts.

All the adrenaline he’d built on the ride up in the elevator sizzled when he caught sight of her light red hair and pressed white suit. She turned when she saw him, a genuine smile lighting up her face.

“Steve!” she exclaimed, coming over and pulling him into a hug, despite the fact that he was covered in sand and smelled like sunscreen and salt. She stepped back, fixing his hair a bit. “How are you?”

“Good,” Steve said, “Thank you so much for the clothes.”

“It was no trouble,” Pepper said, waving her hand as if she was brushing his words aside. “I’m sorry you’re here under these circumstances.”

“How long are you staying?” Steve asked.

“Just for tonight,” Pepper said, her smile growing. “I heard you were watching Harry Potter.”

Pepper was, surprisingly, a bigger nerd than Bucky when it came to magic lore. She had spread out on the coffee table all the Hogwarts houses, their individual meanings/characteristics, and had even brought personalized wands for the girls. Win was in love with her.

Sam and he hung back, watched as Pepper turned the living room into what she deemed “the right way” to watch the first film. There were colorful jellybeans in a bowl by the couch, and Steve didn’t understand why the one he ate tasted like grass. Sam just told him he was lucky it wasn’t rotten egg.

Pepper had told Friday to tint the windows, so the room was only lit by an assortment of thick white candles. Popcorn and chocolate shaped like frogs were on the table next to the couch, and Pepper had told Sophie and Becca to get the comforters from the hall closet so they could snuggle up.

“Can we paint our nails while we watch?” Win asked and nearly started crying when Pepper dumped her bag out on the kitchen counter. Steve blinked at the colorful small bottles that poured out. He remembered that he had some for Win as well. He’d have to get them for her, the next time they were at the Tower.

When it was safe.

Tony’s head peeked around the corner, and he whistled until Steve looked up and saw him. Without a word Tony waved him over and disappeared behind the wall. Steve’s first instinct was to be worried that something had happened to Bucky. But Pepper didn’t look concerned, and Tony wouldn’t have told him so impersonally, so he forced himself to breathe deep and not jump to conclusions as he excused himself from the events in the living room.

Tony was waiting by the elevator, tapping his foot like Steve had made him wait hours instead of ten seconds.

“It looks fucking awesome,” Tony said without preamble and it took Steve a moment to realize he was talking about Bucky’s arm. “Wanna see what we got so far?”

“You’ve already started building it?” Steve asked incredulously as he followed Tony into the elevator.

“No, just designing. I can’t build it yet. I need to get my hands on some vibranium first.”

“That’s what my shield’s made from?” Steve asked and Tony hummed, tapping his chin with his fingers as they descended.

“Yeah, same stuff. I wanna make Barnes’ arm from it.” The elevator doors swished open, and Steve wasn’t expecting the jump from the Beatles to Metallica now blasting from the loud speakers.

Bucky was hunched over one of Tony’s smaller computers, his eyebrows furrowed in concentration, and he only looked up when Tony called out to him. He spotted Steve, jumped up from his seat and almost knocked it over in his excitement. He had tied his hair up into a bun, a pink hair scrunchie holding it in place. Steve had seen Sophie use it before.

“Stevie, this is so fuckin’ cool,” Bucky gushed as Steve drew nearer, and he reached out and grabbed Steve’s wrist to pull him close. “Look, check this out.” Bucky drew Steve’s attention to the monitor and Steve’s eyes widened as he leaned forward to get a better look.

“Are those–”

“Hot Rod Flames? Yes,” Bucky laughed and Tony shuffled inbetween them. “Stark put them on. I’m still debating whether or not I like them.”

“Of course you like them,” Tony insisted, swiping his hand across the screen and bringing the hologram of the arm out in front of them.

“I want some kind of design,” Bucky said, pointing to the prosthetic’s bicep, “But I don’t know what it should be.”

“I can help you,” Steve said immediately, “I can draw out some designs.”

“You draw?” Bucky asked, a soft smile on his face. Steve nodded.

“I haven’t in a while, but I used to all the time in the ‘40s. Was how I paid rent.”

“You’ve been holding out on me, Rogers,” Tony interjected, looking away from the arm. “You’re saying you could’ve been drawing me pictures every month to compensate for your floor?”

“I shouldn’t have said anything,” Steve muttered under his breath and Bucky’s eyes twinkled.

“You’d want to help?” he asked and Steve looked at the arm. It was smooth, modeled after Bucky’s right arm, and Steve wished it wasn’t a hologram so he could touch it.

“Of course I do,” Steve said, sincere, tracing his fingers along the arm’s edge.

“It’s going to be stronger than my suit,” Tony said, nudging Steve aside so he could pull up a rendered image of the arm on one of the big screens. It was sleek, powerful, and if Steve looked closely he could make out individual plates that would allow mobility. Knowing Tony, he’d want it to look as polished as possible. “Vibranium isn’t to be messed with. Tin Man here is going to be able to punch through walls.” Bucky’s grin was positively feral.

“I can’t wait,” he said. Steve looked at him. There was a lot going on in Bucky’s eyes, his emotions were no doubt all over the place. But overshadowing all of that was a genuine sense of excitement, of anticipation, and Steve wanted to pull him close, hold him against his chest, and whisper how happy he was for him. How happy he was that he’d finally be getting something back. He was pulled from his thoughts when Tony cleared his throat.

“So, uh, Cap…you gonna put on a shirt anytime in the near future?” Tony asked, a taunting grin on his face. Bucky stepped back, eyes taking Steve in head to toe. There was a playful air about him, but there was also a desire that had Steve feeling warm despite the heavy blasts of air conditioning.

“I don’t mind,” Bucky said, grin widening when Tony slapped his hands over his eyes and groaned.

“Please don’t have sex in my house,” he whined. “Or on any of my equipment.”

“Can’t promise anything with Steve standing here shirtless,” Bucky hummed, licking his bottom lip and then pulling it between his teeth. Steve swallowed and shifted. A low burning heat was pooling in his gut, and his hands twitched at his sides. He kind of wanted Bucky closer.

But Tony was stepping between them and shaking his head and the moment was over.

“God, c’mon you two. We’re gonna go watch Harry fucking Potter.”

//

Tony could complain all he wanted about Steve and Bucky’s flirting, but he followed Pepper around like a lost puppy.

It was a sweet and entertaining change to see, and Steve leaned against the counter with Sam and watched, each nursing a beer.

“Do you think he’s aware of how obvious he is?” Sam asked around the lip of his bottle and Steve cocked his head to the side regarding where Tony was standing behind Pepper’s chair, drinking scotch in one hand while his other was holding hers.

“Absolutely not,” Steve said. Bucky and his sisters had changed into pajamas, and Bucky was just as excited as Win to be watching the movie. He was sitting on the floor, cross-legged, talking to Pepper and letting Sophie braid his hair. Steve, who hadn’t cared for cell phones at all before, wished he had kept his close by to take a picture.
“Are you a Harry Potter fan?” Steve asked Sam, and his friend shrugged.

“I read like, the first book. But I’m open to it,” Sam said, nodding to where everyone was settling in. “Especially since they’re getting so excited.” Steve couldn’t help the smile that stretched over his face, a bubble of happiness building up in his chest.

He hadn’t felt this light in his entire life. He felt awake. It was strange to think, that ever since he’d been found he hadn’t woken up. He’d been going through the motions of living, of eating and fighting and following commands.

But Bucky…ever since Bucky had hit him with his car on a dirt road in the middle of Connecticut he’d actually begun to wake up. He enjoyed little things. He took in every detail around him. He felt energized, he felt alive, he felt thawed. Bucky had taken the ice that had remained inside of him and picked it out, melted it, made Steve warm in all the places that had been cold. It was a dizzying emotion, feeling this attached to someone.

He excused himself from Sam, walking over and standing before Bucky. Bucky looked up when he approached just as Becca called Sam over to the couch.

“Can I talk to you for a sec?” Steve asked. Concern filled Bucky’s eyes and he nodded, standing up and letting his braid fall apart.

“’Course,” he said and followed Steve outside onto the balcony. It wrapped around the house, and Steve took his hand and walked them around to the other side, just in case anyone (Becca, Tony, and Sam) wanted to spy. It was dark, but there were lights, and the sound of the waves helped calm Steve a bit. Bucky’s hand was warm in his, his fingers calloused, and Steve took a moment to memorize the feel of them.

“Are you okay?” Bucky asked almost immediately and Steve laughed, soft, gentle, the sound almost drowned out by the sea. He was so so much better than okay.

“I’m great,” Steve, said, honest, reaching out his other hand to cup Bucky’s cheek. It was warm under his touch. Bucky leaned into his palm, shoulders relaxing. He looked so handsome.

“May I kiss you?” Steve asked. Bucky nodded, tilting his head up a little so he met Steve’s mouth halfway. It was their slowest kiss, and probably their first real one. The others had resulted from being wrapped up in the passion of the moment, controlled by their stronger emotions of worry or anger or need. Now, it was gentle. Now, Steve noticed the way Bucky’s breath hitched when their mouths parted.

Now, he noticed how Bucky stepped closer, how warm he was against Steve’s chest. He squeezed Bucky’s hand, inhaling and letting his mind clear. He didn’t want to think about anything other than how Bucky felt. He was warm all the way down to his toes, a shiver running down his spine every time he felt the flick of Bucky’s tongue.

They didn’t take it further, and they didn’t lose control of themselves. But it was perfect, it was lovely, and when Steve pulled back he didn’t go far, just pressed a reverent kiss to the corner of Bucky’s mouth, to his cheek, his jaw, let his lips hover over the sensitive spot below his ear.

Bucky sighed, leaning into him, his stubble a light scratch against Steve’s skin.

“What was that for?” Bucky asked, voice dazed and breathless, and Steve just kissed him softly on the cheek.

“Because I like you,” Steve said, caressing his jaw with the pad of his thumb. “And I’ve wanted to do that all day.” Bucky smiled, the softest Steve had seen him.

“Me too,” he admitted, before leaning in and drawing Steve into another slow kiss. They pulled away before it could get any more intense and Bucky rested their foreheads together, breathing deep through his nose.

“Can we take this slow?” he asked, and the way his shoulders hunched made Steve think he felt embarrassed for asking. “I–I haven’t been with anyone intimately since before I was under Hydra. I…I need to get used to it.”

“Of course,” Steve said, tightening his hold. “Of course. I haven’t been with anyone intimately in over seventy years.” Bucky laughed, relieved.

“Thank you,” he said, emotion making his voice thick and Steve pulled him into a hug, ran his fingers through his hair.

“How are you?” Steve asked as Bucky nuzzled against his neck, his nose tickling his jaw.

“We can check in after Harry Potter,” Bucky said.

“Is this you deflecting?” Steve asked.

“This is me not wanting to be killed by my sisters for making them wait,” Bucky said, pulling back but not letting go of Steve’s hand. “We’ll talk after. I promise.” Steve regarded him, what he could see of him, before he smiled.

“Okay,” he said. “I’m holding you to it.”

“I’d expect no less,” Bucky, said tugging their joined hands for Steve to start following him back inside. “Shame that you put a shirt on though.” Steve turned red and Bucky laughed, loud and happy and carefree.

//

Tony loved Harry Potter.

He was very vocal about it too and Sophie recorded him multiple times throughout the first two films.

“I could take Voldemort,” Tony said, jumping from the couch with a handful of popcorn. “No doubt, no way would that grey bald wizard take me down.”

“He’s magic,” Sam pointed out and Tony puffed out his chest and raised an eyebrow.

“And my suits aren’t?” he huffed. Sophie had painted all their nails with the polish Pepper had brought, and Steve blew on them absentmindedly as he rested his head on Bucky’s shoulder.

Sam got yellow.

Tony got black.

Bucky got red.

Steve got blue.

Pepper got purple.

Sophie told them to all hold out their hands and she took a picture, turning to Tony.

“Can I tag you in this?” she asked. Tony’s smile grew.

“If you get a picture of me and all these wands fighting Cap and his shield.”

“Deal.” So Steve posed, held his shield up, one leg on the coffee table as Tony positioned himself on the back of the couch, pointing all three wands at him. Pepper laughed into her wine.

//

Sam and Tony were in the kitchen when Steve returned from his shower.

They each had a drink in their hands; their voices pitched low in the silence of the room. Bucky was in the shower now, his sisters asleep in their room. Pepper had said she was turning in for the night as well, but Steve had heard her shuffling papers and making phone calls from the office across the hall. She worked harder than any of them combined. Steve hoped she was recognized for it.

His teammates looked up when he entered, bare feet slapping against the hardwood floor. He didn’t notice the folders sitting on the table at first, until he got close. They were stamped with SHIELD’s logo, opened and laid out all over the counter.

“What’s this?” he asked, stopping to stand between the other two. Tony sighed, digging into his back pocket and plopping his phone down atop the papers. His touch screen lighted up with a missed call.

Steve didn’t recognize the number.

“I’ve gotten about twenty-seven of these in the past two days,” Tony explained, tapping his phone’s screen with his nail. “Most are from Carson’s secretary. Apparently, leaving without explicit permission isn’t something he wants to condone.”

“You’re in trouble,” Steve said, meeting Tony’s gaze. “For helping Bucky.” Tony barked out a laugh though it sounded a bit hysterical, and Sam’s dark eyes tracked him carefully.

“God, it’s like I’m five,” Tony groaned, rubbing a tired hand over his face, scrubbing his nose red. “Fury wouldn’t care where I fucked off to, or who I fucked off with, unless it was in a middle of a mission.”

“Are you going to call him back?” Sam asked and Tony threw his hands into the air.

“At this point I want him to listen to my dial tone!” he said, real frustration in his voice. “We’ve known the man, what, a week? And suddenly he’s acting like he has more command and respect from us than Fury?”

“You don’t trust him,” Sam observed. “You’re trying to push his buttons.”

“Yeah,” Tony sighed, throwing himself into one of the stools at the counter. He surveyed the mess of folders before him, carelessly paging through the papers. “All reports brought to me by Pepper. A write-up of the past mission, more lines of codes, rules…”

“Rules?” Steve asked, leaning over to see what page Tony was thumbing. “What rules?” Tony raised his chin, cleared his throat dramatically, and sat up like he was mimicking Carson in his seat.

“Well, for starters, we can’t act out on our own without Carson’s say-so. We can’t use equipment–which I made–without written approval from Carson or his assistant. And now Carson wants Barnes in for line of questioning.” Steve gritted his teeth, looking over the files with a newfound distaste.

“Line of questioning?” Sam asked, taking one of the files out from under Tony’s elbow. He flipped through it with barely suppressed indignation.

“On what grounds?” Steve demanded and Tony shrugged as Sam called their attention to the file.

“He was captured by Zola,” Sam said, eyes scanning the pages. Steve felt cold. “Experimented on…” Sam’s voice had gone soft, trailing off into just a barely there breath. A weight settled on Steve’s shoulders, pressed him down, made it hard to breathe.

Tony’s jaw was tense, his brown eyes hard.

“What kind of experiments?” Tony ground out, tapping his fingers in an angry little rhythm on the counter top. Sam shot Steve a helpless look, his face pale.

“There’s pictures,” he said, soft. “I don’t think we should look at this.”

“Yet Carson wants us to,” Steve snarled, hands balling into fists and tearing through some of the papers. “He wants us to see them.”

“Fuck that,” Tony scoffed, reaching out and grabbing the file from Sam’s hands. “Fuck him and fuck that emotional manipulation bullshit. I’m burning this.”

Don’t,” Bucky’s voice rang through the kitchen, devoid of his earlier happiness. Steve turned, almost knocked himself off balance from the speed of it. Bucky stood in the middle of the living room, feet bare, his favorite sweats on and one of Steve’s shirts hanging off his shoulders. He must have gotten it from the bag Pepper had brought. His hair was still wet, and it stained clear on the fabric.

“Buck,” Steve started, taking a small step forward.“We didn’t–”

“Maybe you should see it,” Bucky interrupted, looking vulnerable and fierce all at once. He squared his shoulders, raised his chin, and Steve knew he was preparing for a fight. He’d done the same thing himself.

Sam swallowed. “Look, Barnes, Carson just wants to isolate you from us. That’s all this–”

“I know,” Bucky cut Sam off. His eyes never left Steve. “But everything in that file is true. And if he’s going to use what happened to me as ammunition then let’s beat him to the punch. Look at it.”

Steve faltered, his chest hurting. “No,” he said. “Buck, not like this. I’m not looking at this until you’re ready to share it with me.”

“That’s what he wants!” Bucky snapped, face hard and unreadable. “He knows you won’t look at it, Steve. And he’ll use that to catch you off guard later. He knows Tony will see it. And Sam. And he hopes that what they find will make them not trust me. And then they’ll tell you not to trust me, and slowly you’ll build up the reasons why. And you won’t be there when something goes down, or he’ll get me with Zola again, and I–”

“Whoa, Buck, hey.” Steve was over there in an instant, taking Bucky’s face in his hands. He pressed their foreheads together, tried to urge Bucky to match his erratic breathing with his own. “You gotta breathe with me, Buck. Pay attention to how I’m breathing. Can you match it?” Bucky’s eyes were wide, and his right hand was shaking so hard it looked painful. He was on the edge of a panic attack, or some sort of breakdown, and suddenly Steve remembered the way he’d looked when Win had called him.

Lost. Scared. Disassociated. He remembered Win’s small hands holding the butter knife, a defense that Bucky had taught her to use against him.

He traced his thumbs in soothing lines across Bucky’s cheekbones, whispered comforting words to him under his breath, and slowly, very slowly, Bucky’s breathing began to even out.

“There you go,” Steve said, proud, pulling back just a bit so he could evaluate Bucky’s expression. “There’s my best guy.” Bucky stared at him for a long time, regarding, eyes flickering briefly to Sam and Tony before returning. He seemed to resolve something, then, his eyes growing determined.

“You know what?” he said, looking Steve directly in the eyes. “Fuck this. I want to tell you what happened.” Steve blinked, hands falling from Bucky’s face. He hadn’t ever seen Bucky like this before.

“Should we go…?” Tony asked, gesturing to him and Sam but Bucky shook his head.

“No. You need to hear this too. But I’m gonna need a drink first.”

//

Having Bucky explain being taken prisoner was one thing.

Hearing about the experiments, the electroshocks, the intensive training, the strange drugs, was enough to make him disconnect from himself in fear of becoming overwhelmed. It was one thing to have Bucky talk about how one of Stark Industries’ missiles blew off his arm.

It was one thing to hear about how Zola had tried out different serums on him, all trying to replicate the same formula that had enhanced Steve’s abilities.

It was one thing to know about Bucky being tortured, abused, to know that Natasha had found him six months into Hydra wiping his memories and his identity from his mind.

All of that was one thing.

Seeing it, alive, in pictures, taken by Hydra guards was another.

It was enough for Steve to feel dizzy, to get to his feet, to stumble over the sink and vomit until he was crying. It was enough to see Bucky sitting at the counter, detached, emotionless, and utterly cold. If Steve was disconnected he couldn’t imagine how far away Bucky was.

He talked about his time like he was talking about the weather. He showed them the scars on his body and matched them to gruesome pictures of surgeries performed while he had been drugged out of his mind. He said he didn’t know who he was when Natasha saved him.

He said he didn’t know what anything was. He knew nothing, other than Zola and his orders. By Hydra’s accounts, whatever they had done to Bucky had been a success.

And Bucky sat there, drinking, eyes faraway, and when he was done he stared at the files and papers and didn’t say another word. Trained. Steve felt sick all over again.

The silence that followed was suffocating. No one spoke. Sam had to leave the room once, had to come back and pace for thirty minutes. Tony was quiet. Still. He was looking at the reports of Bucky’s missing arm, of the font declaring it had been blasted to dust by a weapon of his own design.

Tony’s phone rang and no one moved to answer it.

“Carson wanted to scare you,” Steve spoke, not recognizing his own voice. Bucky looked up, his eyes tired. “Because you know too much.”

Bucky didn’t answer. There wasn’t any need for him to. Bucky’s hell was immortalized in photographs and on display directly in front of him, hand-wrapped and delivered by a man and organization that was originally established to protect. Steve felt Tony’s and Sam’s eyes on him. He didn’t have to think about what he was going to do.

The whole room held itself in a weighted silence. Steve was the one to break it.

“I’m going to leave SHIELD,” he said, and Bucky’s head snapped up. “And I’m taking down anyone who tries to hurt you.”

Tony’s phone rang again, and Steve smashed it.

Chapter Text

That night Bucky was quiet.

He had drunk five vodka tonics, and even Tony was eyeing him with mild concern when he wobbled on his feet. Steve stood by him, and together both Sam and Tony left them alone. Bucky’s eyes were glazed and unseeing, blank until Steve touched his arm and brought some life back into them.

“Are you okay?” he asked. He felt like he had to, even though he knew the answer. There was no way he was all right. He’d just relived the worst moments of his life in front of three people he really had only just met. Steve couldn’t help but feel guilty. It was obvious that Bucky wasn’t ready. Not when he’d only just gotten out of Witness Protection. Not when his capture was only a year old. Steve knew Bucky still had flashbacks, disassociations, nightmares…and if Steve had them he couldn’t imagine how bad Bucky’s were.

“I don’t wanna sleep,” Bucky whispered; voice a rough scratch of sandpaper against skin. The words sounded like they hurt to say.

“We don’t have to sleep,” Steve said, grip tightening on Bucky’s arm to try and see if maybe, just maybe, a reassuring touch would help clear the rest of the fog from Bucky’s eyes. “We can watch something, if you want.”

“I don’t care,” Bucky said, looking around for his glass. He didn’t seem to realize that it was empty except for some ice cubes. He stumbled and Steve steadied him.

“Let’s go to the couch, Bucky,” Steve urged, voice gentle. “I can go get the blankets. We can watch Star Trek.” Bucky looked wary, cautious, and he shied away from Steve’s touch as subtly as he was able in his inebriated state.

“What if I don’t want to do that?” Bucky asked. There was a challenge in his tone, as if he were daring Steve to deny him. Steve felt uncomfortable, not because of Bucky, but because of the way Bucky seemed to be trying to test him. Hydra had had him for far too long. Steve wished, fleetingly, that he had read the file Natasha had offered him. Maybe there was something in its pages that would tell him how to deal with this situation.

“Then we don’t have to,” Steve said simply. “We can do whatever you want.” Bucky blinked, obviously surprised, but he hid it well with a tilt of his chin and a cold look.

“I had a handler,” he said and Steve’s stomach dropped.

“Buck, you don’t have to tell me any–”

“He would tell me what to do,” Bucky interjected, and his tone was almost daring. Like he was trying to goad Steve into snapping, or breaking, or getting angry. Steve didn’t understand. But really, he didn’t have to. He just needed to be here for Bucky, and if this were something Bucky wanted to talk about then they would talk about it.

“Is that something you really want to tell me?” Steve asked, throat tight. Bucky tipped his glass back, crunching an ice cube between his teeth.

“He wouldn’t let me talk. I had no say in anything. He got crueler, near the end. Cause after two sessions with Zola I stopped fighting back at the sound of one word. And if I didn’t follow orders, they’d kill them.” Bucky looked haggard, exhausted under the white lights of the kitchen. Steve was scared to define who “them” was. He knew. Of course he knew. But he didn’t want to hear it confirmed.

“Buck, why is Carson wanting to question you?” Steve asked, trying to switch the conversation to more tactical, business topics. He wanted to have this conversation with Bucky when he was able to talk about all that happened without fear of judgment or retribution. But Steve didn’t want to have it when Bucky was drunk and didn’t have control over what he was saying.

“I know what Hydra’s been planning,” Bucky said, shrugging and tapping a clumsy finger against his temple. “I know how they operate, inside and out. If I know people in SHIELD, like say, Captain fucking America, then I could really lend in dismantling them.” Talking like this, about strategy and pragmatics, seemed to help focus Bucky’s attention. He didn’t seem as in his head now, and Steve felt immensely relieved. He hadn’t liked where Bucky’s mind was taking him, down the route of reliving his time under his Handler.

The thought of that alone made Steve feel sick with rage. And he didn’t want to get angry now, especially when it would be so easy for Bucky to misconstrue it to Steve being angry with him.

“You know I’m not going to let them touch you,” Steve said, desperately wanting Bucky to feel safe. “You know I won’t let them hurt any one of you.”

“I know you’ll try,” Bucky said, eyes blank. “I know you’ll kill yourself trying. Cause that’s how you are.” Bucky’s tone was soft, reminiscent, and Steve wanted to know what he was thinking to make his features look like he was in a dream. Bucky’s next words stopped Steve’s breath.

“What if they make you fight me?” Bucky asked.

“I wouldn’t,” Steve said immediately, and Bucky stared at him, long and hard.

“What if I lost it? What if they’re able to take me back to my old headspace, the one they created? What if I’m going after Win? Would you fight me then?” Steve swallowed, chest tight. He could feel the tendrils of a panic attack growing, tickling him behind his ribs. He tried to breathe deep through it.

“I don’t know,” Steve croaked, voice as rough as Bucky’s. “Please don’t make me answer that, Buck. I can’t.” Bucky’s expression shifted immediately, from cold to caring, and he was in front of Steve in an instant, his glass of ice left forgotten on the kitchen counter.

“Shit, Stevie, hey, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, all right? I didn’t mean nothin’ by it. Hey, look at me, I’m sorry.” Steve met Bucky’s gaze, tried to ground himself enough to talk but the words wouldn’t come and air felt thin.

“I just want to prepare you for the worst,” Bucky said, voice quiet, no louder than a whisper.

“That would be the worst,” Steve said, laughing a bit hysterically. Bucky cracked a crooked smile at the sound. He reached up, traced Steve’s jaw with the tips of his fingers, and followed the line down his throat and over his Adam’s apple. He seemed to come back to himself. He sighed, suddenly drained, and pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger.

“I need water. And to sit down,” Bucky groaned. Steve took his hand, leading him with precise steps to the couch and Bucky all but fell onto it. When Steve made to leave Bucky caught him around the wrist, looking up at him with wide eyes.

“Where are you going?”

“I’m getting you some water,” Steve explained gently, feeling the thunderous beat of Bucky’s pulse against his skin. “I’ll be right back.” Bucky let go but didn’t look all too reassured. Steve retrieved the water from the kitchen and brought it back over.

Bucky took it with quiet thanks. He didn’t drink it right away though. Steve sat down beside him, contemplating the right words to say. Maybe silence was best, for now. Steve felt Bucky shaking abruptly beside him, so hard he was practically vibrating.

Concern filled him like hot air.

“Buck, hey, do you need a blanket?” Bucky’s head was drooped low, his hair obscuring his face, but Steve had a feeling he was crying and trying to hide it. His heart ached for him. There was no crying with Hydra. Bucky wasn’t making a sound. He was utterly silent, but Steve could tell.

“Buck–” Steve began but Bucky was over him in an instant, legs straddling his hips and mouth hard and insistent on his. He cut off whatever Steve had wanted to say; it was clear that Bucky didn’t want to talk, but Steve could taste the salt of his tears on his tongue and he tried to push him gently back. Bucky made a low noise in his throat, settling his full weight over Steve and kissing him so intensely that he bent Steve’s head back against the cushions. Heat blazed through Steve’s veins, the feeling similar to the adrenaline kick he always got in a fight, and he couldn’t help the small sound that escaped him. Bucky licked it up like honey. There was urgency to this, there was fear and anger and confusion, and Bucky was drunk.

Bucky was drunk.

Steve gently gripped his shoulders, pushed him back until their mouths separated and Bucky was panting hard above him, pupils blown and cheeks red. There were tears in his eyes, stained wet across his cheeks. He saw Steve noticing and tried to distract him again, tried to get close and continue but Steve held him back and leveled him with as calm a look as he could.

“Bucky, we can’t do this now,” he said, even though he was sure his body was betraying every good intention his words were trying to convey. Bucky bit his lip and leaned closer.

“Do you not want me?” he asked, voice pitched low and smelling heavy like alcohol. That killed the rest of Steve’s arousal and he pressed a chaste kiss to Bucky’s wet cheek.

“I do. God, I do, but not when you’re upset. And not when you’re drunk.” Bucky all but growled, ripping himself out of Steve’s lap and stumbling to his feet. He almost fell, but balanced himself. Roughly, embarrassed, he scrubbed a hand over his eyes, rubbing them red and dry.

“I’m such a fucking mess,” he whispered, looking up at the ceiling.

“No, you’re not,” Steve said, voice hard. Bucky shot him a blank look.

“Why are you putting yourself through all of this for me?”

“It’s not a hardship, Bucky. I want to do this.”

“Really? You want to go against one of the world’s most powerful organizations? I’m not worth all that.”

“To me you are,” Steve said, a desperate note to his voice. Bucky’s lip curled, and he looked to his left shoulder, looked to the empty space below where he had clipped his sleeve.

“I’ve done horrible things,” Bucky said, voice small and broken like a child’s.

“Under Hydra?” Steve asked, pushed, and Bucky’s lip trembled.

“Doesn’t matter who it was under. I still did it.” Steve knew, then, that there was no reasoning with him. There was absolutely nothing he could say to try and change Bucky’s perspective.

He had just told Steve a core belief of his. The guilt and self-loathing he must be feeling was something Steve could sympathize with. Bucky wasn’t saying any of this to try and get Steve’s sympathy, or to get Steve to try and fix it.

That wasn’t what he needed. What Bucky needed right now was someone to listen and validate his feelings, because they were valid, even if they were hard to hear.

Wordlessly, Steve held out his hand for Bucky to take. Wordlessly, he did.

//

“So. You lost.”

Bucky blinked, looking up from his phone, his feet shifting on Steve’s lap as he met Sophie’s gaze. It was early morning, and Bucky’s hair was still a mess, his right cheek red from where it had been resting against Steve’s shoulder for most of the night.

Steve sipped his coffee delicately, looking between Bucky and his sister with a growing sense of amusement. Bucky hadn’t slept, so Steve hadn’t either. At around five they sat on the balcony with eggs and toast and sausage and watched as the sun rose over the ocean.

“Maybe I’ll become vegetarian,” Bucky had said. Steve looked at his plate.

“Really?” he asked. Bucky erupted in laughter.

“No,” he had said, taking a large bite of sausage. Now, after, he looked tired but more himself. Sophie coming up to reprimand him seemed to bring Bucky back completely.

“What?” Bucky asked.

“You forgot about school.” The realization on Bucky’s face was close to hilarious.

Fuck,” he groaned, slapping a hand over his eyes. “I gotta call your teachers.”

“Becca already did,” Sophie said and guilt so deep it made Bucky look old shrouded his features.

“I’m so sorry, Soph–”

“Don’t apologize to me. I get it. But say sorry to Becca. She’s in our room.” Bucky nodded, rising to his feet. Steve watched him carefully, and he swayed a little but remained steady as he exited the living room. Sophie turned to him. For a second, Steve thought she was going to tear him apart like Becca. Instead, she flopped down next to him and pulled out her phone.

“He’s hung over,” she said, and it wasn’t a question.

“Yeah,” Steve sighed.

“Rough night?” she asked, tone purposefully casual. Steve shot her a sidelong glance but her attention was to her screen.

“A little. He didn’t disassociate.” Sophie’s shoulders relaxed.

“Good,” she said. “Look, this is crazy, I posted that pic of our nails and I’ve gotten over 3,000 followers in one night!” She tilted her phone so Steve could see.

“People can comment?” Steve asked, reaching for the phone and Sophie let him have it, leaning over to show him how to scroll through her feed.

“Oh yeah,” she said, and stopped when Steve clicked on a picture of Bucky. His hair was short, and he was in uniform. It must’ve been a day on one of his leaves, because he wasn’t in combat gear. He looked a lot younger, posing with an older woman in what Steve recognized as Brooklyn. He knew the café they were standing in front of. He passed it on his runs. They served the best chai.

“That’s an older one,” Sophie said when she saw what picture Steve had clicked. “That’s Bucky after his first tour. Before he was reassigned to special forces.”

“How long ago?” Steve asked, transfixed by the man smiling up from the phone’s screen. He looked so happy. It was almost alarming to see his left arm wrapped around the woman’s shoulders. Often Steve forgot he had even lost it.

“God, about four years ago? Sometime in 2012.” Steve couldn’t help the smile on his face, even if it was a little sad.

“Who’s she?” he asked, referring to the woman.

“Our mom,” Sophie said.

“She’s beautiful,” Steve said, turning to look at her. “Does she live in Brooklyn?”

“She did,” Sophie said. “She was killed in the New York attack.” Steve froze.

“And your dad?” he asked tentatively.

“Same. Their apartment building fell on them,” Sophie swiped out of the picture, her voice detached. It had been four years. Long enough to be able to talk about the circumstance but still not used to the dull hollow ache the words brought. Steve knew that all too well.

“I’m so sorry,” he said, sincere.

“It’s okay,” Sophie said.

“I lost my parents,” Steve began and Sophie turned to look at him. “My mother died from tuberculosis when I was twenty two. My dad from mustard gas before I was born.”

“Shit,” Sophie breathed. “I’m sorry too.”

“Thanks,” Steve said. He could tell, unlike others, that she meant it.

“Was your dad in the army too?” Sophie asked.

“He was. One of the reasons I wanted to join,” Steve answered. They sat in silence for a while before Sophie broke it.

“Do you wanna see a picture of Bucky in high school?” Steve felt his face light up.

“Do you even have to ask?”

//

Pepper left around eleven.

Tony saw her off, and came back with lipstick staining his mouth.

Sam teased him about it for an hour. Well, he tried, but Tony was a lot of things and shameless was certainly one of them, so the taunts Sam tried to throw weren’t usually taken with any sort of embarrassment. It was one of the things Steve admired about Tony Stark: his comfort in his own skin and sexuality.

Tony went to his lab to do the finalizations on Bucky’s arm before sending out his inquiry for vibranium to his long far away friend. He mumbled about knowing a king in Wakanda. Bucky joined them at the beach.

He didn’t take his shirt off, but he lounged in the shade of the umbrellas and laughed when he still managed to get a tan and Steve had burned red. Bucky looked a lot lighter after his nap on the towels, and he smelled like sunscreen and sea and Steve couldn’t help leaning in to kiss him.

He had forgotten about the presence of Bucky’s sisters, and Bucky seemingly had as well, and they both looked in their direction with matching levels of apprehension.

But Sophie was just looking at them with the largest smile on her face, her cheeks flushed with joy. She was the only one who had seen and she gave them both enthusiastic thumbs up.

Sam grilled them all salmon and Tony made barbs that he had never seen a bird fry a fish before as he worked. The sunset was a beautiful shade of pink and orange and Bucky tucked himself into Steve’s side as the colors faded. After they all ate they piled onto the couch and watched Prisoner of Azkaban and Tony called Pepper to tell her which scenes were the most popular. At around eight, Tony left in his jet to meet his friend about the vibranium.

Bucky called his boss at the hospital and the girls’ school. Steve could hear the last conversation, muffled and whispered as it was. After Bucky hung up he took a moment, breathing deep, before he made his way over to where Steve was doing the dishes in the sink.

“Hey,” he said, smile soft and playful. Steve loved it when he was like this.

“Hey yourself,” Steve said, leaning over to press the words into Bucky’s lips.

“So, I need to have the girls in school by Monday,” Bucky said, fingers playing with the hem of Steve’s shirt. “Is that going to be possible or should I just alert the school that we are now on the run and have to drop out?” Steve scoffed, flicking suds at Bucky’s nose.

“We aren’t on the run,” Steve said, stepping back a little when he noticed Bucky eyeing the soapy bubbles in the sink. “Don’t even think about it. I’ve been washing fish oil all night.”

Bucky wrinkled his nose. “And yet you flicked it on me?”

“It barely got on you,” Steve protested, a shit-eating grin spreading over his face.

“Why do I like you?” Bucky sighed, and Steve didn’t even try to hide the delight and joy that spread through him like a warm, clean sheet.

“Cause I watch Star Trek marathons with you at 2am,” Steve tried and Bucky tapped his chin and pretended to think.

“Hm, no, don’t think that’s it….” he hummed, eyes rolling up.

“Oh, no?” Steve laughed, reaching out with a wet hand to grip Bucky’s waist and pull him closer. Bucky yelped, looking down at Steve’s hand like it had personally offended him.

“No, it’s because you keep getting soapy fish oil water on–” Steve ducked to kiss him, deep and slow and thorough, and when he pulled back Bucky’s cheeks were pink and his eyes wide.

“Still only like me ‘cause of the fish water?” Steve asked, waggling his eyebrows. Bucky slapped him with the sponge.

//

It was Sophie who showed them the pictures.

There were four, all equally grainy, all equally dark, all equally showing both their faces clear enough that they were recognizable. It was their first kiss, in the middle of Steve’s living room.

“These are all over every media outlet,” she said, letting Bucky take the phone from her. “Buck, this isn’t good. You’re supposed to be lying low.”

“I thought I was,” Bucky whispered, eyes glued to the screen. He turned to look at Steve. “What does this mean for you?” Steve didn’t know. But he wasn’t about to tell Bucky that.

“Nothing,” he said, and watched as Bucky read him like a book. “I’ll be fine.” He could tell Bucky knew he was lying.

//

Steve stayed away from the news.

He didn’t answer his personal phone when it rang. He received one text at 4am from Natasha.

Stay low. They’re looking.

Steve didn’t need to ask who “they” were. Sunday crept around and Bucky packed up his and the girls’ things that morning. It was strange to leave, especially because Steve didn’t know how safe Bucky’s home was. But Tony assured them it was fine, that Carson had no warrant and no real written legal evidence to come after Bucky now.

“I’m not saying he’s not working on it,” Tony said as he paced around his lab, telling Friday to send those files and these files to his hard-drive on his phone. “But he’s at least a little behind for now.” Bucky didn’t look convinced but he also didn’t want to deal with the district calling and asking about his sisters’ absence from school as well, so at noon that day everyone piled into Tony’s jet and set off for home. It was a slightly longer ride to Bucky’s house, and Win and Sophie both had fallen asleep on the trip there.

“Home sweet home,” Bucky yawned, and Steve got up with him to help gather the bags and carry Win inside.

“Wait,” Tony said, holding out his hand before they could disembark. “Let me scan.” A red beam came from the nose of the jet, tracked down the length of Bucky’s house before blitzing and showing Tony its report on one of the screens.

“All good,” Tony called, giving them a thumbs up. Sam lolled in his sleep against the window. “Now, Barnes. Our appointment for tomorrow still stands. I’ll send a jet to come pick you up. Also, Dr. Cho said you shouldn’t eat 24 hours before the surgery. Also no drinking until a week after.” He paused, regarding Bucky for a long moment. “You still want it to be connected right? Cause we can still make it removable.”

“I want it connected,” Bucky said, swallowing. “I–I want to be able to touch things and feel them.” Tony gave a sharp nod, sucking his gums as he thought.

“We’ll go back over the risks and side-effects tomorrow, then,” he said, and Bucky looked a mix of nervous and excited, but he smiled and nodded.

“Thank you,” he said sincerely, and Tony waved the words away with a scoff and a little blush before he began to close the doors of the jet.

“You stayin,’ Cap?” he asked, even if it seemed like he already knew the answer.

“Yeah, I’ll be back tomorrow,” Steve said and Tony sent him a salute before pulling the jet off the ground and flying swiftly away.

“Are you telling Carson you’re resigning?” Bucky asked as they made their way through the back door. Sophie gave a huge yawn, making a beeline for their room upstairs. Win stirred against Steve’s chest, and he let Becca take her as he and Bucky set the bags down in the kitchen. Bucky opened the fridge, his eyes tired, as he tried to scrape together enough food to make dinner.

“I’d like to,” Steve said, leaning against the far wall. “After those pictures I’m not sure what to expect when I go in.” Bucky slammed the fridge door with an alarming show of strength.

“Those pictures shouldn’t be affecting your life at all,” he hissed, righteous anger blazing behind his eyes.

“I know, Buck,” Steve placated, holding up his hands in what he hoped was a calming gesture. Bucky deflated, rubbing his hand over his eyes in short, jerky movements.

“Why does everything have to be so complicated all the time?” he groaned, peeking up at Steve through his fingers. “Why can’t I just make out with you without it making front page news?”

Steve laughed, walking forward and cupping Bucky’s face in his hands. He hadn’t shaved in a day or so, and his stubble pricked the calloused skin of Steve’s palms.

“I think people are jealous,” Steve said, grinning slowly. Bucky pouted.

“I would be too, if some fucked-up veteran got to neck with Captain America.” Steve frowned, running his thumbs over the jut of Bucky’s cheekbones.

“I meant they’d be jealous because I got to kiss the most beautiful man in the twenty-first century.” Bucky shot him a blank look and Steve shook his head, leaning forward and meeting Bucky halfway.

The kiss was slow but warm, building to hot when Bucky tucked his thumb into Steve’s belt loop and pulled them flush together. Bucky’s tongue curled around his and heat made his skin feel tight, made him shiver, and he didn’t realize he had pressed so close that Bucky’s back was against the front of the fridge until he felt the cool surface on the back of his fingers. The innocent beginning of the kiss was quickly changing, and Bucky made a soft sound in the back of his throat, his hips shifting against Steve’s and making his head spin. Steve let his hands slide down Bucky’s sides, resting on his hips, slipping under the hem of Bucky’s shirt.

Bucky arched like a cat into the touch, bit Steve’s bottom lip as Steve slowly let his hand slide up under the fabric, his own breath catching at the feel of Bucky’s skin, of the subtle ridges of his abdominals.

They froze when they heard the girls make a particularly loud noise upstairs, and they waited in a suspended silence until it was apparent that no one was about to walk in on them. Steve’s heart was pounding in his chest, harder than he’d ever felt it after the serum. Bucky’s cheeks were flushed, his eyes dark and wide. His lips were red and swollen and slick and Steve wasn’t a strong man so he dipped down to steal one last open-mouthed kiss.

They were both breathing fast and hard. Steve’s hands were still on Bucky’s stomach, and he felt a little foolish to keep them there. So he moved his fingers, gently, massaging Bucky’s skin in slow, sensual movements. Bucky’s eyes fluttered, and he hooked his left foot around Steve’s ankle.

“Should…um, should we stop?” Steve asked, voice rough; he had to clear his throat to get the words out. Bucky looked torn, half from lust and half from the realization that his sisters were upstairs and expecting dinner.

“I don’t really want to,” he admitted, licking his lip in that way of his. Steve’s eyes tracked the movement like he was hypnotized. In a way he was. He didn’t know what to say. Maybe they should pull apart, calm down, get their bodies back under their own control, but Bucky was leaning and pressing small kisses to the side of Steve’s neck, his lips soft and his stubble rough. Steve’s grip tightened on him, his nails digging in just a little, but the feeling had Bucky shivering and exhaling hard.

“We could take a shower?” Bucky said, kissing him one last time before tucking his face into Steve’s shoulder. Steve hadn’t ever really seen Bucky embarrassed too often, and the act had his chest tightening with endearment and something just as soft but so deep he felt it in his bones.

“Are you sure?” Steve asked, trying to clear his head. Bucky had wanted to take things slow, and it had been less than a week since that had been established between them. He wasn’t sure if this was too fast or not, and he didn’t want it to be because Bucky felt like this was the next step. He wanted to make sure that Bucky was ready.

“We don’t–have to do anything. But I…I like this. Right now. I like how you feel,” Bucky muttered, his voice muffled against his skin. Steve was sure Bucky was able to feel his heart skip. Bucky’s skin was hot to the touch, and Steve slowly removed his hands from under his shirt.

“I’d like that,” Steve said, gently, and Bucky looked up at him, his features nervous.

“Yeah?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Steve assured, kissing the tip of his nose and making Bucky’s eyebrows furrow. “If you’re sure.”

“I am,” Bucky, said quickly, fast enough that Steve leveled him with a look. “I mean, I’ve thought about it. A lot. So. I’m okay with this.”

“You’ve thought about us showering together?” Steve asked, his own face flushing. He couldn’t say he hadn’t thought of the same thing; they had shared a bathroom all week, and his mind often wandered, but he didn’t know Bucky’s train of thought shared the same track.

“Yeah. Amongst other things,” Bucky said, his lips turning up into something sly at the corners. A pulse of heat pulled at Steve’s groin.

“Maybe we shouldn’t talk about those ones ideas yet,” Steve swallowed and Bucky took Steve in and breathed deep.

“Y–yeah, no, yeah you’re right. Not now, at least.”

“Not now, yeah. But um, maybe some other time?”

“Yeah, when we’re alone.”

“Yeah.”

“Right.” They looked at each other for a moment before they both started laughing, Steve tucking his face into Bucky’s neck to try and muffle the sound.

“Oh god,” Bucky sighed, his smile evident in his voice. “You’re so cute.” Steve bit him in retaliation.

“I don’t think a shower is a good idea right now,” Bucky admitted after a moment, his hand braced on the back of Steve’s neck. Steve thought about it, thought about how Bucky’s skin felt against him, how it would feel wet, how it would look wet, and he had to shift his hips away so Bucky wouldn’t feel him harden. Steve nodded against Bucky’s skin, took a moment to breathe him in.

“That’s probably wise,” he agreed, voice a little strained.

“How about tomorrow night?” Bucky asked, playing with Steve’s hair. “I could spend the night before my surgery?” Steve couldn’t hide the shiver at Bucky’s words.

“Okay,” he said, pressing one last kiss under Bucky’s ear before pulling away. “Let’s make dinner.”

//

The girls got up the following morning all by themselves.

Win hoisted herself up onto the bed and flopped herself over Bucky’s head, wet hair from her morning shower tickling his skin. Steve took a picture on his phone from his vantage point in the doorway, smiling like a fool the whole while.

He had made breakfast with Sophie as Becca got their lunches made, and they all stood at the door, bouncing on their toes as they waited for the bus.

“I can still drive you guys,” Bucky said, absentmindedly tucking Win’s hair behind her ear.

“Yeah, cause I’d love to start senior year arriving in the back of your broken truck,” Becca sassed, checking her phone almost robotically. She looked a little nervous.

“Just offering,” Bucky placated, straightening up before planting a big kiss to Win’s forehead. “Gran’s picking you guys up from school, remember that.”

“Why can’t we come with you to the surgery?” Sophie asked, adjusting the straps on her backpack. Becca’s jaw ticked, but she remained silent.

“I’m not sure if SHIELD wants me for questioning still or not,” Bucky sighed, scratching the back of his head. “And in case they do I don’t want you girls there to deal with that.”

“So you’re going somewhere dangerous,” Becca deadpanned, crossing her arms. Steve flinched, hating the entire situation in general.

“Well, Carson doesn’t stay in the Tower. That’s for the Avengers, really,” Bucky said, trying to make the situation better to ease Win’s scared expression. “Besides, Steve will be with me.”

Becca tossed Steve a considering look. “You’ll handle everything, right?” she asked him.

Steve nodded. “Yes.”

“I’m not a kid,” Bucky grumbled, looking up at the sound of tires crunching over gravel.

“Sure, bro,” Sophie said, pulling Bucky into a tight hug. “Love you.” Bucky’s arm pulled her close and he pressed a kiss to her temple.

“I love you too,” he whispered, voice catching.

“Send us pics,” Becca said, stepping up for a hug of her own. “I wanna see this new badass arm ASAP.”

Bucky laughed. “Will do,” he said. Steve thought he recognized the teenage boy who pulled up the driveway in an old Volvo with shaggy hair and a timid expression on his face. Bucky had shifted his stance when he saw him, raised his chin, and Steve laughed at how intimidating the veteran looked.

“You’re scaring him,” he said, leaning over to whisper the words into Bucky’s ear. Bucky didn’t seem concerned. Becca and Sophie both piled into the boy’s car and they watched it peel away down the drive and off onto the road.

It was harder, Steve realized, for Bucky to send Win off to the bus.

He held her hand and walked her down the drive, making sure she made it onto the bus with absolutely no trouble. She went to school later, and she had sat with Steve and Bucky drawing pictures on the front porch until nine.

Bucky stood in the driveway, watching until the yellow school bus was out of sight. Even then he didn’t move, just stared. Steve made his way down the porch, walking to stand beside him.

Wordlessly, Bucky took his hand. They stood in companionable silence for a while, the sounds of birds and crickets making a rhythm of white noise. Steve squeezed Bucky’s hand.

“You ready to go get an arm?”

Chapter Text

Bucky was quiet as the jet Tony sent landed in the backyard.

He seemed almost torn to leave his house, only moving when Steve took his hand and urged him on. The same pilot Steve had on the last mission waved timidly from the front seat. Bucky’s eyes remained fixed out the window, but Steve moved his thumb gently over the bumps of his knuckles, hoping the gesture helped keep him grounded. Tony met them on the landing pad with a short Korean woman whose hair was pulled back and eyes gentle.

When she held her hand out for Bucky to shake she didn’t comment on the fact that he was shaking with nerves.

“It’s nice to meet you, Sargent Barnes,” she introduced herself. “I’m Dr. Cho. I’ll be doing your surgery tomorrow morning. Have you eaten anything recently?”

“No ma’am,” Bucky said, shifting nervously on his feet. “Not since last night.”

“It’s okay to have food today. Just not after 6pm,” she said, noticing Steve and holding out her hand for him to shake. Her palms were soft. “Are you nervous?” Her question was directed at Bucky. He swallowed, ran his hand through his hair.

“Yeah,” he admitted, meeting Tony’s eyes. “Terrified.”

//

After all this time away it was strange for Steve to be back on his floor, in his room.

It felt cold and indifferent in a way it didn’t used to. He was hyper aware of the lack of color, the sparse furnishings, the pristine cleanliness of it all. It felt like he was walking into a model room, not one that he had been living in for the past five years. Bucky exited the elevator behind him, still looking a little overwhelmed but collected, and he exhaled a deep breath as he stood in the middle of Steve’s living room.

“You okay?” Steve asked. Bucky nodded, and held out his hand, beckoning Steve over. He complied without any hesitation, folding himself into Bucky’s arm and letting Bucky run his fingers through Steve’s hair. Comforting gestures and actions seemed to help Bucky find a calm in himself, especially when his sisters weren’t near, so Steve made himself small, curled into Bucky’s chest, and breathed in the smell of his skin and soap.

He couldn’t help pressing a kiss under Bucky’s ear, another one on the sharp edge of his jaw when Bucky shivered.

“Steve,” he sighed, turning his head and pressing his lips gently to the corner of Steve’s mouth. Steve wrapped his arms around Bucky’s waist, pulled him close enough that he could feel every line of him. It was hard to not get aroused with Bucky this close, with his lips soft and warm against his skin. He tried to ignore the heat pool at the base of his spine, the pull and curl in the pit of his stomach.

“Kiss me,” Bucky said, already leaning for it. Steve did, open mouthed and dirty. Bucky’s arm wrapped around Steve’s neck, his fingers pressing insistent but not uncomfortable against his jugular. The pressure was enough for Steve to kiss him deeper, harder, as filthy as he ever had.

He could feel Bucky grow hard against his thigh and just that knowledge had his head spinning, his body sensitive and tingly and so so aware of Bucky’s every move.

“Shower now?” Bucky laughed, breathless, into Steve’s mouth. Steve kissed him again for another long moment. He felt like there was something he needed to do, something they needed to get done, but all he could think about was his growing need and how unreal it was that Bucky wanted this as much as he did.

“Yeah,” he breathed before kissing Bucky blue. They tripped over their own feet five different times before Steve almost broke the door to the bathroom. They were frantic, hands shaking so badly with their need and desire that it took them that much longer to discard their jeans, their shoes, their shirts, and Bucky didn’t even seem to be self conscious until Steve’s fingers skimmed low on his bare left shoulder and he was pulling back but not away, forehead against Steve’s cheek as he tried to steady his breathing.

“W–wait,” he gasped, teeth scraping against Steve’s skin. “I…is this…” he seemed to be struggling to find the right words, or to get anything coherent out, so Steve placed his palm over Bucky’s heart and felt it beat wildly under his skin.

“I think you’re beautiful,” Steve said, kissing every piece of Bucky he could reach. “Your arm included. Your scars included. They’re not ugly, Bucky. They’re proof that you went through hell and kept going. And they’re just as lovely and perfect and strong as the rest of you.”

Bucky let out a shaky breath. “How do you always know the right things to say?” he asked, voice strained.

“I don’t,” Steve, admitted, gently trailing his fingers over the raised scar tissue surrounding Bucky’s shoulder like a ripped sleeve. This time, Bucky didn’t pull away.

“I’m just honest,” Steve said. Bucky let out a sharp breath before he was crushing their mouths together so hard their teeth clacked. It was their dirtiest kiss yet, their tongues meeting before their lips, and Steve couldn’t stop the low groan that built in his chest.

His breath stuttered almost to a halt when Bucky took him in his hand. He was fully hard, hot and pulsing, and Bucky stroked him with a dry palm that had Steve’s toes curling.

Bucky,” he gasped, sharp and surprised.

“Have you gotten a hand-job before?” Bucky asked, voice just as breathless as Steve. Steve swallowed, his mouth horribly dry.

“Y-yeah,” he croaked. Bucky’s smile was sharp. He dropped to his knees. Steve almost died, right then. Bucky leaned forward, kissed the skin over his hipbone. Steve was trembling, and Bucky took his hand, led his fingers to tangle into his long hair. Steve did, gently, and Bucky’s eyes fluttered.

“Has anyone ever sucked you off before?” Bucky asked before taking Steve into his mouth. Steve’s whole body tensed, fire shooting through every nerve ending in his body.

“F-fuck, Bucky,” he pleaded, fingers tightening uselessly in Bucky’s hair. Bucky pulled off, kissing him gently, teasing.

“Has anyone ever sucked you off before?” he repeated, and Steve forced his eyes open, to look down at where Bucky was kneeling before him. Christ, that was a horrible idea. Bucky’s lips were redder than ever, his cheeks flushed, his eyes black and dazed.

“No,” Steve whimpered. Bucky smiled, a cat’s smile.

“Good,” he said before taking Steve all the way down.

//

Steve returned the favor in the shower, the water growing cold on his face and skin but he didn’t care, not when Bucky was trembling and coming apart on the tiles above him.

Not when Bucky’s sounds were vulnerable and needy and perfect. Not when Bucky’s long hair was wet and sticking to the red of his cheeks and the flush of his neck.

 

Not when Steve was so in love he felt like he could eat the world raw.

//

After, Steve held Bucky in his bed, the sheets warm and wrinkled around them.

He had never felt this relaxed, this at ease in his life. He kissed Bucky’s scarred shoulder and Bucky didn’t flinch away or look distressed because of his scars.

“You make me happy,” Steve admitted, smiling against Bucky’s skin. Bucky draped his leg over Steve’s, tangled them impossibly closer.

“You make me strong,” Bucky whispered, like it was a secret just for Steve, and kissed him until their blood was on fire and they burned each other whole. Steve rolled them over, spread Bucky’s thighs, settled himself between them like they had been doing this their whole lives.

Steve wished they had.

//

That night, Steve didn’t eat either.
Instead, he and Bucky cuddled on the couch after Skyping his sisters, and Bucky cried silently onto Steve’s bare chest. Steve held him, kissed him, and told him about how he used to wear newspapers in his shoes.

Bucky laughed.

At two, when the sky was ink dark and the noises of New York was as muffled as it would ever be, the two stumbled off to bed.

Steve watched Bucky sleep and mouthed, “I love you” into his skin.

//

Dr. Cho went through the procedure.

She was more in depth than Tony, and focused more on explaining and showing the charts to Bucky, informing him on how the prosthetic would work. She explained that Bucky would be able to control the arm with his brain. She said it would connect with his bones and nerves and muscles. She said it would attach with a titanium bolt in his shoulder, and she said it was called osseointegration, or bone-anchoring.

“You’ll have feeling,” she explained, “although it will take a couple of weeks for the nerves to readjust. You’ll be oversensitive, and we’ll need to take things extremely slowly. We don’t want to overload your brain, or your nerves. The arm will work with a direct link to nerve endings and muscles. Information from your brain to your arm will go both ways through the wires, and you’ll receive feedback from various pressure points. We’ll need routine checkups, to make sure everything is running smoothly. Do you understand what I’m saying so far?” Bucky nodded wordlessly. His eyes had that faraway look he got when he would begin to disassociate, and Dr. Cho seemed to recognize this, because she passed him some water and came to stand in front of where he was sitting on a small chair in the corner. After Cho went through the procedure here, they would move Bucky into the operation room, and Steve would have to say goodbye.

It was a realization that made Steve even more anxious.

“I understand that this is a lot to take in,” she began, voice soft, and Tony stopped fiddling with his phone to turn and listen too. “I also understand that your past experiences with doctors were not pleasant.” Bucky paled but didn’t say anything. Steve desperately wanted to walk over and hold him, kiss him, take him up in his arms and bring him back to the comfort of his house in Connecticut, away from New York.

But he didn’t. He stayed by Tony, nails digging into his forearms to keep himself from moving.

“I’m not Hydra,” Cho said, and Bucky jolted, the fog lifting from his eyes as he stared at her in shock.

“I’m not Hydra,” she repeated like Bucky didn’t hear. “I’m not going to hurt you. I’m not going to do anything you haven’t signed for. Do you see Steve?” Bucky’s eyes flickered over to where Steve was standing, and the tension in his shoulders visibly softened.

“Yes,” he whispered, voice breaking. Steve had to take several deep breaths to keep his feet still. Bucky didn’t break eye contact. It was like he was noticing Steve for the first time and he didn’t want to look away, like he was scared Steve would disappear if he did. Steve held his gaze.

“You trust him, don’t you?” Cho was asking and Bucky nodded.

“Yes,” he said. Obedient. It was an instinctual response the way Bucky delivered it. Cho smiled gently.

“He’ll be here the whole time. Right behind that glass,” she said, gesturing over her shoulder to the two-way mirror. “He’s going to be with you through all of this. So is Mr. Stark. So am I. You’re in a safe environment.” She waited until Bucky’s eyes were focused on her again.

“I’ll ask you again, Bucky,” she said. “Do you still want to go through with this?” Bucky seemed to be debating with himself, with his flashbacks and his memories, with the phantom pains and scars that Hydra had seared into his mind.

“Yes,” Bucky said. He sounded certain.

//

Steve held Bucky’s hand as Dr. Cho slipped the IV with the anesthesia into Bucky’s arm.

Steve held Bucky’s hand until his eyes slid closed as slow and gentle as honey. Steve held Bucky’s hand until Bucky’s grip fell slack and Steve was just clutching desperately to his fingers.

Steve held Bucky’s hand until Cho turned to him, dark eyes sure, and told him to leave.

//

Steve hadn’t moved from his position behind the two-way mirror.

Two nurses had joined Dr. Cho after he had left the room, and while they didn’t touch Bucky they handed Cho whatever she needed. Steve didn’t hear Tony approach. He did smell his coffee, and he turned to him when Tony took a loud obnoxious slurp from his caffeinated drink.

“How long until he’s recovered?” Steve asked, and Tony bit his lip, considering.

“Well, that’s hard to say,” he said. Steve immediately felt his hackles rise.

 

“Why is that hard to say?” Steve snapped, his irritation and worry coming off harsh. “Haven’t you talked to Dr. Cho about the aftermath of this surgery?”

“Whoa, Cap, calm down,” Tony said, holding up his hands. “It’s hard to say ‘cause for a normal person this kind of surgery takes 4-6 months for recovery. But Hydra pumped him full of all that serum shit that you have, and we’re not sure about how much and for how long. Hell, it wouldn’t surprise me if he was up jumping off buildings and throwing your shield in a month. Maybe less.” Steve felt himself deflate, and he leaned his head forward until it touched the glass, cool and smooth on his skin.

A sheet covered Bucky’s bare chest and Steve felt the need to get to him like a physical sickness. He didn’t want to leave, but he didn’t know how much longer he could stand there wishing he were next to him. It was agonizing. It was worse when the surgery actually began.

Tony made the choice for him.

“C’mon,” Tony sighed, waving him to follow. “Let’s get something to eat.” Tony might have been right but Steve wasn’t going to make it easy for him.

“I’m not hungry,” Steve said, voice petulant. Tony raised an indignant brow at him.

“Well you’re moping enough to suck all the life out of the building. If they fuck up Barnes’ arm that’s on you.” Steve was out the door before Tony could turn to follow.

//

The procedure lasted six hours.

Cho wouldn’t let Steve in immediately.

“Let his heart calm down first,” she said, placing a calming hand on Steve’s arm. “Let him become aware.” Steve was so overwhelmed with nerves he didn’t know whether he wanted to break down the wall or cry.

Maybe both.

“But he’s okay,” Steve said, aware of how desperate he sounded. “He’s all right?” Dr. Cho smiled, knowing.

“He’s all right,” she assured and Steve noticed the exhaustion in her eyes, in her posture. He felt guilty for not seeing it sooner.

“Thank you,” he told her, sincere. She nodded.

“How awesome does it look?” Tony interjected, coming up behind Steve with his fourth cup of coffee. He was nervous too, though he wouldn’t admit it.

“Badass,” Cho said.

//

Natasha and Wanda brought flowers.
They were white roses, and Wanda placed them in Steve’s bedroom. Bucky was moved after his vitals stabilized and he was asleep in Steve’s bed, surrounded by the white sheets and white roses. Steve was making himself more coffee in the kitchen when the two women came back out.

“He’s hooked up to a lot of machines,” Wanda said, taking a seat at Steve’s counter. Natasha didn’t sit. She hovered near the entrance of the kitchen, not sure whether or not her presence was wanted. Steve felt bad, and offered her his mug.

She took it with a small smile.

“He needs to be,” Steve said. “Just for a little while. His nerves are in shock, and we don’t want to over-stimulate his brain.”

“I helped stabilize it a bit,” Wanda admitted, and she looked a bit sheepish under Steve’s glare. “He’ll heal faster now.” Steve relaxed, minutely.

“Ask first?” he said. Wanda scratched her head.

“Yeah…shit, yeah. Sorry.”

“Carson has a new mission,” Natasha said, and Steve turned to her. “You weren’t on the call sheet.” Her tone implied that she knew why but wanted to hear Steve confirm it.

“I’m not a part of SHIELD any longer,” he said. “Not while it’s being corrupted by men who only care about their own gain and power.”

“Careful,” Natasha warned. “Those people are the ones who gave you a second chance at life.”

“No,” Steve answered. “Bucky did.”

//

Sam brought Bucky three boxes of his favorite Pop Tarts.

Tony brought him a new Metallica t-shirt, signed by himself.

Pepper brought medicine, and comfort food.

Vision and Clint hovered, wondering what else they could offer. Clint suggested a movie.

That night, Becca called Steve. It was a little strange, talking to her without Bucky contributing to the conversation.

“I’m glad it went well,” she said, her relief almost palpable through the line. “Call me when he’s awake?”

“Of course,” Steve agreed. “How was school?” Becca was quiet for a moment; sometimes she took moments to gather her thoughts before speaking, but this silence seemed tense, and it put Steve on edge.

“Becca?” he hedged. “Did something happen?”

“A man followed us home from school,” she said. “A reporter. With a briefcase. He talked to my grandpa; I couldn’t hear what he wanted. But he looked familiar.”

“A reporter?” Steve asked, a growing sense of unease building in his chest. “Was he the same one that came to the porch that day? To ask if Bucky and I were dating?”

“I would say so,” Becca said, and it sounded like she was outside. “What should I do if he comes back?”

“Call the police,” Steve said. “And then me. If you feel unsafe that’s reason enough to alert the authorities. Especially if he’s trespassing.”

“Okay,” Becca sighed. “That’s what I thought. But I wanted to check with you first.” Steve felt a pinpoint of happiness that Becca had turned to him for advice, for safety.

“Stay safe,” Steve said. “As soon as Bucky is able to move around I’ll come get you.”

“Yeah. Thanks,” Becca said. There wasn’t much else for them to say, but they didn’t hang up.

“Becs,” Steve said, and winced at the slip of her nickname. He waited for her to correct him. She didn’t. “Maybe Sophie should stay off social media for a while.”

“I agree,” Becca laughed. “I’ll have to steal her phone.”

//

Bucky woke up around eleven thirty.

Steve fed him soup and brushed his hair out of his eyes. Bucky noticed the IV and his breathing quickened in panic.

“It’s okay,” Steve said, taking Bucky’s hand in both of his. “It’s just so you don’t get dehydrated. It’s also pumping you full of pain relievers.”

“Yeah,” Bucky croaked, relaxing back against the pillows. “I feel like I’m made out of cotton candy.” Steve laughed, fond.

“That sounds nice,” he said, not able to keep the smile off his face as he took Bucky in.

“It is, actually,” Bucky, agreed, his own smile lazy and dopey. His eyes flickered to his left arm, and he looked like he would cry if he weren’t drugged out of his mind.

“Is it wrapped in bandages because they fucked up?” he asked and Steve tsked at him.

“No. It’s so your shoulder won’t get infected while it heals,” Steve said, situating himself near Bucky’s hip on the edge of the bed.

“Why’s it in a sling though?” Bucky drawled.

“So you don’t hurt it by moving too much,” Steve answered patiently. Bucky took in his new arm, his shoulder and bicep wrapped up in white gauze. The rest was bare, shiny and smooth and clean. Vibranium. The look of it alone seemed to exude strength and power.

It didn’t look real.

Tears fell from Bucky’s eyes and he hardly noticed.

“I’m really high,” he slurred. Steve’s heart clenched. He was so in love he didn’t know what to do with it.

“Yeah, you really are,” Steve, agreed fondly, leaning forward and wiping up some of Bucky’s tears with his thumb. Bucky didn’t notice, just stared at Steve with stars in his eyes.

“Hey,” he said, half-heartedly lifting his right hand to get Steve’s attention. “Kiss me like cotton candy.” Steve pressed his laugh into Bucky’s lips and even though Bucky didn’t know what he was talking about Steve thought he tasted sweet as sugar. He almost told Bucky he loved him. The words were on the tip of his tongue, ready to dive headlong. But he didn’t because there was a very good chance that Bucky wouldn’t remember.

“I’m gonna pass out,” Bucky announced and Steve pulled back to see him fully. “Come cuddle with me.”

“You’re bossy when you’re high,” Steve observed but kicked off his shoes and crawled over to Bucky’s right side, not wanting to jolt his new hypersensitive arm.

“You’re bossy for a county fair treat,” Bucky slurred and Steve huffed against his forehead.

“Go to sleep, Buck,” he sighed, affectionate. Bucky’s head lulled heavy on his shoulder.

“You go to sleep,” Bucky mumbled, his words jumbling together and the next moment he was fast asleep. Steve held his hand, gently.

“I love you,” he practiced; so quiet even he barely heard it.

//

Dr. Cho checked up on Bucky the following morning.

She took his blood pressure, checked his breathing, and took him up to the lab Tony had built three years ago so she could give him a MRI. His brain was stable. His nerves weren’t fried. She asked him if he could try and move the fingers even if his arm was in the sling.

He could.

Bucky stared for a long moment, almost uncomprehending. He laughed, hysterical.

“Fuck,” he gasped, looking up at Steve with emotion wet in his eyes. “Steve, hold my hand.” Steve reached out and gently touched his finger to Bucky’s cool metal ones. Bucky let out a choked sob.

“I can feel you,” he cried. “Fuck, I can feel you.” Steve was crying too. Dr. Cho stood off to the side, eyes on the scans of Bucky’s arm, watching the activity going on inside Bucky’s body to make sure everything was working right.

Even she looked moved.

//

“He’s recovering far faster than he should be,” Dr. Cho told Steve after giving Bucky more morphine and he slipped into a heavy sleep. “The sling should be able to come off in a week. That’s unheard of.”

“He has the same serum as I do,” Steve said, crossing his arms and leaning against the counter in his kitchen. He had made Cho coffee while she got Bucky situated in bed. She had taken it with such tenderness Steve almost laughed.

“How quickly do your bones heal?” Cho asked him. “If they’re broken.”

“God,” Steve sighed, thinking. “At most? Three days.” She almost dropped her drink.

“I have his medical charts, and yours–I shouldn’t be this surprised,” she said, shaking her head and taking a long pull of black coffee. “But I am.”

“How does the serum affect him?” Steve wanted to know. In a way, he needed to. Cho regarded him, thoughtful.

“His healing time is faster than yours,” she said slowly, rolling the words over on her tongue. “But he tires faster. Honestly, if he didn’t heal as fast as he does, Hydra would have killed him within the first month. No doubt in my mind.”

Steve swallowed, the photographs of Bucky strapped to operation tables buzzing like electricity through his mind. He tried not to think about it.

“Thank you,” Steve said, trying to change the subject. “You have no idea what this means to him.” Cho smiled, soft and a little sad.

“In a way I do,” she said, and spoke no more.

//

Steve called Becca at noon.

He didn’t think too much when she didn’t answer. She was still in school, and he had just hoped to reach her during lunch. He left a voicemail, letting her know that Bucky was awake for longer periods of time, and that he wanted to speak with her about when she and the girls could come and visit.
Cho had told Bucky that he needed a month off work, at least, because even if he was fully healed within two weeks (she still looked completely blown away by that) she didn’t want to risk anything tearing. Bucky, the soldier side of him, almost argued. The medical knowledge he had, though, made him hold his tongue. When Steve didn’t hear back from Becca at 4:00pm he started to get a little worried.

Bucky was sitting in the living room with Cho, and together they had taken off the sling to try and reteach Bucky on how to feel. The strength of the left arm was harder to control, being made from vibranium, and they were doing exercises on strength. Right now, Cho had handed him a plum, which Bucky was squeezing experimentally. He had already squashed three by accident. This one seemed to be doing better.

Steve debated whether or not he should tell Bucky that he hadn’t heard back from Becca, or if he should wait a little while longer. School had just ended. She was probably still wrapping things up for the day. There was no point in making Bucky stressed. If he didn’t hear back from her by 5:00, he would try calling again.

“Steve!” Bucky exclaimed, and Steve pocketed his phone and turned. “Look! Watch, okay, look…” Bucky held up the plum. Nothing happened.

“I can squeeze it without hurting it,” Bucky said, his excitement dying down a little as he became self-conscious. “I mean…it’s a little lame but–” Steve stopped that train of thought immediately.

“No, Bucky, that’s fantastic!” He smiled, coming up and kneeling in front of his boyfriend. Using the title struck him. Made Steve’s heart race, giddy and wild and happy all at once.
“Can you flex your fingers around it?” Bucky’s smile was huge, and he concentrated his attention back to the plum in his metal palm.

“Good, that’s good,” Cho praised, eyes warm when Bucky looked to her for approval. “How does your arm feel?”

“The arm feels fine,” Bucky said, lowering his hand. “My shoulder is a little achy though.”

“We’ll stop for today, then,” Cho said, taking the plum from Bucky’s fingers. “You did really well.”

“When can I take the bandages off?” Bucky asked, rolling his shoulders experimentally.

“In a week,” Cho said. “Your shoulder should be fine by then.”

“Awesome,” Bucky grinned, turning to Steve. “Hey, babe, I’m gonna be, like, 12% cyborg.”

“And 88% nerd,” Steve teased, placing his hand comfortingly on Bucky’s knee. “I’m really proud of you, Buck.” Bucky blushed Steve’s favorite shade of pink, shifting in his seat.

“Thanks,” he mumbled, and Steve almost rose up on the balls of his feet to kiss him. Cho stood from the couch, watching the two of them with a soft look that made Steve’s stomach flutter.

“How long have you two been together?” she asked, gathering her briefcase and clipboard.

“Oh,” Bucky said, looking surprised. “Shit, Stevie when did we make it official?” So much had happened in the span of a month Steve didn’t know the exact time. When was his last mission? Time seemed to blur when he was away from Bucky, and freeze and race when they were together, and he felt a bit bad that he didn’t have an exact frame of time.

“Two weeks? Three?” he tried, and Bucky smiled down at him.

“Three sounds right. Though I’ve been into you for, like, four months,” Bucky said, holding out his arm so Dr. Cho could reapply the sling.

“Congratulations,” she told them, her voice genuine. “I’m happy for the both of you.” Steve felt both embarrassed and ecstatic. Never, never, would someone have said that to him in the 40’s; he was flustered.

He didn’t know what to do; Bucky did.

“Thanks,” he told her, flashing his most charming smile. “It means a lot.” She nodded, and Steve walked her to the elevator.

“His arm is going to be sore, especially his shoulder. If he gets headaches, give him some Tylenol. I’m going to start weaning him off the morphine. He shouldn’t need it anymore.” Steve nodded, waited with her as they watched the light come on above the door to signal that the elevator had arrived.

“I’ll be back in the morning to–” the doors swished open and Cho’s words died on her lips.

Carson stood in the elevator, his chin tilted up, and eyes hard. Steve immediately straightened, his shoulders tensing. He knew his shield was leaning against the back of the couch, next to Bucky. Bucky. Steve was hyperaware that Bucky was here. Four men flanked Carson’s side. One Steve recognized as Agent Brock Rumlow. They had done a search and rescue mission together in the past, but beyond that Steve didn’t know much about him. The reporter was behind him, looking shifty, nervous, but strangely excited. Panic filled Steve’s chest and erupted like a balloon.

Becca hadn’t called. What time was it?

Becca hadn’t called.

“Captain Rogers,” Carson greeted, not waiting for an answer as he stepped out of the elevator. His attention immediately went to Bucky, who was now standing, face slightly pale.

“Ah, there you are, Sergeant Barnes. I see you’ve acquired a new limb,” Carson said, moving to stand in front of Bucky but Steve cut him off, standing protectively between Bucky and the new SHIELD director. It took Steve every ounce of self-control to not bash his head in. Cho looked alarmed, her eyes wide and Steve motioned for her to get behind him as well. She did, slowly, taking stock of the scene in front of her.

“What do you want?” Steve demanded and Carson’s jaw twitched at the rude bluntness of his tone.

“Barnes never showed up for questioning,” Carson began and Steve’s eyes flicked to over his shoulder where Rumlow had begun to walk around the apartment, taking stock of everything. He spotted Steve’s shield, and gave it a small kick. Steve’s hands clenched at his sides.

“I didn’t trigger the alarms,” Bucky said, voice hard and unwavering. Steve felt a sharp sense of pride in his blood.

“You did,” Carson said and before Steve could speak up he was waving the reporter forward. “There are files that went missing from the computers’ databases on my personal account fifteen minutes after you left Captain Rogers’ room. The alarms were used as a distraction.”

“That’s not–” Steve began, enraged, before Carson interrupted.

“Tell me, Captain, how long did you know Sergeant Barnes during this time? A week? Two? Are you really in a position to defend him? He was Hydra for six months. He took down many important people in the US government during this time. He’s been out less than a year. Do you not think that Hydra has planned for this? I need to know what he took, and what he knows. Hydra is one of America’s greatest threats. You not being able to see that, Captain Rogers, is a big part of the problem.”

“Bucky isn’t Hydra,” Steve growled. He felt like he was going to erupt, he was so angry. “How dare you imply that he ever was? He was taken by them, brainwashed, all done–”

“There is a lot you don’t know about Barnes, it seems,” Carson said, waving over his shoulder and the reporter fumbled to pass over the briefcase. “It’s very simple, Sergeant Barnes. You come with us for questioning, or we’ll hold your sisters until we have your warrant for arrest.” Steve felt Bucky freeze behind him.

“My–my sisters?” Bucky echoed, voice blank with shock.

“Yes,” Carson said, unaffected. He sounded almost bored as he unclasped the briefcase and held out a picture for Bucky to take. It was of Becca, outside of school. Bucky’s eyes went blank.

“We have your sisters somewhere safe,” Carson said, “and they will remain that way if you come with us.”

“You–this isn’t legal,” Bucky, said, his voice barely a breath.

“We’re the ones who decide what is and isn’t legal,” Carson drawled, pulling out another photo and this time passing it to Steve. It was of him and Bucky together, their first kiss. Steve’s eyes drifted to the reporter.

“Your judgment is askew, Captain,” Carson said, “I will not have you putting the American people at risk because of a crush. Especially on a Hydra special agent.”

“If I come,” Bucky spoke up and Steve turned to him, surprised. “You’ll let my sisters go?” Carson smiled.

“Yes,” he said.

“Bucky,” Steve pleaded, gripping his shoulders tight. “Buck, look at me. We can’t trust them. We’ll get your sisters, I promise, we’ll–”

“Ah, Captain,” Carson interrupted, and Steve gritted his teeth so hard he heard it. “You are resigning your post, are you not? Effectively immediately, if you try and oppose us, I will have you arrested.” Steve turned, his hands falling limp from Bucky’s shoulders.

“If you pose as a threat to SHIELD, and if you continue to help hide a soon-to-be wanted fugitive, then I will not hesitate to lock you, and anyone affiliated with you, up. Is that clear?”

You’re not taking him,” Steve growled, taking a threatening step forward. “I know you didn’t just want Zola for questioning, just like I know that’s not what you want Bucky for. You’re not touching him.” Carson sighed, running a hand through his hair.

“Why are you making matters worse for yourself?” Carson asked, signaling Rumlow forward. He had taken up the shield with him, and was reaching behind himself, unhooking a small, unassuming gun from his holster. Bucky shifted next to Steve.

“Steve, stop,” Bucky said. “Stop, you’ll only make this worse.”

“They’re not going to release your sisters, Buck,” Steve snapped, but when he turned and took Bucky in he froze. Bucky was shaking, almost swaying on his feet. He was pale, frightened, but there was determined set to his shoulders and he was trying to stand tall.

He looked terrified.

It clicked; everything did, in that one short moment when Steve met Bucky’s eyes. From the alarms, to the mission, to Zola, to now. Slowly, Steve turned to Carson. Slowly, he felt the panic rise.

You’re Hydra.” Carson didn’t react. Rumlow did.

“Look, Cap,” he said, voice deep and guttural. “There are two outcomes here. Barnes comes with us, you stay back, we leave, no one’s hurt. Or, you endanger that pretty doctor over there; we knock you out, and take Barnes by force. His new arm looks mighty tender.” Steve saw red.

“Well?” Rumlow asked, holding up Steve’s shield in his hand with distaste. “What’s it gonna be?” Steve didn’t get a chance to answer. The window at the far end of Steve’s living room shattered apart, and Tony and Sam fell in, drawing all the attention to themselves.

Or,” Tony said, voice robotic but loud, and he helped Sam to his feet as he took in the room. “No one touches Barnes, no one touches Cho or Rogers, and Hydra gets the fuck out of my tower. If no one gets moving we use force.”

Tony paused, rolling his metal shoulders. Carson’s jaw was tight, but he looked annoyed, not afraid. Not threatened. Steve realized, belatedly, that is wasn’t going to be simple. They needed to expose Hydra. Right now, it was their word against the overwhelming files and facts Caron held under his arm. Either way, he wasn’t going to let them take Bucky. When no one answered Tony grew impatient.

“Well?” he mimicked, white screened eyes turning in Rumlow’s direction, “What’s it gonna be?”

There was a heavy tense silence, and Carson’s eyes slowly flicked over to Bucky.

“Don’t fall on your arm,” he said. “Sputnik.”

Steve turned just in time to see Bucky’s eyes roll back in his head before he collapsed.

Chapter Text

Steve caught Bucky before he hit the floor.

It was as if the bones had melted from him, his new metal arm pulling him down and no doubt causing some pain. But Steve would be damned if he let Bucky fall. He held him to his chest with more tenderness than he should have let Carson see, but he didn’t allow himself the time to start regretting that.

Bucky’s eyes were still open, rolled back into his head. He wasn’t blinking. It was as if the soul had been sucked from him. He didn’t feel human in Steve’s arms. He felt like a doll. Steve pressed two fingers to his jugular.

He let out a breath of relief when he felt his pulse, slow, steady, beneath his fingers.

“What did you do?” Steve growled, trying hard to rein in his anger. He didn’t want to hold Bucky too tightly, didn’t want to cause him any more discomfort. Dr. Cho was by his side in an instant, her face pale and eyes wide.

“He’s comatose,” she breathed, brushing the hair from Bucky’s eyes. “That word. It’s a programmed trigger.” Steve’s blood went cold. He had never before wanted to tear a man apart. He had never wanted to see anyone in agony before this moment. Now, with Carson standing collected before him, it was all he wanted. Shield or no shield, he was going to rip him limb from limb.

“Don’t look like that, Captain.” Carson said, taking a step forward. Steve’s grip tightening impulsively and Carson’s eyes tracked the movement. He smiled. “Oh. Oh, no. You’re making this too easy.”

“I’m not letting you take him,” Steve said, voice stone.

“I know,” Carson said, reaching into his jacket and pulling out a gun. Tony was in front of them in an instant, his body a shield in replacement of the one Rumlow was currently holding. His faceplate was up, his expression hard and cold. He raised his hand, and that familiar buzzing noise filled Steve’s ears. It was a sound he always associated with a fight.

“If saying that word once turns him comatose,” Carson mulled, and Rumlow shifted his stance, eyes looking across the room to keep track of Sam. “Then what do you think saying it a second time will do?”

“We’re not going to find out,” Tony said. “You say one more word and I’m turning you to ash.” Carson shrugged, raised the gun, and pulled the trigger.

Steve’s breath caught in his throat.

Tony’s knees buckled first, then the rest of him. There was a dart embedded above his eye. He hadn’t moved fast enough to lower the faceplate in time. He was breathing, his eye unharmed, but the shock of it was enough to have Cho let out a strangled cry.

“Shit!” Sam shouted, making to move forward but Rumlow stepped up and without hesitation threw a silver disk onto Sam’s wings. An electrical current shot through, catching across Sam’s skin, and he let out a loud shout, fingers trying desperately to claw the harness of the wings off. Cho was at Tony’s side, taking off the helmet and gently pulling the dart free.

“A paralyzer,” she breathed, taking off her blazer and holding the cloth to Tony’s eye to stop the bleeding. The elevator dinged, the doors open, and for a moment Steve hoped he’d see Natasha step out. But when twelve men, armed and broad, stepped out he remembered that Natasha had told him of a mission. That he hadn’t been on the call sheet.

The men surrounded Carson, flanked his sides. Five went to Sam, and he tried to back away from them but the electricity made his knees buckle and his punches weak. One man hit him over the head with the butt of a gun and Sam collapsed to the floor, the disk buzzing weakly before shutting off.

Steve could kill them. He could kill everyone in this room.

“Doctor,” he said, and Cho looked to him. “Take Bucky.” She nodded, wrapping her blazer around Tony’s head before crawling over and gently letting Steve lower Bucky’s head onto her lap. She checked his pulse again. She was pale but her hands were steady. Steve stood, rolled his shoulders.

“I can arrest you for attacking me,” Carson told him.

“I don’t care,” Steve said. “You’ll be dead.”

“Then so will he,” Carson gestured to Bucky. “You really think Zola didn’t plan for this? If the asset is captured, taken prisoner, or fails a mission, he’s killed. This way is so much more convenient than a bullet. You can’t dodge sound.”

“I’m going to kill you,” Steve said, his voice a low growl, filled to the brim with so much rage he felt dizzy with it. “I’m not going to stop until all of Hydra is dead or captured.”

“Yes,” Carson agreed, like he had expected this. Steve realized he probably had. “Now. Hand over my asset.” My asset. My.

Steve had his hands around Carson’s throat before he had made a conscious decision to move.

Twelve guns were trained on him simultaneously, but he hardly noticed them. He could snap Carson’s neck before another breath left him.

“You kill him, Cap, and I kill your boy.” Rumlow’s voice cut through the roaring in Steve’s ears. “Let him go, or we’ll make you look like Swiss cheese and Barnes will never see his pretty sisters again.” Steve wished he could kill both of them at once. It took everything he had to release his grip on Carson. The man’s face and had gone red, and while he didn’t crumble or shy away from Steve he did cough, and that satisfied Steve to some mild degree.

“Good,” Carson said. “Rumlow, retrieve the asset. Wake it up. Men, detain Captain Rogers. Place him under arrest for housing a wanted criminal and assaulting his superior officer. If the council needs any more reasons, make something up.” Rumlow walked forward, coming to stand before Steve with such a smug air that Steve almost couldn’t control the need to slam his head into the wall.

“Move, Captain,” Rumlow said, his grin growing. “I gotta collect our things.” Steve was clenching his fists so hard his nails were cutting into his palms; he could feel the skin breaking, the blood wet in the grooves of his skin. God. He wanted to tear Rumlow’s head from his neck.

“We need to get him to Zola. He’s been out of the field for too long, it seems,” Carson said. If Steve could get Bucky away now– He moved forward and stilled when at least five triggers were cocked back.

“Chopper is here,” Carson said, sighing like this was hard for him. “We’re going up.” The noise drew Rumlow’s attention and he looked to Steve, then Cho, seemed to consider something.

“C’mon.” He grabbed Cho’s arm. “We’re going up.” Steve moved.

“Like hell you–”

“Captain. We’re not done talking,” Carson said, and Steve whipped around, eyes narrowing.

“If you think I’m going to let you take him–”

“What can you do? You come after him, he dies, his sisters die, and you die. Now, Doctor, please follow your patient. We’ll need you.” Steve was vibrating, anger coursing through him, hotter than he’d ever felt it before. He looked to the team of men watching, guns at the ready. He looked to Carson. He looked to Sam, Tony, both collapsed.

His eyes followed Rumlow as the man bent, swatted Cho’s hands aside, and preceded to throw Bucky over his shoulder with a grunt. Steve saw red. He almost convinced himself that it would be worth getting shot fifty times over if he could get Bucky out of Rumlow’s grip. Brock met his eyes, winked, and made his way to the elevator. The armed men parted to let him through. Cho stood on wobbly knees, her eyes wide but defiant.

“I’m not going to help you hurt him again,” she said. Carson raised a brow.

“You won’t help?” he asked. He was almost pouting. She squared her shoulders.

“No.”

“Cho,” Steve said, pleaded, and she looked to him. “Please. I–he can’t be alone with them. Please.” The fight left her in a breath.

“Okay,” she whispered, comforting. “Okay.” Slowly, she walked past. Carson’s eyes followed her all the while, though she didn’t falter in her step, and she didn’t acknowledge him. She stood next to Rumlow in the elevator, eyes meeting Steve’s. A moment, quiet, suspended, before the doors slid shut and both she and Bucky were no longer visible.

“You’re going to help me,” Carson said. Demanded. Steve met him with eyes that were a fury.

“Sure. Let Bucky go.”

“I need Captain America,” Carson mused, as though Steve hadn’t spoken.

“Go to hell,” Steve snarled. He felt like a feral beast, a wild animal, starved, hysterical. Carson sighed, rubbing his eyes with a groan. Like he was the one having a stressful afternoon. He fiddled carelessly with the gun in his hands.

“This is my last offer before I shoot you between the eyes and say you went down in a mission over East Asia,” Carson said, and though his voice was calm his eyes were steel. So Steve was getting to him after all. Far off, Steve heard the telltale sounds of a helicopter, of propellers, and he looked desperately up at the ceiling.

Bucky.

Bucky was in that chopper. The wind from outside whipped through Steve’s wrecked living room, made stronger by the mechanical blades not twenty stories up.

“You can be up there, Captain,” Carson was saying, stealing all of Steve’s attention. “You can be right there next to your assailant fag boyfriend if you hear me out.” Steve thought of Becca. He thought of Win. He thought of Sophie. He thought of all the promises he’d made to each one of them. He thought of his words, his earnestness, when he told them he’d protect Bucky, first and foremost. Distantly, Steve wondered if maybe Becca had suspected something like this would happen. She was Bucky’s sister, his closest bond. Steve knew that if he were in her shoes, he would have prepared for the worst. And this? Hydra, taking claim on someone that had escaped them, someone that knew all their secrets? This was the worst.

He didn’t have to think for long.

“What do you need me to do?” he asked. He wasn’t giving in. He wasn’t giving himself up to Hydra or Carson. But he needed to have his eyes on Bucky. He couldn’t leave Bucky with them, couldn’t let Hydra take Bucky where he couldn’t follow.

That, above everything, was the most important. He would do anything to keep him safe. He had said that and he meant it. Carson pocketed the gun. He signaled the men forward, and they pulled Steve’s arms behind his back, secured his wrists with magnetic bands of iron that even he couldn’t shake.

Carson stepped forward. Smiled.

“I need you to kill yourself.”

///

Rumlow was waiting on the roof, and when he looked up and saw Steve his jaw tightened.

“Was hoping you’d be dead now,” he said, chewing on his lip but pushing up off the metal doors as Steve and Carson approached.

“Sorry to disappoint,” he replied. He had no patience for anyone on this roof. He tried to move past Rumlow, but the agent grabbed his elbow, tapping his index finger on the cuffs still holding Steve’s arms tight behind his back. He clicked his tongue, eyes dark and assessing.

“Ya know, me and your boy have worked together before,” Rumlow said, and Steve stilled, every part of him tensing. Slowly, he turned his head to look at the side of Rumlow’s head. The grin on his lips was infuriating. Rumlow glanced over, caught Steve’s look. He was trying to get under his skin. Any other topic, and Steve would’ve been able to ignore him. It was becoming impossible when it concerned Bucky.

“Do you know what he’s done?” Rumlow continued. He spoke low, close to Steve’s ear, so that only Steve could hear him under the whirl of the helicopter. “Do you want to see the footage? How readily he listened? Better than a trained dog.” Steve broke Rumlow’s nose.

Yeah, it hurt his forehead a little, but it was so fucking worth it to see Rumlow’s head snap back and blood spurt, red and wet, down his mouth and chin. He couldn’t help the snarl of a smile his mouth made.

“Keep talking about him,” Steve growled, ignoring the men that were running up to grab him. “And I’ll snap your neck. I don’t need my hands to kill you.” Rumlow’s nose crinkled, swollen, and he took a threatening step forward, maybe to beat Steve to a pulp while his hands were bound, but Carson was stepping up and pushing him back.

“Don’t let him rile you up,” Carson snapped, and approached Steve, holding the weapon to the side of Steve’s jugular. “That’s enough out of you, Captain.” The dart sunk into his skin, through muscle, and Steve, with the extra strength the serum lent him, held onto consciousness long enough to know that he was being seated, strapped down, and then he saw Bucky, his head in Cho’s lap.

She was holding him. Protecting. With a small sort of relief, he let himself fall under.

///

His head had never hurt this terribly.

He could feel the blood throbbing in his temples, his eyes burning and aching with the effort it took to open them, just barely. The room came in a rush of greys and blacks and whites and the contrasted colors hurt him more. He felt disoriented, groggy. He had been tranquilized his mind supplied, and he groaned as he let his head fall back against the…floor? His arms were still behind his back, and when he tried to roll over onto his knees there was a searing pain in his ribs that had him collapsing down and gasping at the force of it.

He could make out a window on the far wall above his head. There were no furnishings in the room. It was narrow, small and impersonal. Steve felt like he was going to throw up. He tried to swallow the notion down. A disembodied voice crackled through speakers overhead.

“Are you awake, Captain?” The accent was German. It sounded familiar, but between the discomfort in his head and the ache in his bones he couldn’t find it in him to try and place it. He gritted his teeth against another wave of nausea. It felt like someone had had fun with him while he’d been under.

He hurt like he did after a fight.

“Nod if you can hear me,” the voice commanded, light and carefree that it reminded Steve of an excited child. “This is important, Captain. Nod for me please.” Painfully, Steve nodded.

“Good,” the voice said. “Very good. Can you see the window in front of you?” Steve blinked, his vision swimming some, but he was already feeling slightly more stable than he had mere moments ago. He forced his eyes up.

“Yes,” he rasped, his voice scraping raw against his throat. There was lead in his stomach, a rock of dread that felt like it was going to weigh him through hard tiled floor. Slowly, he tried to sit himself up. After two attempts he managed, but fell back heavily against the nearby wall.

“Easy, don’t overexert yourself. Can you see out of the window?” Steve didn’t know what to expect. He took a deep breath and lifted his head up. He could see, barely, over the bottom ledge. It was light, much lighter than it was in the room Steve was in. Curious, anxiety growing, Steve struggled to his feet. With every passing second of being awake the serum was working the tranquilizer through his veins, burning it up, and his head no longer felt like it was being split with a mallet.

Trepidation filled Steve’s lungs as he took in the room through the rectangular window in front of him. It looked a bit like how Tony’s lab was laid out, converted for surgery. There were wires, machines, all pushed to the sides, set to circle around a large chair with heavy metal straps and a strange pair of claw like shapes above. The design reminded Steve of the hair curlers in the salons when he was younger. The women would sit underneath them, the helmets going over their head and drying out the dye in their hair. They were always intimidating machines. Steve didn’t like the similar look of the chair in front of him. There were doctors as well, men in coats with iPads and serious gazes, all their eyes on vital signs projecting on the screens in front of them.

“Now, Captain,” the voice was saying, “You need to watch carefully for me, do you understand?” Dumbly, Steve nodded.

“Good,” the German said–Zola–for it was he; Steve could place the voice now. The realization only caused more panic to rise with the nausea in his stomach. “This is what will continue to happen if your friends get in our way or if you resist. Do you understand?”

Understand? Do you understand?

“I don’t…” Steve tried, swallowed, and tried to speak again. “What the hell do you want me to see?” Zola didn’t answer but Steve didn’t have to wait long. The door to his left opened, and four men in black walked into the room, guns in their hands. Two stood on each side of the chair. They looked past Steve, and Steve wondered if they could see the panic in his features.

It didn’t matter.

It didn’t matter because Bucky was being dragged into the room, into the chair. He still looked out of it, eyes rolling in his head, body languid and loose. He looked vulnerable, he looked sick. Steve felt every part of him break.

“Bucky…” he rasped, unaware that he had even spoken until Zola tsked at him over the speakers in his room.

“Pay attention, Captain,” Zola admonished. Rage and fear made Steve reckless and he struggled hysterically against the magnetized shackles around his forearms. His skin was buzzing; every nerve screaming as two men pushed back Bucky’s head, stuck another needle into the soft skin of his neck. Skin that Steve had traced with his lips.

“Don’t touch him!” he cried, eyes wide and panicked. He had never felt desperation like this. “Don’t touch him! I won’t do anything for you if you hurt him!” Zola didn’t respond. Thick metal bands secured themselves around Bucky’s biceps, his wrists, and one around his neck. His eyes were clearing up; Steve could tell the moment that his awareness began to settle like a drape over him. He blinked, shook, tried his strength against the unmovable restraints.

Steve hit his head against the glass. It was all he could think to do.

Bucky!” he screamed, ignoring the pain that blossomed through his skull. “Buck–” A doctor pinched Bucky’s jaw, forced his lips open, made him bite down hard on a black mouth guard. Bucky tried kicking the doctor away but another needle into his arm made his limbs flop. Steve’s heart was beating so hard he could feel it, threatening to burst through his skin, his veins.

He already felt torn open.

“Don’t hurt him,” he chanted, over and over, as if anyone would change his or her minds. “Don’t hurt him, please, don’t…” The doctors signaled to one another. Exchanged notes. And then the machine above Bucky’s head was whirring, electrical currents buzzing like white whips.

Steve pressed his head against the glass, hit it again, frantic. Even though Bucky’s body was limp his eyes were expressive, wide with fear, with anticipation, and Steve could see the tears that fell down his cheeks, that stained the white chair underneath him.

Don’t fucking touch him!” Steve roared, slamming himself against the glass once more. “You said you wouldn’t touch him!” He thought he felt the window shudder, thought he heard it creak.

A doctor looked in his direction. The plates moved, mechanic, settled against Bucky’s temples with a sound that would haunt Steve forever.

It was nothing, though, compared to Bucky’s scream.

It was sharp, loud, mourning, and as soon as the metal made contact with Bucky’s skin his whole body jumped, his back arching, his muscles tense under the sudden onslaught of pain. He jolted, writhed, held down by the thick restraints on the seat. His legs quaked, his eyes vibrated in his skull. Steve didn’t even register that he was still trying to break the glass with his elbows, with his feet, with his head, the shackles–anything to get to Bucky.

Anything.

It felt like they kept him in that chair for hours. In reality, it was only a few minutes. As soon as the plates moved away Bucky’s body slumped, boneless. His legs and arms would jolt, his nerves fried. The metal arm kept twitching, and the skin the metal was attached to looked irritated. Burned. They had burned him.

“Are you watching, Captain?” Zola was saying. “Do you understand what happens if you don’t cooperate?”

“I’m going to kill you,” Steve wheezed, his tears clogging his throat, his screaming making it near impossible to speak. “I’m going to kill all of you.”

“Threatening? That won’t do.” The plates returned to Bucky’s skin and his scream this time was raw.

“Stop!” Steve yelled, begged. “Stop!”

Bucky’s body twitched.

Fell still.

His head lolled off to the side, dark bruises deep against the skin of his temples. Steve felt sick. He felt useless, helpless.

“Hurt me,” he tried. “Hurt me, don’t hurt him. Don’t hurt him…”

“Then will you behave?” Zola asked. “Do you understand now, what will happen if you act out?”

Yes,” Steve gasped, barely registering his blood smearing against the glass from his cracked nose, his scraped elbows. “Yes, please, don’t hurt him anymore.”

Bucky lay unconscious, still and limp as Win’s toys. Steve was as numb as ice. He felt like someone had turned him into it, washed out all his warmth, all his feeling, and replaced it with a cold bone-dry numbness that shook him to his core. The doctors unstrapped Bucky carelessly, lifted him up, and dragged him off.

A small spot of red stained the seat where his head had lain.

“Do you understand?” Zola repeated.

Do you understand?

Unfortunately, yes.

“Bucky,” Steve croaked, the glass cool and strong against his cheek.

“Not Bucky,” Zola corrected. “He is the Winter Soldier now.”

Chapter Text

Bucky was sensitive under his ear, the sides of his neck, and the jut of his hips.

Steve remembered how soft his skin felt, how the scars around his back and shoulders were rough and dry in contrast. But he loved them. He loved them as much as he loved Bucky, because they were a part of him. And he would love Bucky now, endlessly, even if Bucky didn’t love him back. Even if they wiped him again, wiped Steve further from his mind, he would love him. In death, in living, in whatever hell they were in now.

“I love you,” Steve had whispered, gentle against Bucky’s temple as he slept. “I love you.” He wished he had told Bucky when they were awake. He wished he had told him before all of this. Maybe that would have changed something.

They let Steve see him on the third day.

They had kept him in that small room, no food, just water, enough to get his head fogged and his concentration slipping. He knew that was what they wanted. His arms were released the first night, and he tried to break through the window.

But then they had brought Bucky back, made sure that Steve saw the bruises on his head, the vacant look in his eyes. Steve hadn’t tried to break through anything after that. When the door opened and six armed men came in he barely looked up.

“It’s only been three days, Cap,” Rumlow’s voice grated in his ears. “And you’re already this much of a mess?” Steve didn’t answer. He had been staring at his feet, wracking his brain for ways to contact Natasha, to give Tony any clue to what was going on. But he didn’t even know where he was, so unless he could find a control room or take someone’s communicator then it was a lost cause.

“Look at him, doesn’t even want to see his boyfriend,” Rumlow said and that got Steve’s attention. He was on his feet in an instant, the room spinning but he ignored it because Bucky was there in the doorway, swaying on his feet, bruises yellow and purple and dark covering his skin. But he was there and standing and Steve could’ve cried, just seeing him.

Buck,” he gasped, stepping forward.

“No touching,” Rumlow snapped, picking at his nails and looking at Steve. “He’s been a little skittish.” Steve gritted his teeth, took a threatening step forward, and he didn’t realize he had his hands clenched into fists until Rumlow held up his hand to stop him.

“Cuff him,” he told the man closest to him, and three walked over to hold his arms behind his back. The restraints were heavy and cold; Steve had forgotten the weight of them. He would’ve tried to throw them off, he could easily take all five of them, but Bucky was in front of him and he could see the chair from his peripherals to his right, and just the thought of him strapped down again made him feel sick. Bucky wasn’t looking at him, wasn’t meeting his gaze. His eyes were downcast, his hair greasy and long, falling over his face.

“Buck,” Steve said again, hope and dread all rising in his throat. “Buck, can you hear me?” Bucky didn’t react, didn’t make any move that he had heard him. Rage bubbled in Steve’s chest but he swallowed it down, felt the burn and used it to keep himself calm.

“Can we be alone?” he asked. He looked, beseechingly, to Rumlow. “Please? Ten minutes?” Rumlow studied him, pursing his lips in thought. He looked to Bucky before walking forward and grabbing a fistful of his hair, pulling his head back so that Steve could see Bucky’s face.

He was pale, fatigued. He looked hurt and sick and close to breaking.

Steve couldn’t help the broken sound that escaped him. Rumlow shot him an amused look.

“You won’t get much conversation from him,” Rumlow said, letting go of Bucky’s hair and patting his cheek. “You have six minutes. Act out in any way and he goes back into the chair.” At the mention of electroshock Bucky’s entire body froze and Steve was close to begging again.

“Thank you,” he said. The words felt wrong and dirty being directed at Rumlow but if the Hydra agent needed more confidence in his status and power over Steve then he’d be polite. He’d play by those rules for now. Rumlow gestured everyone out, the door swinging shut. Steve knew they were still in the hall, they wouldn’t leave. He also knew that Rumlow would probably give them four minutes, if that, and he needed to be quick. He walked forward, cautiously, and Bucky’s eyes fluttered to him but it seemed difficult for him to make eye contact.

“There are four microphones in here,” Bucky said, voice like sandpaper. “Two cameras.” Steve nodded. He knew. He wanted to touch Bucky. He wanted to reach out and comfort him, pull him close, hug him and keep him safe forever.

“I’m sorry,” Steve whispered and that got Bucky’s attention. His eyes, previously dazed, cleared once he took Steve in. Once he really looked at him.

“Not your fault,” Bucky said, tried to smile. He looked like he wanted to say more, but speaking took effort for him, and he looked weak enough. Slowly, Steve sat in front of him and, hesitantly, Bucky joined him on the ground.

“I still remember you,” Bucky rasped, head lolling a bit to the side. Relief and joy made his rough voice soft. “They haven’t taken that from me yet.”

Desperation made Steve blunt.

Made him honest.

He could see the pain in Bucky’s eyes, the exhaustion. He was so close.

“I love you,” Steve blurted. Bucky stilled. “I need to say it now. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know if–I just–I need you to know. I need you to know that I love you and I’m not leaving here without you.” Bucky was staring at him, unreadable. Then something shifted, an inner resolution, because his eyes grew hard and determined.

“I’m getting you out of here,” Bucky said. “Gotta protect my best guy.” Steve felt the tears building in his eyes. It didn’t matter if Bucky didn’t love him back. Just that he was seeing Bucky now. But they had to be careful about what they said or else Bucky would go back in the chair and Steve couldn’t–he couldn’t live seeing that again.

“Do you trust me?” Bucky asked. Steve didn’t hesitate.

“Yes,” he said and Bucky was crushing his lips to his, hard and fast and desperate and Steve sobbed into it, shook with the need to reach out and touch him. The door to the room burst open, the men poured in, pulled Bucky back, but Bucky shook them, pressed close to Steve again.

“I love you too,” he whispered; quiet, just for Steve to hear. And then a gun hit his head and Bucky sagged onto Steve’s shoulder. There was rage, and fear, and the uncontainable urge to pull Bucky closer and shield him with his body instead. But Bucky was taken in a scuffle of feet and equipment and then it was just Rumlow and him again.

“You two don’t listen too well, do ya?” he asked, rolling his shoulders.

“I don’t take orders from people who only fight when their opponents are down,” Steve replied. Rumlow’s jaw tensed.

“I can’t kill you, unfortunately,” he sighed. “But I can make you hurt.”

“You can try,” Steve goaded. He felt invincible. Bucky loved him. Bucky was alive. Bucky could speak, could function, could move

Bucky loved him.

In light of that, he didn’t feel Rumlow’s punches or kicks. It didn’t matter. In hell, he was loved.

///

He didn’t know how much time passed.

There were two other times that they put Bucky in the chair, though they didn’t electrocute him. Steve was being obedient, after all, and Carson was smart enough to know that if they went back on their word then Steve, with his strength and vigilance, would find a way to make them hurt. He was more useful to them when he was cooperative.

Steve hated that he was. Once, when Bucky was on the chair, the doctors agitated. They gestured to the screens, to his brain scans, their mouths curving unattractively down. Steve thought of Wanda looking up at him with a sheepish look in her eyes.

“His mind was hurting,” she had said. “I stabilized it.” Steve hoped, hoped to whatever was out there, that she had done enough to stop or slow the effects Hydra was trying to produce. Bucky was still being damaged, but the last time Steve had interacted with him he had still seen Bucky. He hadn’t been someone Steve couldn’t recognize. He wasn’t this cold-blooded killer Hydra had transformed him into once.

That was enough reassurance for Steve to still have some semblance of hope. It was enough to get him up every day, and watch the door with as much alertness as he could muster. They didn’t feed him much. Enough to keep him alive, but less than he required so he wouldn’t be at his full strength. Steve would admit, begrudgingly, that it was a smart tactic. He hated them for thinking of it, nonetheless.

They didn’t let him see Bucky any more.

The days were torturously slow. Sometimes, he’d hear Bucky screaming. Others, the silence was just as oppressive. Once, Zola had told him that Becca was asking to see him. When Steve had demanded to talk with her, to see her, to know that she was okay, he hadn’t been allowed food for two days. He had passed out in the corner of the small room, woken only when one of the guards kicked him with the toe of their boot and forced water and bread down his throat.

Steve found that he slept longer.

His dreams were fevered, a jumbled hallucination of colors and old memories. He dreamed of icy water, of Peggy, of mud in the trenches. He dreamed of Bucky and the beach and the way Bucky’s breaths fell and his feet struck the earth. Steve thought, drearily, that he would know him in death, at the end of the world. He would know him blind, he would know him by the way he laughed, the way his hair fell, the way his eyes danced. Steve drew Bucky with his fingers, no pens, no pencils, to keep himself sane. He almost had a breakdown, when he couldn’t get the cleft of Bucky’s chin just right.

He didn’t know what Hydra was making him wait for. Maybe they did want to drive him insane. If that’s what they were planning, it was working. Steve had lost count of the days. He only knew that the last time he had seen Bucky was over three weeks ago. He felt like he was going insane.

Carson was his first real visitor besides the usual guard who brought him food and water. He came when Steve was pacing the room, as he often did to keep himself moving. His hands weren’t tied, they hadn’t been in a long while, but when he saw Carson he thought, ridiculously, that they still were.

The man was in a pressed suit. Immaculate. But he looked tired, Steve could tell. He looked on edge. Steve hadn’t been this observant of people around him before. But, with nothing else to do, he had been practicing. He gathered that the guard was from Georgia based on his accent, and that on Mondays he ate rice because sometimes the grains would tangle in his beard. Carson, now, looked like he had missed a deadline.

Steve couldn’t help feeling slightly satisfied.

“You’re going to kill yourself on national television in four days,” Carson said. Steve felt nothing when he said this. He had been expecting it for weeks.

“Why?” he asked, voice rough and dry from disuse.

“To show America that we need to rebuild ourselves,” Carson answered. Steve let that sink in. He looked at the camera over Carson’s shoulder, the other one diagonally across the room. He looked to Carson again.

“If the embodiment of America falls that will cause an out rage,” Steve ventured. Carson nodded.

“A bigger one than a news outlet concerned about said icon’s sexuality.”

“You did try that.”

“We did.” Steve bit his lip and thought of how Bucky did that when he was nervous. He wondered if he still would keep the habit, when all this was over.

“I have one condition,” Steve said. Carson raised a brow.

“You’re in no position to be making demands.”

“I am anyway,” Steve said, tired. He stopped pacing in front of Carson, stood at his full height over the shorter man. A small reminder, that if he wanted to, he could crush him. “Before, I want to see Bucky. For a night.”

“I’d give you five minutes,” Carson said, a tight-lipped smile sliming its way across his face. “But even that seems too long.” Steve didn’t say anything. Just waited. Carson watched him, seemed to ponder something. Finally he came to a decision.

“You’ll have an hour. The cameras will be recording at all times. He’ll see you before you go on TV. And he’ll watch as it airs.” Steve didn’t have the energy to feel relieved, or angry, or anything. Numbly, he nodded. Carson looked like he wanted to say more. He glanced to the cameras, as though he was suddenly aware of them. Steve watched him cautiously.

“You love him,” Carson said. It wasn’t a question so Steve didn’t answer. “And you’d die for him.” It still wasn’t a question, but this time Steve wanted to respond.

“I would,” he said. “I am.”

Carson considered this. “We’re not so different, then.” He didn’t elaborate further. Just left, without another word.

Steve watched him go, all cold. The fight had left him. He wondered, distantly, whom Carson was doing all this for.

///

Rumlow came to him two days later.

It felt like it was late in the day; the guard who usually stood watched having already brought him dinner. The Hydra agent looked tired. He hadn’t shaved in days. It was the first time Steve began to suspect that something was going on in the outside world. That being said, he was always delighted to see Rumlow looking worn down. He barely looked up when the man stepped into the room. His hands were stuffed deep into the pockets of his combat pants.

He smelled like disinfectant. It was a smell that usually hung on Bucky’s hair, and Steve felt his hackles rise scenting it on the agent now. Rumlow let the door swing heavily shut, the lock falling into place outside.

The window was dark; the medical room hadn’t been used in over a week. There was one dim, yellow light above their heads. Steve’s eyes had adjusted to the minimal light; by the way Rumlow was squinting he hadn’t yet.

“Your boyfriend’s sisters are stubborn,” Rumlow said and Steve tried to not let anything on his face show. This was the first time anyone had brought up Bucky’s sisters. Steve was positive they mocked Bucky about them constantly.

“You said you wouldn’t hurt them,” Steve said, swallowing around the dry tightness of his throat. He kept his focus on Rumlow’s face, and tried not to feel the rage and panic that was bubbling in his stomach.

“Haven’t yet,” Rumlow shrugged, meeting Steve’s eyes. “Just talked to the oldest.” Steve almost told him her name. Almost said, “…You mean Becca.”

“She refuses to talk,” Rumlow said.

“What did you expect from her?” Steve snapped, unsuccessfully keeping the frustration out of his tone.

“She’s the closest to the asset,” Rumlow drawled, and Steve would have thought he was bored if not for the sharpness of his eyes. “Thought she’d be a good tool to get him to obey.” Steve hated Rumlow talking about Becca. But he was happy, relieved to hear, that Bucky was still fighting back. Still fighting.

That was good. That was hope.

“Looks like that’s on you, though.” Rumlow concluded. He paused. “Get up.” Steve stiffened.

“No,” he said. He wasn’t about to listen to Rumlow under the context that Bucky might be hurt. Might be hurt more than he already was. The anger and refusal to obey like a dancing monkey kept him weighed down. He wasn’t going back on that tight rope, not now.

Rumlow sighed.

“C’mon, Cap,” he snapped. “No matter what, you’re comin’ with me, even if I have to drag you by your ears, even if I gotta fry your murder boyfriend’s brains to mush. So get the fuck up.”

Rumlow blindfolded him.

It was smart, cautious, and paranoid. It had to have been Carson’s idea.

When they removed it the white light of the room was blinding. It disoriented him immediately, making his head spin and eyes burn. But that was the point. The first thing Steve focused on was Bucky, standing in the corner of the room. He regarded Steve with a detached curiosity that had Steve’s hackles rising immediately. Dr. Cho stood next to him, her eyes tired, her skin sickly.

How had they been treating her? Steve was suddenly desperate to know. She was holding Bucky’s bicep, his metal one, her small hand delicate and vulnerable pressed against the sharp planes of the strong metal. Bucky didn’t seem bothered by her, or even registered that she was there. It comforted Steve regardless, to know that Cho had Bucky and Bucky had her. There was some hope left, in that. Steve swallowed past the dryness of his throat, tried to blink the fog from his mind.

They were in a large circular room, with white walls and white floors and barely any furniture. He couldn’t make sense of its function, or why they were there. On the far wall was a two-way mirror, and Steve couldn’t see through it.

He assumed Carson stood there, staring out.

But no video cameras.

Just Rumlow, the guards, Cho, Bucky and him. Steve tried to stand, managed with effort, and was a little surprised that Rumlow didn’t speak out against it. Instead, he walked forward until he was standing in front of Bucky, too. Bucky’s eyes, which had been focused on a spot above Steve’s right shoulder, jumped to Rumlow in obvious discomfort and fear. He looked skittish, like a wild animal. There were more bruises beneath the collar of the white shirt they had him in, and Bucky’s eyes kept going in and out of focus, like he was trying to stay present, stay in himself, and failing.

It broke Steve’s heart. Bucky always broke his heart.

“How’s my asset feeling?” Rumlow asked, and Cho tightened her grip on Bucky’s arm, but she remained silent. Bucky answered.

“Functioning,” he stated, and his eyebrows furrowed, like he was confused, or trying to place something that he had forgotten. “Hurts.” Cho’s mouth pinched, her dark eyes boring into Rumlow as if she were willing him to burst into flame.

Bucky’s voice sounded different. It sounded empty. Steve took another step forward, empowered when again no one stopped him.

“Who am I?” Rumlow asked. But Bucky’s eyes were on Steve, steady and intense and Steve felt trapped under his gaze. Rumlow noticed and grabbed Bucky’s jaw, roughly turning his head so that he was forced to look Rumlow in the eye.

“Did you hear me, Soldier?” he growled and Bucky got distant again.

“Yes,” Bucky said.

“Who am I?” Rumlow repeated, voice authoritative and demanding and nothing like Steve imagined he could sound.

“Steve,” Bucky answered. Steve felt his heart plummet, his whole body doused in the cold of his blood. His panic tasted like copper in his mouth.

“Right,” Rumlow said and pointed to where Steve was standing behind him. “And who is that?” Bucky swallowed, eyebrows furrowing.

“I don’t know,” he tried, sounding strained. Cho’s grip on him tightened but Bucky didn’t seem to notice. He was staring at Steve again.

“Good,” Rumlow sighed, like this had been an exercise they’d been practicing and Bucky had finally gotten it right. Steve realized, with a sinking feeling, that they probably had. Wordlessly, Rumlow handed Bucky his gun. The whole room tensed.

“Are you ready for your first assignment?” Rumlow asked. Bucky didn’t look away from Steve as he answered.

“Yes.” He sounded more certain now. More in control of himself and still completely devoid of any emotion. His voice was monotone. Steve couldn’t even make out the usual Brooklyn infliction his words sometimes carried.

“Bucky,” he tried, and Bucky’s head twitched harshly, though he didn’t seem to care. Cho did, hovering nearby, looking like she wanted to get his attention. She shot Rumlow a look that would have stopped any other man in their tracks.

“Don’t do this to him,” she demanded, no weakness in her words. “His brain won’t be able to handle it anymore.” Rumlow barely spared her a glance.

“He’s a weapon. If a weapon breaks, you fix it. Do you understand what I mean by that, Soldier?” Rumlow asked and Steve thought of the chair, thought of Becca, thought of how he was supposed to kill himself tomorrow. He wondered, looking, if Carson had a camera behind that mirror. If he was filming all of this. But what was the point in Bucky killing him? What was the reasoning? Wouldn’t that expose him? Or would Carson take Bucky down, become a hero for killing the man who killed Captain America? Was he trying to leverage himself beyond Hydra, beyond their orders for him? Steve didn’t know, and he couldn’t try and break everything down now.

Now, he had to try and reach Bucky. He could take the guards. Even malnourished, he could take them. But he couldn’t fight Bucky, he wouldn’t, but even if he had to, Bucky was as strong as as he was. The arm certainly made him more lethal. The image of Win and her butter knife came into Steve’s head. Becca, leaning out her window with a small glock in her hands. If Bucky had become like this before, with the Winter Soldier disassociation, then his sisters had been able to bring him back.

He had only been out of Hydra’s clutches for less than a year. And now he was back again. Molding his mind to where they wanted it was probably a lot faster now than it had been. Maybe more damaging.

Steve’s attention was drawn forward as Bucky took the gun from Rumlow, slowly, cautiously, but with an ease and familiarity that Steve couldn’t help but admire. He held the weapon like it was an extension of himself, posture perfect, eyes blank. But he was still staring.

He blinked.

Assessed.

Bucky was looking at him like he couldn’t place him, like he was trying to, the feeling of a forgotten word at the tip of your tongue. There was a tension in Bucky’s shoulders, in the set of his jaw. This wasn’t right. Bucky wasn’t supposed to look like a shell. He was supposed to laugh with his sisters and let them paint his nails, rant about how Kirk and Spock were in love with each other, and look at Steve with a tenderness that always left him warm. Bucky was supposed to feel like home, like a fresh start, like the excitement before starting over and feeling strong.

Steve didn’t know the man standing in front of him now.

Steve felt the room turn. Felt his feet leave him, the air, the breath in his lungs, everything seemed to pull away, to leave him abandoned in the cold afterglow.

“Bucky,” he tried, but Rumlow interrupted, rough, callous.

“Will you kill him for me?” Rumlow pushed. Instead of answering, Bucky stared, his eyebrows furrowing. His metal fingers seemed to be moving faster, almost shaking with nerves, and the override of them. Cho looked to Steve, her eyes wide.

“He’s on the verge of a mental breakdown,” she said, looking like she wanted to reach out and comfort him but was highly aware of the dangerous men watching her every move. She spoke to Steve as if he could do something. He wished he could do something.

“Bucky,” he tried again, and the next step he took had Bucky raising the gun, steady and precise as he aimed for Steve’s forehead, right between the eyes. Steve froze, but didn’t stay silent.

“Bucky, sweetheart, can you hear me?” Steve spoke gently, like it was only the two of them in the room. The cuffs holding his arms were a hindrance, and he felt vulnerable and exposed without his arms free. If Bucky was going to shoot him, then he’d have no way to defend himself. He could only dodge for so long. Bucky’s head jerked again. It was a movement that seemed like it wasn’t natural, and it had Steve flinching too.

“We have to find Becca,” Steve insisted, and he could feel Rumlow’s eyes on him. “And Sophie and Win. You want to see them again, don’t you?” Bucky’s hand was shaking, tremors running up and down his arms, so violently they shook his entire body.

Rumlow moved.

“Shoot him now, Soldier,” he ordered. There was a spark of emotion in Bucky’s eyes, quick, barely noticeable, but Steve saw it and he wasn’t about to let it go.

“We’re going to go home, Buck,” Steve continued, taking a small step forward.

“Shoot him, now,” Rumlow barked, impatience making his tone shrill.

“I’m going to get your sisters, and we’ll go home,” Steve said, urged, and he felt the guards behind him shift.

They felt it too, then, the tension that was crackling hotter than the electricity that they had shot into Bucky’s head. They’d hurt him so much, so terribly. Steve strained against his restraints, a newfound desperation rising in him.

“If you don’t kill him,” Rumlow said, voice cold, “then your sister is going to die. You want to watch her die?” Bucky was shaking so horribly it looked painful. His finger pulled down on the trigger, barely, and Steve stiffened.

Buck–” Pain exploded, hot and sharp and crippling all along the muscles and nerves of Steve’s shoulder. He jolted back under the force of it, his knees giving out and his arms straining to move, to try and feel with his fingers what damage was done. But he knew. He had been shot before.

Not by Bucky though. There was numbness, a panic, and a realization in the hit of that bullet that had tears filling his eyes and choking his throat.

“Good,” Rumlow praised, making his voice soft and sweet like a lover. Steve felt sick. Rumlow took his name because he knew Bucky would listen better. Would be more willing. They had been careless, Steve knew.

“Oh, oh no. You’re making this too easy,” Carson’s words whispered through his mind. They had. They had made it easy.

Love was an easy thing to manipulate, a strong motivator, and blinding. Rumlow moved up and stroked his hand along the metal of Bucky’s shoulder, his nails scraping and making a high, soft sound. Bucky’s trembling eased enough that it was only a minute shake, and his eyes seemed to darken.

Cho looked like she wanted to strangle Rumlow. Would, if the guards weren’t pointing their weapons at her as well. Steve could see his blood stain the white floor. White. Red would look cruel against it. Bucky, within the next ten minutes, would make a white room sing. Steve gritted his teeth and struggled to his feet. The pain was explosive, dizzying, but he tried to ignore it.

“Don’t touch him,” Steve snapped and Rumlow looked over at him.

“Why do you care?” he asked, subtly raising Bucky’s arm so that the gun was pointed back at Steve’s head. “You don’t know him.” Steve spat at his feet, ignoring the dizziness that overtook him.

“Now, sweetheart,” Rumlow mocked, never taking his eyes off Steve’s. “Kill him.”

Bucky pulled the trigger.

Chapter Text

Steve braced himself to feel the bullet.

He braced himself to hear the explosion, to smell the charge, to feel his skin tear and muscles rip. He expected heat and pain and blood and death.

He expected never to see Bucky again.

He was surprised when none of what he was expecting happened. Instead, the two-way mirror was cracked, and a body fell behind the glass, Steve could hear it crumble. Rumlow moved forward, grabbing Bucky around the throat in a grip that was so tight his knuckles turned white.

“The fuck are you–” The next bullet went through Rumlow’s head, and his brains splattered like putty against the wall. His body fell next, like he was a puppet and all his strings had been suddenly cut. Bucky looked shaken, his face pale and stained red with Rumlow’s blood. Five other perfectly executed shots and the guards fell as well, their bodies crooked and smooth on the floor. The gun shook in Bucky's hand but he didn’t drop it.

“Buck?” Steve ventured, heart pounding.

Slowly, Bucky turned.

Slowly, warmth returned to him.

“I told you to trust me,” he said, smile curling his lips and Steve moved, still wary, but the hope that filled his chest made him brave. He didn’t flinch even as the room was flooded in flashing white lights and an alarm blared down the halls, the noise deafening and making Cho cover her ears in a panic.

“I do,” Steve choked, looking helplessly forward as Bucky approached him, met him halfway. He looked like he wanted to cry. Wordlessly, he reached around Steve, his metal arm shifting and barely making a sound as he broke the restraints off Steve’s wrists. The metal fell heavy to the ground.

“I know this probably isn’t the time but you look nice all tied up,” Bucky said, trying to keep his voice light and unaffected but Steve heard the shake in it, the emotion.

“Shut up,” Steve said, his words soft in relief, grabbing Bucky’s face and kissing him with all the strength he had. Bucky took it easily, returned it without hesitation, and Steve felt his hands, metal and flesh alike, gripping him tight by the hips. When they parted, Steve registered that Bucky was still shaking.

“Are you okay?” he asked, reaching up and running his fingers through Bucky’s hair, scratching his scalp just like he knew Bucky liked it.

“No,” Bucky answered honestly, his voice rough and gritty. “But I know where I am. And I know who you are. And I know where they’re keeping my sisters, so I will be.”

“How’s your head?” Steve asked.

“Fine–”
“He needs medical attention,” Cho interrupted, her face still pinched from the noise of the alarms. Oh. Steve had forgotten about them. Granted, he always forgot where he was when Bucky was around, but the serum helped the alarms not disorient him like they were obviously built for.

“Buck–” Steve began.

“I’m fine. Now. Right now I’m fine,” Bucky said and his whole body did a jolt, like it was still feeling the phantom shocks of electricity. Steve shot him an unimpressed but mostly concerned look.

“That was shitty timing,” Bucky insisted.

“You’re a horrible liar.”

“To you. I was trained to lie under Hydra.”

“Which is why you can’t lie,” Steve sniped, his worry making him feel irritable.

“Are you seriously fighting me over this right now?” Bucky shot back.

“I’m worried as all hell about you. I’m going to be fighting everything,” Steve admitted and Bucky’s face softened.

“You’re such a fuckin’ punk–”

“Can we go?” Cho interrupted, everything about her entirely unamused. “My ears feel like they’re going to start bleeding.” Bucky’s face turned sheepish, and he did that small twitchy motion again, the one that had worry clenching Steve’s stomach. He then began to register the aching pain in his shoulder. Bucky noticed him flinch, and his eyes went to the blood staining Steve’s clothes. He looked like he was the one who had been shot.

“Fuck, I did that–”

“Don’t,” Steve said, harsher than he intended but he wasn’t about to let Bucky take all of this self-created guilt on. “Don’t start, Buck.” Bucky’s face pinched, he looked like he wanted to argue, to reach out and try to fix it somehow, but instead he nodded and took Cho’s hand and went up to the door on the far wall. He broke the knob off with his metal arm like it weighed nothing, cumpled the locks and the keypad by the wall, and the door shuddered and rose in jerky, glitching movements.

They made their way into the hall, the alarms even louder out there, and Cho’s knees buckled under the onslaught of the overstimulation to her senses. Which is what these alarms were no doubt designed to do; even with the serum Steve’s head hurt. Bucky didn’t hesitate to bend down in front of her and secure her onto his back. The gentle way he maneuvered her reminded Steve that Bucky had had Cho. Through whatever hell Bucky had been through, Cho had been beside him.

The gratitude he felt towards the doctor was almost as intense as the alarms. Almost.

It became apparent after the first ten minutes of them meandering the halls that none of them knew where they were going.

“You don’t remember the layout?” Steve asked and Bucky shot him a tired look.

“You really think they let me see?” Bucky sighed, blue eyes scanning the winding corridors. “The last plan was underground. This doesn’t feel like we’re underground.”

“How can you tell?” Steve asked.

“The air,” Bucky said. “And the smell.” It hit Steve, suddenly, that Bucky had been trained to be a soldier. He’d been trained, no matter how inhumanely, under Hydra. The way he moved now, even with the added weight of a person draped over his back, was fluid, graceful, and deadly silent. He moved with the poise and air of a soldier, a sniper, a killer, the presence he had seen in men during the war, in himself from the Smithsonian exhibition.

The realization had Steve really studying him. He’d seen Bucky happy, depressed, broken. He’d seen Bucky in love, he’d seen him overcome with anger and pleasure and every emotion in between. But he’d never seen him as a warrior. He’d never seen him in action. He wore it like a second skin. He wore it like it was natural, like he was his most comfortable doing this. Even the new metal arm looked like he had always had it. The alarms cut off, abruptly, and they stilled in the hallway, took each breath a bit more cautiously. Steve felt naked without his shield. His clothes stank and they felt dirty and greasy hanging off his shoulders.

He’d lost weight.

He could feel the exhaustion in his bones, the ache in his shoulder. The pain wasn’t so bad, and Steve was relieved to know that the bullet had gone all the way through. His body was already beginning to heal him, but because Hydra had made sure to keep him malnourished, the process was much slower and much more painful. If he had been at his best, he’d have been healed properly by now.

Bucky took a sharp left, turning down another unmarked hall. Cho patted his shoulder and he wordlessly stopped so she could find her footing once more. The gun Bucky was holding was the only weapon they had. If they wanted to have any chance of escaping here they’d need much more than that.

“We’re going to need more ammo,” Bucky said, responding almost as if Steve had been speaking out loud. “I have about three rounds left in this. And if I know Hydra they’re going to be sending about thirty men to find us any second now.”

“We’ll check the rooms,” Steve replied, fighting the drowsy feeling that grew like fog behind his eyes. “See what we can find.” Bucky nodded and they fell into a formation almost easily, like they’d been on battlefields together for years. Bucky went first, gun raised, shoulders back. Cho was in the middle, for she had been allowed her sight, had been able to take stock of where they were.

She didn’t know the details of what was in each room, but every door required a keypad instead of a lock.

“Why didn’t they blindfold you?” Steve asked, bringing up the rear, his ears open to every little noise. There was a commotion above them, about three floors, like feet shuffling and a body tripping down. He wouldn’t have been able to hear it if it wasn’t for the serum.

“I was Bucky’s doctor,” she said, casting Steve a pained look. “I’m the only one that knows the of his arm’s potential. They didn’t mind me seeing.” Anger, unwarranted, roared inside Steve’s veins. Of course Pierce would want to use a familiar face to keep Bucky anchored. Of course, they’d want to mock him that much more.

They cleared the hall in minutes, most doors–after breaking the locks, fell down with a swift kick– contained office spaces, computers, meeting rooms…no weapons in sight.

“It’d be below,” Bucky said, sweat starting to bead around his temples and making the hair on the back of his neck curl. He looked weaker, like he was slowly beginning to overexert himself. “I can’t imagine them keeping any ammunition on the top floors.” Steve looked up to the ceiling, tried to keep his panic and adrenaline at bay when another crash, closer now, sounded from above.

“How do you know we’re not at the base level?” Steve asked.

“I know they took me up in an elevator to meet you,” Bucky answered, shooting Steve a weak smile. He was trying to reassure him. The dark bruises on his skin betrayed the carefree comfort he was attempting to give.

“So we go down,” Steve said. Bucky’s eyes, despite everything, were still fond.

“We go down,” he confirmed.

They went down.

There was an elevator at the end of the hall and Cho typed in an ID number to let them in. Steve didn’t question her. She explained herself anyway.

“I had to plan,” she said as the doors closed and the floors began to count. “In case something like this happened.”

“In case we got this far?” Bucky asked, his laugh self-deprecating.

“Yes,” Cho said, gentle. She looked at Bucky like he was something fragile, like he was the sun in a cold winter. Steve understood. He felt the same. He didn’t know how to feel, about Cho finding that in Bucky as well. He wasn’t used to jealousy, and their situation wasn’t the time to display it. Even so, it made him want to reach out and press his lips to Bucky’s skin.

The elevator let them out and Steve knew immediately that they were underground. The air was cool, damp. It made his sweaty clothes stick to his skin, as soon as they disembarked. Bucky took the lead; brushed by him, and let his fingers skim across Steve’s stomach. Warmth spread with Bucky’s caress, chased after him, and Steve smiled as they made their way cautiously into a new level of the Hydra base. It was dark, the lights yellow and lighting barely five feet of grey cement at a time. Steve had to squint and tried to will his eyes to adjust in the gloom.

The serum allowed him to see more than a normal person could, but the fact that it was taking him longer to adjust made him more aware of how weak he really was.

“I know my sisters are down here,” Bucky said, his words detached and hollow. Steve’s eyes widened at his back. “I wanna get them first.”

“Of course,” Steve said immediately.“Of course.” There was a new tension to Bucky’s shoulders that kept him sharp and crisp and nearly unreachable. Steve wanted to comfort him. Instead, he helped Bucky kick in doors, unsnap locks from crates, and look behind every corner they could. They took out three guards near the elevators with ease, but it didn’t help his shoulder heal any.

Bucky came up, and pressed a light kiss to Steve’s shirt, right above the healing wound. I’m sorry. Steve knew that Bucky wouldn’t be forgiving himself anytime soon for it. But Steve had forgiven him before he had even pulled the trigger.

The last door needed a key code, and Cho tried a couple, each as unsuccessful as the last. Bucky banged on the door, his metal fist creating a small crater in the metal. It was the only solid door in the hall, and it held far stronger than the others.

“Becs?” Bucky shouted his voice choked. “Soph, Win, are you–”

“Bucky!” That was Sophia, her voice near hysterical and muffled behind the door but clear nonetheless. “Buck, oh my god, Bucky!”

“Sophia!” Bucky cried, a smile breaking over his face, his eyes wide and filling with tears. “God, thank god–”

“You’re okay!” Becca gasped, and she hit the door on her side. Bucky laughed, hysterically, flattening his hands against the door and pressing his forehead between the spread of his thumbs.

“I’m okay, I’m okay…you’re okay, thank god, thank god…” He was weeping, his back shaking as he laughed through the tears, near hysterics. Steve went up to him, gently wrapped his hands around Bucky’s shoulders. Bucky hardly noticed. And that made Steve more alert, more wary, and as he stepped back and watched their sides he began to feel uneasy. They should’ve been found by now.

They should’ve been caught. Coming down here, with only three men to guard, was strange.

“You’re okay, you’re all okay…” Bucky was whispering over and over broken, before he stood back and straightened. “Get back! I’m breaking the door in!”

“With what?” Becca demanded, and Steve thought he heard Win too. The relief he felt was so intense it knocked him off balance, he was shaking almost as bad as Bucky.

“I’ll help,” Steve said, moving to stand beside Bucky. “I’ll help break down the door.” Muffled, through the floors, they heard the alarms blast on again. Neither of them paid it any notice. Bucky nodded, and they kicked the door down.

It fell in a loud thud but Bucky was inside the room before it had even hit the ground. Win had wrapped herself around his neck like a monkey the moment she could, and she was sobbing, weeping against her brother’s neck and her small hands clutched his hair so tight it had to hurt. Bucky didn’t notice, held her tight with his metal arm and held out his right for Sophia to tuck herself into. Becca hung back, eyes still freakishly alert, shoulders tense. They had all lost weight.

“They said you were dead,” Sophie sobbed, gasped against Bucky’s skin. “You’re not, you’re alive, and I knew you were still alive–” Bucky just let out a choked sound and held them tighter. Sophie, after a few minutes, had the sense to pull away and let Becca take her place. Becca fucking melted, all the fight draining out of her the moment Bucky’s hand wrapped around her shoulders and she buried her face in his chest.

“I want to kill everyone,” she admitted. Bucky didn’t say anything, Steve didn’t think he could, he just held her tighter.

///

Sophie held his hand as they made their way up in the elevator.

The alarms hadn’t shut it down, and for that Steve was immensely grateful. Becca stood to his right, and Bucky was still holding Win, hadn’t let her go for a second. In the light of the elevator, Steve could see the bruises on the girls’ wrists, on their necks and knees. Win had a nasty one, yellow and swollen, just under her eye. Bucky had near torn down the wall, when he’d seen it.

When the doors slid open to one of the higher levels the alarms were still going, but the sound had been cut, instead the strobe effect of red washed out the walls and made Steve’s senses spike. Win was asleep in Bucky’s arms, exhausted to the point where the moment he’d cradled her in his arms she had passed out. The red flashes made her stir, but she didn’t wake. Cho was watching her with intense concern, but she took Sophie’s other hand so Steve could let go; he needed his hands free.

They had managed to find four more guns and two knives from the guards they took out before they had found Bucky’s sisters. Bucky still kept the small gun, but the guards held Rugers and Bucky’s eyes had lit up when he’d seen them.

“I used to have one,” he told Steve, feeling the weight of it in his palms. “They’re easy to conceal, really powerful. Backups if all else fails.” Bucky held his up now, and looked to Cho over his shoulder.

“Take Win, please,” he said and she came up took Win in her arms. Bucky met Steve’s gaze, their eyes locking.

“Ready, Cap?” he asked, his grin sharp and teasing but his eyes heavy and alert.

“Right beside you, Sergeant,” Steve returned and the warmth in Bucky’s gaze had his skin blazing.

“Lets get the fuck out of here,” Bucky hissed stalking forward like a lion and Steve felt clumsy and uncoordinated beside him.
But powerful, Steve knew he’d tear this place to the ground; kill anyone that so much as looked at Bucky wrong. His hands were free now. He had no doubt he’d be able to do it.

It was strangely, hair-raisingly, quiet. The only Hydra agents they’d run into were the ones down in the basement, but now that they were on the upper levels and still nothing had Steve’s skin prickling. He hadn’t really noticed before, too caught up in Bucky, in the girls, in his own dizziness. But now, when he had to be alert, when Bucky’s experience shone and made Steve slip effortlessly into the headspace of a Captain, he was all too aware of the quiet. Not even the air conditioning could be heard.

“Where is everyone?” Cho asked, echoing Steve’s own thoughts. “I would’ve thought we’d been recaptured by now.” Bucky tensed, his grey eyes narrowing in a way that Steve shouldn’t find so attractive, especially in the middle of an obscure Hydra facility.

“Someone has been picking them off for us,” Bucky said, his tone like a question but Steve took it as an answer. There wasn’t any other explanation. He couldn’t imagine Carson letting them walk out. He was supposed to be dead by tomorrow night, on national television, and the world would be without an icon of peace.

And Bucky…Bucky would’ve been killed by Carson too, so that he would be elevated to hero status and taken more seriously in the place Fury left. Bucky turned his body, gun small, but Steve knew that in his hands it would be vicious. They waited, both straining for any noise.

There was some movement, down the end of the corridor, shuffling of feet and metal. There was a louder noise, like metal thudding off tiles, and Bucky moved to place himself between his sisters and the sound. Steve hated that he wasn’t at full capacity. He hated that Bucky–Bucky–after enduring so fucking much was still willing and able to protect him. The self-loathing he felt was staggering.

“Stay behind me,” Bucky said, low under his breath, and if it weren’t for Steve’s enhanced hearing he wouldn’t have heard him.

“I’m fighting with you,” Steve protested, but his voice sounded faint even to his own ears. Bucky didn’t answer, just shifted so that he was entirely blocking any pathway to Steve. Steve wanted to argue. He wanted to push Bucky back and protect him. But just the thought of a fight made him dizzy and nauseous and he focused on breathing through it. The noises were getting louder, heavy boots falling with no care for who heard.

It was almost as if the person approaching wanted someone to note their presence.

When Carson’s form came into view Steve was still surprised, even though he’d been expecting it. Zola was tailing him; his round glasses making him look like a small mouse, scampering and cowardly. Steve knew, when things got bad, he wouldn’t hesitate to leave Carson behind. He wondered if Carson knew this too.

“Soldier,” Carson called out like he was trying to heed his dog. “Stand down.” Bucky twitched, his face paling, but he stood his ground. Becca shifted, raising her own gun, and although she looked so young with it her form was precise. Bucky had trained her, after all. Steve felt his own weapon in his hand. He was a soldier as well, trained in the army. He knew how to shoot a firearm, how to have accurate aim. He just preferred his shield, but now this would have to make do. When it was obvious Bucky wasn’t going to comply, Carson changed tactics.

“Did you at least kill Agent Rumlow?” he asked and Bucky’s jaw ticked.

“Yes,” he spat, and the words fell like gravel from his tongue. Steve’s head snapped to him, but Bucky wasn’t looking at him. He was staring at Carson. His eyes were steel.

Steve wondered why he hadn’t pulled the trigger. They could shoot him, right there. Right now. He cocked his gun, and aimed.

“Don’t,” Bucky growled, and Steve’s eyes widened in surprise at the hostility in his tone. “We shouldn’t–we can’t kill him, yet.”

“Why the hell not?” Steve shot back, his own nerves frayed and on edge. “He’s tortured you for two years, Buck. He tortured your sisters–”

“I know what he’s done, Steve,” Bucky said, swallowing and fighting the jolts that shot through him more frequently now that Carson was standing before him. “But he knows the locations of ISIS. He knows Hydra’s bases. He knows who is in the government, and who is compromised. SHIELD needs his intel.” Steve shifted on his feet, frustration making him short-tempered. They should just shoot him.

He knew that Bucky was speaking reasonably, that his logic was sound, but keep him alive? Keep Carson, this piece of shit, this horrible man, alive another week? Another month? Steve hated the complications of justice sometimes. But he knew Bucky was right. He let out a breath and tried to keep his anger under wraps. And to think he was usually the one making these calls on missions.

“Trust me, I wanna blow his fuckin’ head off,” Bucky whispered, shooting a reassuring smile in Steve’s direction. “But we gotta milk him for what he’s worth, first.”

“He’s right, Captain,” Carson, said, looking all too calm for someone with three guns pointed at his head. “But I don’t think he can shoot me.”

“Oh, I can shoot ya,” Bucky snarled, his lip curling like a wolf’s. “Don’t push me.”

“The dog still has his bite,” Carson hummed and Steve saw Becca’s eyes flash; the anger radiating off of her was hot as a stove. There was a loud bang from two floors down, like a door blasting off its hinges, and Carson did look a little concerned at that. Whoever else was in the base had him nervous.

That was good.

“Stevie,” Bucky said, “You get the girls out. You make sure Becca leaves with you, ya got that?”

“The hell are you talking about?” Becca demanded, drawing attention to herself for the first time. Steve met Bucky’s eyes. They didn’t need words for Steve to realize what Bucky was asking of him. He remembered their conversation on the couch in Tony’s safe house, when Bucky’s breath had smelled like bourbon and desperation. He had been trying to prepare Steve, for all of this. Bucky’s expression didn’t falter, and Steve felt his own heart, his own soul, breaking at his next words.

“I promise,” he said. Bucky relaxed, minutely.

“We don’t have time for this,” Carson said, pulling a remote from his pocket and his hand hovering over one of the buttons in the center. He didn’t press it right away, instead raising his gaze to consider Bucky one last time. Steve realized, with a cold sense of dread, that he hadn’t looked his way once.

“Your last chance,” Carson said, and Zola seemed to smile, just lightly, at his words. “What do you say, Soldier? You’ve been so good today.” Bucky’s jaw clenched, his eyes hardening, but he didn’t back down, didn’t give an inch. He looked every bit the soldier that Steve knew him to be.

Steve couldn’t take his eyes off of him.

“Get the girls to safety, as soon as I say, understand?” Steve said, turning his gaze in her direction. Cho looked unnerved, but nodded nonetheless, her hand tightening around Sophie’s. Win stirred in Sophie’s arms, her eyes fluttering open, bleary and glazed. She was so small

“Go fuck yourself,” Bucky growled, and there was fear, in his tone, but not in his stance. Not in his determination.

“Very well,” Carson sighed, and pressed the button. The whole room immediately smelled of burning metal and skin and Bucky let out a shrill scream, his gun jolting from his hands as if he’d been shot. His right arm flew to grab his left instinctively, to try and ease the pain, but he flinched back, his fingers red and raw. He was straining against his own body, the left arm spasming wildly in pain and–oh. Oh.

Electrical shocks vibrated up the length of the metal plates, whizzed through the skin of Bucky’s shoulder and Bucky’s eyes squeezed shut in agony, his hands flying to his head.

“Inside,” Cho said in a rush, voice horrified. “Metal, inside his–”

“Bucky!” Sophie screeched, rushing forward and letting out a cry when she got too close to his arm.

“Cho!” Steve cried, turning to meet her. “Get them–”

“I know, I know,” Cho said. Tears fell heavy from Sophie’s cheeks, and she looked to Steve with such hopeless desperation he felt it in his bones.

“Go with Doctor Cho,” Steve said and Sophie shook her head, her bottom lip quivering.

“I’m not leaving,” she argued. “I’m not leaving Bucky.”

“Over here, at least come with me out of range,” Cho urged, trying to juggle holding Win even as she reached for Sophie. “Please, it’ll be safer.” Sophie hesitated; looking to Bucky with such naked fear that Steve felt torn open.

Anger surged through him, powered by fear and cold panic and he aimed the gun at Carson’s knee and fired. The man let out a shout, the only real sign Steve had seen of him being human. Zola tried to catch him as he buckled. Steve cocked the trigger, stalked forward, his rage as real and heavy as the bullet that had just torn through Carson’s bone.

“Turn it the fuck off or you’ll look like Rumlow,” Steve growled, his voice deadly. “Now!” Carson did, sweat beading along his forehead as he looked up at Steve. A slow smile spread across his face.

“There’s cameras here,” he said. Steve stiffened. Thought of what Carson could possibly–“Soldier, complete your mission!” Bucky let out another cry, and Steve turned to see him fall onto his side. Blood dripped from his shoulder, from between the metal fingers and tainted the white floor dark red. His eyes were watering as he met Carson’s gaze.

“Fuck you,” he panted, even as his head jolted violently and his muscles contorted in pain.

“Bucky!” Steve cried, running to pick him up off the floor. Bucky pushed him away instantly, and the hand of his left arm was white hot.

“Don’t touch me!” he pleaded, teeth chattering as he coughed, stained even redder as he spit more blood out onto the floor. “I–I don’t–get away–” Another shock, and Bucky convulsed. It almost looked like he was experiencing a seizure, and Steve was terrified he’d bite his tongue. Steve looked up sharply, and saw the remote yet again pressed in Carson’s palm.

Fuck his information.

Steve shot him through the head.

Carson crumpled, his whole body crumpling almost immediately, and Zola jumped back with a shout before turning and running back down the corridor.

“Wait!” Steve screamed, torn horribly between staying with Bucky and making sure Zola at least that he didn't get away. He raised his gun, squinted to aim, then pulled the trigger. But Bucky’s metal hand was wrapped around the mouth of the gun, the bullet stopped by the inhuman strength of his palm.

The whole room seemed to freeze.

Becca sucked in a sharp breath; loud enough that Steve could hear it. He turned slowly. Bucky’s arm was outstretched and he was kneeling, breathing heavy, his hair obscuring his face and wet with sweat. There was the receding sound of Zola’s fleeing footsteps, another noise from the floor below now, but all Steve was focusing on, all he was registering, was that Bucky had stopped him from killing the scientist who did this to him.

“Bucky?” Sophie whispered, voice weak. “Oh, shit, Becs–”

“I know,” Becca interrupted, her words careful, like she didn’t want to make any sudden movements, any loud noises. Like Bucky was a wild animal. Dread made Steve falter. He met Becca’s gaze.

“Cho,” he said, “Get them ou–” Bucky’s metal hand grabbed the gun, crushed the barrel, and was around Steve’s throat all within the span of five seconds. It burned, and it hurt, and Steve choked around his words. Bucky didn’t let go; just tightened his grip, and Steve flinched at the heat that seared from the metal into the sensitive skin of his jugular.

“Bucky! Stop, let him go!” Becca cried, moving forward but that only made Bucky’s hold tighten, and he stood, slowly, forcing Steve to follow to his feet too. Steve gasped, tried to get in air, but Bucky’s grip tightened and suddenly he was cut off entirely.

“James,” Becca said, speaking slowly and tucking her gun into the waistband of her pants. She held up her hands and moved to stand beside Steve, trying to meet Bucky’s eyes.

He wouldn’t.

“Bucky, do you know me?” Bucky’s head jolted and now he looked to her, his eyes sharp and devoid.

“Stand down,” he growled, voice low and primal. “I will kill you if you stand in my way.”

“This is Steve,” Becca pleaded, continuing like Bucky hadn’t spoken. “He isn’t your mission.”

Another twitch.

Bucky’s metal fingers tightened.

Steve choked and Becca tensed.

“Bucky,” she said, urgent now. Bucky didn’t consider her, brought Steve closer, and threw him unceremoniously against the nearby wall of the hallway. He could feel the dry wall crack under his back, could hear it, and the bullet wound of his shoulder reopened, if the ripping pain was anything to go by.

Bucky let him go, and he fell back against the tiles. Steve let out a strangled groan, and tried to push himself to his hands and knees. Bucky was in front of him in an instant, and almost immediately his foot collided with Steve’s ribs. Even barefoot, Bucky’s kick was powerful.

The blood that coughed itself from Steve’s mouth was a dark red.

“Bucky!” Becca cried. “Stop!” A punch, this time to Steve’s head, another kick, to crack his ribs. The world was spinning but he was too weak to stop it. This was–Bucky, this was Bucky, this was the soldier in him. The side Hydra had hardwired, had kept dormant in him for years. This was why he trained his sisters. This was why he didn’t trust himself. It was almost too easy for him to be triggered. It made sense, if he never had had proper therapy, meds, not to mention he’d had no time to heal from when he was captured until now.

The pain Steve felt was nothing compared to what he knew Bucky was going through, what he’d been going through. It hurt, yeah, but Steve didn’t care about that. He tried to reach out, not to punch, or block, but to take Bucky’s hands, to hold his fingers and calm him.

When Bucky broke his hand he couldn’t be surprised.

“Bucky, sw–sweetheart, please–” Steve tried but he could barely speak, could barely get the words out. Bucky raised up on his feet, lifted his leg for another kick, when the sound of a gun firing had him tensing, his foot still lifted. The bullet hit the far wall, a hole created in its wake, and Becca was standing with her gun raised and shoulders squared. Steve’s heart stopped.

“Soldier,” she said, speaking calm and rational and no way like Becca at all. “Stand down.” Bucky blinked, twitched, lowered his leg but turned to her instead. All of that strength, all of that controlled aggression, was now focused on Becca. She didn’t waver under it. She stood her ground. She had almost shot Bucky; she looked like she would, to protect Steve. Steve tried to push himself up, but his now broken ribs, most likely broken jaw, bullet wound, and malnourished state kept him firmly on the floor.

He hadn’t felt this weak, both emotionally and physically, since before the serum.

“Soldier,” Becca repeated, this time a bit desperately when Bucky began to stalk towards her, “listen to your orders. Stand. Down.” He didn’t. Becca was shaking now, just barely.

“Bucky!” Win screeched, the first time she'd spoken. “Bucky!” Sophie moved to stand next to Becca so they were both shielding Win, and the determined set of both their eyes made Steve’s heart hurt.

“Don’t–run,” he tried to say but the blood in his throat made him sound weak and undemanding.

“Last time,” Becca said, a hysterical edge creeping into her tone. “Stand down!” When Bucky took another step Becca pulled the trigger and the bullet grazed his side, not enough to stop him but enough to show him that she would shoot. That she could have hit an artery, or an organ, if she had really wanted. Sophie met Steve’s eyes, and lowered her gun to the floor. She kicked it over to him. Wordless. Steve grabbed it, not able to feel much of anything but knowing that if he didn’t move now either Bucky or Becca wouldn’t make it out. If he could get to his feet, use the last of his strength; he could save both of them–

“Bucky–!” Becca cried, pleading, one last time, before Steve hit him over the head with the butt of his gun. Bucky fell like his bones had turned to sand and Steve struggled to catch him. He did, and the pain of the act knocked his breath and made his vision blur.

He wouldn’t be conscious much longer, himself, but Becca and Sophie, though they were strong, couldn’t carry the full weight of two super-enhanced men. Regardless, Steve held Bucky close to his chest, could barely register the blood from the fresh wound in Bucky’s head. It took all his energy to just raise his head and meet the girls’ gaze.

“There’s someone else in the hall,” Cho said, urgently, trying to settle Win down. She was sobbing hysterically and had been fighting to get out of Cho’s arms. “I can hear them, they’re coming.”

“Take…Bucky,” Steve slurred, though he didn’t let Bucky out of his grip. “I’ll–I…”

“You’re not fighting,” Cho interrupted, handing Win to a disoriented Sophie. “You can barely keep your eyes open. You have internal bleeding, a concussion, your lungs are probably–”

“I’ll protect everyone,” Steve argued, lowering Bucky to the tiles as gently as he could. Becca rushed to him, brushing Buck’s hair out of his eyes, lifting his head so that it rested comfortably in her lap.

“You can’t–” Cho began but Steve was already struggling to his feet, the gun that was stained with Bucky’s blood heavy and dirty and wrong in his hand.

“Stand behind me,” Steve ordered, ignoring Cho’s arguments and pressing a calming kiss to Win’s forehead. “Please.”

“Steve, you–” Footsteps interrupted Cho, falling heavy and almost familiar, and if Steve were anymore aware of himself and his senses he would have been able to place it. As it was, he went on alert, raised the gun as best he could and ignored the overbearing pain that weighed on his limbs like hot tar. When Tony and Natasha stepped into his line of sight he almost shot them, so on edge with adrenaline and nerves that he barely registered them as friends.

“Thank fuck–Jesus–Nat! I got ‘em!” Tony cried, using his blasters on his feet to propel himself over, the suit intimidating and new. He grabbed Steve’s shoulders, held him up, and Steve was still on edge, still hyper alert.

“Shit, Cap, you look like hell–”

“Safe,” Steve interrupted and Tony’s faceplate came up, his expression concerned and open.

“What?” he asked. Steve tried to swallow, the blood coating his throat and making talking near impossible.

“Are they…safe…?” Steve managed to slur together and Tony, bless him, was able to piece together what Steve was asking.

“You’re safe, Bucky’s safe, his sisters are safe, no more threat, Cap, everything is secure,” Tony said, and Steve barely registered Natasha coming up and taking Bucky from Becca’s hands. He was breathing. He was okay.

Bucky was okay.

“Good…” Steve breathed, “Good…” and he passed out in Tony’s arms.

Chapter Text

The first time he woke up was in the jet, surrounded by nurses and IV lines and Bucky unconscious beside him.

He tried to reach out to him, but his arms were pushed back down and he was told not to move.

The second time was in a hospital room with white walls and white sheets and was devoid of any emotion he’d ever felt. Bucky wasn’t there.

The third time it was dark. He processed the windows to his left first. It was a different room than the first one. It was wider, more open. There were flowers, and comic books, and someone had placed a small stuffed teddy dressed in a shiny Captain America costume under his chin.

He stayed awake longer this time. It was unnervingly uncomfortable. Natasha sat on a chair by his bed, flipping through files.

She didn’t look up. He was asleep again not a second later.

///

“Win, don’t jump on him!”

He stirred. Everything felt slow, like he was moving through a thick fog. His head hurt, and his shoulder ached. He felt the bed dip to his right, and a weight pressed itself against his side, warm and soft.

“You’re gonna pull the IV!”

“No ‘m not.”

“Win, get down!”

“No!”

Steve forced his eyes open.

His eyelids felt heavy and it took his vision a while to adjust to the harsh light of the room. When it did, he saw the silhouettes of everyone first. There were four people in here with him, and one was curled up by his hip, under his arm. He blinked, and Win’s light hair came into view.

She was in purple footie pajamas her feet curled up against his hip. He tried to speak and it came out more of a dry wheeze.

He tried again.

“Hey,” he said. His voice sounded terrible and he felt like shit but he was so full of joy and relief and happiness at seeing Win he didn’t care. Win’s face, when she saw him, was enough to get him out of the hospital bed and put on his USO tour dance. She got all red faced, a giant grin breaking over her face, and she threw herself at him, all of her weight; her knees dug into his sore ribs and her elbow jammed the tender bullet wound on his shoulder and he didn’t give a fuck.

He hugged her with both arms, with no regard to the IV even with the warning tug he felt in his wrist.

She smelled like fresh soap. She was warm and solid and soft against his chest and he started crying without meaning to. Win noticed and pulled back, her small hand slapping lightly against his cheek.

“It’s okay,” she told him seriously. “I’m okay, and you’re okay, and we’re safe. I promise we’re safe.” That just made Steve cry harder so Win pressed her face against his cheek and hugged his neck, awkward and a little uncomfortable, and entirely perfect. Sophie stepped up to his side and she reached over and rubbed soothing circles on Win’s back.

“Do you need anything?” she asked, directing her question at Steve. He opened his eyes to look at her. “Is she crushing you?” Subconsciously, Steve tightened his arms around Win.

“No, she’s fine,” he said, voice sniffling around his tears. “She’s fine.” Sophie smiled indulgently, eyes squinting with it. Steve noticed Becca standing back in the corner, Wanda next to her, and when Steve met her gaze the tense posture she was holding softened.

“Hey,” she said. Steve smiled.

“Hey.”

“How are you feeling?” Wanda asked, stepping around to Steve’s other side with Becca in tow. Win rubbed her nose against his neck, pulling back and resting her full weight on his stomach.

“Tired,” Steve answered honestly. “And sore.”

Becca tutted. “Win, go lay next to him, not on him.” Win pouted but obliged, even though she did snuggle up close, her cheek smashed against Steve’s shoulder. It made Steve’s heart feel full and warm.

“How’s Bucky?” Steve asked, eyes on Win but at the stretching silence he looked up, first at Wanda, then Becca. Wanda stepped forward to rest a reassuring hand on his.

“No no, hey, Steve, no, he’s okay, he’s okay. Just banged up,” she said in a rush, eyes worrying as she looked to Steve, watching as he calmed.

“He–he’s alright though? He’s okay?” Steve gulped but before Wanda could answer Sam’s voice sounded from the doorway.

“He’s stable. C’mon, Wanda, don’t give him a heart attack.” Her cheeks reddened and she straightened, looking a little sheepish.

“Sorry, I just…don’t know how to word this…” she said.

“Word what?” Steve said, looking around the room at everyone. “Word what?”

“His head’s a little hurt,” Win piped in, hitting Steve’s shoulder until he turned his attention to her. “He kind of twitches now. And he’s going to need therapy, lots of it with doctors. But Bucky said we could get a dog.”

“A special dog though,” Sophie corrected, crossing her arms and Steve noticed the bruises on her skin, made all the more yellow and sore under the florescent lights.

“Yeah,” Win agreed. “One to help Bucky with flashbacks.”

“A…a service dog?” Steve asked, his mind trying to wrap around what he was being told, trying to ignore the worry rising in his throat.

“Therapy and emotional support,” Sam said. “He’s been in and out of it for about a week. They’re monitoring his brain, doing some scans to make sure nothing was permanently damaged.”

“And?” Steve asked, barely loud enough through his own raw fear.

“He’s okay, Steve,” Sam said. “He’ll have severe PTSD, depression, anxiety, and mood swings. He’ll probably have some kind of episode every now and then, and when he gets overwhelmed or stressed he may twitch a bit. But that will go away. He’s really going to be okay, man. He is.” Steve let out a breath, his head falling back against his pillows.

“I…can I see him?” he asked, desperate.

“Tomorrow,” Wanda said. “You just went through surgery. You had three broken ribs, internal bleeding, a concussion and an agitated bullet wound. You shouldn’t push it.”

“Where’s his room?” Steve asked. Sam crossed his arms, leaning against the doorframe. He looked entirely suspicious.

“Why?” Sam prodded. Steve bristled.

“I just need to know,” Steve pleaded. “c’mon, Sam…”

“Room 413,” Sam said reluctantly, “but don’t–”

“I’m going to see him,” Steve said, tugging the IV out of his wrist like it was paper stuck to his shoe. He slowly became aware of what else was on him: a pulse oximeter on his index finger, which he slipped off with just a slight pinch. He ignored the rush of nausea that hit him, at the lightheadedness and vision blurring as he stood up too fast. Sophie grabbed his elbow to balance him.

“You’re gonna tear something else!” Becca chided, rushing around the bed to come stand by Sam. “You and Bucky are fucking unbelievable–”

“I have to see him,” Steve pleaded, “I have to. I–I thought I was going to lose him. I…please help me walk.” Sophie’s hand tightened.

“Let’s go, big guy” she said, leading him forward and supporting more of his weight than Steve initially thought she’d be able to hold. Sam groaned but came up and took his other elbow, and that helped ease the pain of each step.

“Steve, I can move you down the hall,” Wanda said. Steve laughed.

“I want some of my dignity,” he said and Wanda giggled, even as the red smoke of her powers wrapped around his legs and gave him the strength to move without pain. Win kept up by his feet, holding the teddy dressed as Captain America in her hands. Together, they made quite a team walking down the hospital’s corridors. It looked like they were in a private wing, tucked away, cut off. The nurses that were stationed nearby looked up with startled alarm.

“You shouldn’t be up, sir,” they said, rushing up to him. Accents that Steve couldn’t place were thick in their vowels. “Please return to bed.”

“With all due respect ma’am,” Steve said, loud enough that the other nurses could overhear, “I haven’t seen my boyfriend in a week, and I haven’t seen him not being tortured in three months. I’m going to see him resting and safe now.” The woman’s face paled and she let them continue on their way. Room 413 was only down the hall, two guards standing in front of the door, and when they saw Captain America approaching they stepped aside.

Steve pushed open the door without hesitation. He should have prepared himself for the emotions that would come with seeing Bucky. He was asleep, surrounded by even more machines than Steve had been. A bandage was wrapped smoothly around his temples. He was pale, bruises dancing purple on his neck and arms. He was covered in a sheet and a handmade quilt was thrown over his lap. An IV was in his right wrist and the machines surrounding him beeped quietly in the whirring silence of the room. His metal arm gleamed in the light from the windows, the fluorescents having been shut off.

There were three makeshift beds on the ground by his feet and under the windowsills and Steve could already see in his mind Bucky with his sisters asleep and keeping vigil at his feet.

Bucky was peaceful.

He was resting.

He wasn’t screaming. He wasn’t in pain. He wasn’t crying. He was relaxed. He was safe. Steve could feel the tears building all over again. His long hair lay spread on the pillow, his beautiful eyes closed, his chest rising and falling in a healthy rhythm as he slept.

“He’s okay,” Steve choked. Sam squeezed his arm.

“He is, yeah,” he said. Steve moved forward, staggering over his own feet. He hadn’t realized what relief was until now. It felt like he was weightless, like he was buzzing numb, warmed like the sun was bright inside of his chest. Gently, like Bucky was snow and his touch could melt, he held Bucky’s hand in his.

He rested his fingers on Bucky’s pulse, felt it beat.

“Thank God,” he sighed, bending down and resting his forehead against Bucky’s. He closed his eyes and relished being close.

///

He moved his bed into Bucky’s room.

It was a tight fit, and the nurses looked to him with a mix of exasperation and alarm. But they managed to maneuver Steve inside and Win curled up in the middle of them where their mattresses touched.

Sam came in and leveled him with a look.

“You’re making everyone’s lives harder,” he said. Steve grinned. He felt giddy, still holding Bucky’s hand, and sitting up in bed, watching a movie with Sophie and Becca.

“I know,” he said. Sam smiled.

“Move over. I’m putting my chair by the window.”

///

Bucky woke up two days later.

He had had moments of brief-semi consciousness before, where his eyes would drift open, unseeing, and he would mumble something no one could make out before slipping under again. Now, his grey eyes took in the room, the light coming in through the windows. He looked to Steve, where they lay side by side. Steve was still holding his hand. The only change was that their nails were painted.

“Hey,” Steve greeted, voice unbelievably soft and so full of love it fell like warm rain on Bucky’s skin. Woke him up further.

“Hey,” Bucky returned, voice rougher and scratchy, a record skipping. “You look like hell.” Steve laughed.

“You should see yourself,” he shot back, but bent over to press his lips delicately to Bucky’s temple, the bandages a bit rough compared to the smoothness of Bucky’s skin. Bucky’s eyes fluttered. He was beautiful.

“My head hurts,” Bucky admitted and Steve felt the worry grow, but he pushed it down and kept his voice calm. The nurses had told him migraines would be normal for some time.

“Do you need more meds?” Steve asked, shifting so that he was sitting, leaning over Bucky’s head, his right hand brushing the hair from Bucky’s face, smoothing through the knots and tangles.

“Love some,” Bucky slurred, eyes drooping. Between Steve’s touch and the sunlight keeping him warm he began to fall under again. Steve reached up and pressed the red button above their heads. The nurse would be in soon.

“Where…?” Bucky began to ask, trailing off when speaking took too much energy.

“Your sisters are with Wanda and Sam in the café,” Steve answered, tracing his thumb over the fading bruises on Bucky’s temples. Bucky hummed, content.

“Love you,” Bucky said, the words slipping together like molasses and Steve grinned, wide and full and bright.

“Love you too,” he returned, without any hesitation.

“Kiss?” Bucky asked, even as his eyes closed and his head turned to Steve. He was falling asleep already, and Steve couldn’t keep the smile off his lips as he pressed his mouth to Bucky’s. Innocent.

“You going back to sleep, Buck?” Steve asked, petting Bucky’s hair. Bucky let out an affirmative sound before he was under again and Steve pulled him to his chest and tucked him close.

///

Tony came to visit them four days later, when it was raining and humid, the air of the hospital slightly heavy because of it.

The television was turned low, the flat screen capturing the girls’ attention for only a moment before they all turned to their own means of entertainment. They had been attending therapy a floor below, and Steve finally was able to walk down and take them the day after he’d moved his bed in with Bucky’s. He was healing fast.

Sam had told him he was in Wakanda when they took him off the copious amounts of pain medications.

“Wakanda?” Steve had asked and Sam had pulled up Google maps to show him where they were. And now Tony was here, crouched over Bucky’s arm, with Bucky watching him with half lidded eyes, dazed and quite obviously still drugged. Steve had just walked the girls to their session, and walking in on Tony bent over his half-lucid boyfriend’s damaged arm had his hackles rising immediately.

“What are you doing?” he snapped, stalking over. Tony didn’t even look up.

“Fixing his arm,” he replied flippantly, and when Bucky saw Steve he smiled, pliant and dopey, reaching out and making a grabby hand at him with his right arm. Steve walked around and climbed onto their joint beds, the fight leaving him instantly with the arrival of Bucky’s smile.

“What do you have him on?” Steve asked, kissing Bucky’s forehead before looking over his hair to see what Tony was doing. He had plates of the metal arm opened, and it looked like he could be fixing a kitchen sink, just with very small wires.

“Morphine,” Tony said. “They did a good job healing up the skin of his shoulder. I’m just giving his arm a few tweaks; some of the fingers haven’t been working.”

“You’re…you’re performing surgery without–” Steve began sharply before Tony cut him off with a dry glare.

“I’m not doing surgery,” Tony said. “This is no place for that.”

“I know!” Steve said, exasperated, and held Bucky’s hand when he started to poke at his cheek. “Then what–”

“It’s like mending a loose pipe,” Tony said, his voice tired as he returned to his work. “I have him on morphine ‘cause the nerves are fried. They’ve been fried. He won’t be able to feel as much with this arm, if at all.” Steve felt his heart sink into his stomach, and he clutched Bucky’s hand tighter.

“But don’t worry, Cap,” Tony spoke up after a lengthy minutes pause. “I’ll fix him up.”

///

Steve met Prince T’Challa on the twelfth day in the hospital.

Bucky had just gotten his mobility back, and he and Steve had started taking morning walks in the gardens surrounding the hospital, walking through the vibrant flowers and dark green plants. It was humid, and they would be drenched in sweat when they returned, but the sun brought color into their cheeks and Bucky liked to dig his toes into the soil.

The mosquitoes, they both agreed, could shrivel and die. On their fourth walk, they ran into a tall man, dressed in a suit pressed within an inch of its life but looking graceful where it fell over his chest and shoulders. He was with a nurse, and he turned when he heard Steve and Bucky approach. The girls were probably just finishing up their sessions, and would come out to meet them for a quick breakfast. Bucky was holding Steve’s elbow, he would still get tired, and the sun wasn’t helping.

His metal arm gleamed in the garden, manmade with nature.

“Hello,” the man said, white teeth sharpening his smile. “It is nice to see you two up and about.” The nurse excused herself with a polite bow. Steve watched her leave. Tony had mentioned a friend in Wakanda. Steve wondered if this was him.

“I’m sorry, allow me to introduce myself. My name is T’Challa, son of T’Chaka. I am the chieftain of the Wakandan Panther Clan. My metal makes up your arm, Sargent Barnes.” Bucky’s eyes lit up and he let go of Steve’s arm, holding out his hand for T’Challa to shake.

“I don’t know how to thank you,” Bucky said, his words honest and open, full with gratitude. “You’ve done too much for strangers.”

“Nonsense,” T’Challa grinned, gripping Bucky’s hand tight. “A friend of Stark’s is a friend of mine.” His eyes flittered over to Steve’s and he gave him a reaffirming nod.

“It’s an honor to meet you,” Steve said, holding out his hand as well. They shook.

“You as well,” T’Challa returned. “It’s not every day Captain America is in my guest of honor.”

Bucky laughed. “Guest of honor? Hell, babe, I didn’t know you had political sways over other countries.” Steve felt himself going red. He could meet the leader of one of the world’s richest and most powerful countries and hold his demeanor but as soon as Bucky called him “babe” he was gone.

“I–I don’t, it’s not–” Steve spluttered and T’Challa laughed, genuine and deep. The sound was as rich as the surrounding jungle.

“Please, do not be modest in my company, Captain,” he chided playfully, tucking his arms behind his back in a casual military stance Steve recognized all too well. “You helped to shape the century. That deserves a place here. And you, Sergeant.” Now T’Challa turned the force of his dark eyes on Bucky and Steve watched, smug, as pink kissed the tips of Bucky’s ears.

“You have been through hell and lived strong,” T’Challa began, tone suddenly serious and Steve felt himself stiffen, automatically protective. He wasn’t sure if Bucky was ready to talk about what he’d been through yet, or have it addressed outside of a therapy setting. But Bucky’s back just straightened, his jaw squaring, a soldier to his core, and Steve couldn’t help, even now, to be knocked breathless by him.

“You’re a fighter. A warrior through the worst of the human condition, you have a place of honor here as well.”

“With all due respect, sir–” Bucky began but T’Challa cut him off.

“You are a survivor, Sergeant Barnes. The men who captured you did not rob you of that.” Bucky’s mouth snapped shut, his grey eyes widening in surprise. The emotion in his expression had Steve stepping closer, on instinct, to try and provide whatever small comfort he could.

T’Challa noticed.

“My apologies, if I have overstepped my bounds,” he said, and gave them a small bow. “It was not my intention. I hope I’ve caused no offense.”

“No offense taken,” Bucky said, taking a breath. T’Challa smiled.

“I am glad,” he said, earnest. He shook both their hands once more, and they thanked him once again, before the King of Wakanda met up with his entourage at the far end of the garden and disappeared behind the cover of tall flowers and dense foliage.

///

Zola had escaped to Northern Asia, and Natasha lost his trail after nine days.

Hydra kept a lot of files. A lot of documentation.

“One would say they’re very OCD,” Tony had said, grinning madly. “But that’s good for us.” Carson was one of two heads, a man named Pierce another, and the Avengers informed the Council as soon as the Hydra base had been cleared. It was easy to track down the remaining bases, to take them out. And while there were still supporters, and Zola, and this Pierce, it was the smallest Hydra had ever been.

“We’re cracking down on them,” Sam told Steve and Bucky one afternoon over dinner. “For the first time in history we’re ahead of ‘em.” Bucky looked grim, but he forced a smile.

“Good,” he said, setting down his fork. “Let’s keep it that way.”

///

“Do you ever think, that if you just read Barnes’ file, things wouldn’t have gone this way?” Natasha asked him in the hospital cafeteria, mugs of warm tea cradled in their palms.

“Maybe,” Steve confessed, taking a tentative sip.

“You never would have read it, would you?”

Steve smiled, soft. “No,” he said. Natasha hummed, looking out over the tables, the other nurses and doctors, a thoughtful expression on her face. He was fully healed now, and he would never take walking for granted again.

“Do you regret meeting him?” she asked quietly, somehow vulnerable, and Steve met her eyes, waited until he knew she wouldn’t look away.

“Not for one minute,” he answered honestly. “I’d go into the ice a hundred times over, if it meant getting to meet him.” Natasha regarded him for a long moment before her eyes softened and she reached forward, clasped his large hand in her small one.

“Then I’m happy for you,” she said. Her thumb brushed over his. Her nails were green, sloppy. The first time Steve hadn’t seen her look impeccable.

Win had picked a good color.

///

They left Wakanda after two weeks.

Bucky was to be placed again in Witness Protection, and he wasn’t allowed to return home until it had been scanned, from basement to attic, until every floorboard was scrubbed and every bed was searched. They spent a night in Steve’s apartment, and it was strange, stepping onto carpet when for three months they’d been used to cement.

They exited the elevator each with their own levels of trepidation, and when Becca came into Steve’s room at 3:00am crying into her hands Bucky simply held out his arms and let Becca tuck herself away. Steve checked on them throughout the night, he couldn’t help it. He had to convince himself that this wasn’t a dream, that they were all still here. That Bucky wasn’t hurt, that Becca was still in their bed between them.

Sophie was sleeping on the floor, curled up next to Win underneath one of the guest beds. Steve’s heart broke, but he didn’t wake them, or try to move them from the safe space they had created for themselves. Instead, he woke up early, made French toast with fresh ingredients that Pepper had left for them in the fridge. Becca didn’t get out of bed that day.
Instead, Bucky brought her a plate, and sat with her.

“Blue day?” he asked quietly, and Steve hovered in the doorway, Win clutching the fabric of his flannel pajama bottoms.

“Blue day,” Becca confirmed voice muffled. Bucky bent low, kissed her cheek.

“You’re safe,” he whispered, low enough that Win couldn’t hear. “You’re safe and nothing is ever going to hurt you again.” When she started to cry Steve scooped Win into his arms and went to turn on the TV in the living room.

It was a Harry Potter kind of day.

///

Snow fell thick and heavy, and Bucky had insisted on driving up to their house in Connecticut from the Avengers Tower in New York instead of taking one of Tony’s jets.

Steve didn’t really understand the merit of this, but when he saw Bucky relax behind the wheel, saw how he would turn on the radio and sing so loud that Sophie would grumble and kick his chair, Steve understood. They drove slowly, traffic horrible in the city but made worse by the weather, and they made frequent stops at run-down gas stations and cheap diners, filling their stomachs with greasy burgers and fries and hot chocolate as the snow fell in thick white sheets around them.

Bucky blasted ACDC and Lady Gaga and Weezer, and they all sang to the songs they knew, still tried to the ones they didn’t, and pointed out landmarks as they drove past them.

They felt, for all intents and purposes, like a family.

A little broken, a little bent, but perfect nonetheless. Steve wouldn’t change a damn thing. Even the horrendous traffic… it was the happiest he’d been in three months, after all.

///

They were an hour outside of town.

Bucky had turned on the heat, and turned the music low, the Christmas songs muted but creating a festive atmosphere as the girls slept resting on each other’s shoulders as they drove. Steve touched his hand to the window, watched as the heat of his palm made white spread out like fog. Bucky reached over the console and rested his right hand on Steve’s knee. Warm and grounding.

“Don’t go away on me, now,” he said, low and soft. Steve rested his hand on top of Bucky’s, entwined their fingers, and pressed so that he could feel the beat of Bucky’s heart. It was a habit he’d picked up, after everything, and Bucky, bless him, never commented on it.

“Not goin’ anywhere,” Steve whispered, bringing Bucky’s knuckles to his lips and kissing each one tenderly. “Just thinkin’.”

“Oh?” Bucky drawled, shooting Steve a sly look. “’Bout anything good?” It was always fun, to listen to their Brooklyn accents come out when they were together. Steve loved it. Loved Bucky.
“Nah,” Steve grumbled, purposefully wrinkling his nose. “Just thinkin’ about this fella I know.”

“Hm,” Bucky hummed, trying to look serious but his lips were curving up into one of Steve’s favorite smiles, the one he wore when it was just the two of them, private and teasing and lovely.

“Must be one hot guy if you’re daydreamin’ out the window.”

“He is,” Steve affirmed, laying Bucky’s hand back on his thigh. “Most beautiful guy in all of Brooklyn.”

“Not New York?” Bucky asked, and ‘Silent Night’ started up on the radio, peaceful and nostalgic, and hopeful. Steve had hated Christmas time after he’d woken up from the ice. The cold made him feel trapped, lost. New York was too different, too desolate in the snow. His mother wasn’t in the kitchen boiling them hot milk, and their patchwork stockings weren’t hung above the fire escape. He couldn’t stand the holidays.

But now, with Bucky, with his sisters, with the snow and music and love Steve couldn’t find anything wrong. He didn’t feel out of place. He didn’t feel out of time. He felt right at home.

“Buck?” he asked, and Bucky turned to look at him, eyes soft and warm and–

“Yeah?”

“Thanks for hitting me with your car.” Bucky’s smile could light up all of New York.

“Anytime, pal.”

 

They were going to be okay.

///

Bucky still had bad days.

He would still wake up, disoriented, confused, stuck in a nightmare or a flashback that had him screaming. Steve found that holding him so his back was to his chest, his arms wrapped around Bucky’s stomach, was the fastest way to calm him down. Some days, Bucky didn’t like to be touched. Some days, he didn’t come out from under the covers. Some days, he would move like he was a weight.

Bucky had good days too.

He would wake up early, cook pancakes or waffles or French toast. He would wear soft pink sweaters and fluffy socks. He would braid his hair and watch Star Trek and work on the program that he and Pepper were starting up, a housing for former POWs and homeless veterans in the City. He would dance in the living room in his underwear when they had the house to themselves, to Christmas music and decorate the tree. He would smile Steve’s favorite smile.

Steve loved him on his bad days.

Steve loved him on his good days.

He loved him.

///

Sometimes, Steve couldn’t move, he was so depressed.

It would come in waves, intense like it had been the first three months after he was found in the ice. The incident with Hydra had it back full force. Sometimes, he would have panic attacks and feel like the walls were closing in. Sometimes, he would have dissociations that Bucky had been killed, that the girls were taken from their beds. Sometimes, he didn’t sleep at all. And Bucky would wake up and hold him and dress him in his favorite sweats, and make him hot milk, just like his mother used to.

And Steve knew that Bucky loved him on his good and bad days too.

///

Steve hadn’t picked up the shield in four months.

Oddly enough, he didn’t miss it. He called Sam one night, when Bucky was reading on the couch, his hair up in a bun. Steve only needed to look at him and be sure of himself.

“Hello?” Sam’s voice sounded alert, like he was expecting an emergency every time Steve called. Guilt wheedled at Steve, just a little. He needed to hang out with Sam more outside of fighting aliens and taking down Hydra.

“Hey, it’s Steve.”

Sam huffed a laugh. “Yeah, man, I know. Is everything okay?”

“Yeah, everything’s great. I um, I was actually calling to ask you a favor?”

“Shoot,” Sam said. Steve looked over to Bucky, who met his eyes over his book. Steve didn’t look away as he spoke.

“How would you like to become Captain America?” Judging by the following crash Sam had dropped the phone.

///

They got a huge grey and white husky from a rescue center in New York.

Win got to name him. She patted his fur, felt his paws, looked into his blue eyes. She pointed to his paw prints in the snow and looked up at where Steve and Bucky were watching her.

“Winter,” she said, like she had come up with the answer for how to cure cancer. “His name is Winter.” So Natasha had a dog tag made with a nice leather collar and she and Clint helped train Winter. He was an older dog, so his puppy years were behind him, and Steve could tell Bucky was grateful that he wouldn’t have to clean up any puppy accidents or torn up pillows. Winter wandered the house at night, taking over Steve’s shifts on checking on the family. When he was done with his rotations, he would curl himself up at the foot of Bucky and Steve’s bed, a heavy, grounding weight on their toes.

Winter shed, and Sophie took it upon herself to brush him every other morning.

The snow had begun to pile up, and Bucky and Win and Winter spent one Saturday morning building forts and snow castles. Steve brewed hot chocolate, enough to feed the girls and their friends that came over to regularly check in and sleep on their couch. And while it was sometimes a little crowded Steve was grateful Sophie and Becca had support outside of him and Bucky.

Sometimes, that’s what helped the most.

They each saw a therapist once every other week, Bucky twice. They would drive into the city, and when the girls were in their sessions Steve and Bucky walked hand in hand down Manhattan streets, Christmas shopping and not giving a damn about the expense. When cameras took pictures of them Steve didn’t mind. He just pulled Bucky closer, and made a show of kissing him in front of a FOX news reporter. His publicist called him not ten minutes later.

“So, can I finally release a statement to the public that you’re in a relationship?” she asked, exasperated. Steve smiled, wide and big and relaxed.

“Sure,” he said.

///

The Barnes’ household went all out on Christmas decorations.

They invited Natasha, Clint, and Sam over to help, Tony and Pepper taking a much-needed break to themselves for the weekend. The decorating was done within the hour. Clint had managed to hang snowflakes, fake and glittery, delicately from the beams crisscrossing over the living room. The girls with old family ornaments and big colored lights decorated the tree, and ‘Starry Night’ and ‘Little Drummer Boy’ played on the radio.

Steve found himself praying, something he hadn’t done since World War II. But now he found that it was a way to feel close to his mother, so he knelt on the floor of Bucky’s room and clasped his hands and talked. When he emerged, teary eyed and tired, Bucky wordlessly pulled him into a tight hug, his ugly Christmas sweater scratching Steve’s cheek.

Steve had never felt safer.

///

Christmas Eve was filled with food and friends and people crashing in their living room.

Natasha was draped over Clint, Tony and Pepper on the floor under the tree, and Wanda and Sam huddled close to the fireplace, the fire long since died out.

“Well, hell,” Bucky whispered, hands on his hips as he looked out over the mess that was his living room. “How’re we supposed to put presents under the tree if our friends got too drunk and passed out under it?” Steve laughed, muted it under his palm. He came up behind Bucky, wrapping his arms around his waist and resting his chin on top of his shoulder.

“They’re gonna have to get covered in gifts,” he said, shrugging. Bucky turned to look at him and Steve couldn’t help but kiss his neck, sucking gently when Bucky shuddered against him. He felt a fresh wave of desire, hot and curling low in his stomach and groin. He tried to move away before Bucky noticed, not wanting to push anything, not wanting to make Bucky uncomfortable in case this was a blue day.

But Bucky held his wrists and kept him from stepping back, instead moving so that he was pressed more firmly to Steve’s front. Steve let out a low breath, dropping his head forward to Bucky’s shoulder.

“Buck,” he began, voice already embarrassingly rough.

“You can fuck me in my Christmas sweater until they wake up?” Bucky suggested, light and breezy like he was asking Steve about the weather and Steve nearly swallowed his tongue. Bucky giggled–fucking giggled– delighted at himself, before grinding his ass more purposefully against Steve’s front. Steve’s grip tightened on his hips, his fingers slipping under the cotton of Bucky’s sweater to lie insistent on the warm skin underneath. He nipped at Bucky’s ear.

“You’re gonna be the death of me, ya know that?” he practically growled and Bucky’s grin was predatory.

“Well wait on the whole dyin’ thing,” he said, kissing the corner of Steve’s mouth. “I still wanna have a full lifetime with you.”

They made love slowly, on their bed as quiet as they could be, Bucky controlling the pace, moving on top of Steve with a patient tenderness that left him breathless. When Steve came it was a volcano under his skin, it was Bucky in his heart and mind and bones

After, they lay together, calming their breathing and huffing as Winter jumped atop the mattress, folding himself over Steve’s legs.

“This dog, I swear,” Steve grumbled, but was far too happy to be serious as he scratched behind Winter’s ears. Bucky was smiling, soft and private, and Steve reached out to trace Bucky’s face with his finger.

“Can I draw you?” Steve asked, almost desperate because Bucky was so beautiful, and he had almost a full sketchbook dedicated to him but he suddenly wanted Bucky to pose, to stretch out and look up at Steve with that favorite smile of his–

“Yeah,” Bucky breathed, pressing close and swinging his leg over Steve’s and making Winter lick at his calf. “’Course, babe. I’ll be your muse.”

“I thought you were goin’ to quote Titanic there for a sec,” Steve said, wrapping his arms around Bucky’s broad back.

“Draw me like one of your French boys, Stevie,” Bucky breathed, exaggerated and sexy against Steve’s lips.

“The worst, you’re the worst,” Steve said before Bucky was kissing him quiet.

///

On Christmas morning the girls woke them up by throwing themselves onto the bed.

Bucky woke, instantly alert, and relaxed as soon as he saw Win’s huge smile, gap toothed and excited. Presents were torn open in a blur, Tony just as excited as Win, and Bucky hung back and took pictures on his camera while Sam and Pepper cooked up a storm in the kitchen.

They all piled onto the couch and armchairs, presents and wrapping paper covering every surface, Winter at their feet, and ate eggs and bacon and toast with orange juice and watched Harry Potter for the twelfth time.

Steve shifted, made himself small in Bucky’s lap. The snow fell heavy and soft outside, the lights from the tree making sleep a requirement. Steve felt Bucky’s breathing even out, go deep that showed he was sleeping. Steve pulled back so he could see his face, so he could study every eyelash, trace those lips that he knew like the back of his hand.

Huh.

So this is what family felt like.

This was a home.

This was happiness.

This was it.

Steve Rogers, for the first time in his life, felt complete.

He wasn’t cold, he wasn’t in pain, he wasn’t fighting, he wasn’t Captain America, he wasn’t a soldier, he wasn’t a poster-boy, he wasn’t a dancing monkey he was–

Happy. He was happy.

He was human.

“Thank you,” he whispered, and Bucky’s eyes fluttered like he had heard him.

Steve Rogers had had worse days.

This one?

One of his best.