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like a heartbeat drives you mad

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The picture isn’t there.

Steve stares at the inside of his locker’s door. The brilliant tactical brain that Erskine died to bring him, it can’t make sense of what he’s seeing.

Or maybe he just doesn’t want to make sense of what he’s seeing. It’s not like it’s particularly confounding: a smooth metal surface, a gray a few shades too light to call gunmetal, empty except for the round black magnet in its center.

He glances down, but it’s not on the white tiles of the locker room floor. There’s no gap beneath the lockers, no space for anything to slip under them. And Steve’s locker is a ways away from the rest of the STRIKE team, a consequence of having only recently joined SHIELD. The assorted duffel bags, clothes, towels, and other debris that his teammates have tossed onto the floor are a ways away, too far to reasonably be covering a fallen photo.

Steve rifles through the spare set of clothes that are his locker’s only contents. Nothing.

Without thinking, he turns back around to face the rest of the STRIKE team. “Any of you fellas seen a photograph around here?”

The locker room chatter that he can never quite wrap his head around falls abruptly silent. The men all look at him, faces drawn in varying combinations of skepticism and curiosity.

He clears his throat and tries again. “I had a photo on the inside of my locker. Of—my friend. It’s not there now; have any of you seen it?”

The thing is, he knows that the tightness squeezing his windpipe and chest isn’t entirely logical, and that the note of desperation that sneaks into his voice is both embarrassing and nonsensical. It’s not like the photo itself holds any sort of value: it’s just a print that someone made for him. He asked one of the people on his integration team at SHIELD if there was a way to take a picture from the internet and make it into a photograph, a real one, like they used to have. And as often happens whenever he asks any sort of technology-related question to anyone, she just went and got it made for him instead of showing him how to do it.

But he could probably figure it out himself; he’s gotten much better at Googling things. It’s just—the picture, it’s a candid of Bucky, taken from one of the newsreels that was always filming them whenever they were in London between assignments. In it, Bucky stares at something off-camera. His lips are parted, not quite frowning. He looks thoughtful, maybe even pensive.

There were other images he could’ve had printed from the reels, ones where Bucky is laughing at one of Duggan’s jokes or posing with a patriotic swagger and an all-American smile fit for a war bonds advertisement. But he never quite looks happy in those; even in the more genuine moments that the cameras happened to capture, something in his eyes always speaks to the misery of the war.

If Steve could find any photos of Bucky smiling before he got sent off, he would have put those in his locker instead. But if those exist, they’re hidden away in some Barnes family scrapbook. The one he hung up was the realest depiction of Bucky he could find.

And now it’s gone, and his team is staring at him like he just asked if anyone has a rubber, size XL, that they’d be willing to lend him. Though probably that would fit in better with their typical post-mission banter.

The other STRIKE members glance at each other, then back at him. His cheeks burn.

“I haven’t seen anything,” Keegan finally ventures. And then the rest of the men are nodding and muttering in agreement and looking away from him, leaving Steve standing there, feeling every bit the towering anachronism he knows he is.

“Hey,” says a sharp voice. Steve automatically turns to the speaker, as does the rest of the team. Brock Rumlow stares at his locker, glaring.

“Cap says his picture’s missing. Sounds to me like you motherfuckers better start looking for it.”

And just like that, the others are pawing through their lockers, picking up the various items they had dumped on the floor, peering under the benches, and, in one case, checking all the sinks and shower stalls. They search with the same efficiency Steve has seen them act with on the two missions he’s completed with them.

“These shitheads don’t know how to take a hint.”

Steve doesn’t jump, but it’s a close thing; he’d been so caught up in gawking at the men in motion he hadn’t paid attention to Rumlow coming up beside him.

Rumlow claps him on his shoulder. “You gotta be direct with them if you wanna get anything done.”

Steve nods. “Thanks. I—appreciate it.”

“Don’t mention it. Picture of someone special?”

Steve shrugs. He’s learned that in this new age he could say what he and Bucky were to each other, and while some people might disapprove, no one would arrest him. But he still hasn’t said anything yet. It doesn’t feel like his secret to tell. “My friend,” he says again.

Rumlow nods like he understands. “You probably just dropped it, and it got kicked under something. I’m sure it’ll show up,” he says, before he steps past Steve and into the showers.

For all the confidence in his voice, Rumlow’s prediction is wrong. The searching men turn up nothing, and eventually they drift apart, washing and changing and heading out amid chatter of meeting up at a burger joint on the other side of the Mall.

Steve swallows his disappointment and forces himself to clean up too. When he comes out of the shower, towel wrapped around his waist, he finds that the room has emptied out except for Rumlow.

“Hey,” Rumlow says, “you’re not coming out with us, are you?”

Steve shakes his head and tries not to feel too self-conscious as he swaps his towel for boxers. It used to be that all the boys down at the YMCA would swim naked; there’s really no reason he should feel uncomfortable under Rumlow’s eyes now.

“Thanks, but I’m not really feeling up to it.”

“You’re really upset about that picture going missing, huh?”

“I just don’t know what could have happened to it. It was here when we left, I’m sure of it.” He always gorges himself on Bucky’s image before he heads out on a mission. Sometimes it’s the only thing that keeps him going.

“Probably it fell out and you didn’t notice,” Rumlow says. “Or maybe you stuck it somewhere and forgot about it?”

Steve shrugs. Rumlow’s wrong, he has to be. He would’ve noticed if it fell, and he’d remember something as important as moving it around.

Rumlow’s eyes narrow a bit, like he knows Steve isn’t buying his story. “I mean, it’s not like someone could’ve gotten into your locker, right? These things are running StarkTech.”

It’s true: the lockers require biometric activation; they scan agents’ pupils in order to unlock. They’re more secure than Steve’s apartment.

“I guess,” Steve says reluctantly, though the words taste false in his mouth. There’s no way it could have fallen; he would have seen it on the floor. Right?

Rumlow studies him a moment longer. Then he says, “Look, Cap, I don’t mean to—like I’m not trying to get too personal or anything here, but you seem kinda upset. Why don’t you come back to my place, have a beer?”

Steve blinks: he wasn’t expecting that. “Oh, I couldn’t—the others are waiting for you, aren’t they?”

Rumlow waves his hand. “Fuck ‘em. I mean, they’re great, but they’re assholes too. C’mon. What’re you gonna do otherwise, eat leftovers and fall asleep on the couch? It’s not good to just go home to an empty apartment after you’ve been on the job. You gotta relax.”

That was, in fact, exactly Steve’s plan. It’s how most of his nights go, here in this strange time in this strange city.

But it doesn’t feel like he should admit that to Rumlow. He hesitates a moment too long, tying his shoes, trying to find an excuse.

“C’mon,” Rumlow says again. He turns and starts walking for the door, mind apparently made up that Steve is coming with him.

And what the hell—what does he have to lose? And it’s probably good for him, bonding with his new teammates.

“Okay,” he says, straightening up and hurrying after Rumlow. “I—yeah. Okay.”

So that’s how it starts, though at the time it doesn’t feel like the beginning of anything at all. It just feels like him sitting on a metal folding chair in a tiny apartment on the edge of Columbia Heights that could charitably be called “homey,” sipping a sour beer that Rumlow assures him is “top-notch shit.”

It’s Rumlow who does most of the talking: about the other men of STRIKE and the many ways they annoy him, about his quest to find a good beer amid all the “hipster piss” that apparently flows through the city, about past missions, about his time in Iraq. It is a deluge of information, and all Steve can really do is nod along, occasionally asking a question or letting out an appropriately-timed laugh at an anecdote that is probably supposed to be funny.

It’s a bit of a surprise, then, when Rumlow ends a story about Rollins and an unfortunate encounter with a polar bear during an arctic stakeout by asking, “So the missing picture, it was of your friend?”

Steve starts; he hadn’t realized how much he was zoning out. “It—yeah. Yes, it was.”

“Who was he?”

“Bucky,” Steve replies, and Rumlow nods like he understands. Which he probably does, of course; from what Steve has heard, memorizing all the Howlies’ names is a right of passage in middle-school history classes across the country.

“He must’ve meant a lot, for you to get so upset about losing a photo.”

Steve almost protests; there’s no way he lost it, but he can’t see the point of humiliating himself further. “He did. The picture’s nothing special; I can print another one out. But…”

He hesitates, not sure if he should finish his thought. But what the hell: he doesn’t have much in the way of friends down here in DC, and besides, he ought to be on good terms with the STRIKE commander. “It’s just, I lost him once, you know? Photos are all I got left. I owe it to him to keep them close.”

Rumlow nods again, his eyes sympathetic. “Hell, we all make mistakes. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve put my phone down somewhere and just left it there. It’s a good fucking thing I don’t keep any work shit on there, or half of DC’d know all of SHIELD’s secrets.”

It isn’t like that, not at all. But before Steve can raise any objections, Rumlow throws him off once again, with, “Was he your boy?”

Shock prevents the denials from immediately pouring out of his throat. Not for long—his reaction time is meant to be superhuman, after all—but long enough that his response of, “I’m not sure what you mean,” sounds weak even to his ears.

“Hey, it’s okay. I won’t tell anyone, but I mean. You don’t gotta lie. People are allowed to talk about that sorta shit these days.” Rumlow smiles crookedly at him. “Tell you the truth, I’ve been known to swing that way now and again.”

His world tilts half a degree to the side, throwing everything off-balance. There’s no good reason for Steve to feel this unmoored. It’s just that between the missing picture and Rumlow somehow instantly seeing through a secret Steve has kept his whole life, and now him taking Steve into his confidence like this—everything feels even more unreal than the future usually does.

“It’s okay,” Rumlow says again. “I’m used to keeping it on the down-low ‘cause I served under DADT, and honestly, a lot of the guys on the team would probably give me shit for it. But they’d still have my back, I mean. We give each other shit about everything, you know?”

Steve nods. “Thanks for telling me. I… I know it can take a lot.”

Rumlow smiles at him and swallows the last of his beer. “I trust you, Steve. Wouldn’t follow you if I didn’t.”

And there’s something in the way he says it that makes Steve feel like he means it—or, more accurately, like he means more than that. Like he’s seeing Steve for Steve.

It’s been a long time since he felt that way. Since—well, since Bucky, really. Peggy had loved him, and he had loved her, but she had barely known him before he became an icon, and she’d never had the chance to know him outside of wartime. The situation was similar for the Howlies. And while he trusts the other Avengers, they barely know each other beyond their monthly training sessions and the occasional crises that bring them together.

Bucky, though, and Rumlow now—they saw him in these quiet moments. Sitting together, having a beer, just the two of them without the pressure of leadership on their shoulders.

It becomes a tradition after missions. In the kitchen of his small apartment, Rumlow explains the pop-culture references the other men make. He joshes Steve, sure—“You’re really tellin’ me you haven’t seen The Matrix? Christ, I know for a fact you don’t have anything better to do”—but he’s always laughing when he does it, and the fact is, it’s nice to have a friend.

The other men on the team keep a respectful distance from him. It’s not like with the Howlies, when he was their leader, but also still one of them. Everyone else on STRIKE seems unable to just treat him like an equal, try as he might to start up a conversation with them during SHIELD events, or go out with them after training. But Rumlow steps in and helps Steve feel like one of them. Sometimes he even saves Steve from empty weekends, dragging him out to the movies or to a bar, since, “Don’t lie, Steve, we both know you’d just be spending Saturday night staring at the ceiling and thinking about your golden days, and that’s just sad; you gotta learn how to have a good time.”

Or one time after a mission, Steve shows up at his place to find a Zagnut bar waiting, “Because you told me last time they were your favorite, remember?” And Steve didn’t, but the taste of the candy (too sweet, but that wasn’t Rumlow’s fault) reminds him of Bucky bringing him one each Christmas right up until the war made them too hard to find, and that gets him reminiscing, opening up in a way he rarely could.

“The others would never understand,” Rumlow says later, when that night was giving way to morning. He’d drunk a decent amount, and so had Steve. “They don’t let themselves feel, not like you do. And they just want you to be Cap all the time. But that’s okay. You got me.”

It’s good. He still misses Bucky with a physical ache. He still feels out of place; sometimes he comes into his apartment after visiting Peggy or spending a day with the other Avengers in New York, and is struck by the dizzying wrongness of it, as if half his furniture shifted an inch to the left while he was out: it never feels like home. But things are a little better when he’s not alone.

And there were other instances than just that first time with the photograph, times when Rumlow felt solid and strong and everything else uncertain.

Just little things. His ease with politely but firmly dismissing the paparazzi and journalists that sometimes gather at the Triskelion, trying to get a glimpse of Captain America. When he texted Steve to remind him it was Murphy’s birthday and he promised he’d pick up the cake from that hipster place in Logan Circle. It was a request Steve had actually forgotten, but which Rumlow and all the other relieved faces he’d seen when he’d shown up at the surprise party with just moments to spare clearly hadn’t.

Or when conversations with the rest of the team, with other SHIELD agents, with Secretary Pierce himself left Steve feeling that same unmoored sense of unbelonging. Like everyone around him who belonged to this time was part of some great, grand future club, and if he could only speak the language, understand their references, maybe then he’d belong. But he can’t, so he doesn’t.

Rumlow always makes him feel better—fills him in when he needs to be filled in, ropes him into talks with the other guys when he’s just standing around the perimeter. Listens to him vent when Fury is being all cryptic. Helps him feel more grounded.

And he needs to feel more grounded after the hostage situation in rural Montana almost goes horribly wrong by the unexpected presence of knockoff Chitauri tech. The captives make it out alive, and there are no severe injuries on the part of the STRIKE team, but it leaves Steve shaken all the same.

“I don’t know why no one told me about the ammo,” he fumes to Rumlow and Rollins on the jet back to DC. “If I’d known what we were up against, I would’ve planned things out different.”

Rollins gives him an odd look. “Didn’t you read the briefing? It was right there.”

Rumlow nods, even as Steve opens his mouth to protest. “You’ve still got the file, right? You were looking at it on the way here.”

And Steve was looking, and he does still have it, so he pulls out his tablet and brings up the document, ready to prove the others wrong.

Except, they’re right. It’s all there, several paragraphs into the first page. Suspected reverse-engineered Chitauri weaponry.

“Hey, it’s okay,” Rumlow says when Steve starts to stutter out an apology. “You’re under a lotta stress; it’s easy to miss details like that. Jack here doesn’t even read the fucking things half the time.”

And that distracts Rollins enough that he and Rumlow fall into their usual pattern of shit-talking each other until the plane touches down. Steve, for his part, doesn’t say anything; isn’t entirely sure he could get words out when his throat is so tight.

People could’ve been killed because he apparently skimmed the file. Because he somehow missed one of the most important pieces of info.

It doesn’t make sense. He keeps going over the hours leading up to the raid over and over again in his head, trying to figure out if he was distracted, emotionally compromised, something that would explain such a big mistake. But he can’t think of anything. He felt fine—as fine as he ever feels in the future, anyway, which means physically better than ever, and emotionally about as lost as he’d been in the days immediately after his mother’s death.

Rumlow has to practically drag him back to his apartment later. All Steve really wants to go is go back to his own place and sit at the wall and try to make sense of what happened.

“It’s fine,” Rumlow tells him again and again. “C’mon, Cap, cut yourself some slack. You stress out too much, that’s your problem. You gotta learn to let things go.”

“I don’t understand,” Steve answers, sounding whinier and more pathetic each time he says it. He knows, distantly, that he shouldn’t break apart in front of the field commander like this; shouldn’t show himself to be so weak, but it’s Rumlow. “I read it a dozen times if I read it once; there’s no way I could’ve missed it—”

“Steve.” Rumlow’s chair scrapes against the cheap tiles as he stands and walks behind him, placing his hands on Steve’s shoulder. “Cut it out. Everyone’s gonna be fine; nothing that bad happened. Okay?”

Steve doesn’t answer. He can’t. This isn’t okay, it’s not.

Rumlow sighs and steps back. He drums his fingers on the table.

Then he reaches out and snaps up the beer Steve had been neglecting, chugs it, and slams the bottle back down on the table.

“That’s it,” he declares. “Pity party’s over. We’re going out.”

He doesn’t want to go out. He says as much. He says he has nothing to wear, he’s tired, it’s been a long day.

Rumlow insists. He can borrow something. It’ll be fun, Christ, c’mon Steve, can’t you ever let your hair down?

And because Rumlow hasn’t steered him wrong yet, Steve goes along.

*

The club feels too hot. Under the tight black shirt Rumlow says looks good on him, his skin itches. It occurs to Steve in a distant sort of way that he doesn’t really want to be there.

He says as much to Rumlow, and then has to repeat it again to be heard above the soundtrack, which he’s pretty sure consists of at least two competing songs, something electric and something from the nebulous genre that people call classic rock: “I think I should leave.”

Rumlow grips his shoulder. “We just got here. C’mon, Steve, don’t I always say you gotta relax?”

It’s true. Rumlow’s been telling him that from the start, hasn’t he? And he’s been right about everything else, more or less. Steve nods, swallowing hard.

“Here.” A glass thrust in his hands; straight vodka, from the look and smell. “Bottoms up, Stevie.”

The nickname sounds perverse coming from Rumlow’s lips, but it’s better than him calling Steve “Cap.” God forbid anyone recognize him here.

Steve drinks automatically, barely feeling the burn. Rumlow waits until it’s all gone, then sets their glasses down and grips Steve’s arm. “C’mon, I wanna show you something.”

Steve lets himself be led through the throngs of people—all men, he thinks. Oh. He thought there was something familiar about it, though the Mafia-run joints Buck occasionally dragged him never made his skin crawl with so much unease.

There’s no reason to feel that way, he reminds himself as Rumlow pulls him towards the back. There’s nothing really sleazy going on—a lot of grinding, sure, and some of the guys are obviously high, but that’s to be expected in a place like this. Rumlow has obviously been here before, if the confident way he’s moving is any indication. And he hasn’t led Steve wrong yet, with all the pop culture and new food and places he’s pushed on him.

Except—well, except they’re going into a bathroom.

“Good, it’s empty. Fucking sweet,” says Rumlow, before he can ask what exactly he’s going on. “Lock the door? Unless you wanna get caught with your pants down; I won’t judge if that’s what you’re into.”

Steve does as Rumlow asks, before his words catch up to him. “What?”

Rumlow nods at one of the stalls, and—oh.

There’s no toilet in it, is the first thing he notices. The second is the hole carved in the wall.

“There’s a room ‘round the back,” says Rumlow. “Well—there are a couple of rooms. But I figure, it’s been a long day, you don’t wanna have to do all the work, right?”

Steve just stares at him.

“Go on,” Rumlow says, nodding at it. “I can step outside, if you’re shy.”

“What? No, it’s not that, just…” His tongue feels heavy, mouth dry from the vodka.

“You’re not getting all high-and-mighty on me now, are you?” Rumlow shakes his head, looking disappointed. “I just wanted to do something nice for you, Cap, you’ve been acting so stressed lately.”

“No, I just—I’ve never done this before.” He’d heard of places like this when he was younger, but never felt the need to go to them. He’d always had Bucky.

“It’s easy.” Rumlow grins at him, slow and lazy. “Just watch.”

And he does.

As Rumlow strolls into the stall, tugging down his zipper, Steve doesn’t feel fully present. His setting seems detached from his person, but then, that’s not so unusual these days. It doesn’t usually happen when he’s with Rumlow, though.

He can’t see much of what goes on in the stall, not with Rumlow’s back towards him. It’s still pretty clear what happens. Rumlow keeps his hands clenched into fists at his side. He thrusts into the small opening with a roughness that’s frankly kind of concerning, although he supposes that it’s not like anyone is forcing the person on the other side to stay in place.

“Oh, fuck,” Rumlow grunts. The small noises he makes seem unnaturally loud against the muted music that penetrates through the door.

It occurs to Steve with a twinge of discomfort that this… probably isn’t normal. The sort of things two friends do. He certainly couldn’t imagine this scenario playing out with Bruce or Clint or, god forbid, Tony.

But then, he’s never really had that many friends, has he? He wasn’t exactly popular before the serum. And even if his teammates can be said to count as friends, they certainly aren’t close ones. And they’re all far more dysfunctional, each in their own way, than Rumlow is.

Maybe this is just what normal people do on their weekends. Maybe Rumlow is right, and he’s just being a square.

But even if that’s true, he’s still not sure he wants to do this.

Rumlow finishes with a curse, then pulls out from the hole and zips himself up before turning back to Steve. “See? Didn’t bite my dick off or nothing.”

Steve nods, then glances back at the locked door behind him.

Rumlow follows his eyes and sighs. “Christssakes, Steve. All I’m trying to say is, maybe if you’d get laid, it’d, y’know, clear your head. Make it so that you wouldn’t fuck up like you did with the mission today.”

He must see Steve’s hurt at the reminder of his mistake, because he quickly adds, “It could’ve happened to anyone, I mean. It wasn’t a big deal. But I know it’s been awhile and I mean… it’s not good for you. Going that long without someone touching you. A man’s got needs.”

It still doesn’t feel right. But Rumlow is looking at him all earnestly, and it’s not like he’s wrong, it’s been 70 years, and anyway, before he can form his objections into words, Rumlow is gently shoving him forward into the stall, and then turning around, giving him privacy, and also blocking the exit.

And it’s not like Steve couldn’t overpower his friend and make his way out easily. But what’s the point?

*

“What did you think?” Rumlow asks later, as they walk through the parking garage to Steve’s bike.

Steve shrugs. He’s not thinking much of anything. He’d just stood there, not comfortable thrusting even as the stranger had taken him all the way down easily. His release left him unsatisfied; he’s still on-edge.

Rumlow is still looking at him, though, a bit bleary-eyed with the shots he’d downed afterwards.

“It was fine,” Steve says finally. “I—”

He almost says I kept thinking I heard something, a click, like a camera shutter going off, several times while he’d been in the act. But he’s pretty sure it was either the pipes or the soundtrack outside. Rumlow is paranoid about his privacy, and Steve knows he’d never take him anywhere that would compromise their safety.

Rumlow nods, apparently not caring about what he’d been about to say. “How’d it compare?”

They’re at the bike now. “What?”

“Y’know. How did it compare to Bucky? Was it similar?”

Steve stares at him. The garage’s fluorescent lights make the lines on his rugged face prominent. He meets Steve’s eyes, an inexplicably cocky grin playing at his lips.

“That’s messed up,” Steve says finally. Bucky’s memory deserves to be far away from the filthy places Steve lets himself get dragged to. Bucky deserves better.

“Aww, c’mon.” Rumlow’s smirk stays on his face even as he tosses his arm over Steve’s shoulders. “I’m just fucking with you.”

Steve shakes him off. “We should get going.”

“Hey.” Rumlow grips his arm. He isn’t smiling now. “I didn’t mean anything by it. You know I make shit jokes sometimes.”

Steve takes in a long breath, then lets it out. It’s cold down here, and lonely: they’re the only ones around. “Yeah. I know. It’s fine.”

“Good.” Rumlow steps back, slipping behind Steve once he’s properly situated on the bike. “Sounds like maybe this got you to lighten up a bit, Cap. We oughta do it again.”

The thought fills him with an inexplicable dread, but it seems to make Rumlow happy enough. So he doesn’t object. Just makes a noncommittal noise and starts up the motorcycle.

When he gets home that night, he pauses at the photo of Bucky framed on his nightstand. Rumlow’s question echoes in his ears.

He supposes that a blowjob is a blowjob. But it had been similar.

*
They do go back to the club. Only when Steve is feeling particularly agitated, which seems to happen more and more often.

It’s just… It’s not like anything is wrong. It’s not. Things are as they always were, with all the baggage that brings.

There are no more instances like the time in Montana, but Steve still feels like he’s always making mistakes. Just small things. Realizing he hadn’t reported a break in his equipment, even though it had to have happened at the end of the last mission. Coming in an hour late for a weapons handling lesson.

He feels out of place constantly. His apartment doesn’t feel like a real home. He’s tired of being recognized whenever he goes out; it seems like the paparazzi always know where to find him, and it leaves him so paranoid that he still feels like he’s being watched when he’s back in his rooms.

Practically the only times he doesn’t feel surveilled are when he’s drinking in Rumlow’s kitchen, or when they’re at the club, which Rumlow assures him has security tighter than a virgin’s asshole. They have that conversation after Steve mentions, offhandedly, the sounds he sometimes hears in the bathroom, the clicking.

So. It’s not like things are bad, but they aren’t quite good, either. It’s like he’s constantly on the edge, and he knows that something will push him over eventually, but he’s got no idea what he’s balancing on, or what’s on the other side.

And then comes the Lemurian Star, the reminder that Natasha doesn’t trust him and certainly isn’t his friend, the seeds of suspicion about Fury, and then, in the bowels of the Triskelion, the helicarriers.

“Fury is a shifty bastard,” Rumlow says carefully, “and I think you’re right not to trust him. But I think you’re maybe not thinking things through, about Project Insight.”

“How?” Steve’s hands are fists in his lap. If he tries to hold the beer bottle, it will shatter.

“Well, from what you’ve told me—and I mean, just so we’re clear, Cap, this is the first I’m hearing about it—it doesn’t sound worse than anything else that’s happened after the Patriot Act. NSA and all.”

“That’s not okay either. And the NSA doesn’t have the power to shoot on-sight anyone they think might cause trouble.”

Rumlow raises his hands. “I know. But I mean, I think maybe it’s more like using drones to fight wars instead of sending off a bunch of eighteen-year-olds to be cannon fodder, you know? It’ll keep people safe. Build a better world. And it’ll mean you and the rest of your costumed buddies won’t have to go out so often, if they can just nip the big threats right in the bud.”

“It isn’t right,” Steve insists, rising to his feet even though there’s nowhere to go. There’s a logic to Rumlow’s words, he can’t deny that. But it doesn’t feel right. Nothing does.

Rumlow studies him for a moment. “I think maybe we should go to the club. Get you calmed down.”

“I don’t want to,” Steve says. The kitchen is too small. He paces along the perimeter anyway. “Christ, Brock, I don’t think a suckjob is gonna make me feel better about how SHIELD wants to spy on everyone!”

“Doesn’t sound like it’s everyone,” Rumlow returns. He stands and reaches out, touching Steve on the shoulder. “Hey. I know you’re upset, but I think you just gotta trust that this is okay. I mean, even if you don’t have a whole lotta faith in Fury, Secretary Pierce is a solid guy. You know he really cares about protecting people. He wouldn’t back this if it wasn’t the right thing to do.”

Steve leans his head against a cabinet. There’s a throbbing in the deep place behind his forehead that doesn’t feel like it’s going to get any better. He wants to sleep. He wants someone else to talk to about this, but there’s no one besides Rumlow.

“You’re really wigging out. C’mon.” Rumlow’s hand circles Steve’s wrist, and he tugs him toward the door. “You don’t even gotta change your clothes.”

“I don’t want to,” Steve says again, even as he follows. “It’s not going to help.”

Rumlow pauses, turning to look at Steve. “You know I just want you to be okay, right?”

“I do, but—”

“Have I led you wrong yet?”

“No,” Steve admits.

Rumlow nods, like everything is settled. “You gotta get out of your head. And if a blowjob’s not gonna help—well. I think I told you once, there are other rooms.”

And then he’s out the door and they’re in Rumlow’s car and Rumlow is talking to someone at the bar of the club and they’re going in the back and Steve understands what he means when Rumlow tells him to undress.

“Hey,” he says before Steve can protest. “Do you trust me?”

Steve swallows. He thinks about the past months. He thinks about how alone he would have been. “You know I do.”

Rumlow reaches up and rubs his shoulders, care and concern deep in his eyes. “We should’ve done this sooner. I’m sorry I didn’t suggest it, Steve. I know it’s been hard on you, having to be in charge all the time.”

Steve nods.

“And I thought maybe just getting you to relax would be enough, but it hasn’t been. No. I really think you gotta just have one night where you give up control.”

It is abundantly clear how he expects Steve to do that. Steve tries to think, to check in with himself about how this proposition makes him feel, but he isn’t feeling much of anything.

“It’ll be okay,” Rumlow insists. “I’ve done it before. I’ll be your spotter, make sure no one hurts you. And your front half will be behind a curtain. No one will see your face.”

He thinks he ought to protest like the first time they came here. But there’s sense to what Rumlow says. It’s true, he’s so tired of having to lead all the time, of being above and apart from everyone else. Especially now it seems that he can’t even trust his own higher-ups.

And it’s true that Rumlow hasn’t led him wrong yet.

“It’s safe?” asks Steve.

Rumlow nods, face grave. “Promise.”

And that’s how he ends up on his hands and knees. A curtain drapes across his back, leaving just his ass and legs exposed. They’re all that need to be, really.

“I’ll be just on the other side,” Rumlow tells him. “Checking out anyone who comes in for you. Making sure they’re behaving. And if you wanna tap out, call for me and I’ll be right there. Okay? Just relax, Stevie.”

He tries. He really does. Every instinct screams at him to fight when the first man touches his hips and pushes into his lubed-up and supposedly loosened hole. But he doesn’t. He closes his eyes and he takes it, just like he does the next one and the one after.

Rumlow was right: it does distract him from thoughts of Fury and mass-surveillance and states with the power to execute their citizens on a whim. The pain eases quickly; his body was made to adapt to its circumstances. The come of each man who uses him makes the way slicker for the one after (he’d asked about condoms, but Rumlow had reasonably pointed out that he couldn’t get sick anyway, so there was no point bothering).

And Steve comes too, after the second man, then again after the fifth. By the seventh, his cock is aching again; his skin burns all over. It shouldn’t take any effort to hold this position for hours, but his arms are shaking anyway. Each time the cock in him thrusts against his prostate, it’s like a finger jabbing into an open wound, punching whimpers out of his throat.

Seven comes with a grunt. He slaps Steve’s ass as he stands, not particularly hard, but enough to send streaks of semen leaking down his legs. His hole feels gaping and empty, the cool air such a contrast to the hot pain that it makes it hurt more. He’s so loose, he can’t feel that good to the people who fuck him. He has the absurd thought that he ought to apologize.

The pipes click somewhere above him. It’s too much. He wants to call for Rumlow, but dryness makes his lips stick together, his tongue cling to the roof of his mouth.

Then there are hands on him again, spreading his ass. There’s something different about them. The one on his left feels too cold, heavy. Is it just because it rests where the previous man had hit him?

He thinks Rumlow says something to the man; he can’t be sure, let alone make out the words, over the ringing in his ear.

This man fucks like all the others, though he clutches Steve’s hips with a force more bruising than he’s encountered all night. The hold on his left side hurts more.

He comes and moves on, and then there’s another and another one after that, and Steve loses himself for a little bit, until he’s blinking and Rumlow is kneeling in front of him, one hand holding his face, the other stroking his hair.

“Club’s closing up,” he says. He holds a bottle of water up to Steve’s lips. It is the best thing he’s ever drunk.

“You did so good,” Rumlow tells him. “Seriously, you shoulda heard what the guys here were saying about you. They loved you.”

He should answer, probably, but he can’t think of what to say. He just blinks at Rumlow instead.

“C’mon.” Rumlow grips his arm and tugs him to his feet, propping him up as the blood rushes back into sore muscles. “Let’s get you cleaned up.”

On the way to the bathroom—an actual bathroom, Steve notes when they get there, not just a front for a glory hole—Rumlow squeezes his shoulders. “You’re feeling better, right? You’re not still worried about Insight and shit?”

Steve blinks, stumbling a bit as Rumlow deposits him down next to a toilet. “No,” he says, though it sounds more like a question. All his earlier worries from the day before seem very far away. The truth is, he isn’t feeling much at all.

*

He wanders DC in a daze the next day. Visits Peggy, the museum, the kind man he’d met while running, who looks at Steve and seems to actually see him, seems to understand him like Rumlow does.

He can’t shake the sense that something is wrong, and it’s not just the lingering soreness that even his enhanced healing hasn’t yet taken away. He’s antsy and lethargic all at once. His concerns from yesterday are distant, separated by what happened last night, but his mind still isn’t clear.

He wants to talk to someone. He doesn’t know what he’d say. Rumlow doesn’t pick up his phone; just shoots off a quick text message telling Steve he’s busy right now but maybe they can meet up later. Except he never follows up with Steve, so he ends up just going back to his apartment, and then—

And then.

“You should stay,” Rumlow says as he strides towards the elevator. There are other men with him, some STRIKE and some not; they must have been waiting for him to leave Pierce’s office. “You really oughtta, Cap. It’s been a long couple of days, and I don’t think you’re thinking clearly. C’mon, there are rooms you can get some shuteye in.”

He wants to listen; Rumlow hasn’t steered him wrong yet, but all the things that Fury said before he was shot are echoing louder in his ears. “I don’t think—”

“It’ll be okay,” Rumlow insists. “Look, Insight is launching in a few days and then all this’ll be over, hey? Maybe we can take a vacation, go to Florida or something—”

The elevator arrives with a ding. Steve steps in, and the rest follow. “‘All this’ll be over,’” Steve echoes. “And what exactly is this?”

Rumlow meets his gaze, unfazed. “You know I can’t answer that.”

Steve nods. Things still aren’t making sense, but he thinks he’s maybe starting to understand… something. “And you know I have to leave.”

“Yeah,” Rumlow says. He looks a little sorry. “Well, this isn’t personal.”

The fight isn’t over as quickly as it ought to have been; he’s still stiff from the night before. But even in this state, him versus a dozen or so unenhanced guys isn’t much of a fight at all. So all things considered, it’s really not that long until everyone else is on the ground, and Rumlow is pinned to the wall with the magcuffs, the edge of Steve’s shield pressed into his chest for good measure.

“You almost had me,” Steve says. The alarm bells blaring in his head tell him that he needs to leave now if he wants a chance of getting out of the Triskelion alive. He’s gotta go and get the USB back, find out what Fury was telling him; try and figure out if there’s really no one he can trust.

But he can’t help himself. He’s staring at Rumlow, who’s grinning with blood from his broken nose dripping down to his teeth, and he has to know what sort of fucked-up game he’s been unwittingly playing for these past months. “I would’ve probably gone with you willingly. Except you messed up just once. The last time we were in the club.”

“You mean when half of HYDRA fucked you in the ass?” Rumlow spits out a laugh. “Christ, the others said it was a stupid fucking idea, renting the place out like that, but I told them no, just wait. Rig up a few cameras where Cap can’t see ‘em and let me take care of the rest. And then they said that the photos of you sticking your dick through a wall were all we needed, but I told ‘em we could do better. You oughtta see ‘em. You look wrecked. And you’re gonna be wrecked if they drop, and they’re gonna drop if you don’t do whatever the fuck Alex asks you to.”

The revelation that he hadn’t been going mad, he had heard the click of a shutter all those times is almost enough to throw Steve off-balance. Almost, but not quite.

“The last time,” he repeats. “Near the end. I was pretty out of it, but—there was a man. He touched me, and it felt wrong. His hand wasn’t flesh-and-bone. And I’ve seen people with prosthetics, bur it didn’t feel like one of those either. It felt like solid metal. Too heavy for a normal person to carry. And I thought I was just imagining things, or that I was mistaken. But Fury’s killer—he had a metal arm.”

“That’s what did it?” Rumlow shakes his head best he can, trapped against the wall with the shield pressing against his chest. “Shit. Here I was thinking that’d just be good for a laugh. And that you owed him, for all the times you used his mouth. Guess I flew too close to the sun.”

“I don’t understand,” Steve says. “Blackmail material? Is that all you were after?”

Rumlow laughs again. “Nah. That was just a side effect.”

“Tell me,” Steve says. He has to go, has to; some of the other agents in the elevator are starting to stir, and he knows every second he waits for answers is another moment he risks being trapped in whatever game Pierce and STRIKE and all the rest are playing. “What was all this for?”

“You don’t know,” Rumlow says. His smile shows all his teeth. “That’s what it was for.”

Steve presses the shield down harder. Rumlow rolls his eyes, like he knows it’s an empty threat. “Pierce wasn’t too happy Fury offered you a job. Thought it was kinda risky, having you so close to everything. So he wanted to make sure you didn’t catch on. And if I could get you to come quietly over to Pierce, well…” He winks. “Would’ve been a bonus. But I guess last night showed that you’re just not good at coming quietly, right?”

Things are starting to add up—a dozen, a hundred small instances of wrongness, tiny shards of glass he kept swallowing while Rumlow told him he wasn’t actually bleeding inside. He’s sick. He wants to throw up right there, but that’s enough; he needs to leave and needs to leave now.

He steps away from Rumlow. It would be easy to kill him, to kill everyone here, but that’s not who he is. He just needs to go.

“Oh, hey,” Rumlow says, a second before he smashes through the elevator wall. “I got something of yours. Left pocket.”

It’s a trap. It has to be a trap, and he knows it, and he reaches out anyway, feeling every bit as detached and powerless as he ever has over the past months.

His hand closes around—a wallet? Leather, slim, exactly the sort he’d expect Rumlow to carry.

“Go on,” says Rumlow, grinning. He shifts against the magcuffs. “Open up.”

A faraway part of him wants to throw the wallet down at Rumlow’s feet and flee. But, with numb fingers, he does as he’s asked.

He sees it immediately. It isn’t even tucked into the proper compartment; it’s just sitting in with all the cash.

Steve pulls out the photo with shaking fingers, letting the rest drop to the floor. Bucky gazes off at something behind Steve’s shoulder, his eyes dark and serious. Forever preserved in the moment; forever untainted by the foolish, filthy thing Steve has let himself become.

He shoves it into his pockets, not caring if it gets damaged, and slams the shield through the glass. The last thing he hears before he falls and falls is Rumlow, cuffed to the wall and laughing like he’s won.