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They Know God (But I Know You)

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"I can circumnavigate the change in me/ Prestidigitation and detection finally meet/ They blend and give me life" 

- "Gumshoe", Penny and Sparrow 

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“Steve--dude. C’mon. I know you’re not serious.” Sam doesn’t blink as he looks from the dingy kitchen to a defiant Steve Rogers, standing in said kitchen, arms crossed over his boney chest.
His knuckles were bruised from a fight he denied starting just last week, but his black eye healed up in a timely fashion, thanks to a strict icing regimen that Steve had perfected by this point in his life. “...Because I know you. And I know that this is just some kind of joke. And it isn’t funny, by the way.”

“It’s already in writing,” Steve sticks out his chin in the way he’d been known to do when challenged. “This apartment is officially mine. And I like it. I’m proud of it.” Steve is surprised by how convincing he sounds even to his own ears. As he said the words, he knew they were true. “It’s...charming.”

“I mean,” Sam shakes his head, walking around. The floor groans under his feet, complaining with every heavy step. Sam lets out a long, weighted breath. “Steve--this place is old. And when I say old, I mean, it’s--”

“It was built in 1922.” Steve supplies helpfully, running his fingers along the walls. They weren’t completely straight or smooth; the paint was chipping in some places and marked up by scratches in others, but he was never one to refuse a challenge. His hands were gentle, loving, as he brushed them against the surfaces. His fingers came away coated in dust. “Just needs a paint job and some love. All original hardwood and cabinets. Got lots of history.”

Silently, Steve knew the apartment would need a little more than some paint. It would need at least a week of back-breaking cleaning, his scoliosis and arthritis would flare up, the dust would trigger the ugliest side of his allergies, and in turn, his asthma would have his lungs working overtime.

But Steve has never owned his own apartment before, never thought he’d get the chance. His commissions had been doing surprisingly well and his job at the VA ensured a steady income on top of that.

He loved living with Sam, but he didn’t love Sam coming home at 3am dripping in alien goo from whatever intergalactic beast he’d help stop from invading the earth that week all over their living room floor. Not to mention the countless hours he spent listening to Sam grumble about how dangerous it was for Steve to be living with him--given the enemies Sam had, and all.

Sam was a great roommate. Falcon, on the other hand...not so much.
Steve was going to miss sharing their apartment, but he was looking forward to getting up at 6:00am and not having to sneak around the house like a criminal because Sam was still sleeping, or making sure Sam put his weapons away properly, or having to scrub blood out of the carpet.

This apartment was full of huge windows that let in a lot of natural light, which was perfect for painting. It was old, and….out of shape, maybe, but it had so much character. It was like the apartment was alive, beneath him. There was a certain, coursing energy, that felt like the walls were breathing him in.

It just needed some love, love that Steve was more than willing to give. A project like this for him to focus his energy on is exactly what he needed.

The master bedroom even had an en suite bathroom with a tub that Steve could soak in to soothe his aching muscles. The kitchen was large and spacious, and the living room was cozy, lots of places to store his plant-children that Sam teased him about loving so much.

“No kidding,” Sam mused, and then looked at Steve with narrow eyes. “What about the other tenants in this place? You got any idea what kind of demographic you’re moving into here, Rogers? What your neighbours are like?”

It was a good question, as far as concerns about buying a new place went. Steve already knew, though, and he wasn’t concerned. “I think I’m literally the only person in this entire building who isn’t retired yet,” He grins dangerously, adjusting his wire-frame glasses up higher on his nose. He figured with all the dust in the place, risking contacts wouldn’t be an option for at least a little while. “I’m going to get like, fifteen grandmas out of this deal, no additional cost.”

Sam groaned, looking up at the ceiling in remorse. “Dude, you’re moving into a retirement home. This isn’t some bachelor pad to bring hot guys over and sex them up. This is like.” Sam shakes his head, waving his hands. “This building just screams virgin. I mean, I am just really not seeing any pluses to this.”

“Sam!” Steve groans, face turning red. He couldn’t really deny the allegation, though. The house didn’t scream seduction or anything remotely close to it. “You don’t buy an apartment for the sex appeal.”

“You do if you’re trying to get laid, which, evidently, you are not.” Sam cries dramatically, but there is a hint of a smile tugging at his face that Steve is quick to notice. “This is a boner killer, for sure.”

“It just...needs work.” Steve says defensively, looking around at the space. “I’ll put my own spin on it. I’ve got ideas. I have a pinterest board, n’stuff.”

“Oh, thank god, we’re saved! He’s got a pinterest board!” Sam snorted, shifting his weight and listening to the squeaks of the floor beneath him. “All I’m saying is that I don’t think you know what you’ve gotten yourself into.”

“A great apartment for a killer price?” Steve smiles sweetly, batting his eyelashes.

Sam just rolls his eyes and shivers dramatically. “It’s freezing in here, man. Please tell me you’ve got heating. If there isn’t any heating, I, as your legal guardian, forbid you to live here. You will literally die. Literally.”

“I have heat,” Steve mumbles, self conscious. He rubs his arms and finds they’re coated in goose bumps. A chill rushes over him--it hadn’t been cold earlier, but once Sam mentioned it, Steve couldn’t ignore the frigid air. It was probably just him, though--terrible circulation was on his list of medical problems, amongst many, many other things. “I dunno, must just be turned down. And I’m 26, you don’t need to worry about me so much,” Steve scowls.

Sam loved to joke that he was the “mom friend” of the group, when in all reality it was Natasha, otherwise known as the Black Widow, that made sure Sam, Steve and Clint all kept their heads out of their asses. Sam was just as clueless and reckless as the rest of them.

You’d think being friends with three Avengers would earn Steve some merit points, but no. He was still just a dorky guy from Brooklyn, who just happened to hang out with Falcon, Hawkeye and Black Widow on various occasions. Still very much a virgin, still very much overlooked in the dating apartment. His longest ‘relationship’, if one could even call it that, had been three dates and a phone call. Steve broke it off when the guy kept picking his nose at the table and wiping it in random places.

He may be desperate, but he’s got standards.

“You’ve got a lot of work to do.” Sam whistles, but there is a tug on his lips that lets Steve know he’s at least a little proud. It makes something in Steve respond in like with a small swell of pride.

He had an apartment, of his very own. With no roommates.

“The price was right,” Steve repeats, uncrossing his arms to run a hand through his blond hair. It needed work, of course, but it had good bones. Sturdy, and safe. “And I think it’s beautiful. I mean, it has history, Sam. It’s got a lot of natural light, too, which will be perfect for my art. And it’s mine. Like--really mine.”

“Are you sure all this dust won’t kill you in your sleep? Allergies? Asthma? What about mold? Did you have it inspected?” Sam had a joking tone to his voice, but Steve knew there was a heavy undertone of real worry. “Places like these apartments are rife with asbestos, Steve.”

Sam really was a mom friend when it came to stuff like that--he loved to worry, especially about Steve. Usually it came off in a teasing manner or they fought like cats and dogs, but Steve knew it came from a good place; Sam loved him, and wanted the best for him. The feeling was mutual.

“I had it inspected, this apartment will not kill me.” Steve clarifies. “And dust can be cleaned. Sam, c’mon. It’s already done, I move in next week. It’s within walking distance to the subway and a grocery store, and...I dunno. Something about it...it just felt right. Like it was meant to be.” Steve shrugs, smiling sheepishly. “Just be happy for me. Please?”

“‘It’s been on the market for a long time,” Sam plows on, as if Steve hadn’t spoken. “They had trouble selling it--did you ask why that is?” Sam was using the voice he always seemed to take on when he thought Steve was doing something stupid. Sam used that voice a lot, especially when Steve would come home to their shared apartment with a black eye and bloody knuckles.

Steve snorts, shaking his head. The stories he had heard ran through his head but he dismisses them just as readily as he did when he first heard them. “Doesn’t matter to me.”

Sam arches a brow at that, intrigued. He knows Steve too well, all of his tells--Steve is a terrible liar. “You did ask.”

“Yeah, I asked. I’m not an idiot.”

“That is still up for debate.” Sam shoves his hands in the pockets of his jeans. “So? Why had no one taken an interest? Something must be up for people to be turning this place down, with all of its dust and...y’know...” he makes a vague gesture to the house in its entirety that offends Steve more than it ought to. “Charm.”

“It’s dumb,” Steve shakes his head. “People are stupid for turning this place away as quickly as they did in the past. S’been through a lot of owners in the past couple of decades.”

That peeks Sam’s interest even more. His eyebrows lift and he looks around. “Someone die here or something?”

“Actually,” Steve murmurs, pulling the sleeves of his sweatshirt down over his hands. “Legend says it’s haunted.” It feels surreal to say it outloud,and kind of funny.

Haunted. People had refused to buy this big, beautiful apartment because of some ancient rumor that it was haunted. It was the dumbest thing Steve had ever heard. People were so damn superstitious.

Sam blinks. And blinks again. His face blanks. “Haunted.”

“That’s what I said. Yeah.”

“You bought a haunted apartment?”

“According to legend, Sam. It’s just talk. Someone made up a story years ago because the wind made the door slam shut or something, and it’s made everyone afraid of this place.” Steve says very patiently, as if he was talking to a child. “It’s just some stupid story. People love a good scary story.”

“This is how every horror movie, like, ever starts, you know that, right?” Sam’s eyebrows shoot up. “This like, the exact scene where the protagonist is all--oh, ghosts aren’t real, haha, not me, no sir, and then they get ultra-super-spooked-and-murdered-by-the-ghost.”

“I don’t know that, actually. You know I don’t like scary movies. They--”

“Give you nightmares, yeah, yeah, Grandma, I know. I’m just saying, you might wanna start watching. Maybe they’ll teach you a thing or two about how to handle a poltergeist,” Sam lets out a low whistle, nudging at a small pile of dust bunnies. “Better call the fuckin’ Winchesters or some shit. If you die in here, promise you won’t come back to haunt me?”

“Where’s the fun in that?” Steve grinned wickedly, and Sam let out a long suffering sigh. His fate was sealed.

Sam shakes his head fondly at Steve, looking around at the less-than-perfect apartment. “What have you gotten yourself into, Rogers?”

The light filtering in through the window highlights the afternoon sun, illustrating the dust particles that danced in orbit around the kitchen where they stood, reacting to every delicate disturbance of air.
Even if it was kind of gross, an indicator of how much work had to be done to get the place up to Steve’s spiffy-clean standards….it was still kind of beautiful. A rainbow.

Steve watches them dance, lips pursed. “A whole hell of a lot, it would appear.”

--------------------------

“I’m gonna miss having you as my roommate, Rogers.” Sam sighed, leaning against the counter of the kitchen, hands shoved into his pockets.

“I’ll miss you too, of course. Not you leaving your dirty socks everywhere or singing disney hits in the shower at the top of your goddamn lungs...or trudging alien guts through our living room or bleeding all over the bathroom counter from a bullet wound, but.” Steve shrugs playfully, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. “Other than that, you were a great roommate. Really helped me brush up my sewing techniques and my first aid.”

And Sam was a great roommate. They got along great, they looked after each other, and they were best friends. Minus the whole Avenger part of their relationship, they got along like two peas in a pod. Sam was there for Steve at his sickest, at his healthiest, every high and low since they’d met five years ago.

But living with an Avenger wasn’t safe. When Sam, AKA the Falcon’s civilian identity got leaked, Tony Stark insisted that all Avengers move into the tower which was equipped with max security. Civilians like Steve Rogers don’t live in billion dollar towers with Tony Stark, so. Here Steve was.

They’d met when Steve was brought on to teach art therapy classes at the VA where Sam did group therapy for recovering vets, during the times he wasn’t out saving the world.
Steve, being the oblivious idiot he was, hadn’t recognized Sam since the Avengers PR used to work hard to keep the real identities of it’s heros under wraps for their own safety. Their friendship was instant, and when Sam told him the truth about who he was, it didn’t matter to Steve about the dangers of being best friends with a superhero; Sam was a good guy. One of the best he’s known.

Through Sam, Steve met Nat and Clint, and the four of them were damn near inseparable.

When Steve’s mom passed away just a few months after he’d met Clint, Steve was left with an apartment that hurt to be in, medical bills he couldn’t afford and a lonely aching in his bones.

He and Sam moved in shortly after that. The rest is...well, history.
But Steve’s commissions had been doing surprisingly well, and he’d taken on more classes at the VA due to a peak of interest in art therapy, and so all in all, Steve was doing okay for himself.

Things were good.

It was something he wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to say. Sure, he still had debt like most Americans, but it was manageable debt, not soul-crushing debt. Steve could both notice and appreciate the difference.

“What if you slip in the shower?” Sam cries, dragging Steve back into the present moment. He throws his hands up in the air, his eyes getting all wide and concerned. They’d been arguing for nearly an hour. “Or cut your finger on a kitchen knife and bleed to death? What if you have an asthma attack and can’t get to your inhaler in time?”

The very last one was possible, even highly likely in the winter times, when Steve’s lungs reached their most stubborn and the icy air was constantly reaching for his chest like a fist.

“I’ll be extra careful,” Steve smiles sweetly, batting his eyelashes in a dramatic fashion. It was all he could do; reassure Sam, try to do his best to let Sam know he was going to take care of himself. “Promise.”

“I somehow don’t believe that for a second.”

“I pinky promise,” Steve vows, a hand over his heart. “I’ll try really hard to, y’know. Not die. ‘Sides, people live alone all the time. Like you, now. Congratulations.”

Steve knew why Sam was wary of leaving Steve alone. Sam had been with Steve in the harrowing days and weeks after losing his mother. Steve has forgotten to eat, to shower, to take his medication. He had worked himself into a deep, dark place that even Sam, as trained and experienced as he was with helping people through the darkest times, struggled to pull Steve out of.

Sam had seen Steve neglect to take care of himself, but he had been there to force self-care upon Steve. If he was going to live alone, Steve knew Sam was going to worry about something like that happening again.

“Not many people are as accident prone as you, Rogers,” Sam retorts, though there is real worry under his facade. “And you better not lie to me. Pinky promises are sacred.”

Steve rolled his eyes so hard it kind of hurt. His heart aches for his best friend and the genuine concern he knows Sam will probably struggle with for the first few days of Steve being on his own. “I’ll be fine, Sam. I’m a grown ass man.”

“When are you going to install the security system?” Sam prompts, and Steve closes his eyes and groans so loud it probably wakes up his new neighbors.

The security system had been a gift from Natasha, and an agreement had been reached by Steve, Clint, Nat and Sam that since Steve was a Helpless Untrained Unenhanced Small Boi who was Friends With the Avengers, the security system had to be in place for the good of all parties involved.

“That is a next week issue. I promise I’ll install it, I told you guys I would, but my first priority is making this place liveable so that my stupid lungs don’t crap out on me with all of the dust and the temperature.” Steve shivers for emphasis.

Sam looks wary of that response. “A lot can happen in a week, Steve. I’m getting you a life alert necklace.” He mutters with an accusatory finger, his face scrunching up. “And pepper spray.” That one sounded like a threat. “And so help me god, Rogers, you will use both.”

Steve opens his mouth to come back with something sly, but is interrupted by the sound of laughter.
He stops short, eyes darting around the room in confusion, his heart skipping at the surprise of the sound.
The laugh wasn’t his own, and it wasn’t the full-bellied laugh that was characteristic to Sam. It had come from somewhere on Steve’s left.

But no one was there.

It was more of a short little snort, really. A few chuckles, at most, and raspy. Definitely male.
Was someone in the house? It had been abandoned for a while, it would make sense that someone could’ve taken to squatting while it was empty. It wasn’t unusual, in New York.

Steve frowns, his heart racing a little. “Did you hear that?” He asks Sam abruptly, his playful demeanor dropping. There is a shift in the air. Steve tilts his head, as if listening harder. “I could’ve sworn, I…”

“Hear what?” Sam murmurs, looking around obliviously. He frowns, obviously unable to come up with any plausible reason for Steve’s sudden discomfort. “Steve?”

Steve blinks, shaking his head. “You didn’t...just hear that laugh?” He chews on his lip. “Don’t kid with me, Sam. I’m serious.”

“I think I’d hear if someone laughed at my very serious not-a-joke-threat,” Sam narrows his eyes, trying to follow Steve’s gaze to see where he was looking. “I didn’t hear a thing, Steve. Maybe it was someone through the walls?”

But Steve knew it was way too close, too clear, to have come from his neighbours. It sounded like it was someone standing right beside him.

Steve swallows, but cracks a sheepish grin and forces the worry to melt off of his face. “I guess I’m a little nervous about the move? I coulda swore I heard someone laughing. Sounded like it was coming from...right over there,” he gestures softly to the general direction.

Sam snorts, slapping an affectionate hand over Steve’s back. “Easy, champ. Can’t have you goin’ all crazy on me now. I didn’t mean to freak you out asking about the whole haunted-house thing. It’s like you said, ghosts ain’t real. Don’t get all worked up about it, yeah?”

Steve smiles, but it doesn’t reach his eyes. “Yeah. ‘Course they ain’t. I’m just a little stressed, I guess. Lots to figure out, with the move. It’s a big step.” He pauses. “I wish my Ma could be here.”

“She’s watching.” Sam reminds Steve softly, and Steve offers a grateful smile in return, but something in his eyes is still sad. Perhaps that sadness is always there, hiding behind the light.

“Maybe you can come with me to take a look around? Make sure there ain’t any monsters hiding in the linen closets?” Steve asks, voice hopeful. He’s really only half kidding.“Please?”

Sam looks genuinely concerned for Steve, probably thinking that the blond hadn’t ever lived alone, especially not in such a large apartment, in a rather sketchy, or, uh, outdated part of town.

Sam nods a couple times, body relaxing. “Sure, Rogers. You got it. Let’s go check it out, yeah?”

That marked the first time he ever got a taste of the ghost that lurked.

--- ---------------------------------

Steve spends the first day moving in and cleaning. Sam is there in the morning to help Steve move all of his things in, especially the heavier furniture items, but leaves soon after some heckling from Steve, who insisted he had lots of cleaning to do before he could unpack, and that Sam wouldn’t enjoy that in the slightest.

Steve loved cleaning, it was his self-care ritual, and he really just wanted to be alone with his apartment, to let it all soak in.

Steve puts Frank Sinatra on a tinny little speaker, keeping it soft enough to sound a little romantic, just in the background as he begins to unpack the box that contained his cleaning supplies, while balancing the phone between his ear and shoulder.

“Nat, hey.” He pauses, rifling through the box to dig out the duster and broom. “Yeah, got all my stuff in here. Looks pretty good, if I do say so myself. Sam is a little….unsure.”

“I’m sure he’s just worried,” Nat reasons, her voice smooth and reasonable, as usual. “You haven’t lived alone...well. Ever.”

“Mm. I know,” Steve sighs, beginning to sweep the dust-packed floors. “He just likes to fuss.”

“I’d like to come see it, judge for myself,” Steve can hear a smile in her voice. She was up to something, probably wanted to scope the place out and install some kind of Russian security device that would shoot missiles at unwanted guests. She meant well.

“Yeah, I’d like that. Tomorrow evening? Drinks?” Steve offers up, swelling with pride and excitement. “You and Sam and Clint can come. A housewarming of sorts.”

“You sure the ghost won’t mind the company?” She hums, sounding amused. “Sam told me a little about the supposed hauntings of the house.”

Steve presses his lips together. The broom stills as Steve straightens up, and his spine cracks as he does. He lets the silence hang too long, he knew Nat was going to be suspicious.

He tries to sound nonchalant anyways. “It’s nothing, Nat, don’t worry ‘bout it.”

“Steve.”

“Really, it’s nothing. Just dumb rumors. People like to talk.”

“Steven.” Shit. When she used his full name, Steve knew he was really in trouble.

Steve sighs, running a hand through his hair and staring hard at the floor. “It’s just.” He pauses again, shaking his head. Saying the words out loud felt like too much. “The house was such a good price because it was on the market for a long time. No one wanted to buy it.”

“Because of the ghost.” Her voice is very matter-of-fact. Steve doesn’t know how he feels about that.

Steve purses his lips, and decides to just let it out. Nat was very perceptive, it wouldn’t matter what he said; she would know the truth. Might as well be honest. “I know you think I’m crazy, or paranoid, or whatever. But I feel...something here, Nat. I just. I mocked the idea, too, when I first saw the place. But now...I swear I feel like I’m not alone.”

“Steve, look--”

“No, just--I know how it sounds, Nat, believe me. You know I don’t believe in any of that crap. But yesterday, with Sam, I could’ve sworn that I heard someone laughing, when it was just the two of us in here. And today, this whole time I’ve been home it just feels like someone is with me. Like the hairs on the back of my neck won’t go down. I just feel like I’m being watched.” Steve’s heart beats a little faster just at the admission of the feeling he’d had in his gut all day. He looks around nervously, but just as it had been all day, he was alone.

At least, he hoped.

“It’s perfectly natural to not feel safe in a new house. You’re alone, in a…less than ideal part of town. These feelings are to be expected, Steve.” Nat is trying to sooth him, Steve knows, but it only makes him more frustrated. She wasn’t here, didn’t feel the things that Steve knew he felt. “It doesn’t make you crazy.”

“No, no, no. I know I’m safe. I’m fine, Sam checked every nook and corner, there isn’t some weirdo living in my attic, and the area really isn’t that bad, I’ve lived in worse with my Ma. I don’t feel...” Steve waves his hands in the air helplessly, trying to put a name on this feeling. “I don’t feel threatened. I just don’t think I’m alone.”

The presence he felt wasn’t a menacing one, but it was there. Watching. Observing. Probably judging Steve’s crackling bones and wheezing lungs.

Nat is silent for a long time on the other end. Steve can just hear her quiet breathing. “I see.” She says finally.

“I’m sure you’re right, you know. It’s probably, just. It’s nothing.” Steve looks out the window. The sun is about to go down, casting the apartment in an orangey hue. “I guess I just gotta get settled in, y’know? Weird being in a new place, and all.” He laughs nervously, to shake off the pressing weight on his chest that wasn’t a panic attack, but something else.

Something external, pressing down on him.

“Just take it easy, Steve,” Natasha murmurs. There is something she isn’t telling Steve, Steve knows, but he doesn’t press her. Whatever her opinion on the situation is, Steve was sure she’d share it in good time. Nat always did.

In her line of work, ghosts probably weren’t the craziest things she’d come across, but if she’d faced them before Steve was sure she’d say. She wouldn’t let him spiral like this, if she knew.

“Yeah, I will. I’m fine, really. I’m just paranoid.” Steve lets out a nervous chuckle, and resumes cleaning, sweeping his dirt pile into the dustpan and emptying it in the garbage with absent, tired movements. Saying the words outloud made them feel more true; Steve really was just being paranoid. Things were fine. “Yeah. Okay, I’ll let you go--talk soon. Thanks, Nat. Bye.” Steve pulled the phone away from his ear and set it down on the coffee table.

Steve lets out a little breath that turns into a cough as he shakes his head, muttering to himself. He begins sweeping again, getting a huge dust bunny out of the corner of the living room that releases a dust-bomb into the air around him, snaking it’s way into his lungs and eyes.

“Ghosts,” He says between breaths, and shakes his head at himself. “Goddamn haunted--” he is cut off by a round of coughs that shake his entire body, the dust irritating his lungs and his allergies.

Steve hunches over, unable to catch his breath as the fit of coughs becomes more and more desperate. He braces himself on the nearest wall with one hand, the other gripping his knee as he bends over, trying to force himself not to panic. He can feel his face growing red from the strain.

Shit.

“Fuckin’ inhaler,” he curses, mind clouding with the need to breathe. “Shit.”

Steve needed to breathe. The dust was so bad, and Steve needed to breathe, now. Where the hell had he put his inhaler?

Goddammit. If he dies from an asthma attack Sam will be so pissed. And at Steve’s funeral, he’ll just keep repeating I told you so to Steve’s coffin in a smug little way and Steve couldn’t let him do that. He would not stand for that shit.

He needed his goddamn inhaler.

Steve’s breath gets shorter, more panicked as he stumbles around the living room, hands searching clumsily over the counter and into the drawer closest to the fridge.

Where the fuck did he put it? Where was it, where was it, dammit..

It wasn’t in the drawer. Shit, Steve thinks, wracking his mind--he knew it was foolish to not immediately designate a spot for it upon getting to the house. His breathing becomes more panicked as he struggles to locate it, the genuine fear of passing out creeping in.

This was his new reality. Steve was alone, and when shit hit the fan, he was the only one around to deal with it. He was learning that lesson the hard way--Sam wasn’t around to curse and run around and find his puffer for him anymore. There was only Steve and an empty apartment, and his wheezing breaths.

Just as Steve is getting lightheaded from the lack of oxygen, a drawer on the opposite end of the kitchen flies open, startling him. He watches in breathless amazement as his inhaler practically jumps out of the drawer and rolls towards him on the ground, stopping just centimeters away from his toes.

Steve stares blankly, trying to process what the hell just happened, before he decides he doesn’t give a fuck how his inhaler got to him, just that he needed air, now.

He reaches for it desperately, when finally his fingers made purchase with the medication, shaking and fumbling as he inhales deeply.

Steve coughed a few times, but began to catch his breath as the inhaler worked to calm his angry lungs. He feels relief wash over him in a great flood.
He carefully and deliberately sets the inhaler on the counter where it would be clearly visible, scolding himself for making such a stupid mistake.

What the hell had just happened?
Steve knew that drawers didn’t just fly open, and inhalers didn’t fall out and roll on their own. His mind flashes to the rumors he’d heard about the place, about the terrible ‘ghost’ that haunted the apartment and wouldn’t leave it’s inhabitants alone long enough to let them settle in. The ghost supposedly drove everyone away. Steve didn’t know how much of that nonsense he could buy into, but there was no doubting what he had witnessed.

“Dammit,” Steve mutters to himself, clearing his throat and running a hand through his hair. He was still a little shaky, his movements jerky from the exhaustion and come-down of adrenaline. His mind was flooded with questions.

“Dammit is right,” he hears a scratchy voice comment, which makes him jump a little and curl his hands into fists, immediately ready for a fight. It was instinct, really. He didn’t feel threatened, just startled. Unsure. It was the anticipation.

“Hello?” Steve whispers, backing himself up against a wall and looking around wildly. “A-Are you there?” He’s not sure who he’s talking to, but it feels like the appropriate thing to say.

There is nothing but silence, and Steve is left feeling dumber than ever. His hands fall limp to his sides in defeat.

Steve’s jaw clenches and unclenches. He trusted his gut, dammit. He knew he heard a voice, clear as day. Clearer even than the laugh he’d heard when Sam was in the room--and he knew that whatever had happened with his inhaler, it defied the laws of physics and gravity. Those were the facts, and they weighed heavily on him. Either he’d seen and heard what he thought he had, or he was going crazy.

“I heard you,” Steve says defiantly. “I-I know someone is here, just. Just show yourself. You’re safe. I won’t hurt you.”

He hearts a snort.

An honest to god snort. The ghost was laughing at him. The fuckin’ ghost that haunted Steve’s fuckin’ apartment was fuckin’ enjoying this.
Steve’s confusion, his apprehension. It was getting a kick out of it.

“Least you could do is not laugh at me,” Steve mutters, looking around self consciously. “I’m not afraid of you or anything. I’m pretty sure...I think you may have possibly just saved my life?” he laughs nervously, it sounds forced and unnatural. He feels crazy. “So. It might be nice, to. To meet you. And to say thanks.”

Steve waits, but in turn, he gets...nothing.
Silence. Empty air. Dancing dust particles.

“They say this place is haunted,” Steve relaxes his posture slightly, but doesn’t let the tension fully seep away. Part of him wants to laugh at the absurdity of the situation, shake it all off like nothing happened and ignore the signs of someone else lingering. “That there is a pretty mean ghost that likes to run people out of the apartment. S’why this place has been on the market for so damn long. Ghosts aren’t the ideal roommates, apparently.”

The larger part of Steve, however, was as curious as ever. Steve didn’t like unanswered questions, he didn’t appreciate mysteries. He wanted answers.

“I didn’t want to believe them, at first, ‘cause--’cause ghosts ain’t real, but. I’m not stupid. I can feel someone there. My ma taught me to always trust my gut, and. I know that I feel some…..something.” Steve slides his back down against the wall, sitting down on the floor with hunched shoulders. He was talking to a ghost that didn’t want to talk back. “And I just heard you--and I know I ain’t crazy.”

As he said the words, he wasn’t sure he believed them. Steve was sure he’d heard something, but--brains play tricks all the time, and he was going through a lot.

And yet, even as he reasoned with himself, goosebumps rose on his arms from the rush of cool air.

“I’m proud of this apartment, and I plan on sticking around. So you’re kinda stuck with me, and I’m stuck with you.” Steve inhales deeply, and he’s grateful when his lungs don’t protest. “So please don’t….like, y’know kill me, or something. In case you just saw, my lungs, and my body in general, tries to kill me often enough without some angry spirit helpin’ the process along.” Steve laughs a little at himself but it sounds forced.

“Christ. Listen to me, talking to myself about ghosts.” Steve lets his head fall softly back against the wall, feeling very defeated and very small. “Jesus.”

He hears a hum of agreement from somewhere in the shadows.

This time, Steve doesn’t jump. He’s too tired to do that. He just arches a brow, and nods softly. “Mmhm. Yeah. You agree. Awesome. Glad we’re on the same page ‘bout that.”

Even the ghost thinks he’s crazy.

“I’m Steve, by the way,” Steve murmurs, as if an afterthought. If they were going to be roommates, they should at least get acquainted. “I dunno if you know that. Steven Grant Rogers. Can you read minds?”

The ghost doesn’t answer. Apparently it wasn’t very conversational.

Steve sighs, shaking his head. “Look what my life has come to,” he mumbled under his breath, hauling himself to his feet slowly, feeling the groan of his muscles. “Just fuckin’ insane.”

He shakes off the tension and tries to ignore the feeling of cool air following him as he walks the short distance to the stove where he grabs the kettle and fills it with water, settling it over the stove.
The ritual of making tea was just as comforting to Steve as the actual tea itself, and some comfort is what he needed right about now.

He rummages around in a box labelled “kitchen” to find a mug that reads #ShortPeopleProbs that was a gag-gift from Sam for Christmas last year. Truthfully, the mug was the biggest one he owns, and therefore it was typically his go-to choice. He tended to ignore the saying.

He wasn’t that short, dammit.

Steve listens to the kettle boil, thankful for some white noise to go with the soft music that crooned out of his speaker. When the water is boiled, he pours it into the mug, happily inhaling the aromas that drifted from the herbal tea.

It reminded him of his mother, her gentle fingers curled around her favorite floral mug, the line of her red lipstick staining the rim of the mug as she hummed to herself and read the paper. The smell of herbal tea would fill the kitchen on those soft Sunday mornings, the light filtering in to frame her golden hair like a halo. His guardian angel.

God. Steve missed her.

That’s when Steve’s phone rings again, and the shrill sound makes Steve start and nearly drop the spoon he was holding.
It seemed so far that everything was able to put him on edge; the ghost situation had him on his toes, and any little sound or disturbance in the air that wasn’t expected made Steve’s heart race.

Wondering who it could be, Steve wanders away to follow the sound of his phone ringing, not paying any attention to the stove he had left on high.
__________________________

Later that night, after getting off the phone, Steve dreams of being watched.
A thousand eyes, sunken into the drywall of his bedroom and unblinking, they follow his every move, they don’t have pupils, they’re colourless and cold.
And yet.
And yet he feels safe.

Chapter Text

So are you good? / Cause I don’t feel right/ Are you strong?/ Cause I’m so damned tired/ What you want from me?/ Maybe you already have it/ Will we ever reach the point where this fits me like a man?
“Evil”, James Vincent McMorrow
_________________________________________________

Steve wakes up in pain. It’s the dull ache that comes in the damp mornings, when his bones creak and his muscles protested every movement.
He blinks up at the ceiling and clenches his jaw, a feeling of dread washing over him. His body was always working against him, trying to confine him to the bed like a fragile old man.

Well, too damn bad. Steve had shit to do.
Clint, Nat and Sam were all coming over tonight, and he had hardly begun to make the place look presentable. He had to clean, which the apartment was in desperate need of, and then he had to unpack, otherwise they wouldn’t have plates or wine glasses for dinner.

He wasn’t sure how much of that he’d be able to get to in one day, but at the very least, he wanted the house to be clean. His lungs could benefit greatly from dealing with the insane amount of dust that had built up over the months of the apartment being vacant, and he didn’t want his guests to have a bad impression of the place even more than they already did.

He sits up in bed and pumps his fingers like his doctors suggested, to get his circulation going.
Promptly ignoring the protest of his bones and muscles, he stretches and inhales, coughing just a little thanks to the dust. He’d be glad to get that in order.

“Mornin’,” Steve sighs dryly to himself, looking around the master bedroom. It was mostly bare, save for the plants that were scattered around, having been the one thing that Steve unpacked. Besides that, his bed, and a few other random furniture items around the house, there wasn’t much that was set up. He had a lot to do today. He grabs his glasses from the window sill beside his bed and shoves them onto his face unceremoniously.

The apartment still, in a way, looked rather abandoned. He had yet to make it a home.

Steve was a morning person and liked getting up early, so the day was young and there was a dark cast over the room, the sun having not risen just yet.
There was not a minute to waste, and now with getting up so early, he’d get to enjoy the light the sun would bring into the many windows of the house. Steve always loved watching the sun rise.

He feels that haunting presence again, and tries to push it to the back of his mind, having forgotten about his experience yesterday until he feels the brush of cold air against his right arm as he stands from bed.

And then the memories of yesterday’s harrowing experience come rushing back, all at once.

The hair on the back of his neck rises and his muscles lock mid-stretch, the only sound being his slightly wheezy breath and the faint whine of traffic outside the window.
Slowly, he forces himself to relax. He lets his arms fall to his sides, and he lifts his chin, willing himself not to be afraid.

Ghosts are not real. Anything and everything he’d experienced yesterday was the result of lack of sleep, too many horror movies, and paying too much attention to old folk stories that were spread around in connection to the apartment.

Steve pretends, the best he can, that he doesn’t sense anything, that he is deceiving himself. After all, if ghosts were real, where was his Ma when he was crying himself to sleep in their apartment every night after she left? Why hadn’t it felt like she was there, with him?

If she had the choice, why would she abandon Steve like that?
Steve closes his eyes and willfully forces the thoughts of ghosts and death away for now--he was determined to have a good day.
He slips his feet into his bumble-bee slippers and shuffles into the kitchen, the antennas on the bees bobbing cheerily as he walked.

He runs a finger along the walls of the hallway as he makes his way into the kitchen,
The kettle was exactly where he’d left it last night, on the stove, waiting for him to make his morning tea.
As Steve grabs a mug, sharp panic makes him double back to the stove, eyes wide and confused.
A client had called late last night about a painting commission and Steve had danced away from the stove in order to get the phone before voicemail could pick it up.

He didn’t remember returning to the stove to shut it off, and even the sugar was out on the counter beside the kettle, where Steve hadn’t returned to put it away. He never would have come back and left the sugar out like that, he hated clutter.

He was sure that the old stove didn’t have auto shut-off, so...how did it turn off on it’s own?

It didn’t. Someone did this--something, Steve knew, deep down.
It was illogical, completely insane, out of this world...and yet. And yet he knew. There was a feeling in his chest that stubbornly fixated on the idea and refused to consider any other possibility.

“Casper the friendly ghost,” he whispers to himself, clenching his jaw, and he feels a brush of cool air against the back of his neck, almost like someone was standing right behind him, agreeing.

Steve inhales sharply and twists around, looking around the room in disbelief. “God,” He pants, the panic rising in his throat. “Don’t….don’t sneak up on me like that, whoever you are. Just. I need some space, okay? Can you do that? Give a guy some frickin’ space?” He nearly snarls into the thin air.

This was crazy. He was talking to a ghost. A ghost.

To his shock, the cold air backs off.
Steve inhales a shaky breath.

Okay. Okay, there is a ghost. That much is now undeniable. Even as crazy as it sounded in his own head, Steve couldn’t deny the signs any longer. He knew what happened yesterday--hell, he had pretty much had a conversation with the damn ghost--and he couldn't keep pretending like every weird thing that happened was a coincidence.

His apartment was haunted, just as the stories said.
Steve had found the reason no one stuck around in this place. And yet--the ghost hadn’t been terrible to him, so far. It had found him his inhaler. It had obliged him. It prevented a fire.

“Uh, thank you. That’s...a lot better.” He swallows, and turns back around very slowly, to resume making his tea. He focuses on making his breathing even and deep.
Steve was never one to believe in the supernatural. He had been religious, before his ma died, but after losing her it was hard to imagine that God would let such terrible things happen to such good and devoted people. Steve turned away from the church, after that. He hadn’t looked back.

He’d never given much thought to the existence of any kind of afterlife that didn’t involve something peaceful. He wanted to imagine his mother somewhere comfortable, like a dreamland perhaps, where she could dance to all her favorite music and was at peace.
The idea of the undead haunting the places they’d died...Steve hadn’t considered it.
Only now he was living with it.

Steve had a roommate, is all. He’s had them before. He is just living with another person who...is dead. And who he knows nothing about, and who, presumably, has made living in the house very unpleasant for every other previous owner.

S’fine.

“Thank you,” He murmurs, staring into his mug. He blinks slow, maintaining his composure. “For turning off the stove. You...probably--definitely--saved me from a fire. That’s twice now that you’ve saved me.” He pauses, rubbing a hand through his hair. He had to make peace. “You’re not so bad. Maybe we can be friends.”

There is no reply. Steve’s not even sure if he was expecting one.

He sips his tea and watches the sunrise, and promptly ignores both the intense feeling of being watched, and the cold air that lingers in the sun-warm kitchen.
-------------------------------
Steve cleans. All. Damn. Day. He focuses on it, long and hard, and lets it be a welcome distraction. He doesn’t think about things going bump in the night, or his roommate, or anything else except cleaning.

He opens the windows, and lets the clean, crisp fall air waft in, replacing the stale air that had accumulated. It made it a lot easier for Steve to attribute his goosebumps to the cold air caused by the open windows, rather than by...something else.
He pushes those thoughts aside.

The noise from the traffic outside floated in and comforted him, filling the otherwise eerie silence. On top of that, Steve plays music while he works. He doesn’t like it too loud, he keeps it to a soft croon, just loud enough to be heard over the background noise of New York traffic.

Although he tries his best not to let it, eventually Steve’s mind wanders while he scrubs the floors clean. His mind wanders to his mother, and his heart gives a sad little squeeze as it always did whenever he thought about her.
She’d know what to do, if Steve told her he thought his house was haunted. Steve’s mother always knew what to do, in any situation, and she was very spiritual. She wouldn’t laugh at him, or call him crazy. She’d look at him with those big, round blue eyes, and give him a small, understanding smile.

She’d say, Alrighty then, Buttercup. Let’s put on a tea, and work it out.

Steve, slowly, gets to his feet, admiring the floor. It was free of any built up crud and dust that had accumulated, and now that it was clean enough to eat off of, Steve could appreciate the knots and bends in the original hardwood floors, years of footsteps old and young wearing them down.

Creaky as they may be, they were beautiful. And they were his.
_____________
A knock on his door startles Steve out of his cleaning-induced happiness a few hours later. He turns down his music and frowns into the hallway, wondering if he had really heard a knock or if it was his paranoid mind playing tricks. It was too early for Sam, Nat and Clint to be showing up, and Steve hadn’t been expecting anyone else over.

Sure enough, there was another knock, a little more persistent.

Steve straightens up, setting the wash cloth he’d been using to wipe down the walls aside and dusting his hands off on his pants.
He was apprehensive.

His, uh, roommate, could easily be playing a prank on him. Previous renters reported hearing knocking on the doors all the time, so Steve was hesitant and quite frankly a little nervous as he approached the door.

He stretches up on his toes to peek through the peephole in the door and sighs in relief when he sees a sweet looking elderly woman, holding a pie and wearing a small smile.

He opens the door and smiles back shyly. “Hi, there. Can I help you?”

“You must be my new neighbour,” the woman smiles. Her voice is warm, and weathered like most elderly people, a British accent curling around the edges of her speech. Her grey hair is pressed into neat pin-curls, and her eyes sparkle. “I’m Peggy. Peggy Carter. I live next door.” She gives him a full smile and a wink, and Steve decides he instantly likes her.

“Oh!” Steve exclaims. “Great, it’s nice to meet you. I’m Steve, Steve Rogers.” He offers her a hand to shake, and is extra careful with her fragile fingers when they’re pressed confidently into his. “Sorry I haven’t had a chance to introduce myself yet--this place needs a lot of lovin’.”

“Nothing to apologize for,” Peggy tells him warmly. “I’m just nosey, had to meet the brave soul who was taking on this place. I baked you this pie,” She offers proudly, thrusting it into Steve’s chest. “I hope you like apple.”

Steve smiles softly. “It’s my favorite, ma’am.” He accepts the offering gratefully, and then steps aside, minding his manners, just as his Ma taught him. “Would you like to come in? It’s not much right now, but--”

“Oh,” Peggy’s eyes glimmer once again. They’re quite full of life, Steve notices. “Nonsense, I’m sure it’s a hundred times lovelier than when you first got the keys. I would love to come in.” She strides into the apartment with none of the hesitancy of a stranger, as if her and Steve have been friends for years.

She seems like she knows the layout of the place and Steve assumes all the apartments on the floor are the same layout, hence her confidence in navigating her way to the kitchen.
Peggy seems satisfied. She looks around, tutting her tongue. “My, my, you’ve been busy, hmm? Smells like fresh air in here, that’s a first.” She inhales deeply, closing her eyes. “Could get used to that.”

Steve snorts, and sets the pie down carefully on the counter, gesturing to his modest dining room table with two chairs. He was thankful he’d at least gotten around to setting that up. “Have a seat? I’d give you the tour but things are a mess right now, truthfully. I just got possession yesterday so I’ve got a lot of work to do still, there really isn’t much to see until then.”

Peggy hums thoughtfully and sits down slowly, as though she feels the protest in her bones and muscles at the movement. “You’re sweet,” She says, almost absently, as though talking to herself.

Steve flushes a little at the compliment. “Sweet as salt, maybe. Pie?”

Peggy nods dismissively, too interested in surveying the space before her. He grabs two plates and sets them out, then gets to work cutting the pie and puts a slice on each of their plates. “You’re not so bad yourself.”

Peggy laughs softly, and collapses her hands together on the table. “What a charmer,” she winks at him. Steve winks back in friendly companionship, and feels in instant trust between them. Maybe what he told Sam was right; he would be getting multiple grandmothers out of this deal, and it was awesome.

Peggy’s air was overly maternal, though. She did have something caring about her, but there was something acutely aware as she sat up straight in the chair, eyes surveying the apartment. It reminded Steve vaguely of a soldier categorizing entry and exit points. He could almost see the gears turning behind those sparkling brown eyes. She nods in thanks when Steve sets the slice of pie and fork down before her.

Steve takes a seat across from her, and shovels up an experimental bite, groaning in delight.

“Jeez. This is amazing. Taste like my Ma’s.” And it did; it was just the right amount of cinnamon, the crust was even the same buttery texture, just like Sarah’s. Steve is just about to ask Peggy for the recipe, when her smiling eyes grow curious and inquisitive.

“Tell me, Steve. Have you met him yet?” Peggy asks with a curious tilt of her head.

Steve frowns, not catching on. He takes another bite of pie, already shaking his head. “I’m sorry, who? You’re the first neighbour I’ve met here. Just moved in the other day.”

“Not a neighbour. Him. James.” Peggy explains. She watches him with a steady gaze, as if expecting him to lie and wanting to catch his tell. “Have you met him?”

Steve wracks his brain, trying to remember meeting anyone named James in the last week or so, but comes up empty. “Can’t recall anyone by that name. Where might I have met this man?”

“Right here, of course!” Peggy laughs, gesturing to the house. Her smile fades a little, grows sad around the corners. “He’s everywhere in this apartment.”

Steve’s heart sinks a little, and his mind becomes filled with dread. He almost doesn’t register his lips moving when he says, “The ghost.” He couldn’t believe he hadn’t caught on before--of course all the tenants in the apartments knew about the infamous ghost that haunted Steve’s apartment.

Peggy’s smile only grows, but there is nothing crazy or untrustworthy in her eyes. Only something warm and wise, if a little sad. She looked, in that moment, like an old woman who had seen a great lot of tragedy in her lifetime, perhaps more than she deserved. “So you have?”

“Not exactly.” Steve explains, looking out the window. Part of Steve wishes they could talk about something else, but the larger part of him is burning with questions and wonders what Peggy has to say about his ghost. The topic makes him uncomfortable, like discussing it makes the truth more real. “I’ve heard...him. You said his name is James?”

“So you have. His name, yes. James.” Peggy agrees, nodding eagerly. “Lovely young man. Quite the heartbreaker in his day,”

Steve’s confusion grows. “You...knew him or something?” He asks slowly, trying to gage if maybe Peggy’s old age intuition could be trusted or if he should be wary of her.

“Not these days,” She shakes her head, and looks down at her hands. “Once, though. Back when he was alive and I was much, much younger. We were in the war together,” She recalls, going somewhere far back in her memories. “I can’t see him anymore. Not for many years, now. But I can feel him. I know he’s here. He’s been driving people out since he passed. He’s not much for company these days. But then, if I were stuck here I wouldn’t be, either.”

At that moment, a cold spot brushes up against Steve’s shoulder. Peggy must feel it too because her smile widens. “James,” She greets softly. Her eyes crinkle at the corners when she smiles, showing years of laughter had worn them down. “It’s been too long.”

The cold spot grows closer to Peggy, so much so that her breath appears visible as a small cloud on her exhales.

She shudders, and makes a shooing motion with her hand, frowning disapprovingly. “Alright, enough. I get it, you’re grumpy. Don’t get an old woman cold like that. It’s impolite. My circulation isn’t what it used to be, James.”
The cold spot backs off immediately, and Peggy sighs, tucking her silver hair behind her ear. She looks Steve with a knowing tilt of her head and leans in, as if whispering something secretive, though Steve is pretty sure if the ghost wanted to hear, it would.

“You see, he’s quite temperamental. It must be frustrating, being able to see and hear, but not to be seen or heard,” She murmurs. “So try not to be too hard on him,” Peggy looks away from him then, frowning around the room. “And I’ll ask that he isn’t too hard on you, either. He did have manners once, I’m sure he could find it within him to use them again.”

Steve could see that Peggy had a point--if he and Peggy were sane, and there really was a ghost in his apartment, then it would be frustrating, lingering in one place and being so cut off from the world, only able to observe it.

“Did you visit the other people who lived here?” Steve blurts suddenly. He needs to know if he was part of a long tradition of the ghost driving people out. He had no intention of leaving.

Peggy arches her brow. “Yes.” She says it in a way that dares Steve to ask more.

He bites. “And?”

“And not one of them were a thing like you,” She takes another bite of the pie, and chews slowly, taking her time before continuing. “You, Steven, are stubborn. I can tell. You’ve already begun cleaning, begun making this place a home. No one else who bought the place did that. They felt too…how did they describe it?” She waves her fork in contemplation. “Uneasy about the place, to settle in. You don’t have that uneasiness, do you?”

Steve shakes his head.

“You’re different.”
Steve didn’t know how true that was. He certainly wasn’t the teen protagonist in a dystopian novel, a boy like no other who was destined to change the order of things and save the world. He was an asthmatic artist with an affinity for falling down, getting in fights, and putting his glasses in different places every time he takes them off. He only wanted to make this apartment home, like Peggy had said.

“I’m not going to leave,” Steve tells Peggy, and the ghost. James. He wanted James to hear this, too. “I like this apartment and I plan on sticking around for a long time, so. James can bug me all he wants but I’m not going to run away with my tail between my legs.” he sticks his chin up, waiting for Peggy to make some comment about how everyone says that at first. “I don’t like bullies.”

Instead, she grins at him. “I like you, dear. And since you don’t seem to be afraid of James... I think he may like you, too. Perhaps you’re exactly what he needs.”
Steve didn’t know a thing about what a ghost might need, but he decided if James liked him it was a good thing.

“You knew him,” Steve wants to know more about James, to humanize the cold rushes of air, the dead man who kept saving his life in small but not-so-small ways. “How did he…die?”

Peggy lets out a long sigh and crosses her ankles tenderly. “He fell.”

At that, there is a rush of cold hair so strong that Steve’s hair blows back from his face and a door upstairs slams shut a few minutes later.

Steve sputters in shock and jumps at the loud bang of the door, his heart beating fast. He looks to Peggy, but she is unafraid, if a little frustrated. She takes another bite of pie, and listens to the wind howl. A long silence sits between them.

Peggy tuts disapprovingly and folds her hands together after a few moments of silence. “He fell from a train on a mission. James was part of a special unit of unique individuals. He was a sniper, incredibly talented.” She shakes her head in dismay. “His body was never recovered--we buried an empty casket so his mother and sister had somewhere to mourn with him.”

Steve takes this information in and breathes it out. He was living with the ghost of a soldier from the Second World War, who had died falling from a train. Yet, he haunted this apartment, not a graveyard, or a train, or his final resting place.
Here. Steve’s apartment. None of the movies or TV he’d seen on ghosts backed this logic up.

“Why is he here...of all places?” Steve blurts, before he has the chance to stop himself.

Peggy smiles softly. “James lived here, before the war. I guess some places never really stop feeling like home.”

Steve remembers the apartment he and his mother shared; the leaky faucet, the floor boards that groaned with every step, pencil markings on the wall that got higher and higher as Steve grew. He knew Peggy was right.

“So you knew him, and you moved here, to be with him? Were you two…” Steve trails off, not wanting to pry, but also desperately curious.

Peggy lets out a peal of delighted laughter, putting a hand on her chest like Steve had just cracked the funniest joke in the world. “Me with James Barnes?” She laughs again, shaking her head. “Oh! Dear, if you had known him then you’d get why I think that’s so funny. James was quite infamous for his charm. He had a new girl on his arm every week, never kept them around for long. He flirted with me, sure. James flirted with anything that walked and talked. But he was a can of worms I wasn’t about to open.” Peggy chuckled. “He was handsome, though,” her eyes sparkled. “Too handsome for his own good.”

“I see,” Steve smiles fondly. He liked Peggy, and her laughter. “And is it just by chance that you both ended up here again, after the war?”

“I’d heard some people talking at a cafe nearby about a supposed haunting at this building, in James’s old apartment. I went to investigate, and I heard his voice.” Peggy smiles. “As soon as I walked in, I heard his voice. It sounded just like it had during the war, saying welcome home, sweetheart,--”

Steve gasped. As Peggy told the story, he heard a raspy, soft voice speak over hers, saying welcome home, sweetheart in tandem with her. He knew it was James--the same voice he’d heard before, but Peggy continues on like she hadn’t heard a thing.

“--and I recognized his voice instantly; it’s quite unique. I knew I had to move in, but James was too temperamental and he fussed over me, day and night. He can be quite the mother hen, and it made me feel old. A woman needs independence, you know. So I did the next best thing; moved in across the hall. And here we are.”

“Didn’t you hear that?” Steve asks, eyebrows raised. His heart rate starts to climb. Steve knew what he had heard, there was no way he’d imagined it...but Peggy hadn’t reacted at all to the voice. She hadn’t even flinched. “I heard it. He just--”

Peggy raises her eyebrows. “Hear what?”

“You didn’t hear him? I could’ve sworn he just--I thought…” Steve shakes his head, not wanting Peggy to think he was making fun of her or making up stories about the ghost she clearly believed in and knew once.

But she doesn’t laugh. Instead, Peggy looks at him with wonder in her eyes. “You really can hear him speak.”

Steve hesitates before nodding softly. “I’ve heard him a few times, now.”

Peggy lets out a long breath, settling back further in her chair. “My,” She murmurs, shaking her head in disbelief. “Something must be changing, if you can hear him. I haven’t been able to in years.”
Something must be changing. The thought echoed in Steve’s head. What could be changing, and what did it have to do with him?

Peggy then lets out a small huff of hair and claps her hands together, relieving the tension in the room and startling Steve out of his inner trance. “He won’t hurt you,” She reassures him as she gingerly stands, brushing the pie crumbs off of her dress. “James has a good heart, dear. Please try to see it.”

Steve wanted desperately to believe her but his head was swimming with information, and he couldn’t process anything he’d learned. Instead, he urges those thoughts away.
He takes her elbow gently and walks her across the hallway to his apartment.

“Thank you for the pie,” Steve says politely, because his Ma taught him manners, dammit, even when he was in the midst of an existential crisis.

Peggy purses her lips thoughtfully, pausing at the threshold of Steve’s apartment. “Mmhm,” She hums, giving Steve a once over. “I’ve got a good feeling, Steven. You’ll be good for him.” With that, She leaves Steve standing speechless in the hallway, and she closes the door behind herself with a wink.

---
Steve returns to his apartment in a daze, his mind echoing all of the things Peggy had divulged. Was any of it true?
How could it not be? Steve was there. He felt the cool air, heard the door slamming...he had heard his voice, as real as any other ever had been, telling the story as Peggy did, with a certain kind of fondness in his tone.
Like old friends.

Steve knew it was time to face the music.
He was living with a real, not-imaginary-not-a-hallucination-ghost, that had once been friends with his neighbor across the hall in the 40’s. During the war.

It was a lot to handle, it was too much. Steve had friends coming over tonight, he needed to focus on that for now. The ghost thing could wait another day, couldn’t it? James had already been around for so many years, Steve was sure he could hang out in the background of the apartment and Steve’s mind for at least a little bit longer.

He needed to clean--Peggy had interrupted his focus. Cleaning was easy, mindless. He’d put his music back on, and get to work. He would not allow himself to think of dead things or handsome ghosts.

--

Steve let himself have a few hours of focusing on nothing but cleaning. He put his headphones in, blasted music, and ignored absolutely every cold spot he came across. Most of the apartment had been cleaned to his liking, but he’d left the kitchen for last.
Since it’s open concept with his living room, it’s one of the largest rooms in the apartment, and the dust seemed to accumulate in the open space.

Steve gives it a hefty once over, hands on his hips, appraising the work he had ahead. Although the floors had been washed, the countertops were grimy, and the upper level cupboards needed to be scrubbed furiously before Steve could be at peace with them. His lungs did feel better, though, getting rid of some of the dust that had built up made him feel more at ease with the air and the apartment.

The rest of the house looked lovely, if Steve did say so himself. He’d even gone through the trouble of using an old toothbrush and some soap to clean the window sills that had a build up of hardened dust and dirt, and the glass was sparkling. The light that filtered in through them made the space so bright and cheery, it almost made him forget what was lurking.

And he knew that once the kitchen was done, Steve would be able to unpack a few things, here and there, to make the place look a little less haunted-creepy-empty before his friends came over later on tonight. Although most of the main furniture items were out, Steve had a few IKEA boxes of furniture he’d need to put together, and some decor that would help make the apartment feel like home. He still had time.

He wanted his friends to be proud of him, to trust that buying this apartment was the right decision. Ghost or not, this apartment belonged to Steve, now.
And it was up to him to make it his home.

Steve let out a long breath, and squinted up at the top of the cupboards, adjusting his glasses. With all of the dust in the air, Steve didn’t want to put his contacts in, and the frames kept sliding down on his nose annoyingly.

The top of the cupboards was too high up for Steve to reach, or even really see, and he had absolutely no idea what box his small step ladder wound up in.

He’d have to improvise.

Squinting around with a contemplative look on his face, Steve opts for a rickety stool he’d been using as a plant stand, and takes a deep breath, hoping his weight wouldn’t cause the old thing to give out. Considering he’d bought it at a thrift store for three dollars about four years ago, it was 50/50 whether the thing would hold fast or not. He was gonna take his chances.

Steve grabs the organic multi-surface cleaner he’d been using, and a cloth, and climbs up onto the stool with very little grace and finesse.
He manages to balance precariously on top of the stool, teetering on his tippy toes to be able to accurately see the tops of the cupboards.

Trying not to make any sudden movements that would cause him to lose his balance, Steve sprays a couple squirts on the surface, and then wipes away the dust. The results were immediately satisfying, but the uneven floor caused the stool to tilt wildly. His heart races with the movement, and he swallows loudly.

Steve feels ice cold air at the back of his neck, as if winter itself was breathing right behind him.
Steve gets a wild idea that perhaps the ghost will tip the stool, causing him to fall. Perhaps the fall would even be fatal, with Steve’s rickety health history, he didn’t know what ailments a fall from this high up would trigger. Collapsed lung? Maybe. Concussion? Almost certainly.

But Steve’s ghost was friendly, wasn’t it? It had given Steve his inhaler. It had turned off the stove. It wanted Steve to be okay.

Peggy hadn’t made it seem like Steve was in any danger. In fact, Peggy made it seem like Steve was safer with the ghost. What had she said the ghost’s name was? James?

“Hey, there, buddy,” Steve mumbles nervously, fingertips holding on to the counter in a white-knuckle grip. “I’m just. Cleaning up, y’know? Getting the place all spiffy for us. So don’t uh, get any wild ideas ‘bout throwing me off of this thing, yeah?” The cold spot makes him shiver, goosebumps covering his arms. “C-Cut it out, will you? I’m freezing.”

The cold air doesn’t go away. Apparently, Casper wasn’t keen to listen to Steve on this particular morning.
Steve hopes he hasn’t caught the guy in a bad mood.

Steve just grits his teeth and scrubs harder. “It’s gross up here,” he announces. “So I gotta clean it. All this damn dust, with my allergies--”

And then the stool tips.
The shift in Steve’s weight from him leaning forward to see more of the cupboard makes two of four legs come up, and Steve flails his arms in panic, about to go down in a hard mess of sharp limbs and wood, when the stool defies all the laws of gravity and physics, and rights itself.

Steve gasps and tenses, trying not to move a muscle as the stool stabilizes seemingly on it’s own, against every single lay of physics that Steve knew about. Things in motion don’t just automatically correct themselves because 90 pound white boys are balanced on them. Steve was pretty sure that law was universal or something.

Steve’s breathing picks up, in a panicky sort of way. He climbs carefully down until both of his feet are firmly on the floor, and leans bodily against the counter, shoulders hunched in and chest heaving wildly.

“Easy there, kitten. You’re alright,” A voice--James--croons from right behind him. Steve whirls around, but no one is there. At least, not that he can see.

James saved him.

“Oh, god. Oh god, ohgod.” Steve pants, scrubbing a hand through his hair. He realizes how bad a fall from that height could have been for him. If he’d hit his head, or even landed oddly, he could have broken bones, ended up on bedrest for weeks, and then his job at the VA would suffer, not to mention all of the commissions that were piling up.

After ten minutes of a silent freak out, Steve is able to straighten back up. “T-Thank you,” he stammers. He brushes off his pants, trying to get his bearings. The entire situation seemed surreal, to say the least. “Thank you.” Steve supposed the presence of the cold air may have been a warning--the ghost, James, didn’t like what he was doing. Knew it was dangerous.

“You’ve been...saving my ass a lot lately. I. I will try not to freak out, as much. When you remind me that you’re here. I understand that this is your place, too.” Steve nods once, deciding to leave it at that.

“Okay, Ace,” Jame’s chimes softly. It’s coming from Steve’s left, now, but futher away, as if James were heading out to another room to give Steve some space.
He could just ignore the ghost. They didn’t have to be enemies, they didn’t have to be friends. They could just….coexist.

The rest of the cupboards that hadn’t been scrubbed would have to wait. Steve wasn’t eager to get back up on the stool and attempt that again, and for some reason, he didn’t think the ghost would appreciate it, either.

He decides to get to work unpacking some furniture, hoping that by the time Sam, Clint and Nat came over, there would at least be a rug on the floor to sit on.

--
“Knock, knock,” Sam calls, instead of actually knocking on the front door. He opens it and sticks his head in. “Steve-o! You still alive? We’re here!”

Steve rolls his eyes, though he’s got a small smile on his face as he meets them in the front hall. “Hey, guys. Come on in. Shoes off, please. I spent all day scrubbing these damn floors.” He scolds Clint in particular, catching him and his dirty sneakers as he tries to make it into the house.

“I brought Lucky, I hope that’s okay?” Clint bats his eyelashes as Lucky darts in past him, ears perked up as he butt-wiggles happily in front of Steve, waiting for pets and affection.

“‘Course,” Steve grins, bending down to pet the golden retriever at a better angle. He gives Lucky a kiss on the nose, and earns a dog-grin for it, Lucky’s happy eyes twinkling at him. “You’re just the best boy,” Steve tells Lucky cheerily, scratching his ears. Lucky looks a little smug, if dogs can look smug, as he drinks in the praise.

Nat shuts the door behind her once everyone is inside, and locks it. Steve doesn’t miss the way she tugs on the door once its locked, checking the strength of the dead bolt. She narrows her eyes at it, and purses her lips. Steve doesn’t want to know what modifications she’s thinking about, but he bet it has something to do with fire.

Steve straightens, and with a nervous smile, gestures to inside the apartment. “C’mon, I’ll give you guys the tour.”

Steve leads them down the hallway that brings them to the open concept kitchen and living room area. He managed to get his kitchen appliances unpacked and put away, so they’d have plates when the pizza arrived, and coffee if they wanted, but besides that it was fairly sparse, just a few plants here and there. The cleaning had taken up most of his day, so interior decorating had to take a back seat to that.

“It’s nice, Steve,” Clint says warmly, patting Steve on the back fondly. “Real nice.”

“Spacious,” Nat murmurs appreciatively. Her eyes dart around the space quickly, calculating and analytical as usual, but there is warmth in her voice that lets Steve know she really is impressed. “Lots of natural light, like you were saying.” The sun was just setting, and the apartment seemed to glow orange from the inside out. It was beautiful.

Steve blushes a little at that, proud of himself and of his apartment. “Thanks, guys. Means a lot.”

“Where did the dog go?” Sam interrupts suddenly. “He was just here. Lucky? Lucky, c’mere, boy. You better not be peein’ all over this damn apartment.”

Steve seconds that notion, but Lucky wasn’t the kind of dog to ever have accidents inside. He also wasn’t the kind of dog to ever stray too far from people--he was especially clingy towards Clint when they were in a brand new space. Him wandering off was odd.

“Luck,” Clint whistles for the dog, eyes scanning the room to no avail. Lucky was 80 pounds of fluff, he couldn’t hide easily. “Here, boy.”

Lucky doesn’t come.

Clint frowns. Lucky never ignored someone when he was called--like Steve had said, Lucky was the best boy. He was well mannered, well-behaved. “Lucky? C’mere, Luck. Come.” He calls, a little louder.

They all hear a whine in response.

“Coming from the master bedroom,” Nat is already walking towards the sound. Steve, with his poor hearing, wasn’t all that great at determining where sounds did or did not come from, but he trusted Nat’s intuition--she was rarely wrong.

Steve catches up to Nat just as they round the corner to the master bedroom, and they both stop dead in their tracks.

Lucky is standing as still as a statue, ears pressed flat against his head, lips pulled back in a snarl that Steve had rarely ever seen from the normally good-natured pup.
A low growl emitted from deep within Lucky’s throat.

He was staring at a wall.

At least, it looked like he was staring at the wall. After less than three full days in the house, Steve had the good sense to assume Lucky was growling at something--or someone--very real. Real but dead. Steve remembers reading somewhere that animals and children were more susceptible to feeling out different kinds of vibes or energies. Especially the paranormal kind.

“What the--” Clint peaks around Steve’s shoulder, not a hard task to do when Steve was just shy of 5’6” and Clint was an easy 6 feet. “Luck, c’mere.”

Lucky shows little interest in stopping his current activity, the growl getting lower, his ears flat against his head and lips pulled back against his teeth. If Steve didn’t know what a sweetheart Lucky was, he would look awfully menacing to him right now.

“Easy, champ,” He hears a raspy voice croon. “Hey, easy. There, there. S’okay, pal, ain’t gonna hurt ya.”

Steve whips around, wondering if perhaps the unfamiliar voice came from Sam doing an impression, but Sam’s lips were closed, and he regarded Lucky with the same bewildered expression as everyone else.

No one had moved, and no one had reacted to the words. And really, Steve knew, the voice wasn’t unfamiliar. He knew that voice, and he knew who owned it.

Steve knew it was the same voice he’d heard before, when he’d nearly fallen off the stool. That raspy, honey-sweet croon that had haunted him. Literally.

As soon as the ghost spoke, Lucky seemed to be put at ease. He shakes, and resumes his natural happy posture, tail wagging and tongue lolling out. He trots away without a second glance back.

“Okay, that was frickin’ weird,” Clint squints into the master bedroom, scratching behind Lucky’s ears. “What the hell did he see?”

Sam gives Steve a knowing look.
Without breaking eye contact with Steve, Sam mutters, “Mm. Looks like he saw a ghost.”
--

They order a pizza, and sprawl out on the plushy mat that Steve dug out from one of the boxes while they eat. They put on soft music and drink a lot of wine.

A lot, a lot.

“D’you really think it’s haunted in here, Steve?” Sam asks around a mouthful of pizza. The room was dark; Steve had his fairy lights plugged into an outlet in the far corner, and they sat in a heap on the floor, casting the room in a soft, barely-there glow. Lucky is spread out on the mat beside Clint, having already gotten his slice of pizza, he dozed peacefully, getting intermittent pats from Clint and the others.

Steve sips on his third glass of wine thoughtfully, his mind humming with the thrum of alcohol. Steve didn’t drink often because he was such a lightweight, but with all of the crap going on with the ghost and the apartment, he figured he deserved to let go a little, take his mind off the ghost haunting his house.

“Uhhh. Yup, definitely. S’not so bad, though.” he sighs finally, taking a big gulp, and grinning lazily. His face was getting hot. “Hey--pass the breadsticks.”

Clint narrows his eyes at Steve and hugs the bread stick protectively to his chest for a moment longer before finally giving them up with a huff, a defeated look on his face.

Lucky lets out a yawn and settles his head back down on Clint’s lap, though he doesn’t close his eyes. Something about the dog’s posture suddenly seemed to be unable to relax, as if he were on edge.

“I do get a weird vibe,” Natasha nods, looking around the dimly lit living room. “But I think haunted is a bit of a stretch. Sounds a little cliche for my taste. And we’ve fought aliens.”

“You thought aliens were a stretch ‘till you were covered in their...juices.” Clint supplies helpfully. “Ghosts might not be that much of a stretch after all.”

Sam purses his lips thoughtfully, shuddering at the memory. “I hated those damn aliens.”

Steve nods enthusiastically in great agreement. He remembered the aliens and their juices very clearly. He tried googling what kind of cleaners would get intergalactic blood out of the carpet, but even Wikihow didn’t have an answer for that one.

“We don’t get paid enough,” Clint says solemnly, looking off into the distance as if having horrid flashbacks of the alien goop. “We should be rich rich.”

“If ghosts were real, I just feel like we’d have faced them by now. Especially with all of the people we’ve killed. Hydra would have a hell of a lot of angry agents trying to get their revenge if they could.” Nat reasons. Steve admits it’s a good point. He didn’t know a lot about what the Avengers did besides save the earth, but he knew a little bit about the organization called Hydra, which was especially scary because the monsters who ran that place were human.

Wouldn’t the ghosts of those people come back to get their revenge, if they could?

“He’s not a bad ghost, though,” Steve mutters. “He saved my life twice. Last night I left the stove on and went to bed. When I woke up, the stove was off.” Steve pauses for dramatic affect, meeting everyone’s eyes before continuing. “He saved me from a fire.”

“And I heard a voice say ‘dammit’ after my asthma attack. And this afternoon when I was cleaning I almost fell off the stool and I felt him stabilize the stool for me so I didn’t fall!” Steve throws his hands up in the air to exaggerate his point, sloshing a little bit of wine on his fingers. “And Peggy said his name was James. He’s the real deal.”

“Peggy?” Sam frowns. “Who’s that?”

“My neighbour.” Steve waves his hand in Peggy’s general direction. “Across the hall. She’s old. And British. She came over today and told me that she was in the war with my ghost. She said that he’s a super nice guy normally but he’s pissed off about bein’ a ghost, so.” he shrugs helplessly. “There’s that.”

“Peggy sounds like a batty old woman who heard the stories and went with it,” Sam sighs.

But Steve had been there, with Peggy, and saw the way the ghost had interacted with her--the cold air, the slamming door. And Peggy didn’t seem batty, she was perfectly sensical. She was just talking about things that Steve was raised to believe were mythical.

But aliens were supposed to be mythical, too. And yet there they were in New York that one time. Same with magic, and time travel, and a whole slew of things that the Avengers faced on a daily basis. Why could one mythical thing be real, the other impossible?

“Usually when a house is haunted, it’s an angry spirit that is trying to, like,” Clint makes a vague motion with his fingers that Steve supposes is meant to look menacing. “Get the people out of the house, right? Like, that’s how every horror movie ever goes. But you said this ‘ghost’ is trying to save your life.” Clint shrugs, biting into yet another slice of pizza. “Maybe you’re just projecting.”

“Projecting,” Steve tests the words out on his tongue. Then he frowns deeply, not following. “Huh? How?”

Nat purses her lips thoughtfully. She is probably the most sober out of them all; whenever Nat drank, she never lost control. Steve has never seen her have more than three glasses of any alcoholic substance, ever. And after those three glasses, her demeanor doesn’t change a bit.

“We all know you miss your mom,” Nat begins carefully, talking slowly like she’s trying to figure out how to phrase her sentence without coming across too harshly. “And maybe, telling yourself that there is a protective, friendly…presence...in your apartment is a way for you to cope with these feelings of loneliness and fear.”

Steve was way too drunk for this conversation. “I’m way too drunk for this conversation,” He tells Nat eloquently. “But--the ghost is real. It’s a guy, not my Ma. He’s got a….a raspy voice. S’nice.”

“Raspy?” Sam squints. “Like, how? Do an impression.”

Steve clears his throat, and tries to concentrate.

He makes his face go very serious and ghostly, and, in a tone as deep and gruff as he can manage, says “Dammit is right. I’m a fuckin’ ghost and I keep savin’ Steve’s dumb life. Booooooo.”

That makes all of them, including Steve, burst out laughing hard enough that it hurts. Steve gets wine coming out of his nose a little, which, when pointed out, makes them all collapse into another round of painful-amazing laughter.

If the fairy lights in the corner flicker a few times, if there are quick footsteps behind Steve or a cold breeze by their circle, they’re all laughing too hard to notice.

Chapter Text

“I snuck into your room last night
I stayed in the dark, it was innocent
Dreams have pushed you around, you said
But I am innocent, you have let them in
You think time left this behind
But it’s in your mind
You need love in your life
Magic turns words into prayers, you said,
To bring us back from the dead,
But it’s not happening,
A spell you tried made you blind, you said
You can’t see the end, you are innocent.
“Dreams have pushed you around,” Devon Welsh

________________________________________________

Steve wakes up not long after falling asleep to a crashing sound coming from the kitchen.

Squinting in the darkness, he tries to concentrate on what the sound might be--it sounded like things falling to the ground with quite some force, crashing hard.
Steve’s heart skips. He was sure that he’d locked the door after his friends had left--hadn’t he? His mind was fuzzy from lack of sleep and alcohol, so it’s possible that he’d left it open...

Steve shoves his glasses onto his face and glances at his phone, seeing it was 3:06 AM. He swallows with a dry mouth and pushes himself up into a sitting position when he hears the crash again, becoming more alert as the panic crept in and the fog of sleep wears off.

Steve’s heart beats loudly in his ears. His mind is running through a thousand possible scenarios--the ghost was pissed, it was going to hurt him--

“What the fuck?” Steve hears a voice mumble. His heart jumps, and he clutches handfuls of sheets in surprise and panic. That wasn’t the voice of his ghost, it wasn’t the whiskey-warm cinnamon rasp he’d recalled.

The voice was unfamiliar. A stranger in his apartment. A stranger in his apartment.

Grabbing his phone tightly in one hand in case he needed to dial 9/11, Steve crept down the hallway, trying to stay as light on his feet as he could so as not to alert anyone of his presence.
When he gets near the corner that would lead him to the kitchen and living room, he freezes, just barely peeking his head out.

Steve has to slap a hand over his mouth to stay silent. His eyes grow wide in his head, and he lets out a small, choked sound that he prays the man doesn’t hear. This can’t be happening.

The guy looks rough--probably high on seven different kinds of drugs and looking for something to steal to get his next fix, judging by his twitchy movements and wild, blood shot eyes. He was dirty and scraggly, but large. Steve didn’t have a hope of taking him on.

But that wasn’t what shocked Steve so much. It was the other guy that had Steve’s heart pounding.

He looked like he had stepped straight out of a World War II movie, and actor caught between takes, in full costume. Dark green slacks, a white tank, heavy brown boots and even silver dog tags, dangling around his neck complete the period ensemble.
His brown hair was slicked back away from his face, but slightly disheveled, a few rebellious pieces falling onto his forehead and in his eyes. His eyes, which were alight with anger, shone a pale grey-blue in the moonlight filtering in through the windows.

His image flickered once, like it had spotty connection, and then reappeared in Steve’s kitchen like a dark, avenging angel.

And all at once, Steve knew. This was his ghost. James.

He presses back further into the wall, unsure of whether to scream or dial 9-1-1. He’s not even sure what he’d tell the operator. Hi. Please send the ghostbusters and the cops, stat, I’ve got a home intruder and an undead roommate? Thanks.

The Junkie didn’t appear to be able to see the ghost, though. He wasn’t looking at the ghost at all, but rather, staring around the room in astonishment, as objects flew at his head from all sorts of directions, clattering noisily onto the floor. He was searching eagerly through Steve’s cupboards, obviously trying to find something of value.

“What the fuck,” The Junkie ducks some of the objects flying at him, his bloodshot eyes bewildered. “What the f-fuck is going on.”

Steve watched in horror the ghost flicked his wrist and sent one of Steve’s boxes flying across the room, knocking Junkie on his ass. He presses his hand harder to his mouth to keep from whimpering in fear. His heart is beating so loud it makes his chest ache.

“What the fuck,” Junkie says again, scrambling to get back on his feet, bloodshot eyes darting around wildly. The apartment is lit up by moonlight only, and it only serves to make the scene look that much more eerie. “This is a b-bad trip,”

“You shouldn’t have broken in,” James growls dangerously.
Steve looks sharply back at the ghost, who’s image flickers again. His face is dark, his features burning with hatred.

For the first time, Steve is really afraid of him, of what he could do. Seeing him standing there made the reality that Steve was living with a ghost all the more real. It was a lot easier to ignore cold spots, a lingering voice. But this--this was real.

He hadn’t realized the extent of power the ghost had in the house, until this moment, seeing his figure there, taking his fury out on Junkie. He could kill him so easily, just a strong enough blow to the head, something impaling him in the chest...he could kill Steve so easily.

Steve was afraid.

For the first time, the ghost takes his eyes off of Junkie and looks directly at Steve, his features falling into shock as Steve stares right back, into those icy eyes, and the box drops out of the air, as if the distraction of seeing Steve there caused the ghost--James, Peggy had told him-- to lose focus.

“Go back to bed!” James shouts, his voice so loud it makes Steve let out a small, involuntary sound of fear, which triggers the Junkie to spin around, noticing Steve for the first time. “Now, Steve!”

Junkie doesn’t react to the ghost’s shouting, which makes Steve really question if perhaps he, and not Junkie, was the crazy one.

Steve is about to run back into his bedroom and shut the door to dial 9-1-1 when he notices something shiny glint from inside Junkie’s dirty hand. He squints at it, thankful he’d grabbed his glasses, and gasps when he sees what Junkie has.

His mother’s golden watch.

Steve fills with anger, and the fear dissolves in favor of white-hot, unimaginable rage, so animal he feels for a moment like growling.

There was no way in hell Steve was letting that watch get stolen while he hides in his room. Not when he had a chance of getting it back.

He settles for pulling his lips back from his teeth, hands curling into fists. His nails dig in hard to the palms of his hands. “You better give that watch back right fucking now.” Steve snarls, his hands curling into fists, taking a few slow steps towards Junkie.
The watch was one of the few jewellery items he had left from his mother, and it was something she wore everyday, a gift from his father.

He’d die before he lets it go.

Junkie shakes his head jerkily. “You know what? I like it. I think I’ll keep it.” He smiles, then, all yellow teeth and venom. “I think I deserve somethin’ for my efforts, considering how….how fucking c-crazy this place is!”

“Steve--” The ghost--James--is stalking towards Steve, but Steve promptly ignores him, and storms right towards Junkie, fire in his veins. He’s not sure what exactly he’s going to do, but he’s acting on instinct. He just knows that he has to get that watch back, no matter what.

Steve manages to get the element of surprise, and he’s got anger on his side making him stronger than he’d normally be.
He uses the rush of adrenaline to charge Junkie hard, throwing all of his weight into it and punching him hard in the jaw with all of his strength.

Pain explodes in Steve’s knuckles, stunning him for a second with the white-hot severity of it, before he is able to grit his teeth and push it to the back of his mind. Fighting was familiar to Steve, he’d been in a million scraps with guys bigger than him. This was no different, except this time, Steve couldn’t lose.

Junkie goes down, hard, but just like before, he’s quick to get up, staggering on his feet and looking more pissed than before, the watch still firmly in his grip. He’s got a bag in the corner by the door that looks to be filled with stuff--Steve can’t tell if it was things Junkie brought with him or things that belonged to Steve, but he cares only about the watch.

He had to get it back.
Junkie’s larger than Steve and whatever drugs he’s on has clearly made him impartial to pain. He looked less hurt and more angry with each growing second.

“You’re gonna fuckin’ d-die,” Junkie spits, before baring his teeth and lunging at Steve, fist already cocked and ready. “Fuck this apartment--”

Steve isn’t fast enough after the alcohol still thrumming in his system, even with adrenaline and fury on his side. Junkie gets a good hit in, right in Steve’s ribs, knocking the wind out of him with an undignified wheeze.

Steve wraps his arms protectively around the injured area with one arm, and doubles over on his hands and knees, using his other arm to support himself as he coughs and gasps for breath. His vision goes white and then comes back in spots that dance around the edges of his eyesight. The world tilts for a moment, and Steve wonders if he’s about to lose consciousness--but he’s able to blink it away.

“Jesus fucking--” James is letting out a slur of curses but Steve’s ears are ringing and he can’t pay attention. Something along the lines of a death threat, Steve is pretty sure, but he’s not clear on whether it’s aimed at him or Junkie, but he really hoped the latter. He felt enough like he was going to die without the help of the supernatural pushing him along. Someone might be calling his name, but he can’t be sure.

His world spins, mind thrumming with pain and fear.

Junkie talks right over the ghost, unable to hear him. “I’m getting the fuck out of here, this place is fucking c-crazy.” Junkie makes a dash for the door once Steve is on the ground, but Steve has enough right mind to grab the guys grubby ankle and tug hard, making Junkie stagger and lose balance. “Fucking bullshit,”

There was no way Steve was letting that watch go. No way in hell. He blinks hard and spits out a mouthful of blood.

“It. Was my. Mothers,” Steve pants, forcing himself to straighten despite the blooming pain in his rib cage--a nasty bruise, but thankfully not a break. Steve had been in enough spats in his lifetime to recognize the difference. “Give it back.”

“Don’t touch me, I’ll fuckin’ kill you, I’ve got a knife.” Junkie threatens Steve, his eyes wild. He looks around the living room, head twitching a few times. “Didn’t go lookin’ for trouble--thought this place was still fucking a-abandoned. Heard ‘bout it.”

“It’s not fucking abandoned anymore, asshole, it’s my home!” Steve coughs. He spits out a mouthful of blood. He must have split his lip. Maybe he bit his tongue. Maybe he had internal bleeding.

“Steve--” He hears James warn, but Steve ignores him.

Despite Junkie’s threats of being armed, Steve didn’t see any weapons on Junkie’s hands or on his person, and it was a risk he was willing to take.
He wasn’t going to give up. The rest of the stuff that Junkie had gathered, whatever was in his pockets, his bag, none of it was as valuable to Steve as the watch.

He should’ve taken better care of it, unpacked it right away and tucked it under his pillow like he usually did. This was his fault. He waited too long, he knew he was in a bad area of town, he knew and he didn’t do anything to stop it. He got too comfortable. He didn’t lock the door, and James didn’t take care of him this time.

Steve notices the ghost again, in the fog of pain and rage, standing near his left, and looking like he was concentrating very hard on something. He had his hand outstretched, palm up, as if he was about to ask Junkie nicely to place to watch into his hand. His brow was furrowed deeply.

“Get out!” Steve cries, ignoring the ghost and whatever weird shit the ghost was up to. “The cops are on their way, they’ll be here any minute,” Steve lies. When he sees that Junkie’s face doesn’t change, Steve gets more desperate.

“If you give me the watch now I won’t give them a description, I won’t tell them anything, just please,” a few tears fall in adrenaline, fear and desperation. “I’ll give you cash, let me get my wallet, you can have anything else in the house, just don’t--”

Once again, Junkie makes a dash for the door, but just as he shifts his weight, he freezes in place, as if unable to move, muscles locked as if he’d hit an invisible wall.

It’s almost comical, really. Like a cartoon, his entire body is frozen in a running position, his face frozen in a fit of panic and confusion. If Steve wasn’t so afraid, he’d be laughing.

“I think you’ve got something that doesn’t belong to you,” James chides. His voice is the same honey-rasp that Steve has grown to know as familiar. He’s not cursing anymore, and he sounds pretty calm compared to the white-hot rage of earlier. There is still something dangerous burning below the surface, but it’s a ripple of contained anger, rather than a waterfall.

Before Steve can react, James walks up to Junkie and with a thunderous echo of something dark in his light eyes, and makes a flicking motion with his fingers. James looks so real--his image doesn’t flicker this time, and there is nothing transparent about him, not like in the movies. He looked real, really alive and there in the room with them, like Steve could reach out and touch.

The watch ripped itself out of Junkie’s hands as if it had a life of its own, and skids across the floor to rest at Steve’s feet.

The ghost turns back to Steve, and visibly works to soften his facial features, to not look so enraged or dangerous, as he looks pointedly at the watch, and then back up at Steve, as if saying, are you going to pick it up or what? He arches one brow in a cocky expression and waits, as though he’s got all day.

Steve does, scooping it up and holding it tightly to his chest, breathing hard. He had no idea how the ghost did that, or what it meant for Steve that James could manipulate people the way he had done to Junkie.
Steve runs his thumb shakily along the grooves of the watch, relieved to see everything was in tact, the engraving on the back his father had done for his mother still unscathed. To my angel.

James has a tiny, pleased smile on his face, so minute it was barely noticeable.

Steve turns his attention away from the watch, while still holding it close, and frowns. “How did you--” Steve begins to whisper, but James shakes his head.

“I’m going to get rid of this guy now, okay?” James’ voice is raspy and deep, and it makes Steve feel irrationally safe. The fear of James he’d felt earlier seems silly, now, looking at those pale eyes. “But you’re safe. Just hold on. I got you. You’re safe.”

“But how are you going to--” Steve begins, but then stops short. A wild part of him wondered if the ghost was going to snap Junkie’s neck or do something else equally as violent.
Steve had the urge to close his eyes, not wanting to witness the horror, but James only snorted.

“Not gonna kill anyone,” The ghost shakes his head, and more pieces of hair fall loose. Everything about him screamed real. “Or hurt him too badly. Nothing like that. Just going to send him away. Relax.”

James makes a shooing motion with his fingers, and Junkie is unfrozen, scrambling all at once to hold on to the door post, the floor, anything to get back into the apartment.
There is a look of sheer panic on his face, like he understood what had happened to him and he wasn’t pleased about it.

Junkie doesn’t even scramble to find the watch, he just books it towards the door, obviously wanting to escape, a horrified look plastered on his face. Steve is frozen, watching with wide eyes.

The ghost walks calmly behind him, ushering him out the whole way, until Junkie is in the doorframe, panicking and unable to get out, hands trying for purchase against some kind of invisible field.

“You will not ever, ever, come near this apartment again. It’s not abandoned anymore, so you can’t use it to get high like you used to. Spread the word.” James says seriously. “Or else.”

Junkie doesn’t look at him, or even acknowledge that someone spoke to him, but the apartment shudders a little, like a tiny vibration Steve feels through the floor into the soles of his feet, as if the ghost had physically forbid the apartment from letting in intruders again.

With that, James shoves both hands in the air as if he were physically shoving the man, and the door slams behind him, locking on its own accord with a sense of finality that makes Steve let out a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding.

James turns back around, an apologetic look on his handsome face, mouth open, already saying something about “Sorry for letting that happen, I wasn’t paying attention, they used to come here to shoot up, but I wasn’t strong enough then to do anything about it so I just--”

“I..I don’t feel good,” Steve interrupts, blinking away the spots in his vision. “I think I need to l-lay down.”

James blinks at him, looking a little bewildered. He steps closer to Steve, like he’s going to physically usher him down the hall, but his hands only hand uselessly at his side. “Okay, Ace, easy. Let’s get you to bed.”

Steve nods miserably, his muscles already throbbing with the fight, the adrenaline crash washing over him all at once. He shuffles down the hall, leaning heavily on the wall for support.

“You locked the door?” Steve mumbles, trying not to pass out as he climbs into bed, pulling the covers up to his chin. He tucks the golden watch under his pillow and vows to be more careful. “No one else is gonna get in?”

James stands in the threshold of Steve’s bedroom. “No one else is going to get in,” He promises, the moonlight bouncing off of his blue eyes. “I’m gonna keep you safe, Steve. I won’t be careless like that again.”

Steve doesn’t think too hard about what James was saying, only the lilt of his deep voice, resonating in Steve’s bones as he rolls over and shuts his eyes. His ghost was going to protect him, and he was safe, and that was all that mattered.

“Thanks,” Steve whispers to the air. “Thank you.”
---

The next morning, Steve wakes up feeling a lot of things at once.

His body hurts. The alcohol dehydrated him to a point of exhaustion, and his head was pounding, as well as a sharp, stabbing sort of pain in his ribs that he didn’t immediately remember the cause of.
His right hand was also throbbing, the skin around his knuckles tender and split, his fingers swollen.

Steve almost never, ever drank coffee--it usually made him jittery and on edge, but he felt strongly that a cup of coffee would be the thing to make the hurting stop, and clear the fogginess that clouded his brain. After all, he had a lot to do today and--

As he sits up, the events from the night before come flooding back.

Junkie, the ghost, his mom’s watch. A surge of panic fills Steve right to his throat, he pats frantically under his pillow, feeling the cool metal connect with his fingers almost instantly.

Letting out a soft breath of relief that hurt a little in his chest, he gingerly stretches his limbs and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. The events of the night before, both the alcohol and the physical stress on his body, left Steve feeling washed out. He needed a shower, or five, and he needed it immediately.

Immediately after coffee.

Steve fumbles for his glasses and slides them on with a yawn. He’d slept in, based on the golden light coming through his window, but no doubt his body had needed it.

James. Where was he now? He remembered James more clearly than he remembered Junkie, or even fighting Junkie for the watch. James, in all of his war-time glory, standing in Steve’s kitchen looking like a movie star, like he had every right to be there but didn’t belong at all, too beautiful for the mundaneness of the apartment.

His image, flickering atlike TV with a bad connection. His dog tags, his full lips.

His pale eyes, full of vengeance and anger, but. But not at Steve. Never at Steve.

The ghost had, once again, protected Steve, kept him safe, made sure he was alright. Reassured him.

The other tenants had fled the apartment in fear.
There were vicious rumors about the terrible ghost that haunted the place, that had driven people out for years--something that made people talk about the empty apartment on the fourth floor.
Steve had brushed them off of course, but they were there, in the back of his mind. They were enough to make people leave without wrapping up loose ends, as if staying one more night in the apartment would be unbearable.

A spacious apartment, at an excellent price...on the market for years because of a ghost who wouldn’t let the owners of the place be. Because of a ghost who made the people in the apartment fear for their own safety.

The ghost who turns off forgotten stove tops or saves people from falling, and gets them their inhalers, who protects people from intruders and tucks them into bed, is not the ghost that would make people run away screaming.

It just didn’t add up. Steve shouldn’t have been any different than any of the past owners of the place.

Last night’s events seemed surreal. Some stranger had chosen his apartment ...dammit. Steve remembered Nat distinctly telling him to keep the window that lead to his fire escape locked, and he had never gotten around to checking if the window locked securely. Last night he’d been wondering if it was the door, but the fire escape made much more sense.

It explained why James had been surprised, too. James would have almost certainly locked the door if he noticed that Steve hadn’t, but a fire escape could be forgotten. Steve would be sure to not be so careless again, though he was pretty sure Junkie, nor any of his friends, would be stopping by anytime soon.

Nat had also mentioned installing a security system. Steve was eternally grateful that she hadn’t gotten around to it yet; he didn’t know what to make of last night, let alone know what to tell his friends that he didn’t call the cops on his intruder because his dead-ghost roommate took care of it and...banished him? How did that even work?

He decided right then to keep it to himself. Nat didn’t need another reason to worry, and Steve would stick some wood in the windows to keep them closed up tight. He assumed James would have his back on anyone else who tried to come in uninvited, and they’d handle it.

Having Avengers as best friends meant Steve had to be careful about what news he broke to them. He didn’t need FBI level security around his apartment, and he definitely didn’t want a bodyguard. Sam had entertained the idea last year for a disturbing amount of time, and Clint and Natasha got on board much too quickly. If not for Steve’s vehement refusal, he’d be shadowed by two SHIELD agents at all times.

Steve slides his feet into his slippers and stands up slowly, gingerly stretching out his limbs and wincing when shooting pain cuts his movement short. His bedroom door was open, as he’d left it last night.

He wondered if James stayed with him, for the rest of the night, while he slept. Where did James go, while Steve dreamed the night away? It was a strangely invigorating thought to entertain.

As the ache in his head turns up a notch, Steve is reminded of the task at hand: “Mmph.” He groans, rubbing his eyes under his glasses. “Coffee.” He tells himself. “Coffee is the goal.”
His existential crisis could wait until he had downed a cup of coffee, surely. Maybe several--he deserved it.

Steve shuffles into the kitchen to make said coffee, not feeling a single bit like the morning person he always claimed he was. He was groggy and grumpy and really, truthfully, would be more than pleased to dive right back into bed.

He reaches for a mug and stops dead. No way.
Steve has to squint at his Keurig twice when he realizes it is already turned on and preheating, making a pleasant bubbling sound, his favorite mug already under the spout, waiting for him.

Steve hadn’t done it--and he was pretty sure Junkie hadn’t done it when he was in for his visit last night. It didn’t have an auto feature, either.

James.

Steve rubbed the bridge of his nose once more and closed his eyes. It had been a long night, to say the least.

Now, everytime he closed his eyes he was confronted with the vision of the ghost, as clearly as if he were a real person, save for the occasional flickers of his person here and there, a reminder of his impermanence. But the light played off of his features like it would any other human standing in the living room, and his voice wasn’t some croaky demonic-growl that was always depicted in movies and TV.
James’ voice was thick like honey, a delicious, deep hum that made Steve want to listen to him say more, speak more. It really wasn’t right for someone to have a voice like that. It should be illegal.

And now he was putting on coffee for Steve in the morning? That was the only explanation that could make sense, which...really summed up how Steve’s life was going. The only valid explanation for something is a ghost.
His ghost makes him coffee, now.
Like a goddamn housewife.

Steve leans back against the counter in disbelief, shaking his head minutely. Frickin’ coffee making ghosts.

What even was his life.

Looking into the living room, Steve noticed the ghost also cleaned up after the chaos of the rude awakening. Things had been strewn about everywhere, since the ghost had been throwing whatever he could at Junkie. Now things were packed neatly back into the boxes, almost like nothing had happened.

If Steve’s body wasn’t so sore, he would have thought last night to be a dream.

Steve blinks sleepily at the keurig continues to preheat, still rolling around in the idea that James made him coffee. James made him coffee.

“You did this?” He asks the air, waving his hands in the general direction of the coffee pot. “What, so now you’re Casper the friendly ghost?” He asks incredulously.

Saving him from falling and putting on his morning java seemed like two very different things.

“You know, a lot of people have a lot of bad things to say about you. You’re supposed to be the reason that no one wanted to buy this damn house!” Steve winces at the movement of his arms, as it causes the bruise on his ribs to ache. He takes a deep breath, trying to calm himself. The lack of sleep and exhaustion he felt were making it hard to regulate his emotions.

There is no reply. Steve’s frustration grows. He knew he wasn’t crazy--he’d seen James last night. Talked to him, even. The fact that the ghost was ignoring him now just wasn’t fair.

“And, y’know, I’m just waiting for the other shoe to drop. When are you going to go all vengeful spirit on me? Clearly you’ve got a lot of power, considering what you did to that Junkie last night, so. You gonna let me have it or what?” He exclaims, waiting. “You must’ve done somethin’ to the other people who lived here. No reason why you wouldn’t do it to me!”

Still, nothing.

“Do you always make your roommates coffee before you haunt them?” Steve grumbles, folding his arms tightly over his chest. “Or do you just really like me?”

The uneasy feeling in his stomach persisted as a cold spot brushed up against him and then away, as if the ghost was alerting Steve of his presence and confirming his good intentions.
He waited for it to materialize like it had last night, but it doesn’t.

There is just Steve, the bubbling Keurig, and the cold spot moving around the room, raising the hair on Steve’s arms and causing him to shiver.

“Helpful,” Steve snorts, shaking his head, staring at the ceiling blankly and trying to find his patience. “Real helpful. If you were so damn helpful this house would’ve been occupied a long time before I came around, pal,” He scoffs. “The nice-guy act is real sweet and all, but I don’t know if I can buy it. Somethin’ ain’t adding up.”

The words feel a little mean when they leave his mouth. James had helped Steve, a lot. If not for James, Junkie might have made off with his mom’s watch, and would have done a lot worse to Steve.

Just as he’s about to say something that would make him feel like less of a jerk, the screen of the Keurig flickers and powers off and the coffee stops mid-brew. It fills the kitchen with an eerie silence.

Steve blinks at it twice, wondering if he was still tipsy from the events of the night prior. When he rubs his eyes and looks again, he finds the screen is still blank.

“Guy makes you coffee, you could at least say thank you,” a deep voice scoffed. “Figure you’d need it after the night you had.”

The voice was so familiar now, it resonated deep in Steve’s chest. This was the most James had said to him, and a strange thrill runs up Steve’s spine at the idea of having a casual conversation with his ghost.

“You gonna show yourself, or what?” Steve mutters, staring at the ground. “Hard to have a conversation with an invisible man. For all I know, I could be starin’ at your junk.”

“Tough guy, are ya?” the voice says again, but from a completely different side of the room than it was before, making Steve turn his head and squint, trying to locate where the sound was coming from.

It was impossible to say, since James was choosing not to show himself.

“Just want to meet my roommate,” Steve says sweetly, deliberately turning his back on wherever the ghost might be to turn the Keurig back on, letting it preheat once again. He wasn’t going to play this game with James--he could practically hear the smile in the ghost’s voice, and Steve didn’t like to be toyed with. “I think it’s a fair request.”

When he turns around again to face the open kitchen, he jumps just a little to see the figure standing there, the same one he’d seen last night, those unnerving pale eyes focused on him.

It’s reassuring, in a way, to see him standing there in the full daylight of the morning. Like Steve’s not crazy, after all.
Steve was half convinced the apparition he’d seen last night had been part of his drunken stupor.
But no--here the ghost was, looking as devastatingly handsome as Steve remembered from last night, perhaps even more so in the tentative morning light.

Steve’s lips part, drinking James in for longer than he had any right to.

“Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes of the 107th, at your service,” James introduces with a mock bow and a smug little smile that does strange things to Steve’s chest.

He looked real, like Steve could reach out and touch and he’d be solid under his fingers. This was the cold air that had been lingering, the mysterious presence that had brushed up close against him, that had slammed doors and made Lucky nervous. This man, with kind eyes and curling hair. “Most people called me Bucky, back when people could call me something. It’s about time that we be properly introduced. You are livin’ in my apartment, after all.”

Peggy had called him James. She was right. James Buchanan Barnes.
Peggy wasn’t crazy, either.

Everything had been true.

“Right.” Steve’s voice sounds squeaky and a little breathless. His ghost had a name. “James. Ah--Bucky? Okay, hi, Bucky. I’m Steve.”

“I know,” James--Bucky--snorts. “Been watching you.”

Steve feels a little pang at that, even though it was something he knew. It was different thinking about little cold spots here and there throughout his day versus this gorgeous man following him around, watching him fumble through his day and make weird faces in the mirror and sing to himself.

Steve feels vaguely mortified at the thought that Bucky had probably seen him shower, jerk off, and dance in the living room. Every little embarrassing thing he did within the comfort of his own apartment, thinking he was all alone.

Awesome.

“Right,” Steve says weakly, feeling a little faint. He slides against the cupboards and sits down on the floor. “Okay, yeah. Bucky, you’re the ghost that’s living in my house. Right. Hey, you. Buddy. Pal.”

“Technically, you’re the person living in my house, sweetheart. Hate to break it to you, but I was here first.” Bucky walks a few steps closer, and looks like he might take a seat next to Steve on the ground, but then thinks better of it, and settles for crouching down a few feet away, letting Steve have his space. His brow is a little furrowed, like he’s worried about Steve or something.

Steve was thankful for Bucky giving him some space, though. He didn’t know how much crazy he could handle in a day, and given the fact that a ghost was in his kitchen, having a casual conversation with him…yeah. He’d just about reached his limit, thanks very much. It wasn’t even 9 o’clock.

“Finders keepers,” Steve wheezes a little, and yep, he was on the verge of a panic attack. His palms were coated in sweat, his heart was pounding so loud in his ears it made it almost impossible to hear much else, and his felt dizzy and weak. He knew exactly what was coming and he really, really wished it wouldn’t. The timing was just...impeccable, really. “Shit,”

He felt the familiar youaren’tsaferunrunrunrunyoucan’tbreathe mantra repeat in the back of his head against his will, and he felt his chest tighten and his body lock up, despite the logic that he knew he was safe.
He knew Bucky wouldn’t hurt him, that the room wasn’t on fire, that everything was going to be okay, but his body didn’t want to get the memo.

Fucking christ, he really had the worst timing in the world. All he wanted to do was ask questions, gather as much information as he could, but the panic was clouding his brain and his judgement.

Bucky’s eyes sparkled a little at Steve’s comment, but his eyebrows pulled into panic when he apparently noticed the irregular rhythm of Steve’s breathing. He takes a step towards Steve, which only makes Steve flinch harder.

Bucky curses a little under his breath and steps back again. He runs a hand through his hair in obvious frustration. “Ah, hell, kid--are you having one of your asthma attacks again? Where the hell did you put that damn puffer--”Bucky straightens, looking around the kitchen, opening drawers with flickers of his fingers, never touching anything.

Drawers fly open and them slam shut again with frustration as Bucky gets more agitated at being unable to find Steve’s inhaler, stomping around the kitchen with an edge of panic.

“Not.” Steve shakes his head. His breathing is irregular, but it wasn’t asthma this time. “Not asthma. Its.” He swallows, trying to force himself to calm down. “Anxiety. Panic. Attack.” He waves his arms around in a vague motion. “I can’t….uh. I can’t. B-Breathe. But I can, but I..I c-can’t.”

“Okay.” Bucky’s frown deepens. He looked like he didn’t really understand, and the worry doesn’t leave his face. “Okay, just.” He makes a little motion with his fingers and finally finds the inhaler, sliding it across the floor to Steve with another flick of his hand. “Here you go, champ. Try this anyway, for me. Easy, there.”

Steve didn’t want to argue, he pressed the thing to his lips and inhaled the medicine anyway, figuring it couldn’t hurt. His lungs felt like they were wound up so tight they’d burst at any second and he desperately needed oxygen that wasn’t huffed in through short, panicked breaths.

Although it wasn’t an asthma attack he was having, the medication did help Steve feel like his lungs were not trying to kill him, and being able to breathe did a lot for helping Steve to calm down. After a few minutes, Steve was able to get his breathing under control and his heart rate down a few paces.

“That’s it,” Bucky croons, worry not leaving his face. “You’re okay, Ace. Just calm down, yeah? You’re safe, Steve. I ain’t gonna hurt you. M’sorry if I scared you.”

Steve tucks his legs up into his chest, ignoring the pain it caused his rib in favor of making himself very small. The ghost--Bucky--was powerful, Steve remembered the look of fury on his face, when he’d dealt with the man trying to steal from Steve. He never wanted to be on the other end of that anger.

“You hurt that man. Last n-night. You’re strong.”

Bucky’s face darkens. It’s not a look Steve likes on Bucky’s face, he decides. “He was trying to hurt you. He did hurt you.” A curl of brown hair has come loose out of his slicked-back style, falling forward into his face as he leans down to talk to Steve. “I’m sorry. I was distracted, I didn’t check all the windows--I tried to stop him.”

“I didn’t realize you could...do that.” Steve’s voice is barely above a whisper. He can barely hear his own voice. “Move things. People.”

Bucky shakes his head slowly, eyes drifting, becoming distant. “Before you moved in,” he stares hard at the ground, as if looking directly at Steve for this conversation would be too painful.

He takes a few minutes before finishing the rest of the sentence, but Steve doesn’t rush him. “I didn’t have this kind of power. I could only flicker the lights, here and there. Maybe slam a door, push something off the counter. And no one has ever been able to hear me before, let alone see me. Not even Pegs, not for years, anyway. Not since she first moved in.”

Bucky looks up then, his blue eyes seem alive, and real, and so heartbreakingly sad that it makes something protective stir inside Steve, despite all of the fear and confusion. “I’m different. Stronger. You can see and hear me.”

Steve couldn’t imagine it, really. A hundred years of being stuck in the same place, never changing, never moving on, unable to talk to another person or touch them...

He’d go crazy. He understood now, what Peggy meant when she said it was understandable that James was irritable.

“So something is happening to you, because of me, that hasn’t happened to you before,” Steve says slowly, trying to wrap his head around the situation. He’s processing things too slowly, still stuck in the shock of having a conversation with a ghost.

“Yeah,” Bucky mutters, his broad shoulders lifting and then dropping again in a lazy shrug. “Dunno how, dunno why.”

Steve lets that hang in the air for a moment, testing it out. Something about Steve being in the house had made Bucky stronger, more real. It made Steve--but no one else--able to see him. It was the stuff of movies.

It would need some research (and some wine) before Steve could try to put a label on it. For now, it was just strange. He would let it be.

“Okay,” Steve says carefully, getting to his feet very slowly. He groans a little when he stands, the bruise on his ribs aching. His body is sore in general, the stress of the panic attack and the night was taking a toll on him. He felt exhausted.

“I’m so sorry he hurt you, I tried to--” Bucky reaches a hand out to help Steve up, and Steve instinctively takes it for support.

Only it passes right through Bucky, as though he were made of thin air.

Steve staggers a little, catching his own weight, and Bucky blinks twice at his own hand, as if remembering that he was a ghost, not a real, solid person. Bucky’s face flashes with devastation so raw it makes Steve’s chest twinge in sympathy.

It was like Bucky had forgotten that he wasn’t alive, and had remembered all at once how stuck he really was, right before Steve’s eyes, every emotion so vulnerable and expressive on his face.

Steve had forgotten, too. Bucky looked so real. Solid, physically there with Steve.
He had moved things around the kitchen. He had saved Steve from falling--he’d saved Steve from Junkie.

But he was just a whisper of a person.
A ghost.

“Shit, sorry.” Bucky mumbles, retracting his hand after a moment to scrub at his own hair. The motion makes his hair stick up in all sorts of ways and Steve’s fingers twitch, wanting to reach out to smooth it down. “Not used to feeling this...alive.”

“I’m sorry,” steve whispers, because he is, and because he’s not sure what else you can say to a ghost who hates being a ghost. “It must not get easier.”

“Not any of it,” Bucky agrees, staring at the floor. “I don’t think it ever will, not even in a hundred years.”

It hits him, then. Steve will live and die, surrounded by people he loves and who love him, and then he’ll either go somewhere else after death or he’ll cease to exist entirely.

Bucky though...this was his forever. Eternity, in this apartment, always truly alone, never belong to anyone.

Steve straightens, and eyes Bucky with soft appraisal. He’s tall, much taller than Steve, but lean all the same. Thin muscle, rather than bulk. Steve has to tilt his head up a little to meet Bucky’s gaze.

“That sounds terribly lonely,” he says softly. There is nothing else he can say to heal the wound. “H-How long?” Steve knew Bucky was a soldier, and Peggy had mentioned the war, but the details weren’t enough explanation. Steve wanted to hear it from Bucky himself.

“How long have I been dead?” Bucky grins, but it’s more feral that warm. He shoves his his hands into the pockets of his dark green pants and shrugs his shoulders. “I, uh, don’t...remember the exact year. Sometime during the war. The second one. And it was winter.”

Steve blinks. “You don't ...remember?” Peggy had said something about falling, but Steve remembered how poorly Bucky had reacted to that when she’d brought it up; he’d slammed the door.
Steve would let Bucky tell his own story.

Bucky shakes his head slowly, lips pursed. He looked at Steve like he knew exactly what Steve was thinking. “I was there when Pegs told you ‘bout me...falling, but I don’t remember falling. I remember being on the train, and then I just...I just remember being cold.” He purses his lips thoughtfully, and his shoulders rise and fall again. His lips twitch a little. “Sometimes it’s like I can still feel it, the cold. It’s bone-deep. Like, nothing could ever warm me up again.”

The cold spots that Steve always felt when Bucky was near--did it have something to do with that? Or were ghosts always just cold...like the dead?

Steve wants to reach out, squeeze Bucky’s shoulder, hold his hand, something. He may not be thrilled with the idea that he’s got a roommate he didn’t sign up for, but there was something so old and sad about the man who looked no older than 26 standing in his kitchen it made Steve want to be his friend. Put a smile on his face, somehow.

After all, all Bucky had done so far was protect Steve.

“But you came here, instead of, uh. Haunting the place you died.” Steve says gently, trying to put the pieces together. He had so many questions, and frankly, he liked hearing Bucky talk. “I thought ghosts were supposed to be stuck to where they die. At least...it’s always like that in the movies.”

Bucky hums thoughtfully, nodding at the walls of the apartment. “This used to be my place, before I shipped out. She was a lot more spiffy, then.” He explains, gesturing to the house. “Had a little bakery on the main level so it always smelled like fresh baked cookies. Mrs. Mallson would even save my sister and I a few here and there; she was a real sweet lady…” Bucky trailed off, lost in the kind of yesterday that had no place in Steve’s living room.

Or perhaps it had every place there.

Steve could almost see it, if he closed his eyes.

A soft jazz song crooning on a static radio station, a woman with perfect curls and red lipstick twirling around the kitchen like magic, her full dress kissing her knees as she spins...and Bucky, sunlight streaming in through the windows, highlighting the faint bit of auburn in his hair, dancing with her despite the exhaustion in his bones because he knows she loves it, and he’s a gentleman.
He’d come home from the docks, grease striped down his cheekbone and hands calloused from a long days work...but he’d dance with her. Bucky would never miss a step, Steve bets. He just had that face, like he knew how to dance. They’d kiss slowly, in no rush to rejoin the world around them, and the sun would set and they would fall into bed and laugh until the stars kissed their eyelids goodnight.

It was all like a beautiful dream.

“I just...woke up here.” Bucky continues, snapping Steve out of it. “I didn’t remember anything, at first. I thought I was alive. It wasn’t until later that my memories came back and I realized I wasn’t….here. That I was...dead. I can’t leave the house, not through the door, or windows, or anything. I don’t know why, but I’m stuck. It’s like the perimeters of the house bind me.” He lets out a long breath, and Steve feels the cold air wash over him.

Trapped. Both in the house and in the in-between state, not alive, not fully dead.

“Then people started moving in,” Bucky’s face gets darker. “Trying to change the place, turn it into a crack house or a brothel or a bachelors pad. People who didn’t respect the space. They didn’t love it.” He shakes his head, and meet Steve’s eyes. His face begins to soften as he looks at Steve. “So I’d flick the lights. Change the TV channel. Move things around. I just wanted to be left alone--and when I did that stuff, it worked. They left.”

Steve was a little relieved to hear Bucky didn’t hurt anyone.

Bucky’s eyes slide over to him, an intense look on his handsome face. “And then you came along.”

“You didn’t try to kick me out. Or scare me away.”

“You’re different,” Bucky murmurs, taking a curious step towards Steve. “From day one, you loved this apartment. You rooted for it, not like the others. Everyone else, they were,” Bucky shakes his head darkly. “They didn’t care. They were loud and they drilled holes and knocked down walls and let the place get full of cobwebs. But not you.” Bucky turns the full force of his pale eyes on Steve, who swallows at the attention. “You’re so genuine, Steve. It was easy to trust you.”

“M’just a person,” Steve whispers eyes wide. He suddenly felt awkward under the intensity of Bucky’s stare, his heart thrumming in his ears like a hummingbird. “Nothing special.” he looks away, face getting hot.

Bucky opens his mouth to say something, but Steve cuts him off, turning away and breaking the building tension between them, facing the keurig once more. His brew was complete, the comforting smell of coffee filling up the kitchen. He adds milk and sugar to his coffee, and Bucky stays silent. Steve’s ribs ache, but he tries not to dwell.

“It’s nice to be heard.” Bucky says, and his voice is so soft, so quiet, that Steve almost didn’t catch it under the sound of his spoon hitting the porcelain mug as he stirred his coffee. He freezes, feeling the weight of that statement settle in, get comfortable in the space of the room.

“That must’ve been terrible,” Steve whispers, truly meaning it. He turns around to find Bucky looking completely vulnerable, his face open and sad like a child’s. “It must be...so lonely. To be stuck. Don’t you want peace? Can’t you...move on?”

Bucky takes his time answering that one. There is a long silence between them, but it feels full, somehow, of something. Steve isn’t sure what, but something buzzed in the air.

He stares at the floor and kicks his foot a little, heavy boot scuffing across the floor as if Bucky really were there. “I don’t know what there is, after this. There’s gotta be something, otherwise I’m sure the whole damn world would be so full of pissed off spirits there would be some kind of--of epidemic,” he lets out a short laugh. “I just don’t feel finished, however cliche that may sound.”

Steve watches Bucky looks out the window, at the traffic and life, out there without him.

People would be born and grow up, and fall in love and die in their sleep, and Bucky would haunt the walls of Steve’s apartment for as long as it remained.

Most selfishly of all, Steve didn’t want Bucky to leave. He was intrigued by him, by this conversation and the possibility of many more, intrigued by the safe feeling being around Bucky was giving him.

“I don’t know, maybe it’s stupid. I’m just a fuckin’ old dead guy stuck in a goddamn apartment, but,” Bucky swallows, looking almost nervous to tell Steve more. “I don’t think I’m supposed to move on yet. And even if I was, I’d have no fuckin’ idea how to go about that, so.” He shrugs, letting his shoulders fall in a defeated, limp sort of fashion. “Here I am, ‘till the end of time, I guess.”

“You’ve got me.” Steve says finally, nodding his head. “I mean, I bought this apartment, so. Here I am, too, y’know? We can be friends.”

Steve earns a crooked smile that makes his stomach do strange little flips. “You mean that, Ace? You gonna befriend the ghost?”

“As long as you don’t do to me what you did to that guy last night,” Steve admits sheepishly, a part of him still weary. Although he didn’t feel unsafe around Bucky, it was unsettling to see how much power he really had. The look of pure fury in Bucky’s face still haunted Steve a little, no pun intended.

Bucky frowns, and looks seriously at Steve. “Steve,” He says softly, face switching again to that burning intensity that made Steve feel like he was under a big, hot spotlight. Steve never felt as seen as he did when Bucky looked at him with those fierce eyes. “You’re the first person who’s seen me in decades. I will never, ever, hurt you. You can trust me.”

There is a white-hot promise burning behind those blue eyes, so Steve nods twice, satisfied for now. Bucky had done nothing but protect and look out for him, so he was starting to trust Bucky despite himself.

“Okay, then. Friends it is. Especially if you keep up with this coffee thing. A guy could get used to being treated like this.” Steve smiles and takes a sip of his drink to accentuate his point.

“Friends.” Bucky agrees, looking very pleased with himself. The haunting sadness of before has mostly faded from his features, to Steve’s delight. “I’d say let’s shake on it, but,” He grins again.
Steve snorts and gives Bucky a playful eye roll. Then he gets an idea, and a wicked grin pulls at the corners of his lips.

Sam’s words echoed in the back of Steve’s head: “What have you gotten yourself into, Rogers?”
Steve watches Bucky wink at him, and then move to sit down cheerily on the kitchen counter, swinging his legs as though he hadn’t a care in the world.

Steve sips his coffee and closes his eyes, smiling incredulously into his mug. A whole hell of a lot, it would appear.

Chapter Text

"I'll find you in the morning sun,

and when the night is new,

I'll be looking at the moon, 

But I'll be seeing you." 

-  Billie Holliday, I'll Be Seeing You 


“Do we have screws somewhere?” Bucky squints at the instructions.

“I just passed them to you like, twenty minutes ago.”

“I’m dead. I have no concept of time.”

“Or any idea how to put IKEA furniture together either, apparently.” Steve scoffs, and stretches. He looks at the clock with dismay and lets out a long breath. “Ugh. We’ve been here all day.”

“Back in my day, furniture came put together already, and that shit was sturdy. There was none of this ‘minimalist’ nonsense, or any…” Bucky makes a vague gesture with his hands, seemingly at a loss for words. He purses his lips, “Scandinavian fuckery.”

Steve giggles a little at that, the laugh bubbling out of him without him even realizing it. He looks over to Bucky with pink cheeks and Bucky winks at him, turning Steve’s face from pink to bright red.

The coffee table was almost together, and it was the last of the big furniture items Steve had brought with him to the apartment. The couch, dining room table, his drawing desk, his side table and his bed had already been set up from when he’d first gotten possession, and the coffee table was the last remaining thing, but definitely necessary to A) pull the room together and B) for Steve to eat his cereal at 4am sitting on the floor like a goddamn animal.

Bucky was helping him. After Steve had enjoyed his coffee and showered (with a stern reminder to Bucky that he wanted privacy), Steve had gotten to work setting up more things around the apartment.

They worked together happily. Steve had some soft jazz on in the background, and in the late-afternoon, there was a blue-ish tint to the apartment that made everything softer.

Bucky had sat and watched Steve, at first, as he struggled with the instructions that were in a language Steve didn’t understand or recognize.

One glance at the instructions and Bucky was translating smoothly. It was Russian, apparently, and Bucky was fluent with an impeccable accent. Bucky couldn’t remember how he knew Russian, but as he translated for Steve, he murmured about thinking he may also be fluent in many other languages.

Steve doesn’t poke the bear on that one. He assumed the languages were something Bucky picked up during the war, being surrounded by many different people from all walks of life.

Bucky’s memories were spotty, Steve was learning, but he was beginning to get a sense of who Bucky was--and so far, he was a good man, with a dimple in his chin and a face that was as expressive as a child’s.

And so, Bucky translated, and Steve put it into action. They were a surprisingly good team. While they worked, they talked. Steve found out more and more about his mysterious roommate.

They talked about things for hours, and Steve didn’t even get that in-his-head about the fact he was conversing casually with a literal dead guy. Bucky remembered that he liked pancakes, and spaghetti, and donuts with sprinkles when he could afford them. He remembered that he drank coffee like he was made of it, no matter how terrible the brew, and was the best dancer in his battalion--Steve’s intuition had been right on that one.

Steve learned that Bucky liked blue better than green, candy over chocolate, and whiskey was his poison of choice. Bucky had also told Steve that when he’d gotten drunk the other night, it was, quote, ‘adorable and hilarious’.

Steve wasn’t sure what to make of that, but he was starting to get real suspicious about the heart palpitations that he seemed to be experiencing around Bucky as the day dragged on, especially when he laughed, or smiled, or winked, or...well. Anything, really.

When Bucky reads out the instructions of the coffee table for the third time, translating from Russian to English, Steve throws his hands up in the air. “We don’t have that screw.” He disputes, losing his calm for a moment. “Are you sure that’s what it says? Word for word?”

“I know how to read Russian,” Bucky says indignantly, looking a bit annoyed. “Of course I’m sure. We’ve gotta have it somewhere,”

“Okay, well do you want to use you ghostly powers to find it?”

“I’m a ghost, Steve, not a fuckin’ metal detector.”

Steve scowls at him.

Their argument escalates slightly as Bucky starts rhyming of a slew of what Steve can only assume are curse words in Russian under his breath as Steve gets down on his hands and knees trying to find the screw they’ve lost somewhere.

Bucky squints at the floor like it’s just going to mysteriously appear, his eyes scanning the hardwood suspiciously, like he didn’t trust Steve’s poor vision and suspecte the screw was somewhere obvious.

“винт это чертовски--” Bucky curses under his breath. Steve interrupts him with a cheery, “Found it!” which makes Bucky let out a long breath. He doesn’t look angry, though, just kind of resigned to his fate.

“Let’s get this Scandavian fuckery up and running,” Steve grins wickedly, the playful tension immediately gone.

“Lets,” Bucky chimes, a little less enthusiastically, though there is a twinkle in his eyes.

Steve could see that the apartment was coming together. It was...eclectic, but cozy. Steve had unpacked some picture frames and put them up here and there. Some of him and Nat, of Sam and Clint. His mom.

It made it feel more like his home.

“There!” Steve cries victoriously as he screws in the last leg of the coffee table. He flips it right side up and drags it to the center of the room, in front of the couch, with a sense of finality. “There we go. Done.”

He admires it for a moment before grabbing one of his cactus plants and centering it in the middle of the table, along with a couple books that he’d been slowly shelving onto his book shelf in the corner of the room. He stepped back and appraised his work.

“Looks good,” Bucky hums, flicking his fingers and closing the manual without even touching it. He settles back into the couch, a peculiar thing considering the cushions don't sag with his weight. “Really, Steve. S’coming together.”

Steve blushes a little. “It is, isn’t it?” He smiles a little, looking around. “Thanks for your help, Bucky.”

“It’s nice to see some life back in this place again,” Bucky murmurs, voice soft. Steve gives hima warm smile, and turns to appraise the apartment.

It wasn’t a perfect but it was a far cry from when he’d first arrived. The rooms didn’t feel so big and empty anymore, and the ominous presence that Steve had been feeling the first few nights was now sitting cross legged in front of him, humming the tune of a song Steve didn’t recognize but liked all the same. All in all, things were looking up.

Bucky didn’t seem scary at all anymore, sitting there with the glow of Steve’s fairy lights illuminating his dopey smile.

Steve stretched his arms above his head, yawning dramatically and checking his watch. “Takeout should be here any minute,” He mused, his stomach grumbling. He hadn’t had anything to eat all da, too busy with setting up the house. Suddenly feeling rude, he looked to Bucky. “Do you…?”

“I don’t eat.” Bucky replies gently, as if he was afraid that admitting this would cause Steve to freak out and run. “Or sleep.”

Steve figured, but it’s still a little surprising to hear. “Ah. I see...so what do you do all night?”

Bucky snorts. “Nothing. Look out the window. Contemplate my existence. Listen to you snore your face off.”

Steve gapes, his blush returning. He folds his arms over his chest. “I do not snore!”

“Like a goddamn machine gun in the heat of the war.”

“Do not.”

“Do so.”

“Do not!” Steve pouts.

Bucky seemed to get more thrilled the darker shade of red Steve’s face got. His smile turns wicked. “You do, kid. I’d know.”

“Quit callin’ me kid. I’m 26.” Steve folds his arms over his chest, which makes him feel even more like a child, but he doesn’t care. He’s frickin’ 26 years old.

Bucky arches his brows. “Kid, I’m 102.”

Steve decides to let Bucky have that one.
----------------------
He eats at the small dining room table, only big enough for two, and Bucky sits across from him, watching with interest as Steve kicks his feet happily and eats.

“It’s sushi,” Steve explains, noticing Bucky’s clearly horrified look. “Raw fish, rice, veggies. S’good.” He wiggles his chopsticks at Bucky. “You ever tried it?”

“Not really on the menu in my house,” Bucky said, eyeing Steve’s food like it was a poisonous animal ready to lunge. “I like my fish cooked.”

“You were a picky eater, then?” Steve muses, popping another roll into his mouth and chewing happily. He’s curious about Bucky’s life, the past. Bucky, in general.

Bucky shrugs his broad shoulders. “I don’t remember not liking much. There wasn’t really the option to be a picky eater. Times were tough, if we got to eat two meals a day we were pretty happy, even if it was just some broth and some bread. Things got bad during the Depression.”

Steve hums in sympathetic response, thankful he and his mother did not starve even in the most destitute of times. Things could have gotten a lot worse, but she always managed to get an extra shift at the hospital or work something out so that they kept their head just above water.

Bucky stretches his arms out and it makes his muscles flex in the dim light of Steve’s fairy lights. The white tank top he wore did nothing to hide his ripcord muscle physic, like steel stretched under skin. Steve wasn’t sure if it was the sushi making his mouth water, or Bucky.
He’s also not sure what it would mean for his sexuality if he was attracted to the undead. He really, really tried not to consider the term necrophiliac.

“You can’t read my mind, can you?” Steve blurts suddenly, holding a roll halfway to his mouth, frozen with the realization that, shit, maybe Bucky could read his mind, and if so...yikes.

Bucky laughs at that one, and it makes Steve smile in response, thankful for the dismissal. “Nah. But if I suddenly develop that talent, I’ll be sure to let you know, so you can try to keep all your dirty thoughts under control, yeah?”

Steve’s mouth falls open even further. His cheeks burn, a blush that travels to his ears. “No, uh--”

“Just kidding, Stevie. Relax.” Bucky grins. The nickname falls easily off his lips, and Steve find that he likes it. “I can’t read minds, punk.”

Steve laughs nervously, scratching the back of his neck and shifting uncomfortably. “Oh, yeah, right. Ha.” He swallows. “But, uh. In all seriousness...when I’m in the shower, and...stuff…” he trails off awkwardly, not knowing how to phrase what he was trying to get across. He clears his throat, which starts feeling thick.

“Yeah, I get it.” Bucky rolls his eyes. “Calm down, kid. I’m not gonna abuse my powers. I can respect a guys privacy. Even if you are technically in my house.”

“I’m payin’ the bills,” Steve scoffs, and watches as Bucky gets to his feet and stretches. Again, Steve is struck by how solid he looks, as if Steve could just reach out and touch the soft fabric of his clothing, as if Bucky wouldn’t melt into thin air. He pops a roll into his mouth and speaks around it, pointing his chopsticks accusingly at Bucky. “So you can shuddup ‘bout it. Freeloader.”

Bucky shrugs that one off and takes to keeping himself busy (and away from Steve’s raw fish) by looking at the many pictures Steve had put up.

“Those people that were here the other night,” Bucky begins, picking up a photo of Steve, Nat, Clint and Sam all smiling at a little bistro in Manhattan. “They really love you.”

Steve smiles fondly down at his food, flooding with fondness. Nat, Clint and Sam were his best friends, and he was lucky he’d found them. After his mother died Steve pretty much cut off everyone he’d been close to in the heat of his grief, and he was completely alone. It was a dark time.

“They’re family.” Steve replies easily, popping another roll into his mouth and chewing thoughtfully. “I’d do anything for them. And I know they’d do anything for me.” It was as simple as that.

“They look familiar.” Bucky frowns, squinting at the pictures. Steve can see his mind working. “When they were here the other night, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d seen them before. Especially the red head. Nat.”

Steve shrugs. “They’re Avengers. You may have seen them on TV? Nat is Black Widow, Clint is Hawkeye, and Sam is Falcon.”

Bucky says something in Russian under his breath, and squints harder at the picture, a few stray pieces of hair falling into his face. “Widow,” he repeats slowly, looking confused.

Steve watches Bucky’s mind race a few moments, but he ultimately drops it, not commenting further. Steve doesn’t know what to think, but bookmarks this incident for later.

“You’re friends with superheroes?” Bucky asks to change the subject. “Do you have some kind of secret power you’re not telling me about?”

“Being able to talk to obnoxious ghosts, apparently,” He sighs dryly. “But, no. I’m nothin’ special. I met Sam through a VA office, when I first started doing art therapy for war vets who were recovering from PTSD and trying to adjust back to civilian life.”

Bucky hums at that, looking at Steve with kind eyes. “That’s real sweet, Stevie. Maybe if I had been born in a different era, if I was just a man in Brooklyn...we’d have been friends.” There is something so gentle and wishful about the way Bucky says that, it makes Steve’s heart skip with hope and dread at the same time, the realization that they could never have a normal friendship.

Bucky’s words paint a picture for Steve; Bucky, smiling shyly from the corner of Steve’s class. Bucky, making jokes for the other vets, helping everyone feel at ease. Bucky bringing Steve coffee and scolding him for trying to climb the furniture to reach things that were too high, Bucky playfully bumping his shoulder into Steves, binging TV and overeating and laughing until it hurt their bellies and cheeks...

Perhaps, if it was another life, if Bucky had just been a man in Brooklyn with those devastating cheekbones and kind eyes...he would’ve never looked at Steve twice. People that looked like Bucky didn’t give a rat’s ass about people that looked like Steve; it was the natural order of things.

“We’re friends now, Buck,” Steve reminds him gently, with a small, encouraging smile. He hopes he does a convincing job of hiding the sadness that he feels hanging around the edges of his vision. “Now is all we have.”

Bucky’s lips twitch back at Steve, not quite a smile, but close, something in his eyes lost in a sea of questions and uncertainties. “Yeah, Ace,” Bucky agrees faintly, straightening up from where he’d been examining the pictures. “I know.”

Steve feels the desperate itch to change the conversation; he wanted more than anything to make that old, sad look in Bucky’s eyes disappear. “But it’s not always easy, being friends with superheroes, y’know. They’re gone for work a lot and it makes me worry ‘bout ‘em. It’s a dangerous line of work.”

“I can imagine.” Bucky muses, not fighting the subject change. He shifts his weight. “Well, m’sure they’re good at what they do. That redhead--Natalia--she seemed to have more than a little fire in her when she was here the other day.”

Steve frowned, confused. “Natalia? You mean Natasha?”

Bucky blinks, as if he didn’t realize what he’d said. “Nat.” He repeats slowly, unsure of himself. There is a long silence. “Я ее помню,” he says in Russian, and Steve frowns deeper.

“What?”

Bucky only blinks at him, looking very lost, as if he was startled by what he’d said.

“You said Natalia.” Steve sits up a little straighter, goosebumps rising on his arms. Something wasn’t right. “But you’ve never even heard me refer to her in her full name before.” he was pretty sure, at least. Very rarely did Steve ever call Nat by her full name--she had told him that she preferred the nickname. “Most people don’t even know that it’s her real name.”

Bucky waves his hands vaguely. He looks confused himself, like he genuinely wasn’t sure where that tidbit of information had come from. He turns away from Steve, looking out at the window. “Honestly, Steve, I don’t know why I know that. I told you, my memories are incomplete. I can’t trust ‘em at all. I don’t even remember how I died...days after waking up in this house are missing...the Russian...” He shakes his head. “My mind is full of blindspots. Blanks.”

“But--”

“Steve,” Bucky says, a little sharply, still not turning to face him. “I wish I knew, alright? But I don’t have answers for you. My memory...can’t be trusted. I can’t be--” he cuts off with a sharp laugh, void of humor or warmth.

Steve presses his lips together and doesn’t say anything. He’d have to ask Nat about it later. He couldn’t keep this ghost thing a secret forever, his friends were intuitive--they had to be, in their line of work. They’d figure out sooner rather than later that Steve was hiding something. The intruder alone was going to be a big enough secret, nevermind his undead-dead roommate.

Steve was pretty sure that if they found out he’d been hiding something big like that, he’d be joining Bucky on the other side of the veil.

Bucky clears his throat, and half-turns towards Steve, squinting at another picture. “Is this your mother?” He nods to a photo of Steve smiling with his mother, standing in the kitchen with flour on his cheek. Although Bucky was obviously trying to change the subject into something outside himself, Steve didn’t entirely mind.

“Yeah,” Steve admits, suddenly feeling less hungry. He sets his chopsticks down and clears his throat. “She died three years ago,” Steve murmurs, voice quiet. “Cancer.”

Bucky makes a soft, sad sound. “M’Sorry, Stevie. That musta been real hard. She was beautiful.”

“She was.” He agrees wholeheartedly. “Inside and out. The best person I’ve ever known. And my best friend.”

His mother. Blond hair, blue eyes. A smile that could thaw out New York in the dead of winter, and a heart that was big enough to love every single person she ever met. Sarah Rogers was the last person on the earth who deserved cancer.

But Steve often found that the world was cruel and unfair. It’s almost always the people with the kindest souls that get dealt the worst hands in life.

If Bucky were alive, and Sarah were alive---Steve bets she would’ve loved Bucky.

“You look just like her.” Bucky muses softly. “Really, you do. You’ve got her eyes.”

Steve blinked. It had been such a long time since anyone had expressed that sentiment, but it made his stomach flip. It was something he’d heard all the time, when people saw him and his mother together, but it had been years. “Thank you,” Steve murmurs sincerely.

Bucky looks at Steve over his shoulder. He must notice Steve’s eyes watering, because he turns quickly away, back to the picture, giving Steve privacy. “You don’t have any other family?”

“She was it,” Steve admits, blinking until the dampness goes away. “My dad died overseas. I don’t have any other siblings--both my parents were only children. My family is Nat, Clint and Sam, now.” And it was true. The four of them were family to Steve; they had seen him at his lowest, his highest, and every drunk Saturday in-between.

Sam, especially. Sam sat with Steve holding his hand through the bought of pneumonia last winter that the doctors, and everyone else for that matter, was sure would claim Steve’s life. Sam was there for him in the dark weeks after losing his mom, losing everything. He was there through it all, and Sam never faltered in his support. He was, as all of Steve’s friends were, loyal to a fault.

It never mattered that his friends were Avengers. That came first when it had to, sure, but in all the years that Steve had known Clint, Nat and Sam, there had been only a handful of times where the job threw a big wrench in something major. Steve knew how much they cared about him, so when saving the world had to come first, he really didn’t mind.

“Bet your Ma would be real proud, knowin’ her boy has an apartment all to himself. A job doin’ what he loves. Friends that love him.” Bucky offers Steve a small smile, and Steve is grateful for it. Between the two of them, Steve would definitely say Bucky had a lot more to be mournful about, but here he was making Steve feel better, and Steve appreciated it. There is no lingering tension between them, only a comfortable quietness. “You’ve got a lot goin’ for you, Stevie.”

“Thanks, Bucky,” Steve says sincerely. “Y’know, She’s the one who taught me to paint,” Steve gestures to the sketch on the wall of the Brooklyn skyline. It felt easy to talk to Bucky about things that made Steve’s skin itch to talk about with anyone else. “She was always much more talented than me, but,” he shrugs a little self consciously. “It helps me feel close to her.”

Steve remembers her so clearly, if he tries hard enough, standing barefoot in the living room, hair tied up into a thoughtless bun that somehow still looked sophisticated and planned out. She has a paintbrush clutched in her delicate fingers, and a streak of blue paint on her cheek that only served to make her eyes look more vibrant against her fair skin. Soft music plays in the background and his mother sings soft and low along to it, her voice wrapping around him like a hug. The sun spilling across her canvas and she looks up, smiling in that soft way of hers. There is a healthy glow to her cheeks that Steve would miss dearly once she became sick. She waves her paintbrush at him in a gesture of “hello” and the memory fades away, back to a lonely reality without her.

Bucky tilts his head in consideration and the movement makes Steve remember where he is; sitting in his apartment with a ghost. “You haven’t painted since you’ve been here,” He remarks.

“Been busy dealin’ with the asshole that’s been haunting the place,” Steve snorts, running a hand back through his hair. “My commissions do okay, though. I gotta get back to ‘em tomorrow or else I’ll fall behind.” Steve had three on the go right now, and while one was almost complete, the other two weren’t as far along as he’d like them to be and he didn’t want his clients waiting any longer than they already had been.

“You any good?” Bucky arches a brow, testing him. There is a playful glint in his eyes.

Steve simply snorts and shrugs one shoulder, not bothered by Bucky’s question. “You’ll have to tell me tomorrow when you see ‘em, I guess. But I’m not terrible.” He brushes his hair out of his eyes and begins to gather up the garbage from his dinner.

Bucky seemed like he was going to let that one go and let the silence sit between them, but then he squints at Steve, and takes a couple steps closer. His eyes lock on Steve’s hand. The air around them gets colder and the hair on Steve’s arms stands up.

“Buck?” Steve frowns, pausing. He didn’t know what Bucky looked so upset about, and how this could’ve happened so suddenly.

There is a tense moment of silence between them, where Steve holds his breath, not sure what Bucky was going to do next. The comfortable conversation drops.

The air floods with tension.

“What happened to your hand.” Bucky’s voice is sharp and unimpressed as he reaches out to Steve’s right hand like he wants to touch it, probe at the wounds to see where it hurts. He lets his own hand fall at the last second with a brief look of anger crossing his handsome features. Steve supposes he was half remembering his limits, half pissed at Steve for whatever reason.

Steve instinctively curls his hand into a fist and tucks it down at his side, out of Bucky’s glaring gaze. “Nothing,” he murmurs, avoiding eye contact. He works to keep his voice from sounding too small or too fighty. He didn’t need Bucky’s anger directed at him; not that white-hot avenging angel he’d unleashed on Junkie. “Forget it.”

“Did that guy hurt you that bad?” Something dangerous flickers in Bucky’s normally calm sea-blue eyes. It was something fiercely protective, something Steve had seen before a few times now, in Bucky’s face.

Steve wasn’t sure how he felt about that, the fact that Bucky was getting protective over him. Something from his psychology 101 course in college was ringing in the back of his mind, warning him that whatever their budding friendship was, it wasn’t healthy and it definitely wasn’t normal.

“He did hurt me,” Steve admits, wincing a little both at the splitting headache and his aching ribs, but also from the knowledge that when he admitted to Bucky that he had bruised knuckles before, he was probably going to get scolded the same way Sam would lay into him everytime he came home to their apartment with a new bruise or cut from a fight.

“But?” Bucky inquires, obviously sensing there was more to the story. He still looks thoroughly unimpressed, features frozen in a disapproving scowl that was erring a little on the dangerous side.

Steve bristles under the attention. He wasn’t a child--Bucky had looked out for him, sure, but that didn’t mean he was responsible for Steve. The care-taker attitude was not impressing him.

“This happened last week, so. My knuckles were already scabbed and bruised from that, but. Junkie didn’t help. It’s fine, though. Doesn’t really bug me anymore. It’s nothing to worry ‘bout.”

Bucky tenses visibly. Steve tenses too, bracing for an argument he really didn’t want to have, it was a familiar one, one he’d had with Nat and Clint and Sam multiple times. “What happened?”

“Got in a fight,” Steve says plainly, clenching his jaw and folding his arms tightly over his chest. Might as well be honest.

“A fight,” Bucky repeats slowly, like he’s having a hard time understanding. He squints. “You were...jumped?”

“Did I say I was jumped?” Steve rolls his eyes, getting defensive. “No, I didn’t. I said I got into a fight. What, you think that just because I’m small and….and skinny, that I can’t get into fights? Is that it?” He puffs up his chest a little out of habit, lifting his chin in a defiant way that he hopes makes him look powerful rather than pitiful. “I get into lots of fights. With a lot of people. Often.”

Bucky doesn’t say anything, but he raises his eyebrows in a is this guy serious kind of way that makes Steve’s blood boil. His temper had a pretty short fuse, and Bucky Barnes had lit it.

“I may not be the biggest, or the healthiest, or strongest. But if I see something that’s wrong, I can’t ignore that. I’m not just going to walk away from a bunch of guys cat-calling a girl who looked no older than 16.” He fumes, folding his arms defensively. “And guess what? They kicked my ass--they kicked my ass so hard I was limping for a week. But that girl got to walk away, unhurt, and maybe she saw that and maybe she realized that every single guy on this planet is not an evil, soul-sucking douche bag.” Steve yells, and then rocks back on his heels. “‘Cause most of ‘em are.”

“You’re not.”

“What?”

“A...what did you call ‘em? A soul sucking douche bag. You’re not.” Bucky says softly. The anger has faded from his eyes. “You’re an idiot. But I’ll give it to you--you’re brave, Steve.”

“Brave.” Steve repeats, snorting a little. Brave wasn’t the word Sam used when Steve stumbled back into the apartment after getting his lights knocked out a few times. Crazy, maybe. Impulsive. Insane. Stubborn. Lacking self-preservation. “I ain’t brave. I just don’t like bullies. Don’t care who they are.”

“You stood up to a group of guys probably twice your size, for a stranger.” Bucky murmurs.

“Yeah.”

“You lost your mom, the best person in your life, and came out on the other end stronger. You bought an apartment that everyone said was haunted ‘cause you fell in love with it--you didn’t care what they thought. You’re best friends with the Avengers, and you gotta worry ‘bout them getting hurt all the time...and I’m sure the bad guys they go up against would jump at the chance to get their hands on someone all the Avengers love. So you gotta worry about being the target, too, right? All of that stuff takes a certain kind of bravery, Steve,” Bucky looks at Steve with warmth in his features. “And you got it, without even realizing it.”

Steve is silent for a long moment. He’d never really thought of himself as brave before--more like stubborn or thick-skinned. But he didn’t take the compliment lightly. It would be impossible to not feel at least a little flattered, with Bucky’s genuine gaze staring him down.

“Thank you.” Steve says finally, his voice soft and sincere.

“Can you at least try to stay out of fights? For a little while?” Bucky pleads then, batting his eyelashes. It was playful, but there was a sense of seriousness in the question, too. Bucky didn’t like the idea of Steve getting hurt, Steve knew that much. Bucky had some kind of protector complex.

“Nope,” Steve says, popping his lips on the p. “Sorry, chief.”

“No you ain’t.”

“No, I ain’t.” Steve agrees softly.

Bucky hums in reply and nudges his head towards Steve’s hands. “Might wanna ice those up if you got a lot of painting to do tomorrow. I ain’t an expert, but I think you gotta be able to use your hands to do a half decent job, yeah?”

Steve flexes his fingers again. They were tender, but not painful in a way that made it uncomfortable to move. Ice wasn’t a terrible idea. The tension between them was broken, though, and for that Steve was grateful.

“Maybe you should just come stand over here, since you’re so damn cold. M’sure that would do the trick.” Steve huffs, though he heads to the freezer anyways.

Bucky lets out a rumbling belly-laugh at that, and Steve can’t help but smile in response. He really likes that sound.

“I’ll be sure to leave you alone, then.” Bucky holds his hands up in a ‘surrender’ position with a crooked smile that makes Steve stomach jump a little. “Can’t have you gettin’ sick, can we?”

“No!” Steve says, but it comes out too fast and too desperate. It makes him sound like he’ll fall apart if Bucky leaves. “I mean.” He clears his throat. “You don’t have to go, but. You can do what you want.”

“Off I go, then?” Bucky smirks, clearly enjoying the color Steve’s face was turning. “You showin’ me the proverbial door, Ace? I can leave you alone for a bit, if you want. I know you didn’t sign up for a roommate. Fella needs to have his alone time every now and then, to uh...take care of business.” Bucky wiggles his eyebrows suggestively.

Steve’s face gets hotter, but he broods and stares at the floor, arms folded. “Nah. You can stick around, I guess.”

“That so?”

“Mm. Only if you’re going to stop buggin’ me.” Steve replies smartly.

Bucky bats his eyes lashes innocently. “I can be good.”

“I ought to start chargin’ you rent or something.”

Bucky giggles a little, a childish, pealing sound. It’s kind of lovely.

“Fuckin’ freeloader,” Steve grumbles under his breath, but he’s fighting a smile hard.

Bucky’s giggling turns into full-bodied laughter, eyes closed, head thrown back, mouth wide open kind of laughter.

Steve has to stop dead just to watch, caught up in the beauty of it all, his lips parted in awe.

A sunflower, aching towards the warm light of the sun.
_____________________

That night is quiet. Steve can hear the traffic humming by, the rumble of trucks and motorcycles, but it all fades into the background of the familiar New York lullaby. The moonlight is bright enough to cast his room in a barely-there glow, and Steve sits crossed legged on his bed, back propped up against the wall. He’s got his fairy lights on, because his inner white girl demands it so, and he’s too smart to deny himself the simple pleasures he knows he damn well deserves.

The evening is soft and romantic, and there is a deep contentedness in his belly that settles in, getting comfortable. The air outside is just cold enough at this time of year to make inside seem impossibly cozy--Steve had always loved the fall, even if the colder weather wreaked havoc on his body.

Steve’s bed, made out of stacked up old palettes he’d found, didn’t creak as he shifted around to get more comfortable. The mattress was new and there was no need for a box spring, so the rustling of the sheets as he pulled them up higher over his lap was the only sound.

“No, of course not!” Steve laughs, shaking his head at Bucky. Bucky was perched on the other end of the bed, far enough away that his cold presence didn’t chill Steve too badly, looking completely at ease in Steve’s bedroom, and appearing more real than he had any right to look in the glow of the moon and the fairy lights. “I ain’t got anyone special. Haven’t been on a date in years.”

They had spent all day together, talking about nothing in particular and yet everything, all at once. Steve painted for a bit and Bucky watched contently, staying mostly silent but piping in here and there to ask Steve about his mother, or his work, or compliment his art.

During lunch, Bucky made Steve laugh so hard he had root beer coming out of his nose--and it burned, but it only made both him and Bucky laugh harder, the kind of laugh that makes your stomach hurt, the laugh where you’re laughing so hard you’re not even making any sound, your shoulders are just shaking with the force of it. It was delicious laughter--but thinking back, Steve can’t even remember what it was that had started it. It just became contagious, the two of them feeding off of each other like giddy children.

“It’s been years since you’ve taken a dame dancing?” Bucky scoffs, his eyebrows raised in disbelief. “When you talk like that, makes you sound older than me.”

“First of all, I don’t go on dates with dames. I go on dates with. Sometimes, I…” Steve shrugs, not sure how Bucky was going to take the news of him being gay. Steve didn’t know how Bucky would take it. He came from a different era. In Bucky’s time, certain types of love were illegal, punishable by law. He pauses too long, and Bucky gives him a knowing look.

“Fellas?” Bucky supplies gently, voice barely audible.

Steve looks up at him, startled, waiting to see the look of disgust on Bucky’s face. But there is only curiosity and warmth, a friendly smile on his handsome face.

“Y-Yeah,” Steve admits, still hesitant. He’d been out since he was 15 and he’d gotten over the fear of telling people a long time ago he was gay--but things were much, much different in Bucky’s time, and he felt the nervous ache he used to get when coming out to people.
If Steve had been alive then, just holding another man's hand could’ve been enough to arrest him. He clears his throat, “I like goin’ on dates with fellas.”

“Me too.” Bucky says without hesitation at all, and doesn’t give enough time for Steve to digest that before he’s plowing on. “So, you go dancin’ a lot, with your dates? Do people still do that for fun?”

“They do,” Steve agrees with a snort, considering how loosely the term dancing is thrown around in his generation. He tries not to dwell on the fact Bucky had said me, too, or what that meant for a million different things. He didn’t need any more fuel to the fire of fantasy that was already lit and burning in the back of Steve’s mind regarding Bucky and his muscles. “Only, ‘dancing’ these days consists of dry sex on a dance floor while being so drunk you spill half your drink on the other person, and the rest on yourself. Nothing romantic ‘bout it.”

Bucky grins wickedly. There is something dangerous and taunting in his eyes, like he’d just learned something delicious about Steve that he planned to use against him. “Sounds fun.”

“It’s really not. I can’t dance--not your kind of dancing, and not the new kind, either. I’ve got two left feet. I avoid it at all costs.”

“You just don’t know how to dance,” Bucky corrects, jabbing a finger in Steve’s direction. “You just gotta learn.”

“No one knows how to dance, not like how you guys used to. That’s real out of style. Old man.”

“It’s not out of style to dance, Stevie. Dancin’ is human nature. It’s the best way to get someone to fall in love with you, you know.” Bucky’s wearing a cocky grin, crooked and relaxed.

Steve can see what Peggy meant about Bucky being a skirt-chaser. With that smile, and those eyes...Steve was having a hard time thinking coherently.

“That so?” Steve challenged with a scoff.

“Scientifically proven,” Bucky nods, but Steve sense bullshit.

“Doubtful.”

Bucky only rolls his eyes, and gets to his feet. The bed doesn’t move with his weight, proof of his fluidity. He was only air, a trick of the light...and yet the way his eyes shone in the moonlight said otherwise.

It made Steve’s head and chest ache to think about how Bucky both was and was not here.

“Stand up!” Bucky orders, squaring his shoulders. The stray curl that never seems to stay put fell in his forehead once again, and it somehow makes Bucky look just the right amount of disheveled, rather than unkept. Steve was pretty sure Bucky could make a garbage bag look like haute couture.

“C’mon, Steve, please. I’ve been dead and silent for so long, I’m dyin’ for some fun.” His pleading expression persisted, and Steve knew he wasn’t going to be able to say no for long. “Literally.”

“Bucky, I don’t know--”

“Please?”

“You tryna make me fall in love with your somethin’?” Steve grumbles unhappily, sliding off the bed to get grumpily to his feet.

Bucky takes a step dangerously close, making the hair on Steve’s arms raise up with the chill of him. “And what if I am, sweetheart?”

Steve blinks up at him, stunned by the response. He gapes like a fish, unable to think of anything witty or sharp to say back. He just stares, wide eyed, as Bucky grins down at him.

“Y-You’re not my type, loverboy,” Steve finally chokes out, but his response is much too delayed, and Bucky looks much too pleased. Steve knows he’s lost this one.

“One dance,” Bucky begs. “C’mon.”

“Right,” Steve says unhappily. He hunches in himself. “Buck--”

Bucky wasn’t having any of it. He held up his hand to silence Steve, and flicked his wrist. Steve’s phone started playing some kind of soft, crooning song that sounded oddly familiar.

“How did you--” Steve begins, but stops short when Bucky winks at him, making his heart stutter and reset. Bucky was often doing things that elicited this type of response from Steve, and it was raising alarm bells in Steve’s head.

I’ll be seeing you, in all the old familiar places… Billie Holiday croons from Steve’s phone.

“Now,” Bucky begins. “Music is the first step, but we’ve got that taken care of. So, if you wanna get a hot date, you gotta be able to show him a good time.” Bucky steps his feet apart and holds out his arms, one up beside his head, bent at the elbow, and the other extended at his shoulder height, slightly curved, as if an invisible person was going to slide right into his arms and waltz into the night.

That this heart of mine embraces all day through...

“C’mere,” Bucky urged, nodding towards the circle he’d created. “I’ve gotta teach you how to dance, Ace, and you can’t learn by watching.” There was something low about Bucky’s voice, something almost daring. As if he was saying bet you wont’ come closer, bet you wouldn’t dare, and Steve has never walked away from a challenge, so he lifts his chin and west his lips nervously.

In that small cafe, the park across the way, the children's carousel…

Steve let out a put-upon sigh but obliged. He stepped into Bucky’s open arms, and held up his hands to match with Bucky’s. There was nothing but cold air--nothing physical or warm, so their hands just hovered within centimeters of each other, unable to touch but buzzing with energy.

The chestnut tree, the wishing well…

“Okay, I’m going to step back, then left, then forward. You’re going to step forward, right then back,” Bucky tilts his chin down a little to meet Steve’s eyes. “We’ll go slow. Ready?”

I’ll be seeing you in every lovely summer’s day..

“I’ve got two left feet,” Steve warns, feeling a little self conscious. Bucky seemed so at ease in everything he did, so confident and sure of himself, while Steve’s chest fluttered irregularly, his heart beating so fast Steve was afraid it was sputtering out of his chest. He wondered if Bucky could hear it.

In everything thats light and gay….

“Doesn’t bug me, kid. I’m here to help.” Bucky flashes a crooked grin. “Okay, here we go. One.” They both step together in unicine. Steve doesn’t mess it up.

“Good!” Bucky praises. “Okay, now...two.” Bucky steps to the left, and Steve steps to the right, their hands and bodies still moving as one unit, just barely overlapping.

“This isn’t too hard,” Steve laughs a little, pleased that he was catching on. “I’m doing it!”

I’ll always think of you that way...

“Don’t get too cocky now, Stevie. Three,” Bucky directs, and Steve stumbles a little. Bucky didn’t have any physical feet for Steve to step on, but he catches himself and finds the movement again, to which Bucky is delighted.

“One,” Bucky says, and they move. “Two, three.”

“One, two, three,” Steve whispers, looking down at the way their feet followed one another, playing off the direction and speed of the other partner.

They were a unit, swaying together under the light of the dying moon, the creaky wooden floors kissing the soles of their feet to life, sparking an energy that shot right up Steve’s body, all the way to the top of his head. It burst like a firework into the night, filling the empty sky with illumination and beauty.

Later, much later, when the snow falls on New York and secrets are spilled out like water breaking free of a dam, Steve would sob and hold on to his bed sheets and let his violent, ugly tears stream down his face. He would listen to this song and he would let the lyrics tear him apart, he would be broken open and alone, but he would always have this moment, this quiet stillness of the moon and the song and Bucky’s cool embrace. This memory would burn itself into his eyelids.

I’ll find you in the morning sun, and when the night is blue

“One, two, three,” Bucky murmured, and his voice got soft and warm, like honey. “That’s it, Stevie. You’re doing so good, doll. You’re a natural. Such a quick learner, ain’t ya?”

Steve blushed under the compliment, attempting to hide how easily Bucky flustered him by staring down at their feet again.

“One, two, three, one, two, three,” Steve mumbles. Bucky is freezing, but Steve’s on fire, every particle of him torn between wanting to run away and wanting to melt into the cool promise of Bucky forever.

“Don’t hide your face,” Bucky scolds gently. “It’s a sin to hide such a beautiful face, you know. If you’re trying to impress a date, you’ve gotta stare into their eyes while you dance. That’s where the romance really comes in.”

I’ll be seeing you…

“I don’t--” Steve looks up to catch Bucky’s gaze.

“Just look at me, doll.” Bucky suggests earnestly. “For practice.” Steve notices the fullness of Bucky’s lips, how prominent his cupids bow was--he’d love to draw it, to immortalize Bucky’s red lips on his pages forever, where he could stare at them unabashed, without having to worry what smart things they would say to turn Steve’s cheeks a scarlet shade.

In every lovely summer’s day, in everything that’s light and gay, I’ll always think of you that way…

He forces himself to meet Bucky’s pale eyes, that have seen so much of the world and its horrors and yet so little. The walls of Steve’s apartment were Bucky’s life now, and had been for many years.

Steve wondered what kind of dreams would dance under Bucky’s eyelids if he could sleep; what kind of nightmares would creep in when the lights went out. He wondered if he would paint any of the colors of his dreamland, if Steve would show up there with a warm smile and inviting arms.

I will find you in the morning sun..

They stare at each other and continue their three-step around Steve’s bedroom floor, keeping in time and listening to the crooning from Steve’s phone. Steve’s ribs protested a little at the movement, but it was easy enough to ignore in favor of indulging the moment. Bucky’s face was intense, staring at Steve like nothing else in the world mattered, like there was only the two of them and the stars.

Bucky’s lips were so full, parted just so and a little damp, like his tongue had recently darted out to moisten them. Steve feels his own lips part in response--it was instinctual, like a magnet responding to another, a sunflower to the sun.

And when the night is new...

Bucky didn’t look away, and Steve was too interested in the depth he saw in Bucky to look anywhere else. There was wonder, curiosity, warmth and playfulness in Bucky’s pale eyes. There was something so intense about the moment, the two of them not touching but dancing together in the pale moonlight, the floorboards groaning under Steve’s weight, the cool night itching to come inside, the two of them separated by years and years, and yet by nothing at all.

I’ll be looking at the moon…

Bucky tilts his head down, just a fraction--it’s hardly anything, really--but if Bucky were solid, his lips would be just inches away from Steves. If Bucky were alive, if Steve could, he’d stretch up onto his tip toes, he could tilt his head up towards Bucky’s just a little more, and part his lips, and--

But I’ll be seeing you.

Steve stops, ruining the steady rhythm waltz they’d worked up to. Bucky falters immediately after, his hands falling, brows drawing up in confusion.

“Steve--” Bucky begins, and his voice is apologetic, reproachful, like he knew he had done something to disturb the mood just by the slight movement of his head--something fragile between them had shattered apart and melted away into the floorboards.

“No,” Steve murmurs, stepping back to put some space between them. He can’t look at Bucky, afraid of what he’d see there. “Just,” Steve shakes his head, pulling back the sheets and getting into bed. “I don’t want to talk about it--it’s fine, just. I’m tired; I’ll see you in the morning.”

Steve pulls the covers up to his chin, and rolls over without another word, ignoring the way his heart was racing in his throat and the fact that he felt much too awake to fall asleep anytime soon.

Bucky lingers for a few minutes longer, and then murmurs a soft goodnight, and closes the door gently on his way out, and that is that.

Steve is left alone, with a racing heart and a mind full of questions.

---------------------------------------
Bucky doesn’t leave Steve’s room that night. He’s afraid, after what happened with the break in. Seeing the intruder jump on Steve, hurt him like that…

He watches Steve toss and turn and dream.

He wonders how different things would be if he could pull the covers up just a little higher on Steve’s chin--was he cold?--or if he could brush his fingers along Steve’s cheek and feel him sigh into the touch. How different things would be if the world was a kinder place.

The moon watches Steve just as intensely as Bucky does, neither of them blinking in their close guard.

Bucky promises the sky that he wouldn’t be the one to ruin Steve. He wouldn’t be the one to take advantage of that bravery and turn it into heartbreak.

In his sleep, Steve reaches out a hand towards Bucky.

It stays empty, grasping at the night air.

Chapter Text

 

"Touch me someone
I'm too young to feel so
Numb, numb, numb, numb
You could be the one to

Make me feel something, something"

             - Feel Something, Jaymes Young 


The next morning, Bucky stays away from Steve as the blond gets up and gets ready for the day. He turns the coffee pot on and steps away to be elsewhere, giving Steve space. 

He hovers in the kitchen while Steve showers, in the living room while he makes breakfast, putting enough distance between them so that Steve wouldn’t have to feel him lingerng. 

As Steve comes into the kitchen, hair damp and smelling like roses, he blinks at the coffee machine and his lips twitch into something of a smile. Bucky watches curiously as Steve scrubs a hand through his hair and adjusts his glasses higher up on his nose.

He was wearing a pale blue knit sweater that was too big on his slender frame, with light wash denim pants and polka dot socks. The blue sweater combined with his thick framed glasses made Steve’s eyes look an unholy shade of blue, the shock of them bright against the paleness of Steve’s face. 

“Don’t hafta hide,” Steve murmurs, grabbing the coffee once it was ready. Bucky knew Steve was talking to him, but he only clenches his jaw, not moving closer or responding. 

Last night had been playing over and over in Bucky’s mind--the heat rolling off of Steve making Bucky feel more alive than he had in years, those thick lashes blinking up at him, Steve’s pale pink lips just so, torturously close. 

If Bucky were alive in times like these, where men could hold hands and kiss and go out to dinner together, he’d be lost for Steve. 

He’d be so sweet on him Steve wouldn’t know what to do with himself; Bucky would bring him home flowers just because and kiss him all over and come up behind him to wrap his arms around Steve’s small frame just to feel the flutter of Steve’s heart. 

Steve feels something too, Bucky is pretty sure. The crimson blush that overtook Steve’s face everytime Bucky winked or complimented him was a give away, but it didn’t matter. 

It didn’t matter a bit what either of them felt. They were incompatible, the universe had made sure of that. 

Bucky wouldn’t want Steve to be with someone who couldn’t even hold him, no matter how selfish he was tempted to be with his love.

“Y’know, I never used to drink coffee. Maybe on the rare occasion, here or there. But, really, I only bought a keurig so that I’d have it when my friends come over.” 

Bucky watches Steve add some sugar, a little milk. Stirs it in. 

“But I think you’re turning me into a coffee drinker. I know you love the stuff.” 

Bucky did. He longed for a cup of coffee, to feel its warmth and bitterness spread through him. Bucky was always cold, like he was trapped under the snow without sunlight. 

Steve, though, Steve made him feel warm. 

“Buck,” Steve tries again, softer, when Bucky still doesn’t reply. Steve’s hands, where they grip the mug, are bruised and scabbed over. Bucky feels a pang of protective rage at that--he didn’t want Steve’s skin to ever be marked by anything except out of love; kisses and love bites and bruises on that pale neck. Thinking of Steve in pain made Bucky’s stomach lurch uncomfortably. “Please.” 

Bucky swallows. Steve looked sad, restless, and Bucky knew from observation that he didn’t get much sleep last night, he tossed and turned and shook with dreams or nightmares, Bucky wasn’t sure. 

Bucky didn’t think he could ever say no to Steve, especially not with him looking so small and sad, clutching a hot coffee between those pale fingers.

“Not hiding,” Bucky murmurs softly, stepping into view. He looks apologetically at Steve. “I didn’t think you’d want to see me.” 

Steve rolls his eyes, but he looks relieved that Bucky was in the room. There is something in his shoulders that relaxes at Bucky’s presence, and it makes Bucky feel just a little, tiny bit warmer. 

“‘Course I wanna see you,” Steve grumbles, taking a sip of his coffee and moving to sit down at the tiny dining room table. He rests his chin on his fist and Bucky wants to scream at how adorable he looks in this moment, in this light. “I wanted to apologize for last night.” 

“Steve--” Bucky starts, frowning. He was the one who should apologize. He knew exactly what he was doing when he asked Steve to dance, and it was entirely selfish. 

He wanted Steve to be close, wanted those eyes only on him, to see that blush creep down Steve’s neck and feel his sputtering pulse and uneven breathing.

 Bucky wanted to see the effect he had on Steve, pretend for a moment that this was something they might be able to have. It was selfish, and cruel to them both.

“No,” Steve interrupts. “Buck, look. Last night was…” he swallows, and Bucky traces the bob of his adam’s apple. “I liked it, dancing with you. And I hate dancing,” he pauses to smile shyly up at Bucky, and Bucky has to look away, afraid his face would tell too many of his secrets. “But we shouldn’t...do stuff like that.” 

“Stuff like what?”

Steve’s face takes on a pink twinge. “Uh,” he sputters. Bucky wants to kiss him. “You--you know.” 

Bucky arches a brow, an amused smile twitching at his lips. Seeing Steve stutter was another one of his favorite things. “No, I really don’t.” He did. 

“Romantic stuff.” 

“Yeah.” 

“Yeah, you agree we should stop?” 

Bucky didn’t want to agree, but he knew when he was wrong. “Yeah.” he says again, letting out a long sigh. “We should stop. Can’t have you fallin’ in love with me, now can we, sweetheart? That would just get all sorts of messy.” 

There it was, that blush that Bucky loved so much. “Y-Yeah,” Steve mutters, trying to make his voice sound sarcastic, though Bucky revels in the fact that it fails miserably. “That would be bad. And you should probably stop it with the pet names.” 

Bucky’s brow hikes up again, and a crooked smile takes over his face. He takes a seat across from Steve. “You don’t like when I call you sweetheart?” 

Steve won’t look at him, his face a crimson red. “I-I do,” Steve argues, blinking fast. “But,” 

“But you like it too much.” 

Steve looks at him then, and nods once silently. 

Bucky hums thoughtfully. He had a big mouth--he wasn’t even sure if he could stop calling Steve all those sweet names that just came so naturally. “If you really want, I can stop.” 

Steve frowns down at his coffee. “I mean, I like it,” He protests quietly. 

“Okay,” Bucky agrees. “Then I’ll keep doing it.” 

Steve puts his chin on his fist again. “But--”

“But we’ll cut it out with that other stuff. No more dancing, I got it.” Bucky puts a hand on his heart, the other one in the air. “Scout’s honor.” 

Steve grins and rolls his eyes. “Oh, please, you--” He snorts, but he’s cut off by a knock on the door. 

Bucky stands immediately. “Who is it. You’re not expecting anyone, are you?” 

“No,” Steve frowns, eyeing the door suspiciously. 

Bucky is already storming off to look. He had to keep Steve safe. 

“Buck, just hold on,” Steve is calling, jogging after him. Bucky peeks through the eyehole in the apartment door and sighs in resignation, stepping back to let Steve see. “It’s the redhead,” He narrates, and then retreats back into the apartment, “I’ll make myself scarce.”

Steve blinks after him, but when the widow knocks again he opens the door.

----

“Nat,” Steve greets in surprise, which turns into a prompt: “What the ever-loving fuck--” upon opening the door, stepping aside out of habit for a bruised and bloodied Natasha to come inside. 

She only glances at him briefly before brushing past him like she was on a mission, eyes narrowed as though she were looking for something. She scans the apartment. 

“I’m fine.” 

Steve blanches at her. She’s got a jagged cut across her cheekbone, her lip is split and caked in dried blood, and there is a very slight--but still noticeable--limp to her step when she slides past him.

“Uh. Well. You don’t look fine.” Steve points out blankly, watching her with the door still wide open. 

She ignores him. “Vodka. You have any?” 

Steve’s jaw falls open, though he really shouldn’t be that surprised. “You..want vodka.” 

She turns to face him, face growing impatient. “Yes, Steve. I just had a very unpleasant run-in with Hydra, and I’m in some pain, and I’d really like some vodka.” She then mutters something in Russian under her breath, shaking her head and turning away from him, headed for the kitchen.

Steve shuts the door. He looks around, but Bucky is nowhere to be seen, heard, or felt. He appreciates that he’s made his presence scarce--Natasha was intuitive as hell. After the first day with Lucky barking at seemingly nothing, she’d definitely notice if something was up. Bucky had better lay low.

Their conversation this morning--Steve wanted to get back to it, but at the same time, the idea of talking about it any longer mortified him. Bucky was so calm, so confident. Steve just didn’t have the same kind of grace. 

Something in his chest was bubbling up for Bucky, and it was a dangerous thing.

“It’s not even noon. How about coffee?” He offers as a compromise, following her into the kitchen. He pulls out a chair for her to fall into and she does, without a retort on how he was old-school or too chivalrous or anything of that nature, which was out of character for Nat.

She seems too tired to protest, so she waves her hands. “Put vodka in the coffee.” She pauses. “Please.”

Steve could live with that, and he definitely appreciated the manners. He gets to work grabbing a mug and a coffee pod, setting both up at the Keurig. 

“So,” he says conversationally, when Nat doesn’t add anything else. “What...happened?” 

He doesn’t turn back around  to face her, but keeps himself busy with coffee. Steve hears Natasha let out a long sigh. 

“Hydra is working on a project. Something big that Stark’s got us investigating,” She replies, a sharp edge to her voice that tells Steve whatever it was, it was bad. “Can’t talk about it.”

Tony Stark--AKA Iron Man--was a playboy millionaire/superhero. Steve had never met the guy, but that’s mainly because A) if Tony Stark knew that 3 avengers had befriended a scrawny un-enhanced artist he’d probably freak out because of the liability or something and B) Tony Stark was a millionaire/superhero, and Steve was a scrawny, un-enhanced artist. With asthma. Among other things.

Tony took the lead on missions and was basically the head of the Avengers. He made the right calls, he got shit done, and he spent a lot of money in the process. He was kind of a big deal.

“That doesn’t sound good.” Steve murmurs. He knew he probably wasn’t going to get any more information out of Nat. This stuff was confidential. The more he knew, the more danger he’d be in, and his friends were always extra careful around Steve when they talked about work stuff.

“It’s not.” Natasha says heatedly. Steve hears her adjust slowly in her seat, clearly in pain. “They’re two steps ahead of the game.” 

“Hmm?” 

“I saw the files. They’ve got a...a weapon.” Natasha sounds distracted, not really listening to herself talk. The fact that she’s let her guard down so easily is surprising to Steve; usually Natasha would say nothing about her missions with the Avengers, she was more careful than Sam and Clint when it came to that stuff. She wasn’t sensoring herself so much today, and Steve was naturally curious.

“A weapon,” Steve repeats, trying not to let his tone convey how interested he really was. “Sounds bad.”

“It is bad,” She scoffs, almost like she was thinking out loud or talking to herself.  “This weapon, it’s...it’s not like anything we’ve ever seen before. He’s like a ghost.

I know the feeling, Steve thinks. He smiles a little to himself, at his private joke, and wonders where Bucky is now. The kitchen was sun-warm with no traces of cool air, and he didn’t have that peculiar feeling he usually got when Bucky was close.

After their moment last night, Bucky had been giving him a lot of space. Maybe a little more than Steve would’ve liked. 

“He?” Steve echoes. 

“He,” She agrees, dabbing her lip and grimacing at the blood that comes away on her finger. Steve wets a hand towel with cool water and offers it to her. 

She accepts it with a grateful nod, wiping her face with efficient swipes of the cloth. It comes away red and brown with blood and dirt. 

They’ve got a human weapon?” Steve squints, trying to imagine what exactly that would look like. “What does that even mean?” His mind flashes to Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee. 

“It means Hydra is extremely dangerous, and I shouldn’t even be talking about this with you--”

“You haven’t told me anything specific,” Steve argues, turning back to stir Natasha’s coffee. “Just get it off your chest, Nat. Not like I’m going to tell anyone, and you know from checking that my apartment isn’t bugged.” She had done a thorough walkthrough the last time she was in, and came away satisfied. 

She lets out a long breath, but continues. “Literally speaking, this...weapon is a person, yes.” Natasha clenches and unclenches her jaw, a sure tell that her mind was going a million miles a minute. “But he...doesn’t have a name, so we can’t find him in any records. In all the files we’ve even seen mention of him, he’s just referred to as soldier or the asset.”

Then three things happen at once.

First, there is a rush of cold air so strong it brushes Steve’s hair back from his face, and the bathroom door down the hall slams shut.

Second, Steve spills burning hot coffee all over himself thanks to the shock of the loud noise, and hisses in pain as it scolds his already scraped knuckles. The mug falls to the ground and shatters.

Thirdly, Steve hears Bucky’s frantic voice, getting louder as it comes towards him. Bucky sounds shaken and even a little afraid as he asks, “Stevie? You okay, Ace? Shit, doll, I’m so sorry--” 

Steve doesn’t answer, and tries hard not to think about Bucky calling him doll, that honey-sweet voice in his ear, worried, whispering, murmuring…

Steve snaps out of it. He shoves his hand under the tap and runs the cold war, whipping around wildly to see if Natasha heard anything--if she reacted at all to Bucky.

Natasha has her gun out, pointed in the direction the cold breeze had come from, panting. “What the hell just happened. Is someone here, Steve?” 

Steve’s heart bounced unhappily in his chest. Had Nat heard Bucky speak? “Uh--n-no one. Must’ve left a window open. It does that sometimes. Cross breeze.” 

Nat didn’t look convinced. She doesn’t lower her gun, and her posture doesn’t relax. “What the hell is going on here, Steve? What was that?”

“You wouldn’t believe me,” Steve whispers, turning away from her again to bend down, carefully gathering the broken pieces of porcelain from the mug. He tries not to think about how Natasha would react if he told her that his apartment had been broken into and raided by an addict who had roughed him up. 

She’d probably kill him, then bring him back to life, kill him again and then get 24/7 security on his apartment. 

“I kill aliens for a living. I’ve played poker with literal gods. From space.” Steve can hear her slowly setting her gun down on the table and clicking the safety on. She doesn’t holster it again, obviously still shaken. “Try me, Rogers.” 

Steve shakes his head slowly and is surprised to find tears burning at his eyes as he gathers up the broken pieces of the mug, one by one, gathering them in his shaky palm. This was getting too real. Before, when it was just him and Bucky and the waning moon, it was easy to slip away. Steve lived in the fantasy and didn’t have to consider the consequences of gazing too long or too hard into Bucky’s eyes. 

But now, with Natasha, things felt too large and too real. 

“Can’t,” He says softly. “You’d seriously, really think I’m crazy, Nat. And I don’t want you to think I’m crazy. I can’t have you thinking that.” 

“I don’t think you’re crazy,” Nat’s voice is suddenly right behind him--Steve is surprised, she moves so quietly he hadn’t heard her stirr, even though she was in pain--and she puts a hand on his shoulder blade as he stands up. “I would never think that. You can tell me, Steve. You can always tell me anything. You know that.” 

Steve did know that, was the thing. There is a moment, a heartbeat, the space between one breath and the next, where Steve is about to tell her everything. It would be easy, he thinks, once he got the first few words out. It would be a relief. The weight of this secret would be lifted.

He opens his mouth to say something and their air stirs, just a little. It was so minute that it Steve didn’t know, he wouldn’t think much of it. Just dancing dust particles, just a slight tremor to disrupt the stillness.

But Steve did know. And he knew what it meant.

The hair on his arms raises, and he knew it was Bucky’s way of asking him to keep his secret. 

Steve clenches and unclenches his jaw, feeling the weight of Natasha’s gaze. Could Bucky ask him to lie to his friends? To Nat? Why would Bucky want that? There were so many rumors circulating about the apartment anyway…

To some extent, Nat already knew. 

The fact that there was a ghost ‘haunting’ Steve’s apartment wasn’t the secret. Everyone in the area knew about it, including Steve’s friends, since they’d mocked him for it, believing it to be nothing more than a series of stories cooked up by tenants in the area to explain otherwise natural phenomena. 

It was the fact that Bucky was Bucky--that he talked and laughed and hung out with Steve that would change Natasha’s perceptions. That he was a soldier who fought in the 40s, a real person who loved and was loved. 

It was true that Nat had seen some wild things in her line of work, but she’d never mentioned real, legitimate ghosts. Steve wasn’t sure how she’d take it, and Bucky clearly had some hesitations about Steve telling her. 

His reaction to what Nat had said, though, didn’t make sense. It was such an aggressive one, clearly directly prompted by her talking about Hydra. He was itching to ask Bucky more, but with Nat around it would have to wait.

“I’ll tell you.” Steve says slowly, meeting Natasha’s gaze, which has since narrowed in suspicion again. She’s catching on to the shady way Steve’s been acting, and he won’t be able to fool her for much longer. “But not right now. Not today--but Nat, I will tell you. I just need to figure out how.” 

Her head tilts in consideration, and she studies him, her red hair falling over her shoulder as she does so. They stare at each other for what feels like five long minutes, but must only be a few seconds. They’re both stubborn, set in their ways, and extremely protective. Steve knows she only wants the best for him.

Natasha finally sighs, breaking the silence first. “Whatever this is Steve…” she hesitates, as if trying to find a way to frame her sentence. “Whatever it is, you’re okay, right? Not...in any danger? Scared?” 

Steve immediately shakes his head. He wasn’t afraid of Bucky. Bucky...actually made him feel safe. The scariest thing that had happened in the apartment was the Junkie breaking in, and Steve didn’t think he needed to add the stress of that event to Natasha’s plate right now. Steve wasn’t sure what Natasha would do to him or the apartment if she found that out. 

Steve knew that Bucky would protect him. He protected him that night, and he’d do it again. He took care of Steve. 

“I’m more than okay, Nat. I’ve got this beautiful apartment...enough money for rent and food and medication...and great friends.” he gives her a shy smile. “Quit worrying about me so much. You’re the one covered in blood.” 

She only rolls her eyes, but the worried look doesn’t leave. “Superficial wounds.” 

Steve dumps the porcelain pieces in the trash and wipes up the rest of the mess with a paper towel. 

He gets to making Nat another coffee, pointedly without vodka, and tucks it into her hands as they migrate to the living room. Natasha folds herself up on the couch, and Steve feels a little honored at how comfortable she is in his space. She trusts him, even after the weirdness that just happened in the kitchen, she’s able to ease back into their friendship. 

Steve folds himself up right beside her, the two of them barely taking up any room on the sofa, which seemed so large in comparison.

“So,” Steve begins softly, his finger tip tracing the rim of his mug absently. His hand didn’t hurt anymore from the hot coffee; the cold water had helped immensely. “You said the fight was pretty bad? Where are Sam and Clint? Were they there?” and are they hurt? Rings in the back of Steve’s mind. He hadn’t heard of any public Avengers confrontations in the news, so he had a lot of questions. 

“They were there,” Nat says carefully. Steve can tell she is trying to frame her words in a way that doesn’t tell the full story, for Steve’s own safety. She’d snapped out her previous haze, then, and she was sensoring herself more. “I got the worst of it. They were called in for backup, and by that time…” She waves a hand at herself. “I’ll heal, though. Always do.” 

She would, and she did. But that didn’t mean Steve much liked the idea of her--or any of his friends--being thrown into danger repeatedly. 

It made his stomach flip in uncomfortable ways. 

He was so small, compared to their abilities and problems. Just a blip on the radar, a grain of sand. Natasha went to work everyday and saved the world from imminent destruction. Without her, or any of the Avengers, the world might literally not exist. If Nat disappeared, things would collapse. Buildings. Political systems. Universes. 

Steve, though. If Steve disappeared, a handful of people would grieve him--one of which was a ghost--and the world wouldn’t hiccup. The traffic lights would still change from green, to yellow, to red, and the planets would dance around each other the same as they always had. He would fade away gently into the night, and that would be that.

He really was quite insignificant. The thought didn’t bother him as much as it maybe should--he had good people. He’d found his family. That’s more than 21 year old Steve ever thought possible. And he was happy. 

“So this weapon…” Steve trails off, eyebrows raised in curiosity. He wasn’t sure how much Natasha would spill, but she’d already said more than usual. 

Natasha waves a hand in dismissal at him, tucking a piece of red hair behind her ear. “Doesn’t matter. I’ve already said too much. Didn’t mean to just,” she shakes her head dismissively. “Unload on you. I just needed to vent. I’m frustrated.” Her jaw works, clenching and unclenching. It was a nervous habit of hers that Steve had picked up on. “Hydra is getting stronger and we’re not going to be able to keep up if we’re not careful.” 

Steve just hums in reply. He wasn’t frustrated with the lack of information--it was typical--but he was curious. The sharp way Bucky had reacted to Natasha’s words irked Steve.

There had to be more to the story. Bucky didn’t have a temper, from what Steve had seen of him so far, but when Peggy had mentioned him falling, he’d reacted in a similar way. 

Perhaps Bucky had a connection to Hydra. Steve wasn’t a history buff, but he knows that Hydra was pretty active during the Second World War. Bucky might have some unpleasant memories, which would make sense. A bad run in or two would be enough to send chills down anyones spine, with the stories Steve heard about the Nazi organization. 

“You’ll figure it out,” Steve says soothingly, offering her a reassuring smile. “You always do.” 

Nat shakes her head slowly, and her eyes get very far away and sad, kind of like Bucky’s when Steve asked him about his past. 

“I don’t know about this time, Steve. I really don’t. Things are not looking too promising. I think we’re in trouble.” She lets the silence between them sit for a long time, sipping her coffee. 

There is a tremble in her voice, though it’s so slight Steve never would have been able to detect it if he didn’t know her well. “I’m scared,” she breathes finally, and then curls in on herself even more. 

Her fear tugs on Steve’s heart. To hear Nat sound so vulnerable was a curse and a privilege; if Natalia Romanova was scared, then the world should be on its knees, trembling. Whatever they were up against, it had to be bad. 

Steve doesn’t know any words or lies or lullabies that would make that sadness go out of her gaze, so he just rests his head on her shoulder and closes his eyes, hoping his presence could offer some form of comfort. 

-------------------------------------------------------------------

When Natasha leaves, she hugs him tightly, for a long time. Steve thinks it must hurt her to squeeze him like that in her strong arms--it certainly makes his own ribs ache--but she doesn’t wince. She kisses his forehead in a motherly fashion and tells him to get some rest. 

Steve closes and locks the door behind him. As soon as he turns around to walk down the hallway, Bucky is standing there, eyebrows drawn up tight, worry on his handsome face. 

Steve jumps about a foot in the air, startled, though he knows he shouldn’t be by now. “Jesus, Buck. Give a guy some warning,” Steve mutters, a hand clutching his heart like a scandalized southern bell. 

Bucky holds his hands up in surrender, his eyebrows drawing even further in, face scrunching up. “Sorry, Stevie. You okay? Your hand--” Bucky reaches out to see Steve’s hands, and Steve shoves them behind his back. 

“What the hell was that?” Steve demands, suddenly getting angry. He’s not sure where the anger is from but it’s there, bubbling to the surface, white-hot and plentiful. “You know--Nat is a Russian spy. She picks up on things. It’s her job to notice things. So when you go all Danny-Phantom on me, she notices that. And I’m not going to be able to hide it for long.” 

Bucky  clenches his jaw. “Something she said..” he trailed off, looking away. “I don’t know. Startled me.” 

“Well can you not get startled, like, quieter, or something?” Steve throws his hands up in the air and feels very childish doing so. He was throwing a tantrum, and he knew it. “Nat is one of my best friends. I don’t like lying to her. And I don’t understand why you want me to lie. S’not like no one knows about you--there are rumors.”

Bucky doesn’t answer. He takes a step back from Steve, looking like a hurt puppy. “Steve--”

“No.” Steve says, storming past him. The frustration was boiling under his skin. “I’m done. I want to be alone tonight.” 

“C’mon, doll, don’t get all sore at me, I’m--”

Steve wheels on him, face bright red. “Stop calling me that!” He cries. “I’m...not your doll. I’m not your anything . This...this is getting too weird for me, okay? This stuff with Nat, and last night, in my room…” Steve’s heart starts to race at the memory, the closeness, the mingling of their souls. He couldn’t let it go on, he was going to fall for Bucky, they both knew it, and he was going to get his heart broken. 

Falling in love with a ghost couldn’t come with a happily ever after, Steve knew, and he had to protect his heart. 

“I can’t hide this from my friends, I can’t lie to them, and I can’t tell them the truth because they’ll think I’m bat-shit crazy! So I just need some time to think. I need space, maybe for a while.” Steve didn’t know where that last part came from, but it was something dark in him that reared its ugly head when Steve’s temper did, wanting to stoop low and hurt rather than come to a sane conclusion. “I didn’t sign up for this,” Steve shakes his head aggressively. “I did not sign up for this. It’s too much.” 

He didn’t want Bucky to make his heart race, or confuse his head. He didn’t want to lie to his friends. He hated the way he looked forward to coming home to see Bucky, hated how delighted he was when Bucky laughed. It wasn’t right. It wasn’t normal. It was going to ruin him.

Bucky’s eyes are large, and blue, and very sad. Steve had hurt him, it was written all over his face. 

“Don’t leave,” He says, and his voice cracks a little. “Stevie, M’sorry, I’ll stay away when people are over, I’ll give you time, just.” Steve can see now, his eyes are watering. Steve learns that night that ghosts can cry. “Please don’t leave the apartment. You don’t hafta go.” 

And Steve knows why Bucky is afraid. He’s afraid of the silence, the devastation of being your only company, of living with the dusty walls and curtains that don’t open to the sunlight and the years and years of emptiness and memories and cobwebs. 

Steve feels terrible instantly. After all, it wasn’t Bucky’s fault that Steve’s heart didn’t know how chill the fuck out. It wasn’t Bucky’s fault that his voice had such a strong effect on Steve.

Steve didn’t want to fall in love, but that didn’t mean he had to push Bucky away, either. Not after Bucky had been alone for so long.

Bucky was standing there before him, a man who’d been lonely and angry for years before anyone could hear him, who watched life happen from the shadows and couldn’t find peace or rest. 

Bucky, who saved Steve from an intruder, who got his inhaler and talked him through a panic attack. 

Bucky, who played soft jazz and almost-- almost-- held Steve close under the bright moon of the New York sky. 

If not for all the years between Steve’s first breath and Bucky’s last, they may have been something amazing. 

Steve shuffles closer to Bucky and stops a few inches away from him, wishing more than anything he could take the man into his arms and rub his back, knot his fingers in his hair, feel him solid and real beneath his finger tips. 

“Hey,” Steve says, craning his neck to meet Bucky’s eyes. The wetness in Bucky’s eyes makes their pale color glow in the room. “Hey, s’okay, Buck. I’m...I’m sorry. I’m not leaving. I wouldn’t just do that to you, no matter how mad I get at you, okay? I’m not going to be moving out anytime soon. Just lost my temper. I’m sorry.” 

Bucky clenches his jaw as a tear falls, and he wipes it away angrily, like it had betrayed him by escaping, answering the question Steve hadn’t asked.

 He stares at the ground, clearly embarrassed at his own reaction. His hands curled into fists at his side, but Steve knows the frustration is directed at himself rather than at Steve. There is nothing malicious or angry about the man standing before him, just something sad and lost and scared of being left behind. 

Steve supposes times were quite different, when Bucky was alive. Men who showed emotion were weak, were considered less of a man for it. It must not come easily to Bucky, to show this much expression, especially to another man. 

“S’okay to cry,” Steve says, very gently, not sure what else to say. “I do it all the time, y’know? I’m a big ol’ cry baby. At least you still look handsome when you cry. I just look like a blubbering idiot.” 

Bucky cracks a small smile for that one, but his eyes are still damp when he looks back at Steve. His lashes are thick and wet, clumping together to make his round eyes seem impossibly larger. Not for the first time, Bucky’s beauty makes Steve’s chest ache. 

“You’re my friend, Steve. Only friend I’ve had in a long, long time.” 

“I know,” Steve whispers sincerely, his chest constricting in pain for Bucky. “You’re my friend, too, Buck. It’s just...hard. Trying to keep this secret from my other friends. This isn’t a…conventional friendship. I’m trying, though. And I’m learning.” 

Bucky nods slowly, and Steve guesses that he probably gets where Steve is coming from. 

“I’m going to tell them eventually. Sooner rather than later,” Steve warns, his voice soft and barely audible. “I have to, Buck. If I’m going to stick around, I can’t lie to them. Natasha means the world to me, and if she thinks I’m hiding something, it won’t end well, believe me.” He offers a smile to soften the blow of his words, hoping nothing he said was going to be taken the wrong way. 

“Natasha is amazing, but she’s intense, y’know? When she gets a hunch about something, you just gotta accept defeat and-and...stand down.”  

Bucky’s eyes flash up to Steve’s for a brief moment, and Steve sees the immense confusion and hurt on his face, as if he’d just remembered something painful

Suddenly, all the emotion fades from his expression and his face falls blank, his eyes going lifeless and void. His lips part slightly, but he says nothing. Bucky blinks a few times, fast, and then his eyes stay open, glassy in the light. 

It was perhaps the most dead Bucky has ever looked, standing in Steve’s apartment with his lifeless face, his cloudy eyes.

This was not the warm, dorky man Steve had come to know, the man who tried to teach him how to dance and put together IKEA furniture and called Steve doll .

There is nothing familiar about the blankness in Bucky’s eyes; his face was always so expressive, so ironically alive.  

This person was a stranger.

His image flickers like a TV with bad reception in the same way it had when Steve had first seen Bucky materialize, and then he disappears into thin air. 

Steve takes a step forward. “Bucky?” He calls, confused. 

Bucky had never disappeared on him like that in the middle of a conversation--Steve didn’t understand. They weren’t fighting, they were just coming to an understanding, Bucky had seemed like he understood where Steve was coming from, until his entire demeanor changed. 

Something had happened to Bucky--he’d been reacting in some way to Steve’s words, or maybe a memory, or…it had to be something, Steve knew. 

“Buck? You there?” He waves his hand in the spot where Bucky once stood but the air is only slightly cooler, the whisper of Bucky still there but the whole of him missing. 

Steve sags against the nearest wall and sinks down to the floor. He didn’t like fighting with Bucky, but the guy didn’t make it very easy to have a conversation if he was just going to flash way anytime the argument wasn’t going his way. 

Steve waits for Bucky to return, sitting in the same spot and straining his ears to listen for the moaning floorboards, a closing door, trying to feel a cool breeze--but there was nothing.

For the first time since Steve moved in, there was an empty, dead menace to the apartment that made every cell in Steve’s body feel explicitly unwelcome, and entirely alone. 

 

-------------------------------

Bucky appears later, when the moon is high and Steve is sipping a cup of herbal tea in bed, sketching the profile of Bucky’s face from memory in the low light of his bedroom lamp. His laptop is playing soft acoustic music, low enough that it’s just a gentle hum hanging around in the background of the evening. 

Steve is wearing a large t shirt he was pretty sure belonged to Sam, one he’d stolen a while ago when they lived together. It came down almost to his knees when he stood up, but it was soft and worn-in, which is why Steve loved it. 

Bucky clears his throat and Steve looks up, not so much startled as drawn out of his artists trance slowly, like a feather being plucked from water and blown dry by the breeze. 

“Buck,” Steve says blankly, blinking at him. It takes a few moments for Steve to make the connection between Bucky standing there before him and the sketch laid out in front of him. Guiltily, Steve stumbles to hide the sketch and looks up at Bucky, waiting. 

“I’m sorry,” Bucky says slowly. He looks deeply uncomfortable, weight shifting from foot to foot anxiously, never fully still. Steve is glad to see that there is life in his face and body again--the blankness he’d seen earlier that day still haunted him. It made Bucky’s familiar face deeply unrecognizable.  “About before.” 

“For?” Steve adjusts his glasses higher up on the bridge of his nose, brows rising in anticipation. He waits patiently. 

Bucky sights like a petulant child. “For disappearing. When we were talking. I didn’t mean to.” 

“What happened?” Steve curls his legs into his chest, wrapping his arms around them and resting his chin on his knees. His spine enjoys the stretch but his bones protest a little. Steve feels very small in Sam’s shirt and in his own bed, curled up like this. He was small compared to the tension in the room, and the intensity of Bucky’s gaze.  “It’s not like you to be like that, Buck. You scared me; you weren’t acting like yourself.” 

“Didn’t mean to scare you.” 

“Was it something I said?” Steve prompts, noticing that Bucky was avoiding the question.

Bucky looks away, and shifts uncomfortably, looking like he really didn’t want to answer that question. He stays silent for so long that Steve gets frustrated. 

“Fine,” Steve says curtly. “You don’t have to explain your mood swings to me this time. But if we’re going to be friends you’ve gotta be honest with me from here on out. I don’t want drama; I want honesty. You can’t just decide when you’re going to be okay with me and when you’re going to have a fit about something I say, especially if you won’t tell me what’s bugging you.”  

“I can do that.” Bucky promises, his voice a little desperate. “Stevie--you. You mean a lot to me, and I know we haven’t known each other for very long at all..” which was an understatement, especially in ghost years, if those were a thing, “But you make me happy. Something I ain’t been in years. I don’t take that lightly. I hope you understand that.” 

“You make me happy too, Buck,” Steve says quietly, a small smile pulling at his face, despite the unease he still felt. 

“Good. M’glad. That’s all I wanna do,” Bucky says, and there is something so raw and honest in his voice it makes Steve a little uncomfortable, like he was suddenly put into a spotlight of those pale eyes. 

He clears his throat to get rid of the feeling, but it lingers, and he feels a blush creep onto his cheeks, giving him away. 

“You look real beautiful, blushin’ like that. Maybe I should compliment you more often,” Bucky says. There is nothing malicious or teasing in his voice--just a wonderful sort of honesty that in turn makes Steve’s face even hotter. 

“Maybe you oughta stop flirtin’ with the landlord. It’s unbecoming.” 

“Landlord.” Bucky scoffs. 

“We do need to talk about something,” Steve begins, desperately trying to change the subject. “Your reaction, when Nat mentioned, uh,” Steve wracks his brain for the exact terminology that Nat used, “the asset? What was that about? You seemed pretty upset.” 

Steve had a vague suspicion that the way Bucky reacted earlier when Nat was over may have something to do with him shutting down during their conversation. 

Bucky was deeply disturbed by his past, anytime it was brought up his demeanor changed, Steve just wasn’t sure what kind of connection their conversation or Nat’s comments has with Bucky’s past. 

Bucky’s face shuts down, going terrifyingly blank and emotionless. Like a robot. Like before, when Steve had mentioned telling Natasha. Bucky had been fine until Steve had said something about standing down. 

There were a lot of pieces to the puzzle that was Bucky Barnes, and Steve hadn’t quite figured them out yet. 

“I’m not sure,” Bucky replies, and Steve was just about to give him an earful on how he was tired of hearing I don’t know, when he looked up to bucky’s face and stopped dead.

Bucky looked lost, trapped in a memory of another life before he became the whisper of a man. His face was screwed up in pain, immense pain, before it fell again and he looked desperately confused. 

It was as though a memory reel was playing right before his eyes, only Steve couldn’t see it, he could only see the hurt that it caused Bucky. 

“I--” Bucky begins, and then stops short. He doesn’t look back up at Steve, but his eyes dart behind him and he spins like something spooked him. “What..?” 

“Bucky,” Steve says gently, worried about Bucky’s sanity and knowing how powerful he could be. If Bucky decided to lash out, or had a flashback that made him become violent, Bucky was powerful enough to do some real damage to Steve and the apartment, whether it was on purpose or not. 

“Let’s just...breathe. We don’t need to worry about the past right now. You’re here, with me, so let’s just worry about--”

Bucky is still looking around him, like he doesn’t see Steve or didn’t hear him speak at all. 

“Hello?” Bucky calls, cutting Steve off like he hadn’t spoken. His voice was much too loudly for Steve to be standing right beside him. “Steve? Anyone? Are you there? Stevie?” 

“I’m right here!” Steve replies, waving his arms. But Bucky’s eyes pass right over him and he doesn’t react. Steve can see his panic building in Bucky’s body, his shoulders drawing up and his hands curling into fists. 

“No,” Bucky whispers, “No, no, no,” he mutters something in Russian and runs his hands through his hair, eyes wild and darting all over, never resting on one place for long. “ Steve!” 

Steve acts on instinct, throwing the sketchbook and tea aside, he rushes towards Bucky in the hopes that he will get his attention somehow, snap him out of whatever he was going through--some sort of PTSD flashback or what, Steve didn’t know--and he reaches a hand out to be right in front of Bucky’s face, directly interrupting his line of sight.

Except when Bucky turns his head sharply, it connects with Steve’s hand, Bucky’s cheek pressing into his palm.

Bucky’s cheek connects with Steve’s hand. 

Steve feels him, solid and real and warm, feels the scratch of his stubble and the texture of his skin, the heat of him radiating.

Steve freezes, too shocked to move or react in any way except for a faint whisper, “holy shit.” 

He brings his other hand up slowly, as if moving too fast would disrupt whatever frail thing they had. 

Gently, as though Bucky were made of the finest, most fragile crystal in the world, Steve cups Bucky’s face in both of his hands, forcing himself to see that this was real. 

Steve lets out a long breath he didn’t know he had been holding, and rubs his thumb across Bucky’s cheekbone, feeling the angle of it, the press of his skin against bone and the warmth it radiated. “Oh, my god,” he whispers. “Ohmygod.” 

Steve’s  eyes were as wide as saucers, looking up at Bucky like the sky had just begun falling around them. It felt like it had. Bucky blinked down at Steve fast, as if being pulled back by Steve’s touch had startled out of whatever memory he had just been pulled into. 

“Steve,” Bucky murmurs, and there is something in his voice that makes Steve’s insides turn to jelly.  Bucky’s eyes are alive again, present in the room with Steve. 

Once Bucky realizes Steve is right in front of him he seems to relax a little, tension melting out of his shoulders. Steve presses his hand harder into Bucky’s cheek, and Bucky leans his face into it almost subconsciously. 

“I”m here,” Steve tells him, voice barely above a whisper, his eyes watering with the shock of being able to touch Bucky. “I’m right here, you’re safe, Buck. I’ve got you.” It was the same thing Bucky had told Steve when he protected him from Junkie. 

Perhaps they needed each other. 

They stay like that for a few moments, staring at each other with wonder and confusion and hope, dangerous, poisonous hope , skin on skin, their pulses thrumming together. Bucky’s heartbeat rattling through his body, telling Steve and the world and all of his organs that he was alive. 

“You’re touching me,” Bucky whispers dumbly, a few seconds later. His red lips were parted in shock. “You’re touching me, Steve. I feel you.” 

Steve isn’t sure what to say, isn’t sure he can say anything in the moment, afraid that if they talk about it the illusion will shatter. 

Bucky brings his own hand up to place over Steve’s, and Steve lets his forehead fall forward, resting against Bucky’s chest, too tired to hold it up on his own and not seeing a reason to anymore. 

Bucky’s other arm wraps around Steve’s slender waist, pulling him in tight against Bucky’s body. It would’ve been on the edge of painful if it wasn’t so wonderful. 

Those hands could keep Steve safe, they could comfort him. He wouldn’t have to worry anymore. 

He felt safe. At home. This was natural, this was the way the world was meant to be, with Steve in Bucky’s arms. They didn’t have to fight what they felt, they could slow dance into the early hours of the morning and it wouldn’t be complicated at all. 

All of the aversions, the fear that he’d had before about letting himself fall into whatever he felt for Bucky vanished. They could have this. It could be as easy as breathing.

He hears that wonderful heartbeat. He feels the calloused fingers of Bucky’s hand covering his, feels their strength even in the stillness, how all-encompassing they are when compared to his own, Bucky’s palm dwarfing Steve’s. This was real. 

“I’m touching you,” Steve echoes. Steve can smell Bucky--it’s an earthy, spicy smell that makes Steve lean harder into him, nuzzling into Bucky’s broad chest--a smell that reminds Steve of cigars and spice and winter. “You’re really here, Buck.” 

“You’re so small,” Bucky laughs a little, burying his nose in Steve’s hair. Normally, if it was anyone else, Steve would roll his eyes and complain, maybe punch them in the arm lightly. 

But Steve doesn’t care. Bucky pointing out his size didn’t feel like an insult, it felt like Bucky was making a wondrous discovery about Steve, learning his body in a way he had never before been able to. 

Bucky didn’t feel small. He felt large, and real. As he held Steve tightly, Steve felt the strength in his arms, the muscle that trembled beneathe skin. 

“I can’t believe this is happening,” Steve whispers, stretching up on his tippy toes. Bucky looked down at him with awe, and something warmer that Steve couldn’t quite decipher. 

“Kiss me?” Steve breathes, their lips just centimeters apart. It was exactly how they’d been last night, only this time, there was nothing to be afraid of. There was no tension, no fear of a broken heart. There was Bucky’s lips, red and so close, and Steve wanted to feel them move against his own. 

Bucky leans down ever so slightly, and closes his eyes. Steve mirrors him, parting his lips and waiting, just waiting, for that moment when they finally connected--but it doesn’t come. 

He opens his eyes again to see Bucky has pulled back slightly, eyes wide and panicked.

“No,” Bucky says, and the blissed out tone that had previously been there was gone, replaced by fear. His fingers tighten over Steves, as if trying to hold on desperately, his arm constricting tighter around him. “N-No--I’m being pulled, Steve, I--” 

“Wait, no, Buck--” Steve begins to say, when he suddenly stumbles forward into empty air. The warmth of Bucky vanishes in the blink of an eye, and so does his image. 

Just like that. Gone. 

He breathes out hard, mind reeling. His eyes scan the room desperately, but Bucky wasn’t there.

He knew he’d felt Bucky, that wasn’t a dream, or a hallucination, or anything else. It was real. He had breathed him in, felt him, seen him there like he never had before. His fingertips still tingled with the texture of Bucky’s stubble. 

And now he was gone. 

“Buck?” Steve calls, blinking fast. He stretches his arms out in front of him, trying to feel the whisper of cool air that would let him know Bucky was still around, just not visible. 

He would take that. Even if those moments were all they got, he’d be happy if Bucky could just stay. 

But there was something different about the apartment, a shift in energy that told Steve Bucky wasn’t just in a different area of the apartment, wasn’t just hiding...he was gone. Maybe for good. 

Whatever had just happened, something had changed. 

Steve’s arms were empty, and so was the apartment.

__ 

 

Steve paints for the rest of the evening. He is a machine, finishing up two commissions a few days earlier than their deadline. When he is satisfied with them, he lays them out to dry and turns back to the sketch of Bucky he’d been working on earlier. He waits for Bucky to come back.

Bucky will come back. He did last time. He would again. He had to. 

He traces the bow of Bucky’s lips on the page with his finger, the sharp edge of his jaw. Steve had memorized his face so perfectly; he just couldn’t get the eyes. 

Bucky’s eyes were so expressive. At any given time, they could be happy, sad, grumpy and far away all at once, and Steve had to get it just right. He couldn’t forget. He had to do this now, while the memory of Bucky was still fresh behind his eyelids. 

He didn’t ever want to forget.

He picks up his pencil and begins to fix the arch of Bucky’s brow, and tries not to think about Bucky’s hands on him.

Chapter Text

"Danger will follow me now
Everywhere I go
Angels will call on me
And take me to my home
Well, this tired mind just wants to be led home" 

          - "Everywhere I Go", Sleeping At Last 


When his alarm goes off the next morning for his classes at the VA office, Steve is groggy and bleary eyed. He was normally a morning person, but he hadn’t slept at all last night, haunted by theories and ideas of where Bucky had gone and what had happened in those few moments before he’d vanished completely. 

He rolls out of bed with little grace and hauls on slim fit jeans and a cozy sweater, throwing on his glasses instead of contacts for the sheer convenience of it. 

Steve makes an herbal tea in a travel mug for the subway. The kettle isn’t turned on and waiting for him, hot, and there is no handsome soldier waiting in the kitchen to tell him in detail how loud he snored that night. 

The walls ached with the absence of Bucky.

Steve pushes those thoughts to the back of his mind, and is out the door in less than 10 minutes. 

The outside world is somewhere that seems unfamiliar to Steve now. When he steps outside it’s a harsh reality, one that he had been protected him in the haven of his apartment.

He’d been locked inside his little home for what felt like forever, the cold air of New York streets nipped and growled at his skin; he wasn’t dressed for the cold and he wasn’t ready to face the fact that his life had lost a little bit--or a lot--of magic. 

Sam was going to rip him a new one for it, too, Steve knew, and not to mention he’d probably get sick, which was just about the last thing he needed at this point. His days was admirably not off to a good start.

The train ride is packed with commuters and smells faintly of sweat and french fries, but is otherwise uneventful, no more or less pleasant than any other time Steve has ridden into work.

He keeps his headphones in and his head down, listening to his music and trying very hard not to think about anything to do with James Buchanan Barnes.

Steve arrives at the VA office with time to spare before his class begins, it being only a short walk from the subway stop. 

He hikes his bag up a little higher on his shoulder and pushes the door open, breathing a sigh of relief at the warm air that encompasses him immediately, feeling the contrast between it and the cold tip of his nose. 

Sam is waiting expectantly at the front desk, arms folded and eyebrows raised. Typical.

“Rogers,” He greets suspiciously. “I see you’re dressed for the weather, as always.” The sarcasm in his tone was thicker than Sam’s thighs. He points a sharp finger at Steve. “If you catch a cold, you owe me a coffee.” 

Steve squints at him, looking for any obvious injuries or new scars and ignoring the snide comment. Nat had been pretty banged up, and she’d mentioned that Sam and Clint came in for backup on that particular mission, but Steve can’t find anything even after adjusting his glasses, which had since fogged up from coming inside to warm air after being out in the cold.

“Wilson,” Steve nods, equally suspicious. “I heard what happened.” 

There is no one else around, Steve checked, but Sam darts his eyes around anyway, to make sure. 

“Nat’s fine,” Sam reassures him. He drops the act of suspicion and his face falls a little; Steve can see the stress lines that are beginning to catch up with him, which only makes sense given his job. “She got caught up in a bad situation, Clint and I...we were a little too late.” 

Steve just takes a few steps closer, his eyes serious.  He knew Sam would be hard on himself about Nat getting hurt, and if Steve were in the same situation, he would be, too. 

He knows words won’t console Sam anymore than a slap in the face would. He bumps their shoulders together and gives Sam a small, sad smile, which Sam returns. 

“Yeah,” Sam murmurs, though Steve hadn’t said anything. “I know.” 

“She said something big is happening,” Steve says softly, though there was no one else around. “Something about hydra, and….a human weapon. You guys must be busy; I wasn’t expecting to see you in here today.” 

Sam’s eyes narrow down into slits. “She talked to you about the mission?” 

Steve only rolls his eyes, adjusting his glasses as they slip a little down his nose. “Oh, please.” He huffs. “Like you’ve never slipped and told me more than you ought to.” 

They both knew Steve was right, but that dangerous worry never left Sam’s face. “Steve, Nat was right. This is big stuff. You--you’re not supposed to know anything for your own safety, it’s not because we don’t trust you.” 

Steve had heard it all before, and Sam knew it. “I know that, Sam. I’m not asking because I’m trying to be nosey.”

“It’s already bad enough we all hang out with you and go to your house, and...look. We’re just lucky that nothing has happened to you so far. We’re playing with fire just by being friends.” Sam’s eyes are dark and clouded,  heavy with the unspoken things he imagined were possible--even likely--to happen to Steve as a direct result for being friends with him, Clint and Natasha. 

“I know what I signed up for,” Steve lifts his chin proudly. It was really too early to be having this righteous of a conversation, but Steve hated that look on Sam’s face. “I fully consent to the danger I’m in to have you guys come over and eat a shit ton of food and gossip and get drunk, okay? I get it. Blah, blah, blah, Hydra will come to eat my brains,” Steve waves his hand dismissively, and catches a glimpse of the clock above Sam’s head. 

His class started in ten minutes, and he still had to set up the room and get organized.

“Look, we’ll talk about what I know later. I gotta run.” Steve grabs his tea and turns on his heel to head in the direction of his class. 

Steve can feel Sam’s eyes on him, but he doesn’t say anything more. 

---------

Steve’s class goes well, if uneventfully. No one has a panic attack, and the vets are getting pretty good at becoming comfortable with Steve and each other; it’s a peaceful two hours where Steve is able to focus on the task at hand, rather than worrying about Bucky.

It was the fourth class this group has had together and Steve’s heart warmed to see that some of the vets who had walked in alone on the first class three weeks ago walked out of today’s class with a friend or two, discussing plans to get coffee or meet up later on in the week. 

Steve felt honored that he had something, even if it was very little, to do with some of the vets breathing a little easier after his class. 

Steve doesn’t see Sam on his way out; Sam runs a group therapy session around that time so Steve typically misses him, but he does give a small wave to reception on his way out, and catches the next subway train back to his apartment.

He lets his mind wander just a bit, on the ride back to his apartment. There was a sinking feeling in Steve’s chest, a kind of finality that told him Bucky wasn’t going to be there when he got back.

Something had changed. Shifted. Steve had touched Bucky, and Bucky had disappeared...after freaking out about Steve mentioning the asset, and when he said stand down. He didn’t have a link between those phrases yet, but Steve knew he wasn’t going to be able to stop obsessing until he knew everything. 

His mind kept going over what Natasha had talked about. Hydra having a human weapon. The asset. Someone that was highly trained and dangerous...why did that concept spook Bucky so thoroughly? 

And what happened when Bucky couldn’t see him? Was it a flashback, or something else entirely? 

When Steve blinks himself out of the maze of questions floating around his mind, he finds himself halfway up the stairs to his apartment with little memory of how he got there--he’d tuned out so completely. 

He trudges up the last few steps and unlocks his apartment, stepping inside to feel it’s emptiness encompass him once again. He knew, without calling out for him, that Bucky still wasn’t here. 

Steve had to face the possibility that Bucky had...moved on. Maybe he’d completed whatever was holding him back from the afterlife and had moved on, across the veil or--wherever. Somewhere lovely, maybe.

 Steve may never see him again.

Steve hangs up his coat and kicks off his shoes with stiff, robotic movements. He drops his bag by the door and locks it again behind him with a swift flick of his wrist, that feels final. 

The sound of the lock clicking into place echoes in a deafening way throughout the hallways of the newly-silent house.

There is no life in the walls, no hint of promise in the air. The apartment is lonely in a way it hadn’t been when Bucky was around, even before Steve realized he was there. 

There is an unsafe element to the place, now. It feels unfamiliar, like he’s suddenly living in a stranger’s home, or a hotel. There is an alien quality to the place that makes Steve bones shudder with the loss of the magic that had once been. 

He might never see Bucky again. 

Steve finds his sketchbook and sinks down into the couch, ignoring all responsibility in favor of tracing the lines on the paper with his finger, the curve of Bucky’s brow and the hair falling a little into his face. 

The sketch wasn’t finished, and Steve drew desperately, wanting to make sure he didn’t miss any detail, didn’t forget anything about Bucky’s face. His hand was quick against the page, trying to get everything down on paper before it slipped through his fingers like mist, like water--

Like Bucky had slipped away. 

Steve closed his eyes and pressed his forehead against the paper, as if he could manifest Bucky into being again just by recalling the sensation of skin against skin, Bucky’s warm scent filling Steve’s nostrils. 

There was something so still and so safe about that moment, the wonder and the hope that had rushed through Steve’s veins had been like opening up a brand new set of paints on a new canvas, like taking a breath of fresh autumn air, or kissing a lover for the first time--

No. Steve had to stop. He was making them out to be something greater than they were--they hardly knew each other. 

If Steve had felt anything towards Bucky, it was misguided and misplaced affection simply because Bucky was mysterious and attractive, and Steve had a type. 

It may not have been love. Steve had never been in love before, so he couldn’t tell if the fluttering feeling in his chest was love or fear of losing someone. He didn’t know if they were the same. 

What he did know, is that his heart was lonely, the other half of it not in this room, not in this apartment. This loneliness was something Steve wasn’t used to, he hadn’t been walking through his whole life feeling this way, and he certainly didn’t feel it when Bucky was around. 

Now, though, in the quiet space of his apartment, Steve’s soul called out for it’s other half to an unforgiving sky. He felt incomplete.

Steve pulls away from the sketch and places the book gingerly on his night stand, pulling the covers up to his chin and staring out the window at the New York nightlife. 

“Miss you,” He told the moon, and closed his eyes in preparation of an undoubtedly sleepless night. 

------------------------

For the next week and three days, Steve was hollow. 

He got up, he went to work, he came home, worked on a few commissions, ate some bland excuse for dinner, and fell into bed. Wash, rinse, repeat. 

The days where he didn’t have classes were unbearable. He took long baths that left his skin red and splotchy, he painted without passion, he drowned himself in his work.

The apartment was an unfamiliar and empty place, and he dreaded the silence. 

He keeps the radio on constantly and has to turn it up loud enough that it drowns out any time there is a creak in the hardwood or a rattling window. It kept giving him false hope that Bucky was back. 

But Steve was pretty sure that wherever Bucky had gone, he wasn’t coming back. 

On the tenth day, as he’s coming home from work, Steve hesitates with his fingers on the door knob of his apartment, dread filling his stomach at the thought of stepping into the silence. 

Instead, he takes a few steps across the hall, and after a little hesitation, knocks on Peggy’s door.

She answers after a few minutes; probably the time it took her to make it to the door. She looks surprised, but pleasantly so. Her white hair is, as it is anytime Steve has seen her, done in neat pin-curls against her lovely face. She gives him a kind smile. 

“Steven,” She greets him, her lilted accent making everything she said sound more interesting than it had any right to be. She blinks her lovely eyes at him. “Is everything okay? You look flustered, dear.” 

“It’s not okay,” Steve murmurs, feeling his eyes suddenly burning with tears that he struggles to fight back. “Ma’am, if you have the time to spare, I’d like to talk; I have some questions about James. May I come in?” 

--------

Peggy pushes the coffee cup towards him with her gentle fingers, shaking her head slowly. 

“No, dear I’m sorry. I’m not sure why those phrases would upset him so much.” She takes a sip of her tea and takes a seat across from him at her modest dining room table. “You said it was stand down, and asset, correct?”

“That’s right,” Steve nods enthusiastically, praying to whatever silent God there was that Peggy would have something that would help him figure out more about Bucky, about where he’d gone, or something that would explain the strange ways he was acting in the moments before he disappeared. He couldn’t just let the questions sit--the curiosity was going to eat him alive

“Once I said those words, he completely changed. It was like he became a stranger. His face got all blank and he wouldn’t speak to me, or blink, or do anything. He wasn’t himself.”  

Peggy sighed helplessly, letting her frail shoulders rise and fall. “I can’t think of any reason why he’d get so upset about that. I’m not sure why a few words would have such a strong effect on him.” 

Steve’s hope started to falter--Peggy looked just as confused as he felt. “It was like he became a robot that was programmed, like he was just standing there waiting to be made useful,” the words rush out of Steve’s mouth before he can even think about them, and once he says it he realizes how true it was. 

Bucky looked like he was waiting for something to happen, for someone to give him directions. Like a soldier in a war. “We were also talking about Hydra--I’m not sure if that helps. But it’s not the first time he’s had a reaction to hydra coming up in...conversation.” 

Peggy didn’t know that Steve was friends with the Avengers, and probably thought it strange that he’d been talking about Hydra more than once, but she didn’t ask him about it, just purses her lips thoughtfully. 

To be polite, Steve takes a small sip of the coffee she made for him. It’s good, if a little strong, and he appreciates the warmth it sends through his body.

“Well I certainly understand his aversion to Hydra,” Peggy tsked. “Perhaps it has something to do with that.” She arched a brow in consideration, her mind obviously racing back to the years before. 

This peaked Steve’s interested immediately. He leaned forward in his chair, intrigued. “Why would he have something against Hydra? Besides the obvious, uh, Nazi thing.” He cleared his throat. 

Peggy purses her lips, shaking her head regretfully. “James didn’t have the easiest time in the war. Quite the opposite, really. He was so talented, Steven. The best sniper I’ve ever seen--an excellent shot. But his battalion ended up in a bad place with Hydra.” 

Her eyes flicked up to his for a moment, and Steve read the sadness there. Sadness, and guilt. Her lovely face look so weathered, then, in ways Steve hadn’t noticed it being before. It’s easy to forget, in the presence of Peggy Carter, that you are sitting with an angel of war.

Steve can picture Peggy in her day, always put neatly together with pin curls and red lipstick, getting asked out constantly by soldiers who undoubtedly underestimated her position, only to be saved by her smarts and strategies alone. Steve can see her smug smile, the roll of her eyes. A powerhouse. A strong hold. 

“I know Hydra was active during the Second War,” Steve supplied. “And I know they’ve been lurking in the shadows for the past couple years again, trying to reorganize. But I’m not too versed in the details.”

Peggy fidgeted her fingers together, and let the silence sit for a moment, before she replied. “Hydra captured the 107th--Jame’s battalion--and had them imprisoned. It was too dangerous to get them out, since Hydra’s base was so well fortified and...it was deep into enemy territory.” 

She tucked a strand of white hair behind her ear delicately. “We didn’t have any other options.” The way she said that made it sound as though she were quoting someone. Perhaps Peggy had fought hard for the army to do something to save the 107th, only to be told there was nothing that could be done, they were lost souls.

Steve’s heart panged in sympathy, the horrors of the reality of the war hitting him. His cheerful, sprightly Bucky had suffered...a lot. He’d presumably lost friends, family, and definitely hope in the war. Then he died before the war was over and didn’t get peace, was just brought to his old apartment to sit and watch the world go ‘round, voiceless and alone. 

“We all prayed, though, for some kind of miracle, and a few days later the 107th came marching into camp, bruised and bloodied and starving....but alive.” 

“How did they get out?” 

“The men who came back said James created a distraction large enough to let them overpower a few guards and get away, helping each other and taking out a few Hydra soldiers on the way, though not able to get them all.” Peggy explained softly, her voice sad and quiet. “James...James wasn’t with them when they returned. He h-hadn’t made it out.” Peggy’s lip trembled a little, and Steve could see that the years between then and now hadn’t done much to heal the pain the war had caused.

He reaches out, and takes one of her cool hands into his. “Tell me?” he pleads softly, his eyes searching hers for answers. “Please, Peggy” 

“Hydra had him for three weeks.” Peggy sniffled, her free hand wiping angrily at her tears in the same fashion Bucky had when he’d let Steve see his vulnerable side. “He finally made it out after three weeks, no thanks to anyone but himself, including me. I did nothing for him.” She shakes her head. 

“I’m sure your hands were tied,” Steve soothed, his thumb sweeping comfortable patterns along the back of her hand. “Peggy, what did Hydra do to him?” 

“...He wouldn’t say.” There is something in the way she hesitates that makes Steve thinks there is something she isn’t telling him. 

“But you noticed things,” he prompts, trying to read her. “He was different, when he came back. He’d changed.” 

“Well of course he was different,” She laughs incredulously, but her fingers grip his. “He didn’t speak a word about what they did to him, but his arms were covered in needle marks, and he was faster than he’d ever been before. He healed quicker, he was a better shot. He was stronger. He nearly lifted a car off a man!” She exclaims, and then laughed again. “Oh, Lord--you must think I’m even crazier now than before.” 

“No!” Steve reassures her, holding her hand tightly. He drank up the information, storing it away for later. “No, Ma’am, this is all very, very helpful. Thank you.” he nodded eagerly. “So you think they experimented on him?” 

Steve knew a little bit about the military race in the 40s to create a new breed of ‘super soldier’ but every historically documented example of the trials failed, with no survivors. 

Now that Steve considered it, it only made sense that Hydra at the time was trying to cook up their own concoction of super soldier. He just never would’ve thought the Nazi organization would be the ones to do it successfully. 

“Super soldier trials weren’t unheard of,” Peggy nodded slowly, confirming Steve’s thoughts. “The US had even tried it, with no success. But, I...I think Hydra may have really done something to James.” her eyes flicked up to his, searching his face for judgement or disbelief, but Steve kept his face open and earnest, deeply interested in what she had to say. “There’s no way they didn’t, truthfully.” 

“I think they enhanced him in some way, Steven. He was shot in the leg not longer after coming back from being captive and he was walking normally in a few hours. He was completely healed in days, Steve. Days, not weeks. He never got an infection, after that, he never got sick. The cold didn’t bother him nearly as much as it did everyone else. It just...wasn’t normal. Maybe other people didn’t notice, but I knew James well. I saw. I saw.

“But he never talked about it.” Steve recalls, frowning. He taps his fingers against the porcelain mug. “I wonder why…” 

Peggy shook her head. “Whatever they did to him, it gave him nightmares. He’d wake up yelling and screaming, begging them to let him go. He probably didn’t want to remember his time there anymore than he wanted to go back.” She whispers, her face distance, trapped somewhere many years ago when Bucky was alive and the war raged on. 

“They used him for their own gain,and they didn’t care what happened to him in the process. He was their lab-rat. The other men who came back said Bucky was kept separate from the rest of the battalion. They never saw him, but” She paused to hiccup a little sob, “But they heard him screaming.” 

“That explains his aversion to Hydra,” Steve agrees gently, nodding slowly. 

Some of the pieces were coming together, he was getting  more insight into Bucky’s mysterious reactions. It makes Steve’s stomach roll to think about Hydra doing things to Bucky that would make him scream, about their experiments on him being enough to haunt his nightmares. 

His charming, goofy Bucky had so much light in his eyes, he hinted nothing about the torture he’d endured. 

“Doesn’t explain the asset or the stand down reaction, though. I just don’t get it…” Steve lets out a long breath. “I’ve got some research to do, but this has been really helpful, Ma’am, thank you. I know it wasn’t easy, but I really appreciate it.” 

“It’s Peggy, darling. When you call me ma’am it makes me feel old,” She winks at him despite her sadness, and Steve sees the strength that must’ve gotten her through her worst days during the war, her ability to brush aside her hurting and focus on the task at hand. 

She smiles at him, all warm and maternal, and he’s just about to make an excuse to go home and start googling, when something on her TV catches Steve’s eye. 

“Times Square is a mess of debris after the Avengers launch an attack on Hydra-operated air crafts circling above New York in the early hours of this morning. Streets are closed as clean up and further investigation on the origin of the attack continues. CNN reporter Thomas O’Riely is on the scene. Thomas?”

Steve blanches at Peggy’s TV. His body floods with dread.

“Remote,” Steve says blankly. When Peggy doesn’t immediately answer, he gets to his feet, searching. “Peggy,” he snaps, “Where is your TV remote?”

“On the coffee table, dear, to the left,” She sounds worried, but Steve’s heart is racing too hard to comfort her now. 

He grabs the remote and turns up the volume with shaking fingers, his heart already sinking in his chest with despair. No, no, no--

“Thanks Susan. Here I am in Times Square at the scene of the attack. The aftermath is just unbelievable--we don’t know much, and as usual, the Avengers are staying tight-lipped on any leads they may have on the attack.” The camera pans wide to show crushed vehicles, smoke billowing out of buildings, and police and emergency vehicles barricading the area. “ Thanks to the Avengers, there were no civilian casualties.” 

Steve drops the remote, and sits down hard on the couch. No, he thinks, no, no, no. Let them be okay. He remembers Natasha’s bloody face the last time he saw her; if she wasn’t fully healed before going into this battle, she wouldn’t be performing at her best, she might have--

Civilian recorded footage shows a mysterious air-craft appearing out of seemingly nowhere, heading for the Avengers Tower, when the shooting began. When the aircrafts are brought down by Iron Man, around 20 foot soldiers take up arms against the Avengers, seemingly wounding Black Widow, whose condition is unknown at this time, as the Stark committee declined to comment.” 

“Dammit, Nat,” Steve curses, reaching for his phone. At the same time, his cell pings with a text.

Nat says: News clip is dramatic; if you’ve seen it just know that I’m fine. I was wearing Kevlar, I’m not an idiot. Talk later. 

Steve sighs audibly in relief, clutching his phone to his chest as his heart rate slows down at the news. She was fine. She was fine.  

Steve says: And everyone else? I’m assuming they’re all okay? 

Nat says: The kids are alright.

Steve rolls his eyes at the reference, but is relieved all the same.

Steve says: I’m coming over later, no excuses. 

Nat doesn’t reply, which Steve takes as compliance with his request. 

He turns back to the news segment, grateful he would get to see his friends tonight as well as spend a night away from the apartment that felt more hostile and unwelcoming than it ever did when a ghost lurked the halls. 

“Oh, dear,” Peggy murmurs. “That is truly terrible. New York is in such a state, these days.” She shakes her head in disapproval. “Thank god for those Avengers. We really could have used a bunch like that during the war.” 

“Yeah,” Steve murmurs, turning off the TV and standing. “Thank god.” 

“James…I think he’ll come back.” Peggy says suddenly. “He never stays away for too long.” 

“He’s left before?” Steve blanks. 

“Oh, yes. He’s disappeared before, sure. Only for a few days at a time, a couple weeks at most. Then he comes back, with no recollection of where he’d gone or what he’d done.” She shrugs her shoulders helplessly. “It happened a few times while I was living there.” 

Steve tried not to let the hope become too strong. He hadn’t told Peggy the full story, that he’d been able to touch and smell and feel Bucky, hear his heartbeat. It was different, it had to be. 

“That’s good to know, Peggy. I hope--” He cuts himself off. He didn’t want to say out loud that he hoped Bucky would come back. He knew how selfish a desire that really was, since Bucky obviously wasn’t happy in the apartment. He was trapped and alone, Steve as his only company. No one would want that, Steve certainly wouldn’t. “I hope that wherever he is, he’s happy.” 

Peggy tilted her head in consideration, her sad eyes glittering with mystery and dry humor. “Now that is a lovely sentiment, isn’t it?” She murmurs, mostly to herself. “Lovely indeed.” 

Steve sees himself out, leaving Peggy there with her sad eyes and her lost expression. 

Perhaps she was trapped in the past, the horrors of war and of Hydra. 

Perhaps she was lost in thought, considering what hell Bucky may be in or what Heaven he may have gone to. 

Steve hoped it was the latter, but after his conversation with Peggy he also had a sneaking suspicion that Bucky might come back home, echoing in the back of his mind.

Steve wasn’t sure if it was because of the information he’d deducted from their talk, or the sense of hope it had given him, or the despair that tugged at his heart so strongly the only option was to believe that he would see Bucky again, but...Steve felt the promise of a return lurking in the background, and for now, he didn’t think about it too hard. 

He just clung to the idea that he’d open the apartment door one day soon, and Bucky would be standing there, waiting for him with his tipped head and a handsome smile playing at his lips. 

He closes Peggy’s door behind him and sags against it, breathing out a long sigh. His mind was full of possibility, of emotions. Besides Bucky there were his friends to worry about, friends he had to go see.

------------

When the Uber drops him off at the door of the Avengers tower, Steve sends a text to Natasha letting her know he was here. 

It wasn’t often Steve came to visit--he didn’t want to make himself too much of a familiar face around Tony Stark in case the guy started asking questions--but Nat did like having him in a high security facility where she had guns to protect him, should anything happen. 

Her words.

Nat says: Okay. Security is expecting you. Give your name to JARVIS once you get to the elevator and you should be good to go. 

Steve says: Thanks. Be up soon. 

He keeps his head down as he walks in, feeling the energy shift immediately as he’s through the doors. 

Everyone here was important; top of their class at Ivy League colleges, huge life goals, running around in fancy clothing with files containing top secret information or millions of dollars behind them. 

Steve was nobody here, and he felt it right to his core. 

He presses the arrow up for the elevator and steps inside. No one else tries to join him, but security does give him a once over and a nod, confirming that Nat had spoken to them about him coming up. 

As he’s in the elevator, his chest bristles a bit, goosebumps rising on his arms. He’d been feeling sluggish the past few days but had attributed it to being distraught about Bucky’s absence. 

However, now that he listened closer to the wheezing in his breath, Steve feared he was getting sick. His body just had great timing like that.

“Greetings, sir,” Jarvis’s voice welcomes him as the elevator begins to rise. “How are you today?” 

“Been worse,” Steve mutters, still not too used to the idea of a Big-Brother-esque robot that saw and knew all of the going ons in the Avengers tower. “Natasha’s floor, please.” 

“Right away, sir.” Jarvis agrees cheerily. “Just a quick retina scan to confirm your identity, then you’re on your way.” 

A laser blinks close to Steve’s eye and he flinches, but he must pass the test because the doors open onto Natasha’s floor just seconds later, giving him a bit of a headrush. 

Steve had only been here a handful times and the space is not overly familiar, but he does recognize the background from Natasha’s facetime calls. 

“Nat,” He murmurs, stepping out of the elevator. He peers around the corner. “Nat, you here?”

There in the not-so-modest living room, Nat twirled a knife absentmindedly, looking up sharply when she noticed him there, though Steve knew from experience that she was aware of his presence the minute the elevator was a few floors away from approaching--she had a sixth sense in that way. 

She’s still bruised in the same places she was when Steve saw her earlier in the week, but they were healing well, yellow-ish underneath with some new red bruising obviously a result of today’s scuffle. Other than that, she looks good. 

Good, but on-edge. Even in her seemingly relaxed posture, there was a tenseness about her, something in her shoulders that wouldn’t let go. 

Steve imagines it’s been a long day for them both. 

“Steve.” She nods in acknowledgement, the knife going still in her hands. “Any trouble getting in?” 

“None at all,” He tells her tiredly. He kicks off his shoes even though she rolls her eyes, and takes a seat on the couch beside her. After a once over, Steve decides she doesn’t look any worse for wear than when he last saw her. 

“You’re getting sick,” Nat points out, squinting her eyes at him. “You look terrible.” 

He decides to ignore that comment. “You look...alive.” He tells her flatly. 

“Gee, you really know how to make a gal blush.” She snorts, flipping her hair over her shoulder and sitting up taller on the couch, facing him a little more.  “You had to see it to believe it, hmm? You know, I am damn good at my job. You really shouldn’t worry as much as you do.” 

Steve suddenly gets angry, his blood going cold. “You didn’t see the news, did you?” 

“Why would I watch the news? I was there.” 

“It looked bad, Nat. They said you got hurt, they were saying--” Nat interrupts him but putting a hand over his. Her fingers and palms are smaller than Steve’s own artist's hands, but there is a strength to them that Steve doesn’t have. 

Her fingers are rough and calloused from years of fighting, her knuckles scarred from being cut open over and over again. 

 Steve grasps her fingers tightly, thumb running along her jagged knuckles, but the illusion that he could ever do anything to protect her from the danger she faced every day was just that--an illusion. All Steve could ever do is hope.

“I’m sorry,” Natasha apologized, her voice soft and sincere in a way it often wasn’t. “I know you worry about me. Us. It..” she pauses, trying to find the words. “It must have been scary, to see that without knowing the details.” 

“Yeah,” Steve snorts softly, eyes searching hers. “It was terrifying. I’ve got a frail heart, y’know. Better be careful or else you’ll send me to an early grave.” 

She offers him a small, sad smile. Steve seemed to be getting those a lot lately, from most everyone in his life. 

“You’re going to die when you’re good and ready,” She says forcefully, like saying it aloud would will it to be so. “You’re going to die when you’re old and stupidly fragile, peacefully, beside someone you love. That is the only ending I will accept for you, Rogers.” 

“So are you,” Steve whispers, and feels his eyes itching with tears, coming suddenly, because he knows it isn’t true for Nat, that a peaceful end likely wasn’t in the books for Sam or Clint, either. “You’re going to live a long life, right? Pass away when you’re wrinkly and smell like prunes?” 

She gives him that same sad, smile, and squeezes his hand tightly. “Yeah,” She lies smoothly. “Absolutely.” 

There is a pregnant pause between them, and then JARVIS cuts in. “Pardon the interruption,” He chimes, “But Mr. Stark has some footage he’d like Miss. Romanoff to review. It’s urgent.” 

“I’ve got company,” Nat complains, rolling her eyes. Steve wonders how many times a day JARVIS butts in with stuff of this nature. “It has to wait.” 

“Mr. Stark promised this could not wait.” JARVIS replies unhelpfully. “Code: Red 32.” 

Steve side eyes Natasha curiously, wanting to see whatever footage Stark deemed so important, and she succumbs. 

“I’m not going to make Steve leave the room,” Natasha warns the robot. 

“Steven Grant Rogers is not a security threat,” JARVIS counters. “He has clearance. It’s civilian footage. It is not confidential in nature.” 

Steve gets a little excited to be included in the spy-stuff that he normally was kept away from. He sits up a little taller, smirking in excitement. 

“Fine. Play the damn video.” She grumbles, giving Steve a warning glare that said don’t get used to this .

A holographic screen appears before them. 

“Civilian recorded footage captured imagery of the Winter Soldier, ma’am. Mr. Stark would like you to take a look at his face and see if it’s someone you recognize from your earlier days with Hydra,” JARVIS explains in a cheery tone, and then the clip plays. 

The Winter Soldier. Steve tucks that name away for later.

It’s only a 15 second clip, mostly of people screaming and running, and the camera is shaking, the footage mostly unclear. There is smoke and grunting of people fighting, and then the camera pans to the left, to show a man clad in all black, stalking towards the camera.

He’s got some kind of sniper in his hand, a long gun that Steve doesn’t have the expertise to identify, and a mask that covers the bottom half of his face, goggles that conceal his eyes. He’s got long brown hair that billows around him with the wind, falling above his shoulders, and.

A metal arm. 

Nothing of this man was mentioned in the short footage Steve had seen, but he looked like bad news--strong, and dangerous. He walked all too confidently and calmly amidst the chaos to be the good guy, and that paired with JARVIS’s hint about Hydra, Steve felt pretty comfortable assuming someone nick named the Winter Soldier wasn’t good news.

The clip shows a bullet pinging off the man’s goggles, shattering them. As the camera gets shakier, the clip ends with the mysterious “Winter Soldier” ripping off the goggles and lower mask in one, frustrated movement, cocking his gun and aiming at something beyond the camera. The clip ends on a closeup of the man’s face. JARVIS pauses the video there. 

His face, was... His eyes, that nose--his entire profile. Steve’s heart skipped. It reminded Steve of…

But no. That was impossible. Bucky was dead, a ghost. He’d lived in the 40s and now he was dead. 

This man, though. He looked an awful lot like his ghost. 

The image was blurry, difficult to make out, but Steve knew that sharp jawline--at least, the thought he did. The vacant, angry look in the man’s eyes was nothing like Bucky, and Steve knew he was being irrational. 

He was projecting, because he missed Bucky so much. He was searching for familiar faces in every stranger on the subway, and now in this video. 

“Это солдат.” Nat murmurs in Russian, voice slow and surprised. “Yes. Tell Tony I was right. It’s him.” 

“Very good, ma’am. I’ll let Mr. Stark know.” 

The screen disappears. JARVIS does not say anything else.

Steve forces thoughts of Bucky out of his mind. “Nat,” He begins. “Who was that?” 

Nat shakes her head. “Steve, you know I can’t answer that. You--you shouldn’t even have seen that. I’m getting sloppy about keeping things from you, and it’s not okay.” 

“You don’t have to protect me,” Steve murmurs defensively, folding his arms over his chest. “I’m not a child.” 

“No,” Nat agees. “You’re not. But you are a civilian. You aren't ...one of us, Steve. You’re good. Innocent. You shouldn’t be dragged into all of this.” 

“No one is dragging me into anything. I chose to be your friend, and I’m still choosing that, now. Please, Nat, explain to me who he was,” because he looks so familiar. “I want to understand.”  

She pressed her lips together and watched him uneasily. 

“I’ve seen the clip. If you don’t tell me, I’ll ask Clint. If he won’t tell me, I’ll ask Sam, and if no one gives me a straight answer, then I’m going to google the winter soldier . And I’ll end up on the dark web or something, probably, and then Hydra will see my internet history and track me down and kill me.” he smiles sweetly, batting his lashes. “Plus, you know, I’ll keep my mouth shut.”

“I’m not going to go into details, but the Winter Soldier is the human weapon that I was worried about last week. Hydra’s project.” She explains tiredly, too exhausted to argue with Steve any more.  

“He isn’t new. They've had him for awhile, but he’s good at what he does, stays underground or something until he’s needed to complete a mission. Then he disappears again.” She breathes out slowly. “We’ve been tracking his killings for a while, but we’ve only recently put together that it was actually him we’ve been searching for, not multiple assassins. He’s a hard man to find.” 

“Like a ghost,” Steve supplies softly, almost without meaning to. 

“Except he’s not a ghost, he’s a highly trained, highly dangerous assassin, brainwashed to be exactly what hydra wants; someone who won’t question morality or orders, will just do as they're told and do it right.” 

“And now he’s after you.” 

“Me and the Avengers,” Natasha corrects. “Yeah.” 

“Why did JARVIS want you to ID him? Do you know him or something?” 

“Yeah,” She breathes, her eyes not blinking. Steve could see her mind going a hundred miles an hour. He twirls the knife in her fingers, staring at it. “We called him Sasha, but I’m sure that was an alias. He trained me, when. When I started with Hydra. Hell--he taught me most of what I know,” she shakes her head slowly, her hand coming up to brush her hair out of her face slowly. “It’s really him.” 

“That would make him, like, old, right? You started with Hydra when you were just a kid.” Steve didn’t know a lot about Nat’s history with Hydra--she didn’t like speaking about it and Steve didn’t mind her avoiding the topic, he knew it was a sore spot. “How is that possible? He looks like he’s in his late twenties.” 

She swallows. “I’m not sure. But that’s him. His fighting style, his voice--his face. Everything about him...it’s Sasha. I was pretty sure it was him when he started shooting at me, something about him just seemed so familiar, but. In the heat of the battle it’s hard recall the past.” She shrugs softly. “But yeah. That’s him.”  

“You should probably tell Stark,” Steve suggests helpfully, getting to his feet. He knew she had important work to do, and that he would only get in the way and distract her from it. If this guy really was raging around New York, Steve wasn’t going to be the person that delays him getting caught.

“I’m sure you’re going to be pretty busy getting to the bottom of who this guy is, right? If he’s that dangerous?” 

She looks over apologetically at him, as if remembering he was really there. “Yeah. I’m sorry we couldn’t hangout longer.” 

Steve shrugs with an impish smile, not blaming her in the slightest. If anything, he was glad to be out of the house, even if it was only for a short while. “You’re a busy gal, Natasha Romanoff. I’ll take whatever time I can get.” 

She doesn’t smile. “This guy, Steve, he’s in New York. So just be careful, don’t get caught alone in the dark. Even I wouldn’t want to be alone at night with Sasha on the lose. He’s unhinged.”  

That thought sent a shiver down his spine. Steve would be a good target for the Winter Soldier, if he wanted to lure in the Avengers. Steve was weak and unprotected, he’d be useful leverage. He’d be easy to control, hardly anyone would even notice he was missing, save for maybe Peggy and of course, his Avenger friends.

“Yeah, I’ll keep my mace on me,” Steve jokes, though truthfully he was a little worried. 

She gives him a small, grateful smile and sees him to the elevator doors, making him promise to text as soon as he got home. 

With that, the doors shut and Steve is alone with his thoughts. 


 

Chapter Text

" Say nighty-night and kiss me
Just hold me tight and tell me you'll miss me
While I'm alone and blue as can be
Dream a little dream of me, yeah

 

Stars fading but I linger on dear
Still craving your kiss
I'm longin' to linger till dawn dear
Just saying this, yes"

 

- "Dream a Little Dream of Me", Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong 


The video haunted his memory the whole walk from the subway back to his apartment. He opted out of a taxi--being with a lot of people seemed safer, and the bite of the cold air against his lungs made him feel more focused. 

Steve swallowed as he walked, staring at his running shoes against the pavement. The man--the Winter Soldier--had Bucky’s face. 

And yet, despite the physical similarities, they looked nothing alike, really. Bucky’s face had always been warm and open, his eyes never had the blankness of the Soldier’s. The coldness. 

Except that wasn’t true, was it? 

Steve had seen that scary blankness in Bucky’s eyes before, when Steve mentioned Hydra. When he’d said the words stand down. 

His heart panged in his chest, but the connection seemed much too bizarre to draw. 

It was a coincidence, all of it, and Steve was just projecting. That is what his friends would tell him, if he told them the truth about his ghost. 

He wanted to see Bucky, wanted some assurance that he hadn’t really left him, but Bucky was gone, and Steve was delusional. The Winter Soldier had nothing to do with his ghost, and had no place in his aching heart. That space was reserved for Bucky alone, and Steve didn’t know when it would start to feel easier.

The cold air nipped at Steve’s fingertips and nose, rattled his lungs and made him wrap his arms around himself protectively. 

In his haste, he hadn’t dressed for the weather, and that combined with his erratic sleeping patterns and eating habits had definitely taken a toll on his body. 

Steve was getting sick. 

Climbing the stairs to his apartment was rough. He had to stop several times to breath in deeply from his inhaler, and had worked up a light sweat from the exertion. By the time he gets to his floor, he’s wheezing.

He fumbles for his key, fingers clumsy from the cold air. The feeling of dread washes over him as it had the past few days, knowing the apartment was empty without Bucky. He unlocks the door and steps inside, snapping the lock promptly shut behind him. 

“Goddamn lungs,” He wheezes to himself, shucking off his coat and boots and wrapping his arms around himself. 

He heads straight for the kitchen to put on an herbal tea, hoping to soothe his sore throat before it got too bad, when he turns the corner and sees the kettle is already on, flicked to life and beginning to bubble.

Steve’s heart drops, fluttering with excitement. 

“No way,” he mutters, spinning around on himself. He didn’t want to let himself believe it for even a moment, afraid that the disappointment of knowing Bucky wasn’t home yet again would cause his bones to ache. “Bucky? Is that you?” 

Steve blinks around the room, searching desperately for any semblance of the man. When he blinks again, Bucky is there, leaning against the counter beside the tea pot, hands shoved into the pockets of his dark green trousers. 

“Hey, Ace,” he greets casually, with a smile. “Miss me?” 

“Buck,” Steve breathes. Steve’s jaw nearly hit the floor. He’s stuck somewhere between wanting to hug Bucky tightly or punch him in his stupid, handsome face. 

Since Bucky is a ghost, however, Steve knows neither will have a satisfying result. He settles for throwing his hands up in the air in exasperation and stomping his foot like a child throwing a tantrum. 

“Where the hell have you been!” Steve demands incredulously. His voice is beginning to sound more nasally--proof that his cold was coming with a vengeance. “I’ve been worried sick, you know. I thought you were gone for good, and--and some weird shit happened before you just vanished! Really weird! Can we t- talk about that, or something?” Steve yells, eyes wide as he glares at Bucky. 

Bucky is quiet for a moment. Then his eyes rake up and down Steve’s body, slowly, almost sensually, hungry to drink up every last detail before landing again on Steve’s face, his eyes going soft and fond. 

Steve really didn’t know what to do with himself when Bucky looked at him like that. It made him feel strange--kind of powerful, really. It didn’t seem right for someone who looked like Bucky to be making those eyes at someone who looked like Steve, dead or not. 

Steve’s stomach flipped and twirled, preening at the attention, but Steve’s head told his stomach to chill out, because remember, we’re angry.

Bucky hesitates. “...You were worried about me?” 

Yep, that works splendidly to bring Steve’s anger back. “ That’s the only part of that whole thing you pick up on?” Steve scoffs, folding his arms over his chest tightly, partly out of anger, partly because he was freezing. 

“Where the hell have you been, Bucky? I deserve an explanation. Yeah, I was worried. And I was scared for you. And I didn’t know if I would ever see you again.” Steve nearly feels tears sting behind his eyes but he forces them back. He was dizzy and deliriously angry and hurt and happy all at once, and he could feel his fever climbing, even as he shivered. 

“Hey,” Bucky says gently, “Hey, I’m sorry for scarin’ you. S’okay, though, doll. I’m here now. I’m back.” 

Steve bites down on his bottom lip to keep it from trembling and folds his arms over his chest. “ Where did you go.” he repeats stubbornly, fighting off tears. “I promised you I wouldn’t leave--and, and you shouldn’t get to leave either.” 

Bucky inhales and exhales slowly. He shifts. “I know you’re not going to be satisfied with the answer, but. It’s the truth,” he begins gently, easing Steve into whatever information he was about to spill. 

Steve says nothing, just arches his brow and waits for more.

“I don’t remember,” Bucky confesses, finally. “I...I remember touching you. Really touching you, and feeling you--and God, that was like Heaven. Only Heaven I’ve ever known,” Bucky pauses to look at Steve again, and Steve feels something in him break. 

Buck continues, “and then I was somewhere else. Somewhere with bright lights, like I was lying on an...an operating table? I was calling for you, but you were gone. Next thing I know, I’m back here.” He purses his lips, watching Steve’s reaction closely. “How long have I been gone?” 

“Eleven days.” Feels like forever.

Bucky snorts without humor. “Well, I guess I can’t complain about eleven days. Sometimes I lose weeks at a time. No memory of where I go.” 

“Peggy mentioned it happening before,” Steve murmurs, not wanting to dwell on the idea of Bucky disappearing for weeks at a time. “But you never remember what happens?”

“Never,” Bucky admits softly. “But...being able to touch you. That’s never happened before. Not since I died.” Bucky wets his lips, watching Steve very intensely. “That was real, right? You could...feel me, too?” 

“It was real.” Steve whispers, being sucked back into that moment. “I felt you.” 

He had felt Bucky’s chest against his, the feeling of safety and security that came with being tucked so closely together, like nothing else in the world could touch them. Bucky’s smell, strong and earthy, the look of wonder in his eyes--

“I don’t know what’s happening to me,” Bucky says quietly, walking towards Steve with slow, deliberate steps. “But those few moments, where I felt real, where you touched me, and I touched you…” 

Bucky is standing as close to Steve now as he was in that moment, only there is cold air and a feeling of emptiness where Bucky stands, not the full-warm solidness that Steve remembered from those few fleeting seconds. 

“Sweetheart, that...that was the most human I’ve felt in 80 years.” 

Steve looks up at Bucky through his lashes, through the fog of his fever and oncoming cold. The air was charged with something, an electric current that made both of them do nothing but stay quiet, watching the other and waiting for...for something, Steve didn’t know what, exactly. 

He was pretty sure they’d talked about Bucky and his pet names, about how things between them were getting too weird and too real and it was making Steve scared. He didn’t want to have his heartbroken, and he certainly didn’t want to fall in love with a ghost. 

But he can’t be mad, and he’s not smart enough to remind Bucky to stop. Right now, the terms of endearment fill Steve up with warmth and comfort. Bucky was home. He would stay with Steve. 

“Buck,” Steve whispers, unsure what he could even say to that. Part of him wants to sob me, too, because although Steve was alive, he still felt the same. Those few moments with Bucky’s hands on him were the most alive Steve’s ever felt. The most powerful. 

But confessing those things out loud would make their situation even more complicated than it already was, so they just stare at each other, both hiding deep secrets in their eyes and in their hearts. The traffic buzzes by outside, the wind howls at the windows.

Bucky is the first to speak, breaking the tension and giving Steve a small, apologetic smile. “I’m sorry I made you worry. I put the kettle on. Figured it looked cold outside, thought you might want some tea.” 

Steve steps back from Bucky, needing the space to be able to think properly. Trying to organize thoughts while standing that close to a handsome 6’4 soldier with pale blue eyes--even a dead one--made coherence nearly impossible. 

“It’s freezing outside,” Steve agrees, heading for the kettle and grabbing a mug. He could feign normalcy if it meant keeping Bucky around. “Thanks, Buck,” he sniffles.

“Oh, Steve. Listen to you. You’re getting sick, ain’t ya?” 

“Just a little head cold, I’ll be alright.”

Bucky squints at him in clear disapproval, watching like a hawk as Steve prepares himself a tea, pouring the hot water into his mug and adding some honey.

“You should go to bed and get some rest.” Bucky scolds, albeit gently. “You’re obviously exhausted.” 

They had so much to talk about--Steve had so many questions that he craved answers to, he wanted to know why Bucky disappeared, where he went and why he had no memories of anything from his time away. 

He also couldn’t shake that video footage of the Winter Soldier, his face looked so similar and yet so different from Bucky’s. 

Something about it resonated deep in Steve’s bones and he couldn’t shake it. Everytime he closed his eyes, the image was waiting for him behind his eyelids.

Sasha, Natasha had called him, but that name meant nothing to Steve, and he’d still have yet to find out if it meant anything to Bucky. 

For now, though, Steve supposed it would be nice to enjoy Bucky’s presence, be grateful for his return, and get ahead of his cold before it turned into something nastier. 

“Haven’t been sleeping well,” Steve admits quietly, lifting the cup to his lips and taking a small sip. The honey in it helped soothe his throat and the tea warmed his belly. “I think you’re right. Bedtime for me,” he yawns. “Coming?” 

Bucky snorts but follows behind Steve obligingly as he heads for the bedroom. It wasn’t late enough for bed, really, but he was exhausted and he knew his body needed the rest, Bucky was right. 

“Why haven’t you been sleeping well?” Bucky asks, though Steve suspects he already knows the answer.

He peels back the sheets on his bed and slide his legs under the covers, sitting up against the wall of his bed and watching Bucky with an even gaze as he takes a seat at the edge of Steve’s bed. He takes another long sip of tea.

“Because I was worried about you.” Steve says honestly. “I didn’t know where you were--you sounded scared when you were calling for me, Buck. Really scared. And you went all...blank eyed. Like you weren’t even the same person. And then you disappeared, and--” Steve has to stop to cough midway through, but waves a hand at Bucky when he stands to find Steve’s inhaler. 

“M’fine, I’m okay.” He takes a steadying breath, and continues. He has to blink through the fogginess in his head and work had to keep his thoughts coherent. 

“I didn’t know where you were, I d-didn’t know if you were okay, or scared, or if you were ever going to come back.” Steve finishes, taking a sip of his tea mostly to keep from coughing again.

Bucky looks guilty, which Steve wished he wouldn’t do. It’s not his fault, Steve is sure of it. Bucky didn’t want to go, Steve could tell that much. 

He just didn’t know if he was getting the full story; it was hard to gage. He’d only known Bucky for a couple of weeks, and Bucky didn’t remember a lot of his own past before dying. 

“M’sorry, Ace. I can’t control when I go, or for how long, and...I don’t remember anythin’ about it. I remember the lights, and some voices,” Bucky squints, obviously trying to remember. “Uh, speaking Russian, I think. But I don’t remember what they were saying. And then I was here again. Just got back ‘bout ten minutes before you came home. If I could stay, you should know I’d never willingly leave you.”

Steve pursed his lips thoughtfully. That promise means more to Steve than it had any right to. 

He wanted to help Bucky figure out where he kept disappearing to--maybe it had something to do with why he had those weird blank reactions, or why he was even haunting the apartment in the first place. 

Steve is about to tell Bucky exactly that, when he gets suddenly dizzy and foggy, his mind going hazy. 

“Whoa, there,” Bucky mutters, waving his hand. 

The mug Steve had been clutching gently dislodges itself from his fingers and sets down carefully on Steve’s night table with Bucky’s guidance. Bucky holds his hand against Steve’s head, but of course, Steve doesn’t feel his touch, just the cool air of it, and the relief it provides against the burning heat of his fever.

“Feels nice,” Steve tells Bucky, leaning his head into the not-there touch and sinking down further into bed.

“You’re burning up,” Bucky frets, but he keeps his hand there. “You doin’ okay, Stevie?” 

“S’hot in here, you know? Can you just--can you lay with me? I know...I know I can’t feel you but. You’re cold. It feels good,” Steve pleads, looking up at Bucky through lashes that were damp from his watering eyes. “P-Please?” 

A part of him hated how desperate and vulnerable he sounded, a nagging voice in the back of his head telling him he was being too needy. But the voice was small in comparison to Steve’s desire to be cared for, especially by Bucky.

It was unusual for him, to let someone fuss over him, take care of him like this. He didn’t usually crave the affection as much as he was now. But something about Bucky’s presence and his deep honey-voice made Steve want him to stay forever. He didn’t mind letting Bucky see him vulnerable. 

Bucky looks like he’s about to refuse in favor of going to fix Steve another tea, or maybe something to eat, but he lets out a long sigh, and brushes his not-there fingers over Steve’s cheekbone, finally giving up with the pretense of busyness. 

“How can I say no to you when you’re lookin’ at me like that, kitten?” He murmurs softly. “S’impossible.”

Bucky looked at him like he was something special, something rare. Steve wasn’t used to it--he had never been looked at like that before. 

But he decided, in his feverish, foggy state, that he liked it very much.

“I like the way you look at me, Buck,” He tells Bucky sluggishly as Bucky settles in beside him. 

The bed doesn’t sag with Bucky’s weight, but Steve feels the cool air around him like a blissful blanket, bringing down the temperature of his burning skin. “Makes me feel like m’precious or somethin’.” 

Bucky looks so real, beside him. Steve’s got his face tucked in against his would-be chest, curled up so small in Bucky’s arms he feels like he could disappear into them. If he closes his eyes, he can pretend like he feels Bucky there, like he feels rather than senses Bucky’s lips in his hair, his hands soothing slow circles over Steve’s back. 

“You are precious,” Steve thinks he hears Bucky say--but it could’ve been his fever-induced haze and wishful thinking. It was impossible to say.

“Stay,” Steve pleads, curling up smaller, as if making himself fit into the shadow of Bucky’s embrace would keep him there, beside him, forever. 

Their little paradise, with no one to disturb them or rip Bucky away. No one to make that fear creep into Bucky’s voice. “Please.” 

“I’ll stay, sweetheart.” Bucky tells him. “Ain’t nowhere else I’d rather be. Now get some rest.” 

Steve hums, already being tugged into sleep by his exhausted body. 

Since Bucky left, sleep had been near impossible, too engrossed in worry of where Bucky was, if he was coming back. 

But the cool air of Bucky wrapped around Steve both kept his fever at bay and reassured him that Bucky was there. It would be a peaceful sleep tonight.

Stars shining bright above you,” Bucky begins to sing, his voice a slow, honey-sweet croon, right in Steve’s ear. “Night breezes seem to whisper ‘I love you’…” 

Steve wants to open his eyes, wants to see the way Bucky’s lips shape around each vowel and tune, wants to tell him that he likes the sound of Bucky’s voice, and--and don’t stop, Buck, it sounds so nice-- 

Birds singing in the Sycamore tree, dream a little dream of me…” Bucky sings, and with that, Steve is pulled away into a sleep filled with pleasant dreams and whispers of Bucky in every corner of his unconsciousness, as if Bucky had flittered into his head and willed it t so.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------

Steve wakes up slowly. 

At first, he notices he’s warm--really warm. Burning, really, a light sweat all over his body. 

The next thing he notices is that he’s not alone. 

When he blinks his eyes open, adjusting them against the morning sun, Steve sees that Bucky is sitting up in bed beside him, a cool hand hovering above Steve’s forehead. It feels nice. Steve leans into it.

“Morning, sunshine,” Bucky drawls, giving Steve a slow smile. The morning light does wonderful things for Bucky, highlighting the auburn tones in his hair and the playfulness in his eyes. It’s not a bad thing to wake up to, and Steve is incredibly aware of how much he’d like to wake up to the sight of Bucky every morning.

Steve blinks a few more times, and then pushes himself up into a sitting position beside Bucky. 

“You really stayed all night?” Steve asks incredulously, instead of greeting Bucky. 

“Yeah,” Bucky snorts, like it’s obvious. He looks down at Steve with fond blue eyes. “You asked me to, remember?” 

“I asked you in a fever-induced haze,” Steve points out matter-of-factly. “I would never actually expect you to sit here and...listen to me wheeze all night long. That must’ve been really boring.” 

Bucky shrugged softly. “Not at all. I, uh,” he looks away sheepishly. “I actually flipped through your sketchbook to pass the time. Hope you don’t mind.” 

Steve bristles at that. He did mind, actually, he minded quite a bit. 

That was essentially his diary. He drew uncensored in his sketchbook, it wasn’t meant for anyone elses eyes. 

Steve’s face gets hot as he thinks about a specific rendition of Bucky, where Steve had laid him out with charcoal on the page, large wings emanating from his back and a halo around his head, specific attention paid to a dark, anguished look in Bucky’s eyes and the hard lines of his muscles, littered in scars. 

It was some of Steve’s best work, he could admit, but he was mortified that Bucky had seen all that, and braced himself for the relentless teasing that was sure to follow. 

“You looked through my sketchbook? All night long? You saw...everything?” Steve gapes. He felt naked. 

“Don’t be mad. You’re…” Bucky shakes his head slowly, as if in awe. “Steve, you’re good. Like, really good. I don’t know shit about art,” He laughs dryly, “But damn, I mean. Some of these portraits look like they could jump off the page and start talkin’.” 

Steve blinks a few times, processing the situation. If anyone else had looking through his sketchbook, Steve would be furious. He’d be stropped naked in the cold, exposed in a brutal and unforgiving way. 

With Bucky, though, and especially with the way Bucky was looking at him now, it was hard to be angry. 

He felt as though Bucky had seem all of him, now. There were no secrets between them, there couldn’t be, after what Bucky had seen. 

Every ounce of Steve’s grief over his mother, every smile line on Natasha’s face that Steve was proud to have taken some responsibility for, every nightmare that Steve’s ever had about losing his friends...every angle of Bucky’s body, greedily digested through his eyes and spewed out again on paper.

Bucky knew his soul, now. There was no going back.

“Buck--I...” 

“Is that really how you see me?” Bucky cuts in abruptly, something desperate in his tone, almost afraid. 

He waves his fingers in a come closer gesture, and Steve’s sketchbook peels itself from Steve’s night table, floating over to the bed and landing on the space between them. 

Bucky flicks his fingers again, and leaves through the pages without even touching them, before landing on the sketch of himself and Bucky that Steve had been working on the night that Bucky had disappeared.

“Like this?” Bucky prompts, pointing to the page. 

Steve examines it. 

It was a pencil sketch of the two of them, the night they’d been dancing in Steve’s bedroom, Billie Holiday crooning on Steve’s phone. Only this time, they were actually touching, their bodies curled into one another as though they were an inseparable unit, as though it didn’t matter that Steve was alive and Bucky was not. 

On the paper was a world where Bucky could hold Steve for as long as he wanted. They could dance or hold hands, or sit together with their shoulders touching and eat dinner in front of the TV, and not talk about anything else except how good the mac’n’cheese is. 

They could just be, and things would be simple.

In a perfect world.

In the sketch, they’re staring intensely at each other, but Bucky’s got a playful smile tugging at his lips, the one that Steve loves so much. 

He looks exactly as handsome as he did every day, stiff shoulders and ripcord muscles, a few curls falling in his face to make him look just a little bit undone, undone enough so that you want to undo him more, just to see what he would look like…

The moonlight comes in through the window in the picture, but other than that there is no background. Steve is small compared to Bucky’s height and general bulk, but looks every bit like he belongs in Bucky’s arms, and nowhere else.

Steve gets a little lost in the memory of that night, the hovering, the just-barely-there lips, whispers of Bucky guiding him around his room, the serenity of the moon as their guardian, keeping watch with the stars. 

“Do you really see me...like that, Steve?” Bucky asks again, eyes searching Steve’s face, but for what, Steve didn’t know. 

Steve suddenly feels nervous--Bucky was hinting at something dangerous, an unspoken rule between them that they wouldn’t mention the lingering glances, the way Steve was so clearly enraptured by Bucky’s being. Or else, why would Steve have been so lost when he left? Why was Steve so full of peace when Bucky was around? 

Why did every thought he had, in one way or another, flitter back to his ghost? 

“You’re beautiful,” Steve croaks. He doesn’t want to answer any further. 

“Not that.” Bucky presses. His eyes search Steve’s face for something--but Steve didn’t know what he hoped to find. “You know what I mean.” 

Steve’s heart jumped. No--he didn’t want to talk about this, he wasn’t ready. 

The thing brewing between them was not ripe enough to bite from, was not mature enough to be prodded. It was a fragile, new thing, squirming deep in Steve’s chest and not yet fit for the world. 

“Bucky,” Steve pleads, wanting to end the conversation. He was sick, and tired, and so confused it hurt his fever-riddled head. 

“Is that how you see me?” Bucky says for a fourth time, his voice breaking. 

He didn’t want to talk about it. He would delay as long as he could. “What do you mean?” 

Bucky stares down at the sketch with soft, fearful eyes, then back up to Steve. “Like...someone worth dreaming about.” 

Steve swallows hard. Dreaming about Bucky? Yeah, he dreamt about Bucky all the time, in his sleep or otherwise. With eyes like that, with a body that couldn’t touch or be touched, dreaming was really all they had.

“If you could sleep--if you could dream,” Steve whispers, “Wouldn’t you dream about me?” 

Bucky looks up at him sharply, as if Steve had admitted something shocking, like Bucky didn’t already know how gone Steve was for him, how much he would have liked for Bucky to stay with him in the morning sun forever. 

Bucky wets his lips, staring at Steve’s own mouth, and then his eyes dart back up to Steve’s. 

Steve can feel it in the air between them, the tension, the breathlessness of it. The almost kiss, the desire. The bittersweet. 

“Yes,” Bucky admits, voice raw. “I would.” 

Steve curls his hands into fists and digs his nails into his palms to keep from doing something absurd, like yelling or kicking or begging Bucky to just find a way to kiss him. 

“Then you have your answer,” Steve says curtly, and kicks his legs out of bed, desperate for air. 

The moment between them was done, left at that.

“Steve--”

Steve coughs into his elbow, and the cough results in some pretty undignified and definitely unattractive wheezing. 

It’s an okay way to clear the tension. 

“Mm. Sorry ‘bout that. ‘Least I don’t need to worry about gettin’ you sick with all my germs,” he mumbles. He did feel like shit. 

Bucky lets out a long breath, getting to his feet. “Don’t apologize for being sick, punk. You do look like hell though, you know. You should take some medicine.” Steve is glad he’s decided to drop the subject for now.

“Yeah, I know.” Steve mutters, rolling his eyes. He could hardly care about his appearance now, but he did feel rather gross, the night of sweat and chills sticking to his skin.

“Alright,” Steve mutters, stretching out his limbs. “I need to shower. No peeking.” 

Bucky watches him sidelong. “No promises,” he winked playfully, and Steve turns his face away so that Bucky wouldn’t see his cheeks get red. 

They danced around each other in this way. 

_________________________________________________

Steve runs the water extra hot, and for extra long. 

He presses his face into the cool porcelain tile of the shower and thinks about calloused hands on his body, tight on his sharp hip bones, teeth and full lips nipping at his ear lobe, his neck, his shoulder.

That voice, deep in his ear and hungry for more, saying his name, praising him. Bucky, Steve wants to scream, his hand tight around himself as he desperately chases release. Bucky, Bucky, BuckyBuckyBuckyBucky--  no other word in his vocabulary mattered, there was only him, and Steve wishing he was everywhere, all over Steve, hands pressed against every inch of him.

“Mm-- Buck,” he whispers into his fist, unable to keep completely silent but praying desperately that the shower was loud enough to drown it out. He comes like that, body tensing and then sagging against the wall of the shower with an undignified wheeze, a dead mans name on his lips and caught in his throat. 

 _________________________________________________

After Steve gets out of the shower, makes breakfast and gets ready for work, Bucky stays rather silent, but he watches Steve with a hungry eye. 

________________________________________________

“Buck, I’m home,” Steve calls, dropping his bag at the door and locking it behind him. 

Work had been uneventful, but more peaceful than the last few days. He didn’t dread coming home anymore, which was a blessing. Even being sick as he was, he had a certain bounce in his step as he made his way to his apartment. 

He and Bucky weren’t on the smoothest of terms; the thing bubbling between them had left them both a little unsure of how to act around the other, but Steve could deal with a little tension, as long as Bucky stuck around.

He coughs a little into his sleeve and sniffles as he walks inside. The cold air had irritated his lungs and the stairs hadn’t helped. He was feeling breathless and a little lightheaded. When was the last time he’d eaten? 

“Buck?” He tries again, walking towards the living room where Bucky usually hung out. He peered around but saw nothing. “It’s me.”

When Bucky doesn’t answer, Steve’s heart drops. “Bucky?” He says again, louder, looking around the living room and trying to sense the space...but the air was warm. “Buck, where are you?” 

No answer. Panic floods in Steve’s belly. 

“No,” Steve whispers, his heart in his throat. “Not again. Not again, Buck, where the hell are you--”

“Who the hell is Bucky?” Sam’s voice startles Steve so much he jumps about half a foot in the air and drops his travel mug on the floor, wheeling around to see him standing casually in the threshold between his kitchen and living room, arms folded over his chest. 

The panic makes his chest tighten, along with the worry about where Bucky was, and Steve lapses into another coughing fit, wheezing for air. The cold he’d been battling for the duration of the day wasn’t making it any easier to breathe. 

Dammit, fucking goddamn piece of shit lungs--

His chest is tight. It’s an asthma attack, a bad one--Steve gets lightheaded from the lack of sufficient oxygen, but his inhaler was in his work bag, zipped up neatly in the front pocket. 

It was all the way down the hall, now. Only a few feet, five or six at most, but it seemed an impossible distance away. 

“Sam,” Steve wheezes, bending over and support himself on his knees. “Inhaler. Bag. P-Please.” He coughs, eyes watering. His chest heaves and his throat burns. He needs to breathe. "Please."

Sam is already halfway down the hall when Steve’s inhaler appears before him, nudging itself closer by an invisible force, seemingly by its own will. 

But Steve knew better. 

Bucky.

Steve grabs the thing with shaking fingers, and inhales the medicine deeply, twice. Sagging back against the wall with relief as he is slowly able to breathe once again. Relief at being able to breathe, but mostly relief at knowing Bucky was still there. 

“You’re here,” Steve whispers, dizzy with the relief of knowing Bucky hadn’t disappeared again; he hadn’t answered because Sam was there. It made sense. Relief washed over Steve. “Thank you.” 

Sam comes back in with the bag. “It’s not in--” he stops, seeing Steve with the inhaler and looking more at peace. 

“Must’ve misplaced it,” Steve shrugs, getting heavily to his feet. He then turns to glare at him. “What the hell are you doing here? Since when did you start breaking into my apartment?” Steve couldn’t think of any reason for Sam to be sneaking around. Sam wasn’t at work today and it made Steve wonder how long he’d been there. 

He’s sure Bucky was probably equally as spooked, hearing someone enter the house that wasn’t Steve.

Sam looks sheepish. “I didn’t mean to scare you,” He admits quietly. “Sorry, man. My bad.” 

“Not mad, Sam, just worried. Confused.” He knew he locked the door before he left, but he’s not going to ask how he got in. Frankly, he doesn’t want to know, and he’s pretty sure a locked door is to Sam what a baby gate is to a teenager. “I’m not sure what this is about.” 

“I’m worried about you.” He says flatly, eyeing Steve up like he was trying to read Steve’s mind. “And so are Nat and Clint.” 

Steve’s eyebrows hike up. “I was at Nat’s place yesterday,” he argues. “She didn’t mention anything about it.” 

“She’s had a lot on her mind. But she is worried.” Sam continues. 

Steve could hardly believe this was happening. Sam broke into his apartment because he was worried about him? “Well, I’ve got a lot on my mind, too. What is this, some sort of intervention?”  

Sam’s hesitation is answer enough. “I’m just worried about you.” 

“What do you mean you’re worried about me? You’re the one running around fighting Russian spies who are trying their damndest to kill you.” Steve feels obligated to point out. “And I don’t see why you couldn’t just send me a text if you were really that worried. I don’t get what breaking into my apartment has to do with it.” 

Sam’s face is unreadable. “Steve--” 

“No,” Steve cuts him off, storming into the kitchen. “I’m not a child, and I don’t appreciate being treated like one, especially by my friends.” 

Sam follows behind him quietly, but doesn’t reply for a long time. He watches Steve sit down heavily in the dining room chair, and then takes a seat across from him without being invited.

“Who is Bucky, Steve?” Sam says softly, as though he’s afraid to set Steve off again. “You were calling for a ‘Bucky’ when you got home.” 

“I--”

“Don’t lie.” Sam says sharply, stepping closer to him. He’s wearing a deep frown, filled more with worry than anything else. 

Steve knows how he must look; pale and sickly, wheezing for air and calling out to an invisible person.

“Is this why you broke in?” Steve raises his eyebrows. Nat must have mentioned something about that broken mug incident the last time she was over. That felt like a lifetime ago. 

Steve had promised to tell her what was going on eventually, but the timing was never right. It didn’t feel right now, either. Sam’s eyes were distant, as though he was already expecting Steve to say something that would disappoint him. It wasn’t an expression Steve liked. 

“I wanted to make sure the place was safe,” Sam admitted finally. “I was worried that someone was giving you trouble. One of our enemies.” By that, Steve knew, Sam meant an enemy of the Avengers. They had a lot of enemies, and so far, it was a miracle that none of them had come after Steve. 

After all, he was the perfect target. Small, sickly, no powers, but of high value to all of the Avengers. He would be someone’s perfect ticket to revenge.

“It’s not that.” Steve says flatly.  He crosses his arms over his chest. He felt like he was being interrogated at the police station.

“Don’t make me say it,” Steve pleads, looking anywhere but at him. The stubborn set to Sam’s jaw worried him; he didn’t look like he was going to drop it anytime soon. “Let’s just forget about it.” 

“Please,” Sam begged, his features softening slightly. “Steve, I’m worried ‘bout you. I know you well enough to know that something is going on.” 

Steve eyes him, is heart rate picking up. If he does tell Sam, he risks being laughed at, being told to be real. He didn’t want to have his best friend laugh in his face, especially when the situation with Bucky was leaving him so broken hearted. “You have to promise not to think I’m crazy.” 

“I’m not going to think that--”

“Promise,” Steve interrupts. 

He wouldn’t take the chance. It’s the same thing he feared with Natasha; that she would think him insane or delusional or childish for believing in ghosts. 

“Please.” He prompts, when Sam doesn’t immediately answer. 

Sam takes a deep breath in, but holds up his hands in surrender. “Fine,” he agrees. “I promise.”

“Okay,” Steve walks into the living room, collapsing down heavily onto the couch. He crosses his legs under him, folding up small, as though doing so could protect him from the blows of what this conversation might do to their friendship. 

Bucky sits in the corner, watching Steve with an even expression. He nods his head once, as if giving Steve permission to tell his story. He looks a little uneasy as he does so, but not angry or afraid. Just uncertain. 

He was probably just as nervous to see Sam’s reaction. If it wasn’t a good one, it would affect Steve deeply. 

Steve breathes in and out deeply. “Okay, so. The thing is, I don’t live alone.” 

Sam’s eyebrows hike up. That was clearly not the answer he’d been expecting. “What?” 

“I have a...a roommate,” Steve murmurs. He keeps his voice soft, reasonable. “But he’s not alive.” 

Sam’s face falls. “Look, Steve. I know this is your first time living on your own, and the ghost stories you were talking about...It can get into your head. You hear a noise, you think it’s something more than it is--”

“I’m not crazy,” Steve cut in, but his voice sounds a little too desperate to be convincing. “I’m not crazy, Sam, and I don’t live alone.” His eyes dart to Bucky, whose eyebrows are pulled up with concern, but he gives Steve an encouraging nod. 

“There is a ghost that lives here, Sam, you have to believe me. He’s a man, a soldier, who died in the war. His name is Bucky and he’s my friend--” 

“Oh, Steve--”

“You said!” Steve cried incredulously. “You said you wouldn’t call me crazy--you promised you would try to believe me. Please, Sam, I wouldn’t lie about something like this. I’ll tell you everything, but not if you’re going to look at me like you want to throw me into a nut-house and lock the door.” 

Sam’s eyes searched his for a moment or two, and then he concedes, nodding. 

“Alright,” He agrees. He keeps his face passive and unreadable.  “Let’s talk.” 

Steve tells him. 

He tells Sam about Peggy, and her stories about the brave soldier she once knew. Steve tells him about Bucky falling from the train, and waking up here, about how Bucky looks real and sounds real and is kind, so kind that it hurts. 

He tells Sam about Bucky turning off the stove for him and saving him from falling and he even tells him about Junkie, which is when Sam’s face gets a little red with anger, although it gradually dissipates once he plows on with the story, not giving Sam time to get upset.

Steve tells him gently about Bucky disappearing for days at a time, and watches his face work to make sense of that, trying to draw a connection from what Steve had told him so far. 

Steve tells Sam about Bucky becoming solid for a few, fleeting seconds, before disappearing. 

He doesn’t tell Sam about his sketches, about slow dancing under the light of the Brooklyn moon, about the fluttering in his chest when Bucky calls him sweetheart, or doll, or Stevie. He felt that would only open up a line of questioning that Steve wasn’t ready to endure. 

Sam is quiet the entire time, not commenting on anything. 

When Steve is finished, he turns to him and takes a deep breath. 

“Okay,” he says. “That’s it.”

“Can I see him?” is Sam’s only reply. 

Bucky had disappeared to Steve once he’d started telling Sam his story; perhaps it was too painful to him to listen to Steve recount everything. 

Now, though, Bucky reappears. He’s standing plainly, his face a mix of pain and hope. Steve meets Bucky’s solomon gaze. 

“He’s standing right there, by the TV.” Steve tells him. Steve tries his best to ignore the pounding in his head, but it was getting louder. He felt like shit.

Sam turns to look, but his eyes scanned the room, coming up with nothing. He looks back at Steve suspiciously. 

“I’m the only one who can see him,” Steve tells him gently, coughing slightly. “Even Peggy said she couldn’t really see him when she lived here, and Buck said he’s never had someone seen him like I do.” 

There is a double meaning in those words, perhaps, but Steve doesn’t want to think about that right now. 

“You need to rest,” Bucky speaks for the first time since Steve started telling his story. “You’re sick, and you look it. You ain’t doing yourself any favors by talkin’ about this stuff.” 

Steve lets out a little breath and roll his eyes. Bucky could be such a mother hen. “I know. I’ll go rest soon. I’m fine for now.”  Work hadn’t been too exhausting, but it was more that he’d normally do if he was trying to get rid of a cold before it got the best of him and became something nastier, like pneumonia or an infection.

“What?” Sam squints at him, confused. “I didn’t say anything.” 

“I know,” Steve nods tiredly. He suddenly felt drained, and he just wanted to take some medicine and curl up in bed. “Bucky just told me that I need to go rest ‘cause I’m sick. He...worries ‘bout me a lot.” 

Sam’s expression doesn’t change; his poker face rivalling even Nat’s.  “I see.” He says finally. “So you’re the only one who can see and hear him?” 

“Sometimes other people can hear him,” Steve argued. “It depends. Nat...almost heard him, I think. Peggy can. I know how that sounds, but just watch. I’ll prove to you I’m not crazy. Buck, can you turn on the kettle?” 

“What am I, your butler?” Bucky scoffs, but with a lazy wave of his hand, the stove and kettle both flick to life. 

Sam clenches his jaw, eyes tracking the movement, but Steve can see he’s still skeptical. 

“Buck, help me out here.” Steve pleads, eyes wide. “Gotta prove to him I ain’t crazy.” 

Bucky heaves out a long, put-upon sigh, but as always, he obliges Steve. He walks in a circle around the coffee table, his footsteps deliberately heavy. He slams all the doors in the apartment, he gets a mug out of the cupboard and sets it down beside the kettle. He puts a teabag in it and takes out the honey, probably just as much putting on a show as making a point that Steve needed to take care of himself and get some sleep.

Sam watches all of this with the same blank expression. When the apartment quiets down again, with a serious face, he remarks, “So your ghost is Matilda?” 

Steve giggles at that, which turns into coughing, which results in Bucky cursing at him in one ear and Sam in the other, but he ignores them both in favor of catching his breath and wheezing until his coughs settled down enough to allow him a full breath.

“Go to bed,” Bucky grumbles unhappily. “You need sleep.” 

Steve ignores him. “So, do you believe me now?” 

“I believe you,” Sam says softly, and Steve lets out a long breath. “I believe you, Steve. But...I have more questions than answers. If ghosts were real...we’d have encountered them by now. The Avengers. We kill too many people who would want to come back and get their revenge on us for us to have never seen the…” He waves a hand, “ undead before.” 

“So you don’t believe me.” Steve says flatly. He hugs his knees into his chest and rests his chin on them. “I see.” 

“It’s not that,” He argues, shaking his head. “I believe you--you’re a terrible liar, and I just saw...uh, Bucky, do all that stuff. Hello, Bucky, by the way.” 

“Hi, bird boy.” Bucky says charmingly. Steve rolls his eyes. 

“He says hi.” 

Sam purses his lips. “I think there’s more going on here than a spirit haunting an apartment. There are just too many components. I need to look into it further.” 

Bucky frowned at Sam. “I think I’d know if I was something other than a ghost.” He protests, throwing his hands up in the air. “Look, we can debate later on what kind of monster I am. You need to take some meds and go to sleep.” 

“Stop fussin’ over me,” Steve grumbles under his breath. “We’re trying to help you.” 

“Has Bucky ever acted violently towards you?” Sam cut in. Steve is startled by the question, but Sam’s face is professionally blank. He’s asking the questions he needs to ask to allow him to sleep better at night. Steve knew he just wanted to make sure Steve was okay. 

Never,” Steve says sharply. “And he never would. I trust Bucky, with my life, Sam. I know he’d never hurt me.” 

“Not intentionally, maybe. But if he can move all of those objects easily, then he could also easily hurt you.” 

Bucky glares at Sam now. “Listen here, asshole--” Bucky begins, but of course, Sam can’t hear him, and Steve interrupts. 

“Sam,” he says, trying to stay patient. “I’m safe. Bucky would never, ever hurt me.” 

Sam looks skeptical, but after a few moments, he nods. “Okay. But I still think there’s more at play here.” He ponders for a moment, then speaks again.

“Bucky--” Sam addresses him directly, “What do you know about Hydra? You fought in the war, and that’s where Hydra had the strongest roots, since...since recently. Any information helps.” 

Steve had told Sam about Hydra kidnapping Bucky’s battalion during the war, but hadn’t detailed Hydra’s experiments--Peggy had told him that in confidence, and Steve didn’t feel it was necessary to share. Sam was smart, though, and Steve could see his gears grinding to connect the dots.

Bucky looks for a moment like he isn’t going to answer, but then he clenches his jaw tightly and blows air out of his nose. “They’re evil.” he says shortly. “That’s all I know.” 

“He said they’re evil,” Steve relays softly. “Look--he doesn’t like talking about Hydra, alright? And understandably so.” 

“Why understandably so?” Sam pries. Dammit, Steve had said too much and he wasn’t going to let it go. 

Even Bucky didn’t know that Peggy had divulged his secrets of his time with Hydra. 

“I told you about Hydra kidnapping his men.” 

“What aren’t you telling me?” 

“Nothing!” 

Steve,” Sam nearly growls. “Do not lie to me, not about something to do with Hydra, not at a time like this. I mean, who knows! Bucky could be some trick that Hydra planted here, did you ever think of that? Hydra loves to play games. They could’ve cooked him up in a lab somewhere and planted him here, hoping that you’d trust him enough to divulge information you get from the Avengers. Despite what you seem to think, he could hurt you, or--”

“Get out,” Steve says weakly, too tired to match the fire in Sam’s tone. 

“Steve--” He begins, but there is no hint of apology in his voice, and Steve didn’t expect one. 

He just needed space, and he needed it immediately. Accusing Bucky of being ‘cooked up in a lab by hydra’ was hitting too close to home, and he needed Sam to go. 

“Please, Sam, just leave. I’m sick. I’m tired, and I’m not going to sit here and listen to you accuse Bucky of being a monster. He’s good.”

Sam stands to go, shaking his head as he does. “Look--I’m sorry. I snapped. You just--you trust too easily, man. That’s why I’m always worried about you.” 

“I’ll talk to you later.” Steve says quietly. “Just, go. Please.” 

And Sam does. 

The door slams behind him hard enough to rattle the pictures on the walls, and Steve buries his face in his hands, tears burning his eyes. “Dammit,” He sniffles. “Damn, damn, damn.” 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

"What could you do with those hands, my love?
What could you do with those hands, my love?
Could you make me something I've never seen before?
Oh, God, I need to see something I've never seen before

What could you do with those lips, my love?
What could you do with those lips, my love?
There's so many things I could think of
So many wonderful things I could think of

 

Breathe life into this corpse
Drive him down to the bay
Take his hand to the water and walk away
Let him stand there for awhile
Think about what to do
Don't ask any questions when he comes back to you"

            - Dolorean, "What Could You Do?"

 


“Stevie,” Bucky interrupts quietly, kneeling before the blond from where he sat on the couch. Bucky wishes he could take Steve into his arms, or at least rub his back, hold his hand. Do something other that hover before him uselessly. “Hey, doll, you’re alright. I’m so sorry.” 

Seeing Steve fight with Sam like that unsettled Bucky. It woke something fiercely protective in him, a part of himself he always knew he had but could usually kept quieted down. Until Steve. 

Seeing him this sad, this hurt, it made Bucky want to chuck a lamp at Sam’s head. 

But at the same time, he knew Wilson had a point. Bucky could hurt Steve, on purpose or otherwise. Sam had every right to be wary of him. If the roles were reversed, Bucky would have acted the same way. 

“You’re a goddamn idiot if you think you have anything to apologize for.  I’m sorry you had to hear that.” He tucks his face into his hands again.

“It’s kinda true, though.” Bucky argued gently, looking up at Steve with kind eyes. He didn’t want his reasoning to make Steve more upset, but if he could do anything to ease the rift between Steve and  Sam then he would. He knew how much all of Steve’s friends meant to him. “What your friend was saying.” 

Steve looks up from his hands, damp eyes searching Bucky’s face, beginning to cloud with anger. “What?” He questioned. “Buck--I have never believed for a second that you were anything other than a good man.” 

“I know that,” Bucky soothes. “But you see the good in everyone, Steve. And you should know--I am something Hydra cooked up in a lab.” There it was; the part of himself Bucky had been hiding from Steve. He didn’t want to ever look into those bright blue eyes and be met with horror. Fear. Loathing.

But he couldn’t lie. If Sam did any research at all into Bucky’s life in the war, he’d find his own conclusions about Bucky’s involvement with Hydra, and he was willing to bet it would be much worse coming from Wilson than it would be if Bucky came clean to Steve now. 

“Buck,” Steve is shaking his head. “No--”

“Yeah,” Bucky murmurs, interrupting him. “Look, there’s something about my history that--that I’ve never told you. I’ve never talked about it with anyone.” 

The look in Steve’s eyes is sad, and knowing. As he swallows, Bucky watches his Adam’s apple bob. 

“No, I. I know what you’re going to tell me, Buck. What they did to you….it was wrong. They hurt you, and they never should’ve had the chance to do that. No one should have to go through something so terrible. I’m so sorry that happened to you.” 

Bucky looks up sharply. Did Steve know? Had he done research of his own? “How did you--”

“When you disappeared, I went to talk to Peggy.” Steve murmured, wiping angrily at his eyes. “I was so worried about you, so desperate for answers, I needed to talk to someone that knew you were real. She told me what Hydra did to you, when they captured you battalion. Please don’t be mad.” 

Mad? At Steve? Steve was a stubborn punk, a flat out fiery Irish blond with bird bones and a set jaw, and he could poke and prod at Bucky until the cows came home, but Bucky doesn’t think he could ever be mad at Steve, not really. Not for longer than a few moments. 

“Couldn’t ever be mad at you, sweetheart,” Bucky croons, shaking his head. He reaches his hand up to catch one of Steve’s falling tears, but drops it again into his lap, remembering that the gesture would do no good--he was nothing but mist. “I’m sorry you didn’t hear it from me, first. I didn’t know how to tell you. I,” He shrugs softly. “I didn’t want you to think any differently of me.” 

Bucky was ashamed to admit it out-loud. It felt foolish to do so. Steve had been nothing but honest with him, letting Bucky see parts of himself that were still open, raw wounds. His grief for his mother, his pain over his friends dangerous lives, his loneliness and worry that he’d never amount to anything that would make his mother proud. Bucky had no right to do any different. 

“I could never. You’re not a monster.” Steve spits. “You are a lot of things, Bucky Barnes, but a monster ain’t one of them. You couldn’t be, even if you tried. Sam doesn’t know you like I do.” 

“I wish that were true,” Bucky whispers sadly. “More than anything.” 

Steve’s anger bubbles, Bucky can see it in his face and his body language, the way his muscles coil as if tensing for a fight. “They experimented on you--but you’re still a good man,” Steve says sharply, as if growling out the words would make Bucky more inclined to believe them. “People who get kidnapped and tortured aren’t the bad guys Buck. They’re the victims.” 

“They broke me,” Bucky says, so quietly his voice could barely be made out over the New York hum of traffic and life outside the apartment windows. “I let them break me. I wasn’t strong.” 

“You’re strong now,” Steve says. “ Look at me, Bucky.” 

Bucky does, meeting those fierce blue eyes, eyes that didn’t have an ounce of fear to spare for Bucky, not a hint of loathing or disgust to be detected. There was only intense righteousness, like Steve should be ranting about world peace or world hunger, or something equally as large and just. 

“You are strong. You overcame what they did to you. You did what a lot of men couldn’t. You took the evil they did, and you turned it into good.”

Bucky wishes that were true. He doesn’t remember a lot about the war, fragments here and there, pieces. He remembers his time with Hydra well. He relieved it often, after he escaped. 

Needles, and laughing, and cold metal at his back. Pen scratching into paper, sharp hands slapping his cheeks. Knives carving out his torso, testing his healing. 

Bucky also knew there was more to his story. There was a darkness in him, that he couldn’t place. He didn’t know where it originated, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that his time being captured was not the last he’d ever seen of Hydra. 

Where did he go when he lost days at a time from this place? Why did he speak and read Russian fluently? Why did he survey all entrances and exits of the apartment multiple times a day? 

Was it the war still lingering in him, or something else entirely? 

What bitterness in his chest had chased all the other tenants from the apartment? What evil in his heart had decided they weren’t worthy of it? 

And why, after years of chasing any contact away, did Steve make a place for himself in Bucky’s apartment, in his life, and God forbid, his black heart? What was it about this golden boy that had changed Bucky so much in the time they’d spent together? 

He was stronger. He was remembering things he never had before. He could be heard, and seen. 

Steve was wrong. 

Bucky didn’t take the hurt and turn it into goodness. He was a bitter man for many, many years. 

Steve is the one who saved him. 

“Buck?” Steve prompts, interrupting his inner spiralling. Steve reaches out his hands to grab Bucky’s, but they pass through each other, separated by laws and curses they didn’t understand. 

The devastation and embarrassment--guilt, even--is clear on Steve’s face as he snatches his hands back.

“I’m sorry,” He says quickly. “I forgot--”

Bucky looks down at his hands, his useless hands. 

Hands that could once shoot a gun, could caress a cheek, could punch a smart mouth. Hands that now were worthless in their not-there state. Hands that couldn’t even wipe a tear from Steve’s eye or brush his hair back from his face. Couldn’t even hold his hand. 

He clenches them into fists and looks back up at Steve, who watches him with a broken expression, as if he could read everything Bucky was thinking.

“Take some medication and then head to bed,” Bucky murmurs gently, desperate for a change in topic. “Okay?” 

Bucky can tell that Steve wants to argue more, until he sees that Bucky really believes him, but there is exhaustion written all over his face and body, and Bucky knows he’ll be obliged. 

Steve nods softly and trudges to the bathroom. His medicine cabinet was fully stocked, ready for any ailment that might become him. He wipes at his eyes, and doesn’t let another tear fall. 

Bucky shuffles quietly behind him. 

Steve grabbed his reliable nighttime cold medicine that would be sure to knock him out after making him only slightly delirious, and downs two pills with a mouthful of water from the tap. 

Bucky watches with a worried expression, tracking every movement. He hated seeing Steve like this, sick and run down, mentally and physically worn out. 

Steve washes his face and brushes his teeth while Bucky leans against the door frame of the bathroom. It wasn’t fair that Steve looked beautiful even in the fluorescent lighting of the bathroom.

“Happy?” Steve mutters dryly, heading out of the bathroom and flicking the light off. 

“Ecstatic.” 

“Good.” 

“Let’s go to bed, yeah?” Bucky suggests, tilting his head. Bucky tries not to overthink the fact that he said let’s go to bed, and not you should go to bed. They had reached a level of comfort with each other that was unsafe. It was edging at something that would break both their hearts.

Steve held a hand to his head. “My head is pounding,” He pouts quietly. 

“Those meds you took should kick in soon, doll,” Bucky soothed. “Sleep will help.” 

From the way Steve’s eyelids were already beginning to droop, Bucky was sure the nighttime medicine would make Steve a little drowsy, if not a lot. 

Steve headed towards his bedroom, clumsily shedding his sweater and jeans, leaving him in only his boxer briefs. 

Bucky is grateful that Steve doesn’t notice the hungry way Bucky eyes him up, head to toe, as he shuffles to bed. He doesn’t mean to, but it was impossible not to look; Steve was beautiful. 

“Easy, Ace,” Bucky mutters, as Steve hastily throws himself into his bed, laying on top of the covers. “You should put on some...some pj’s or somethin’.” Bucky cleared his throat awkwardly, trying to be a gentleman and look away. The briefs were a second skin, and left little to the imagination.

Steve usually slept in large t shirts that came down to his knees. It wasn’t fair of him, really, when he must know how adorable he looks in them. It makes Bucky’s heart squeeze each time. 

Bucky wasn’t sure where Steve got the t shirts, but he was surprised to find a little bit of jealousy blooming in his sternum when Steve gets out of bed to lazily tug one over his head. 

It was a light heather grey, with a Falcon symbol on it. 

Willson’s, then. 

“Better,” Steve sighs contently, and climbs into bed once more. 

“You got a lot of those t shirts, don’tcha?” Bucky teases, with an edge of seriousness. Maybe there was a history there that Bucky had missed. Steve had been so distraught when he and Sam fought, perhaps there was more to it. 

“Mhm,” Steve nods tiredly, eyelids drooping. He pulls the covers up to his chin and snuggles down into bed. “Stole ‘em from Sam.” 

Bucky nods, he assumed as much. But there was still something on his mind. 

“You and Sam...did you guys ever?” He arches a brow suggestively, sitting on the edge of Steve’s desk. Steve, from his bed, grins wickedly. His nose is red from running and his face is paler than usual, but he looks so damn adorable it hurts. It really ain’t fair.

Me and Sam?” Steve giggles, covering his mouth. “You’re kidding!”

“You don’t gotta answer,” Bucky grumbles dryly. Jeez. Steve was having a field day with this one, hunched over and laughing out loud. 

“Me and Sam!” Steve exclaims again, and Bucky was kinda sure that whatever medication Steve took, it was making him a little loopy. “Yeah, right. Sam is a great guy, but he ain’t my type.” 

“What is, then?” Bucky is intrigued. He knows he ought to back off, stop asking questions that fed his hunger for Steve. They’d talked about this, about dancing in the moonlight and sweetheart and doll... things were getting messy between them. The lines were blurring more and more each day. “Your type?” 

Steve quiets down, then, and studies Bucky closely. “I don’t know exactly.” He says softly, and Bucky can tell he’s being honest. “Never had a boyfriend. Don’t really have enough experience to know what I like.” 

“But you’ve been on dates,” Bucky says. It’s not really a question, but he wants confirmation. He can’t imagine that the answer is no. With a face like that, Bucky would have assumed Steve to be very popular with all sorts of people. 

“Three. All different people.” 

Bucky blanches. “You’re kidding. You’ve only been on three dates in your entire life?” It seemed impossible. Steve was dorky, sure, but he was also...what did they call them? A twink. Yeah, Steve was a perfect twink, with the big doe eyes and slender body, the sharp attitude. 

The things Bucky would do to him, if he could...he’d have Steve screaming for more, he’d have him begging for it. 

And...he’d play with his hair and kiss his fingertips and sing him to sleep. He wanted it all. It seemed impossible that no one else looked at Steve and thought the same thing. 

It was all Bucky could think about, staring into those big blue eyes. 

“They ain’t exactly lining up for me like Peggy said they did for you,” Steve rolls his eyes and snuggles deeper into the bed. He doesn’t seem bothered by the topic of conversation, or saddened by the lack of romantic attention in his life. He mostly looked amused about the whole thing. Maybe it was something in Bucky’s face that Steve found entertaining. 

Bucky snorts. “It’s all a matter of practice, young grasshopper.” He teases. Peggy wasn’t wrong; in his day, Bucky had five or six girls on his plate at any given time. “You just don’t know how to flirt.” 

Steve scoffs, insulted. “Do so.” 

“Nah. S’okay, though, you’re cute enough that you make up for it.” 

“I--it’s not--” Steve stammers, and then gives up. He pulled the blankets up to his nose and growls, “I am. Not. Cute.” 

That only makes him look cuter, of course, if such a thing were possible, and Bucky’s grin widens in a wicked way. 

Steve’s glare intensifies. It was enough to make birds dropout of the sky. 

“You are adorable, kitten. Really.” 

Steve huffs, his eyes narrowing. “I am a grown ass man.” 

“An unfairly cute one,” Bucky corrects. “Not your fault. You can’t help it.”

“Shuddup.” 

Bucky chuckles. “Alright, alright. S’late, I’ll stop blabbing and let you get some rest.” 

Steve lowers the blankets off of his face, and then kicks them off his entire body with a frustrated movement. “Buck,” he whines softly. “S’hot in here,” 

Bucky smiles fondly. He’d been doing a lot of that lately.

He knew, without Steve having to say it, what Steve was asking for. “M’coming,” Bucky murmured, standing to get in bed with Steve. 

“Jeez. Scoot over, will ya? You’re like 5 foot nothin’ and you’re hoggin’ the whole bed,” Bucky scoffs. 

“Whaddya gonna do? Squish me?” Steve dares. “With what body?” 

“Ouch, Rogers, that stung,” Bucky pretends to be hurt, but he’s grinning. Steve scoots over, and Bucky slides in beside him. 

“Mmm,” Steve murmurs, curling into Bucky, looking like he feels instant relief. “S’nice, Buck. You feel good.” 

Bucky’s mind could go a lot of dark places with that statement, but instead he presses his lips together and wraps an arm over Steve. Steve, of course, can’t feel it, but Bucky knows he feels the relief of the cool air. 

“You’re burnin’ up, sweetheart,” Bucky frets, feeling the heat radiating off of Steve from his fever. It seared through Bucky. 

“Mhm,” Steve murmurs, nuzzling closer. “Tell me, Buck. If things were different…” 

“Yeah?” Bucky prompts, closing his eyes. “What?”

“If things were different, what would you do right now...” 

“Hmm?” Bucky opens his eyes again, startled by the question, but Steve is already asleep, his breathing deep and even, albeit through parted lips since his nose was stuffed. His fingers flexed and relaxed, as if reaching for Bucky unconsciously. 

Bucky lets out a long breath. “Sleep, doll,” he whispers. “I’ll stay.” 

 


“You’re being so good, baby. Just like that,” Bucky’s voice croons, encouraging Steve along. 

Steve continues happily, bobbing his head around a thick mouthful of Bucky’s cock, enjoying the heavy weight of it in his mouth, savoring Bucky’s hand knotted in his hair, holding on tightly. “Fuck, Steve.” 

Steve pops off with a satisfying noise, and blinks up at Bucky with thick lashes, a slow smile playing at his lips. He licks the taste of Bucky off his mouth with a slow, savory movement. 

Bucky looks destroyed, hair falling in his face, pupils blown wide with desire. He pants down at Steve and licks his lips, clearly enjoying the site of the blond on his knees before him. His cheeks were flushed and sweat glistened down his bare chest. 

“Jesus, Ace, it’s gotta be some kinda sin, you lookin’ up at me like that.” he breathes thickly. “Ain’t as innocent as I thought.” 

Steve bats his lashes wickedly. Innocent, he was not, and he couldn’t wait to prove it. Steve was a quick learner. “Are you going to stand there gawking at me, or are you going to fuck me?” 

Bucky gets a dark glint in his eyes then, taking the bratty note in Steve’s voice to mean that he had something to prove. He leverages his bulk to easily pull Steve to his feet, and crowds him against the wall of Steve’s bedroom, pressing their bodies together from chest to knee. 

Bucky’s body was warm, and rock-solid. It was all encompassing, completely surrounding Steve. “You want to be fucked, hmm?” Bucky breathes, kissing a line down Steve’s neck. 

Steve’s head spins with the heady scent of Bucky filling the air, with the sheer desire in the pit of his belly. “Please,” He whimpers, his bravado out the window, too distracted with desire to keep up pretenses. He felt like he’d been waiting forever, and he knew what he needed. “Buck, please, I need it. I’ve been so good,” he pleads. 

Bucky hums gently, arms wrapping around Steve and sliding them under his ass, easily lifting him. Steve wraps his legs around Bucky’s hips and his arms around Bucky’s neck, holding on more for comfort than necessity--Bucky’s got him, his weight is no burden. 

“I’ll take care of you,” Bucky promises. “I want to do this right, kitten. I wanna make you feel good.” Bucky places Steve on his back on the bed, and Steve watches helplessly as Bucky kisses a trail down Steve’s chest, landing finally at his cock, swollen and red, dripping with precome. 

“Buck,” Steve whispers, forgetting all other words. He was getting impatient. “Bucky…” 

“S’okay,” Bucky murmurs, licking a hot line up Steve’s cock, from the base of the shaft to the head. Steve slams his head back into the bed, dizzy with want and already writhing. He didn’t care much for this kind of foreplay right now, as amazing as it felt, he was already so high strung with desire, he just wanted Bucky inside him. 

“I just need your cock in me,” Steve whines, as Bucky starts to lap lazily at his balls, getting lower to Steve’s hole, which flexed and twitched around Bucky’s able tongue. “I don’t have the p-patience to wait, Buck, please. I just need it.” 

When Bucky slides in a finger, Steve needs to bite into his hand to keep from screaming out in frustration. It wasn’t enough, he needed more, and Bucky was taking forever--

“Please!” Steve nearly screamed. He was ready--he didn’t know why Bucky was torturing him like this. “God, Bucky, please just fuck me, please, Buck, I’ll do anythin’ you want, I’ll be so good, I’ll--” 

It was torture. His cock was painfully hard and dripping, desperate to be touched, desperate for relief, and Bucky wouldn’t give it to him, he just kept one finger in him, curled slightly, lapping lazily at Steve with no sense of hurry or finale. 

Steve was sobbing, clutching the sheets and writhing with need, when he hears Bucky’s voice, sounding more startled than it had before, less husky and aroused and more concerned. 

“Steve?” Bucky asks, but the Bucky between his legs doesn’t flinch, just keeps kissing and licking. Steve sobs helplessly. 

“Bucky, please,” Steve sobs. “Please, please.” 

“Stevie, hey, wake up. You’re havin’ a bad dream.” 

“I need it,” Steve cries. “Q-Quit teasin’ me.”

“Steve!” The voice is finally loud enough that it pulls Steve from his slumber, and his eyes fly open to see Bucky hovering over him, his face slightly red and eyes worried. 

“Buck,” Steve pants, pushing himself up onto his elbows. His face is wet from tears, and his cock is painfully hard between his legs. He blinks around, disoriented. He felt as though the room were spinning wildly around him. He says the only word he feels he’ll ever know: “Bucky,” 

“You were havin’ a bad dream, sweetheart,” Bucky croons, his tone uneven. “Or, ah, a good dream, I guess, depending on how you wanna look at it.” 

In Steve’s fever induced haze, he can’t really register the mortification that he probably should be feeling. The desire is still thick in his belly, his dream so vivid that he can practically still taste Bucky on his tongue. He writhes a little with the need. 

“Was a good dream,” Steve croaked, voice hoarse. He blinks dreamily up at Bucky through damp lashes, his tongue darting out to wet his lips. “Really good.” 

“Yeah?” Bucky murmured, eyes curious and intrigued. He’s lying beside Steve, same as they were when Steve fell asleep, but he rolls to prop himself up on an elbow, facing Steve completely. Bucky’s chest is moving quickly with his erratic breathing. 

Steve shifts a little, and the movement jostles his erection, making him bite his lip. He wanted to just get up and go to the bathroom to finish it off, he needed release, but with Bucky around it made privacy difficult. It would be too obvious if he tried to get up now. 

“I should be more embarrassed.” Steve admits in a low voice, though he doesn’t feel the shame come as he probably ought to. “I know I should be.” 

“I don’t think so. I’m not about to judge a fella for his dreams,” Bucky wets his lips. His pupils are blown wide, making his eyes look almost black. “Do you...want to tell me about it?” 

Steve hesitates. “I don’t know,” he murmurs, unable to look away from Bucky’s black eyes. “I shouldn’t.”

“Whatever it was about, it was just a dream, right? So it doesn’t count for real life.” Bucky gives him a playful smile, but it falls short of being blase. Bucky was nervous. “You can tell me, if you want. But you don’t gotta.” 

“It was about you,” Steve admits, trying to gauge Bucky’s reaction. Would he be disgusted? Intrigued? Aroused? “Y-You were going to...” Steve trails off, unsure. He clears his throat. 

“What was I going to do, doll?” 

Steve blinks up at him with large blue eyes. He forgets how to breathe for a moment. 

“You,” Steve swallows. “You were g-gonna, uh. Fuck me.” He can’t imagine his face could get any hotter. He hides his face in the pillow, not wanting to look at Bucky after confessing. He knew this heat wasn’t because of his fever. 

Now it’s Bucky’s turn to gasp. Steve watches through one eye as Bucky’s tongue darts out to wet his lips, making them glisten in the faint moonlight of Steve’s room. “Jesus, Steve,” Bucky almost groans. “Can’t just say stuff like that,” 

Steve turns his face away again. “I know,” he admits quietly, feeling his cheeks get hot, a blush that spreads all the way down to his neck and chest. “I’m just...going to go shower.” He was mortified. He’d already said too much. 

“Wait,” Bucky stops him, shaking his head. “I meant...you can’t just stay stuff like that because its,” Bucky blinks. “It’s downright sinful--in the best way possible.” 

Sinful. Bucky had called Steve sinful in Steve’s dream, and Steve had lapped up the attention then. He blinks drowsily at Bucky, enjoying the sight of his blown pupils, his red lips. 

He...wanted Steve. Sinful didn’t mean that what they were doing was bad, or wrong, but...tempting. 

Bucky was tempted by Steve--Bucky wanted him. 

“Buck,” Steve whispers. He’s body hurts with how badly he wants this, and with the knowledge that they’d never have it. 

Bucky couldn’t touch Steve, after all, not like he really wanted to. He craved his touch so desperately it felt like he was going to explode from the lack of contact.

“You think about me fucking you a lot?” Bucky is quick to ask. There is no shyness in his voice, nothing self conscious about the way he stares intensely into Steve’s eyes. Bucky was just as into it as Steve was, and that thought alone made Steve bite back a moan. 

He couldn’t imagine why someone as handsome as Bucky would be interested in someone like Steve, but it sent a shock through him. He wanted more. He felt like he would die if he didn’t get it.

“I,” Steve blinks fast. He doesn’t know how to navigate this, he’s burning with desire and he wants so badly to kiss Buck, to feel him. “I want you.” Steve pleads, though he knows there is nothing he or Bucky can do about their predicament.

“I would be good to you, Stevie,” Bucky promises, speaking in a deep, husky voice. His eyes are hungry. “I would take it slow, but not too slow. I wouldn’t make you cry, doll, not like that, like in your dream. I’d take care of you, I’d give you what you need. I’d give you everything.” 

Steve’s lips part, hanging on Bucky’s every word. His cock is hot and heavy between his legs, begging to be touched. 

He believes Bucky; Bucky always gave Steve exactly what he needed. He always took care of Steve, he would give him what he needed. He would make it feel so perfect. “Yeah?” 

Steve had never had a cock in his ass before; the farthest he’d ever gone with someone was a blowjob, and even that was only once, and while he was pretty sure he did an okay job, considering the guy finished fairly quickly, Steve was eager to learn more. 

Imagining Bucky fucking him, Bucky shoving his cock between Steve’s lips--

“Mm,” Bucky tells him, more of a growl than anything else. “I bet you would look so damn pretty with my cock in your mouth, Stevie. Those big blue eyes just blinking up at me, being so good for me...you would take it nice and deep, gettin’ your lips all red and swollen, wouldn’t ya?” 

“Mhm,” Steve agrees. It’s hard to make coherent thoughts. All Steve could think about was his desire for Bucky, his need for him. Steve’s hand creeps down to his cock, just slightly, before Steve remembered himself, and stops. 

Bucky, though, tracked the movement, and nodded his head, curls falling into his face. “Touch yourself, Stevie. I wanna see.” 

Steve ran his tongue across his lips, but didn’t hesitate, not caring how strange things would be in the morning. All he knew was that he wanted relief, and he wanted Bucky to talk him through it. It would be so easy to let go, with that honey sweet voice in his ear. It was what Steve needed.

He tugged his briefs down and let his cock spring free, not wasting another second to get a hand wrapped around himself, moaning obscenely when he finally does, not caring who heard, least of all Bucky. He bites his free hand to keep quiet. 

“Look at that sweet little cock,” Bucky croons, voice uneven with desire. “Jesus, Steve, you’re so fucking perfect, you know that?” 

“Buck,” Steve groans, working himself with one hand, the other hand coming from his mouth to pinch at his nipple, wishing his hands couple be replaced by Bucky’s. “Talk to me,” Steve pleads, stroking his cock in a tight grip. “Please, Bucky,” 

“I got you, doll. I’m right here,” Bucky soothes, and his hand hovers at Steve’s chest, before drawing back again. He couldn’t touch Steve, and it was killing them both. “Pretty little nipples, too. God, what I’d do to get my mouth on those. Make you squirm.” 

Steve’s hips jerk into his hand, eyes screwing shut in pleasure. Bucky’s voice was so low, dripping with desire, and Steve would have done anything in that moment to have Bucky’s solid hands on him. For now, though, his voice was doing enough. It was driving him wild with need.

Bucky moves his hand again, this time placing it over Steve’s other nipple, the coolness of it making his nipple rock hard. Steve whimpers at the temperature, arching into it as though he could force himself to really feel Bucky there.

“I wish you could touch me,” Steve nearly sobs, turning his face into Bucky’s not-there chest. There is something tender about it, Bucky talking Steve along as he chases release, Bucky soothing him and calling him perfect. Steve had never been called that before. 

As sweet as it is, it’s intensely bitter. They could never have each other in the way they both desperately wanted.

“Me too, angel.” Bucky croons, sounding wrecked. “God, me too. You’d be so sweet under me, I’d kiss every inch of you--”

“Yes,” Steve breathe, his hand working faster. His eyes are shut so tightly he sees stars behind his eyelids. He was honest to god wet, pre-come making his hand slip up and down with ease, his balls tightening with the pleasure of it all, toes curling. “Oh my god, Buck, don’t stop, please--”

“Say my name,” Bucky’s husky voice groans. There is a darkness, a level of command to the way Bucky says it that makes Steve want to bare his throat.  “Say it, Stevie. Scream it.” 

Bucky,” Steve moans, writhing, unable to hold still. “God, Buck, the things you do to me--”

Bucky is breathing hard along with Steve, sounding just as affected as the blond was. “Jesus, Steve, look at you, you’re so fucking beautiful, just like that--yeah, you’re doing so good baby--”

“I’m--I’m going to, Buck--” Steve’s movements get more desperate. He can’t form coherent sentences anymore, he’s so close, his toes curling, legs locked, chest tight. “I’m--”

“Yeah, c’mon, baby, come for me, doin’ so good, wanna get my hands on you--”

Steve comes with a deep groan of “God, ah-- Bucky,” on his lips, spilling into his hand. He pants hard as  the aftershocks hit him--he couldn’t remember the last time touching himself had felt this good. The release drained everything out of Steve’s body. 

“Buck,” Steve repeats, softer, quieter. He steadies his breathing, coming down from the high slowly. What he wouldn’t give to roll over and curl up warm and safe in Bucky’s arms. 

“I’m here, baby. Not leaving you,” Bucky croons. Steve feels comfortably loose, and safe, Bucky’s cool presence just enough to keep the fever and sweat at bay. “We gotta get you cleaned up, yeah?” 

“Mmm.” Steve’s thoughts are no longer coherent, his eyelids getting heavy with sleep already. He’s sure that whatever Bucky is saying is relevant, but he can’t bring himself to connect the dots between the words. Too much effort. “Tired,”

Bucky somehow produces a towel, placing it on the bed beside Steve. Steve doesn’t care how, the details don’t matter to his foggy head. “Clean up, Stevie, then you can get some rest.” 

Steve doesn’t want to move, but he obliges because it’s Bucky insisting. He wipes himself up with slow, languid movements that Bucky tracks hungrily. 

When Steve is satisfied with the results, he tosses the towel aside to be an issue for tomorrow and turns his face and body into the shell of Bucky’s, closing his eyes tight and pretending that he could feel the rise and fall of Bucky’s chest. 

“Wish you could hold me,” Steve says softly. Steve had been doing a lot of wishing, lately. 

“Ты мой спаситель.” Bucky replies. There is something sad in his tone, but Steve is too tired to think about that. For now, he feels content, safe. “Goodnight, angel. Sweet dreams.” 

Looking back, this would be the last Good Night Steve had for a long, long time. The last Perfect night, curled up in the whisper of Bucky’s embrace, body limp with pleasure, mind put at ease by Bucky’s voice humming in his ear. 

The thing about the best moments, is that you don’t know they’re going to be the best moments until they’ve already passed.

So for now, Steve shut his eyes tight and imagined a million more nights, even more perfect than this one. Steve was still Innocent. He was still in the Not Knowing. 

Above the two men, above the apartment where their hearts were slowly becoming one, the stars whispered their secrets, and the first snow of the year began to fall, covering New York City with a hush like no other.

Chapter Text

"It ain't no wonder why we lose control
When we're always heart attack away from falling in love
Well, I know that we've been hardly holding on
To tell the truth, I can't believe we got this far
Running near on empty
I wish somebody would've told me

That I'd end up so caught up in need of your demons
That I'd be lost without you leading me astray
Guess that I'm a fool for the way that you caught me
Girl, you make my heart break more every day
But don't fade away"

              -"Fade", Lewis Capaldi 


Steve wakes up slowly, lazily, feeling the heady weight of his cold as soon as his eyes were fully open. His nose was stuffed, his throat ached, but besides that, not much else mattered.

He blinked blearily up at his ceiling, and enjoyed the few blissful seconds where his mind was completely blank, not thinking of anything at all. 

And then he remembered.

Steve shot up in bed like a rocket into a sitting position, mouth gaping as he stared at the soiled towel from last night--proof that what had happened wasn’t just an extension of his dream. 

“Oh, my god.” Steve whispers, a hand coming to cover his mouth. 

He’d really done that--he’d touched himself, in front of Bucky, to thoughts of Bucky. Bucky had seen everything. Had talked him through it.

There was no way things could go back to normal between them now; Steve had ruined everything. 

Bucky wasn’t in his room, which meant he was probably upset about what had happened. In a moment of lust, of weakness, Steve had pushed their fragile hearts into something they weren’t ready to talk about.

“Buck?” Steve called, coughing weakly into his elbow. There was no way he’d make it into work today--he’d have to call in. His vision was blurry even as he pushed his glasses onto his face. “You ‘round?” 

The apartment is silent, and Steve tries not to let the panic settle in. Bucky could just be wanting space after what happened last night, which was normal. Space, Steve could handle. He couldn’t handle absence. 

Steve grabs his phone to check the time, seeing he had 7 missed calls from Nat and 3 from Sam. Clint had texted him twice. They were mostly from last night. Steve had fallen asleep early, needing the rest from his fever, but it probably meant his friends were worried about why he hadn’t gotten back to them yet.

[9:03pm] Clint says: Hey, Sam talked to Nat & I about your ghost situation. We need to talk.

[9:06pm] Clint says: It’s big.

[11:13pm] Clint says: Steve we’re worried. Text me back. 

The group chat also had messages that were demanding Steve’s attention. 

[6:03am] Sam to ‘Pizza Party’: We need to meet up at some point today. If you don’t answer, we’re coming over. Need to check if you’re still alive.

Steve rubs his eyes under his glasses. Dammit, it was too early for this. Not wanting his friends to worry, he types out a quick message in their group chat. 

[8:21am] Steve to ‘Pizza Party: I’m fine guys, relax.

[8:23am] Steve to ‘Pizza Party’: I’m sorry if I worried you i went to bed early--I’m sick. Slept in, too. 

Not even two minutes later, Natasha responds. 

[8:24am] Nat to ‘Pizza Party’: We need to talk. When are you free?

That was never a good message. 

[8:26am] Steve to ‘Pizza Party’:  Sick in bed, called into work. Today isn’t good for me. 

Steve couldn’t deal with the ‘ghost talk’ today. He didn’t want to answer questions or prove himself. The urgency in the text messages wasn’t registering with Steve; he was delirious with his fever and too worried about memories of last night to think about what his friends might want to tell him. 

[8:30am] Sam to ‘Pizza Party’: I did some research on your ghost. I searched his name through Hydra files, and it isn’t good. This is serious, Steve.

[8:33am] Sam to ‘Pizza Party’: There is more going on here than you think. 

Steve blinks at his phone. It was an ominous message, one that leaves him confused and wanting to know more. 

What could they have found out about Bucky that Steve didn’t already know?

He decides not to answer right away. He wanted to talk to Bucky, and apologize for last night, to make sure things were good between them. Then, after that, if Steve was still up to whatever daunting conversation awaited him, he would message them back.

Remembering last night, Steve’s face flushed with heat. Bucky had been so sweet, so kind--he’d talked Steve through it, made sure he cleaned up afterwards...and God, Steve remembered just how badly he wished it could’ve been Bucky’s real hands on him. The desire had been a monster in the pit of his belly, the fire burning him up from the inside out.

Slowly, Steve gets out of bed, his muscles aching as he does so, sore from the sickness that plagued him and the chilly New York Air that wandered in through the old, drafty windows. Looking outside, Steve saw that it had snowed last night. The streets were covered in a thin blanket of white.

“Buck,” He calls, as he gets out, his heart beating loudly in his ears. “Can we please talk?” 

There was still no answer as Steve shuffled his bunny-slippered feet into the kitchen. There was no coffee or tea waiting, there was no handsome soldier lounging around waiting for him. 

Steve’s heart sinks. No.

“Bucky?” He tries, voice small. He already knows, in his heart, that Bucky is not here. He can feel the emptiness, the hollowness. The apartment is void of his presence. Of course, there is no reply. 

Steve is alone.

“Dammit,” Steve exhales slowly with a little cough, staring up at the ceiling. His eyes sting with tears as he tries hard to blink them away. He feels small. Stupid. “Dammit.” 

Bucky was gone, and Steve didn’t know how long he’d be gone for. Steve wasn’t sure where they stood with each other, but he knew that there was something boiling inside him, a static between him and Bucky. 

In Steve’s chest, there was a new kind of warmth for Bucky that had absolutely no right to be there, but wasn’t going to go away anytime soon. 

He scrubs a hand through his hair, and trudges to the shower with slow, shuffling movements, accepting his doomed fate.

 

-------

Post-shower, Steve is curled up on his couch swaddled in two blankets, wearing track pants and a large hoodie. The shower had helped him to feel a little better, but his breath was still wheezing more than he liked and his nose ran freely--he’d have to nurse the cold a little longer before he’d be back to full health. 

He watched Netflix with a blank mind, ignoring his phone which was blaring with text messages from his friends. He didn’t think about what Natasha, Sam and Clint had dug up, or when--if--Bucky would return. He doesn’t think about anything.

He eats frozen pizza and drinks lots of water. He calls it self-care. 

Around noon, there is a knock at his door, at the same time his phone starts ringing. 

Steve blinks sleepily at his phone, unhappily aroused from his Netflix-coma. The call is from Sam. Dread fills Steve to the brim--he knew what this meant. The knock at the door was familiar, and Steve knew his friends were here. 

“Hello,” Steve answers flatly. The knocking at the door stops. He is displeased.

“It’s us. Let us in, please.” 

Steve stares at his door. He blinks again. If he refused them, it was more than likely Natasha would just pick the lock and let herself in. With a dramatic eye-roll that no one else is around to appreciate, Steve stands up. 

“Fine. Coming.” He ends the call.

He shuffles to the door and unlocks it, throwing it open and trudging back to his position on the couch without greeting them. He was annoyed by his friends just showing up when he had told them he didn’t want company today. He was sick and grumpy. He missed Bucky.

He didn’t want to deal with their conspiracy theories. Even his curiosity wasn’t enough to warrent a desire for knowledge. He just wanted to be left alone.

“You’re sick,” Clint says, the first one to speak. “Jeez, Steve, you look like hell.” 

The three of them settled into the living room around Steve. No one gets on the couch beside him. They can sense the tension rolling off of his body.

Steve shoots him a sharp look he knows Clint doesn’t deserve. “Yup.” 

“We needed to speak to you,” Natasha says cooly. It’s a professional tone, one she doesn’t take with him often. It makes Steve’s attention spike, and he sits up a little taller. He had the weird feeling that he was in trouble. 

“I guessed that from the texts, yeah.” 

“Bucky isn’t here, is he?” Natasha says, ignoring Steve’s attitude. She keeps her tone professional, asking the question like a lawyer who already knew the answer but wanted proof for the jury. 

“How did you know he isn’t--”

Natasha cuts him off with a cool expression. “Because he can’t be in two places at once, and we just saw him this morning.” 

Steve squints at her, trying to make sense of what she said, but ultimately fails. They’d seen him? How? “What? What do you mean by that?” 

Sam inhales and exhales loudly. “Okay, so, hear us out.” He and Clint both look extremely uncomfortable, unable to sit still.

“What the hell is going on?” Steve asks tiredly. “Guys, I’m sick, I’m exhausted, and I’m really not in the mood. If you’ve got something to say, just spit it out, or leave me alone.” 

“Steve, we searched James Buchanan Barnes and cross referenced his name with the Hydra records database.” Sam begins, keeping his voice even and factual. “Once you told me about...your ghost situation, I wanted to look into James’s past with Hydra, y’know, for your safety. I had to make sure he wasn’t working with Hydra, or affiliated with them in any way during the war--we couldn’t take the risk.”

Steve bristles at that, but knows he can’t ask any different of his friends. In their line of work, a lack of attention to details causes your friends to die. They were looking out for him in the ways they knew how. 

“Okay,” he says carefully. “Then why are you looking at me like that?” Sam and Clint were eyeing Steve with wide, sympathetic eyes, like they were about to tell Steve his beloved pet had just died, but Natasha was cool and calm. Steve braced himself for bad news, though he had no idea what that bad news could be.

Were they going to tell him Bucky had been working alongside Hydra the entire war? Was he the mastermind behind the whole operation? 

The thought was almost laughable; Steve’s Bucky could never. 

“James Buchanan Barnes of the 107th was experimented on during the Second World War,” Sam says gently. “The trials, are,” he shudders. “They’re horrific. I mean, the things they did--”

“It resulted in him becoming enhanced. Results of the trial show James as being stronger, faster, having accelerated healing rates, and so on.” Natasha cuts in sharply, obviously not wanting to waste time. Or maybe she wanted to spare Steve the details of his friend getting hurt, he couldn’t tell from her voice or poker face. He often found Natasha difficult to read, but especially now in her dark wash jeans and leather jacket. This was the facade Natasha put on for the rest of the world. 

“I knew that,” Steve tells them, rolling his eyes. Relief washes over him. If this was the bad news they were trying to brace him for, then he had nothing to worry about. Peggy had already explained the terrible things that Hydra did to Bucky. “I’m sorry you went through all that trouble, but. I talked to Peggy--she was in the war with Buck--and she told me what they did to him. It’s terrible, but it doesn’t change anything. I know him, and his past.” 

“Anyway, that isn’t the end of the story,” Sam cuts in, keeping his tone gentle. “So, they experimented on him, but he got away. He made it back to his regiment. He continued in the war as a sniper, and a damn good one, until he fell off of a train near the end of the war. He was assumed to be killed in battle, his body was never found. They buried an empty casket.” 

“He fell off a train and died,” Steve corrected. He wasn’t sure where this was heading, nothing sounded like new information, but the worried look on Sam and Clints faces weren’t reassuring, there had to be more. “I knew that, too.” 

Natasha shakes her head. “He didn’t die.” 

Steve blinks dumbly at her. He can’t process the words: he didn’t die. They floated around near the ceiling, out of his reach. “He’s a ghost, Nat. Of course he’s dead.” 

“He’s not a ghost, exactly. Just. Listen,” Clint cuts in nervously. He looks extremely uncomfortable, like he’d rather be exactly anywhere else. His posture is stiff. 

“James didn’t die.” She repeats. “Because of the extreme-cold temperatures, his body was preserved, though his left arm was obliterated from breaking his fall.” Natasha explains, very matter-of-fact. “Other than that, James was mostly intact. His body was found by Hydra, who recognized him from previous experiments; he had been their most resilient subject during the war. They were eager to have him back.” 

Steve is shaking his head. It sounded like Natasha was speaking another language. He squinted at her, trying to follow the trail she was laying out for him, but nothing sounded logical. None of it was making any sense. 

His brain was foggy, both from his cold and from the impossibility of what she was saying. It had to be some kind of prank, a joke. They were trying to get a rise out of him. 

They were just teasing him for believing he lived with a ghost. They were trying to scare Steve away from the apartment. 

She continues. “Hydra took him and injected James with a serum to improve speed, reflexes, strength, and healing time. He is the most successful example of Enhancement we have on record. They amputated James’ left arm and gave him a high-tech prosthetic made out of vibranium alloy, making him extremely strong, and partially bullet-proof.” She spoke as though she were reading off a script. 

“Using electro-shock therapy, they erased the memories that James Buchanan Barnes had, and he became the Winter Soldier, or The Asset, as he is referred to in the files. The Soldier was taught certain commands and phrases in order to ensure his excellent behavior. He was programmed, like a computer, to become the weapon that Hydra had always dreamed of.” 

“No,” Steve says shortly. His mind is empty, trying to make connections between the sentences Natasha was making and the Bucky he knew, the one who sang to him and laughed like everything Steve did was adorable. 

When Steve had said stand down, Bucky had frozen. Become someone else. 

He still doesn’t want to believe what they’re saying. “What?” 

“The Winter Soldier is the most notorious killing machine of our time,” She plows on, shifting her weight from one heeled foot to the other. 

She seems taller than Steve has ever seen her, too large to fit into his apartment, with ideas that didn’t go with the flooring or match the creamy color of the walls.

“He’s killed hundreds of people for Hydra, most of them innocent. He trained me under the nickname Sasha during my time with Hydra, which is where I first recognized him from. He was cold, efficient, and...robotic. They had him programmed perfectly. They send him on missions, he completes them, and then he comes back to the base where he is put into a cryo-chamber that puts him into a mode of suspended animation until he’s needed again. Sometimes it’s weeks. Sometimes it’s many years. That’s why it’s been so hard to find him--because he disappears without a trace, for long periods of time. That’s why he was called the ghost.” Natasha purses her lips. “Only, no one knew just how fitting that title really was.” 

Steve isn’t sure if he’s breathing or not. He can’t think about breathing--he can’t think about anything. His hands curl into small fists, fingernails digging hard into the flesh of his palm. 

“Impossible,” he breathes, but it’s so silent no one reacts, having not heard.  

“Our theory,” Sam says, voice soft compared to Natasha’s clipped tone. “Is that while Bucky is in this cryo-chamber, while he’s in suspended animation, his…spirit comes here. His spirit, which is still Bucky without the Soldier’s programming, for the most part anyway, and then disappears when they wake up him for a mission, and then returning to the apartment when they put him under again. He doesn’t remember his time out of cryo because of the electro-shock therapy. They erase everything, giving them a blank slate.”  

Everything in Steve’s mind clears.

Bucky was alive. Bucky wasn’t dead--he wasn’t a ghost. He wasn’t lost to Steve forever. He was suffering.

“He’s not evil,” Steve finds himself saying, shaking his head slowly. He feels like he’s having an out of body experience, like he’s watching himself do and say these things, but doesn’t know what motivates his actions or words. “You’ve got it all wrong. He is not evil. He’s good. You--you’ve got the wrong guy. ” 

“Bucky is good,” Clint murmurs, looking down. He won’t meet Steve’s eyes. “The Winter Soldier is not. We’ve fought him, Steve. There...there isn’t anything human about him. It’s not like fighting anyone or any thing else. He’s like nothing we’ve ever been up against before.” 

“He’s good,” Steve repeats stubbornly, his brain short-circuiting.His hands begin to shake. “Buck is good--”

“He’s a killer. And we’ve got to stop him, before he hurts someone else,” Natasha quips, no room for empathy in her tone. She shifts her weight, and the floor creaks under her. Silence fills the room, no one daring to speak. “I’m sorry,” She tells him, but nothing in her face or voice makes Steve believe that she really is.

Steve looks up at them with wide, devastated eyes. 

“He’s alive,” Steve breathes, the realization finally dawning on him. His heart races. “He’s--Bucky is alive.” 

“No--” Sam chimes in, but Steve ignores him. 

“He’s alive, but. But he’s in trouble, he’s with Hydra--”

“He is Hydra,” Nat corrects. “He is literally an embodiment of Hydra, Steve. Their personalized weapon, their best experiment. Their child .” 

Steve knew Bucky, and he wasn’t a Nazi, or a killer, or a bad guy at all. He was just a big, handsome dork with an affinity for dancing and a dislike of seafood. He was genuine, and charming, and silly. He was beautiful. Precious.

And he was in the hands of an evil organization--who had, in Sam’s own words, wiped Bucky of everything that made him him. They broke him.

“Hydra programmed him,” Steve says slowly, trying to understand. He can’t feel his heart in his chest, he’s not even sure it’s beating. “Right?” 

Sam nods, seeming relieved that Steve was finally getting on the same page, not just repeating no over and over again. “Yes.” 

“And they took him, against his will, after he’d fallen.” 

Sam looks less enthused. His face is tight, eyes hard.  “Yeah, that’s right.” 

“Did he ever have a choice?” 

Three of them fall quiet again, but Clint pipes up, finally speaking. 

“He was tortured,” Clint murmurs. “Made to do their will. They had to break him before they could program him. The files recount that he resisted for a long time.” 

Steve nods once. That isn’t what he wanted to hear, but at the same time it served to prove what he already knew to be true--that Bucky was good. 

He hadn’t willingly done those things, killed all those people. Hydra had broken him, and then moulded the pieces into whatever they wanted, not caring what the cost would be to Bucky. 

They had created something twisted and terrifying out of the beautiful soul that Steve had fallen in love with.

“So,” Steve says, like he’s coming up with a conclusion for a long, complicated paper. His voice breaks a little when he says, “So, you’re saying Bucky is alive, and Hydra has him,” He doesn’t realize he’s crying until he touches his cheek and feels wetness there. He blinks hard at his hand, astonished, and more tears fall, fat drops that run freely down his face. Once they start, Steve fears they will never stop. “He’s alive.” 

Clint hesitates, but nods once. “That is what we’re saying, but--”

His shoulders shake, and all at once his calm facade falls apart around him. “Oh my god,” He sobs, his hands flying up to cover his mouth. “Oh my god, they have him. We have to get him out. They h-have him.” 

Clint and Sam share a devastated look. Clearly, this is not the reaction they’d wanted or expected from Steve.

“Steve,” Natasha says, and her voice is finally gentle, finally the tone he recognizes, but it’s still disconnected from the situation, like a doctor delivering a fatal diagnosis to a patient; kind, sympathetic, but with a safe detachment. Getting too invested was dangerous and sad for everyone involved, after all. “There isn’t anything left to save.” 

Steve is already shaking his head. He’s trembling like a leaf in the wind, suddenly chilled to the bone. He didn’t pay attention to the temperature drop, too worried about Bucky and the way his heart was breaking.

“No--you know that isn’t true! You just said! You just said Bucky is in there!” Steve cries, his voice getting louder. “You just said that! He’s fucking in there and they are hurting him, they’re making him do things he would never want! He would never hurt anyone-- ” 

Sam comes to sit beside him, tries to pull Steve into his arms, but Steve thrashes hard, fighting him off and getting to his feet with jerky movements. 

“Don’t touch me,” he yells, adrenaline suddenly coursing through his veins. “Don’t you dare try to tell me that he ain’t worth saving-- how dare you, you, you don’t know him!” 

“We’re saying we don’t know what we’re getting into,” Sam says, holding his hands up in surrender. He doesn’t raise his voice, despite Steve’s shouting. “Steve, we’ve faced the Winter Soldier before. He didn’t recognize Nat from their time together, he didn’t know anything about you. We just saw him this morning, that’s how we knew Bucky wasn’t here. When we called him by his name, James, or even Bucky, he didn’t respond. He didn’t know who we were talking about,” Sam reaches out like he wants to rub Steve’s back, but his hands drops between them. Sam wets his lips, and in a quiet, apologetic voice, he whispers: “We’re not sure Bucky is in there anymore.” 

No, Steve didn’t want to hear it. He couldn’t stand to hear it, wouldn’t have those condemning words spoken in his apartment. If Steve didn’t have Bucky, he had to at least have hope. Without either of those things, he would be nothing.

“There is a chance. ” Steve is sobbing so hard his body aches with the force of it ripping through him. He hasn’t cried this openly, this savagely, since his mother’s diagnosis. Not even at her funeral did he let this beastly grief rip through him like this. He felt like the weight of this would tear him apart. 

“There is a chance that Bucky is in there, hurting, and you’re just going to give up? Is that really what you’re going to do?” 

“Steve--” Sam tries to reason, but Steve isn’t going to hear it. 

“If what you’re saying is true,” Steve rasps, “Then Bucky--Bucky’s soul, his goodness-- is in the Winter Soldier. For your theory to work, that has to be true.” 

If, when the Winter Soldier was out of cryo, Bucky’s spirit disappeared from the apartment, that meant the part of Bucky that wanted Steve, that made him tea and sung him to sleep and told him he was perfect...was in the Winter Soldier. 

Which meant there was hope. Steve could at least hold on to that.

Natasha watches him with an even expression, except for her eyes. There is a sadness in her eyes, a regret. 

“Steve,” She says patiently, as though talking to a stubborn child about a concept too complex for their understanding. “The Winter Soldier is a human weapon. And I use the term human very, very loosely.” She pauses, “We’re convinced that after the years of shock-therapy and conditioning that the Soldier has undergone, that he is not in a condition where, even after professional help, he’d be able to function safely and reasonably well in day to day civilian life.” It sounded like she was reading a speech, she sounded like she did at press conferences where she was rehearsed and uncomfortable, putting on a front for the world. Hiding behind a charade. 

“But there’s a chance,” Steve echoes robotically, refusing to process what he was being told. “If you just let me see him, maybe he’ll remember me--”

“Or maybe he’ll kill you,” Sam pipes in dryly. 

Steve swallows.

“It’s not just our choice here, Steve. This is bigger than us. This is US and Russian governments, its international Nazi organizations, its,” Clint shakes his head. Out of the three of them, Clint looks the most wrecked to be delivering this news. “I wish we could try.”

Steve digs his hands into his hair and grips hard, until it hurts, jumping to his feet. “You never give up,” he accuses them all with an angry voice. “You never give up, you never say it’s hopeless.” He walks around the room with agitated movements, unable to keep still. “You can’t sit here and tell me that you’re going to shoot Bucky because he’s too dangerous to try and save. To even try,” He uses a hard fist to wipe at his tears. 

“We follow orders,” Natasha replies. “Our orders are to end the Winter Soldier before he ends us.” 

“But,” He bites down on his bottom lip to keep it from trembling. He wants to yank his hair out, he wants to scream or pass out or do something that would make this nightmare end. 

“There is nothing we can do--”

“No,” Steve begs Natasha to stop there. He couldn’t hear those words. “Please.”

Natasha doesn’t stop. She keeps her professional tone. “--He’s not human. He’s not the man you know. The Winter Soldier is dangerous. He’s highly skilled, highly trained, and he’s unpredictable. He’s too good at what he does.” Natasha clenches her jaw together. Steve sees the muscle in her neck strain. “We’ve got orders to shoot on site.” 

“No,” Steve repeats brokenly. His legs forget how to be legs, and they cave out under him. 

He doesn’t want to look at her anymore, or the apartment, which only reminds him of Bucky. He doesn’t want to be here, or think about these dark things. 

Sobs overtake his body, and Steve manages to find strength enough to sag against the wall behind him and curl his legs into his chest like a child. 

“Oh, my god,” He sobs quietly, the realization finally dawning on him. “Oh my god.” 

“Steve--” Clint tries, but Steve doesn’t register his voice. 

He’s lost in his own head, in thoughts of Bucky’s voice and his smile and that laugh that shuddered right through Steve any time he heard it. Those eyes--so expressive, vulnerable and strong at the same time, his lips--bitten and red from biting back moans last night, when he helped Steve along in his release. Talked him through it in the sweetest way.

Damn. So this is what it felt like.

“I think I love him,” He whispers into his hands, around his painful sobs. “I really think I do.” 

There is a silence in the room as everyone takes that confession in, including Steve himself. 

He wasn’t sure which broken part of him had possessed his mouth to say the words out loud, but it felt good, once he did. Like a weight had been lifted. He didn’t have to pretend anymore. 

He loved Bucky. 

He had never been in love before, but in the movies, it never looked like it hurt this much. He should be breaking into closed ice rinks with his lover, and running through cobble stone streets giggling and kissing desperately, hungrily, in the rain. 

Not this. Never this.

Sam scrubs a hand over his hair, and under his breath, murmurs out a small fuck. 

Clint looks up at the ceiling with his lips pressed together. Even Natasha twitches at that confession. 

“You don’t know him.” She says finally, mostly to pacify herself, Steve is sure. “If you knew Sasha, you wouldn’t love him. If you knew what he was capable of doing without even blinking an eye, you wouldn’t be able to love him, even if you tried as hard as you could. You would hate him. You would be afraid.” 

Steve looks up at her, betrayal and tears in his eyes. Her words stung. “And what about what they did to him?”

Natasha’s eyes narrow slightly. 

“They tortured him,” Clint interrupts, his voice taking a reproachful tone. “They brain-washed him. They made him their weapon. He didn’t choose to become Hydra. He was just a soldier, trying to--to fight for his country. And they took him. Twice. They broke him in, and they made him theirs.” 

“Clint,” Natasha says, warningly. “Enough.”

“What?” Clint snaps. He shifts in his seat, showing his irritation. “Is it really so different than what they did to you, Nat? You weren’t yourself. And you read the file--I mean, they stripped him of everything--” 

Steve covers his face again. He didn’t want to hear about Bucky getting hurt, or hurting people, or any of this. This had to be a dream, nothing else. He’d wake up soon, and Bucky would be there, making him coffee or singing to him, or telling him that he was beautiful. The Winter Soldier would be something of Steve’s dreams. Nothing would hurt. He and Bucky would be safe.

“Steve, we’re sorry.” Sam says softly, barely audible over Steve’s body-wracking sobs. It didn’t matter how sorry they were. Nothing mattered. He was shutting down. He was cold all over, slowly going numb. “But he’s dangerous.”

“This is what he looks like, yes?” Natasha produces a picture from her purse, hovering over him and holding it out for Steve to examine. It’s a restored copy of what is clearly an old picture of Bucky during the war. 

Steve wipes his tears away roughly and goes quiet, getting to his feet to snatch the picture from Nat’s hands. He holds it between his fingers as though it’s made of spun gold. 

His portraits of Bucky could not compare to this picture. Steve runs his fingers along the worn edges carefully, so carefully, lips parting at the site of it. 

There he was--his Bucky, right down to his chiselled jaw and the stubborn set of his brow. He wasn’t smiling in the picture, but there was still a playful something in his round eyes that made Steve want to smile, despite being wracked with grief. Just the sight of Bucky filled him with comfort amidst all the chaos in his living room and his heart 

“That’s him.” Steve mumbles, voice rough from crying. He thumbs the picture gently, as if by staring at it intently enough he could summon Bucky back here from whatever hell he was currently in with Hydra.

“And this,” Natasha pulls out another photograph. It’s a close-up image of the one he’d seen of the Winter Soldier while in her apartment, but it’s been edited to be clearer, without the blurry lines that he’d seen before. “Is the Asset. The Winter Soldier” 

Steve takes that picture, too, ands holds the two side by side. His eyes move from one to the other. 

There were differences. Bucky’s hair was short and curly, the Soldier’s hair was limp and greasy, hanging long to hit just before his shoulders and wild with the wind. Bucky’s eyes were cheery and playful even with his solemn expression, the Soldier’s eyes were dead--the same deadness that Steve had seen in Bucky’s right before he disappeared. 

Which...made sense, if he was going with their theory, it meant that in that moment, Bucky was disappearing to go become the Soldier. The moment when they’d touched--it must have been a glitch in the system, a brief moment of in-between when Bucky was resisting going. 

There were also undeniable similarities between the picture, there was no doubt that it was the same man, just much, much more broken in the second image. 

“Okay,” Steve says. He tries to force himself to stop crying, and manages to get his sobs under control with a wet cough, but his tears fall freely without his consent. “Okay.” 

“Okay,” Sam echoes. 

“Steve, Stark has given us instructions to take down the Asset. Dead or alive.” Natasha murmurs. 

Steve’s eyes flick up to hers, and he doesn’t say anything, though he assumes he must look quite broken, folded in on himself, face red and blotchy from crying, clutching the two pictures of the dead man he was in love with. 

Not dead, Steve corrected himself. But soon would be.

“My hands are tied,” Natasha adds, but something in her voice makes Steve think she’s hesitant. Natasha was always the perfect soldier; she obeyed orders, she got the job done. Steve has never heard her question her orders before. 

“If you kill him,” Steve bites down on each word carefully, making sure he was being clear. He meets the eyes of every person in the room. “If you kill him, you kill me.” 

Natasha is shaking her head. “I don’t think you realize how dangerous he is.” 

“Try,” Steve begs her. He grabs her hand in one of his cold ones, getting to his feet. “Nat, please. Try. I never ask you for-for anything. I’m asking you,” He looks to Sam and Clint, “all of you, to try. Try to bring him in. If I can talk to him, or just--if you can get someone to look at him, maybe there is some kind of therapy, or something you can do, to bring him back. Bucky is in there, or else he wouldn’t be disappearing, right? Which means there is someone vulnerable, and human in there, suffering. You’re the Avengers. Your job is to help people.” 

“Steve--” she begins. 

“So help him,” He cuts her off. As he blinks a few more stray tears fall. “And if not for him, then. Help me.” 

There is a long, pregnant pause between them. The air is thick with tension, and Steve nearly misses it when out of the corner of his eye, he notices Bucky standing still as a statue, mouth open in surprise. 

“Buck,” Steve breathes, stumbling back a few feet in surprise. “You’re here.” 

Bucky blinks. The shock on his face doesn’t leave, and his glassy eyes flick only briefly to Steve, before landing somewhere between the window and the floor, a horrified expression. Steve can see his gears grinding, working through everything he’d heard. Bucky swallows. 

Steve wonders how long he’d been there, if he’d heard his story told to him, or if--if he’d heard Steve scream out that he was in love with him. 

If he’d heard all of his friends calling him a monster.

“Bucky is here?” Clint asks, looking around. He squints in every corner, but he of course comes up empty, looking back helplessly to Steve. 

“You can’t see him,” Sam tells him tiredly, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Hey, Bucky. Nice to see you...again,” Sam says awkwardly, obviously referring to their encounter with the Winter Soldier earlier that day. 

Bucky swallows. He doesn’t greet Sam back. He blinks again. 

Steve tries to get his attention by staring intently at him, but Bucky doesn’t look back. He’s frozen with shock. Horror. 

He had heard, Steve could tell by the look on his face. His heart sinks to his toes.

“I think I need some time,” Steve pleaded, looking from Bucky to his friends. He had a mess to clean up here, a lost soul to soothe.  “I just need some time to think, alone.”

“You shouldn’t be alone right now.” Sam protests, looking for all the world like he was bearing down in his spot in order to not be moved. His eyes are worried. “You’re not well.” 

“No, I’m not,” Steve agrees softly, the fight draining from his body. “But I’m strong enough to deal with this. I’ll deal with it, I just. Want time.”

The words feel false coming from his mouth. He doesn’t feel strong. 

He has no fight left in him, not for this. His bones feel heavy and his skin feels like paper, like the smallest thing could tear him apart, could make him clatter to the floor in large, broken pieces. 

Really, if he thought about it, he felt more like a ghost than he’d ever considered Bucky to be. 

Steve didn’t feel like there was anything real about him in this moment; he hung in the air like a cobweb and none of it mattered.  

“I want to be alone, and. I don’t think I can hear you tell me no again. So just go, for now, and think about it. Please.”  He had to talk to Bucky, see where they stood. He was trying hard not to tremble, to stand strong and not let his voice shake, trying not to show how scared he really was. “I know I’m asking a lot of you. But I don’t know what else to do.” 

Steve had to gather the strength he hoped he had and he needed to deal with this, find a way to save Bucky. 

Clint and Sam get to their feet slowly, watching Steve like he was a bomb that may go off at any minute. To a stranger, Natasha’s face may seem cold and cut-off, but Steve knew her well, and he recognized that sadness and guilt in her eyes. 

She was afraid for Steve, and she was sorry for him. 

Steve didn’t think that would be enough to get her to rebel against direct orders, but a part of him was still hopeful that eventually, she and the others would come around.

“Steve,” Clint murmurs on his way out, throwing an apologetic look over his shoulder at Steve. “For what it’s worth, I want to try.” 

Steve doesn’t smile, but he does give Clint a grateful nod. Having someone on his side would help. Maybe Clint could begin to chip away at the others, especially Natasha. Sam, Steve was pretty sure, could be convinced. He just didn’t have the energy to start just yet. 

He would save Bucky, though. That was the only option, if he had to storm into a Hydra base himself and steal him away, he would do it. 

 

He knew that if the roles were reversed, Bucky would burn the world to ashes to get Steve out. Steve could only do the same.

Natasha hesitates, though. “I’m sorry this happened to you,” She says gently. Steve feels like she means it, but it doesn’t do anything to soothe the hurt. “This is bigger than you. It’s exactly what we feared when we became your friend.” She glances at the other two Avengers, who paused in their slow shuffle towards the door, watching her with a sad expression, like they knew she was right. “We’ve dragged you into something larger than you signed up for.” 

“Me meeting Bucky had nothing to do with you.” Steve tells them all. He realizes that they are hurting, too. Their hearts are aching for him, and it wasn’t fair of him to shut them out cold and pretend like he was the only one suffering. They loved him, after all, and no one liked seeing someone they love go through something terrible. “It was just a strange coincidence, and I don’t regret anything.” 

“Not yet,” Sam murmurs. He won’t look at Steve, he’s staring at the floor, hands shoved into his pockets. “Things haven’t gotten hard yet, but they will. And you might hate us for it.” 

Steve swallows. He didn’t want to think about that. Bucky blinks fast a few times. “Don’t give me a reason to.” 

Sam doesn’t have anything to say to that. He’s not sure when it started, but the snow has turned into rain outside under the heat of the November sun, coming down in heavy sheets. Steve listens to it beat against the windows like prisoners against jail cell bars. 

“James,” Natasha greets, for the first time. She clears her throat, staring at the ground because, of course, she can’t see Bucky. “I’m sorry this happened to you. But I’ll do what I have to to protect Steve, and anyone else I can. I trust you’ll understand.” 

Bucky looks at her with an even gaze, his jaw working. He nods once, but Steve won’t translate that. He doesn’t want his friends to know that Bucky has accepted his fate. He didn’t want to be the only one fighting for this. 

“Please think about what I asked,” Steve begs his friends, as they get ready to head out into the storm. “I’m only asking you to think about it.”

Natasha pulls a thick folder out of her bag, and sets it down on the coffee table with a heavy slap, interrupting the general calm that had overtaken the room since Steve had quieted down some.

Sam and Clint both look like they’re about to protest--Sam even moves to snatch the thing up, but she silences them with a sharp look. 

“Steve,” She says. Her tone has lost the softness from before, her words are biting and harsh. “Take a look at what he’s done and tell me if you still want to save him then.”

With that, Clint and Sam shuffle reluctantly out, with Natasha clipping closely at their heels. 

When his door closes, the echo of the latch sliding into place is the only sound that fills the apartment for a long time, along with the battering rain. 

Steve scrubs at his eyes. They’re dry from crying, and they sting a little. His throat burns, his nose runs, and he is exhausted. He wants this to be a nightmare, wants to wake up in Bucky’s arms

“Bucky,” he whispers. “Please talk to me.” 

“They’re right.” Bucky’s eyes slide over to Steve. “Everything they said, it’s true. I...don’t remember everything, but. If I think about it, I do remember some stuff, I think. I used to think it was all just nightmares or illusions. But I remember them. Hydra,” he shudders visibly. “Programming me.” 

Steve takes a step closer to him, but Bucky recoils like he can’t bear to have Steve one inch closer to him. 

“Don’t,” Bucky demands flatly. “Just, don’t.”

“Buck--”

“I’m glad. That I was here, when they explained. There’s been a lot of holes in my memory, and. It’s good I know why. So, I’m glad.” Bucky takes a deep breath. “But I’m a monster. I know that for sure now. And you shouldn’t be so comfortable around me.” 

The words sting Steve as though he’d been slapped. “Don’t say that.” 

“It’s true.” Bucky laughs without humor. “You heard what your friends said. I’m the Winter Soldier, the most notorious killing machine of our time,” he quotes. “And now I’ve dragged you into this mess with me--”

“What do you mean?” 

“If I had just stayed away, even if I had been a nuisance like I was to everyone else who lived in this damn apartment, you would have left, or at the very least, you wouldn’t have gotten close to me,” Bucky spits bitterly. “But I didn’t stay away. And now look at the position I’ve put you in.”

Steve’s hands clench into fists. Bucky was being an idiot--Steve was so frustrated part of him wanted to punch him in his big dumb head just to make him see some sense. His fear and sadness was shifting into anger, his fiery temper rearing its ugly head once again. “James Buchanan Barnes,” Steve growls. “If you think for one second that I regret meeting you in the slightest, you’ve got an even thicker skull than I thought.”

“Steve,” Bucky begins, but he stops short. His eyes are wild, tortured, his hands clenched into white-knuckled fists. There is a storm brewing in the apartment, in the air between them, and Steve is afraid that he’s going to get his heart broken, that he might lose everything that ever mattered. 

“Unless you regret meeting me because of...what I said,” Steve thinks back to him crying out about his feelings for Bucky, “Then fine. I will give you that. But if you regret meeting me because you think my fuckin’ innocence is going to be corrupted or something, shut up about it.” 

Bucky grunts in frustration, looking at Steve like he was bizzare for not running in the opposite direction. “I’m a killer--”

“Did you hear what Clint said? Hydra makes the Winter Soldier do those things. He’s brainwashed, and--”

“Stop talking about the Winter Soldier like he isn’t me,” Bucky clips, cutting Steve off sharply. He’s never used this biting tone with Steve before. It makes Steve feels like something between them has broken. “ I am the Winter Soldier, Steve. I’m the one who hurt those people. Killed them. I’m the one working with Hydra. Me.” 

“Not with,” Steve shakes his head fast. His vision is blurry, but he can’t tell if its from tears or exhaustion. He can’t be the only one in the fight for Bucky to be saved. If his friends were against him, and if Bucky was...Steve would lose. And losing this fight meant losing everything. “For. Against your will, Buck. You never had a choice.” 

“Your friends are right, I ain’t worth saving.” Bucky’s face is dark, he’s lost in some part of himself that Steve can’t reach. “They need to kill me--the Winter Soldier--so that I can’t hurt anybody anymore. That’s the only option. It’s the one that’ll do the least damage to the least amount of people.” 

Steve was afraid Bucky would ask for this. He was a righteous man, Steve knew, a man who believed in right and wrong. He didn’t see a light at the end of this. In Bucky’s mind, there was no version of this story that ended with him making it out alive.

Steve tries hard not to crumple to the ground, just barely succeeding, hugging his arms around his body. 

“What about me?” Steve asks, voice cracking. “What will happen to me, if you just...give up? If you die?” 

Steve thinks that he may just evaporate into the air like Bucky sometimes does, his particles scattering all over the rooms of this apartment and wandering around, lonely, never find their counterpart again. He felt like that was happening to him at the moment, like he was falling away into nothing.

Bucky’s face stays dark. “It’s not your call to make, Steve.” 

“I get some say!” Steve yells, slamming his fist down on the coffee table. His mug rattles there from the force of it, the little bit of tea still left in the mug rippling. 

There is a sudden, white-hot anger that has replaced his sadness. He takes a step closer to Bucky, muscles coiled with fury. Bucky doesn’t back away this time.

“You don’t get to just--just stand around the apartment and protect me, you don’t get to make me coffee, and call me pet names, and tell me I’m the most p-perfect thing you’ve ever seen or-or slow dance with me, and then tell me I don’t get any say in what h-happens to you!” Steve shouts, not caring who hears, not caring if he was being dramatic. 

Bucky opens his mouth, but Steve isn’t done. “You did this, you made me fall in love with you, so you get to deal with me having a fucking say about what happens when it comes to you. This is bad news, sure, but it also means there is hope. Did you ever think about that? You aren’t dead. You’re alive. That means, if we can get you--the Winter Soldier, if we can you away from Hydra, and keep you out of cryo, then you would have a body,” Steve is crying again, but he ignores it, his hands curling into fists at his side, so tight his nails dig hard into the palms of his hands. “And you could touch me, and hold me, and...we could just be. ” Steve wipes angrily at his tears. “And that is the best thing I can imagine. That is worth fighting for.” 

Bucky stays quiet, but something in his face changes as he watches Steve. The darkest parts of him seem to drift away, letting the light in. His features open up, shock becoming disbelief, becoming amusement, and finally, awe. 

“You love me.” 

“Yes.” Steve didn’t care anymore, nothing mattered except that Bucky was alive. “You fucking idiot. Yes, I love you.” 

Bucky’s lips part, as if hearing Steve say it again made it register for good. “Steve--” He begins, but Steve is afraid to hear what he might say next, so he cuts him off with a hand, shaking his head. 

“I know you may not love me,” Steve whispers, still with anger in his voice, though it’s not accusatory. He knows he can’t expect Bucky to love him, that wasn’t the point of this. The point was that Bucky needed to see that people--mainly Steve--cared about him, and wanted to see him come out of this alive. Bucky was a righteous man, and he wouldn’t want to hurt Steve, no matter if he loved him or not. “And I’m not asking for that. But I know you care about me. You give a damn, and that has to be enough. We don’t need to talk about it, or--or make things strange, we can just focus on getting you--all of you--back to one piece. That’s all I want.” 

Bucky watches him with a small, sad smile playing at his lips. “Steve,” He breathes, like the name is a secret kept just between them. “Stevie…” 

“I said we don’t have to talk about it,” Steve grumbles, looking away. This awe-inspired look on Bucky’s face didn’t match the scenario brewing between them, but it did give Steve some hope.

“Ace,” Bucky says. “Look at me.” 

Reluctantly, Steve’s eyes slide back over to meet Bucky’s. 

“You’re the idiot. You’re a goddamn punk, actually,” Bucky is shaking his head, taking a step closer to Steve. “Stevie, doll--shit. Of course I love you. How could anyone not love you? You’re,” Bucky swallows, eyes raking over Steve slowly, drinking in every inch of him. Steve felt ugly, in that moment, and exposed, all of his crushed bones and open wounds there on his face, in his eyes, in the way his hands were shaking. But Bucky didn’t look at Steve like he was ugly. 

He looked at Steve like Steve was some sort of angel, like a religious man finally seeing the face of something divine, of the only God he had ever believed in, ever prayed to. It was intense, that look, and it made Steve feel a little stronger knowing that he was one of the privileged few to have Bucky Barnes look him up and down and then wet his lips.

Bucky loved him. 

Bucky Barnes loved him. The thing between them, the thing that had been hiding in all the little pet names and the lingering looks and the passion of last night--it was this. Love. 

“Look,” Bucky murmurs, voice low. “I’m, it’s….What I’m trying to say is that yeah. Yeah, I fuckin’ love you.” Bucky isn’t blushing. He’s not hiding his face--he’s perfectly at ease confessing his love to Steve, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. There is no uncertainty, no shame. “I love you, Steve.” 

“Buck,” Steve breathes, forgetting every other word in his vocabulary. 

This was everything; the particles of Steve were bonding back together at those words, his wounds were stitching themselves up, binding to Bucky . He saw a light at the end of what, ten minutes ago, seemed like a very dark tunnel. 

The awe in Bucky’s face fades away slowly, feature by feature. They stare at each other. 

“Doesn’t change anything,” Bucky whispers, like he’s sorry to have to say so. He stares hard at the ground. “It doesn’t. I’m sorry, Steve.” The light in the tunnel goes out. 

Darkness. Steve’s heart rumbles, wanting to break apart again. 

“It changes everything.”

“No, it doesn’t,” Bucky snaps. “I ain’t gonna be the one to suck the light outta you.” 

“What?” Steve blinks, not understanding. 

“Your eyes,” Bucky explains impatiently, like this was a metaphor Steve should automatically understand. He gestures to Steve’s face. “They’re always so full of light. You’ve got so much fight in you, Ace. So much hope.” Bucky tugs on his hair, in a sharp, frustrated movement. “I don’t want to be the one to suck the light out.” 

He really was a goddamn idiot. He was trying to make a martyr out of himself--and Steve wouldn’t let him.

“You’re the one that put the light in them,” Steve murmurs fiercely, jabbing an accusatory finger at Bucky. “You don’t wanna put the light out? Then live.” 

“Read the file.” 

Steve’s eyes move to the file Natasha had dropped on to his coffee table. It was black, with a single red star in the center. It was old and worn, like it had been opened many times. It looked menacing, like Pandora’s box. 

“No.” Steve says simply.

“Because you’re afraid to know what I’ve done.” 

Steve wipes his nose on the sleeve of his sweater unceremoniously. “No. Because nothing in that file is going to change anything for me. You’re still a good man, you’re just a good man who had terrible things done to him,” Steve pulls the sleeves of his sweater down over his hands, and wraps his arms around himself. “If you agree to fight, and...and not let Hydra win, things could be so different, Buck. We could be together. ” 

“It wouldn’t be that simple--”

Steve uncurls again, and moves slowly, deliberately, so that he’s standing right in front of Bucky, just centimeters between his chest and the cold air that should be Bucky’s solid body. 

“We could be together,” He repeats, and brings both of his hands up to hover around Bucky’s face. If Bucky were solid, he’d be holding Bucky’s bewildered face in both of his hands. But now, there is only air.

“We could make each other pancakes,” Steve whispers, his voice so low and quiet he could hardly hear himself over the rush of blood in his ears. He wasn’t fighting fair, and he knew it. But if there ever was a time to fight dirty, this was it, and he refused to feel guilty for doing so. He would use everything he had to convince Bucky that this was a cause worth fighting for.

“You could teach me how to dance, for real, and I could mess up your hair and kiss you on the nose and you could rub my back during an asthma attack or hold me.” Steve’s eyes search Bucky’s, looking for a yearning, a hint that Bucky wants the scene Steve is painting out for them. “You could just hold me, Buck. Don’t you want that?” 

“Of course I do,” Bucky’s says, voice low. Steve can tell, now, with the way he’s looking down at him, that Bucky wants him. It’s written all over his face. His pupils are wide, the same way they were last night, and his lips were slightly parted, pink and waiting. 

“We could fall asleep beside each other. You could--God, Buck, you could touch me. Really touch me, like I’ve been dying for. Like I wanted you to last night.” 

Bucky wets his lips. “I could kiss you,” His voice sounds wrecked, rough and uneven. “I’d kiss you for hours, sweetheart.” 

“Yeah, Buck, you could,” Steve nods eagerly, stretching up on his toes to bring their lips just centimeters apart. It was cruel of him to do, when they both knew they couldn’t kiss, couldn’t touch yet, but Steve was making a point. “You could kiss me and you’d never, ever have to stop.” 

Bucky breathes heavily. There is a pause, and then Bucky steps away, creating space between them. “You’re a goddamn punk.” Bucky side eyes him, but there is no venom in his tone, only tired resolve. 

Steve goes back down on flat foot, folding his arms defensively over his chest. “If you want me to read the file, I will read it. But you need to promise me that when I’m done and when I still feel exactly the same, that you’ll help me get you away from Hydra.” 

“You’re not going anywhere near Hydra--” Bucky sounds like he’s about to go off on a very heated rant/lecture about how vehemently he did not want Steve around the Nazi organization, so Steve rolls his eyes and cuts him off. 

“Easy, Buck. I meant my friends will get you away from Hydra. They’ve got the guns n’stuff.” Steve bats his eyelashes sweetly, although it’s a tense moment between them, both of them too stubborn to want to give up. “So?” Steve prompts. “You in?” 

Bucky lets out a long breath. “I will try,” He says slowly. “To get back to you. But if I hurt anyone, or if I become a risk to you--especially to you--you’ll tell your friends that they need to kill me.” 

Steve shudders. The thing was that he knew Natasha would have no problem with those terms, the problem would be convincing them to not kill Bucky. He didn’t want to argue about that now, so he nodded his head. “Okay. Deal.” 

“Deal,” Bucky murmurs. They couldn’t shake on it, but they nodded together and it felt final. Sealed with Satan’s approval. 

“Okay,” Steve exhales again. “Let me get my glasses.” 

----- 

Steve reads. 

He has to stop twice to throw up, and then after that, once more to dry heave into a bucket, when his stomach is empty of all its contents but still rolling from the gory pictures and accounts in the file. 

The words are too descriptive, Steve’s imagination runs too wild, and he is haunted by all the ways Hydra made Bucky scream. 

 

Chapter Text

Cause if you're alone, if you're alone
How can I save you?
I find a way to make your love more complicated
What if I could change, if I could change if you could save me?
So find a way to miss a thousand times

I don't want to live without your love
Oh, oh
I tell you what you want to hear if
What you want is incomplete
I don't want to live without your love
I've been wondering what to change if
I can look the other way
I seem to remember how it felt to be crushed by something
Walk until you see no water
Just in case it doesn't appear
Take advantage of the summer

           - One Thousand Times, James Vincent McMorrow


As Steve is done reading the pages, he sets them aside carefully, gently, and Bucky skims over them with a forlorn look on his face. His eyes pause at certain phrases, at the names of people the Winter Soldier executed. And then he’d blink a few times, and read on. They get through the entire thing in this manner.

 

They are silent, but it is a heavy silence that sits between them. Uncomfortable and tense, it makes Steve skin want to crawl off. 

When Steve has read the last page, he takes a long drink of water with ginger that he’d been nursing to stave off the nausea, and sets it down with a sense of finality. His fingers shake hard enough that some water spills out of the cup and onto the coffee table.

 

“Okay,” He says, throat hoarse from crying and from puking. “Okay.”

 

Bucky glances up at him. He doesn’t say anything for a while, watching Steve scrub at his eyes to catch the few stray tears that stuck around stubbornly. Then he swallows. “So now you know.” 

 

“I read the file,” Steve agrees. “And now we’re going to get you the hell away from those monsters.” 

 

Bucky stares at him with an incredulous face, like that was the last response he was expecting to hear. “What do you mean?” He shakes his head at Steve and his eyes drift elsewhere in self-loathing. “You saw the things I’ve done. I’m the monster. You were disgusted by me.” 

 

Steve frowns. His mind was fuzzy both from being sick and from the trauma of the past few hours. “I was disgusted at the files. Because it details the things Hydra did to you.” There were diagrams, and every explicit detail had been precisely translated from what Steve was pretty sure was Russian into perfect English. He assumed he had Natasha to thank for that. Or to blame, depending on how he wanted to look at it. 

 

Seeing the details of what they made Bucky do made Steve equally as sick, but not for the reasons Bucky would think. For every name on every mission report that Winter Soldier was responsible for killing, Steve saw a lack of free will, he saw suffering for the victim and the Soldier--who was also a victim, guilt that would stay with Bucky forever. It seemed to be an endless cycle of hurt.

 

Bucky studies his face for a hint of a lie and must not find one because he swallows hard and looks away without saying anything, as if he believed he was undeserving of the empathy and mercy he saw on Steve’s face.

 

“Buck,” Steve says gently. He had to be careful about the way he approached this; things were delicate between them, they hung in the balance. Bucky was delicate right now, and rightfully so. Steve was feeling pretty damn breakable himself. 

“What they did to you is…” he tries to find a word that is ugly enough, horrible enough, but he can’t. “What they’re doing to you, right now, even--even right in this moment, they’ve got your body frozen in a chamber, somewhere close enough that you were out this morning. Nat and the others saw you, you can’t be far.” 

 

He pauses, waiting to see if Bucky will react, but he only stares ahead with a blank face. “The things they’ve done to you are inhumane, they’re horrible. You’ve done some...bad stuff,” Steve nods slowly, minds flashing to the list of names in the files, lives that Bucky took away. “But not unforgivable things. And it’s not like you had a choice.”

 

“You have to say those things,” Bucky whispers. “You have to.” 

 

“Like hell I do. I could pack my stuff up and get out of this apartment and never think about you again.” It was a lie, really. Steve could leave if he wanted, but he didn’t think there was a world left for him that would let him forget about Bucky Barnes.

 

Bucky’s eyes flash up sharply to his, then, as if considering this situation as a real threat, like Steve might actually leave him. 

 

“But I’m not leaving, am I?” Steve asks rhetorically, folding his arms over his chest. “I am barely five foot six inches, ninety-one pounds, Buck. I’ve got absolutely no business sticking my nose in Hydra operations. I should be running for the hills, probably. This stuff is...scary. And dangerous, and it’s real.” As he says the words, Steve realizes how true they are. “But I don’t want to run. I can’t even think about running--the thought of walking away from this makes me feel physically sick. Because my Ma taught me not to turn my back on the people I love. So if it takes me storming into a Hydra base with three superheroes and a whole lot of hope...then shit, Buck, I’ll do it. I’ll do whatever it takes.” 

 

Bucky’s face goes soft and open, and it’s an expression that makes Steve want to lean into him, sigh in relief and relish the moment, because it’s so familiar--- that’s his Bucky, right there in the pale expanse of those sea-foam eyes, in the parted lips and the messy curls. He was back. The darkness was still there, lurking in the back of Bucky’s eyes, it was there in the way he held himself, but he cracked apart to let the light in, if only just a little. 

 

“You’re really not going to give this up.” Bucky mused gently. “Stubborn one, you are.”

 

“That’s right,” Steve sniffles, sticking his chin out proudly . “I’m in it for the long haul.” 

 

Bucky watches him curiously. He shoves his hands in the pockets of his dark green pants. “‘Till the end of the line then, Ace? Whatever Hell that may be?” 

 

Steve clenches his jaw and nods once, solidified in his resolve. “‘Till the end of the line,” he echoes. 

 

It feels more like an I love you. 

 

----------------

For the  rest of the day, they just enjoy existing, together, in the same space. Bucky notices Steve’s phone pinging with messages a few times, but each time he only picks up the phone, reads the messages, and sets it down again without typing out a reply. 

 

Bucky isn’t watching the sitcom on TV. He’s too busy trying to memorize Steve’s face, every last detail, down to the hairs of his eyebrows and the exact color of his eyes. If he could commit those details to memory, maybe when he--the Winter Soldier--woke up from cryo, he’d remember Steve. Maybe he wouldn’t want to hurt him. 

 

That was the worst thing Bucky could think of, the most bitter ending to their story. Bucky read the file, he understood and somewhat remembered what he was capable of once he had a body and a gun. He was efficient, non-emotional, and extremely dangerous. 

 

And Steve--Steve was brave, so brave it terrified Bucky. When other civilians would be running for the hills, Steve was digging in his heels and lifting that stubborn chin, and was refusing to give up on Bucky. Bucky was terrified , because he knew, if it came down to it, Steve wouldn’t be afraid of the Winter Soldier, and that lack of fear would be enough to end his life.

 

Steve would look the Winter Soldier in the eyes, and would reach out and try to make him see reason. He would end up dead for it, and if Bucky’s memories ever came back to the Winter Soldier, he would live with that heavy guilt for the rest of his life. It would be a guilt worse than all others, one he knew he would never be free of.

 

Steve’s friends were good people. 

They were reasonable. They would try their best to keep Steve safe; they loved him, after all, and they had the resources to protect him effectively, even against Bucky. Steve’s friends perceived Bucky as a threat, and that, at least, was a comfort. He needed Steve to fear him, for his own safety.

 

“What are you thinkin’ bout, Buck? You look like your mind is going a million different directions,” Steve hums softly, interrupting Bucky’s inner monologue. 

 

Bucky blinks, snapping out of it, and offers a charming smile, hoping to distract Steve from prying too much. 

Bucky was tired of having heavy conversations, and he felt like being selfish. Every second they now had together was on borrowed time. 

Hydra could pull the Soldier out of cryo at any second, and Bucky would be plucked away from Steve, for who knows how long. Bucky had to cherish the time they had together.

 

“Nothin’, Ace. Just thinkin’ about how pretty you are,” Bucky murmurs smoothly. It’s not a lie; he was always enraptured by Steve’s beauty, his masculine jaw and strong nose, his thick brow and full, pink lips. Those eyes, framed with the darkest, thickest lashes, prettier than Bucky had ever seen on any dame. His legs, the long, pale expanse of them, the bones of his spine--

 

“Jeez,” Steve scoffs with an eyeroll, clearly uncomfortable with the attention. “Give it a rest, Romeo.” 

 

Bucky snorts at that. Steve is curled up on the other end of the couch, as far away from Bucky as he can be. Bucky knows he radiates cold air, and Steve isn’t feeling well, cold enough as it is without Bucky’s freezing presence. Bucky had tried insisting on moving to the other side of the room, but Steve refused to let him, and so this was their compromise. 

 

Bucky, selfishly, imagined for a moment a world where they succeeded, got his body back and his memories, a world where he and Steve just lived day in and day out in domestic bliss. He used to run hot--maybe the Winter Soldier did, too. He could open up his arms and Steve would burrow into him. Bucky could offer him warmth and comfort and something solid to fall back on, some kind of protection that wasn’t superficial. 

 

That dream felt far away, out of reach.

 

“What? I’m allowed to stare at you. We’re…” Bucky trails off, suddenly unsure. What were they, really? They hadn’t talked about that. They had both confessed their feelings. In Bucky’s day, he’d call it going steady, and nowadays, they might call it dating, but the term felt too juvenile for their situation, and, truthfully, they had never even been on a date. 

 

Steve wet his lips, and Bucky tracks the movement hungrily, thinking about last night, about Steve’s feverish body and his hands wrapped tight around his own cock, coming undone right in front of Bucky, writhing in the sheets and biting down on his lip to keep quiet. Thinks about the things he would do to Steve if could get his hands on him, if he was in his right mind to even be trusted around Steve.

 

“We’re...in love.” Steve suggests softly, with a shy smile. His tone has more hope than Bucky had felt since hearing about his true identity, and it’s part of the reason he’s so gone for Steve. Steve never gives up hope--not really. Bucky was afraid that he would be the reason Steve stops fighting with everything he has because he believes in right from wrong, the reason he stopped laughing with his whole body or smiling in his sleep. Bucky didn’t know what he’d do if he ever saw the light leave those bright blue eyes. “Right?” 

 

Bucky returns the smile, his heart giving a fond squeeze for Steve. In all of his years of loneliness in this apartment, of people coming in and Bucky pushing them away, he never thought he would get this; a beautiful boy, staring at him with such love, such trust. “That’s right, doll. We’re in love.” 

 

It felt like the best kind of blessing. 

 

Steve’s smile grows a little wider as he watches Bucky, but it slowly fades from his features, and he casts his eyes down, at his hands. He wrings out his fingers and clasps and unclasps his hands, a nervous gesture Bucky has noticed Steve is prone to when he’s thinking something but won’t say it. 

 

“Spit it out, Ace,” Bucky urges quietly. They couldn’t stand to have secrets between them at a time like this.

 

Steve looks up at him, a little startled, as if he thought he was being pretty secretive about hiding whatever was on his mind. But Bucky had a lot of time to study Steve, his habits, his expressions. They knew each other well, even if it hadn’t been that long.

 

“It’s nothing,” Steve shrugs; a terrible lie. 

 

Bucky frowns disapprovingly, . “Let’s not start lying to each other now.” 

 

Steve clenches his jaw and then relaxes it, giving in. “It’s just,” He shrugs again, frail shoulders rising and falling. “I don’t fit in.” 

 

Bucky blinks. That wasn’t where he was expecting this conversation to go, but Steve looks so put-out about the confession that Bucky knows he needs to tread lightly. “What do you mean?” 

 

“Well,” Steve says carefully. Bucky can tell he’s selecting his words before saying them. “Natasha, Clint and Sam are the heroes. The Avengers. Their role is to, I hope, get you away from Hydra, once they get it through their thick skulls that you are good. I mean, their role is to save people. Help people.” He explains softly. “And you--you’re role is--”

 

“Damsel in distress?” Bucky suggests, trying to lighten the mood. “Psychotic-murdering-undead-dead guy?”

 

Steve continues as if he hadn’t spoken, and Bucky sees that his attempt at playfulness failed. “You’re the all-powerful-highly-trained assassin/torture-victim,” Steve explains. “You’re the center of it all. But me? I’m just a skinny kid from Brooklyn that got caught up in something he doesn’t understand.” 

 

Bucky sees the pain in Steve’s eyes, sees how much he truly believes the words. “Hey,” Bucky says roughly. He’d do anything to get that lost look out of Steve’s eyes. “Look at me.” Steve does. “You’re the center of it all, Ace, not me,” Bucky says earnestly. “You’re the only reason I might get a second chance at the whole living thing. If not for you, if we had never met, the Avengers wouldn’t question the order to kill me, no one would know who I really am. If not for you, no one would know that the Winter Soldier has a name.” And it was true. 

 

Steve was the center of it all. He was the true hero, fighting for Bucky when no one else would, when no one else saw that he was worth fighting for. Steve made Bucky stronger, Steve saw the light in him even when he himself could only see darkness. 

 

Steve purses his lips. Bucky appreciates this about Steve, his ability to listen. Sure, the kid was stubborn as a mule and when he dug his heels in, God help anyone who was on the opposite side of that temper. But when you spoke, Steve listened with his whole body.

 

“This world, your world, the world of the Avengers, it’s not my world ,” Steve argues quietly, shaking his head, “I don’t fit in. Even if what you say is true, that...that us meeting might help save your life....it doesn’t feel like that. I feel like I’m going to watch my friends get hurt, like I’m going to lose you, and I won’t be able to do a damn thing about it.” 

 

Bucky wants to tug Steve into his arms. If he could, he would grab him around the waist, tug him onto his lap and let Steve bury his cool nose into the warmth of Bucky’s neck. He would stroke Steve’s hair and kiss his forehead and Steve could listen to Bucky’s heartbeat under his ear. They could just be. What Bucky wouldn’t give to feel the weight of Steve’s small body curled up in his arms.

 

But of course, for now, that is impossible. From what Bucky remembers of his time as the Winter Soldier, he wasn’t sure if it would ever be possible, that a monster like that could learn to be gentle with someone as precious as Steve Rogers. He didn’t know if a heart that blackened by years of hatred and pain and death could ever learn to love. 

 

He won’t say these things outloud, though. Steve had hope, still. Bucky would not be the one to take that away from him. All he had to do was fight to commit the things he loved most about Steve to memory. If he could burn them, carve them, into his brain, then there would be hope that when he woke up from cryo, he would remember something of the skinny blond boy that owns his heart. As long as there is something, it would be enough. 

 

That way, if the Winter Soldier and Steve ever come face to face, Bucky would remember enough about Steve to know he was not to be harmed. As long as that much memory could be preserved, they’d be okay.  

 

As for the love part, falling in love with Steve was inevitable, for Bucky. He would fall for him over again, when the Winter Soldier comes to know him. He had to believe that much was true, for the sake of his sanity. He didn’t think a universe existed where Bucky Barnes doesn’t love Steve Rogers.

 

“What you can do,” Bucky murmurs. “Is hope.” 

 

Steve snorts dryly. “Yeah, ‘cause that will do so much when my friends try to put a bullet in your head.” 

 

Bucky thinks that is exactly what he deserves, to be put down like a rabid dog, but he won’t dare to tell Steve that. Instead, he presses his lips together. “Steve,” He says softly, a warning. He doesn’t want to do this anymore. “Don’t.” 

 

“Well, it’s true. You heard them. They’re going to try and kill you.”

 

“Yeah.” 

 

“And you want me to just... hope that they find it within themselves to...to not?” 

 

“Yes.” 

 

Steve groans in frustration, burying his head in his hands. “It’s like you don’t even care, Buck! I thought we agreed that we were worth fighting for--”

 

“Steve,” Bucky interrupts again, shaking his head. “It’s not that I don’t think we’re worth it.” Unspoken, but hanging in the air just as plainly as if Bucky had shouted it, were the words, I don’t think I am. 

 

Steve wets his lips, and Bucky sees that angry storm coming to his face again, Steve was about to explode into a righteous and heated speech about how Bucky is the victim, about how Bucky deserves to live, deserves happiness. 

 

No one advocated for Bucky’s victims like that. People who died by the cold metal of his hands, staring into his dead eyes, begging for their life. People who never got a chance, because of Bucky. Why did he deserve to live, and they didn’t? 

 

Just as Steve opens his mouth, his phone rings. Steve glares between his phone, and Bucky, and then back at his phone again, before saying through clenched teeth, “This ain’t over,” 

 

“Scout’s honor,” Bucky mutters sarcastically, and Steve answers the phone with a flat, “Hello.” 

 

His eyebrows lift at whatever reply he hears on the other end. “Oh,” Steve blinks. “Uh, yeah, sure, of course. Yeah. Okay. Seven? Yeah, that works for me. Okay, thanks, Sam. I’ll see you then.” 

 

Steve hangs up, and Bucky arches a brow. “What was that about?” he inquires. 

 

Steve, his rotten mood forgotten, lets a slow smile spread across his face. “That,” Steve says, “Was hope.” 

----------

 

That evening, Steve meets Sam for coffee. It’s too late for coffee, really, and Steve knows that any ounce of caffeine at this hour was just going to make him jittery and upset, unable to sleep. He orders chamomile tea in the hopes that it will grant him rest, but he knows it’s a futile effort. 

 

The day has been long and hard, and if sleep does come to him tonight, it will not be a restful slumber, but one plagued with the dark dreams of all the creative ways Hydra had had its tentacles all over Bucky. He shudders at the thought.

 

Sam orders an Americano with an extra shot of espresso, and Steve isn’t surprised. The guy drank coffee like he was made of the stuff. They are quiet while they wait for their drinks, a tense silence between them filled with the background noise of the steamer and general coffee shop hum.

 

When their names are called, they get a corner booth tucked away from prying eyes. The cafe is mostly empty except for a few students working eagerly at their laptops, fingers flying and headphones in. They wouldn’t care for anything Sam or Steve had to say, so long as they kept their voices down. 

 

“Thanks for meeting me,” Sam begins stiffly. The formality makes Steve uncomfortable, like something between them had been lost. Sam had seen him at the lowest points of his life. Steve had stitched up Sam’s literal bullet wounds with his bare hands. They were family, it didn’t feel fair to have this strangeness between them.

 

“Why did you ask me here, Sam?” Steve asks quietly. “And don’t lie.” 

 

“I want to talk, after you read the file and had some time to think.” It was a fair response, as honest as Steve could have hoped for. Sam was a better liar than Steve, but he had his tells and Steve knew them. He nods, satisfied. 

 

“Have you thought about what I asked?” Steve murmurs, sliding his finger around the rim of his mug serenely. 

He was still getting over his cold, his body was tired and his mind couldn’t stop flashing back to the files. Steve didn’t have a photographic memory--at least, he never had before--but he could see every page in his mind so clearly it felt as though they were on the table before him, the photographs of Bucky’s dead eyes boring holes into his head.

 

Sam takes a sip of his coffee, buying more time before answering Steve. “I have,” he replies carefully. 

 

“And?”

 

“And I don’t know. You’re asking a lot of me here, man. More than I think you know.” 

 

Steve tugs on the tea bag floating around in his drink. He watches amber liquid spill out of it and stain the rest of the water. It reminds him of blood. “Sam, I’m asking you not to kill the man I love.” 

 

Sam laughs without humor, not looking up. It’s an empty sound. “If only it were that simple.” 

 

“It could be,” Steve mutters stubbornly, but he knows that isn’t true. This was no longer his civilian world. He had entered a world of gunfire and politics, and back fence deals with shady white men in expensive suits. People in lab coats who torture soldiers and turn them into weapons, superheros who were under orders from other superheros. 

Steve was so out of his element it hurt his head to think about. Like he told Bucky, he didn’t belong. There was no room for him--he didn’t fit belong in this world.

 

“Let’s forget about love for a second,” Sam proposes. He takes a sip of his coffee before continuing, like he needed the strength of caffeine before he could continue. 

 

“I’ve got orders to shoot on site. It’s not too often that we don’t at least try to take someone in alive, especially a Hydra operative. It’s much more valuable to find out what they know than it is to kill ‘em onsite and keep guessing, you get that? S’why so many Hydra agents keep cyanide on them. They end it if they’re captured, because they know the information we get out of them is more valuable than their lives,” Sam talks like he’s a highschool math teacher trying to lay out a difficult algebraic problem for Steve. 

 

Steve blinks slowly. “Okay,” he says, to show he’s following along. Everything Sam was saying made sense so far.

 

“But with the Soldier,” Sam clears his throat roughly. “With Bucky, we’re not trying to do that. Because he’s too dangerous to try to take alive. Do you understand, Steve? This man is so dangerous, that our orders are just to do whatever is necessary to take him down, ASAP. For our safety, and...well, everyone.” 

 

Steve lets out a long breath. The weight of Sam’s words settles into Steve’s heart. “I understand.” 

 

“So, if I promise you right here and now that I’m not going to kill the Winter Soldier, I could just be promising you that I’m going to let him kill me.” Sam pauses to let that sink in. It does.

 

A pang of panic clutches his chest. Bucky, hurting Sam? It seemed impossible to consider, but Steve needed to remember that this wasn’t really his Bucky they were dealing with. 

The Winter Soldier didn’t know compassion, because it had never been shown to him. He didn’t understand love, because no one had ever been gentle with his heart. Steve had read the file, he knew the terrible things they did to Bucky, none of them resembling anything close to kindness. “I don’t want that.” 

 

“I know you don’t. Look, I know this is hard, but. You need to understand that Bucky is buried deep in the Soldiers consciousness. He’s not going to start talking in a Brooklyn slang and become all happy-go lucky just because we get him away from Hydra. He’s programmed. And the programming goes deep. You’re talking about cramming two consciousness into one.” 

 

“But,” Steve points out, “If he’s programmed, there’s got to be a way to….unprogram him, right? Some way to reverse what they did? A way to bring back his memories of me and--and the war n’stuff?” What he was saying made sense in his head, but when he said the words outloud they felt foolish and stupid, like a child trying to explian something they didn’t understand. 

 

Sam purses his lips tightly, not looking convinced. “Maybe...but we don’t know that for sure. You’re asking me to take a big risk for a very small chance that you might be able to get Bucky back.” 

 

Steve scrubs a hand over his face in frustration. They were running in circles. “What are you trying to tell me, Sam? Did you ask me here just to tell me again that I’m going to lose him?” He snaps. He knows his voice is harsh, maybe harsher than necessary, but he was hurt, and when he was hurt he tended to lash out. 

 

“I asked you here because I’m worried about you. We all are,” Sam tells him gently, not reacting to the biting voice Steve had used, all too used to the bark without the bite. Steve had a temper with everyone, but only ever acted when he knew something was really wrong. “You’ve gotten into something much, much bigger than yourself, and you’re.” Sam gestures to Steve, sitting in the booth across from him. “You’re not well, Steve. I don’t know if your mind is in the right place about all this.” 

 

Steve imagines how he must look to Sam. Red nose, watery eyes from crying all day, greasy hair that he couldn’t be bothered to style or even cover with a beanie. The bags under his eyes were a deep purple color, from stress and lack of sleep. He sat curled up small in the booth, arms wrapped around himself like if he let go he’d fall to pieces right there in the cafe. 

 

“I’m sick,” Steve argues stubbornly. “No one looks good when they’re sick.” He sniffles wetly for emphasis. It wasn’t technically a lie, he was sick, though really that probably only accounted for about 25% of why he looked so terrible. 

 

“You’re unwell,” Sam corrects, and there is a difference, Steve knows. “I mean, I’m scared, man. I don’t want you to slip like you did when your mom passed--”

 

“This is nothin like that,” Steve snapped, slamming his hand down on the counter. A few weary students turn to glare at him for his disruption, but Steve doesn’t care, that comment stung. “There wasn’t any hope for her, she got a death sentence that day and it was downhill from there.” Steve pauses shakily, twisting his arms back around his middle. “With Bucky, it’s different. I had accepted that...that our conversations were all I was gonna get. He was dead. But,” He inhales shakily. “Now, you tell me today, he’s not dead. With Buck, there’s hope. He’s alive.” Steve retracts his hand, staring down at it like it had betrayed him. “And hope is a whole lot worse. Hurts a hell of a lot more.” 

 

Sam watches him wearily, like he’s a broken toy that no one will want to take home. “What is it about this guy that makes you so crazy about him?” Sam murmurs. “Help me understand, Steve, because this is terrifying for me, and if I’m going to go against orders, against...everything, so help me God,” Sam pauses to look upwards and then blinks hard, “Then I need to know that I’m doing it for the right reasons, not just saving a very dangerous Hydra assassin because he’s handsome.” 

 

The words sting a little, but Steve knows Sam has a good point. He takes a deep breath. Steve needed to make him see. 

 

“Bucky Barnes is the best man I know,” Steve stares into his tea, the blood water, watches the steam rolling off of it. “He’s...got all these dumb petnames for me, like--like real old fashion names like doll or angel. S’dumb, but they make me feel really special.” His lips twitch again into a smile, despite himself. “And he taught me to dance, and told me I was brave for not backin’ down from a fight. He’s just,” Steve struggles to find the words. “He makes me laugh, Sam. At myself. At him. At the world. Everything is just better with him. I...I breathe easier.” 

 

Sam has his face in his hands, and for a minute Steve wonders if he’s crying. 

 

“Fuck,” Sam breathes. “Jesus, fucking, fuck.” 

 

“Sam?” 

 

“Okay, you listen to me, you little shit. We’re going to do this, okay? But it is not going to be easy, or safe or any nice adjective at all. Ever, at any point.” 

 

Steve’s chest swells with hope. “Okay,” he says too fast, nodding his head quickly. “Yes, okay, anything.”

 

Sam looks up to eye him warily. His brown eyes look nearly black, something sad and wise making them seem endless, like an abyss. “You could die.” 

 

It was a possibility that Steve had already considered. “I could always die, I’m human. I could choke on this tea or have a heart attack or get hit by a bus or--”

 

“Or shot between the eyes by the man you love,” Sam suggests helpfully, voice dry. Steve doesn’t reply to that one. “That is a real possibility here, Steve. Do you understand that?” 

 

“Yes.”

 

“Repeat after me: I, Steven Grant Rogers, am fully aware that this decision may result in my untimely demise, serious injury, and will most likely, definitely, end up traumatizing me mentally, for many years to come.” 

 

Steve repeats the words gently. He tries not to sound too happy. His heart was full of love for Sam. Sam, this amazing, selfless man who he’d met by chance, who had made a home for himself in Steve’s stubborn heart, and brought along with him two other wonderful humans who Steve is sure he now couldn’t live without. Sam, who was risking everything because he saw something in Steve that made a faceless stranger who had shot at him worth saving. 

 

“Sam,” Steve swallows. “This--this means a lot--”

 

“Fuck,” Sam says again, staring up at the ceiling. It was still raining, but it was harder to hear over the sounds of the espresso machine and crooning jazz of the cafe. It smelled like blueberry muffins. “Have you talked to Bucky about this? What does he think?” 

 

Steve’s mood darkens. The discovery had left a shadow over Bucky’s face, some kind of darkness in his eyes that hadn’t gone away, no matter how much he laughed or smiled or tried to hide it. “He’s on board.” Steve lies. It’s a lie, because even though Bucky had agreed to fight, to not give up, Steve could tell he didn’t think he was worth a damn. If Steve hadn’t insisted, Bucky would have put his hands up and sung Steve a lullaby and let his friends bury him in a shallow grave without a word of protest. Hell, he’d probably thank them. “He wants to try.” 

 

“If we do this,” Sam says slowly, deliberately. “you need to be all in. No backing down, no running away. Because if I do this, I’m turning my back on everything, and I’m not going to do that if you’re going to run away.” 

 

Steve reaches out one of his cold hands to cover Sam’s, which are strong and warm in comparison. Sam’s fingers twitch, and then grasp Steve’s own, covering them completely. Steve closes his eyes as some of the feeling comes back to his ice-cold digits. 

 

The hope of getting Bucky backs feels like a fresh breath of fresh air after he’d been choking on cigarette smoke for days on end. It had been less than 24 hours since finding out that his ghost was the Winter Soldier, but it felt like months, every second a small eternity within it’s own right.

 

“I’m all in,” Steve whispers, putting everything into his tone, to convince Sam that there was no backing out. “One hundred percent.” Bucky would have done the same for him, if the roles were reversed. 

Steve would give everything for this, for him. He knew that not everyone in this life gets to fall in love, and yet some higher power, a God that Steve had always wanted to believe in but never really could after losing his mom, had decided he gets this: an epic love, a man worth dying for. If Steve didn’t fit in before, he would make a space for himself.

 

Sam watches his face for what feels like a long time, and then nods once, finally. “Okay,” He says shortly. “Okay. We start tomorrow. I’ll be over at 6:00am. We don’t have time to waste.”

 

Something in Steve stitched into place at these words. They’d get Bucky back. They would. 

 

“What about Natasha, and Clint?” Steve is almost afraid to ask. Could they even do this without them? Natasha had seemed the most adamant about Bucky’s lack of virtue. If she truly believed that he was a danger, Steve knew she would trust her gut. 

 

Sam looks sad, staring into his coffee. He clears his throat before speaking. “It’s just going to be you and I on this one.” 

 

“Won’t they be mad?”

 

“Oh, yeah,” Sam nods. “They’ll be pissed.” They share a secret little smile, but it’s sad, too. Agreeing to this may mean severing friendships, losing partnerships. It meant more for Sam than it did for Steve, Steve knew. Steve loved Nat and Clint--they were his best friends.

 

But for Sam, they were his best friends and the people he trusted to watch his back while the was in the middle of a fight. People you trust that much don’t come around everyday. Sam would be losing a lot.

 

“6:00am,” Steve echos. “I’ll make cinnamon buns.” 

 

Sam sits back, releasing Steve’s hands. Steve misses the warmth, and tucks his fingers under his armpits. “Jeez,” Sam said, shaking his head. “Cinnamon buns? You shoulda just led with that.”

 

---

On his way home, Steve thinks, and the hopeful, somewhat light mood he’d had earlier in the cafe fades away to darkness as his mind wanders.

 

It’s raining, and it was too windy for him to keep his umbrella up without it folding over on itself, so he lets the rain into his bones, soaking him down to the core and running into his eyes. It’s cold, and the streets are an ugly mixture of snow and rain from the cranky weather of the last 48 hours. He’s shivering so violently it’s hard to keep a grip on walking straight.

 

Subject withstood programming to a satisfactory degree. Subject did not remember name when prompted. Programming session 34A labelled: SUCCESS. NO CORRECTIVE ACTIONS NECESSARY.

 

Subject failed to withstand programming to a satisfactory degree. When prompted for MISSION REPORT, subject failed to comply. It was prompted again. Subject did not react. It was hosed down with cold water. It said, “I remember”. FAILURE: CORRECTIVE ACTIONS APPLIED: electroshock to the brain, pain receptors on HIGH. RESULT: Vocal cord damage from screaming; subject was unable to give MISSION REPORT. Repair needed. Follow up necessary. 

 

Steve shudders at the memory of the pages, the translations typed out neatly into little charts, categorizing every way Hydra tortured the man he loved, a man who winced if Steve stubbed his toe, who fretted when he had a stomach cramp. The worst pain Steve had ever felt was nothing compared to an average day in the life for the Winter Soldier.

 

His mind flashes then to Sam in the cafe, his tired face promising Steve that he would do his best. Steve knew he was asking a lot of Sam--without the support of Clint and Natasha, Sam would be on his own against Hydra, and while it would be alright while they planned out their next move, if Sam was going to storm into a Hydra base to get Bucky out, doing it alone would mean certain death. 

Sam was good, but he was just one person, and it wasn’t like Steve was going to be much help. He couldn’t fight or shoot a gun.

 

Steve bit his lip, hard, tasting the rain as it poured down. Could he really ask this of his friends? Was he being selfish by begging for their help? 

 

Bucky was hurting, Hydra was hurting him, that was for sure. 

But how much more would it hurt when Bucky and the Winter Soldier combined for good? Steve knew how good a man Bucky was, how strong his morals were, and Steve just planned on thrusting all the memories of the things the Winter Soldier endured into his Bucky...wouldn’t that do more damage than good? Wouldn’t Bucky wither away under the guilt? 

Even since finding out, Bucky hasn’t been the same. By forcing him to remember everything, Steve might create more of a ghost out of Bucky than he already had.

 

“Please--don’t!” A female voice cries out, and Steve’s head snaps in that direction. 

 

He sees two men crowding a young girl--no older than 16, Steve would say--against a brick wall of an alleyway. Steve’s fists ball up as he instinct kicks in. Unfortunately, this was a scene he’d witnessed all too often on the New York streets. She was just a kid.

 

“I don’t see what the big deal is--we just want your number,” the bigger man croons. “It’s not nice to be impolite after someone compliments you, sugar.” 

 

“I h-have a boyfriend,” the girl stammers out, trying to shy away from the two men invading her space. 

 

“Well I don’t see him anywhere,” the smaller one pipes up. “He’s not very smart, leaving such a pretty little thing like you all alone in this part of town--”

 

Steve had seen enough. He was half a block away from home, he could see his building from here. If he got hurt bad, he would be okay. He’d be able to make it home, real easily. It would be selfish of him, wrong of him, to walk away when he could easily do something for the girl. If it were him, and it had been him before, he would have liked to know that a kind stranger had his back. 

 

“Hey!” Steve calls, stopping a few feet away from the men. He cracks his knuckles. “She said, she ain’t interested.” 

 

The men look up sharply. “And who the hell are you, punk? Are you her boyfriend or something?” 

 

Steve doesn’t dwell on the fact that these thugs were stupid enough to look at Steve and assume he was a sixteen year old straight boy. He sticks up his chin proudly. He couldn’t win Bucky back, he couldn’t take on Hydra, but he could do this, this small justice. A quiet mercy. “I’m someone who doesn’t like bullies. And you need to let her go, now.” 

 

“What are you gonna do about it, huh?” 

 

“Well, if you won’t listen to reason, then I’ll just have to make you,” Steve promises. 

 

Steve glances up to gage just how far is building was in case he got the shit kicked out of him--which he was sure he would--and is surprised to see Bucky’s face in the window, watching with a panicked expression. 

He’s mouthing something, banging against the glass. Probably calling Steve a slur of names, begging him to walk away, to not do this right now. 

But...there would be something so darkly satisfying about hitting someone right now, taking out his anger and frustration. The rain was making it hard to see through his glasses. He takes them off, and tucks them into the breast pocket of his coat. His hair is soaked, his body is soaked, and rain runs into his eyes. He spits on the ground beside him and puffs up his chest. 

 

The two men laugh. “This is just adorable,” They broaden their shoulders, and Steve sees they’re both large, Bucky’s size probably. This wouldn’t end well for him, but when they turn to Steve, the girl is able to run to safety. She doesn’t look back. 

 

Good. She has good instincts. She’ll be fine.

 

“Alright,” Steve cracks his knuckles. Bucky would not forgive him for this, he knew it. “Let’s have some fun.” He punches the first guy squarely in the nose.

_________________________________________________________________

 

When they’re finished with him, it’s only minutes after Steve initiated the fight, and they stumble away, grumbling, leaving Steve lying in the street. 

 

He’s not injured that badly--no broken bones he can tell of, maybe his nose. Bruised ribs for sure, which sucked because he’d just about gotten over the ache from the dent Junkie had left in him, but it felt kind of good. 

They were drunk, and they’d only roughed him up a little. He was sure he looked worse than it really was, and the cool rain wasn’t helping him to feel any better.

 

At least now the outside could match how torn up Steve felt on the inside. 

 

It felt like the right end to a bad day, like the right kind of punishment for the guilt he felt about asking his friends to give up so much, the sorrow he felt over Bucky’s suffering.

 

The rain has got him absolutely soaked, and freezing cold, so he peels himself off the sidewalk slowly, and gets shakily to his feet.

 

With trembling fingers, he shoves his glasses back onto his face. When he looks up at the window again, Bucky’s face is not there.

 

—-

Stumbling through the front door, Steve wastes no time getting out of his wet clothes. He instantly sheds his jacket and sweater, his boots and socks, dropping them all at the front door to deal with later. 

Shivering violently, Steve peels off his rain-soaked undershirt and his jeans, leaving him only in his black boxer-briefs.

 

With his arms wrapped around himself to preserve some warmth, Steve shuffled his way into the apartment, head down like a dog who knew he’d done wrong. 

He knew Bucky was here, could sense the life in the air around him. He hadn’t left.

 

“What the hell was that.” 

 

Steve looks up. Bucky isn’t facing him, he’s staring at the window again, like maybe he hadn’t moved the whole time, although Steve knew just moments ago that Bucky hadn’t been there. He’d walked away. Perhaps watching Steve get the shit kicked out of him was hard to stand. Steve couldn’t really blame him for that.

 

“It was just a dumb fight.” Steve mumbles, shivering again. He feels small, not for the first time today, either. “Happens all the time. They were going to  hurt that young girl--” 

 

“You could’ve said your piece and then walked away when she did.” 

 

“But I didn’t. And if I had, there is nothing saying that she’d have gotten away alright. Maybe they’d have chased her.” 

 

Bucky doesn’t answer for a few moments, and Steve stands, nearly naked in the living room, shivering with his skinny arms wrapped around his small frame. 

He wants desperately for Bucky to look at him, but at the same time, is afraid of what Bucky will think. He feels blood run from his nose and split lip, down his chin. It dribbles on the floor. He knows he is a hideous sight. 

 

“I ran you a bath.” Bucky says shortly. His tone in instructional. He still doesn’t turn around, and there is tension in the way he holds himself. There is a fight coming, Steve can feel it. “Go warm up.” 

 

Steve swallows. Of course, of course Bucky would think of that. That must’ve been what he was doing the moment Steve looked up to see he was no longer watching. Bucky was always thinking of Steve, of what he needs, what could help him. He was always looking after him. 

 

Steve knew it was about time he looked after Bucky, but for now, he really needed that bath.

 

“Th-thanks,” Steve chatters, and shuffles early towards the bathroom. 

 

The gorgeous footed tub was one of Steve’s favorite features of the apartment. The side was chipped a little in one corner, and the metal feet were tarnished, but it was large and beautiful, big enough to fit two comfortably, though he wasn’t sure he’d ever get the chance to test that theory.

 

The steam was rolling off the water, and it smelled like lavender; Bucky must have put some of Steve’s lavender epsom salts in. It would certainly help to ease his sore muscles, and the scent instantly made Steve feel a little less tense. Bucky had thought of everything.

 

Steve turns to face himself in the mirror, and gasps quietly as he sees himself. 

He looked like a corpse. His eyes were sunken and hollow, one of them slowly turning black from his fight. His nose bled freely and his split lip was swollen and bleeding, blood running down to his chin. New bruises were blooming over the old yellowed ones across his ribcage, which was just skin stretched so tightly over bone that he could count each one of his ribs. He had always been skinny, his whole damn life, but this was small, even for him. 

Skipping a few meals here and there as a result of his lack of appetite from being sick had caught up to him in a bad way.

No wonder Bucky didn’t want to look at him.

 

Steve ran a hand through his hair, and shucked his boxers, setting them aside to be put in the laundry to be done later. When he looked up again, fully naked, Bucky was standing behind him. 

 

Steve gasped, and moved to cover himself. “Buck!” He exclaimed, embarrassed. “Some privacy?” 

 

Bucky frowned at him through the mirror, their eyes meeting. “You don’t have to cover yourself,” Bucky murmurs. He looks less angry, his eyes a tad bit soft beneath the steel-blue. “I just want to see if you’re okay.” 

 

Steve looks down, ashamed. He knows he’s behaved childlishly, and under Bucky’s solomn gaze, he feels even more stupid. “I’m fine.” 

 

“You look like hell.” 

 

“You ain’t the first one to tell me that today.” Steve’s face burns with shame. How could Bucky love him? Him? Bucky was, without a doubt, the best-looking guy Steve had ever seen. Bucky was trapped in this house, with no one to talk to but Steve in eighty years. Steve is the only person Bucky’s ever really been able to interact with, the only person who’s ever seen him. 

 

The realization knocks the wind out of him. Bucky didn’t really love him; he only thought he did. Out of convenience. Out of necessity. It’s not like Bucky could have anyone else, he was trapped in this apartment. He’d realize, soon enough, once they got him back into his body, that he could have someone better than Steve.

 

“You’re also beautiful,” Bucky whispers. He raises his hand to brush it along the outside of Steve’s arm. Steve feels nothing but cold air, raising goosebumps all the way down. He shivers, and Buck pulls away. “Sorry,” Bucky murmurs, jaw working. He looks guilty. “You’re cold.” 

 

Steve isn’t sure how to take that compliment--he feels like the furthest thing from beautiful right now. Silently, he slips into the water one foot at a time, and then lowers himself down, letting out a little sigh of pleasure as the hot water warmed his bones. Once he was all the way in, he stretched his legs out in front of him, and sank back until his back rested against the wall of the tub. Bucky doesn’t want you.

 

“Can you...put your hand, against my cheek?” Steve asks softly, his voice barely audible. He wants this, selfishly. He’ll take what he can get for as long as he can get it. “Please?” 

 

Bucky tilts his head consideringly, worrying at his bottom lip. Steve thinks he might refuse, when he reaches out a hand and cups Steve’s bruised cheek, kneeling by the tub. It feels so good Steve lets out a long breath, the cool air of Bucky instantly soothing the throbbing swelling in his face. He tilts his head into the not-there touch. “T-Thank you.” 

 

Bucky doesn’t answer.

 

Steve closes his eyes, and tries to think about nothing at all. In fact, he tries really hard, just thinking about a black abyss, about emptiness. But emptiness leads to him thinking about heartbreak, and Bucky realizing eventually that he had been fooling himself with thinking that Steve could ever be enough for him. 

 

A single, shameful tear slides out of Steve’s closed eyes. He feels it run, quick and hot, down his cheek, and splash silently into the rest of the water. 

 

“Steve,” Bucky says worriedly. “Are you hurt? Is it your head? What--”

 

Steve doesn’t open his eyes. He doesn’t want to see the tender look on Bucky’s face, he couldn’t bear it. “S’nothing, Buck,” he whispers, but the words sound false, even to his ears. 

 

“Don’t lie.”

 

Steve considers just not replying, letting the silence sit between them for as long as Bucky would let it, but he lets out a long breath and shrugs his bony shoulders. “It’s stupid.”

 

“If it’s enough to make you upset, it ain’t stupid. Spit it out, Ace.”

 

“Well,” Steve swallows, finally opening his eyes. Bucky’s face is just inches away, his eyes hungrily searching Steve’s like he’ll find the answers he seeks hidden in their depths. “I just...I mean, it’s fine, really, ‘cause it’s just...how it is,” He squints. He wasn’t making any sense. He hugs his knees into his chest and tries again. “It’s no one’s fault, but. I mean obviously you only like me ‘cause you don’t have a choice. I’m the only one who can s- see you and talk to you. The only one in 80 years. So...so obviously you don’t really have anyone e-else. But I just,” Steve sniffles and fights back a sob, frustrated with himself for not being able to articulate better. “It just makes me sad, ‘cause I know that once we get you back into your body, and away f-from Hydra, you’re going to realize you can have anyone you want, and…” He shakes his head hopelessly. “I’ll l- lose you.” 

 

Bucky is quiet for a long time. Steve is afraid to know what he’ll see if he looks at Bucky’s face, so he doesn’t. 

 

“Jesus christ,” Bucky whispers finally. “Is that really what you think?” 

 

Steve stares hard into the water. He doesn’t reply, and no more tears fall. 

 

“Steve,” Bucky tries, but Steve feels cold and shut off from him, like they’re worlds apart. “Stevie, look at me. Hey. Look at me.” 

 

Steve resists for a moment longer, but Bucky’s gravity pulls him in, and they lock eyes. Steve doesn’t see the eyes of someone who loved him for convenience, but for inevitability. Bucky looked at Steve like a drowning man seeing a lifeboat for the first time, like a religious man staring into the face of the God he would die for. 

 

“You’re right,” Bucky murmurs, his eyes locked with Steve’s, so that Steve can’t look away. His heart sinks at the words, the realization hitting him, when Bucky continues. “I didn’t have a choice. I had to fall in love with you, because, jesus, it’s impossible not to. I’m pretty sure everyone who meets you falls at least a little bit in love with you, Ace. You’re captivating.” 

 

“But,” Steve sniffles. “But just look at me, Buck. And look at you. We don’t match.” 

 

Bucky does look at him. Devours him. “I don’t deserve you,” Bucky nods. “I know that much. But I do love you, and I want...to be better, for you.” 

 

Steve closes his eyes, letting the words wash over his skin, like aloe on a sunburn. “Me, too,” He says desperately. “I want to be better for you, too, Buck.” 

 

Bucky gives him a sad smile, tilting his head a little. He looks old, now, like he’d seen the worst of the world and had made it out on the other side. Knowing what he does now, Steve supposes that isn’t too far from the truth of things. “Then ain’t that love?” Bucky prompts. “Right?” 

 

The tension in Steve’s belly dissipates a little. “Guess it is,” He admits quietly. “Yeah.”

 

“Okay.” Bucky nods. “Alright. Now just relax.” 

 

Steve does. Bucky lets him have about twenty minutes of pure silence, eyes closed and hot water draining the tension from his muscles and sore body, before he clears his throat. 

 

“Okay.” Bucky says again. “Why did you do that?” 

 

Steve pauses, peeking one eye open to peer at Bucky. “What?”

 

“The fight. Why did you do that?” Bucky’s hand falls away from his cheek. 

 

He looks down into the water. The heat from the bath as well as the epsom salts were sucking away the aches from his muscles and bones, but the ghosts of them lingered. It was a half-there, half-gone sort of feeling, and it sat uncomfortably in his body. 

It was still better than feeling numb. 

 

“Because I knew it would feel good.” 

 

“It’s been a while since I can remember the sensation,” Bucky mutters bitterly, “But I’m pretty sure getting beaten up doesn’t feel good.” 

 

“It feels like something,” Steve corrects, trying to explain it. He watches the steam rolling off the top of the water, sinking down a little further. “Ends the numbness.”

 

Bucky watches him with a sad, contemplative look on his face. He puts his chin on the edge of the bathtub and turns the full force of his pale eyes to Steve. 

 

“You’re hurt.” 

 

“Surface wounds,” Steve shrugs, and the water moves around him. “I knew what I was getting into.” 

 

Bucky reaches a finger up, and traces his cool hand along Steve’s jaw again. It feels nice, but it’s only a whisper of what Steve wants, a tease. 

He wants to feel Bucky pressed against him until it hurts. 

 

“I don’t mean the bruises,” Bucky murmurs carefully.  

 

Steve understands, but the topic is heavy and he’s exhausted. His body ached from the fight, from lack of sleep, from the cold he was still getting over. It was a lot. It was too much.

 

He presses his lips together and sinks lower in the water, until it reaches just under his nose. If his mouth was under water, he didn’t have to speak. 

He stares straight ahead at the other end of the tub for a long time, thinking about everything and nothing all at once, trying to ignore the weight of Bucky’s gaze on him. 

 

“Steve.” Bucky prompts flatly. Steve knows he deserves an answer. 

 

Steve resurfaces after a moment, hugging his legs close to his chest. “I’m scared,” he whispers to the water. He wants to cry, but no tears come. His eyes are dry, too exhausted from the events of the day. “I’m terrified.”

 

“Of me?”

 

“For you,” Steve tells him softly. “For us.” He opens his mouth, then shuts it again. “I don’t want to lose you. I don’t want to lose my friends.” He shrugs helplessly, the water shifting as he does so, lapping at his body. “I don’t know if I can have both.”

 

He didn’t want to lose this, specifically: Bucky’s laughter, his rolling eyes or crooked smile. Steve didn’t want to lose angel, or doll, or Ace, or kitten, or sweetheart… he didn’t want to lose the lingering glances, the honey-drip voice, Bucky’s hysterical laughter or the feeling of being, really being, in his arms , he didn’t want to lose the magic of hearing Bucky say I love you

 

He didn’t want to lose Sam’s gap-tooth smile or Clints sharp witted remarks. He didn’t want to lose Natasha’s rare smiles, her even rarer embraces. He was greedy. He wanted it all. 

 

“I’m just scared,” Steve repeats, to stop his own spiraling train of thoughts. “There is a lot on the line.”

 

Bucky nods slowly, not taking his eyes off of Steve. “I know.”

 

That’s all that can be said, really. It sits between them, heavy and pressing, until the silence crushes him. Bucky is not one to lie. He won’t offer Steve false comfort.

 

“Do you think we’ll make it out okay?” Steve whispers, desperate for reassurance. He knows Bucky will be truthful. “Do you think...we get our happy ending?” 

 

Bucky’s jaw is wound tight, and for a fleeting moment, Steve is terrified Bucky is going to say no. 

 

“You’re pruning up,” Bucky tells him, pointing to Steve’s fingers. Had he been in the tub for that long already? It had felt like only seconds. “You should get dried off and get some rest. You need it.” 

 

Steve notices that Bucky doesn’t answer his question, but he won’t ask it again; he figures he doesn’t want to know the answer anyway. His silence is reply enough.

 

Bucky flutters his fingers and hangs a towel around Steve’s shoulders as Steve gets shakily to his feet, watching him dutifully. Steve hugs the towel closer, and feels stupid and childish for the stunt he pulled. His body was pulsing with the dull ache that a fight always brought, but the hurt in Bucky’s eyes was a much worse punishment. 

 

Steve felt guilty. 

 

“I hope you stay tonight,” Steve says gently drying off. It’s not fair of him to say, really. He knows Bucky has no control over when Hydra takes him out of cryo, but Steve is afraid that he’ll fall apart if Bucky leaves. He isn’t strong enough to be alone right now, he will crumble. 

 

“I’ll try, Ace,” Bucky tells him, and offers a small smile, but it’s sad and distant. Steve wishes it wouldn’t be. “Don’t wanna leave you lookin’ like this.” 

 

“I’m sorry.” Steve says finally, looking up at Bucky with earnest eyes. “I know...it wasn’t right of me, to do that. To get in that fight. Especially when I knew you were watching. I. I didn’t do it for the right reasons. I did it for me, not for that girl.” 

 

“It was hard,” Bucky admitted softly, “To see you getting hurt like that, and knowing that I was stuck in the house, not able to do anything about it. I could just watch them hurt you, and--and it wasn’t a fight, Steve. I mean, you hit the guy once and then you didn’t raise a hand to protect yourself after that.” 

 

Steve knew he was right. Thinking back to the moment now, he’s not sure what exactly was going through his mind. He only remembers wanting desperately to feel something, so when the opportunity arose to feel that, he took it. 

 

“I’m real sorry, Buck,” He said again. He means it. “I’m just so scared.” 

 

“Seeing you do something so stupid--that scared me. ” Bucky wasn’t going to drop it, Steve could tell by the resolve in his voice. Steve pulls the towel up to his chin. 

 

“I won’t do it again.” 

 

Bucky looks at Steve like he doesn’t really believe that to be true, but he doesn’t say anything about it.

 

“If this works,” Bucky murmurs. “Then I’ll--me, Bucky--I’ll be gone from the apartment, while your friends try to get me away from Hydra. Presumably, Hydra isn’t going to have their most valuable asset asleep in cryo while they’re being pursued by the Avengers.” 

 

“Yeah,” Steve mutters. He had already thought about that, about the long days and long nights waiting for news--any news--from his friends, lonely without them or Bucky. He wasn’t looking forward to it. “I know.”

 

“It may take a long time.” 

 

“I know,” Steve repeats. It stung every time he thought about it, so he tried not to, but he knew the harsh reality would set it soon. 

 

Bucky looks annoyed by Steve’s agreeance. “Are you going to be okay alone in that time? Are you going to take care of yourself? Eat three meals a day and dress properly for the weather and remember to turn the stove off or--”

 

“Buck,” Steve cuts him off rather sharply. His blue eyes focus on Bucky’s with a levelling look. “This ain’t about me, okay?”

 

“For me, it is.” Bucky makes a motion with his hand and the towel wraps tighter around Steve’s body. It feels almost like a hug. Steve folds into it, pretending it really was Bucky’s arms around him. He closes his eyes and can almost feel them, the weight of them, the security. The peace. “For me, it’s always about you, darlin’.” 

 

“I’m a big boy,” Steve tells him stubbornly. “I can take care of myself while you’re gone.” If not for himself, Steve would do it for Bucky, so that when he comes home, Steve could proudly say he’d learned new recipes or hadn’t gotten a cold in months, and Bucky would give him that goofy smile and tease him about it and they’d laugh under the bright New York sky.

 

“I don’t think I’d be okay, if something happened to you.” Bucky suddenly admits. “And that is. Terrifying.” 

Steve blinks, drinking in the weight of that confession. “Me, too.” he admits to Bucky. “I wouldn’t be okay.” 

 

They watch each other, both wide eyed, realizing the connotations of what they’d said. “S’alittle unhealthy,” Bucky grins. “Ain’t it?” 

 

“Maybe. Probably.” 

 

“Glad we’re on the same page.” 

 

Steve’s chest constricts, and he offers Bucky a small smile, opening his eyes again to find Bucky’s trained on him with a soft look. “Stay tonight,” He begs, although he knows it isn’t in Bucky’s control. “Sing me to sleep.” 

 

“If you think you can just bat your baby blues at me and get whatever you want--”

 

Steve flutters his eyelashes playfully. His smile turns into a smirk. The tension dissipates, and it’s easy between them once again, like breathing. 

 

“--then you’d be absolutely right.” Bucky sighs in resolve, and starts leading them out of the bathroom and into the bedroom. “C’mon, lets go. Any requests? I’ll do anything except T-Pain. And no Michael Jackson.”

 

They giggle deep into the night, and Steve feels a little more alive than he did before.

 

------------

Steve dreams that night of cold hands with Bucky’s voice and face, and pale eyes that don’t recognize him. 

A metal arm reaches for his throat.

Chapter Text

"I'm waitin' up, savin' all my precious time
Losin' light, I'm missin' my same old us
Before we learned our truth too late
Resigned to fate, fadin' away
So tell me, can you turn around?
I need someone to tear me down
Oh, tell me, can you turn around?
But either way

Hold me while you wait
I wish that I was good enough (hold me while you wait)
If only I could wake you up (hold me while you wait)
My love, my love, my love, my love
Won't you stay a while? (Hold me while you wait)

Tell me more, tell me something I don't know
Could we come close to havin' it all?"

             - Lewis Capaldi, "Hold me while you wait"

 


Steve is true to his word. He wakes up before the sun and showers quickly, not allowing his thoughts to wander somewhere dark or scary. He’d been plagued with nightmares for most of the night, and he had barely slept, tossing and turning, but he was determined to think happier thoughts and start the day off right. 

He gets to work on making his Ma’s cinnamon buns, just like he promised Sam he’d do. It was a small feat, after all, compared to what Sam was taking on for him. He was risking everything.

Bucky watches from the small dining room table with interest, but they don’t speak. It’s a comfortable silence, through, not a tense one, and Steve is grateful for that. Bucky tracks his movements carefully, like he’s half afraid Steve is going to spontaneously combust. 

Perhaps seeing Steve so fragile yesterday had worried Bucky; he was quite the mother hen.

Steve brushes his hands off on his apron, and appraises his work, all of the dough risen to a satisfactory height and loads of cinnamon tucked into the folds of the pastry, just like his Ma used to make. 

If she were here, Steve would tell her everything. She would have absolutely adored Bucky; she had a tendency to love anyone that really loved Steve, and with Bucky’s charm and sparkling smile, Steve knew that if he ever got the chance, Bucky would have his Ma’s approval in seconds. 

The thought warms his heart as he sprinkles a little more cinnamon on top of the buns and waits for the oven to preheat.

“My Ma would have loved you, y’know,” Steve announces suddenly, feeling the urge to tell Bucky what was on his mind. “She would--she’d probably mess up your hair and pinch your cheeks and,” Steve smiles fondly at the ground, not looking at Bucky. “She’d have just adored you, Buck.” 

Bucky is quiet, and doesn’t answer for a long time, prompting Steve to turn around, afraid he’d said something to upset Bucky. 

When they lock eyes, Bucky looks quickly away, and shifts in his seat, clearing his throat. 

“My mom,” Bucky says slowly. “She’d have loved you too, if things were different. If,” Bucky’s brow furrows as he searches for the words. “If times were like they are now, and two fellas bein’ together wasn’t a jail sentence, then,” he looks back up at Steve with a hesitant smile. “She’d have loved you too, Ace. The fire in you, it’s just like her. She never took shit from anyone, even my Pa. Standin’ up to a drunk husband ain’t easy, but she did it.” 

Bucky never really spoke about his family, and Steve assumed it was mostly because he didn’t remember a whole lot about them, but the sudden insight into Bucky’s life before the war makes Steve’s heart melt into a puddle. Gaining the fictional and theoretical approval of Bucky’s long dead mother makes Steve feel oddly validated.

“She sounds like a strong woman.” 

Bucky nods slowly, like he’s remembering more about her that can confirm Steve’s words. “She was. And my little sister, Becca…” he squinted around the room, like he was searching for the memories in the dust particles that danced around the space. “She was fiery, too. Had a real attitude, but she was a softie on the inside, y’know? A real cry baby.” 

“Nothin’ wrong with being a cry baby,” Steve mutters defensively, and Bucky glances up, giving him a playful wink. Steve grins back, and feels lighter for it.

Maybe things would be okay after all. They’d had a good night, joking and laughing for a couple hours before Steve finally fell asleep, curled up tight in the shell of Bucky’s not-there arms, finally rid of the strange tension that had been building between them. And now, in the kitchen, things felt easy again. Right.

When Steve turns back to slide the tray of treats into the oven, a comfortable silence settles around them again. He closes the oven door, and takes off his apron, hanging it up on the wall beside the fridge. Almost immediately, the apartment began to be filled with the sweet scent of cinnamon, warm and safe. 

When Steve turns back to Bucky, he finds the man staring at his hands with a troubled look on his face. 

“Buck?” Steve prompts quietly, not sure what had soured the mood that had just been so sweet. “What’s up?” 

Bucky hesitates before answering, but then murmurs, “You didn’t sleep last night.”

“Yeah,” Steve admits softly. It had been a restless night. “Too much on my mind, I guess.” 

Bucky doesn’t look satisfied with that answer, adjusting a little in his chair like he’s uncomfortable. “No, you. You...cried.”

Steve’s heart skips uneasily. 

He didn’t remember waking up with tears in his eyes, but last night was such a mixture of terror and restlessness, he couldn’t remember what was real and what was a dream. 

Bucky looked devastated. He didn’t sleep in this form, Steve knew, but he almost looked as though he’d had a restless night himself, bags under his eyes and hair more mussed than usual, his waves falling into his eyes and sticking up in all sorts of ways. 

“What?” Steve says dumbly. He’s not sure what else to say, he’s stalling for time. 

“In your sleep. You cried,” Bucky repeats, his features tight. His hands flex and unfurl in his lap as he speaks. “You were.... heartbroken , Steve. Sobbing so hard you were breathing like you were ‘bout to have a damn asthma attack. What were you dreaming of?” 

Ah. That must have been why his inhaler was on the night table last night, which wasn’t the last place he left it. Bucky must have retrieved it in the fear that Steve would work himself into an attack.

Steve’s mind flashes to his memories of the nightmares without his consent. 

Bucky’s eyes, dead and flat, the picture of the Winter Soldier Natasha had shown him, the metal arm reaching for his thin neck, unforgiving fists, Bucky’s voice telling him he was nothing, he meant nothing, that his friends were dead and it was all Steve’s fault. 

He swallows. He couldn’t bear to tell Bucky that he’d been plagued all night with nightmares about facing the Winter Soldier, Bucky was dealing with more than enough. “I don’t remember,” He lies quietly.

Bucky tilts his head, giving Steve his best Don’t Bullshit Me Right Now Punk face. There is something daring in his voice when he says: “You’re a terrible liar, Ace.”

Steve turns away, bristling. He doesn’t have any right to feel angry, he knew that Bucky was just trying to investigate what was bugging Steve so much it kept him tossing and turning all night. “Does it matter? It was just a dream. Doesn’t mean anything.”

“You were saying my name,” Bucky prompts, clearly not about to let this go. “Please? I want to know. It was horrible, seein’ you like that. You wouldn’t wake up. I just want to know what had you so worked up.”

Steve stares at the ground. He’s wearing his bunny slippers, but the joy they used to bring him seems lost, and they leave him feeling childish. He wiggles his toes and the bunny heads bob. It’s not as entertaining as it usually is. He stares at them, because it’s easier than looking at Bucky. 

Bucky is stubborn as hell and Steve knows he doesn’t plan on dropping the subject until he gets a straight answer. 

Finally, Steve succumbs. “I dreamt about the Winter Soldier.”

“Me,” Bucky corrects. He’d been pretty particular about making sure, Steve figured, that Steve knew the Winter Soldier and Bucky Barnes were the same person. 

That idea was hard to rectify. In the files Steve read, and in the videos of the Soldier he’d seen in Natasha’s apartment, that man was nothing like Bucky. He moved in different ways and had hard, cold eyes. A metal arm, tight lips, long hair and a walk that was intimidating all on its own. Nothing about that man reminded Steve of the man he loved.

“I dreamt about you, as the Winter Soldier.” Steve corrects, folding his arms over his chest. He felt an argument coming on and braced himself for it. “Let’s leave it at that.” 

Bucky’s jaw clenches. “It wasn’t a good dream.” It’s not a question.

“Evidently.” Steve says curtly. 

He turns back to the counter to wipe off some of the crumbs, brushing them into his palm and emptying them into the garbage can. 

It’s easier to have a conversation like this without looking at Bucky. The apartment is still relatively dark, the sun wasn’t awake just yet, and the city was quiet around them. If not for Steve’s roaring thoughts and the fear brewing between them, it might have been a peaceful start to the day.

“Are you afraid of me?” Bucky asks suddenly. Steve could feel his eyes boring into Steve’s back. “Be honest.” 

Steve considered the question and gave it the amount of thought it deserved. The man sitting in his kitchen wasn’t threatening at all; Bucky had never done anything but protect him, Steve never felt unsafe with Bucky and he trusted the man implicitly. 

But, if he and the Winter Soldier were the same--and, Steve knew, they were the same man--then yes, Steve was afraid. 

The Soldier made his friends afraid, his friends who had faced the baddest of the bad. He was big, and strong, and he was highly trained. He was afraid that he would get face-to-face with the Soldier and be met with indifference. 

He was fucking terrified that all of this would be for nothing, and that he’d be putting everything at risk just to lose Bucky all over again. 

Steve used to think that he has a strong heart, that he could take a lot of tragedy and turn it around into goodness. 

But he’s pretty sure, if he loses this bet, he will break. It will be the end of everything good in his life, and Steve will shatter into a thousand, irreparable pieces. 

He turns around to face Bucky, arms folded over his chest. Part of him was afraid of the highly trained Soviet assassin that killed without flinching, but....in his mind, that man wasn’t Bucky. 

That was the weapon Hydra had made, and the two things weren’t the same to Steve yet. The Winter Soldier just seemed like a myth, a legend. Something that was meant to strike fear but wasn’t any real threat.

“I’m afraid of losing you,” Steve says honestly. He’s proud of the way he voice doesn’t shake. 

Bucky stands up abruptly. “Steve,” He growls, a dangerous edge in his tone that Steve had only heard when it was directed at Junky. His eyes are dark as he stalks closer. His dog tags catch in the lighting of the kitchen, sparkling slightly. “I could snap your neck without breaking a sweat if I had a body in this form, and as the Winter Soldier I’m enhanced. I can lift cars , Steve. Punch through walls. Killing you would be thoughtless. It would be difficult not to.” 

“Stop,” Steve hisses.

Bucky stares at him with hard, unrelenting eyes. “I could snap your spine in half accidentally--”

Steve lifts his chin stubbornly, uncrossing his arms and letting them fall limply by his sides, leaving his chest and neck open and exposed, showing that he wasn’t afraid. “If you’re trying to scare me, it’s not going to work.”

“I ain’t tryin’ to scare you,” Bucky hisses, just inches away from Steve now, bearing down over him with his bulk and height, his features bleak. “I’m trying to prove to you that you’re already scared. You’re just denyin’ it.” 

Steve blinks up at Bucky and is about to say more when there’s a knock on the door. 

“It’s me,” Sam calls, knocking again. Steve shoots Bucky a look of we’ll finish this later as he goes to answer the door. Sam is still mumbling: “Your skinny ass best be outta bed and gettin’ on those cinnamon buns or I--”

Steve swings the door open with a small smile thats only a little forced. He’s relieved to see Sam, it meant they could get things started, and get closer to getting Bucky back in his body. “Mornin’.” 

Sam blanches, immediately suspicious. He looks good, even if he always looks good, it’s still enough to be noticable, with slim fit jeans and a light blue button up. He smelled fresh, and Steve was hopeful that it meant Sam had had a restful night and a hot shower to start the day. “What the hell happened to you?” 

Steve suddenly remembers he’s got a black eye and split lip, fresh from last night. His smile falters, and he touches his fast absently. He obviously did not look as good as Sam, in his bunny slippers and oversized t shirt. In fact, Steve felt pretty confident he was a hot fucking mess, without the hot part. A lukewarm mess. Room temperature, even. “Uh…” 

“You didn’t get jumped after coffee, did you? Shit, I knew I should’ve walked you home--”

“No,” Steve reassures him quickly, shaking his head before Sam was even finished. “I started it, as per usual. My fault, you know how it goes. Doesn’t matter--I don’t even feel it anymore. ‘Sides, you should see the other guy.” 

Sam gives him a dubious once over but then grumbles something under his breath and slides past him, into the apartment. He’s seen this song and dance enough times from Steve that he didn’t need to ask any more questions, but he was definitely not happy. Well, too bad. He could get in line. The list of Steve people had pissed off today was already starting, and the sun wasn’t even up.

“I should send you to boarding school,” Sam is grumbling under his breath as he follows Steve inside. “Teach you a lesson.” 

Steve snorts. “I know you refuse to believe this, but I am actually a grown man and you are not, in fact, my legal guardian or parent.” 

Sam scoffs at him, mock-offended. “Hurtful and untrue.” 

Sam could use every line in the book, Steve still didn’t think his level of hovering could live up to Bucky’s. In the short time he and Bucky had shared a space, Steve was pretty sure Bucky spent over half of it worrying about what kind of random shit could go wrong and kill/hurt/infect Steve at any given moment. The guy had no chill, and worrying about Steve was his favorite past time. 

“Smells really good in here,” Sam notes, as they come into the kitchen. “Homey.”  

“You’re just lucky I love you,” Steve mutters, rolling his eyes fondly, though he really didn’t mind. It was nice to bake and have someone appreciate it. It helped keep his Mother’s memory alive; baking was always something they did together. 

Bucky moves from the dining room table to the kitchen counter, staying out of the way, perched up on the counter with his ankles crossed. He watches Sam curiously. 

His face is still displeased, evidence of their argument written in his features, but he’s silent, probably not wanting to distract Steve with having Sam talking in one ear and Bucky in the other.

Sam shivers as he passes, obviously feeling the difference in temperature. He’s smart, though, and nods, quickly understanding what it means. “Barnes is here?”

“Sure is,” Steve replies softly. Bucky nods once, an acknowledgement, but of course, he and Sam can’t communicate without Steve as the go-between. 

“Tell him I say thanks for helping.” Bucky prompts tensely, not looking at Steve. He hesitates, then adds: “Please.”

Steve rolls his eyes and wants to flick Bucky’s ear and tell him to get over himself, but he tells Sam thank you for helping, from Bucky

Sam arches a brow, and glances suspiciously around the room. “I ain’t doing this for you, pal.” Sam tells the air. “But you’re welcome. Just don’t kill me, yeah?” 

Steve purses his lips, but he already knew that. Sam was doing this for Steve, because he was a good friend--the best, really--and he knew right from wrong. Walking away from this was Wrong, and although Sam didn’t know Bucky from Adam, at the end of the day Bucky was a war vet who got taken advantage of. 

Sam knew a lot about that, and Steve was pretty sure that if his other friends looked hard enough, they’d find more of themselves in Bucky. 

A good soldier, like Sam. Controlled against his will like Clint. Trained to kill by Hydra like Nat. 

What Bucky had done as the Winter Soldier was terrible, Steve wasn’t stupid enough to pretend it wasn’t. But regardless of that evil, Bucky was the victim of a terrible Nazi organization who took what they wanted and didn’t care about who they hurt. 

Steve would like to think that he’s a good judge of character, and he felt confident in advocating for Bucky. Even if he hadn’t gone and fallen in love with Bucky, Steve would like to think that he’d be making the same choices, pushing still for Bucky to be rescued. 

Bucky had a gorgeous soul. Steve would do whatever he could to protect that, to bring him home. 

“No promises.” Bucky’s lips twitch. It’s almost a smile, but his eyes are clouded, worried. He and Steve hadn’t gotten to finish their conversation earlier, and Steve could feel it weighing on Bucky’s mind. 

Steve’s nightmare must’ve looked worse than he thought, and he imagined it was just feeding into the guilt and self-loathing Bucky was already feeling over the revelation of realizing he was the Winter Soldier. 

Bucky hadn’t talked about it much, but Steve was pretty sure that all of Bucky’s memories of things he’d done as the Winter Soldier were slowly coming back. He seemed more on edge the past few days than he ever had before. He had a stiffer way of moving, almost. 

It was hard to say exactly, if it was just the information in the files or Bucky’s two consciousnesses coming to merge together, but there had definitely been a shift in Bucky. Something had changed.

“Okay,” Steve says, taking a seat at the table. Bucky folds arms across his chest, his face unreadable. “So now what?”

“If Bucky is here, that means the Soldier is in cryo.” Sam says, to state the obvious. 

Steve nods, he knew that much. “Is that good or bad for us?” 

Sam leans back in his chair, and the floor creaks at the shift in weight. “Well,” He says consideringly, lips pursed. “It could work in our favor, I guess. It’d be a lot easier to kidnap the Soldier if he was, uh, frozen. Then we’d only have to worry about other Hydra operatives trying to kill us, not Bucky himself.” 

“Steve,” Bucky says politely, a perfect gentlemen’s interruption. “Please tell your friend that for the record, I do not want to kill him.” 

“I think he knows--”

“Tell him,” Bucky repeats softly. “Please.” 

Sam watches Steve’s face with curiosity, wondering what Bucky had said. He waits. 

Steve clears his throat, adjusting in his seat a little uncomfortably. It wasn’t a topic he wanted to think about, but Bucky couldn’t communicate without him, and it wasn’t really Steve’s place to sensor him. 

“Bucky would like to state that for the record, he doesn’t want to kill you.” 

Sam chuckles a little, shaking his head. “Man, I kinda like this guy. But you should know, Bucky, that if you do kill me, or hurt Steve, I will be the ghost coming back ‘round to haunt the shit out of you. And not in the wussy make-you-coffee-in-secret kinda way that you’ve been up to,” Sam scoffs. “I will straight up paranormal activity your ass into the next century.” 

Bucky is hiding a smile. It’s a different smile than the one he saves for Steve; this smile is daring, like he can’t wait to play pranks on Sam or just generally annoy the shit out of him for fun, like the kind of smile an older brother sends across the room to the younger sibling before they do something mom and dad would definitely not approve of. It’s...oddly touching. 

Steve wondered, for a moment, that if they got Bucky back, would he get along with his friends? Steve’s heart fluttered at the idea of sitting around an old Christmas movie, with wine and burgers, all of his friends and Bucky laughing together, Steve curled up safely under Bucky’s arm. 

It seemed like too much of a dream to ever come true; there was so much pain to come from now until then, if such a peaceful future even exists for them it is far, far away. Still, though, the image persisted.

“Steve?” Sam prompts again, like he’d said something and had been expecting an answer. 

Steve blinks. “Huh?” He hadn’t been paying attention, he hadn’t even realized Sam had spoken. 

“I said,” Sam repeats slowly, “that I think we’re going to get Clint on our side.” 

This was good news. Steve’s eyebrows raise in surprise. “You talked to him last night?” There was no way Sam got any sleep last night. “After we met?”

Sam tells him that Clint was over all night, and they hashed out the details. Clint had a lot of sympathy for Bucky, and believed that he was the good guy, the victim in the situation, not the criminal. “He doesn’t know that I’ve already told you I’m gonna help,” Sam says gently. “But I think, in maybe a few days...we could get him. He’s being reasonable about the whole thing, unlike Nat, who hasn’t been answering any of my calls.” 

Not even ten minutes later, there is a knock on the door. Steve wasn’t expecting anyone, and Bucky knew it. He gets to his feet quickly, already charging the door and telling Steve, “Just stay here, let me see who it is.” 

Bucky had been pretty finicky about all of the exit and entry points in the apartment ever since Junky. Steve supposed he felt guilty about the incident, for whatever delusional reason Bucky had worked up in his own head.

Steve stands, about to chase after him, also curious as to who it could be at this hour, so early in the morning, when he hears a voice bellowing loudly, clearly uncaring for any other tenants in Steve’s building. 

“Steve!” The voice calls. “It’s me--I’ve gotta talk to you.” 

Sam and Steve share a hopeful look, and Steve nearly runs to the door, throwing it open. Bucky, looking relieved and a little deflated, sinks back into the kitchen, tension fading from his shoulders.

“I can’t believe you’re awake this early!” Steve exclaims, his chest fluttering with hope. Clint gives him a devilish smile. He looks a little more scrambled than Sam, wearing sweats and a long sleeve workout shirt, his hair disheveled, but he was practically vibrating with energy. 

“I’m in.” Clint tells him, pushing past Steve into the apartment, confirming what Steve desperately hoped to be true. “I’m in, you crazy little shit. Let’s fuckin’ do this.” 

When Clint gets into the kitchen and sees Sam sitting there with a smug smile on his face, Clint yells some kind of profanity. “What are you doing here!” 

“I’m getting me some good Karma, baby,” Sam purrs. Clint grumbles something else that sounds accusatory and pretty ungentlemanly. 

“Looks like I’m late to the party,” Clint mutters. “You here to kidnap a highly trained assassin and bring him back to HQ, so we can get his head unfucked in the hopes that he can maybe, just maybe, be boyfriend of the year to the one and only Steve Rogers?” Clint bats his eyelashes. 

Sam’s mouth twists into a wry smile. “Hell yeah,” he agrees, offering Clint a fist to bump. “Operation Unthaw is now officially underway.” 

Clint snorts, but returns the bump. “I’ve been bamboozled. Here I was thinking I was the only rebel in the group, here to take on a dangerous--yet nobel--solo mission.” Clint grumbles softly, but he takes a seat at the table. He’s got something tucked under his arm: a laptop. He pulls it out and opens it up on the table. “Alright. Operation Unthaw it is. Not my favorite name, but it can be a working title.” 

“Thank you,” Steve says sincerely, toes curling with hope, looking from Sam to Clint eagerly. “I know...this is risking a lot for you guys. I know I’ve asked a lot--”

“We’re not getting sappy before 7:00AM,” Clint mutters, waving a hand. Steve seals his mouth together, but Clint winks at him. “Besides. You were right. It’s the right thing to do.” 

“And...Natasha?” He asked softly, afraid to ask mostly because he already knew the answer.

Clint swallows and shifts in his seat, looking away. “No. Sorry, dude. She’s going to be doing her damndest to stop us.” 

Dammit. Steve had feared that. 

Natasha was good; they didn’t need her working against them. That would put them at a significant disadvantage, not to mention throw a wrench in their friendship, which is the last thing Steve wanted. 

“We’ve got a small team, but it’s a team,” Steve whispers happily to Bucky, but Bucky is looking far away, his face screwed up in pain. He doesn’t register Steve’s words.

His brow is tense and his hands are clenched into white-knuckled fists. Steve stomach knots with dread. He knows what this is.

“Buck?” Steve prompts, worried. He takes a few steps closer to him, hands hovering uselessly by his sides. “You okay?” 

Bucky shakes his head, but his eyes can’t focus, they dart from place to place, panicking. The pit of dread in Steve’s belly grows with the knowledge of what is happening. No, not now.

Bucky’s eyes are wide and blinking fast. “N-No, they’re. They’re going to take me, Steve. Soon. I can feel it.” 

Steve’s heart drops to his toes. Saying it out loud made it all too real. “No,” He says softly, reaching out for him. “No, Buck, please--”

“Steve?” Sam prompts, interrupting. “What’s happening?” 

“I’m--I can see. Listen closely,” Bucky groans, his eyes screwing shut before opening again. They go wide as saucers, looking around everywhere but remaining glassy. He’s not looking at Steve’s kitchen, but somewhere else, where his body is being pulled from cryo.

Steve’s heart thumps loudly in his ears as he stands stiffly, waiting to absorb every detail of Bucky’s words, anything that might help them get Bucky back. His stomach rolls miserably, the dread of what he knows comes next filling up from head to toe.

“Concrete everywhere,” Bucky reports quickly. “Cold. It’s really cold--some traffic outside, so not too far from civilization. New York accent in the background, speaking English. Saying…” Bucky squints. “Something about the Avengers. Looks like an abandoned warehouse. Train horn--tracks must be nearby.” 

Steve catalogues every detail to relay to his friends, but he also drinks in Bucky’s face, his hands, his hair--everything about him that he wasn’t sure would be the same when their paths crossed again. He didn’t want to forget. He couldn’t let himself forget. 

Most likely, Bucky wasn’t going to know him when they saw each other again. 

Steve would have to remember enough for the both of them.

“I’m going to miss you, Buck,” Steve sniffles, biting his lip to stop it from trembling. He didn’t want to cry, he wanted desperately to be strong and stoic and unafraid, but the sadness and worry ripped through him so violently he felt like it would tear him apart. “Please be okay. Don’t give up on us.”  

Bucky’s image flickers and then appears again. This time, the floor creaks under him, loudly. Steve’s head floods with hope. He was here.

“Holy shit,” Clint curses, falling out of his seat and right onto his ass with a flailing yelp. “Is that--”

Bucky’s eyes blink furiously, and then they find Steve. “Stevie, c’mere,” Bucky demands urgently. He grabs Steve roughly and pulls him into his chest hard enough to hurt.

Steve could feel him--this was a rare moment, an inbetween where Bucky was resisting going, where his spirit materialized just enough for a few, fleeting moments of touch. 

It was everything, it was perfect, it was exactly what Steve needed, what he’s pretty sure he’ll be needing for the rest of his life.

Bucky’s hands were strong and sure as they tugged Steve into him, like it was instinct. It felt so natural, like this is the only way of being they’d ever known, intertwined like this. Lovers. 

That’s right, doll. We’re in love. 

Bucky’s arms twist around him, ripcord strong and tight, as though gripping Steve this fiercely could protect him, them, from this mess. As if it could keep Bucky here forever, this way. Solid. 

He rests his chin on Steve’s head, and Steve feels completely enveloped by him in the best way possible, his earthy scent flooding his nostrils. 

He breathes deeply, greedily, fighting back the tears. Even as he basked in the contact, he knew how fleeting it was. Any second now, this could end, and Steve’s arms would be empty, maybe forever. 

“S’okay, kitten, I got ya.” Bucky soothes, his honey and sandpaper voice low in Steve’s ear, his words only for Steve and no one else. Steve felt safe. “We’re gonna be okay. It’s going to be alright.” The words, when coming from Bucky, and with Bucky’s arms around him, Bucky’s heartbeat in his ear--they were easy enough to believe. 

Bucky painted a reality around them with just a few hushes, a reality of safety and security and love, and Steve was falling gratefully into it. Of course everything was going to be okay. Bucky was here, Bucky would fight for them, protect them. 

Steve never thought it was possible to feel love radiating off of someone before, but now, here, he did. He felt it coming off of Bucky in heavy, rolling waves, a physical sensation that filled the room around them so loudly he wondered if Sam and Clint felt it, too. Steve felt like it was pounding against the wall, the windows, rushing in his ears louder than his blood. “ Bucky,” Steve chokes. “Stay--”

Bucky interrupts him before Steve can ask Bucky to promise something that they both know he can’t. “Don’t cry, sweetheart. Don’t cry.” 

Steve lets out a little sob anyway and buries his face in Bucky’s chest. He smells so good, feels so good. Bucky is rubbing his back, is hair, anywhere he can, hands wandering all over Steve, trying to read him like braille, memorize a physical map of his body to reference later. They must look desperate and starving for each other, with hungry eyes and starving hands, every sense at attention in the rare and true presence of the other.

Bucky cups Steve’s face in his calloused hands to force Steve to look at him through his watery eyes. 

“I”m going to be gone for a while, I think,” Bucky whispers quickly. Bucky’s eyes were wet, too, his lashes clumped together with fat tears. Neither of them know how long they’ll have, and Bucky speaks quickly to get the words out before he’s pulled away. He presses his forehead to Steves. “I just--I have a feeling. I’m sorry, doll. I’ll try to make it back to you. I’ll fight for you, in any way I can, Stevie. Okay?” 

Steve’s slender fingers knot in Bucky’s shirt, grabbing fistfuls of it like he could keep him right here in this kitchen by grip alone. “B-Buck,” Steve sniffles. “I won’t g-give up, I won’t.” 

“I know, baby boy,” Bucky whispers, nodding eagerly. “I know you won’t. Hey, can you do something for me?” 

“A-Anything,” Steve promises quickly, nodding his head. God, he’d do anything, if Bucky asked him. It was terrifying, to let another person have that much power over your soul. 

“In the bedroom, above the foot of your bed, there’s a loose ceiling tile. Move it over a little, you’ll find somethin’ in there, something that used to belong to me. I want you to have it.” Bucky instructs quietly, his hands still pressing Steve against the bulk of his body. “Just--be careful when you’re getting it. No repeats of the stool incident in the kitchen. Okay?” 

“Yeah,” Steve sniffles, not sure what on earth could be up there that had lasted 80 years of people moving in and out of the place. “Okay.” 

“Okay. Good,” Bucky coos, sniffling back his own heartbreak. “One more thing. Try hard, doll, but don’t forget that whatever happens, I love you now, and we have had an amazing few months together. Nothing and no one can take that away from us, and--” 

“Don’t say goodbye,” Steve pleads suddenly, desperately, his hands gripping Bucky hard, hard enough it must hurt. “Don’t, Bucky, please, I won’t be able to take it.” 

“Fight for us, n’eat your goddamn vegetables--not just potatoes, green ones, too,” Bucky whispers fiercely, shaking Steve by the shoulders a little bit to emphasis his points, but he doesn’t say goodbye, and Steve is glad. “And don’t start any fuckin’ fights. And--and do not , do not dare come anywhere near a base, don’t be alone with me, and for the love of God, Steve, don’t fuckin’ trust the guy with the metal arm.” Bucky whipped his head around to glare at Sam and Clint, who watched him with wide eyes. “Don’t let him die, yeah? Or else. I’m not the guy you wanna have an unkept deal with.”

They nod silently, mouths gaping, looking like they weren’t sure whether to run out of the apartment of pass out right there on the kitchen floor. “Deal,” Sam rasps out. 

“Just kiss me,” Steve pleads with wet eyes, already stretching up onto his tip toes, “Buck—”

Bucky does. He presses their lips together fiercely, holding Steve’s face in both hands, and Steve sighs into the kiss, not caring that Clint and Sam could see, not caring if the whole world saw. Bucky’s lips are full and soft, but hungry. They’re kissing like this is the last time, and it’s only the first. 

They should have a million kisses left, as many as there were stars, but. Neither of them knew when they would have each other next, or if they ever would again. Bucky’s lips are full and soft, and the pressure of them is exactly as Steve thought it would be, and a hundred times better. 

Bucky pulls back and stumbles away with a startled expression, his lips bitten and red but parted with surprise. “Steve?” He calls, and Steve winces. He wants to cover his ears so he doesn’t have to hear Bucky calling out for him. “S-Stevie? Hey--I love you, okay? I love you!”

He knows what this is; Bucky is in between, heading to another place with Hydra, where they’ll hurt him and maybe make him hurt Steve’s friends. Maybe make him hurt Steve. 

“I love you,” Steve whispers, but he knows Bucky can’t hear him. He won’t say goodbye, either.

The last thing Bucky says before his image vanishes completely is a raw, “Stevie-- I’m not giving up!” and then nothing. An unnatural silence. 

--------

If Sam had a doubt about agreeing to help Steve save the Winter Soldier, the doubts all disappear when he sees Bucky Barnes appear in Steve’s kitchen. It had happened so suddenly. One minute, Steve was conversing with the air, and the next, a full ass man appeared out of nowhere. 

He’d seen the photograph of Bucky during the war, sure, but seeing him like this, and appear out of thin air no less--was startling even to Sam, and Sam had seen some shit, okay? Like, aliens n’stuff. 

But Bucky, in his 40’s army uniform, mussed hair and desperate eyes looked nothing like the Winter Soldier Sam had fought, and yet...everything like him. 

Seeing the way he looked at Steve was surreal. It was unlike anything Sam had ever witnessed before. It was the way a devout man would look at his creator, Sam was pretty sure. He could tell, just in the few minutes of watching them together, how thoroughly Bucky adored Steve. Worshipped him, even. 

And Steve, Sam could tell, felt absolutely the same way. 

They orbited around each other, like magnets, movements hungry and tender and tragic all at once. It made Sam finally understand Steve’s visceral reaction when he found out Bucky was alive. Even though him being alive meant all of this extra trouble and tragedy, it also meant that they could have what Sam witnessed just minutes ago; the intimacy that people take for granted every day, the gift of just being able to touch someone and really feel the pressure of their skin, the warmth and texture and smell of it.

Steve had never been as happy as Sam had seen him in the past few months since moving into the apartment, and seeing Steve and Bucky together, Sam understood. Steve wasn’t exaggerating when he admitted to being in love.

And if that wasn’t the best--the only--reason to risk everything, then Sam didn’t know what was. Seeing the way they interacted made Sam eager to jump in, get to work right away so that he could see his friend happy once more. 

Once Bucky vanishes, Steve crumples in on himself, falling against the nearest wall and sucking his shoulders in tight, wrapping his arms around his small frame. He’s still wearing just one of Sam’s old t shirts and some briefs, with his goddamn bunny slippers, and he looks impossibly small. 

Sam moves first, coming out of the shock faster than Clint, who is still frozen in spot. He gathers Steve up and takes him into his arms, rubbing his back in slow, circular motions. He feels every bump of Steve’s spine.

“I know,” Sam lies into Steve’s hair. He didn’t know, he had never been in love as ravenous as what he’d just seen. He almost didn’t believe it could even be like that, until he witnessed the near-physical connection of Bucky and Steve. “It’ll be okay. We’re going to get him back, Steve. We will.” 

“We will,” Steve echoes, voice thick with tears. He lets Sam hold him, but he doesn’t hug back and Sam doesn’t blame him. 

Clint finally speaks. “Holy shit.” 

Sam shoots him a look of get it together, dude, and Clint blinks fast a few times. “Holy shit,” he repeats eloquently. Sam glares up at the ceiling, like God himself would descend and give him an answer for why he was cursed to reside around such goddamn idiots.

“We’ll get to work right away,” Sam soothes, still giving Clint the evil eye of are you going to be helpful or what, and still holding Steve tightly, afraid if he lets go that Steve will fall apart. “And the sooner we do, the sooner we get Barnes back.” 

“Steve,” Clint says finally, clearing his throat. “We’re going to do everything we can. We’re all in.” Sam doesn’t mind that Clint speaks for him. Although they annoyed each other, they were brothers at the end of the day, and they could practically read each others mind. Sam confirms with a firm nod. 

Steve nods again. “I know” He takes a deep breath, and the oven timer goes off. “Right,” he murmurs, stepping out of Sam’s embrace. With fists, he rubs the tears from his eyes and takes another steadying breath. Sam sees the battle in his eyes, the strength it takes for him to do it, and loves Steve even more for it. “Breakfast, anyone?” 

—— 

Steve tells them everything Bucky described, the clues of where he might be kept. Sam and Clint make eager notes, nodding enthusiastically. “This is great,” Sam encourages sincerely. “Really great.”

“This could be anywhere in New York,” Clint complains, clearly not sharing the same enthusiasm. “Or New Jersey, or hell, anywhere. Literally, almost anywhere.” 

“Not anywhere,” Sam squints. He pulls out the file he’d been carrying in, and flips through a few pages, before landing on the one he’d been searching for. “We’ve got a list of known and suspected Hydra bases in and around the New York area. Considering we were face to face with the guy not too long ago, it’s safe to assume he’s somewhere nearby. And Barnes said he heard a train horn in the background, meaning it’s close enough to train tracks to hear.” 

Steve’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. “How many are there? Bases and safehouses?”

Sam’s finger scans over the list of coordinates slowly, tallying them up. He sits back in the chair with a satisfied grin, matching Clint’s posture. “In the area...thirteen.” 

Clint gets a mischievous look in his eyes. “Thirteen is doable.” 

“It is,” Sam agrees, nodding. Steve can see the gears grinding in his head. “We can check ‘em out and through process of elimination, figure out which ones are close enough to train stations or tracks that Barnes would be hearing the horns, and look for abandoned factory buildings or warehouses. Narrow down the search, and then infiltrate one by one. Eventually, hopefully, we’ll come across the right bad guy.”

“Not a bad guy,” Steve corrects under his breath.  Sam sticks his tongue out at him playfully. The mood has shifted from lost and drained to something that resembled hope. There is something beautiful about it, something dangerous. 

Clint is nodding along with Sam’s plan, and Steve squirms eagerly in his seat. This is the part that wouldn’t easy; letting his friends rush into danger while he sits at home, unable to do anything, but it was also the part that would bring Bucky back. 

“We’ll need weapons,” Clint is saying, but it’s more like he’s thinking out loud than really expecting a reply.  “Lots of ‘em.” 

“That won’t be a problem.” 

“Stark is going to get suspicious,” Clint winced. “And we don’t want him sniffing too closely around all of this.” 

“So we’ll be careful,” Sam nods. 

Steve is pretty sure that Tony Stark can’t find out because he’s the one who issued the kill-on-site order on Bucky in the first place. Steve has never personally met the guy, but that fact was making him high up on Steve’s  “People-I’d-Like-To-Fight-List”. And that list was long, so being at the top was a pretty big deal.

“We’re also going to have Natasha sniffing around us,” Sam mutters, rubbing his brow with his fingers as if to get rid of the tension there. “She’s not going to like this one bit.” 

Clint snorts in agreement. “No, she won’t, but maybe with time she’ll realize that her and Barnes aren’t so different.” 

“She would be a huge help in this. She knows Hydra better than us,” Sam agrees softly. “Maybe with time.” 

“And we’re going to need SHIELD agents as full time security for Steve’s apartment; if Bucky suddenly remembers something about this place and decides to come back, we don’t want Steve facing him alone.” 

“No,” Steve interrupts. “Agents, are you serious? Guys--how am I going to explain that to my neighbours? And how is that going to give off the right impression if Bucky does decide to come back? The whole point of this is to convince him to come home. Station agents outside my doors isn’t going to give off the sign that we trust him or that he’s welcome.” 

“We don’t trust him.” Sam mutters. “And if he gets a hint of memory back, this is the first place he’ll come.”

“Then let him come,” Steve says exasperatedly. “I’m not a child, and you don’t have to protect me like one. I know the risks, and I’m telling you I’m willing to take them. Leave my apartment unguarded; I want it to be the thing that helps Bucky remember who he is. Who I am.” 

Clint looked like he was buying into the idea, but Sam’s face was a mixture of horror, anger, and utter fear. “Steve--” he tries, but Steve cuts him off quickly. 

Sam,” He says slowly. “Think about it. If we’re trying to get Bucky to trust us, how do we send that signal?” 

“By trusting him,” Clint finishes, and he and Steve share a meaningful glance, both on the same page. “Barnes isn’t going to be expecting it. It will take him off guard. It could work for us.” 

“You’re kidding,” Sam glares at Clint. “You agree with this? He’ll snap Steve’s neck in seconds and-and you want us to just leave him here, defenseless?” 

“Sam,” Steve grumbles again, getting annoyed. “I’ll take a panic button. You can hook it up to your Avengers com. I’ll keep it on me at all times, if I get any whiff of something off or I think Bucky is around, I’ll press it.” 

“That is flawed,” Sam argues. “What if you can’t reach it in time, or he takes it, or--”

“I told you. I know the risks.” Steve lifts his chin meets Sam’s eyes with defiance. The two of them face off for a moment, neither want wanting to give in, before Sam looks away with an angry breath. “That’s my descision, and it’s final.” 

“Goddamn you, Rogers. You’re gonna make me go grey before my time.” The words are light, but Steve can see how much the idea of Steve getting hurt on Sam’s watch bugged his best friend, so he reaches out and squeezes Sam’s fingers once, tightly, as a thank you for understanding. “Did you not hear Barnes? He hinted at some scary consequences should anything happen to you.” 

“He’s all bark and no bite,” Steve shrugs. “I ain’t afraid of him.” 

“I know that,” Sam groans bitterly. “That’s the problem.” 

Steve knows he shouldn’t feel this much hope, not when they’d barely started their mission, one that could take weeks or even months. Maybe longer. The Winter Soldier had been nearly untrackable so far in his career--he was dubbed ‘the ghost’ for that reason. They may have more trouble tracking him down now. 

Even with the clues Bucky gave them, it didn’t mean he’d be there. They could have woken him up and sent him on a mission in Africa, in Russia--anywhere, really. They had a long road ahead.

Steve also knew that he should be afraid, if the worry clouding Sam’s eyes was anything to go off of. It was a hint at how dangerous the Winter Soldier was, how ruthless. 

And Steve was afraid, on some level. He was afraid for his friends, the danger they were putting themselves in, how they were turning their backs on their jobs and their entire worlds. He was afraid for Bucky; afraid of what Hydra was doing to him as he sat at his kitchen table, afraid of Bucky not remembering and not coming back. 

Afraid of Bucky remembering and still not coming back.

But he wasn’t afraid for himself. Steve, for some ungodly reason, felt untouchable. Sitting in the living room, thinking about the possibility of having Bucky in his arms for good, without fear of fleeting moments or Nazi organizations or anything at all made Steve’s chest inflate. The Bucky he knew would never hurt him--he didn’t think he had anything to be afraid of. He didn’t know the Winter Soldier, the icy depths of the eyes he had fallen in love with, or anything of what resided in that black heart.

“When do we start?” Steve interrupts them suddenly. 

Sam and Clint share a look, communicating silently. “We’ve got some research to do, but…” He trails off, and moves to stand, stretching out his arms above his head and then letting out a long breath. “Tomorrow we storm the first gates of hell.” 

________________________________________________________

 

When Sam and Clint finally leave the apartment, it’s nearly midday. Steve doesn’t shower, wanting to keep the smokey smell of Bucky on his skin and hair for as long as he could, and heads straight for his bedroom as soon as they’re gone, climbing up on top of his mattress to reach for the loose ceiling tile Bucky promised awaited him. 

Steve’s mind flashes to Bucky’s warning to not repeat the tilting-stool incident, and it makes him smile. Back then, Steve was only just realizing that he maybe wasn’t alone in his apartment, that maybe there was something else going on. And then Bucky saved his life, not for the last time.

If anyone told Steve that a few months down the road he’d be desperately in love with the ghost, who also turned out to not even be a ghost, but rather a Soviet assassin, Steve never would have believed it. And yet.

Carefully, heading Bucky’s warning, Steve poked around until he felt a tile wiggle and losen. He stretches onto his tip toes a little more, and reaches around blindly until he finds a wooden box. 

Taking it down carefully, Steve sits cross legged on his bed, gently brushing the dust off of the wooden box, which was intricately craved and looked even older than Bucky was. 

Opening it with slow, precise movements, Steve gasped audibly when he saw what was inside.

Letters, the ink smudged in some places and faded in others, a string of pearls, a grainy black and white photograph of a family that Steve assumed was Bucky’s, if he guessed by the chubby child in the front with Bucky’s eyes, and...Bucky’s dog tags. 

Steve grabs them up in his hand, feeling the cool metal. He’s not sure how they ended up here; maybe they were found later and shipped back to Bucky’s family, to be kept safely in memory of him. Maybe it was a miracle, or magic. Steve didn’t discount that kind of stuff anymore, he knew better.

The letters, they aren’t for Steve’s eyes, and if he wants to invade Bucky’s privacy he’ll do so later, when he becomes more desperate for pieces of him. Right now, the dog tags were more than enough. He slides them over his head and feels the heavy weight of them settle around his neck.

Steve presses a chaste kiss to the worn plates of them, and sends a silent prayer to a God he’s not sure he believes in that Bucky would make it back home alive. 

__________

Steve doesn’t see Clint nor Sam for the next few days, but he gets updates periodically through the text group chat they’d made. It wasn’t the most secure form of communication, to be sure, but Sam and Clint had promised that Stark wouldn’t look too deeply into why they were sneaking around, and Natasha will have figured it out by now of her own intuition.

So Steve goes to work, and to the grocery store, and tries to live his life as normally as possible. Clint and Sam said that would be best; if he just pretended things were normal. 

It was easier said than done.

Steve flips through Netflix without really seeing anything on the screen. Work had been uneventful, but a welcome distraction, keeping his mind occupied on present activities rather than lost in circles of speculation. The weather had changed once again from dampness to a dry, terrible kind of cold that meant winter was on it’s way to stay in New York for good. Steve could feel the brittleness of it in his bones. 

Now that he was alone back at the apartment, there were no distractions available. The emptiness of the apartment and his worries about his friends crept in like poisonous gas. It had only been four days since they’d agreed to take on this task, and yet it felt like weeks. Every hour in itself was an eternity. 

As he’s about to put on yet another dumb Hallmark movie, Steve’s phone pings with a message. His hand darts out quickly to snatch it up, heart already racing with hope and worry. 

Clint to “Operation Unthaw”: Update. Safe houses 3&4 infiltrated. 

Clint to “Operation Unthaw”: Eagle ain’t in the coop. Still looking. Heading to 5&6 tomorrow in the early hours. Things going smoothly so far, met with little resistance. Safe houses are not heavily fortified or protected. Most are empty. 

Steve’s shoulders fell. His friends were okay, but Bucky hadn’t been found. He was afraid that he would keep getting texts like this; that they would go through every base and safehouse in the area and not find him, left with no leads, no ideas, and no hope.

He was terrified that they would never find Bucky. Hydra could, Steve knew, pack Bucky up and ship him wherever--they could send him on a mission to Canada or Europe or anywhere that wasn’t around the New York area, and just like that he’d be lost to Steve, maybe forever. 

He won’t let his disappointment show, though. He knows what Sam and Clint are doing for him are beyond what Steve had any right to ask for. 

Not killing Bucky was one thing, actively hunting him down against orders was another. 

Steve to “Operation Unthaw”: You staying safe & being careful? 

 

Clint to “Operation Unthaw”:  Always. Have you seen any signs of Barnes?

 

Steve to: “Operation Unthaw”: I haven’t used the panic button, have I? No Winter Soldier, no ghost. Just me.

 

Steve missed Bucky dearly, and he didn’t think he’d be seeing his handsome soldier anytime soon, not as he was. He had a feeling with all of the safe houses and bases being infiltrated by Sam and Clint that Hydra was going to catch on, and they were going to put the Winter Soldier on the offensive very soon. 

And that would only mean trouble.

Sam to “Operation Unthaw”: Right. We’ve gotta go. Hang tight. We’ll be in touch.

And so that was that. Steve bows his head and takes a deep breath. More waiting.

Steve to “Operation Unthaw”: I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with myself. 

Clint to “Operation Unthaw”: Keep your door locked, eat your veggies, and hope like hell we find him. 

Steve puts his phone down. 

-- 

Two more days go by. Then another, and another, and before Steve knows it, it’s been two weeks since Clint and Sam met in his kitchen and agreed to help him bring Bucky home.

Sam and Clint infiltrate four more safehouses in that time and gather more intel on Hydra, but find most buildings empty. A couple of them housed a few Hydra operatives, but they bit down on their cyanide quickly before they could be interrogated for information about the Winter Soldier. 

Steve knew there was a lot more going on behind that scenes that Clint nor Sam told him about, but he knew he got the important information, and that they weren’t hiding things to be malicious. They had Steve’s safety in mind--they always did.

Yesterday at one of the safehouses, Clint and Sam ran into Natasha who’d been hunting them down. Steve didn’t get the full rundown of what happened, exactly, but apparently she took off and let them do their thing. 

She also, as far as Steve knew, hadn’t reported Clint and Sam to Stark--another good sign. Steve was beginning to think that Nat may be seeing things from Steve’s point of view. He hoped, at least. 

Steve felt like he had been doing a hell of a lot of that lately. There were only three more safehouses in the area that lined up with Bucky’s description. The last three were in close proximity to each other, and all by railroad tracks. If nothing turned up at those places, Steve feared he would shatter. 

Steve was painting, finishing up a commission of an old Brooklyn coffee house. He knew the location had sentimental value for the client who had commissioned the piece, and Steve had put a lot of love into it, letting himself focus on perfecting the painting and welcoming it as a distraction from his wandering mind. 

It was a place where his client and his wife had first fallen in love, it was where their story began. Steve was a little envious, if he really thought about it. 

For some people, falling in love was as easy as waking up next to someone and kissing their forehead, making breakfast together, running errands while holding their hand. Steve felt deeply bitter about the fact that he and Bucky would never have that ease to their relationship--if they could ever even have one.

When he thinks about Bucky’s hands on him, the intensity of those wide eyes, Steve is sure he’s ruined for anyone else. 

No one could make him feel in a hundred years how Steve felt in those few, precious moments of contact.

He was almost done the piece, just adding a few finishing touches and blending some places that he wanted to be softer, when he heard a window squeaking open, ever so softly, then the hushed sound of it closing. 

His heart skips as panic makes his muscles lock up. No.

If Steve hadn’t been intently listening to the silence for hints of Bucky’s return, he would’ve missed it, but there is no doubting what he heard. Someone was here. 

His skin grows cold, mouth drying up instantly. He listens so hard he can hear the blood rushing in his ears. No, no, no. 

Bucky had been gone for two weeks, and Steve was pretty sure that if he came back, he wouldn’t be sneaking in through a window. 

Unless.

Unless it was Bucky, but not his Bucky. 

The Winter Soldier.

Okay, Steve says to himself, trying to force the panic out of his system and let the calm in. Okay, okay. Think. Think. 

He couldn’t show fear, he couldn’t be afraid. Clint had said that the last thing the Winter Soldier would be expecting his trust. It took a lot of effort, but Steve slowly, slowly, snuck into his bedroom, closing the door behind himself with a barely audible click. 

The bedroom was the best place for this encounter to happen. The window in his bedroom led out to the fire exit, and he could make a quick escape if he needed (and if he got the chance). His panic-button that would alert Sam and Clint of his dire situation sat useless in the kitchen. Sam was right, the system was flawed, and Steve might be about to pay the price.

He hears footsteps getting closer to where his bedroom was, coming slowly down the hall. 

Something stupid in Steve thought maybe, just maybe, the intruder won’t look too hard. 

Maybe he’ll just leave and not explore into the bedroom--but rationally, Steve knew that was a lie. The Winter Soldier didn’t have a reputation of not being thorough, and there was nothing in Steve’s apartment of value to him except for Steve himself. 

If Hydra wanted, they could use Steve in all sorts of sick ways, to trap the Avengers, to torture them. It’s a wonder a situation like this hadn’t occurred before, but Steve had no idea what kind of undercover bookwork his friends did to keep his name as far detached from theirs as possible.

Steve had to force himself not to stand up, not to take a fighting stance. He uncurled his fists with visible effort and inhaled and exhaled deeply. He couldn’t show fear, but it was difficult not to panic.

If the Winter Soldier could hurt Nat, then surely he could snap Steve’s spine as easy as a toothpick if he really wanted to. 

He didn’t stand a chance.

Steve clenched his jaw tight and prayed hard to a God he wasn’t even sure he believed in, willing himself not to let the panic in. He listened hard.

Whoever was in his apartment wasn’t trying to be quiet anymore, which meant that they either knew their cover was blown, or they thought the apartment was empty. 

Steve prayed it was the latter, and that he’d be left alone. 

Up until now, a small part of Steve had been praying something like this would happen, that Bucky--the Soldier--would come see him, would remember everything and fall apart in Steve’s arms. 

The confident steps of those heavy boots didn’t sound like someone tracking down an old friend, a valued lover. 

They sounded like a dangerous man, with no fear, on his way to finish a job. Steve was painfully aware of his size, his lack of training, and the fact that he was completely unarmed. 

The footsteps get closer and closer, and every muscle in Steve’s body tenses, wound up so tight it hurts. He trembles with the tension and--

His bedroom door is kicked open with a loud bang , making Steve jump nearly half a foot in the air. 

The first thing he sees are heavy black combat boots and black tac gear, and then a mop of brown hair, the silhouette looking huge and hulking in his threshold. 

Before he can force his vision to focus or his mind to properly process what was happening, Steve has a gun pressed to his forehead. It all happens in a matter of seconds, maybe two or three, leaving Steve reeling. 

The Winter Soldier stares down at him with dark eyes that look everything and nothing like the Bucky who told Steve he was something precious. 

Steve blinks up slowly at him, eyes pulled so wide it hurts. Bucky stares down at him--only, it’s not Bucky, but it is, and. Steve’s head hurts. 

He wasn’t looking at Steve like he was anything precious, or loved. He was looking at Steve like he was a nuisance of a being, a bug under his foot that he had to dirty his shoes to squash. It was strange to see those familiar eyes so menacing. 

He never thought he’d know this feeling, of having the cold nozzle of a gun pressed against skin--skin that felt so vulnerable, now. Stretched thin over bones that would shatter. 

It would be so easy for the Soldier to end it, right now, splatter Steve’s brains against the walls of the apartment he loved so much. 

Maybe they’d put the Soldier back in cryo. Maybe Bucky would come back to this apartment and Steve’s soul would stick to the walls, and Bucky would peel him off and they could be together, stuck together, for as long as the apartment remained--

“Speak,” the Soldier--Bucky--snaps, pressing the gun into Steve’s head harder. His voice courses through Steve, makes his stomach flip with excitement and fear. It felt like forever since he heard that voice, and it made everything in him shudder with the realization of how close they were to getting what they’d spent the past two weeks reaching for; Bucky. “Now.” 

Steve holds his hands up in the universal sign of surrender, mind racing. Bucky was in those cold eyes, Steve had proof of that. If his Bucky wasn’t in the apartment, then the part of the Winter Soldier that loved Steve, that didn’t want to hurt him, was somewhere in the hulking man that pressed a gun to his head. Just two weeks ago, those tight lips had peppered Steve’s hair and face with kisses. It hurt to think about.

“B-Buck,” He rasps, his throat tight. Fear would be Steve’s biggest enemy in getting Bucky back. He couldn’t be afraid. He had to be every bit as brave as his Bucky thought he was. The Soldier wouldn’t be expecting this; he was used to people running and hiding, or fighting back. If Steve did neither, maybe he would start to think about who Steve is, and maybe--and it was a big maybe--he’d remember some part of Steve. “Please. It’s me.” 

“I don’t know you.” Bucky’s voice sounds the same, just harder, a little colder, but with the same honey-sweetness that had always made Steve’s knees weak. 

Of course, Bucky before had never spoken to Steve with such a tone, but it was still so inherently Bucky that Steve wanted to collapse into his arms, even with the gun pressed firmly against him. He was a fool for wanting that, and he knew it, but everything in his body knew Bucky and yearned to trust him. 

He had to fight in instincts, this one time. He knew better than to throw himself at Bucky and hope that muscle memory would take over from there. He had to play his cards right, and maybe if he did, Bucky would stay and the whole nightmare would be over. 

“My name is Steve. Steve Rogers.” Steve murmurs, working to keep his voice soft and non-threatening. “Buck--you can put the gun away, I’m unarmed, and I’m not a threat. I’m not going to hurt you, and even if I wanted to, which I don’t, I don’t think I could. You can see that--you know that.” He speaks earnestly, meeting Bucky’s eyes with his own wide ones, trying to convey with every aspect of his body language that Bucky could trust him. 

“Who are you.” Bucky demands with a sharp voice. He doesn’t remove the weapon, and his eyes are narrowed sharply down at Steve. It was clear that he didn’t trust him. 

“You know me,” Steve says firmly, willing Bucky to believe his words. He’s proud of the way his voice doesn’t shake. “Bucky. You know me. I can’t hurt you. I’m untrained. Unarmed. I don’t want to hurt you. You know me--thats why you came here, of all places. You remember something about it, right?”

Bucky glares at Steve for a few moments longer, before he tightens his jaw. He clicks the safety of the gun to off. 

Shit, Steve thinks, panicking. Shit, shit--

“Who am I.” Buck’s voice is softer, quieter, less confident. This, perhaps, was the part that Bucky was unfamiliar with. 

Steve didn’t expect a question like that, but he supposes he should have. If Bucky was going to kill him now, then of course he was going to get all the information out of Steve that he could. It only made sense. 

If Steve wanted to stay alive, he’d have to trigger something in Bucky that would make Bucky remember him. There was an inherent part of Bucky that would never hurt Steve, and Steve just had to find it. It had to be in there, somewhere in those cold eyes. 

In the next few moments, Steve would have to be the bravest he ever was. He had to be just as brave as Bucky believed he was. Bucky would do this for him, he would succeed. Steve could, too. 

He takes a deep breath, and in a calm, confident tone, Steve explains: “You’re Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes, of the 107th, but you let me call you Bucky, a nickname. You’re a good man--you were born and raised in Brooklyn, you went to serve when your country needed you. You were brave, in the war, but you fell. From a train. Do you remember?” Steve doesn’t pause for Bucky to answer. “And then Hydra took you. And they brainwashed you, Buck, they scrubbed clean everything that made you, you and they hurt you so that you’d do what they said....and then they sent you away on awful missions where you had to do terrible things--”

Bucky’s hand drops, and the pressure of the gun is gone. Steve blinks, heart in his throat. Bucky is staring at him with something unreadable in his eyes. It’s not cold, but it’s not particularly warm, either. It’s curious, but hesitant. 

Steve knew he was getting in. It was much easier to think without the nozzle of a gun pressed against your brain, and he quickly inhales and continues.

“--And when they put you in cryo, your...spirit comes here. Think about it. Remember? This place used to be yours, there was that bakery downstairs…” He doesn’t remember the name of it, but it doesn’t matter, something in Bucky is breaking down, his eyes boring into Steve’s. 

“And you met me, when I moved in. I could see you, and hear you, and we...we became friends, first. And then we became more. You gave me these,” Steve pulls Bucky’s dogtags out from under his shirt and holds them up for Bucky’s inspection. Steve looks up at Bucky through his lashes, “And you told me, you told me that you were going to come back for me, and you did.” 

Bucky’s eyes are searching his, and Steve sees something in his defense break down, something in the Winter Soldier that was so Bucky it gave Steve enough hope to do something that was either exactly the right thing or incredibly stupid. 

“Buck,” Steve whispers, his eyes filling with tears that he couldn’t help at the emotion of the moment; Bucky was here, and real, he Steve could, if he wanted to touch him. And god, he wanted to, his skin was burning for it. He stands up, craning his neck to meet Bucky’s gaze better. He was taller than Steve remembered, larger, too. Perhaps the serum had something to do with that, or maybe it was years of using his body as a weapon that had made the changes. “I’ve missed you so much.”

And then Steve does it. 

He carefully, carefully, reaches up a hand to cup Bucky’s jaw, moving slowly, so slowly it takes nearly a full minute to reach his destination, his eyes locked with Bucky’s the whole time, trying to convey his intentions, not wanting to startle the man or make Bucky think he couldn’t be trusted. 

Bucky could snap his wrist at any moment, he could break Steve’s neck, he could shoot him between the eyes, all without any hope for Steve to be able to do anything to defend himself. 

But he didn’t. He stared at Steve with wide, surprised eyes, as if he couldn’t believe Steve was stupid or brave enough to actually do this. Steve didn’t know a whole lot about what Bucky remembered while he was like this, but he was pretty sure no one had ever taken the time to show him tenderness or kindness. He was a machine in the eyes of Hydra, and a villain in the eyes of pretty much every one else. Machines didn’t need someone to hold their hand and villains didn’t deserve it. 

He had never been shown love. 

“Steve,” Bucky croons, so softly that Steve shudders, is unable to help a physical reaction to his name coming from those lips, the ones he remembered kissing all too well. It sounded so Bucky, exactly how Bucky would have murmured it to him if nothing had changed between them, if he remembered Steve as perfectly well as Steve remember him--

Bucky let Steve touch him. 

Steve’s cool fingers press against the stubble of Bucky’s jaw, and when Bucky blinks, startled. Steve feels a hot tear run down Bucky’s cheek and onto Steve’s fingers. Tenderly, Steve’s thumb brushes it away. Bucky showing emotion had to be a good thing; Steve was pretty sure the Winter Soldier didn’t just randomly shed a few tears. Maybe memories were resurfacing, maybe Steve was going to get Bucky back.

Bucky blinks fast, as if shocked at himself for doing such a thing. He looks down at the floor, ashamed, and then shyly, back to Steve. 

“Do you remember?” Steve whispers, his bottom lip trembling. His thumb sweeps gently across Bucky’s cheekbone, feeling the angle of it. This, this is all he’d wanted, to feel Bucky close again, to hear Bucky say his name. “Buck, do you remember me?” Steve’s head is a mantra of sayyessayessayyessayyes--

But Bucky doesn’t.

Bucky’s tongue darts out to wet his lips, and he shakes his head slowly. “Я думаю, что ты был моим.” He whispers. 

No more tears fall, but he looked lost and scared, and not at all dangerous. It wasn’t a yes, but Bucky wasn’t shying away from his touch, and it gave Steve hope.

Bucky lifted his metal hand and then dropped it, hesitating. He worked his jaw some more, unsure. 

“It’s okay,” Steve encouraged earnestly. “You can touch me, Buck. I want you to.” 

“You’re so small,” Bucky breathes, frowning. He sizes Steve up, head to toe, and clenches his jaw. “I--”

“You won’t hurt me,” Steve says firmly, his heart racing at the idea of Bucky’s hands on him. “I trust you. If you want to, Buck, you can touch me.”

Bucky swallows, and looks unsure, like he doesn’t know what he wants to do. He blinks, heavy lidded, tilting his head further into Steve’s hand, arching towards the contact like a cat. 

After a moment of silence, Bucky lifts his hand again and presses his cool metal fingers over Steve’s, much like he had in the few moments of contact they’d first had, when he had been in between Hydra and the apartment. 

Bucky’s fingers are cool, and the metal hand is a strange sensation that Steve wants to learn more about. He’s gentle, so gentle it makes Steve’s shoulders shook with silent sobs that he fought to keep under control. 

Here was this man, a broken man, who not even five minutes ago had a gun to Steve’s head. He didn’t know Steve, probably didn’t remember much about him, but he was trusting him, and he was being gentle. A man who had only known brutality and death, was cupping Steve’s hand in his own and pressing his cheek into the contact like he was dying for it. 

“Bucky,” Steve whispers again, his own tear falling hot and fast down his cheek. Bucky doesn’t wipe it away. “It’s okay, it’s alright. We can figure it out. I’m so glad you’re here. I felt like--like a part of me was missing.”

Bucky’s brow twitched, like he was trying to make sense of what Steve was saying, and his fingers flexed a little on top of Steve’s hand. He was here physically, in this room with Steve, but his eyes seemed a little far away, as if trapped back in a Hydra base, somewhere lonely and dark. 

Bucky was being very careful, Steve could tell. The cool metal felt like it could flatten a car, but it was a light, barely-there pressure on top of Steve’s own fingers. 

“Am I safe?” Steve asks him, taking a tiny step closer. 

The Winter Soldier was larger than the Bucky who’d held Steve close, more bulky muscle than wirey. He could kick through doors, could do a lot of damage with that body. Steve felt very aware of their size difference. 

“Are you going to hurt me?” It was a dare, really, with the stubborn way Steve raised his chin up, as if in a bratty taunt. Hurt me, if you’re going to, then. Get it over with. Bet you won’t. Bet you won’t. 

Steve felt so small, despite his daring voice, craning his neck so far back it hurt just to meet Bucky’s eyes. If Steve let his head fall forward, his nose would press against the muscle of Bucky’s chest, right where his heart thumped. The air was charged between them, humming with electricity and tension. 

Bucky’s metal thumb sweeps over Steve’s hand. “I don’t know,” he replies, his voice raw and brutally honest.  “Maybe.”

“Do you want to hurt me?” Steve rephrases, trying to figure out where Bucky’s headspace was. He didn’t feel the least bit afraid. He felt like things would melt into the way they always had been, like they would collapse on Steve’s bed and Steve would curl up in Bucky’s arms. The world could shudder and shake around them, Hydra and Shield could come banging down Steve’s door, but they’d be together. It would be as easy as breathing.

Bucky’s jaw clenches and unclenches, working fast. He shakes his head once, left to right. “ Negative. ” 

Okay. That was good. That was really good. 

The Winter Soldier was being careful with Steve, like he knew Steve was something to be gentle with. Like he really didn’t want to hurt him. The intimacy of their contact shot right to Steve’s heart.

“Buck?” Steve sniffs, his voice breaking. He finally let go of Bucky’s cheek and sagged against him. He trusted Bucky to take the weight of him. 

It felt so good, to feel the sturdiness of his chest. He felt the reassurance that Bucky was really there and in the flesh, his heart beating steadily under Steve’s ear. 

He wraps his arms around Bucky’s waist, not squeezing too tightly, but holding on, and to his surprise, Bucky lets him. He doesn’t hug back, but he’s not overly stiff in Steve’s embrace, either. 

“Милая,” Bucky tells him, but he sounds lost and dazed, like he wasn’t sure why he was saying certain things, only that he was. Steve presses his cheek into Bucky’s chest. “I don’t remember you.” 

Steve feels a pang in his chest at the words, but he won’t let it discourage him. Bucky didn’t have to remember everything about Steve for them to be happy. Steve could make new memories with Bucky. Even if this new Bucky never fell in love with Steve, they could be friends. Steve would take Bucky in his life in whatever way he could have him. 

“It’s okay, I know. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that you’re here. I’m so glad you’re here,” He whispers to Bucky once again, putting a fierceness behind his words. “Thank god you’re alright.” 

Steve needed to call his friends, he needed to get them here so that they could help take Bucky in, somewhere where he could get the help he needs, and where Hydra wouldn’t be able to get to him anymore. 

Steve closes his eyes, breathing Bucky in. “Buck, please. Stay.” 

But Bucky is already shaking his head, and he steps back from Steve like he’d been burned, putting three feet of distance between them in one quick movement, leaving Steve reeling, his arms empty. 

No. The moment between them shatters, and a part of Steve does, too. His whole body rejects the loneliness, rejects the lack of touch.

Steve drops his hand to his side, feeling useless. “You can stay,” he says again, though he knows it won’t do anything. He can see the resolve written all over Bucky’s face, and knows the man will leave soon. “We can figure this out, Buck. Don’t be afraid, I only want to help.” 

“No,” Bucky says sharply, looking away. His voice is hard again, void of the tenderness it had contained just seconds ago. “And tell your friends to stop looking for me.” 

Steve swallows. Bucky knew that Sam and Clint were on his tail, and he clearly wasn’t viewing their pursuit as a rescue mission. Bucky didn’t want to go with them. That would make things impossibly harder.

“Don’t you want to be free from Hydra?” Steve murmurs, being careful not to raise his voice. Now wasn’t the time to let his temper get the best of him. Just because they shared a moment doesn’t mean he was in the clear, or that Bucky remembered him enough to guarantee he was safe. 

Bucky doesn’t answer, but his jaw tightens and he looks away. He might as well have said yes. Winter Soldier or not, Steve knew Bucky’s body language.

“Hydra doesn’t have to control you anymore, Buck,” Steve pleads, stepping closer. Bucky lets him, but doesn’t move any closer. They’re strangers once again. “My friends only want to help you.” 

“Shut up.” The Soldier barks, and as Steve is about to say something else, Bucky whips around to the door with his gun drawn just in time for Peggy to burst through it, her own weapon held up. 

Steve’s jaw hit the floor. Peggy was wearing soft linen pants and a cream cardigan with embroidered flowers on the shoulders, with her fluffy--but supportive--slippers...and a gun held confidently in her hand, aimed at Bucky’s head. Her hand didn’t tremble, and nothing on her face resembled fear, only alertness and mild concern.

What. The. Hell.

“Don’t shoot!” Steve cries, even as Bucky wraps his arm around Steve’s shoulder and presses the gun hard into Steve’s temple. Steve notices that even though Bucky’s got him tightly enough that Steve wouldn’t be able to struggle away, there is still something about Bucky that is restraining himself. 

He’s not holding Steve as tightly as he would a stronger opponent, he is being gentle, despite the fact that he’s got a gun pressed firmly against Steve’s head. Steve feels pretty confident that Bucky wouldn’t pull the trigger. 

“Don’t shoot, Peggy, please. He won’t hurt me.”

Bucky tightens his grip on Steve a little more, as if to say yes, I will. 

Peggy’s eyes are huge as she appraises the Winter Soldier. Steve could see her mind working, seeing the jawline and the nose and the eyes that all looked too similar to a soldier she used to know. Her resolve solidifies, her hands tightening around the gun.

“Steve,” Peggy says calmly, not taking her eyes off Bucky. “What the hell is going on here?” 

Steve knew he had a Russian assassin wrapped around him, and he knew that he had a barrel of a gun shoved hard against his head, ready to kill him with a twitch of his fingers, but Steve felt almost giddy. Bucky was scared now, but before...they’d had something. There was something between them, that Steve could dig at and pick at and use to bring Bucky home. He just needed to diffuse this situation. 

“It’s fine, Peggy. He won’t hurt me,” Steve reassures her once again. “Just, put the gun away, okay? I’m safe.” 

As if in defiance, Bucky presses the gun harder. “I will kill him.” he growls. “I will.” 

Peggy’s fingers flex around her own gun, eyes narrowed. She looks between Steve and Bucky, calculating. 

Steve isn’t sure how much damage a bullet would do to Bucky. 

He had the serum after all, but something about the confident way Peggy was holding that gun made Steve think she was a damn good shot, and if she got Bucky between the eyes, he didn’t think there was any serum that would let a man come back from that. “Don’t. Shoot.” He mouths. “Please.”

“Here’s what’s going to happen,” Peggy commands. “You’re going to let Steve go, slowly, on my count. Then you’re going to disappear through that window. And if you ever, ever come in this apartment again, I will scalp you and use your hair as a mop to clean your blood from the floor.” 

Steve blinks, astonished. This was not the apple-pie making women he’d met. This wasn’t even the war-saddened women who’d seen too much. This was a soldier, someone who did what she had to do to protect the ones she cared about and didn’t apologize for anything. 

Bucky watches her steadily. He isn’t afraid--Steve can feel his steady heartbeat against his back, and his fingers don’t tremble holding him nor the gun. “Why should I trust you?” Bucky demands. 

Steve cranes his neck to look up at Bucky, who doesn’t move the gun from his head. “You don’t have to trust her, Buck,” he murmurs. “Trust me. Trust that I wouldn’t let you do it if I thought she was going to hurt you. Can you do that?”

Bucky clenches his jaw, but doesn’t answer, staring down at Steve with an unreadable expression. 

“I’m going to step away from you now, okay? Can you let me do that? After that, you can get out of here, and we won’t hurt you.” 

Bucky’s jaw works again, almost like he’s chewing a piece of gum or the inside of his lip. He nods once, and when Steve steps out of his arms, Bucky lets him. 

As soon as Steve is out of Bucky’s grasp, Peggy lunges forward to grab Steve’s arm, hauling him swiftly into her. By the time Steve turns around again to say goodbye, Bucky is gone, the curtains of Steve’s bedroom window billowing with the wind as the only evidence of Bucky’s escape.

He lets out a long breath he hadn’t even realized he’d been holding, and his shoulders deflate.

“Steve,” Peggy snaps, once she sees the danger is gone. “Are you going to tell me why the hell you were calling that man Bucky?” 

--- 

It isn’t really Steve’s story to tell, but he fills Peggy in because she deserves to know that there is hope. 

She deserves to know that the Winter Soldier is James Buchanan Barnes and that Steve was trying like hell to get him back. He makes them coffee and they sit in his living room, listening to the wind howl against the windows. 

Peggy listens intently, sighing here or there, crossing and uncrossing her legs. When Steve is finished, she gives him a small, sad smile. 

“James is a good man,” She says softly, sipping her coffee. “But I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that. You’re quiet gone for him.” 

Steve blanches. He hadn’t mentioned anything of his romantic feelings for Bucky to her. “Huh?” 

She only smiles warmly, arching a brow as if daring him to deny it. “Well, come on, Steve. It’s plain to see, even a blind man could notice the way you light up when you talk about him.” 

Steve stares down at his lap. He was gone for Bucky, ruined for anyone else. “Yeah,” he agrees quietly, confessing his sins to the air and to Peggy. “I love him. I don’t care what he’s done, he’s a good man, and I love him.” 

Peggy hums. “You’re going to save him,” She murmurs, watching Steve intently. She takes another sip of her coffee, watching him over the rim of her mug. 

Steve inhales and exhales slowly. It’s a lot of pressure, but the hope in her voice is exactly what Steve needed to hear. He remembers the moments of vulnerability the Soldier had shared with him. The openness on his face that was so Bucky it filled Steve up to the brim with hope. 

“You really think I can?” Steve whispers, afraid that if he spoke too loudly, the wish wouldn’t come true. 

Peggy brushes her weathered hands across Steve’s shoulder, rubbing his back in a slow circle. She stands to go, pressing her lips to his forehead as she does. “If anyone can, Steven, it is undoubtedly you.” 

Steve blinks after her as she shows herself out. Peggy had faith in him, and Steve had faith in himself. After seeing that moment of weakness in the Winter Soldier’s eyes, Steve knew there was hope.

“If he comes back,” Peggy calls over her shoulder, her hand on the doorknob, “I’ll be there. Saved or not, James is dangerous right now.” 

Steve couldn’t deny that. He didn’t really think Bucky would hurt him, but the man who’d just had the gun pressed to Steve’s head wasn’t entirely Bucky, and if he returns to Hydra, they could wipe his memory again, putting them back at square one. He would have to be at least a little careful. 

“Thanks, Peggy,” Steve tells her softly, as she leaves, throwing a small smile over shoulder, and shutting the door behind her with a quiet click. 

Steve falls back into bed and allows himself a few quiet moments to stare up at his ceiling. Bucky had been to his apartment. That meant one of two things. Either one, Bucky remembered something about the apartment, and came to investigate. In that case, maybe he had somehow gotten away from Hydra, and was on the run from them. He seemed to be a far cry from the robotic brain-washed killer that the file had painted him out to be. Bucky was articulate. Precise. Tender. 

Or, scenario two, Hydra had sent the Winter Soldier to “take care” of Steve and eliminate him from the playing field. Then maybe, when Bucky saw Steve, his memories were triggered and that’s why he didn’t hurt Steve. 

Both options were feasible, but the former meant Hydra was after Bucky, and the latter meant Hydra was after him. Neither were good.

Steve drags a hand through his hair. “Dammit,” He mutters to himself. “Damn, damn, damn.” 

Finally, he drags himself up. Winter Soldier visit or not, Steve had to continue his day. 

He contemplates for a long time about telling his friends. They were out there looking for Bucky, when Steve had in fact, just seen him. If he tells them now, maybe they’d be able to track Bucky down. 

But did Steve really want Bucky tracked down and taken against his will like a rabid animal? He hadn’t considered the possibility that Bucky wouldn’t want to go with the Avengers, but his reaction today made it clear that he didn’t view the Avengers as his liberators. 

Steve wouldn’t take away any more willpower from Bucky than has already been robbed of him by Hydra. He wasn’t selfish enough for it, no matter how hard he wished he could be. 

So he couldn’t tell his friends just yet. But could he trust them with the information later, after giving Bucky adequate time to get away? 

Steve figured telling his friends would produce one of two reactions: 

One, Clint and Sam would refuse to allow him to be alone in his apartment at any time until Bucky is captured. They would have agents inside the house, and bodyguards with Steve wherever he goes. 

Two, they would do the same thing as in the first instance, only they would take it a step further and relocate Steve to the Avengers tower where he would have to sign in and out of the building every time he wanted to leave, and would be monitored for his ‘safety’ 24/7 by an AI with a british accent. 

Neither options sounded appealing, but he knew both were realistic and pretty much within his friends power to accomplish. 

This apartment was Steve’s home. It was where Bucky knew he could reach Steve. Steve didn’t want to leave, and he didn’t want his home riddled with body guards. That would send the wrong message to Bucky. 

Despite having a gun pressed to his temple and death threats muttered in his ear, Steve felt oddly giddy. 

He didn’t feel like his apartment was unsafe, he wasn’t concerned for his own danger. Seeing Bucky storm in like that, and especially seeing him let down some of his walls for Steve, gave Steve a brighter hope than he’d had since he’d found out Bucky and the Winter Soldier were one in the same.

He didn’t have the urge to get out of the apartment or flee to safety He wanted to run out into the streets and call out for Bucky until he came back. 

He didn’t. 

He scrubbed his hands over his face, through his hair, and willed his mind to go blank from all the busy thoughts. Then he grabbed his phone. 

Steve to “Operation Unthaw”:  Just checking in to see how things are going. Things are good here. Quiet.

Steve couldn’t lie in person, but over a voiceless text, it was easy. He pushed his guilty feelings aside. He was doing this for Bucky--his friends would understand. 

Sam to “Operation Unthaw”: I wish we had an update to give. Same old same. No sight of him. You seen him around at all?

Steve knew that Sam was really asked if Steve had seen Bucky’s ghost around the apartment, which would be proof that Bucky was back in cryo. He knew, though from seeing Bucky just moments ago, that he was out and about, and still in the New York area.

Steve to “Operation Unthaw”: Haven’t seen my ghost. Hope you guys are being careful & hope we can get together soon to talk about next moves. 

He’d tell them in person; then he’d be able to control the situation better, get ahead of Sam’s spiralling before it got out of control. Then he wouldn’t need to keep secrets. 

“Come home, Buck,” Steve prays into the empty air. He presses his forehead against the cool glass and closes his eyes, remembering the feeling of Bucky’s metal hand over his, Bucky’s intense gaze. “Please just come home.” 

Chapter Text

 

Love of mine
Hydra calls you home
With every word and every line
We never really own

You're the guide
The parts that make the sum
No constellation ever shined
Like Hydra now you’re gone

            - Hydra, Bell Mt. 

 


Bucky stays away for a couple days, after that incident.

Sam and Clint have to put a brief pause on their search for him, they tell Steve, because Stark has a mission for them somewhere in Southeast Asia. It will only take a few days, Sam reassures him, and then they’ll be back on top of it, and looking for Bucky. 

Steve tells them to be careful, and makes them promise to check in when they can, to give him some peace of mind. They agree.

Steve isn’t sure if it’s because his friends are out of the country or if it’s completely unrelated, but after the Avengers take off, Steve is haunted by the sensation of someone watching him. 

It’s the same feeling he used to get when Bucky would be in the room but not materialize. 

He could feel eyes on him, but didn’t know where they were coming from. He’d whip around to glare suspiciously behind himself, but there would be no sign of Bucky and no cool air or any other hint that Steve wasn’t alone. He’d gotten pretty sensitive to the apartment and knew full well when Bucky was or wasn’t there, and he was pretty damn sure his ghost wasn’t around. 

Sam and Clint were still tracking the Winter Soldier’s movements, so Steve knew Bucky was still out of cryo. His ghost definitely wasn’t back, but Steve had a feeling that Bucky--the Soldier--was watching him closely. 

It started out with little things, things he might have missed, were he not looking for the signs.

One morning when he woke up, his sketchbook was flipped to a different page than he’d last had it, and there was a little bit of melted snow by the window in the living room; proof that someone had been in his apartment--in his bedroom--while he slept. 

Nothing in the apartment was missing, and Steve was completely unscathed. Given that the picture was flipped to the sketch of Steve and Bucky slow dancing, Steve had reason to believe that Bucky was the one who had been letting himself in. 

It was curious, why Bucky hadn’t hurt Steve, or woken him up to ask more questions, but Steve chose to interpret that as a positive sign. Maybe Bucky was giving himself time to remember, using the apartment as a way to access his memories of his past and of Steve. 

If he’d crept in while Steve was asleep, the Winter Soldier would have had multiple opportunities to kill Steve, to kidnap him, or to take his time and make it look like an accident. 

But he didn’t. 

Steve wasn’t sure if it was the truth, or if it was wishful thinking, but on the nights were he really felt eyes on him, he’d wake up to the heat being turned on a little higher, his blanket tucked a little tighter around him, and all of his doors and windows latched, even if he was sure he’d left them open. 

It was the same things that Bucky’s ghost did for him, little things that would be almost unnoticeable, if it were anyone less observant than Steve. 

All of these seemed to be positive signs, but it wouldn’t be enough. 

Steve kept contemplating telling Clint and Sam his theory, that he was sure Bucky was still in New York, watching over him, and that he suspected Bucky wasn’t working for Hydra anymore, but something in his gut kept telling him to keep it to himself for a little while longer.

He was afraid of what his friends would do if they suspected the Winter Soldier was coming in and out of Steve’s apartment freely. His earlier concerns of being shadowed by guards or moved to the tower returned. 

Steve wanted to stay where he knew Bucky could find him. He didn’t want Bucky to stop visiting him. Steve being here, in the apartment, might be a huge reason Bucky was getting his memories back and Steve didn’t feel unsafe enough to risk losing that chance. 

And maybe, just maybe, if Steve kept it to himself, Bucky would come back again and again, would talk to him, and maybe Steve wouldn’t need the Avengers to take him in by force. It was already clear that Bucky didn’t view the Avengers as his liberators and the likelihood of him coming with them without a fight was slim, in Steve’s opinion. 

But there was a thin veil of trust being built between him and Bucky, and if he could make that a little stronger, he had a chance of convincing Bucky to trust his friends, too. There wouldn’t have to be any violence, or bloodshed. It would be...simple. 

He wanted Bucky to walk in right now, while he was awake and could talk to him, hear his voice, could touch him. If he closed his eyes and tried hard enough, he could remember the smell of Bucky, the electricity of their contact, the stillness of the moment and the fragility of it. 

The last time they’d spoken, Bucky didn’t know who he was, but it was clear that there was a part of him that didn’t want to hurt Steve, and Steve only hoped that that part had grown stronger since their last confrontation. He had to believe that Bucky was working on his own agenda, and had broken free of Hydra’s grasp.

If Bucky really were on the run from Hydra, wouldn’t he be scared? 

With Hydra no doubt breathing down his neck, trying to get their valuable soldier back, and the Avengers on his tail, Bucky should have left bustling New York for somewhere far away.

If Bucky really didn’t want to be found, he could have easily made off somewhere more remote where he’d have better chances of going underground. 

But he stuck around anyway. 

Steve knew what he had to do. 

---------

Steve places the package with one of Sam’s old sweaters, large enough to fit around Bucky’s bulk, a few water bottles, two peanut butter and jam sandwiches, some medical supplies, and a note by the window sill in the hopes that his visitor would find it to be of some use. 

The note, in Steve’s messy scrawl, read: 

Dear Bucky,

I left these things here for you in case you might need them. I’m not sure how you’re doing--we haven’t spoken in a long time, but I know you’ve been around. I even think you’re beginning to remember me, since you haven’t tried to hurt me, but have been in the apartment on multiple occasions. I hope that one day soon you come over while I’m awake. I just want to talk to you Buck, I can answer any questions you have. I can help you. I want to help you. 

My friends, they’re looking for you. But they will not hurt you, so please don’t be afraid. They just want to get you away from Hydra. The rest we can figure out from there.

Please stick around a while longer so we can figure this out together. 

‘Till the end of the line & always yours,

Steve

He places it near the window where he’s sure Bucky would see it if he came in, and the next day when he wakes up, all the contents of the package are missing, except for the letter, which is ripped up into tiny little pieces, and sprinkled over Steve’s floor like snow.

---------

“Nat--you came. Thanks, c’mon in.” Steve opens the door wider for her, and she siddles past him, her face unreadable. The moon is high in the sky, and Steve’s got candles lit and fairy lights on to make the empty apartment seem a little more homey. It’s a futile effort, though. 

Nothing feels right when Bucky isn’t around.

Nat is stiff. They hadn’t really spoken since that day where Nat revealed Bucky’s identity to him, and things were tense at best. Steve had reached out because he needed her on their side, and because he missed one of his best friends. 

After debating for hours on whether or not Steve should tell his friends about Bucky visiting him, out of fear of being forced to be under surveillance, moved to the tower, or any number of unnecessary measures, Steve had decided to come clean. His friends were risking everything on his behalf and Bucky’s, and he had to trust that they would respect his wishes of staying in the apartment, where Bucky could access him. 

Nat knew about Sam and Clint tracking down Bucky, but hadn’t really done anything to stop them, so Steve wasn’t entirely sure where she stood on the issue, but he was eager to find out, and to make amends. He hated the tension between them, and most of all, hated that it had leaked out into Nat’s relationships with Sam and Clint. 

“What happened to your bedroom door?” Natasha’s eyes narrowed immediately as they walk past it. Steve had propped the door up against the wall so that it wasn’t in his way, but he didn’t have the tools lying around to fix it and honestly, it had been the last thing on his mind.

He should have counted on her keen eye picking it out faster than he could think to bring it up.

“I’ll tell you,” Steve promises, feeling oddly nervous. His hands are clammy, he forgot how intimidating Nat could be sometimes, and there was a lot riding on this conversation. “Just, sit down. You want something to drink?” 

“No.” 

“Are you hungry? I can--”

“I’m fine.” 

Steve blows out a long breath, sitting down on the couch and tucking his legs under him. 

Natasha sits stiffly, which hurts Steve’s heart to see. He missed the comfortable way she used let her walls fall down around him, used to tuck up comfortably into his couch and laugh until her shoulders shook with the force of it. He had to fix things between them.

“What happened?” She echoes again, her perfectly sculpted eyebrows arched. Her eyes scan over him, looking for visible signs of injury. “Are you hurt?” 

Steve presses his lips together. “Don’t freak out,” He begs. “Because I’m fine. You can see that I’m fine, I’m not hurt or--or even bruised. Okay?” 

Her face is shrouded in suspicion, eyes narrowed tightly. “Steven,” She says warningly. Steve suspects she’s already put the pieces of the puzzle together, but wanted to hear Steve say it anyway. 

“Buck was here,” he says slowly. “This morning.” 

Her features harden, looking from the door, back to him. “As in..?” 

“The Winter Soldier,” Steve confirms, and watches Nat’s face flicker through many emotions; first shock, then worry, then, finally, anger. 

What?” She growls. “He was in your apartment? Jesus, Steve, tell me you’re kidding.” 

“No,” He sighs, bracing himself. “I’m not kidding.” 

Her eyes flash at him, burning with fury. “For fuck sake, Steve, you can’t stay here anymore, it isn’t safe. I thought this place was being monitored by agents around the clock--”

Steve had unleashed a monster he did not have the power or energy to control. “Nat--”

“Did he try to hurt you? What did he want? You’ll stay at the tower with me until we get this sorted. Clint and Sam have let you take this too far.” 

Nat.” Steve barks sharply, getting her attention, though she doesn’t look pleased about it. “Let me explain.” 

She broods, but doesn’t speak again, letting him go on. She looks like she might erupt at any second, so Steve had to chose his words carefully. 

“Bucky was here, but I didn’t see him. I haven’t seen him since the day he did that,” Steve nods his head in the direction of the unhinged door. “But he’s been here multiple times since then. Definitely this morning. He uh, took some stuff I left for him. He has never hurt me. Besides only once, he’s only ever been here when I’m out or asleep. He doesn’t touch me, or wake me. I think he’s just trying to remember.” 

“It doesn’t matter.” she hisses. “The Asset is a loose canon. He could be docile for now, but the minute you wake up when he doesn’t expect you to, you’ll have a metal hand clenched around your throat.”

Steve wasn’t surprised by Nat’s reaction; he’d expected nothing less.
“I know I have to be careful,” He tells her calmly. “But honestly, Nat, if he wanted to hurt me, he’d have done it by now. He’s had plenty of opportunity.” 

She seethes at him, bewildered. “Do Clint and Sam know about his...visits?” 

Steve shakes his head. “I didn’t want them to go crazy or not let me stay in my own apartment anymore,” He admits honestly. “If I really thought I was in danger, I would have, but I don’t, Nat, honestly. I don’t feel unsafe at all.” 

“Your opinion doesn’t mean anything, Steve,” Natasha quips in annoyance. “You have terrible instincts. This is...ridiculous.” 

That, Steve knew, was not true. He trusted his gut every step of the way with Bucky, and it hadn’t let him down yet. He would keep following his heart. 

“Nat, I’m a grown ass man and if I decide this is what I want to do, then--”

“You need to tell Clint and Sam about what’s been happening.” 

Steve knew that. It’s half the reason he called Nat here in the first place. He had to come clean.

“Why don’t you tell them?” Steve challenged, already knowing the answer. He sticks up his chin and stares her down. 

She stares back for a moment, and then looks away, guilty. 

“I haven’t talked to either of those suicidal idiots by choice in a long time.” She mutters. She rubbed a hand over her eyes, and Steve sees the exhaustion there. This conflict was weighing on her more than she was letting him see. “They knew what they were doing when they agreed to help you.”

“Nat,” Steve begins gently. He knows that she’s angry because she’s scared. Nat was a control freak, and not being able to control this situation, the one where Steve was at risk, was clearly driving her crazy. “All I want--all Sam and Clint want, too--is for an innocent man to be kept away from Hydra. He’s dangerous, and unstable, at times--I know that. But I think he’s proven himself at least worthy of a little bit of doubt.” 

“Innocent,” Natasha laughs without humor. “He is not.” 

“Condemning someone for being under the control of another against their will is unlike you,” Steve murmurs softly, watching her with an even expression. It’s unfair of him, maybe, but he had to say something that would break down her stony walls. 

Her face twitches at that accusation, but she knows Steve has a point.

A long, uncomfortable silence sits between them, neither one wanting to give an inch. “I care about you, Steve,” Natasha says, finally, staring at her hands. She’s lost a little of her confidence, her facade breaking as lets him in a little more. “I don’t want this to end badly.”

Steve grabs one of her hands, giving it a reassuring squeeze. “You love me,” Steve corrects, offering a playful smile. She rolls her eyes, but her face softens. 

“When you’re not being a shithead,” She mutters. “Yeah, I do.” 

“I know that. And I love you too, Nat.” 

She watches him with pursed lips for a few moments longer. “You want me to help Clint and Sam get your boyfriend back.” 

“I want,” Steve corrects, “For Bucky to be safe. I don’t think looking at Hydra bases or safehouses is the right move anymore. Truthfully, I don’t think Bucky is working under Hydra anymore at all. I think he’s on the run from them.” 

This has her interest. Her posture relaxes a little, as if this information offers some comfort. “Why do you think that?” 

“When I spoke to him, he seemed to remember at least a little bit of who I was. If he came after me on Hydra’s orders, wouldn’t those orders have been to kill me? Or at least, to take me? Surely Hydra wouldn’t tell him to break into my apartment and then leave without gaining any vital information or without taking anything important with him.” 

Natasha considers this for a moment. She nods one, sharply. If she’s impressed by Steve’s deduction, she doesn’t show it. “Maybe you’re right.” 

“I want you to talk to Clint and Sam. I want this tension between us to end.” Steve says softly. “And I want Bucky back,” He takes a steadying breath, feeling his lungs protest a little. He was still under the  weather, and breathing hadn’t been easy the past few days. “And I think, I really think, Nat, that we can do all of that.” 

She watches him, lips pressed in a hard line. She pulls her hand back from his. “Steve,” She begins tiredly, but then cuts off, and rubs her eyes again. “He killed Stark’s parents.”

Steve’s heart sinks. No. “What?” 

“The Winter Soldier. Bucky. Years ago, but. He killed them. Made it look like a car accident, of course. But he beat them to death. Stark’s father, Howard. His mother, Steve. Innocent people. Good people. Left Stark to be an orphan.” 

Steve covers his mouth. Natasha didn’t speak about Tony often, but Steve knew they were friends, and relatively close ones. She had to trust Tony with her life, they went on missions together, she lived in his building, she followed his orders. That ascertains a certain bond all on its own. 

And the Winter Soldier had killed Tony Stark’s mother and father.

“Oh, god.” He didn’t remember seeing the name in the Winter Soldier file, but then, there were so many that it was hard to read each one and try to imagine the life they lived before Bucky snuffed it out. “It wasn’t him,” Steve pleaded with her, feeling like he was grasping at straws. He had almost had her--he couldn’t lose her now, not over something that Bucky had no control over. “The Bucky I know would never.” 

“He is no longer the Bucky you know,” Natasha says seriously. “As I’m sure you’ve discovered. In my experience, peaceful encounters don’t end up with unhinged doors.” She eyes the door with contempt. 

She had a point. 

“Please?” Steve ignores her words. “Nat, please, just help me get him back. He’s not the bad guy in this story. He can prove it to you, and so can I. If I didn’t believe that with my whole heart, I wouldn’t be asking the people that mean the most to me in the entire world to go against orders and risk their lives for him. I’m a reasonable person. I know I’m right about this.” 

“I don’t trust him.” 

“You don’t have to trust him,” Steve begs. “Trust me. You said I’ve got terrible instincts, but that isn’t true. I’ve followed my gut on most things in life, and look how it’s turned out for me. I’ve got an apartment I love, a man I love, friends who I’d die for, and a job that is both rewarding and pays the bills. It doesn’t get better than this,” He smiles shyly at her. “So when I say that we need to get Bucky back, it’s ‘cause I know in my heart that he’s a good man, and he deserves the same second chance that you got.” 

She waits for a long time, looking between the door, and Steve, and her hands, clasped in her lap. She takes a long suffering breath. 

“Fine.” She says curtly, looking extremely unhappy about it. “But I’m going to bring him into Avenger’s custody, and then we’ll decide what to do with him from there. That is all I can promise.”

Steve nods, trying not to look too excited. Natasha knew Hydra better than Sam and Clint, she’d trained under them and had a better understanding of how the whole thing worked, Steve was pretty sure. Having her on their side would certainly help. “Okay.”

“And we’re not bringing Stark in on this until we’ve got the Soldier in our custody and are about to bring him in. Until then, you need to tell Sam and Clint that it’s imperative we are careful about what Tony knows.” 

Steve has added “Nat” to Group Chat: “Operation Unthaw”. Nat’s phone pings with a notification telling her she’d been included. 

“There,” Steve says dryly. “Tell them yourself.”

Natasha looks thoroughly unimpressed, but she begins typing a message anyway. Her fingers are quick and silent on her phone, and within seconds, Steve’s notification goes off. 

Nat to “Operation Unthaw”: Okay, you idiots. Meet at Steve’s apartment, tomorrow night when you get back from the mission. We need a new strategy.

Clint responds with a big thumbs up emoji and a heart. Sam replies with a middle finger emoji, lets that sit for a few minutes, and then says: thanks, Nat. Glad to have you back.

For now, all is well. 

----- 

That night, as promised, they meet at Steve’s. 

Clint brings Lucky, who seems much more at ease in the apartment than he did the first time, trotting happily inside with his tongue lolling out the side of his mouth. 

The rest of his friends pile in to Steve’s living room, with Clint and Sam on the couch, Nat in the loveseat, and Steve cross legged on the floor, nursing the herbal tea he’d made prior to their arrival and Lucky close to his side.

There is an uneasy silence between all of them as they sit and eye one another, the room filled only by faint noises of outside traffic and Lucky’s happy panting, before Nat is the one to break it. She pulls out a small speaker from her coat pocket, about the size of a hockey puck, and presses the button in the center. Loud jazz music emits from it, filling the apartment.

When Steve gives her a questioning look, Nat shrugs. “If he is watching you, then this will drown out any coms he’s placed, so he won’t hear our conversation. You listen to this stuff, right?”

“I do,” Steve hedges, not sure if he should be offended by her tone or not. 

“So hearing this won’t raise suspicion.” 

Smart. Steve nervous goes to shut the curtains, staring out at the rooftops around him thinking maybe he’d get a glimpse of Bucky--but there is no one, just the dark sky. 

“Who?” Clint asked dumbly. Steve shrinks back to his seat, preparing for a fight.

“The Winter Soldier has been in Steve’s apartment,” She tells Clint and Sam tiredly, getting straight to the point. Their faces morph into immediate shock. “Multiple times.”

Sam and Clint immediately turn to Steve, both of their faces a mixture of anger and fear. 

Steve shoots her a betrayed glare. He was going to ease into that one, not drop it like a bomb. 

What--” Sam hisses, jumping to his feet like he planned on knocking some sense into Steve himself. 

Steve holds up the hand not supporting his mug in surrender. “Listen,” He says through clenched teeth. “I’m sorry. That,” He shoots a scathing look in Nat’s direction. “Wasn’t how I want to tell you. He’s been here, yes, but he’s never hurt me. I’ve been completely safe this whole time, truly.” 

Natasha scoffs, and Steve glares harder. Sam looks like he might punch a hole in Steve’s drywall. 

“How could you not tell us?” Clint yells. Lucky’s ears lower at the sound, cowering by his legs. “We’ve spent every second of every minute searching for him, and you didn’t have the decency to let is know he was right here, under our noses? Do you know how easy it would have been for us to just run surveillance on your apartment and wait for him to show up?” 

Steve feels guilty, knowing Clint had a valid point. “I know,” He tells them, fiddling with the tea bag in his mug. “I should have told you, but it’s only been the past few days, and you were away on that mission anyway--”

“It’s the principal of the matter, Steve,” Sam says. “Trust has to go both ways, man.” 

“I was worried that you’d make me move out of the apartment, or-or hire bodyguards or something for me. But I’m not in danger, not from Bucky. I think his memories are coming back.” 

“You’re not in a position to decide whether you are or are not safe,” Sam broods. His entire body is tense, shoulders curled in tight. “If we’re going to be a team, you can’t just decide things on your own.” 

Steve didn’t like being chastised, but he could admit when he messed up. He was asking his friends to risk everything, and yet he hadn’t been a hundred percent honest with them about what was happening with Bucky. Steve’s not sure what difference it would have made, given that Sam and Clint were out of the country while it was happening except for that first contact, it was the principal that mattered the most, and Steve had betrayed that. 

“I’m sorry,” Steve offers sincerely. “You’re right. I should have told you when it happened. I guess I just got too hopeful that we wouldn’t need to take Bucky in, that...he’d remember me and come willingly.” He glances up at Sam through his lashes, who can tell is the most hurt by Steve’s deception. “I’m so sorry. Can you forgive me?”

“You need to promise to be a team, from here on out,” Clint warns. “We have to trust each other.”

Steve nods. He could agree to those terms. “I promise.” 

“And no more secret rendez vous with the Winter Soldier,” Sam grumbles. “And honesty, always.” 

“Honesty, always,” Steve pledges, and offers a shy smile. When Sam rolls his eyes at him and takes a seat again, he knows he’s been forgiven. 

“Heartwarming.” Natasha deadpans, but she’s smiling to herself. “Truly.” 

“Right,” he ignores her sarcasm. “Okay, now that that is settled...I think we should change strategies for getting Bucky to come into custody.” 

Nat folds his arms over her chest and nods for him to go on. 

“Like I was saying earlier to Natasha, I don’t think Bucky is working with Hydra anymore. I think,” He murmurs, “That his memories are coming back, I think he has run away from Hydra, gone rogue.” 

“If that’s true,” Sam says slowly. “If he was breaking through his programming, it would be a hell of a lot easier to reason with him.” 

Steve nods eagerly. “That’s right,” He was getting excited. All of his friends, under one roof again, their eyes beginning to sparkle. “I think Bucky will come back to this apartment; I don’t know when, but I think he will. He’s worried about me. He’s been...taking care of me, in the same little ways he used to do when he was a ghost. I think, if I pretended to be sick,” He swallows, “It would draw him out faster.” 

It was a cheap shot, deceiving Bucky to get what he wanted, but Steve didn’t know how long he’d have to wait until he saw Bucky again and if Hydra was looking for him just as avidly as Shield was, Steve didn’t want to waste any time. 

“Because you’ll be weaker, and therefore a less threatening target?” Clint tilts his head, considering this strategy. 

“Not because of that. It doesn’t take a genius to know that I’m not a match for him, he knows he could easily overpower me if he had to,” Steve snorts. “But because Bucky has being a caretaker in his bones. If there a part of Bucky, even a small one, that is beginning to remember me, seeing me sick and alone and not taking care of myself will trigger the part of him that cares for me. I just know it will. I think he’s been watching me, and this will draw him out.”

“You’ve become quite the tactical expert,” Natasha says softly, eyebrow arched. She appraises Steve like he’s impressed with him, and he grins under the flattery. 

“I just know Bucky very well.” 

“Well,” Sam sighs, settling back against the couch, more at ease now. “I can’t argue that. You do know him better than any of us. If you think this will work--”

“It will,” Steve says with conviction, sticking his chin up. “It has to.” 

“--then I say let’s do it.” 

Steve’s smile grows into a full grin. He didn’t expect his friends to be on board so easily, he had planned to argue and reason well into the night. “Really?” 

“What do we do, after you’ve got him here?” Clint challenges. “I don’t think he’s going to come willingly.”

Steve remembered Bucky warning him to keep the Avengers away from him; and he agreed with Clint. Bucky didn’t see the Avengers as allies or rescuers, he saw them as another threat trying to take him down. “I’ll need time to talk to him,” Steve tells them, nodding his head. “I’ll explain whats happening, and that we can help him.”

“I don’t know how much we can offer him,” Natasha warns. “Don’t promise him things you can’t deliver on, Steve.”

Steve swallows. “What...do you think will happen to him? If we get him to come in?” 

Natasha tucks her hair behind her ear and considers. “Well. Stark is going to find out, evidently, and he will not be happy, but. He won’t do anything too rash, Pepper will make him see reason. We can get a pardon in the works, considering we have proof that Barnes was brainwashed and therefore not in his right mind, but Shield is likely going to want something for itself out of that deal.”

“Like?” Steve prompts. 

“Well,” She sighs. “What did it do for Clint and I?” 

“A spot on the team,” Clint nods. “That’s probably what they’ll offer him. He’s talented, well trained. They won’t want to let that go to waste in a jail cell.” 

Steve didn’t know if that was good news or bad news. He supposed it would be better than Bucky being immediately locked up, but he didn’t know how willing Bucky would be to join the Avengers. He’d have to be very convincing. 

“Okay,” Steve says, to show he’s following along. “I’ll talk to him.” 

“And if you can’t get him to agree?” Natasha murmurs, her eyes hard. “What then? We let him walk free?”

“Well--” 

“That won’t fly with the government, and it won’t fly with Stark,” She finishes. 

She had Steve backed into a corner and she knew it. Steve didn’t want to give the okay that would let his friends take Bucky by force, but what if he couldn’t convince him, and he fell back into Hydra’s clutches again? 

What if Bucky hated him for being locked up? For having to work for the Avengers instead of deciding his own fate? 

Could Steve bear the weight of Bucky’s mistrust if it meant protecting him? 

Did Steve have any right to insert himself in Bucky’s life and make choices for him? 

“I’ll convince him,” Steve rasps dryly, nodding his head. “I have to.” It was the only way he’d be able to live with himself. 

Natasha looks unimpressed, but she doesn’t press the issue any further. Steve buries a hand in Lucky’s fur for a distraction. 

“It’s a plan,” Clint nodded. “We’ll get Barnes to come peacefully with us.” 

“You should take up post on the roof of the next building over,” Steve gets up stiffly, his muscles protesting, and stands by the window, pointing to the tall grey building that lay next to his apartment. 

It was full of office spaces, Steve was pretty sure, and would be easy enough for his friends to gain access to. 

“From the roof, you should be able to get a clean view into the East windows of my place. You can bug the apartment so that you can listen in on our conversation. Then you’ll know if I’m in trouble,”He says, mostly to placate them rather than for his own safety. He trusted Bucky. “I’ll need time to talk to him, I don’t think he’ll be convinced immediately, so. Give me time.”

“We can do that,” Sam reassures him. “But you better be convincing.” 

“I know,” Steve swallows. He felt the pressure weighing him down already. Could he convince Bucky? And...if he couldn’t, what then? “So, do we all agree? That’s the plan?”

“I think,” Clint says slowly, a small smile spread over his face. “That you’ve got a gift for tactics.” 

Steve snorts, his ears going a little red under the approving looks of his friends. Even Natasha looked a little appreciative. “Hardly.” 

Clint shrugs. “Just sayin. That’s a pretty solid plan, Steve. It just might work.” 

Steve blushes a little more under the compliment. For the first time, he begins to feel as though perhaps he could make a spot for himself in the same crazy world his friends lived in, one with Hydra and aliens and talking towers. 

If nothing else, it was a nice thought.

 

------------- 

The next morning, Steve begins setting the stage. He knows that Bucky is likely watching him, and it will look suspicious if he suddenly gets sick after being perfectly fine. 

He puts on the performance of a lifetime, actually fake-coughing so hard that afternoon that he triggers a real asthma attack and has to search for his inhaler. 

He presses the thing to his lips and inhales deeply, remembering the first time Bucky skidded his inhaler across the floor, the first time Bucky whispered shit doll, are you alright? The first time their eyes met, the first time Steve made Bucky laugh so hard he doubled over…

The last time they spoke.

Peggy comes over around 3pm, and he keeps up the act for her, sniffling miserably and blowing his nose more than was probably necessary. She offers to make him chicken noodle soup but he politely declines. She frets over him a little, but settles down when Steve reassures her it’s just a common cold, and nothing more serious. 

“And how are things going with James?” She asks warmly, her eyes worried. “Have you seen him since?” 

Steve, knowing he’s being watched, had to be careful about what information he let out into the open air. “Haven’t seen him,” He says, voice nasally. “I really hope he comes by soon, though. I miss him a hell of a lot.” The last part, at least, was true. 

“I’m sure he’ll find a way home to you, dear.” She coos softly, offering him a sympathetic smile. “From what you’ve told me, you two have something very special.” 

“We do,” Steve nods eagerly. Another truth. “It’s hard to imagine life without him these days.” 

Peggy gives him a knowing look. “Things always work out the way they’re supposed to. I know he’s not the same man anymore, but if there is any of Bucky left in that Soldier, then he won’t give up. You just be careful now, don’t do anything stupid.”

Steve swallows. “I’ll try,” he lies quietly, and watches the steam rolling off of his tea. That was as much as he could give her.

-------

Sam, Clint, and Nat are in place. 

Bugs are scattered in every room of Steve’s apartment, so that his friends should be able to pick up on the conversation no matter where Steve was in the apartment, and there were hidden, out of sight.

Bugging him or giving him a com was too risky; if Bucky noticed it, he’d feel betrayed and he’d flee, no doubt. This way, if Bucky found a bug, Steve could blame it on his fretful friends just trying to protect him. It wouldn’t put the whole plan at risk in the same way. 

Steve coughs dramatically. He’d been lounging around all morning and afternoon, being as theatrical as possible. If Bucky was watching him, he couldn’t let his act slip up. He was concentrating so hard on playing sick he was half sure he was really coming down with something. 

He’s wearing grey sweats and a light blue t shirt that was only a few sizes too big for him. He wanted to look at least a little bit dignified for trying to convince the love of his life to stick around, but he of course still needed to look like someone who was sick and lounging around. 

At around 6:34pm, Natasha texts him a frowny emoji. They’d been staked out for two hours. Clint is hungry, she texts him. I told him to bring snacks, but obviously he didn’t. 

There’s a great pad thai place around the corner, he types back, smiling to himself. He can picture the scene all too clearly; Clint whining in Natasha’s ear, Sam smugly munching on the brie cheese and artisanal crackers he brought for himself, Natasha glaring lasers at the both of them. He can go and be back in less than ten. 

Thanks, She replies. You just saved my sanity. 

Steve puts his phone face down on the couch beside him, and closes his eyes for a moment, giving into the comfort and warmth of his little cocoon. Before he knows it, sleep takes him. 

------

Steve is woken up two hours later, a creaking floorboard startling him into consciousness. 

He’s not sure how long it’s been since he fell asleep, and wants to keep his eyes closed so that he doesn’t take his visitor by surprise. There is no extra light filtering in behind his eyelids, though, so he assumes it’s sometime in the evening. 

With his eyes closed, Steve traces out the movements from the direction they’re coming from. One person, wearing thick-soled shoes. Moving slowly. Hesitantly. To his left. 

Him. 

Steve waits. 

He hears the steps get closer, and then he feels a hand press gently against his forehead, checking for a fever. 

The hand was flesh and blood, not metal, but somehow Steve knew it belonged to Bucky, even though he’d only felt those hands on him a few times in his life. The warmth, the callous--it was Bucky. 

The hand lingers for a moment, and then Steve hears Bucky let out a long suffering sigh. It’s exactly the kind of dramatic thing that Bucky directed at Steve all day long when they were sharing a space.

Steve wants to open his eyes, because he knows that sound--that sound belongs to his Bucky. 

The hand brushes some of Steve’s hair back from his forehead in a tender movement. 

Steve remains still. If he accidentally startled Bucky, he knew it wouldn’t end well for anyone, probably least of all him. 

“I know you’re awake.” Bucky’s voice tells him. Bucky doesn’t sound angry, or suspicious, just tired. Steve guesses he wasn’t as good an actor as he thought, and Bucky probably noticed that his breathing wasn’t the deep and even the sound of someone sleeping. “And I know you ain’t really sick. You don’t have a fever. Your breathing is fine.”

Maybe Steve wasn’t a good an actor as he gave himself credit for, or maybe Bucky knew him better than Bucky gave himself credit for; either way, the gig was up. 

Steve presses his face into Bucky’s hand for a moment longer, reveling in the comfort of Bucky’s hands on him, before he lets his eyes flutter open. 

Bucky isn’t in tac gear. He’s dressed as any other civilian, a dark grey henley, heavy black leather jacket, dark jeans and boots. He’s wearing a leather glove over his metal arm, concealing it. He’s freshly shaven, even, and Steve would be lying if he said the sight of him in leather didn’t make his mouth water. 

It was Bucky in a way Steve had never seen him before--he’d seen him in his 40’s war attire, and in his Winter Soldier tac gear, but never like this. It was as if Bucky was any other man in his late 20’s, handsome without knowing it and put together without trying. 

“Why pretend?” Bucky inquires, taking his hand back. He sits on the couch beside Steve, putting some distance between them. He seems oblivious to the effect he has on Steve. “Why lie?”

“To see you,” Steve says, tucking his legs up into his chest. It’s not entirely untrue. He feels clingy and uneasy. “I missed you, and I didn’t know when you were going to come back.” 

“возлюбленная,” Bucky murmurs, and then frowns deeply, his jaw tightening. He stares at the window. “You confuse me.”

“You confuse me,” Steve scoffs, folding his arms over his chest. “When you were here, before, you let me touch you. Talk to you. And then you never came back.” 

“I came back,” Bucky argues. “I ate the food you made for me. The sandwich.” 

Steve can’t hide his surprise at that. He knew the sandwich was gone, but he hadn’t really expected Bucky to have eaten it. Eating food made by someone else in Bucky’s profession requires a certain level of trust that he is flattered to have earned. “Did you like it?”

Bucky gives him a crooked smile that is just so him. Steve hadn’t seen the Winter Soldier smile yet, and he felt his insides turn to mush at the sight of it. “I did.”

“I can make you another, if you’re hungry,” Steve offers. Bucky didn’t look like he was wasting away, but if he was on the run, he didn’t know how much Bucky was taking time to look after himself, and eating as much as he should be. If things that Steve read online about Enhanced people were true, they needed double or even triple the calories of a regular person. 

“Not hungry,” He declines. Belatedly, he adds, “Thanks.”

“You ripped up my letter,” Steve tries not to sound hurt. “Why?” 

Bucky looks guilty, staring at the floor. “I wanted you to let me go.” Steve opens his mouth to say more, but Bucky continues, “I could...see that it was hurting you, holding on to hope that I would come back.” 

Steve swallows. “But you did come back.” 

Bucky glances up at him through his lashes, and gives Steve another small smile. It’s guilty, in a way, full of regret. “Yeah, I did.” He admits. “I guess I’m more selfish than I thought.” 

“I don’t think it’s selfish.” 

“You think more highly of me than I deserve.” 

Steve narrows his eyes. “I think you deserve the whole goddamn world.” 

Bucky’s eyes meet his, and there is a moment where Steve’s heart stops, and he thinks Bucky might kiss him, but then Bucky glances at Steve’s lips and deflates, looking away. 

“You care about me,” Steve says. It sounds like an accusation. “You care if I’m sick or healthy, sad or happy. You care.”

“Steve,” Bucky frowns deeply at him. “Don’t.” 

“Well, you do!” Steve waves his hands up and then lets the fall limply by his sides. “You do.” 

Bucky opens his mouth, and then closes it again. A long silence sits between them, and Steve remembers his friends, listening in on them, perhaps even judging Steve’s lack of eloquence. He had to start steering this conversation in the direction it was meant to go. 

“I’ve been...remembering,” Bucky whispers, tucking some of his hair behind his ear. The gesture is so adorable that Steve wants to pinch Bucky’s cheeks and coo at him. “Mostly you.” 

“You--remember me?” Steve mumbles, feeling clumsy. Bucky remembered him. That was everything. If they had that, then nothing was impossible. 

Bucky looks away, his shoulders rising and falling. “Not everything,” He admits in a low voice. “Flashes. It’s…” He shakes his head. “Confusing. Hard to tell what’s real and what...what I’ve made up, in my head.” 

“I can help you,” Steve says quickly, nearly tripping over the words in an effort to get them out. “I can confirm, or, or clarify. I’ll tell you anything you want to know, Buck. We’ll figure this out.” This was a good segway into Steve’s pitch; the one that he was depending on to go well. 

He had to be careful about how he worded things. 

Bucky stares at him curiously, as if he was drawing connections between the Steve he remembered and the blond sitting before him. 

“Steve,” Bucky begins, and it doesn’t sound like he’s about to say anything good. “Things aren’t going to be easy just because I have a vague idea of who you are.” 

“I never said they’d be easy,” Steve protested with a frown, pushing the blanket off of himself. “Nothing about this has been easy, Buck, but if you remember who I am, then. We can figure out the rest.”

“The rest,” Bucky echoes slowly. “Like how Hydra is hunting me down for going rogue? Like how the US Government has me as National Security Threat number one? Like how all of your friends are under orders to kill me?” 

Steve swallows. Bucky was right; they had a lot to face, and many more hills to climb before they could be lazy in bed, before they could kiss for hours and not worry about the world outside. “Okay,” Steve says, nodding his head. “You’re right, Buck. We ain’t in the clear, yet, but that’s actually what I wanted to talk to you about--”

And then, all hell breaks loose. 

Steve’s front door is thrown wide open, and Clint, Nat, and Sam pour inside in full tac gear, guns raised and aimed at Bucky. “James Buchanan Barnes, put your hands in the air!” 

“No!” Steve screams, panic flooding his body. No, no, no-- this wasn’t part of the plan, what the hell were they doing? They had agreed the plan was to take Bucky peacefully--

Bucky snaps. 

Steve sees it, knows what is happening the second Bucky’s face falls. 

The Bucky that had been remembering disappears, and the Winter Soldier takes his place. Bucky jumps to his feet and bares his teeth at Steve’s friends, growling something out in Russian. 

Within seconds, he’s got a large gun in one hand and a knife in the other, pointed at Natasha, who stands in front of the small triangle the Avengers had formed in Steve’s living room. It all happens so fast, it leaves Steve’s head spinning. 

“Shit,” Steve curses, jumping up to his feet. His heart hammers loud in his chest and blood rushes in his ears. He tries desperately to fight for calm--he couldn’t let his anxiety get the best of him right now, but he keeps seeing how terribly this could play out. “What the hell are you guys doing here? We had a plan, dammit--”

“He’d been in the apartment for 40 minutes, and you weren’t answering your cell phone,” Clint snaps. He doesn’t lower his weapon. “We didn’t hear you talking. We got worried.”

Forty minutes? But he’d only just woken up to talk to Bucky. Unless--unless Bucky had been in his apartment, scoping things out and watching over Steve for a while before he actually made a sound loud enough to rouse him. 

“I was sleeping,” Steve cries, his hands balling up into fists. “Guys--put your guns down, we can just talk about this--” 

“Останься,” Bucky hisses, and gets in front of Steve, shielding the smaller man with his body. “ Ты не сделаешь ему больно.” 

Natasha squints at Bucky. “We’re not going to hurt him,” She replies in English. “You’re the threat here Barnes, not us, and you know that. You are the dangerous one. Step away from Steve.” 

“Nat,” Steve says warningly, something dark coming out in his voice. “Guys. Do not do this.”

Sam takes a step closer, and Steve sees Bucky tense in response. “Steve,” Sam says in a low voice. “Slowly walk towards us.”

“Стоп.” Bucky warns, clicking the safety of the gun to off. 

Steve swallows, begging Sam with his eyes to respect the desperateness of the situation. 

Please,” Steve begs, his eyes wild. “Everyone, just drop the weapons.” 

Bucky takes a small step backwards, until his back is pressed against Steve’s front. His hand holding the knife holsters it and snakes around to press Steve against him. When he feels Steve’s body against his, something about his posture relaxes slightly.

He was protecting Steve. 

Unlike before, when Bucky had used Steve as leverage to get away, Bucky was putting himself between three armed and highly trained Avengers in order to protect Steve-- that was his priority, and that was why he was so concerned about three superheroes pointing weapons in their direction--not for his own sake, but for Steve’s. 

Steve knew Bucky wasn’t all there, because if he was he’d be able to speak English, he’d be able to realize that these were Steve’s friends, people he knew and who would never hurt Steve. His adrenaline was running high and he’d snapped back into old habits. 

And even still, even though Bucky wasn’t speaking English or fully processing the situation, he wanted Steve to be safe.

“Don’t hurt him,” Sam spits at Bucky, gun raised. “Or I’ll fucking kill you, man, I swear. Give us Steve and we can talk this out, like civilized people. No one wants to see him hurt. No one has to get hurt tonight, alright?” 

Sam,” Steve says desperately, stepping out from behind Bucky to glare at his friends. “P-Please. Let’s just, everyone, calm down, okay? Bucky, Buck--these are my friends, okay? Th-They won’t hurt me.” 

Bucky acts as if Steve hadn’t spoken. With an annoyed glare, Bucky pushes Steve back behind him. His finger twitched on the trigger, like he’s itching to pull it. 

“Steve, he’s unstable. You gotta get away.” Clint warned.

And then Clint draws his arrow back, aiming for Bucky’s chest. 

Bucky notes the slight movement, the adjustment in Clint’s posture, the giveaways that he was about to take aim. 

He shoves Steve to the ground in an effort to keep him out of harm’s way, an act that his friends take as aggression. 

“Steve!” Clint yells. 

Clint shoots.

Steve hears the whiz of the arrow, but when he opens his eyes again, he sees it clutched in Bucky’s metal hand. He snaps the arrow and throws it away. 

“Stop!” Steve screams, terror gripping his whole body. He was going to see someone he loved get hurt tonight. Someone was going to bleed.

“Steve!” Sam yells, taking three quick steps towards Bucky, likely in the hopes of getting to Steve and getting him somewhere safe, but Bucky yells something in Russian and shoots Sam twice in the abdomen. 

Sam falls to the ground hard. 

No!” Steve cries, scrambling to get to his feet, his vision blurring with tears and panic. “No, Sam, no--”

He tries to rush to where Sam is, but a strong arm snakes around his waist and tugs him away. 

He struggles hard, but he’s no match for the brute strength of his captor. “Let me go!” Steve screams, biting and kicking for all it’s worth. “Sam!” 

He gets no leeway in the vice-like grip, and he is left with the image of Sam bleeding on his living room floor as Bucky gathers Steve up into his arms and heads for the fire escape while Nat fires after him. 

“We will find you, Soldier,” Natasha promises calmly, as Bucky tightens his grip on Steve. He grunts a few times in pain, and Steve assumes it means the bullets connect. 

Steve!” Clint shouts after him. “Dammit!” 

Arrows whiz by their ears, but Bucky ducks in time and slides out the window, disappearing into the night. 

Maybe it was from the shock, or the panic of seeing Sam fall to the ground like that, but everything goes black, and with a broken gasp, Steve falls limp in Bucky’s grasp.

Chapter Text

"Sometimes the weight of decisions, will try to bury you
Don't let the shame tell you something that you know ain't true
Just 'cause you feel like a stranger, that don't mean you are
God I could use a reminder, of what forgiveness is for."

             - Someday Soon, Wilder Woods

 


When Steve wakes up, it’s muffled grunting that draws him out of sleep. 

He opens his eyes slowly at first, unsure of his surroundings. He’s tucked tightly into a bed he didn’t recognize, in a room he was sure he’d never been in before. 

It’s still dark outside, and the lights are off in the room, save for a lamp beside his bed casting a dim glow. It couldn’t have been that long ago that he was in his own apartment, maybe a few hours, tops.

The walls were an unfamiliar mustard color, the lace curtains were probably once white but were now an off-white cream hue from years of neglect, and there was shag carpeting on the floor. Steve had no idea where the hell he was.

Rubbing his eyes, the last few hours comes rushing back. 

Bucky grabbing him, guns drawn, Sam hitting the floor. Clint’s voice calling out after him. Darkness. 

Shit. Shit, shit shit. Sam. Was Sam okay? Steve pats his pockets desperately in search of his phone, but Bucky must have taken it. 

Where was Bucky? He’d been in a bad place when he’d snatched Steve and fled--had he calmed down since? 

Glancing around the small room, Steve takes in his surroundings with more care.  There was double bed that Steve was currently occupying, a TV and a couch, and a stationary pad labelled Fireside Inn. 

A motel, then. Steve was unfamiliar with the name, but that didn’t mean they were too far out of the city. 

Quietly, so quietly he barely made a sound, Steve slides out of bed and rushes to the door that would lead him out into the parking lot. He had to make sure Sam was okay. He had to. 

“No,” Bucky snaps, appearing out of seemingly nowhere to block Steve’s path. “Not yet.”

Steve’s mouth goes dry, as he blinks up at Bucky, startled.

Bucky looks terrible, his face is damp with sweat, his long hair is hanging limp in his eyes, and he’s as pale as Steve has ever seen him. He’s shirtless, Steve notices belatedly, and the bulk of him seems impossibly larger now that Steve was face to face with it. His olive skin was a pale-grey and covered in blood in certain spots. Bullet wounds.

And...where the metal arm joined his flesh and blood shoulder, there was angry, pink scary tissue that puckered around the metal plate, as if Bucky’s body had been trying to reject the alien piece. 

“B-Buck,” Steve stammers, forcing himself to meet Bucky’s eyes. His heart was still hammering unevenly from the surprise. “You’re hurt.” 

He had to figure out where Bucky’s head was. If he was in the same, panicked state as when he fled the apartment, Steve would have to tread carefully. Maybe though, if he could talk to Bucky, he could calm him down enough to convince him to let Steve go. Or, even better, Steve could have the conversation he never got the chance to, the one he’d been trying to start when his friends had so rudely busted in.

He understood, on some level, why they did it. From their perspective, Steve had been silent the entire time the Winter Soldier was in his apartment, prowling around. He wasn’t answering any texts, or calls. For all they know, Bucky could have been choking the life out of him. They didn’t have the same inherent trust of Bucky that Steve did. 

Still, though. He hoped that things weren’t completely lost, that he could find time to talk to Bucky and make him see that this was the best option. 

Steve needed to get in touch with Sam--make sure he was okay. He needed his phone.

He also knew Natasha and Clint, and he knew they’d be hunting Bucky’s trail like dogs, fearing the worst for Steve’s life. 

If he could just send them a message to let them know he’s okay, then he could ease their minds. 

He didn’t want another show down like the one in his apartment. He could warn his friends and tell them not to look for him, that he’d find a way back safely without anyone needing to get hurt. 

Priority number one was calming Bucky down, and he looked like he was in a lot of pain. 

“I’m fine.” Bucky didn’t look the same dead-eyed way that he usually did when he was deep in the headspace of the Winter Soldier. He looked mildly annoyed by Steve’s presence, and that was very Bucky of him, so Steve knew he was on solid ground and could push if he wanted to. Bucky wouldn’t push back in the ways that counted. 

“No. You’re not fine,” Steve snaps, not trying to hide his annoyance. Steve’s heart was fragile, he had ailment upon ailment and he couldn’t take this constant worry. Not only did his best friend get shot right in front of him, but his once-boyfriend-now-captor was sporting a few bullet wounds of himself. 

The wounds also meant that Bucky wasn’t wearing kevlar under his clothing last night. He’d trusted Steve enough to let his guard down in that tiny way, (which Steve knew wasn’t so tiny for Bucky) and Steve had betrayed him. He hadn’t kept him safe.

Steve reaches a hand to probe one of the wounds, just barely touching it, trying to sense how deep it was. 

Bucky’s flesh fingers constrict around Steve’s wrist, not tightly, but firm enough to stop Steve’s exploring. He noticed that Bucky didn’t touch him with his metal hand if he could help it. 

“Don’t,” He murmurs softly. His eyes flashed with pain and with a warning, not to kick the wounded dog because he might lash out. “Please.” 

Steve sticks up chin proudly, unrelenting and unafraid. 

If last night had confirmed anything, it confirmed to Steve that Bucky would not hurt him. Even when Bucky snapped and lashed out at his friends, his instinct was to protect Steve, even at the cost of his own life. Steve had nothing to be afraid of when it came to Bucky. 

“I can help you. I’ve performed first aid on Sam lots of times, and this doesn’t look deep. I can do it.”

“No.” 

“You don’t trust me?” Steve challenges. 

Bucky’s eyes narrow. “Do you trust me?” 

Steve folds his arms over his chest. “Yes.” He says, with total conviction. Bucky’s face twitches at that, like he doesn’t believe Steve. “If you don’t fix yourself up properly, you’re going to get an infection, and then sepsis, and then you’re going to die, all because you are too damn stubborn to let help you.”  

Bucky eyes him wearily. His annoyed face is becoming more apparent the longer Steve stares him down with his arms crossed over his skinny chest. “I’m fine. I can do it myself.” 

Steve would have to work a new angle. “If you’re occupied stitching yourself up, then it gives me ample opportunity to sneak out.” 

Bucky looks amused by the threat, pursing his lips at Steve. “I could just tie you up.” 

Steve rolls his eyes, not threatened in the slightest. “You wouldn’t do that.” 

“It’s a very effective way if incapacitating hostages,” Bucky argues flatly. “So. Yes, I would.” 

“Is that what I am?” Steve snorts, brows raised. “Your hostage?”

Bucky’s jaw tightens and his mouth opens again, then closes. Finally, he breathes out loudly through his nostrils and says, “No. You’re not. But you can’t leave.” 

“Sounds like a hostage to me,” Steve says, but then he gives Bucky a toothy grin. “S’okay, I don’t mind. There are worse people to be captured by.” 

“I’m not sure that’s true,” Bucky murmurs, looking down at his metal hand. He tucks it into a fist and then looks back up at Steve. “I inspected you for wounds, and you looked okay, but are you in pain anywhere? I caught you when you fainted but--”

“Buck, I’m fine. I’m anemic, I pass out like, once a week or something, it’s no biggie. You have literal bullets in your body.” 

“Not the first time,” Bucky shrugs, unbothered. “Won’t be the last. So you aren’t in pain?”

“Fucking no, I’m not in pain, you big lug. Just let me help you.” 

Bucky looks like he might say no again, but he just stares up at the ceiling as if asking for strength from God to deal with the little blond brat he had acquired. It was a very Bucky mannerism. Steve tries not to revel. 

“Fine.” 

Steve smiles, pleased with himself, and follows Bucky when he turns to retreat back to the bathroom. 

The bathroom is simple, but clean, which Steve is thankful for. It smells like bleach. 

Bucky’s got an array of instruments laid out of the counter, from cotton swabs to rubbing alcohol to peroxide and needles. He really is prepared.

“Impressive,” Steve comments, as Bucky sits down on the counter.

“Necessary, in my...line of work.” 

“Guess you’re unemployed now though, huh?” Steve grins. 

Bucky looks surprised by the humor, but he returns the smile. It’s stunning.  

“Guess so,” Bucky admits. He seems excited at the prospect.

Steve washes his hands with soap and water and then slaps some gloves on from the first aid kit. 

He takes the peroxide on a cotton pad and presses it to Bucky’s wounds. 

“This is going to hurt,” He says apologetically. 

But Bucky doesn’t even wince, just sits stone-faced while Steve works. “You don’t have to be so gentle,” He interupts softly, staring straight ahead. “I’m used to this sort of thing.” 

“I don’t want to hurt you.” 

“I hardly feel it anymore.” 

Steve’s heart breaks a little, at that. “Well, too bad. I’m going to be gentle and you’re going to put up with it.” 

“The Asset does not deserve to be treated gently. The Asset is a machine.” Bucky says under his breath to himself, so quietly that Steve almost doesn’t hear him.

Steve bites down hard on his own lip so he doesn’t scream something about burning every Hydra operative and base down to the ground, and stomping on the graves of anyone who uttered such terrible things to Bucky. 

“You, Bucky Barnes,” Steve says through his teeth. “Deserve to be treated gently.”

Bucky won’t give up. “I’ve had surgery without anesthetic. Patching up a few bullet wounds is nothing. If you let me do it, I can have it done in--”

Bucky,” Steve snaps, a righteous anger bubbling up in him. “When people are hurt, they deserve to be treated with compassion and kindness. You deserve to be treated gently, and so that is what I’m gonna fuckin’ do, and honestly I don’t care if you don’t fuckin’ like it or you think it’s a waste of time, because you deserve it, and it’s what you would do for me, so suck it up.” 

Bucky eyes him, looking a little taken aback. “Stubborn,” He mutters to himself, and Steve takes a steadying breath and gets back to work, annoyed. 

Bucky was used to his body being treated like a machine; wash, rinse, repeat. Locate the problem, fix the problem, make the Soldier battle-ready, as quickly as possible. No one had ever played with his hair or held his hand or hugged him close just because he wanted them to. 

He must be starved for touch, really, if Steve thought about. Even he himself gets eager for friendly touch when he goes a long time without it--but he comes by easily. Sam was affectionate, he’d hold Steve’s hand or hug him close or run his hands lazily through Steve’s hair, and it was easy. It was the basic human connection that everyone needed.

As Steve reaches for the tweezers, he places a gentle hand on Bucky’s thigh, rubbing his leg reassuringly. Comfort. Touch. 

He can feel the muscle jump under his skin, but Bucky doesn’t ask him to stop or pull away, so Steve counts it as a win.

They sit in silence. Bucky doesn’t grunt or even wince in pain as Steve digs out two bullets and sets them aside, or when he gets to work stitching up the wounds again. He just sits, perfectly still, and takes all the pain. He doesn’t once remind Steve to be careful or walk him through it, even when Steve is clumsy. 

He just...trusts Steve. And it annoys the hell out of him. 

“You could stand to be a little more worried about your own welfare,” He snaps, as he ties off the last stitch. 

Bucky squints. Steve doesn’t fail to notice that when he does that, he looks like a confused toddler. “In what way?” 

“Well, I could have easily messed up over here and--I dunno, cut an artery or something, or made your wound even worse, and you’re just...letting me.” 

Bucky lets his shoulders rise and fall, and doesn’t seem tender in the way he moves after. Steve snaps off his gloves and washes his hands again. “You knew what you were doing. If you were doing something alarming, I’d have spoken up.” 

Steve didn’t know if Bucky would or not. But it didn’t matter anymore, Steve supposed. 

He turns to the shower behind him and dials the knob on hot. Then he grabs the hotel soap and lathers it up a little in his hands, so that the fragrant scent of lemongrass filled the bathroom, rather than the stench of blood and bleach. He sets the soap down again and dries his hands off. 

“You gonna take a shower?” Bucky asks flatly. Steve notices his Brooklyn accent coming out a little more.

“No,” Steve sticks up his chin. “ You are. You stink, and you’re dirty, and humans take showers when we want to feel more human, so. Clean up, and take your time. The hot water is good for sore muscles.” He pauses, thinking again about Bucky not having friendly-touch. “And then, if you’ll let me, I’ll brush your hair out for you, really gently so it won’t hurt a bit.” 

Bucky looks at him with  soft eyes, then, as soft as Steve’s ever seen them, his lips slightly parted like he can’t believe the words coming from Steve’s mouth. 

“Well?” Steve prompted, waving in in the direction of the shower. “You going, or what? No offence, big guy, but you reek somethin’ awful.” 

“Yeah, I’m going,” Bucky grumbles. He slides off the counter and looks like he’s about to strip to get in the shower as Steve heads out, but his soft voice saying, “Wait,” makes Steve pause. 

He looks over his shoulder to see Bucky puffing his chest out a bit, as if preparing for an argument. 

“Don’t worry, I won’t leave,” Steve promises, meaning it. If he left now, it would only prove to Bucky that Steve didn’t trust him, and he didn’t want to take any strides backwards. He would talk to Bucky once he got out of the shower and they’d come up with a plan together. If Steve viewed Bucky as his captor, then Bucky would act like it. As his Ma always said, trust is a two way street, and if he wanted Bucky to trust him, he’d start by trusting Bucky. 

Bucky eyes him wearily, like he doesn’t fully trust that Steve won’t. “And you won’t call your friends?”

“You have my cell.” 

Bucky looks guilty. “I didn’t want you to call them.” 

Steve’s face softens. “I know, Buck. I won’t look for my cell phone, and I won’t use any other phone to call them.”

“But why?” Bucky presses. “Aren’t you angry I took your phone?”

“Nah. I get why you did it. I know you still have it, somewhere. You know I’ve got pictures and voicemails on there that I don’t want to lose?” 

Bucky nods once, confirming. “I remember.” 

Steve feels like he’s won something big by that admittance--Bucky remembered. “So I won’t call. If I do, they’ll just trace the number,” Steve shrugs. “And I know you don’t want to be found just yet. So no, I won’t.” 

Bucky hesitates a little longer, looking terribly adorable and shy. “...And you’ll brush my hair?” 

Steve has to smile at that. “Yeah, Buck. I will. Now go clean up. I’ll just be out here watchin’ TV.”

Bucky looks pleased as he shuts the bathroom door behind Steve. A few moments later, Steve hears clothes drop and Bucky’s bulk stepping into the shower. 

Steve could lie. He could go back on his promise and run, right now, out the motel doors and into the nearest place with a phone. A gas station, maybe. Call his friends, get them to pick him up, tell him if Sam is okay. They’d come get him, things would be okay.

But Steve couldn’t do that, because Bucky needed his patience right now, and Steve needed Bucky’s presence. 

Even knowing how messed up their situation was right now, not knowing where they were or if Sam was okay or anything at all, Steve didn’t want to leave Bucky’s side. 

He was seeing more and more of his ghost in Bucky the more time they spent together, and there was something in Bucky’s eyes that told Steve he was remembering more all the time.

Bucky isn’t long in the shower, just over 15 minutes. While Steve waits, he flips idly through TV channels, not finding anything he was too invested in watching. His mind too active to settle on just anything.

When Bucky comes out, he’s got a towel draped dangerously low on his hips, and water running down his chest in fast droplets. His hair hangs wet around his face, but he looks...good. 

So good it makes Steve stare, wide eyed, lips parted. 

The muscles in his chest, in his arms, the strength in his body and the shyness of his eyes--even the scar tissues around his shoulder where is metal arm joined his body was beautiful, in a twisted way, simply because it was part of him. 

For the first time in a while, Steve’s fingers itched for his pencils and his sketchbook. 

“You’re here.” Bucky says, looking surprised to see Steve sitting on the edge of the bed. 

Reluctantly, Steve tears his eyes away from Bucky’s torso and back up to his eyes, blushing a little. “Told you I would be, didn’t I?” 

Bucky opens his mouth, then closes it again. “Ace,” He says softly, and Steve’s heart shudders at the nickname. It had been so long. His knees felt weak. . “Steve, I--”

Steve gets to his feet. He’s not sure why, but he feels something coming something he wants to be standing for. He braces himself. “Buck,” He breathes. Bucky looks like he might cry. “Buck, whatever it is, it’s okay--”

Bucky rushes at him then, and Steve should duck, should cower, cover his face with his hands or something, something, because the way Bucky was stalking towards him was so purposeful and so confident that there was no way in hell he was on his way towards Steve to do anything other than punch him out. 

But when Bucky reaches Steve, he doesn’t punch him. He doesn’t hurt him at all. 

Instead, he crashes his body into Steves at what feels like a crushing intensity, but was probably a result of Bucky being extra gentle. 

The dampness of his body and hair seeps through Steve’s shirt as Bucky’s arms wrap around him, one arm around his waist and the other cradling the back of Steve’s head, holding him close and pressing Steve’s nose in to Bucky’s neck. It smelled very Bucky in there, even though it should smell like hotel soap and shampoo, Steve still recognized it at him. 

“I didn’t mean to hurt your friends,” Bucky sobs into Steve’s hair, his huge body wracked with the force of it. His shoulders shake violently in Steve’s clutch. Bucky is bent at quite the angle, because of their height difference, hunched over enough so that he can presses his face into Steve’s hair. “I--I--I--” 

“Hey,” Steve says, clinging to Bucky for all its worth. Steve feels his own eyes burning with tears just from hearing Bucky cry so openly, letting Steve see him so vulnerable, but he sucks them back. This wasn’t about him. “I know, Buck, c’mon. Of course I know that. You were just trying to protect me, weren’t you?” 

“S-Startled me,” Bucky says, through gasping sobs. His hands are painfully tight on Steve, as if he was afraid of the blond being physically ripped away from him. “S-Snapped back into p-programming. Mission imperative was to protect y-you. I was trying to p-protect you, but. I h- hurt your friends and--”

“I’m sure Sam’s okay, Buck,” Steve said, half for his own sake and half for Bucky’s. Sam was wearing kevlar, he was in full tac gear. He had to be okay. “I know you weren’t yourself. You were just trying to keep me safe. And you did, I’m safe. I’m right here, and we’re both okay. I’m not mad, Bucky. I could never be mad at you.” 

“Please don’t be afraid of me,” Bucky whispered into his hair. “God, Steve, please, don’t be afraid of me--”

“I’m not,” Steve whispered fiercely, meaning each word. He holds Bucky as tight as he can, so hard his arms ache from the force of it. Maybe if he held Bucky tight enough, he could protect him from every ugly thing Bucky ever suffered. “I’m not afraid of you. I know you’d never hurt me. I just want you to be okay.” 

“I’m not,” Bucky whispers, starting to get his hysterical crying under control. “--I don’t even remember you.” 

Steve’s heart sinks. 

“That’s not true,” Steve mumbles. “You remember some things, here and there, you said. Remember? You know me enough to know you don’t want to hurt me.” 

“I know that isn’t enough for you,” Bucky rasps. He tries to pull away but Steve’s hands tighten and Bucky doesn’t move any further. “You need more from me.” 

“No,” Steve says sharply, shaking his head from where it was tucked into Bucky’s neck. He pulls back a little, enough to look Bucky in the eye. “No, Buck. I need whatever you can give me. If thats meeting up for coffee once a week, then that’s what I need.” 

Bucky’s eyes are red rimmed and wet. “But--”

No,” Steve says again, hugging his arms tighter around Bucky. “I’ll always love you, Buck. Always, as long as my fuckin’ heart beats, ‘cause I just can’t really help it. But that doesn’t mean that I need you to love me, too. I don’t.” He combs his fingers through Bucky’s hair gently, careful to undo any knots or tangles he comes across. He works to let the anger seep out of him, and lets his voice be softer. “I just need you to be okay. Happy. And I’d like to be able to witness that happiness every now and then. Maybe even be the reason for it, sometimes. But that’s it. If you can’t give me that much, then we’ll find something that works. You got me, for life if you want, however I can have you. ‘Till the end of the line.” 

“I want so badly to remember you,” Bucky whispers, barely audible. “I don’t know if I ever will.” 

“Doesn’t change anything,” Steve half-lies. It would change things, just not the way Steve feels. Nothing could ever be helped about the way Steve’s heart thumped for Bucky alone. He was ruined for life. “End of the line ain’t conditional, pal.” 

Steve hears Bucky swallow. He hesitates a little before saying, “We had something special.” It’s not a question, but the past tense makes a single tear slip out of Steve’s eye. He wipes it away quickly before Bucky notices. 

“Yeah, Buck. Sure did,” Steve whispers. He pulls away a little, and reaches for the dog tags around his neck. “That reminds me--you should have these back, now. They’re yours, after all.” He holds them out to Bucky. 

Bucky takes them slowly, rubbing his thumb over the engravings. James Buchanan Barnes. 

“I gave them to you. As a gift,” Bucky tells him gently, and slides them back over Steve’s head. He pauses, blinking fast as if caught in a day dream, and then he snaps out of it, clearing his throat.  “I remember...telling you to find them. And bein’ worried that you were going to get hurt, when you did.” 

“See? You are remembering,” Steve chuckles a little, exhilarated that even that small memory was back. Even more of Bucky’s Brooklyn accent was coming back, the more time he spent around Steve. “I like having a piece of you with me.” 

“It looks good on you.” Bucky doesn’t look uncomfortable or awkward when he says the words, just genuine. He offers Steve a slow, building smile that made Steve want to jump his bones right there.

“Oh, stop,” Steve snorts. “You’re just tryin’ to flatter me so I don’t run away. Stockholm syndrome ain’t gonna work on me.” 

“No,” Bucky rolls his eyes. It’s very him. “M’serious. Everything looks good on you, Ace.” 

“Stop flirtin’ with me,” Steve teases lightly, going to sit on the couch. Their interaction feels normal, like exactly the kind of conversation he and ghost Bucky would have had. Steve feels at ease, pliant and content. 

Bucky blinks, looking startled. The moment breaks. “Oh, I…” 

“What?” 

He tilts his head like a confused puppy. “But I thought...we used to be…?” 

In love. That’s right, doll, we’re in love, Bucky’s voice rings in Steve’s memories. He swallows with a dry mouth. 

“We were in love,” Steve echoes, feeling suddenly heartbroken, the lightness of the moment gone. “But, that doesn’t mean you gotta flirt with me just ‘cause you know that’s how we used to be. I told you--I’ll take you however I can get you. I don’t want you to act a certain way just ‘cause you think it’s what I want.”

Bucky’s frown deepens. “That’s not--”

“Anyway,” Steve clears his throat, needing a change in subject matter before he burst into tears. “C’mere and sit down, I’ll play with your hair a bit and we can talk, yeah?” 

Bucky looks vaguely annoyed, but Steve isn’t sure why. Before he can ask, Bucky grumbles, “Okay.” And comes to sit on the couch between Steve’s legs, still clad in nothing but a towel and looking not the least bit ashamed for it. 

Steve supposed if he were built like a brick shit-house, he wouldn’t be self conscious of his body, either. 

Or maybe, it was because Hydra had dehumanized his body so much that Bucky didn’t much care if he was naked or fully clothed. Steve pushes that thought to the very back of his mind. 

“You’re still wet, aren’t you cold?” Steve chastised, touching a droplet of water on Bucky’s left shoulder. Bucky hisses in air and jerks away from Steve’s touch sharply, and Steve freezes in place, his hand hovering above the scar tissue of Bucky’s left arm, his heart in his throat.

“S-Sorry, Buck, I didn’t mean to--”

“No,” Bucky clears his throat, and slowly, slowly settles back against the couch, pressing his body into Steve’s legs as way of apology. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.” 

“S’okay,” Steve breathed. “What happened?”  

“It’s just. Usually when someone touches that area, it’s. To repair the arm, or something equally as painful. Force of habit.” 

Steve can imagine, though he wishes he couldn’t, the roughness with which Bucky was handled during his time with Hydra. The arm especially, a point of trauma and loss, would sting with clinical touch. Bucky had been dehumanized for a lifetime.

But not anymore. Steve wouldn’t let it go on a second longer. He never wanted to see that emptiness in Bucky’s eyes again. 

“Can I...touch?” 

“The arm?” Bucky clarifies, sounding confused. Steve wishes he could see his face. “Uh.” 

“You,” Steve corrects softly. All of you. “Your shoulder. Your arm. You can say no.”

“I know that.”

“And I’ll stop anytime you want.” 

“I know that, too,” Bucky sounds like he’s maybe hiding a smile, or maybe rolling his eyes. Maybe both. “...You can touch. Just. Go slow, please.” 

Steve feels a thrill run through him. 

Gently, he leans around Bucky and takes his metal hand into his own, comparing the sizes between their palms. Steve’s hands were dwarfed by Bucky’s. 

The metal was cool, but not as cold as Steve may have guessed. As his fingertips travelled up Bucky’s hand, to his wrist, the metal got slightly warmer, perhaps from having more proximity to Bucky’s body heat. It was strange, to think of Bucky as running hot. He was so used to associating him with cold air, cold touch. 

As he dragged his fingertips up the arm, slowly, the plates shuddered and readjusted around him, whirring softly. It was mesmerizing, the way they interlocked and came apart again, the little fibres of them. 

“You’re beautiful,” Steve whispers, his voice breaking. 

“Hardly.” 

"You are,” Steve insists, his fingers gripping Bucky’s left arm a little harder. “Every part of you. You are.” 

He hears Bucky swallow, but he doesn’t protest again. 

Bucky’s breathing became more ragged as Steve’s fingers reached the top of his left arm, where it connected with Bucky’s shoulder. The scar tissue there was pink and raised, a delicate pattern going this way and that. Steve knew to be gentle, just barely touching Bucky’s skin, pressing with just his fingertips at first. 

When Bucky didn’t stop him, Steve prompted, “Is this okay?” 

“Yes,” Bucky breathed, sounding wrecked. “Yes, it’s...it’s good.” 

Steve nods, reassured, and slowly applies more pressure, feeling the way the raised skin differed from the rest of the smooth olive skin of Bucky’s body. Eventually, he pressed his whole palm over the area, and rubbed a slow, deep circle.

“Mm,” Bucky lets his head fall forward, body sagging. The trust in that move alone made Steve’s chest get tight. “That--feels real nice, Stevie.” 

Say it again, Steve wants to beg, call me that again. But he doesn’t. Instead, he digs his thumb into the muscle a little more, rubbing out the knots he finds there. “Must get real sore,” Steve says softly. “You ever get a massage?” 

Bucky shakes his head gently. “Don’t want a stranger’s hands on me,” he mutters. “Makes me...anxious.” 

Steve can read between the lines. Bucky might not remember him, but he knew enough about Steve to trust him, to know that he wasn’t a stranger. Steve’s hands were okay. 

“I can watch some videos,” Steve offers quietly. “I don’t have the strongest hands, but if I can learn a few techniques, maybe I can help a little. Probably hurts, huh? Lots of scar tissue and knots all over.” 

Bucky presses his cheek to Steve’s knee, nuzzling in with his nose. “Stevie,” He breathes out roughly. “Stevie,” 

“Yeah,” Steve smiles softly. Bucky denied remembering anything about him, but the nicknames came too easily--he had to be recalling their time together, if only just in pieces. “That is, if you plan on sticking around.” 

“...I don’t want to leave you,” Bucky admits to him, keeping his face pushed into Steve’s leg. 

Steve tenses. It’s not the reassurance he hoped for. Slowly, he starts combing his fingers through Bucky’s damp hair. 

“That doesn’t sound like you promising to stay,” Steve hedges carefully. 

“It’s complicated,” Bucky mutters, sounding guilty. “You know that.” 

Steve scritches at Bucky’s scalp, feeling Bucky melt into him. He won’t take his frustrations out on Bucky by withdrawing his touch, he can see how much Bucky needs a friendly touch right now.

“Haven’t you left me enough times in this life?” Steve asks, voice small. “Isn’t it your turn to stay?” 

Bucky wraps a hand around Steve’s calf, his fingers overlapping, but he doesn’t answer.  

“Buck,” Steve says.  They had to talk about eventually, and now, with Bucky pliant in his arms, it might be the best time. “My friends are going to be looking for me.” 

Bucky stiffens a little. “I know.” 

Steve gently works a knot out of Bucky’s hair. “So...what’s the plan here, big guy?” 

Bucky says nothing.

“Staying on the run from them isn’t smart,” Steve explains. “When they last saw you, you shot their teammate and ran away with their asthmatic best friend in your arms. They’re going to be scouring the earth looking for us, if they haven’t already got an idea of where we are yet, they will soon.” 

“I know.” 

“So, obviously we should turn ourselves in. My friends, I can talk to them, and--and explain. If we come peacefully, I know I can talk to them. We can make it right, and then you can come back to the apartment with me, and we can figure the rest out from there--”

Bucky rips out of his touch and gets to his feet. “No,” He says sharply. Steve sees his tightly coiled his muscles are, the outline of his body taut and on edge instantly. “I’m not going with them. I’ll drop you off at a remote location and you can text your friends where you are. They’ll come get you. You’ll be safe.” 

Bucky was planning on leaving him again, then. Steve’s mouth goes dry. 

“Buck,” Steve says, trying not to sound too desperate. “Just hold on--”

“I don’t want to be their puppet,” Bucky growls, storming off to his backpack that rested in the corner of the room. He yanks out black items and starts getting dressed with angry tugs of fabric, dark jeans and a black t shirt. 

“Where are you going?” Steve demanded, voice small. He shouldn’t have said anything. He should have kept his mouth shut. He was going to watch Bucky leave him again. “We don’t have to go right now.” 

Bucky already has his boots on. “Yes, we do. You’re right--they’ll be after us. It was stupid to stay here even this long.” 

“Please,” He says, getting a cold chill all over his body at the thought of losing Bucky again. He looks up at Bucky with desperate eyes. “Think logically, here, Buck. Think about what we could have, if you trust me.” 

“It’s not you I don’t trust, Steve. If I go with the Avengers, best case, they lock me up, test me to see what kind of shit Hydra infused me with, and then put me on trial for all the people I’ve killed--including Tony Stark’s parents, by the way,” Bucky swallows, looking away. His hands are in tight fists by his side. “And then, if they don’t shoot me, they’ll lock me up in a glass cage and, if I’m lucky, maybe let you come see me once, twice a month, with supervision.” He meets Steve’s gaze with tormented eyes. “I can’t be locked up again, Steve. I can’t. I’d rather die.”  

Steve was a good listener.

He considers Bucky’s points carefully, and the probability of what he was saying. Bucky wasn’t being ridiculous--Tony Stark had a lot of pull with the Avengers, as he was technically the head of the initiative, and given that the Winter Soldier was responsible for him being an orphan and how adament Natasha was that Tony didn’t find out about their plan to rescue Bucky, Steve was pretty sure it wouldn’t go over well. 

But there was still hope, stupid, relentless hope, that Steve refused to let go of. If he did, what would they have, besides their two broken hearts and a dark road ahead?

“So, what? You drop me off, and go on the run...and that’s it? The end? I never see you again?” Steve gets to his feet, his desperation quickly igniting his temper. He was tired of being gentle with Bucky, clearly, it wasn’t working. His skull was apparently thicker now than it was when he was a ghost. “I’ve been lying awake, every night for over a month, Buck, just praying that you would come home. And now that we’re finally together, I can’t stand to lose you.” 

“It’s not about you.” Bucky says sharply, and Steve swallows, because Bucky was right. This wasn’t about him, and he was making it about himself in a way he had no right to. Bucky, after a lifetime of capture and torture, was rightfully apprehensive about going into the custody of another organization. 

“You’re right.” Steve agrees. “You’re a big boy, you can make your own choices. But if you’re going to go on the run, then take me with you.” 

Bucky’s jaw drops like he can’t believe Steve would even suggest that. “You’re kidding.” 

“I’m completely serious. If it’s a choice between never seeing you again or living butt-fuck nowhere in Germany, then I’ll get on a plane with you right now.” 

“I’m not taking you on the run with me. You deserve better than the life of a fugitive.” 

“So do you,” Steve challenges. 

Bucky narrows his eyes, going on the defensive. “Listen, Steve--”

“No, you listen, you muckleheaded asshat,” Steve jabs an accusatory finger in Bucky’s pectoral. Bucky glares down at him, but Steve isn’t the least bit intimidated. Bucky’s murder-murder-stabby face just looked like the equivelent of a golden retriever showing it’s teeth; cute and harmless. 

“I know I’m not an Avenger, or a Soviet spy, or-or anything remotely impressive. But if I’m looking you in the eye and telling you I will not let them hurt you, then I fuckin’ mean it, Buck. I will do whatever it takes to tell the world that you have the best heart I’ve ever known.” 

Steve didn’t want Bucky to be locked up. He didn’t want Bucky to be forced into anything, ever again, but he knew that if Bucky didn’t come with them, Tony Stark would hunt him down, or Hydra would, and Steve would really lose him, for good. 

There were no good options, there was only the less bad ones. 

“I won’t be selfish with you,” Bucky says, his voice not at all matching the heat or volume of Steve’s. He looks suddenly young, and scared. “I can’t let myself be.” 

“I want you to be fuckin’ selfish for once in your life, Bucky, for God’s sake!” 

“You deserve someone who--” 

Oh, that was fucking it. Steve had absolutely had enough of this martyr bullshit.

Steve takes two quick steps towards Bucky until their chests are pressed together.  He stretches up onto his tip toes, grabs Bucky’s dumb face in both of his hands, and smashes their lips together. 

He didn’t want to hear any nonsense about what he deserved. He deserved to have this--Bucky, all to himself. He deserved to kiss the man he loved. 

It starts with Steve kissing Bucky’s unresponsive lips.  Steve is pretty sure Bucky is in shock, his entire body rigid, his eyes wide open, staring at Steve.

Determined, Steve stroked his hands through Bucky’s hair, and got no reaction.  He trailed his hands around Bucky’s neck and pressed their bodies together--and yet, nothing. 

If Bucky wouldn’t respond to tenderness, then Steve would let his temper speak for itself. 

“Oh, for fuck sake, Barnes, do something. Kiss me or push me away or--” Frustrated with Bucky taking on the persona of Brick Wall, Steve runs his hands through Bucky’s hair again, and grabs a fistful of it, pulling it at the same time he bites down hard on Bucky’s bottom lip. 

Bucky finally comes alive. 

His lips instantly nip back at Steve’s, and with a low growl, his hands slide under Steve’s ass to lift him up so that Steve wouldn’t have to stretch up so far and Bucky wouldn’t have to bend down. 

Steve wraps his legs around Bucky’s hips enthusiastically, as Bucky spins him and presses him hard against the wall with a low growl.

It’s like a switch flipped in Bucky--the last time they kissed, it was passionate, but tender, something sad and sweet about it. This was a fight, battling for dominance as they nipped and pushed at each other, practically devouring each other. 

Steve winds his arms around Bucky’s neck and holds on, his legs tightening around Bucky’s hips, although Bucky didn’t seem to be struggling to hold on to Steve at all, keeping him up with ease. His hands squeeze Steve’s ass, and Steve let out a soft sound into Bucky’s mouth at the feeling. 

“Bucky,” He breathes between hungry kisses. “Oh, f- fuck--” Bucky uses his own hips to bracket Steve harder against the wall and rolls his hips against Steve’s rubbing their erections together. When Steve feels Bucky’s hardness against him, his mouth waters with desire. “Please--”

That night, when Steve had wanted him so badly, and Bucky was just a whisper of a person and couldn’t bite little marks down Steve’s neck like Bucky was doing now. Then, he couldn’t roll their hips together and make Steve moan like this. But now, everything Steve had wanted so badly was there, and he could tell by how enthusiastically Bucky was kissing him that he wanted it too. It seemed too good to be true, that Steve might actually get to have this. 

Steve had never had sex before. He’d sucked a dick, once, and that was an endeavor that had only lasted about half a minute, and it was years ago. He suddenly felt nervous. 

“You are such a--a little shit,” Bucky growled, rolling his hips mercilessly again. His New York accent was becoming thicker and thicker, and he sounded exactly like the grumpy ghost that Steve fell in love with. Steve’s thigh shake from how hard they’re gripping Bucky, and when Bucky uses his hands on Steve’s ass to grind Steve into him, Steve lets out a choked sob and digs his nails into Bucky’s back. “Such a fuckin’ brat.” 

“I know,” Steve gasps, scrambling to hold on to Bucky anywhere he can, pleasure turning his brain to mush. “I know, God, I know, Buck, just don’t stop--”

Bucky silences him with his mouth on Steve’s, and even though his body was rough and unforgiving against Steve’s own, Steve knew there was still a high level of control and care needed on Bucky’s part. With all of his strength, if he lost control, he could do some serious damage to Steve’s small frame.

One of Bucky’s hands leaves Steve’s ass and slides under his shirt, up Steve’s torso. The flesh and bone hand, rough with callous, thumbs at Steve’s nipple, gently at first, testing. 

When Steve arches eagerly into the touch, Bucky gains more confidence. “Say my name,” Bucky begs, his eyes wide, pupils blown large. “Say it, Steve.” It was the same prompt that Bucky had whispered into Steve’s ear the night that Steve touched himself to Bucky’s filthy words, and he twitched hard against Bucky with the memory that they had made it full circle. Back then, Steve never imagined this was something they’d get to have. 

“Bucky,” Steve obliges breathlessly, like a religious man calling out for his God. “Bucky, Bucky, Bucky,” He was close, he was almost there, his toes curling as the pleasure builds, Bucky’s thrusts becoming more and more desperate, his hips powerful and merciless. Steve was going to have bruises on his spine from being pushed into the wall, but he didn’t care one bit--he wanted Bucky’s marks all over him. “God,” Steve gasps, nails digging in hard. “Bucky, Buck--jesus, I fucking love you--”

No. 

Steve messed up. The moment seems to freeze, as the realization hits him. 

Everyone says things in the heat of the moment that they know, logically, should not have been said, even if they were true. 

It seems fine for a moment, they’re all over each other and Bucky is kissing him, but the next, the heat of Bucky’s body is gone, Steve’s weight is on his own two feet, and Bucky has put four feet of distance between them, his hair mussed and wild and eyes wide in shock. 

Nothing he had said was news, Steve didn’t think. He had told Bucky--even this Bucky--that he loved him. But something about the way Bucky was looking at him now, horrified, really, made Steve think that something in him had broken at Steve’s words. 

“Bucky,” Steve says, panting for breath. “I’m sorry, just,” 

Bucky glances at the door. 

“Wait!” Steve says, reaching a hand out towards Bucky. “Don’t--”

But before Steve can even finish the sentence, Bucky is gone, the motel door slamming shut behind him hard enough to rattle the pictures on the wall. 

------

Steve sinks to the floor.

He thinks he’s crying, but he’s not sure. He feels numb, separated from his own body. This was just like his dream, when Bucky left him alone and sobbing and wanting and wouldn’t give him what he so desperately needed. 

And now, not only did Bucky deny him, but he had left. He had looked horrified when Steve had said those stupid, stupid words--why would Steve say that?--and now Steve was alone, with no cell phone, in a motel God knows where.

He should get up. He should find a phone, and call his friends, tell them to come get him. He should do something. He should breathe, probably. 

He tried to inhale, and his chest burned. Shit. Shit, shit, shit. He didn’t have his inhaler. 

In their hasty get away, he didn’t exactly have time to pack an overnight bag. Steve didn’t even have shoes, he was wearing his compression socks that helped his circulation when Bucky grabbed him and headed out the window.

“Shit,” Steve wheezed. He glances desperately around the room, force of habit, when something white in Bucky’s back catches his eye. 

No fucking way. 

Steve rushes to it, and lets out a short little breath of celebration, grabbing the inhaler and pressing it to his lips. How Bucky grabbed it before they fled Steve didn’t know. It had been on the table beside the couch, sure, but everything happened so fast. How did Bucky even think of something like that?

The medicine cools the fire in his chest, and Steve sinks down the wall to curl up very small, his head in his hands. 

Bucky was gone, and Steve was alone, with an inhaler and sweat pants and no goddamn shoes, and no goddamn cell phone. 

-------

He goes outside in his socks. He runs around the parking lot like a mad person, shouting Bucky’s name. 

Bucky isn’t there--and if he is, he doesn’t answer Steve’s desperate cries. 

It makes everything clear, at least--

Bucky is not coming back. 

------

Twenty minutes later, Steve stands up on shaking legs and releases his bottom lip from the grasp of his teeth. He hadn’t eaten in a long time, he realizes belatedly. 

He should eat. 

He does not want to pass out. Again. 

Bucky’s things were still there, in that stupid fucking backpack. 

Steve didn’t think Bucky was coming back for them. Bucky was never coming back again. 

He dug around in the bag and found a black sweatshirt that smelled like Bucky. Shamefully, Steve shucks his old clothing and pulls it on over his head, burying his face in the smell and wiping his eyes in the sleeves. He doesn’t feel guilty for the little bit of snot that gets on the sleeve. 

Serves Bucky right.

There’s a few protein bars in there, too, and Steve takes two out and forces himself to eat them in slow, methodical bites. He swallows hard, and drinks a few mouthfuls of water from the tap,  because self care. 

His cell is there, in the bottom of the bag. It’s dead, and he doesn’t have the charger. He puts it face down on the dresser and stares at it blankly, thinking nothing at all. He was numb.

Things would still be there in the morning, he tells himself. 

Bucky would still be gone, he would still be alone, but at least it would be bright outside. At least there would be that. Things were always easier to deal with in the morning time. 

So he pulls the hood over his head, and climbs into bed, burrowing deep under the covers and inhaling the scent of Bucky on the shirt. 

As if by sheer willpower alone, Steve forces himself to sleep.

------

Bucky is a bad person. The worst.

He had Steve--he had him, just right there, ready for the taking, bitten red lips and pliant and needy for his touch, and Bucky had left.

When Steve said those words, Bucky just...froze. His mind took him somewhere far away, and then another, and another. 

It was a highlight reel of he and Steve’s greatest moments, he thinks, or something like that, anyway. His memories played behind his eyelids like a movie: Steve’s blue eyes, Steve dancing with him under the moonlight, Steve laughing so hard tea comes out of his nose. Steve’s soft voice telling him, I love you, and meaning it, meaning every syllable

Bucky had panicked, he needed to crawl away and be somewhere alone where he could process the wall that had just broken down in his head, the memories that had flooded in in his place. And by doing so, he had fucked up.

He wasn’t thinking about the present moment, and about the Present Steve, too caught up in the Past Steve that danced in his mind and beckoned him to come, learn more about me.  

That was about an hour and a half ago. 

Bucky had huddled behind the motel building, where he could still keep an eye on the room to make sure Steve didn’t leave nor any unwanted visitors stop by, and think. Steve had shouted for him. He had looked for him. 

Bucky had not come out. He needed to think. 

Now, he remembered. Maybe not everything but he felt more him than he had felt since first breaking Hydra programming. He needed to go back. He needed to fix things with Steve--Steve, the one Good Thing Bucky had to his name. 

He had hurt Steve, no doubt. He needed to go find out how badly. 

Coming in quietly and figuring Steve was asleep, Bucky opens the door and guilty slides inside, feeling like more of a monster than he had in a long time.

Steve is curled up under the covers of the bed, looking impossibly small. He’s safe, and Bucky feels he can breathe a little easier for it.

Bucky’s relief turns to worry as he sees that Steve is thrashing around, tears in his eyes. 

“Bucky!” He yells, and Bucky freezes, thinking he’s woken up, but his eyes stay closed and his sobs warck his body. He curls in tighter on himself.  “Bucky-- please, I’m sorry, I’m so...don’t. Don’t go. Don’t go.”

Bucky’s stomach sunk. Stevie. 

Not taking the time to kick off his boots or shed his coat, Bucky slides into bed beside Steve, tugging him into the circle of his arms. Steve liked this, he remembered. Steve always wanted to be held. 

“Stevie,” Bucky says softly, “Hey, Stevie. Wake up, it’s me.”

Steve fights him, kicking and squirming. It doesn’t take much of Bucky’s strength to restrain him, but it still hurts that he’d resist so violently, even in sleep. 

“No,” Steve sobs, his eyes screwed shut, “No, you left, you left me again.

Bucky’s heart skips as he realizes that Steve was awake after all, and yet still resisting. “Stevie,” Bucky swallowed, regret pooling in his stomach. “I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have left. I shouldn’t have. I’m here now. I won’t leave you again.” 

“How can you say that,” Steve sobs, pushing hard at Bucky’s chest. “You don’t mean it, you’re going to leave me whenever it’s fucking convenient for you, you fuckin’ jerk--”

“No,” Bucky says, cupping Steve’s head and pushing it against his chest, wrapping his leg around both of Steve’s and tugging him in, completely enveloping him and effectively stopping the struggle. “I’m here. See? I’m here, baby, and I remember. I remember us.” 

Steve goes completely still. “What?”

“My memories, of you. They all came back when you said that you loved me. It was...unnerving. I needed time to...process it.” He hesitates, “It was a big wave of memories. Lots to sort through.” He was still sorting. Even now, as he held Steve, he suddenly remembered Steve curling up in the empty shape of Bucky’s embrace, back when he had no arms to hold Steve, and singing to him, soft and sweet. He remembered Steve smiling in his sleep, content and safe and his. 

Steve is silent for a moment, contemplating this. Then he rears back, and knees Bucky right in the crown jewels, causing Bucky to grunt and buckle a little, though he doesn’t loosen his grip on Steve. 

“Asshole,” Steve says through clenched teeth, though he nuzzles a little closer to Bucky’s chest. “You should have just fucking said that.” 

“I know,” Bucky wheezes, coughing a little. “I’m sorry, though, Stevie, really. I know...we were…” 

“Having...sexy time.” 

“--Yeah. And then I--”

“Abandoned me and made me feel like an idiot.”

“...Yeah.” Bucky swallows. He messed up.

“We really need to work on your communication skills,” Steve sighs. 

Bucky could admit that Steve was right on that one. “I know.”  

Steve goes quiet again. His voice is a little sadder, a little softer, when he asks, “You’re not going to leave me, are you?” 

Bucky squeezes him gently, but for Steve, it must nearly take the air from his lungs. “Not in this life. Not again.” 

When Bucky left Steve before, he was ripped away by Hydra. He couldn’t help where he was going or when, and he knew Steve didn’t really blame him for those times, but he can imagine that seeing the man you loved torn away again and again would take a toll on someone. 

Bucky had been through a lot, it was true, but Steve had been through a lot, too. This whole ordeal has been hard on him, Bucky could tell. There were deep purple bags under his eyes and Bucky could feel the sharp poke of his ribs more than usual. He’d lost weight. 

“You’ll stay?” 

“For as long as you’ll have me.

Steve swallows. His tired eyes are red around the edges, but Bucky didn’t know if it was from crying or exhaustion--or perhaps a mix of both. “Will you hold me? While I sleep?” 

“Steve…” Bucky knows they shouldn’t stay here all night. It’s already been too long, and the longer they were idle, the more they became sitting ducks for the Avengers to hunt down. Everything that was The Soldier in him screamed for them to get on the move and get somewhere safe. 

Steve tenses, bracing himself. “You’re right. We should move,” He says, already pushing himself up into a sitting position. “I’m new to this whole...fugitive thing. C’mon, lets go, Buck. We’ve been here for too long.” 

Bucky could see the exhaustion written all over Steve’s face, even through the stubborn set of his jaw that tried to deny it. 

Steve needed to rest, and Bucky couldn’t keep them away from the Avengers forever. He had to face the music, and he might as well let Steve get some sleep while he was waiting for his impending doom. 

Bucky had fought a lot of battles in his life, and he’d been trying to outrun his past for too long. He remembered now. He couldn’t feign ignorance any longer; he had to own up. If Bucky ever wanted to become the kind of man that could stand beside someone as pure as Steve Rogers and be anything close to his equal, this was how he had to start. With justice. 

Gently, Bucky uses a hand to push Steve back down onto the mattress. “Nah,” He says quietly, his mind made up. “We’ll be okay, Ace. Get some rest.”

They’d lock him up, that was certain, but perhaps if he went quietly and willingly they’d take him in carefully, let him see Steve. He’d work on being a better man.

Steve blinks up at him, those blue eyes more trusting than Bucky could ever deserve. “Are...you sure?” 

Steve is beautiful. It hits Bucky so hard he forgets how to breathe for a moment, but he is. Beautiful and strong and trusting-- too trusting. 

Bucky wanted to be the man that earned that trust. The one that deserved it. 

Bucky nods once. “‘Course I’m sure. You could use some more shut eye. I’ll keep watch. You’ll be safe, doll.” 

“S’not my safety that I’m worried ‘bout,” Steve protests, but he sinks down willingly, exhaustion overcoming him, and presses the cold tip of his nose into Bucky’s neck. “Just a few more minutes then we’ll get on the move and find somewhere safe.” 

“Safe from the Avengers?” Bucky clarified. 

Steve stiffens a little, hesitating. “I...don’t think they’d hurt you on purpose,” Steve hedges. “But. I think you’re right, that they’d lock you up. And Tony Stark, he has a lot of pull with SHIELD and given that the Winter Soldier is the one who killed his parents…” 

“He’s not going to be my biggest fan.” 

“Yeah,” Steve snuffles, huddling in closer. “So lets stay away a while longer, then we can figure out a plan that will work for both of our hearts.” His cold hands press into Bucky’s chest. “I don’t want you to sacrifice anything for me.” 

Bucky feels those words right to his core--Steve had summed it up. Bucky didn’t want Steve to give up anything for him either. “Yeah,” Bucky lies smoothly, pressing a chaste kiss to Steve’s temple, because he can. “It will all work out in the end.” 

“We’ll be Bonnie and Clyde,” Steve snorts.

“Mhm,” Bucky smiles softly, “Whatever you say.” 

Steve tries to say something else, but his exhaustion overcomes him and he lets out a large yawn.

“Sleep, kitten,” Bucky urges, tugging him in a little closer to that he could feel the rise and fall of Steve’s chest. Steve likes it when he uses the pet names, Bucky knows, and they roll off his tongue too easily to be helped. It was second nature. “I’ll be here when you wake up.” 

“Hey--did you bring my inhaler?” Steve pipes up sleepily a few moments later. He yawns into Bucky’s neck again, and Bucky brushes Steve’s hair out of his face tenderly. 

Bucky blushes a little, embarrassed. He recalls Steve mocking him for being a ‘ mother hen’ . “I grabbed it quickly on the way out. Why? Are you having an attack--”

“Easy, big guy,” Steve snorts, cuddling in closer. He slides a leg over Bucky’s, and before Bucky knew it they were so tangled together he couldn’t tell where he started and Steve began. “You’re just cute, is all.” 

Bucky was a Grown Ass Man. More than that, he was a Grown Ass Soviet Assassin with...with knives. Sharp ones, that he knew how to use in multiple ways. He wasn’t cute. He shouldn’t like being called cute. 

But he did. He really, really did. 

“You’re cute,” He accuses in rebuttal, a few beats too late. Steve’s soft snore is his only answer.

Bucky hides his smile in Steve’s blond mop of hair. He feels light.

Chapter Text

 

If I wasn't so afraid
I'd shine a light up to space
Then my soul could be
Strong enough to see your face
One more day

           - Meant to Stay Hid, SYML


Steve wakes up suddenly, a loud crash and the heavy thud of boots rousing him from his otherwise peaceful and much needed sleep. 

He bolts up in bed, squinting as his eyes adjust to the motel room light being flicked on, dread already flooding his system before he could process what was happening.

It was still dark outside, but the room lit up with fluorescent light a second later. Steve blinks fast, his vision going spotty from trying to adjust too quickly. 

“Wha--” He mumbles, reaching to the side table and shoving his glasses onto his face. His heart sinks when his foggy mind clears enough to take in the scene before him.

Bucky is already on his feet in front of the bed, blocking most of Steve’s view with his body, but Steve sees Natasha’s red hair and Clint’s bow and arrow around the bulk of Bucky’s body. 

No. 

So this was it, then--just when Steve had gathered enough strength to realize he didn’t want Bucky to be forced to go with the Avengers, they had tracked him down. Steve was going to lose him. 

Steve also notices with relief that Sam was there, in full gear, looking completely fine. He could at least be thankful for that--his friends were okay. They were just...pushy. 

“Shit,” He curses, scrambling to get to his feet. This situation felt eerily similar to the last confrontation they’d had, and that one hadn’t ended well. Steve, as the middle-man, had to get this situation under control, and quick.  “ No one shoot.” 

“Steve,” Bucky hisses, a warning, as Steve stands in front of him. “Don’t do anything stupid.”

“Same to you,” Steve grumbles. If they had just left last night when Bucky prompted, they’d be in the clear. But Bucky had wanted Steve to sleep. He always put Steve first, and now he was going to pay for it. Steve was going to watch him pay for it. 

“Okay, everyone is going to listen to me right now.” Steve announces, his voice ringing with authority he was pretty sure he had no right to demand. “No one is going to get hurt--we all want the same things, here.”

“You’re compromised,” Natasha quips, not taking her gun or her eyes off of Bucky. “This doesn’t have to be messy, Steve. This is what you wanted. We’re just doing what we discussed.” 

“Things have changed,” Steve says, trying to meet her eyes. She doesn’t let him, staring Bucky down like she expects him to grab Steve and bolt at any moment. Given their track record, it was a fair expectation. Steve was half expecting it himself. 

“Unfortunately,” Natasha mutters, voice steely. “They really haven’t.” 

Steve looks to Sam and Clint for some understanding, but finds their faces just as resolved as Nat’s. Something had changed in their views since the last confrontation with Bucky. Perhaps seeing the Winter Soldier shoot their teammate and kidnap their best friend had made them less willing to see the good in Bucky. They must have spent the hours since their last confrontation searching, worried sick about Steve. 

Sam looked nervous, like he was itching to get Steve away from Bucky, itching to leave the room. 

“I didn’t get a chance to talk to Buck about his options,” Steve protested, heart racing. He was going to lose this battle, and he knew it. “Can’t we just sit down and have a conversation?” 

“His options are coming with us, or getting shot,” Natasha quips. She cocks her gun, as if to accentuate her point. “Up to you, Barnes, A, or B.” 

“I’ll come,” Bucky says softly. 

“No!” Steve cries. “Just--just everyone hold on.” He swallows, trying to get his thoughts in order. Bucky had said he’d rather die than be locked up, and now here he was just submitting? It didn’t make any sense. Steve knew he didn’t want this. “Guys, we talked about this,” He argues. “You said--I could talk to him, about what to do next.” 

“That was before he shot me,” Sam scoffed. Steve meets his eyes, desperate for someone to take his side in this, but Sam looks away, guilty. 

“Sorry ‘bout that,” Bucky pipes in softly. Sam doesn’t answer, but shoots Bucky a scathing glare. 

“You shot at him first,” Steve accuses, anger and fear rippling through him in equal parts. They were out-numbered, out-gunned. This could be it. “Clint fired the first round, and he was just protecting himself and me.” 

He was going to let Bucky down in the only way that counted. 

“I promised I’d take Barnes into Avengers custody and then let the law do with him what it will,” Natasha deadpans. Her eyes show no forgiveness, and part of Steve hates her for it. “I told you that. I never pretended otherwise.”

Steve whips around to Bucky, who looks resigned to his fate, jaw tight, eyes clouded. 

He didn’t look like the Winter Soldier--no. This was purely Bucky, a Bucky who was completely aware of what was about to happen and had begrudgingly and nobly accepted his fate. 

Run, Steve mouths at Bucky, as a final hope. 

Steve didn’t want Bucky to be taken in. This whole time, it’s all he’d wanted, what he’d hoped for, and now that it was here and facing them, he could see what a mistake that was. 

Bucky was right; they’d take him and lock him up and Steve wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. 

He’d lose Bucky all over again in the worst way. It would be entirely, and solely his fault. His mistake.

But Bucky just offers him a small, sad smile. “S’okay, sweetheart,” He says softly, voice quiet enough that it was a promise just for Steve’s ears. “It’s gonna be okay.”

It only makes Steve angrier. His hands curl into fists and his muscles coil, ready for a fight. How dare Bucky comfort him? Him? Steve didn’t matter right now. Bucky should be worried about himself, about the fate that awaited him at the hands of Stark and the government. 

“No,” Steve turns back around to his friends, eyes welling with tears of panic. “I don’t want this anymore. I’ve changed my mind.” 

“Steve,” Clint shakes his head. “Let’s just make this quick and painless. Barnes can come with us, and we’ll talk about the rest at HQ.”

“No. Let him go, please, just. Turn a blind eye, we can pretend like today never happened. I’ll come with you, I’ll never bring Bucky up again, just, don’t, please.” But he could tell, looking at his friend’s faces, that he hadn’t changed their resolve. 

Regret. Regret and shame fill Steve from head to toe. This was all his fault. He was the one who had asked for the help of his friends, and he was the one who wanted them to track Bucky down. 

And now that they had, this is what Steve had driven them to do. Everything that Bucky was afraid of, everything he fought so hard against, was going to come true, and it was all. Steve’s. Fault.

He’d failed Bucky. 

“Steve,” Sam says quietly, begging him. He tucks his gun into it’s holster and takes a small step towards Steve and Bucky. “Please, just, come quietly. We’ll talk about this later. You need a medic--you look like you’re about to faint again.” Sam shoots an accusatory look at Bucky, like it’s somehow his fault that Steve looks like shit and not his own shitty genes or lack of appetite recently. 

“Please,” Steve begs, his nails digging hard crescents into his palms. “I’ll never see him again. He’ll go somewhere far away, and-and live underground. Keep outta sight and outta trouble, won’t you Buck?” Bucky doesn’t answer. “I won’t ever see him, or talk to him, or--” Steve sobs, pausing to breathe. His chest is tight. 

He feels like his ribs are caving in on himself. He did this, he put this nightmare in Bucky’s path. Bucky was going to be locked up and questioned and forced to relive the terrible things Hydra did to him, because of Steve. All Bucky had ever done is love him. Protect him. Put him first. 

And when it came down to it, Steve couldn’t do the same. Could Bucky ever forgive him? 

He was losing everything, in that motel room--all of it, bits of his life, crumbling around him and getting lost in the shaggy carpet. His friends, his lover. His hope. 

“Steve,” Bucky interrupts, voice worried and low. “Breathe.” 

Steve tries. He’s trying. He can’t--he can’t breathe. “I will never f-fucking forgive you,” Steve sobs, staring Natasha down, even as his hands clutch his throat, clawing at it as he wheezes for breath. “Never.” 

“Don’t shoot,” Steve hears Bucky saying from behind him with a rushed breath. “I’m just going to get his inhaler.” 

“Don’t move, Soldier,” Natasha threatens smoothly, tightening her grip on his fun. “Where is it.” 

“Side table, closest to the window. By the lamp.” Bucky instructs, voice panicking. Steve can hear the annoyance in his tone, frustrated that he couldn’t get it himself and help Steve faster.  “Steve, try to calm down.” Steve feels a brush of metal fingers against his elbow, but then Sam re positions his gun as a warning and Bucky retracts his touch after a moment of hesitation. 

“I’m f-fucking fine,” Steve wheezes, coughing hard enough that he doubles over. He wasn’t fine, not even close--his chest was on fire and his throat was tight.

“You’re fine,” Bucky agrees, but his voice is tinted with worry. “Just focus on your breathing, Steve.

Steve opens his mouth to say something but a coughing fit takes over and his shoulders and ribs wrack with the force of it. “B-Buck,” Steve wheezes, panicking. He wanted Bucky, Bucky’s hands on him, Bucky’s soothing voice. 

“I’m right here,” Bucky reassures him, and risks getting shot to take another step closer. Slowly, not to make any sudden movements, rubs his flesh hand in a slow circle against Steve’s back. “Breathe.” 

“Step away from him,” Natasha growls, and Steve can tell from her tone that if Bucky decides not to, she’ll shoot him. 

Bucky hesitates again, but does, his fingers linger for a moment on Steve before the contact is gone completely. “He needs his inhaler,” Bucky says flatly. “I can grab it--”

“Clint, get it,” Natasha instructs, but Steve is already there, grabbing the stupid fucking inhaler and taking deep breaths of the medication. 

The room is still and quiet as he does, everyone waiting to ensure he was okay. 

“He’s not going to fucking h-hurt me,” Steve accuses in a venomous tone, trying to calm down. “You’re the ones who are hurting me right now. You’re the ones going back on your word.” 

“We’re not going back on anything,” Natasha swallows. Steve can see the worry in her face--she didn’t like witnessing Steve’s asthma attacks. They made her anxious--she didn’t have control over them, and she didn’t like that one bit. “No one is going to hurt Barnes. We just need to take him in, and then we can figure out a plan from there. Nothing we talked about is off the table.” 

The news did nothing to console Steve, even if it was just a little. He tucks his inhaler in his pocket. It would be a long road to recovery for Bucky, and really, didn’t he deserve to just live his life peacefully? Get a cat and drink lots of coffee and read all the books he’s missed out on for the past 80 years? 

Bucky shouldn’t have to rejoin the fight as an Avenger. He had fought his war. He’d done enough. 

He should get to rest. 

But somehow, Steve didn’t think the Avengers nor the U.S. government would much want Bucky’s talent and skills to go to waste. He was, after all, highly trained. Hydra’s perfect weapon, curated for maximum efficiency.  

“You okay?” Bucky mumbles to him, so softly it was just between them. Steve gives him a worried look. 

“You can run,” He whispers desperately, willing Bucky to believe him. Bucky had evaded capture before, and without Steve slowing him down, he could surely get away from the Avengers at some point between here and their destination of Stark Towers. “You can make it. You’re fast.”

Bucky shakes his head slowly. Steve supposes he’s trying to look reassuring, but it fails miserably, and he mostly looks defeated. “Not this time, doll. I can’t run anymore. It’s time.” 

“This isn’t about you, Steve.” Clint says softly, interrupting. “This is what has to be done. It doesn’t mean he’s going to be locked up for the rest of his life.” 

“It does,” Steve yells, whipping around to face his friends again. “Yes, it fucking does, and yet knowing that--knowing everything he’s been through, you’d really take a tortured soul and lock him up-- again?” 

“It won’t be forever,” Sam argues. “Like Natasha said, nothing we talked about is off the table.” 

“Tony knows he’s coming. He’s expecting us,” Natasha tells him quietly. “I’m sorry, Steve. This is how it has to be.”

“Natalia,” Bucky nods once, putting his hands in the air as a sign of surrender. “Been a while.” 

“Sasha. You remember me?” Natasha’s eyebrows raise. She says something softly in Russian and Bucky bows his head, defeated. 

“I’ll come easily,” He tells them, in his soft, honey-drip voice. “But just. Just don’t hurt Steve.”

We would never hurt him,” Natasha sneers, and Steve wants to scream at her for it. Bucky had never hurt him. All he had done this entire time was protect Steve. “Sam, cuff him. Let’s go, Stark is waiting.” 

No. 

Steve does the only thing he can think of. 

He turns to Bucky and wraps his arms like a vice around Bucky’s waist, pressing his face into Bucky’s chest. He inhales hungrily, memorizing the scent, the feel of their bodies pressed together. He didn’t know when he would get this again.

Keeping one hand up in the air as a sign of surrender, the other strokes Steve’s hair in gently, soothing movements. 

“S’okay,” Bucky says again, pressing a kiss to the top of Steve’s head. “We knew this was coming.” 

“I’m so sorry,” Steve sniffles into Bucky’s chest. “This is all my fault, Buck. But I won’t let anyone hurt you, I won’t ever give up--”

“Steve, let go,” Sam’s voice says from behind him. “I’ve gotta put these cuffs on him. It’s protocol.”

Protocol? Steve was pretty sure there wasn’t a protocol for taking in Enhanced 100 year old Soviet assassins. 

The handcuffs didn’t look like handcuffs at all--they were more like large metal arm braces, long enough that they’d span from finger tip to elbow on Bucky. Steve supposed it made sense. They had to be strong enough to subdue the metal arm. 

“Let go,” Sam prompts again, when Steve doesn’t move. “Come on, man. Don’t make this harder than it has to be.” 

“No,” Steve says stubbornly, holding on tighter. He didn’t know when he’d get to hold Bucky again, and he wanted to suspend this moment just a little bit longer. The dread in the pit of his stomach eased with Bucky’s hands on him.

“Stevie,” Bucky whispers, his thumb sweeping over Steve’s cheekbone. He keeps his voice warm and gentle for Steve’s sake, and Steve hates him for it. He wants Bucky to be real. He’s dying to know what Bucky really thinks about this, about being locked up again. He wants to hear the panic and desperation so he knows Bucky isn’t just going to give up and let himself be hurt again. 

“Let go, kitten. It’s alright. Let go, and then go wait outside. I don’t want you to see me like this.”

Bucky, still trying to protect him even though he knew what was coming his way: the fate he said he’d rather die than suffer. 

“I don’t want to,” Steve sniffles, shoving his face harder against Bucky’s body. Bucky’s heartbeat is steady. He smells like the hotel soap and like Bucky . He doesn’t care that he’s being childish and stubborn and difficult. He doesn’t care about anything other than holding on as tightly as he can. “I’m not gonna leave you.” 

“Jet is outside,” Clint clears his throat. “We should go. They’re expecting us at the tower. We don’t want them to send backup, that wouldn’t be good for anyone.” 

“Steve,” Sam says warningly. “Let go of him.” His voice is harder now, impatient. 

“Buck--hold on to me,” Steve pleads, but Bucky doesn’t. He, unlike Steve, had accepted what was to come. He wasn’t fighting it. “Hold onto me,” He sobs, but Bucky still doesn’t move. He, unlike Steve, has accepted what’s coming. What is inevitable. 

“Don’t make me pull you off of him, Steve,” Sam threatens. “This is ridiculous.” 

That only makes Steve see red, so he promptly tightens his grip around Bucky, holding on with all the force he has in him. He wasn’t a match for Sam’s strength, he knew, but was stubborn as hell and could dig his heels in (metaphorically and physically) when he wanted to. 

“Ace--” Bucky begins, but Steve feels Sam’s arms snake around his waist, physically tugging him off of Bucky before Bucky can finish. 

Honestly, Steve didn’t really think Sam would physically intervene, and he only gets more angry that he’s being pulled off of Bucky like a toddler throwing a tantrum. When Bucky picked him up, Steve felt powerful. When Sam did it, Steve felt powerless.

“No!” Steve screams, thrashing. He tries to grab any part of Bucky he can to hold on--his wrist, his shirt, his belt buckle. “Don’t touch me!”

He’s fighting so violently he rears his head back and hears Sam curse as Steve’s head connects with his nose, probably breaking it or at the very least making it bleed.

“Dammit,” Sam curses. “Steve, let go, I don’t want to hurt you. ” 

Steve,” Natasha pipes in. “Don’t be difficult. You’re embarrassing yourself.” 

Bucky watches him with sad, even eyes, keeping his hands in the air and not doing a damn thing to hold on to Steve, not even taking advantage of the chaos to get away. Even with the force of Steve gripping him with all of his might, Bucky doesn’t sway or tumble in any directions, just stands as still as a statue as Steve scrambles to hold on, his hands in the air in the universal sign of surrender. He had given up.

“It’s okay,” He keeps saying, as Natasha reaches up to snap the handcuffs on him. They make a mechanical whirring sound and lock into place, winding all the way up to Bucky’s elbows.  “It’s okay, Ace. Let go, now. We’ll make it work, just let go.”

Steve,” Sam hisses, trying to get a good enough grip on Steve without hurting him. Steve wasn’t making it easy, not staying still for a moment and scraping his nails across Bucky’s chest just trying to hold on. It must hurt, really, but Bucky has no reaction, just watching with sad eyes. Steve feels rabid, seething with anger and heartbreak--his vision blurred with tears of frustration. 

Nothing anyone says registers, he’s set on holding onto Bucky for as long as he could, and he’d spend all his energy on doing so. 

“You’re going to hurt yourself,” Sam warns, at the same time Bucky soothes, “Baby, it’s time. We’re alright, we’ll find a way--”

Let go of me!” Steve screams to Sam, fed up when Sam gives a hard final tug and frees him from Bucky’s torso at last, finally using his strength on Steve in a way he never had before the entire time Steve has known him.

No. How dare Sam rip Steve from Bucky like that? How dare he pluck them apart? Steve didn’t know how long they were going to be seperated, and it made him physically dizzy with anger to think whatever sweet few moments he might have had with Bucky were torn away by this scene. 

Seething with rage, Steve reaches up to punch Sam in the face with all his strength, hoping it would stun him enough to get back to Bucky just one last time, but Sam grabs his wrist at a strange angle to stop the blow, and Steve yelps out in pain, going limp in Sam’s grip, cradling his arm to his chest. 

Agony explodes up his arm and around his wrist. 

Sam freezes. “Oh, shit, Steve--are you okay? Dammit, I’m so sorry, Steve, tell me where it hurts--”

Bucky’s eyes snap up to him at the sound, and the calm demeanor is gone--Steve sees the switch as it happens, and he understands it immediately. 

They’d hurt Steve--that wasn’t okay. Bucky had told him that his mission imperative when he’d instinctively switched into Winter Soldier mode was to protect Steve. If that mission imperative was threatened--well, then his friends were in for some trouble. 

Steve cradles his wrist to his chest and lets Sam support his weight, biting back sobs of pain. It was definitely broken, considering the weird angle it was bent at. The pain was white-hot and demanding, trying to steal up all of his attention. 

“Steve!” Bucky snaps. He gets to his feet from where Natasha had put him on his knees, and with a swift kick has both her and Clint on their asses, and even handcuffed, begins stalking towards Steve, moving with purpose. His eyes were still Bucky, though, still soft, just clouded with concern and anger that Steve had been hurt.

“Steve, are you--”

Before Bucky can finish his sentence, Natasha says three words in Russian, a strange mix of syllables that Steve is in too much pain to sort out, and Bucky crumples to the ground, curling in on himself, screaming in agony. 

“Bucky!” Steve tries to fight again, and then winces as it jostles his wrist. “ What the hell did you do to him?” He shouts through his sobs. Bucky’s eyes were wide with the pain, his teeth clenched together. It looked like he was having some sort of seizure, but suffering immense pain all the while. 

“Nat!” Steve barks again, when she doesn’t immediately do anything. “Jesus fucking christ, Nat, make it stop.Make it stop right now or I’ll never forgive you!” 

Natasha looks calm. She looks from Steve, cradling his broken wrist in Sam’s grip, to Bucky, thrashing on the floor as she were electrocuting him. And all she did was say a few little words. 

“Расслабься солдат,” She says softly. “At ease.” And Bucky freezes. His screaming stops. He breathes hard, eyes wide and unfocused as he comes to once again.

“Buck?” Steve says, wanting to hear confirmation that he was okay, wanting to know what the hell Natasha had done to him, but Sam is already dragging him out, lifting him bridal style as though he were a child. 

“I think you’ve seen enough,” Sam mutters, walking him out of the motel room and out into the parking lot. 

“No!” Steve squirms, but winces hard when it jostles his arm. “Dammit--Sam, I need to know if he’s okay--”

“He’ll be alright. We’re going to look after him just fine.” Sam promises, but Steve saw what they just did to him--and it was terrible.

“Sam, put me down! Bucky! ” He calls again, looking over Sam’s shoulder. He can’t see anything, his glasses are crooked on his face and his tears are blurring his vision. 

“Shh,” Sam soothes. “It’ll be alright, Steve, just try to take it easy.” He adjusts his grip on Steve, careful of his arm, and brings him onto some sort of jet that appeared out of thin air when Sam pressed a button on his headset. It’s huge and incredibly high tech looking, with big glasses windows all the way around and a ramp that unfolds automatically as Steve and Sam get closer.

“A13G,” Sam says into his headset. “Target in custody, loading now for homebase.”

Someone must say something back, though Steve can’t here it, because Sam listens for a moment longer as he climbs the ramp, and then says, “Roger that.” 

“Sam, please, just let me see him,” Steve begs, trying to peer around Sam’s broad shoulders to get some glimpse of Bucky. He sees a mop of brown hair and squints, trying to focus. 

“Bucky?” Steve yells after him, ignoring whatever Sam was saying about it’s going to be alright . “Are you okay?” 

Bucky’s eyes are flat, he’s walking in between Clint and Natasha, who don’t have any hands on him but might as well, from the high tech handcuffs. His posture isn’t Bucky, it’s the Winter Soldier, and Steve knows that something in him had broken. 

“Soldier,” Natasha said, as they climbed the ramp onto the ship. “Status?” 

Bucky’s eyes stare straight ahead at nothing in particular. Steve tries to meet his gaze unsuccessfully. “ готов соблюдать."

Sam takes Steve on board, carrying him up to the front where a partition came down keeping him out of view of Bucky. “Hey!” Steve protests, kicking his legs a little. Sam doesn’t entertain him with  a response, but gets to work flicking buttons on the aircraft to make it come to life.

Steve tried to listen to the silence for any sound of Bucky, any conversation or struggle, but there is nothing but the whirr of the engine as it hums to life and his own heavy breathing. 

Sam is silent but gentle as he straps Steve into the seat at the front of the aircraft. He flicked a few more switches on the dash and the concrete beneath them gets further away in a quick rush. Steve stomach drops a little, so he closes his eyes, more tears running silently down his cheeks. 

He was powerless. Natasha, with just three words, had made Bucky wither on ground, had made him snap back into programming. 

“Steve,” Sam says softly, taking a seat across from Steve in the pilot’s spot. Steve knew Sam could fly, but he hadn’t really known that he could fly, as in, operate an aircraft. Though, this thing was so high-tech he wasn’t sure how much prompting it really needed, he was still vaguely impressed, somewhere in the far back of his mind, where things like that still mattered. “Hey, I’m so sorry I hurt you, man. Honestly, it was an accident, I was distracted, and--”

“I don’t care about my stupid arm.” Steve spits. He could care less--he was a little annoyed at the pain, but that was it. He had much bigger concerns. “What the fuck did Nat do to Bucky?” 

Sam’s eyes slide away, guilty. He has a terrible poker face. “I don’t know, exactly. She poured over some Hydra files we found at one of the bases. I think it contained...some programming phrases. I don’t know Russian, though, so I’m not exactly sure what she said.” 

Steve’s tears run freely, but he bites down on his lip to keep from making a sound. What kind of people could program that into a man? 

How many times, how many hours of torture would it take before three words could trigger such a visceral response? 

And then, after the pain...it had seemed like Bucky snapped back into the Winter Soldier’s headspace. He wasn’t acting like Bucky. No doubt the programming phrases had something to do with that. 

“How dare she,” Steve whispers, keeping his eyes screwed up tight. “What gives her the right.”

“Bucky was charging towards you. Us,” Sam explains. Steve opens his eyes just to shoot him a nasty look, and Sam holds his hands up in surrender. “I’m not defending what she did--I still think it was wrong. I just...I understand why. She didn’t know if Bucky was going to hurt you, man. We were all worried after we saw him take off with you while he was in such a bad place.” 

“How long is it going to take for you to get this through your thick fucking skulls,” Steve says through clenched teeth. “That Bucky is not ever going to hurt me? I mean, Jesus, Sam, you broke my arm, he was just trying to make sure I was okay. He wanted to make sure he could trust you with my safety, and you--you broke him.” 

“In your apartment--”

“In my apartment,” Steve echos, heated, “you surprised him, and you were armed. Of course he was going to go on the defensive, programming or not, you’d have done the exact same thing. He didn’t trust you, and when Clint fired that arrow, you showed him that he was right not to. He didn’t take me for leverage, he didn’t want to leave me with you.

Even if he lived for a hundred years, Steve didn’t think he’d ever be able to forget that haunted look on Bucky’s face, the pure agony that spread across his features and made his whole body rigid. 

And to think that if Steve had just kept his mouth shut--if he hadn’t yelped in pain like that--maybe Bucky would still be himself. Maybe they wouldn’t have hurt him. 

Steve’s had broken bones before. He could have been stronger. He should have been. 

Sam pulls out a first aid kit. He looks guilty, so guilty he might throw up right there at Steve’s feet. Steve feels it rolling off of Sam in thick waves, but he’s guilty for the wrong reasons. Steve knows he feels bad about breaking his arm, not about incapacitating the hurting soldier behind the partition. The silence hangs between them for a few moments longer, before he clears his throat. 

“I’m going to splint your arm,” Sam says softly. “Okay?” 

“Whatever.” None of it mattered anymore. On the other side of that sliding wall, was Bucky, in handcuffs, not in his right mind and probably hurting.

If he acted in any way violent towards the Avengers or SHIELD staff, it wasn’t going to be easy for Steve to get him released. If Steve could just talk to him, however, he’d be willing to bet he could ground Bucky once again, like he had done many times before. 

All he needed to do was treat him like a human being for a few moments, and Bucky would be back. 

Sam is gentle, touching Steve with barely-there motions as he splints his wrist. Steve doesn’t listen as Sam talks, but he hears him mutter something about might have to be rebroken, and you can hate me for as long as you want for this, Rogers, and I’m really sorry, I’m such an idiot.

Tears stream down Steve’s cheeks silently. His shoulders don’t shake with sobs and his bottom lip doesn’t tremble. His body is rejecting the very situation, caving in on itself and trying to conjure up a new reality where he and Bucky lived happily ever after in the apartment. 

He stares out the window at the tiny cars and tiny people, wondering if any of them had ever felt heartbreak such as this. 

The snow was back over the city, and it made Steve realize the time of year. Was it December already? The months had flown by like water running through his fingers, and it seemed impossible that Christmas was just around the corner.

His mother always made a big deal about Christmas, even when they didn’t have enough money for rent she made sure to have something wrapped up under the tree for Steve, even if it was just a new pair of socks or a hand-sewn scarf. Those gifts were his favorite--the ones that Sarah made with her own hands. She was an artist, like Steve, only better--and she was fluent in many mediums. 

He missed her, then. It hit him like a truck, like grief sometimes does. You’re fine, you think you’ve moved on, and then you remember her shampoo and her laugh and her lovely way of being, and you fall apart all over again. Sarah would know what to do about this, she knew what to do about everything. She would be able to rub Steve’s back and she would hug Bucky tight and, if nothing else, she’d believe in them. That would be enough, Steve thinks, to have someone else rooting for their success. 

After what feels like only moments, the jet engine whirrs a little louder and lowers itself onto some work of landing pad at the top of Stark Tower.

“Coming in,” Sam said into his headset. “Do you copy?” He pauses. “Roger that--Barnes incoming.” 

Steve is already fussing one-armed with the seat belt, which was more complicated than Sam had made it seem when he’d smoothly buckled Steve in. 

“Well?” Steve squirms, eager to get time to talk to Bucky before the heat of the world and SHIELD set in on him. “What are we waiting for?” 

Sam hesitates, looking away. Sam unbuckles himself with one click and gets to his feet. “They’re going to bring Barnes in and we’re going to wait. And then we can head inside and get you to med bay.” 

“I want to see him,” Steve protests, brow furrowed. So this is how it was going to be. They were going to do their best to keep he and Bucky apart, and Steve was going to be powerless. “That’s not fair, Sam. I want to see him.” 

“Barnes is unstable when you’re around, Steve. You trigger unpredictable reactions from him. It’s safer for everyone if they just bring him silently. You can see him later.”

Something in Sam’s tone made Steve feel like Sam didn’t know if Steve would really be allowed to see Bucky later or not. He didn’t know how much authority Sam really had on the matter, but he had a feeling that Tony Stark and the Government were going to have some things to say about Bucky being taken in. 

“This is so fucked up,” Steve whispers, staring up at the ceiling of the jet. He can’t cry, he’s got nothing left in him. He’s so dehydrated he’s surprised he’s still conscious. “So goddamn fucked up.”

“It will work itself out,” Sam soothes. “I’m not going to give up either, Steve. I want you to get a happy ending out of this--Barnes, too. There is just some bureaucratic stuff that has to be done before that can happen. If you want this to work, trust the process.” 

Trust the process. Yeah, because the American legal system was so fucking trustworthy. Steve didn’t trust anyone right now, he didn’t trust the ground under his feet not to give out. 

They wait a few more minutes in silence, before Sam presses a finger to his comm and says, “Roger that.” Then he reaches over, unbuckles Steve, and nods towards the door. “Let’s go.” 

They’re on the rooftop of Stark Towers, judging by the familiar New York skyline. Steve barely has time to take it in, to feel the rough wind on his face, before he’s being pushed onto a gurney, people in lab coats fussing over him. 

Suddenly, he was surrounded, and found himself squinting up at unfamiliar faces. 

“Left arm,” Steve hears Sam instruct, as he’s pushed onto a hospital cot and reclined until he was laying flat. Unfamiliar faces buzzed above him, his cot being pushed urgently inside and the wind stops, but the noise doesn’t. Where was Bucky? “Not a clean break--possible dehydration, malnutrition, check for other signs of external trauma--”

Steve tunes them out. He’s too exhausted to pay attention to any of what they’re yelling about. He lets his mind drift. He was used to this, at least, lying on a hospital bed with doctors fussing over him. If nothing else, this was familiar. 

Where was Bucky right now? Was he okay? Was he hurt? Was he...in the right headspace? Steve knows he should be fighting harder to get to him, shouldn’t be lying in the bed pliant, but he was tired. The last 48 hours had been a whirlwind and Steve had barely eaten or slept. His body was crying out for some rest, and a cheeseburger. 

But whatever Steve was feeling, wouldn’t Bucky be feeling it a thousand times over? When had he last slept? Eaten? He was still healing from the bullet wounds, Steve was pretty sure. He didn’t know exactly how quickly Bucky’s healing worked, but he had to at least be tender.

They escort him inside, where fluorescent lights on the ceiling blur together as he’s pushed down hallway after hallway, into an elevator and down a few floors. He closes his eyes. It’s easier that way.

“Steve?” Someone says. Steve keeps his eyes closed. He’s remembering Bucky’s face when Natasha had said those words. The pain, the way his body thrashed, the blankness in his eyes after the fact. “I’m Dr. Banner. I’m gonna be checking you out today. Now, I see you’ve got a pretty messy break here. I want to get you into an X-Ray so we can see exactly what’s going on, but I’m thinking we’re going to have to rebreak it to set it properly.”  

Steve opens his eyes. He’s stopped moving, evidently, and he’s in a generic, if not high-tech hospital room. The man standing over him has a mop of curly brown-grey hair, thick-rimmed glasses, and a shy smile. Steve instantly finds himself wanting to trust those dark eyes, despite the chaos around him. “Does that sound okay?” 

“Sounds fuckin’ painful.” Steve grunts. Dr. Banner’s smile drops, and he looks worried. 

“We’re gonna give you some pain meds, you won’t feel a thing. You’re a VIP here, Mr. Rogers, and you’ll be treated with the utmost--”

“Yeah,” Steve interrupts, closing his eyes. He didn’t care, they were going to put him out, and that was all he wanted. “I just want to go to sleep. Put me under, please. Let’s get this over with.” 

He hears Dr. Banner clear his throat and then scribble something on his clipboard. “Okay, Steve. We’re just going to put the IV in…” Steve feels a slight sting in his right arm, and then light pressure. “Okay, count backwards from ten for me…” 

“10,” Steve counts robotically. Where was Bucky right now? Was he safe? Were they hurting him? “9, 8, 7, 6….” 

As his consciousness goes black around the edges, Steve swears he hears Bucky’s ragged voice calling out his name, echoing through the halls and corridors of Stark Tower. 

----------

Bucky is chained up by the ankles, his arms bound behind his back, his mouth gagged with tape. His eyes are wild and terrified, and he’s grunting something--calling out for Steve. 

He’s got gashes all over his body, like he’d been flogged, and blood runs freely from the open wounds. He’s covered in sweat and grim, his long hair matted with blood. 

“Bucky!” Steve calls, running towards him. He rips the tape from Bucky’s mouth and cups his face. The sky is stormy and thunder rolls in the background. “Buck, God, who did this to you?” 

“You did,” Bucky spits, recoiling from Steve’s touch, his eyes full of hate. “You promised me that you wouldn’t let them hurt me. You promised .” 

“I won’t!” Steve says frantically, tugging at the handcuffs, trying to free Bucky. “I won’t let them!” 

“It’s too late,” Bucky rasps. “Look what you’ve done to me. I don’t think I can forgive you for this, Steve. Not this. I’ll always hate you for it.”  

“Buck, I’m so sorry, I’ll make it right--”

“Steve.”

“Please don’t hate me, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m--”

“Steve!” 

Steve jerks away, bolting upright and panting hard, looking around the room. He was lying in a hospital cot, in an unfamiliar hospital room that smells sterile, with a large window overlooking the city and glass walls that let Steve see into the hallway, where important looking people strolled up and down. 

The same room he was in when he went under--he remembers now. He coughs, trying to get his bearings. 

“Sam,” Steve pants, grasping his own chest and trying to breathe. “Jesus.” 

“You were having a nightmare,” Sam tells him, face drawn up in concern. “Pretty bad one, from the sounds of it.” 

“Sorry.” Steve apologizes distractedly. He moves to brush his sweaty hair out of his face, and blinks down at the bulky new addition to his left arm. “Oh,” he says dumbly, staring down at the cast. “They fixed me.” 

“Yeah,” Sam swallows, looking incredibly guilty. He scratches his neck, staring at the ground. “I’m really sorry ‘bout that, man, I can’t apologize enough--”

“I think you have,” Steve says, too tired to deal with this right now. He wasn’t angry at Sam for hurting him. It was an accident, and an honest mistake that Steve was surprised hadn’t happened earlier. He was angry for the way things happened, the way they took Bucky in while Steve begged them not to. 

The way Natasha’s words had made Bucky thrash in pain, made him snap. He didn’t care about his stupid arm, he was going to be fine. Bucky? He didn’t know that he’d be okay, and that was the worst part of it all. 

“How’re you feeling?” 

“I’m fine,” Steve shrugs. His arm hurt a little, but it was nothing unbearable. He’d pop an Advil and forget about it. “I want to see him.” 

Sam lets out a long breath. “He’s in questioning right now. You’ll have to wait.” 

“They’re questioning him? Who?” Steve should have expected that. Of course they’d want to know what intel Bucky had, on Hydra projects and bases, and test his loyalties and mental capacities to make sure he could really be trusted. 

“SHIELD agents. It’s all very humane, Steve, so don’t go picturing Guantanamo Bay, or anything like that.” Sam reassures him. Steve is still suspicious. “I’ll get in touch with Stark and see what we can do about letting you see Bucky. Hopefully soon.” 

“No need,” A voice emerges from around the corner. Tony Stark walks into Steve’s hospital room, wearing a suit that was probably worth more than Steve’s life insurance, his face unreadable. Steve’s jaw drops. “Heya there, kiddo. You must be Steve.” 

“Speak of the devil,” Sam grumbles.

“I--” Steve begins, but doesn’t get a chance to speak. 

“Yeah,” Tony sighs. “I know, kid. You’ve been causing me a lot of trouble lately. You know I’ve been smoking again? Pepper blames you.” 

“Oh, I--” 

“Yeah, yeah, you’re in love , you’re sorry, blah blah blah. Save it for the ‘gram. So listen, here’s the deal. We’ve got in our custody one murderous, stabby-boy who, I’ve learned, has a particular affinity for one Steven Grant Rogers.” Stark pauses for dramatic effect. “And we can’t get him to talk.” 

“But you think I can.” Steve squints. Tony Stark in the flesh was exactly like he was on TV--big personality, flashy outfits, and a fast-talker. Steve had to work to keep up. 

“You have to,” Stark explains, shrugging his shoulders. He had an air about him, like nothing in the world mattered. His words were threatening but he said them in such a careless way that their weight was lost. “Or else.” 

“Are you--are you threatening me?” Steve gapes. He couldn’t believe what he’d gotten him and Bucky into. 

“Tony,” Sam frowns disapprovingly. “Don’t. He’s been through a lot. Go easy.” 

Steve wanted to snap at Sam for speaking for him, but honestly he appreciated the back up. Tony Stark was clearly an enigma, and Steve wasn’t sure he had the energy to deal with that right now. 

“I’m just saying,” Tony sighed with a loose shrug. “The man who killed my parents is sitting in an interrogation room 20 floors below us and he won’t say a damn word about anything. If you don’t get him to talk and start spilling the beans, then, well. He’s useless to us. And useless isn’t a thing that you want to be when you’re a criminal.” 

Steve’s temper flares, and he sits up again, teeth clenched. He’d crossed a line, and Steve was about to let him have it. 

“Look, Stark. I’m sorry about your parents. Really, that’s awful--when I lost my mom, I was a wreck, so I get it.” He inhales deeply, trying not to just scream. “But do you know--do you know what Hydra did to Bucky? How they tortured him? Did you even fucking read the file? They operated on him while he was awake, they fed him through a tube, they electrocuted him until he stopped screaming, they stripped him of everything that would make him human, and made him do awful, terrible things--”

“Steve,” Sam pipes in, trying to keep the peace. 

“Bucky was just a man with an alcoholic father, and a mother who sang to him, and a little sister who he adored. When the call came to serve his country in a time of need, he answered. He was planning on giving his life, if that was required of him--but they took so much more. They took everything!” Steve shouted. “So, respectfully, Mr. Stark, Bucky deserves all the fucking empathy in the world right now. You’ll forgive me if I don’t take kindly to him being referred to as a criminal. ” 

“Okay,” Sam breathes, his therapy voice coming out. “Let’s just--”

“I did,” Stark interrupts, voice softer. His face has lost that impatient, arrogant touch, and he looked somber. “I read the file.” 

“So then you know that Bucky is the victim.” 

“Victim is a strong word. Maybe not criminally responsible is a better term.” 

Steve ground his teeth together. He knew that Tony owned everything in this building, including the very hospital bed Steve was lying on--but he’d really like to clock the guy over the head for insinuating that Bucky deserved what happened to him. 

“You don’t know him like I do,” Steve challenges. “If you did, you wouldn’t waste a second doing everything in your power to make sure he isn’t kept in a cell for a second longer.”

“Maybe that’s true,” Stark shrugs again. “But if he won’t talk, it’ll be pretty hard to get all buddy-buddy with the guy, won’t it?” 

“He’s scared,” Steve argues. “You hurt the one person he cares about in this world, and the second he tried to protect me, Natasha triggered some fucked-up programming and basically scrambled his head up all over again. If she hadn’t done that, Bucky would be lucid right now. He was trying to cooperate when she used those words, he was going to come willingly.” 

“She was just trying to protect me,” Sam jumps in apologetically. “It was wrong, but--”

“Natasha felt, from where she was standing, that the way Barnes lunged at Sam was threatening,” Tony answered mechnically. “That’s protocall. We do what we need to do to survive, so that we’re around to face the next threat.” 

Bucky wasn’t a threat--Steve knew that. He also knew it would take time to convince everyone else of that. “He isn’t going to cooperate. He doesn’t trust any of you.” and Steve didn’t blame him. He didn’t trust them either. 

“Well, that’s where you come in.”  

“Is he asking for me?” Steve says, trying not to let the hope show in his voice too much. 

He must fail, because Tony gives him a pitying look. 

“No, he isn’t. He isn’t saying anything.” 

Steve clenches his jaw. He was pretty sure that meant Bucky hadn’t snapped out of the Winter Soldier’s headspace. Whatever Nat had done to him had messed him up pretty bad. 

“I need to see him,” Steve demanded, and when Tony arched his brow, Steve remembered who he was talking to. He didn’t care. “Now.” 

Sam cleared his throat. “Look, Tony--Steve’s right. If we want to get anything out of Barnes, Steve is the key. He’s the only one Barnes trusts.” 

Steve didn’t know how he felt about being used like a commodity to get information out of Bucky, but he knew that he did need to see him, and talk to him. He needed to get a sense of where Bucky’s head was, so that he could help him get grounded once again. 

Once Steve got that under control, they’d be able to figure out what to do next, and Bucky would get some say in the matter. They could figure things out together. 

“I know you’re every superhero's favorite pet right now, blondie, but I don’t trust you.” Tony tells him, as calmly as if he was commenting on the weather. “I think you should know that.” 

Steve lifts his chin, unafraid. “Considering you’ve got my boyfriend locked in a cell….I don’t trust you, either.” 

Tony gives him a once over for that, like he appreciates Steve’s snarkiness, and then lets out a long suffering sigh. He opens his mouth to say something, when suddenly he’s interrupted. 

“Sir,” A male British voice interrupts calmly. JARVIS. “There is a 784B on the 31st floor. It’s Mr. Barnes.” 

“Shit,” Tony curses. “Give orders to detain peacefully . Rubber bullets only, tranquilize him, do what you have to. Don’t let him out of the tower.” 

“Buck,” Steve jumps to his feet. “What’s 784B?” Steve asks Sam, who is already heading for the door. 

“He’s got a hostage,” Sam replies, voice shaking. “And he’s on the move.” 

Dammit, Steve thinks, panicking, No, Buck. Bucky was probably terrified, and if he hurt someone, he’d never forgive himself. 

“Bring me to him,” Steve says, jumping out of bed and ripping the IV from his hand. When Sam frowns, Steve snarls, “You know I’m the only one that will get through to him right now.” 

Sam hesitates for a moment, as if he’s going to resist, but Tony is already down the hall in the elevator. “Well!” He calls impatiently. “Going down! Are you in or out?” 

“In,” Sam grumbled, grabbing Steve’s good wrist to tug him along at a faster pace. “Don’t let me down here, Steve.” 

“Same to you.” 

The elevator plunges, and when the door open again, the floor is bathed in red lights with sirens blasting, people running everywhere and absolute fucking chaos. 

“JARVIS,” Tony snaps, pressing a button on his watch. It turns into an Iron Man glove in seconds, as Steve watches with wide eyes. He hoped this didn’t mean Tony was gearing up to fight Bucky himself. “Get this floor on lockdown.” 

“Already done, sir.” 

“Give me eyes on Barnes.” Tony’s watch projects a holographic video of Bucky in light blue scrubs, holding a terrified looking woman as a human shield, storming through the hallways with heavy steps. His eyes were flat. 

“This way,” Tony barks, already taking off down the hall, taking right and left hand turns. Steve scrambles after him and Sam, trying to keep up without pushing himself too hard. An asthma attack would be wholly inconvenient right now. 

When they round the next corner in a panicked clump, Bucky is there, against the wall, three SHIELD agents having finally cornered him with their guns drawn. The woman in his arms trembles visibly, crying out in spanish. She’s wearing office attire, but she’s young--maybe an intern. 

“Please,” She says in English, mascara running down her face. “My mother--is expecting me home--”

“Steve,” Sam says under his breath, already reaching for Steve’s shoulder. Steve dashes out of his reach. “Don’t just--”

“Bucky!” Steve shouts, loud enough to be heard over the sirens and general chaos of the area. “Hey, Bucky! Look at me! Over here!” 

Bucky’s flat eyes slide over to him, and he blinks a few times. Steve sees a flash of recognition there, but it’s small and fleeting. Bucky was far gone. “Steve.” 

“Yeah,” Steve nods, stepping out from behind Tony and Sam. “Yeah, Buck, it’s me. Look, I know you’re scared, right now, and that’s understandable, but that woman is innocent, and you’re hurting her. I know you don’t want to do that. You don’t like hurting people, remember?” 

Bucky looks down at the girl he was holding, as if realizing she was there for the first time. His metal arm gripping her wrist left a ring of purple bruises, but she was otherwise alright. He releases her slowly, stepping back, and she rushes out of his arms, fleeing down the hallway without a second glance back, as fast as her kitten-heels would carry her. 

Steve is about to say more, praise Bucky again, but before he can four SHIELD agents are on top of him, chaining him up with those electric blue handcuffs.

“Buck, it’s okay--don’t fight them,” Steve urges, his heart in his throat, but Bucky doesn’t react to his words, though he also doesn’t fight back as he’s restrained. He’s passive, if only a little rigid.

The agents haul Bucky to his feet. Their eyes meet for a split second, and Steve sees panic in Bucky’s eyes as the haul him off around the corner and back towards whatever cell they were keeping him in. 

“Wait!” Steve goes to follow, but Sam’s hand on his shoulder stops him. 

“Give him a minute to calm down and get settled once again.” He warns. “Then we’ll go.” 

Steve wants to scream, or run after Bucky, but he’s frozen, Sam’s promise hanging in the air. 

When Bucky is out of sight, the red lights flick back to normal and the blaring siren cut off, leaving an eerie silence cast over the floor that just seconds ago had been bursting with noise.

“Well,” Stark sighs, leaning bodily against the wall. “That was fun.” 

“I need to see him,” Steve urges, turning to face Tony, whose face is hard to read, but Steve thinks it’s somewhere between impressed and annoyed.  “You saw--he listens to me. I can calm him down. I think I can even break his programming and ground him again.” 

Stark arches a brow at him, but eventually he sighs, giving in. “I suppose I gotta let you try. Like Sam said, give them a few minutes and then you can head down to his cell. I want him to talk.” 

“He’ll be more likely to talk if he’s himself and right now, he isn’t,” Steve replies stiffly. Where were they taking Bucky? Was he going to be okay? Was Steve going to be able to bring him back? “But I might be able to fix that.” 

Stark snorts. “Whatever you say, blondie. Don’t see how Mr. Murder is gonna suddenly switch but, sure. I’ll let you give it a go.”

Steve turns away from him and looks at Sam, hopeful. “Now?” Steve asks, his weight already rocking on to his toes, eager to go. 

“Let’s get some lunch first,” Sam instructs, wrapping a gentle arm around Steve’s shoulders. “The cafeteria is amazing.” 

------------

Despite everything that had happened between him and Sam, things were comfortable as they ate. Sam was right, the caf was amazing, as amazing as Steve would expect from such a luxury building. 

He was viciously attacking gluten free pizza and sucking down a tall glass of water, as per Sam’s orders. He was severely dehydrated and exhausted. So much had happened in the last 72 hours. 

“Clint and Nat are in the holding room, with Barnes,” Sam explains around a mouthful of caprese salad. He had an affinity for the finer things in life. “They’re monitoring him. I’m getting updates periodically.” Sam flips up his phone to show Steve his most recent text from Nat. 

Nat says: Barnes not resisting but uncooperative. 

Steve nods at the phone, and takes another bite. He felt guilty for sitting here and enjoying the food while Bucky was just a few floors below them, caged like an animal. Had they fed him? Was he thirsty? 

“When you go in,” Sam begins, voice quiet enough that it doesn’t draw attention in the caf filled with office personnel, “he’s going to be handcuffed to a chair. He’s going to have a headpiece on, that is going to look scary, but it’s really not. It’s not a muzzle, exactly--” 

Muzzled?” Steve slams down his water, eyes wide, dropping his food. His stomach rolled. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me. I thought you wanted him to talk.” 

“We do,” Sam allows. He at least has the good sense to look guilty. “The muzzle--isn’t really a muzzle. It looks like one, kind of, and I guess it functions like one, but it’s more high tech than that.” 

“Explain.” Steve is furious. Muzzled, like a dog, like he wasn’t even human. Natasha and Clint were witnessing this, letting it happen. 

“I, uh, don’t fully understand, since you know science isn’t my strong suit, but it’s got something to do with reading Bucky’s brain waves. We’ve been trying to figure out what damage Hydra has done to his brain to see if we can find a way to reverse it. Help him heal from the trauma.” 

Steve drinks that in with narrowed eyes. The purpose seemed worthy, but the method--muzzling Bucky--was unfavourable. “Help him,” he repeats, as if the concept is foreign. 

“I know you think that we’re trying to see Barnes go up in flames,” Sam snaps, “But we actually want the opposite. He’s got valuable information, and is incredibly talented. Like Natasha said, nothing we talked about earlier is off the table. We’re trying to get him into a stable headspace.” 

Steve clenches his jaw. “You just want him to be better because he’s useful, not because you care.” 

I care. You care. SHIELD is going to help him get better--it doesn’t matter how the big guys see him, so long as they help him, right? What matters is that Bucky gets the help he needs.” Sam tells him earnestly. “This is going to be a process, Steve, maybe a long one. But I truly think everything is going to be okay.” 

Steve puts his pizza down, pushes it away. He’s lost his appetite. “I want to see him now,” He demands. “Please.”

Sam nods once, and stands. “Alright,” He sighs, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Okay. C’mon, then.”